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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Doolan, John (1856–?)

by Granville Allen Mawer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

John Doolan (1856-1882+), bushranger, was born on 28 April 1856 in Castlemaine, Victoria, second son and one of at least six children of William Dooling and his wife Ann, née Burke, Irish ex-convicts who had left Van Diemen's Land for the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. By 1867 the family was at Sandhurst (Bendigo) where William, an unsuccessful miner, ran an eating-house. When John was 12 he was apprenticed to a shoemaker.

The local magistrates already knew the boy for a scamp but in January 1869 he stabbed a fellow apprentice during an altercation at work. Committed for trial in the circuit court—under the name 'Doolan'—on a charge of grievous bodily harm, the boy was sentenced by Chief Justice Sir William Stawell to a year in the reformatory ship Sir Harry Smith. There he met Edward James Donnelly, who was serving five years for horse stealing. John was released in February 1870; Ned absconded three months later.

In December 1871 the two went bushranging together. They stole men's clothing at Huntly, and a horse at Axedale, and at pistol point robbed Bridget Foley, a widow, of her loose change, some fowls and a couple of billycans. Their crime wave peaked on 9 January 1872. At first light they bailed up Patrick Hallinan's farm on the Campaspe River and stole his spring cart. Trooper Davidson overtook the boys and arrested them opposite the Robin Hood Hotel, White Hills. Although armed with a revolver the youths, dubbed 'larrikin bushrangers' by the local press, did not resist.

On 19 February 1872 at Bendigo Ned and John (wrongly charged as James) were tried and convicted for robbery under arms. Justice (Sir) Edward Eyre Williams, believing deterrent sentences to be appropriate, gave them seventeen and fourteen years hard labour respectively. In 1870 Harry Power, then Victoria's most notorious bushranger, had been given only fifteen. Doolan's mother became distraught and disrupted court proceedings with 'a piercing lamentation', crying repeatedly 'my poor boy!' The local press reacted by criticizing the severity of the sentences and a petition was circulated seeking consideration of the boys' ages. It failed, but remission reduced Doolan's term to ten and a half years, served mainly in Pentridge gaol, Melbourne. On admission, he was described as 5 ft 1 ins (155 cm) tall, weighing 7 st. 12½ lb. (48.1 kg), buck-toothed, sallow complexioned, with brown hair and eyes and a freckled face. He was released in August 1882 and vanished from official records, whereas Ned, released in 1885, married, worked as a railway labourer and died at Richmond in 1923.

'Jack Doolan' is the name of the bushranger described in the song Wild Colonial Boy, which also states that he was born in Castlemaine. A number of incidents in the ballad can be indirectly related to the story of John Doolan, but others appear to have been drawn from the careers of Power and 'Bold' Jack Donohoe. The earliest documented performance of the song was in June 1880, when it was sung for the Kelly gang at Glenrowan.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Edwards, Australian Folk Songs (Kuranda, Qld, 1994)
  • G. A. Mawer, The Life and Legend of Jack Doolan (Canb, 2004)
  • Bendigo Evening News, 8, 13, 19 Jan 1869, 13, 15 Feb 1869, 16, 18 Jan 1872
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 10, 11 Jan 1872, 20, 26 Feb 1872
  • VPRS 515/14, no 9556 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • Children’s Register of State Wards, old series, vol 5, folio 243 (Dept of Health and Community Services, Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Granville Allen Mawer, 'Doolan, John (1856–?)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]


28 April 1856
Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage