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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Callaghan, Thomas (1815–1863)

by H. T. E. Holt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Thomas Callaghan (1815-1863), by William Nicholas

Thomas Callaghan (1815-1863), by William Nicholas

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an8178103

Thomas Callaghan (1815-1863), judge, was born on 18 September 1815, the youngest son of Malachi Callaghan, merchant, of Dublin. He was 4 when his father died, but his mother contrived to give him, his three brothers and four sisters a good education. After graduation at Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1836), he was called to the Irish Bar. One brother was a solicitor in Dublin, one migrated to New South Wales and one went to America.

For health and financial reasons Callaghan came to New South Wales in 1839 in the immigrant ship Arkwright, with letters of introduction to leading lawyers and Roman Catholic churchmen. Six days after arrival be was admitted to the Bar, becoming number eleven on the roll of barristers. He lodged at 6 Wentworth Place, Sydney, and from 1838 to 1845 kept a diary recording his impressions of persons, events and conditions in the colony. Briefs came slowly but he supported himself with legal reporting for the Sydney Herald. In 1841 he was appointed a commissioner for reporting upon claims to grants of land and also acted as temporary crown prosecutor. In 1844 he published a useful compilation in two volumes of Acts and Ordinances of the Governor & Council of New South Wales, and Acts of Parliament Enacted for, and Applied to, the Colony, with Notes & Index. For this work, generally known as 'Callaghan's Acts', he was awarded a bronze medal at the 1851 London Exhibition. In 1845 he became a permanent crown prosecutor and, in that capacity, found a bill against a man for cattle stealing. Soon afterwards he was appointed chairman of Quarter Sessions and the cattle stealing trial was listed before him. He unsuccessfully directed the attorney-general's attention to the impropriety of his presiding at the trial and, at its conclusion, gave what were probably the shortest directions ever given in a criminal trial: 'Gentlemen of the jury, in leaving the case with you, I have nothing to say'. From a humble and penurious beginning he acquired a lucrative practice and was considered a clever and capable barrister. When the District Courts' Act, 1858, was passed he became one of the first three judges and chairmen of Quarter Sessions appointed under it.

In 1848 he married Eliza, daughter of Mr Justice Samuel Milford of the Supreme Court of New South Wales; they had two sons and a daughter.

At Braidwood horse sales Callaghan bought a colt which charged the sliprails and mortally injured its new owner. Callaghan died on 28 November 1863. An obelisk at St Bede's Church, Braidwood, erected by public subscription, bears testimony to his impartiality and ability. He possessed many eccentricities but had a high appreciation of judicial duties and performed them strictly and conscientiously.

Select Bibliography

  • New South Wales Government Gazette, 22 Dec 1858
  • A. E. Stephen, ‘Diary of Thomas Callaghan, B. A.’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 34, part 5, 1948, pp 261-89 and 'Part 2', vol 34, part 6, 1948, pp 358-85
  • T. Callaghan diary (Royal Australian Historical Society, Sydney)
  • J. S. Dowling, Reminiscences of Judge Dowling 1827-90 (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

H. T. E. Holt, 'Callaghan, Thomas (1815–1863)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 November 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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