Inquests Intro

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Inquests 1881-1890

Inquests in Western and some of Central New South Wales

This material has been compiled by Rusheen Craig and is copyright. It has been posted for private study only. No copies may be made in any format except for private study, without written permission from the copyright holder.

Inquests were held to investigate the manner and cause of death. It was necessary to hold an inquest when the deceased person was not identified, when the cause of death was not determined, when the person died as a result of homicide, and when a person died in or attempting to escape from custody. Sudden or unnatural death, occurring as a result of an accident, suicide or act of violence, was also investigated. Inquests could also be held into deaths which occurred in hospitals, asylums, gaols and other public institutions.

The records of these inquests are part of the Archives Resources Kit which is held by the community access points such as libraries. Indexes to inquests can be checked for the appropriate year under the name of the deceased, remembering that an inquest could also take place in the years following the death.

Inquests were also reported in some years in the Government Gazettes. When I decided to investigate the inquests for Western and part of Central New South Wales for a 10 year period I mainly used the Gazettes; because these are typed rather than hand written records they are easier to understand.

This does not mean that the Gazette always gives the correct information.

In 1885 the Gazette stated that 74 year old Greening died at Hrenfell; the BDM has 64 year old Greening dying at Grenfell. Because Grenfell is a well known town the mistake can be spotted; had it been referring to some unfamiliar property then it would go undetected. There is no way of knowing which is the correct age.

Details shown for the Inquests in the Gazettes are:

Name of Deceased

Year of Inquest

Age at time of death

Place of birth

Place of death

Cause of death

Value of property at time of death.

Very occasionally there is an extra snippet of information. When Russell drowned in the Barwon River he left 20, his father was dead, his mother Mrs Jane Russell was living at Lucknow, AND the deceased was a sober man.

The Gazette does not give the date of the Inquest. To get this information it is necessary to go to the Archives Resources Kit mentioned above.

My area of interest included both Western and parts of the Central region of NSW, so Inquests have been given from both these regions. However in my analysis of the findings from these Inquests it was necessary to confine my comments to just the West - that area from the SA border to a line running roughly from Brewarrina down to Balranald ; the main towns being Broken Hill, Wentworth, Balranald, Hay, Nyngan, Cobar, Bourke and Walgett. The reason for not looking at the overall picture for Central NSW is the geographically unnatural exclusions from the Rootsweb defined Central area such as the Orange/Bathurst region.

1,319 Inquests for Western NSW 1881-1890

The WEST - Big harsh dry sparsely populated country. Why would people die out there? If I was a gambling person, WHICH I AM NOT, I would give any odds that you couldn't pick what was found to be the main cause of death in the Inquests for ten years 1881 to 1890. 1,300 Inquests in the West for the 10 year period 1881 to 1890.

Name of Deceased

Although most deceased persons were named, some Inquests were conducted on unidentified bodies that are listed as"Unknown Male", "Unknown Female", or even as just "Human Remains". It would appear that the Inquest was conducted soon after the body or bones were found. 94 bodies were unnamed in the West Inquests. Some of these people could have later been identified.

Let me give you a newspaper account of the circumstances surrounding a death. The Wentworth Telegraph of 11th November 1882 reported:

"In the year 1879 allusion was made to the mysterious disappearance of Mr Ballantyne, engaged by Mr Brooks on Tapio Station. Uncertainty as to his end is now set at rest, the remains being found at Tintinallogy, which were identified only by a silver guard chain which he had been in the habit of wearing. The bones, we are informed by the police, were much scattered about, while it was also remarkable that continual traffic takes place within a short distance of where the remains were found just by accident as it were.

His Inquest is listed simply under "Human remains" found in Mallee scrub about 25 miles from Tapio station; probable cause of death being want of water.

Sometimes details of an alias were provided; Sarah Coleman alias Soloman alias White. Throupe's alias was Yorkey. No wonder Thomas Hewley had the alias of Crankey Tom; at age 65 he died from want of nourishment. As if it is not hard enough to find the right John Smith, one had the alias of John Grant; another was also known as John Voscoritch. Sarah Cockrane had the alias of Kent, Faucey of Cameron, Johanna Giles of Mrs Wright, Hassing of Urilson.


Age of Deceased

1,319 Inquests were conducted on people ranging in age from a premature baby to an 84 year old man. It should be remembered that information is only as accurate as the reliability of the informant. In many cases no age was given.

The deaths of 122 little ones, 5 years and under, had to be investigated. They got sick with typhoid, bronchitus and diptheria and died. They had convulsions, brain congestion, croup, bowel problems, inflammation of the lungs, several suffocated. A newborn died because the umbilical cord was not tied.

There were accidental deaths. Babies were overlain by their mothers. A bullock waggon ran over a year old child. One 5 year old was bitten by a snake. At four years of age William Macartey drank whiskey and died of alcoholic poisoning. Little 2 year old Margaret drank a solution of caustic soda.

Another 2 year old died of exposure and exhaustion on Yanco Station. There were several cases of children just a few months or a year old who died for want of nourishment.

A dozen little ones suffered an agonising death from burns or by being scalded.

A third of these little ones drowned. Few details are provided, except perhaps to say that they drowned in the Darling River or in a tank (dam) or when a boat upturned.

Murder or manslaughter were sometimes found to have been committed. When 8 month old Violet died of starvation at Broken Hill, charges of manslaughter were brought against her mother. A 19 year old mother poisoned her 4 week old baby and then drowned herself.

137 Inquests on 6 to 20 year olds. Although some of these youngsters died of illnesses such as typhoid fever or inflammation of the lungs, or succumbed to tetanus, most of their deaths were accidental. A child fell into a boiler of water at Balranald. A 17 year old was a rider in the Races at Netley Station near Menindie when his horse stumbled and the young man was killed. John George was only 12 years old when he was killed by dynamite fumes in a mine at Broken Hill.

Many drowned. At Wentworth five members of the Gurney family drowned - ages 14, 9, 7 and 5 years and a 7 week old.

A little 8 year old was killed by another child.

As one would expect, about half the Inquests were held on people between the ages of 21 and 50.

29% of the Inquests were conducted on people who died aged 51 to 84, although not many were in their 70s and even fewer in their 80s.

Details are provided later under the general discussion on the causes of deaths.

Place of Birth in Inquests

It is sad to think that a lot of the people whose deaths were investigated must have been without family or close friends who could tell the authorities where the person had been born. Place of birth could not be provided in 319 of the Inquests.

The place of birth of the deceased was given for exactly 1000 of the Inquests. The majority, 408 of them, had been born in Australia. 257 camefrom England. Just 120 from Ireland, and 77 from Scotland. Many Chinese hadcome to Australia in the 1850s gold rushes, but there were only 29 Chinese Inquest deaths recorded in the West for the ten year period. 20 people had been born in Germany and 11 in Wales. Small numbers came from Sweden, New Zealand, Holland, Canada, Denmark, America, Switzerland, Prussia, Poland, France, Italy, Norway, India, Austria, South America and the West Indies. One person was listed as being born at sea. Some of the Inquests were on Aborigines.

The proportional mix of nationalities is interesting and I suspect would have been very different 20 years before.

Reliability of this data could be questionable. When the place of birth of two unknown men was given as China and England, then one could suspect that a person's appearance or accent could be the basis for the identification of their place of origin.

65% of the Australian births were in New South Wales. The 20% in Victoria, and the 12% in South Australia, show the close links that had long been held by the people of western NSW with these neighbouring states.

Almost invariably it was only the very young who were listed as being born and dying in the same specific place.

In all of the above it must be remembered that we are talking about just the Inquest deaths - not all deaths in the West.


Causes of Deaths given in Inquests

In the harsh dry land of western New South Wales it is rather surprising that the most common single cause of death in the Inquests 1881 to 1890 was drowning - 21.2%.

Causes of Inquest deaths:

Accidental: Drowning 21.2%; Accidental 15%; Burns/scalds 4%; Involving horse/dray 2%; Poison 0.5% = 42.7%

Natural Causes: Natural Causes 15%; Illness 9%; Involving drink 7%; Apoplexy 3%; Heart condition 5%; Died in gaol 1.1%; Cancer 0.2% = 40.3%

Suicide: = 8%

Exposure to heat/cold = 5.6%

Murder/Manslaughter = 2%

Snakebite: Less than 0.4%

Other deaths don't fit into any of the above categories.

Accidental deaths

The most common single cause of death in the inquests was drowning - 21.2% . There were many drowning deaths in western NSW in each of the ten years. Most drownings occurred in 1889, followed by 1890 (the year of the great flood), then 1887, 1883, 1888, 1884, 1882 ,1886, 1885 and 1881. I have made no attempt to correlate this data with weather conditions or population growth.

As stated previously, very few details surrounding the deaths were given when these deaths were caused by drowning. Cummerford was found drowned near Wilcannia; Walsh at Wilcannia. Woods accidentally drowned at Menindie; Stewart at Wentworth. Margaret McLeod drowned in the Darling River near Tolarno Station.

Some people drowned while bathing. Others, such as 7 year old William Sloan, were in a boat and drowned. 22 year old King fell off a barge in the Darling River. Currie drowned in a tank (dam).

Since the court was held at Lake Victoria Station, Hanaring must have been down in the far south west corner of NSW when he drowned while attempting to cross the Murray River; he was trying to escape the police.

An unidentified man found on Yanco Station in 1881 was supposed drowned in floodtime months before.

There were a great variety of causes for Accidental deaths. A tree fell on Thomas at Cal Lal, while Tang fell from a tree at Wentworth. McDonald died of lead poisoning. Cairns choked on a piece of meat. Dunn was struck by lightning.

Evans accidentally fell down the Great Cobar Copper Mine. Dynamite was accidentally exploded and McMillan died at Cobar. Snell died in a dynamite explosion in Broken Hill. 17 year old Hurle was killed by the accidental explosion of powder in a gun barrel.

Death could result when dangerous substances were accidentally taken. 66 year old Bolton thought he was taking a pain killer when he took carbolic acid. McKinnon died of an overdose of narcotic draught.

Templeton inhaled poisonous fumes while preparing wheat for the destruction of rabbits.

Quite a few accidental deaths that I have recorded for the combined West/Central area in the 10 year period involved the railway, but since so little of the West was serviced by rail most of these inquests were outside the area being discussed. However Deffeo was run over by a railway truck in the Bourke district. Reidy was accidentally killed on the railway at Nyngan. Liebschwager was knocked down and run over by a railway truck near Silverton.

The Inquest reports on Accidental Deaths can sometimes contain a wealth of information. Robert Ross died when he fell on a stump while shepherding for Mr Poplin at Boombygar Station, No 12 West Bogan in the Bourke Police District; he left an old racehorse that went to pay Mr Poplin for the funeral expenses.

Though outside the West area, mention must be made of the horrific death of Barnes who fell into a cesspit at Cootamundra and "drowned".

Most of those who died from burns or scalds were youngsters. A two and a half year old was accidentally scalded at Alma Station, Booligal. The mother and her two young children of the Cantlon family were burnt to death in Broken Hill. Richard and Mary Ann Marum and their 6 months old child were accidentally burnt to death at Deniliquin. Some of the adult burns deaths were Eliza Stanton who died at Silverton, and Sarah Fields who died from burns on Dunlop Station, Darling River. 29 year old McFarlane died at Wentworth from accidental scalding.

Some accidents involved a horse or a dray. Siddings and McLean were killed when they fell off their horses. Glover and Ellery died as a result of being kicked by their horses. In separate incidents Ellwood and McGee fell off a dray in the Moama area and died. Munro was killed by the upsetting of a dray at Nymagee.

Death from Natural causes

The term "Natural Causes" can cover a wide range of circumstances so long as there is no suspicion of the death being caused by others. 3 month old Patrick Price and 2 year old Ellen Price both died in 1884. Patrick's death was put down to Natural Causes, but Ellen's death from diarrhoea was blamed on the carelessness of the mother. 15% of the Inquest deaths were attributed to "Natural Causes".

This non-specific term can include conditions that are mentioned by name. This means that one cannot assume that only the 9% of deaths were from illness - the death of other ill people could have been included in the "Natural Causes". Also the death of most of the ill people would not have required an inquest. Illnesses mentioned in the Inquests as causing death included Parr having an inflammation of the left lung; Selle dying of a hernia; Stevens died of apoplexy; Collins died of typhoid fever; Elizabeth Fewre having a hemorrhage of the womb. Rowe died of Marasmus [wasting away of the body] and bronchitis accelerated by exposure while in a state of intemperance.

The 5% of deaths from heart conditions and the 0.2% from cancer are also only those deaths that required an inquest.

Drink was either the cause or a major contributing factor that led to 7% of the deaths investigated. Brown died from drinking and fighting. Doyle fell into a fire while drunk. Mr and Mrs Patrick O'Brien, the owners of the Rocky Waterholes Hotel, were both intoxicated and did not survive when their hotel burnt down. Edward Jones died of brain congestion but he had been drinking heavily for a fortnight before his death. Zimmerman died from the effects of intemperance. O'Gorman was at the Horse and Jockey Hotel when he had an apoplectic fit from intemperance and died. An Irishman James Murphy died from dissipation and immoral practices.

Alcohol was not just associated with male deaths. A 38 year old woman, Louisa Keith, fell off a wagon when drunk and died. Johanna Giles died at Silverton from excessive use of intoxicating liquor.

"Death in custody" is a term when used today starts alarm bells ringing and authorities quickly begin enquiries. There were deaths in gaols in the 1880s. These deaths were put down to medical conditions. Haydon died in Wilcannia gaol from exhaustion caused by fever and ague. Irwin's death in Bourke gaol was from paralysis of the brain. The next year Dunn died in the same gaol of diarrhoea. The next year Verner died there of Bright's Disease of the kidneys. Horan died of inflammation of the brain in Silverton gaol; McDonald died of the same condition in Hay gaol. 84 year old Clark died in Walgett gaol of old age.

Sometimes the cause given was a more general less specific explanation. 33 year old Russell died in Bourke gaol from Natural Causes.

One death in gaol was a result of an accident. O'Brien died by falling into a tank at the new gaol at Walgett.

In only one case was there any suspicion of foul play. 60 year old Welshman Samuels died in Cobar gaol from injuries unlawfully received; there was an open verdict.

If a criminal was hanged for his crimes an inquest was carried out on his body. Cause of death given in the inquest into the death of Reilly was "strangulation by hanging, in accordance with the law". When Smidt was hanged for the murder of Taylor an inquest was conducted after the sentence had been carried out.


The difficulty of life in the 1880s out in the West is reflected in the Coronial findings that 8% of the deaths investigated were a result of suicide. The most favoured method of committing suicide was by hanging; many ended their lives by taking poison. Some shot themselves. Others cut their throat or stabbed themselves. The least favoured method of committing suicide was by drowning.

Some decided to end their lives in unusual ways. Walters committed suicide by exploding a dynamite cap in his mouth. Leck committed suicide by swallowing a piece of glass. Sarah Coleman, alias Soloman, alias White, threw herself down a shaft.

Exposure and exhaustion

Exposure to heat and cold and the difficulty of dealing with the environment caused 5.5% of the inquest deaths. Warren died of sunstroke near Hay. Richards perished in the bush when he lost his way in the Cobar district. White became lost on the Mount Arrowsmith Run Milparinka; he died "for want of water". Ryan was at the Section Hut, Bank Station near Booligal, when he died of starvation and exposure. Then there was the case of Martin who died by drinking water while in a state of overheat and exhaustion.

Knowley had made it as far as the Kandie Hotel on the Mount Browne road when he died of severe cold accelerated by exhaustion from coach travel. Severe cold was said to have produced peritonitis and death for Maberley at Walgett.

There is the sad entry for an unknown child who died of suffocation and exposure near Bourke.

Murder or manslaughter

Murder or manslaughter was given as the cause of 2% of the deaths that came under investigation in this 10 year period. These deaths were mainly of adult males. Sometimes the inquest named the person accused of the murder/manslaughter. When Hart died at Cobar of gunshot wounds, a charge of murder was brought against Dowkes. The inquest on Edmondson found that he had been killed by Hodson. Brever was arrested on suspicion of the manslaughter of Matthews. McKenna was charged with manslaughter when 67 year old Johnson died of an "extravasation of blood on the brain" (extravasation - the escape of any of the fluids of the living body from their proper vessels).

However the murdered person was not always a man. 55 year old Amy Hoskins, so far from her native England, was stabbed to death at Silverton. When the death of Kitty Brandy was investigated there was a finding of wilful murder against Wild Harry.

Nor was the victim always even an adult. An unnamed 2 month old male infant was strangled at Deniliquin. John Lee was charged with the murder of five and a half year old Charles Godfrey. A charge of murder was bought against Elizabeth Woods over the death of her new born baby; Mary Ann Woods was charged with being an accessory to the murder. Hannah Adams faced a charge of manslaughter when her 8 month old daughter died of starvation.

Aboriginal deaths were investigated. Sometimes this resulted in just an open finding such as Mary, an aboriginal, was "believed to have been murdered". An aboriginal man Billy Nerang was born in Queensland; 30 years later he was shot at Moree. When an aboriginal woman Sally died a charge of murder was brought against Jimmy Marshell also an aboriginal. George, an aboriginal, died at Bourke from wounds inflicted by a prisoner Paddy who was charged with manslaughter.


As a city person I had the preconceived idea that snakes would have caused many deaths. In this I was very wrong. Snake bite accounted for less than a half of one percent of the investigated deaths in the West.


Value of Property

In over 18% of the Inquests on adults the assets left by the deceased were either not known or not stated.

Although Millan died at Narrandera his case is a good example of how the value of property was ascertained. He left a tent, fly and shovel. He was owed 3 days 7 hours work for the Railways at the rate of 8 shillings a day. This was estimated to be Goods 1, Wages 1-10. This was set off by 1-8-0 owed for Board, and 1 to be paid "to the Blacks for recovering the body". Any small amounts that were left after the bills of the deceased were settled went towards the cost of the funeral.

47.6%, almost half of the people whose deaths were investigated died with no assets.

If the deaths of children and young people up to the age of 20 are excluded, then 36% of the adults died penniless. 30 year old William Dickson died of Natural Causes near Pooncaira; he left nothing. 33 year old Victorian Larkins drowned near Menindie; he left nothing. 58 year old Irishman Luke Warren died of sunstroke near Hay; he left nothing.

65 year old Tasmanian George Miller died way out at Yancannia Station of paralysis of the brain from drink; he too left nothing. How was it possible that people who had enough money to buy enough drink to kill them were able, in so many cases, to be able to balance their flow of cash so that when their last drink was purchased and they died there was absolutely no money left? Look through the Inquests and you will see how often this happens - remember that the Inquests showed if even a penny was left by the deceased.

It would not have been expected that 20 year old Catherine Duffy would have had any money when she drowned at Hay. She was buried at the expense of her employer.

If it was known that the deceased had left even the smallest thing the details were carefully itemised. 70 year old Nixon left just a purse and one penny. Charles Smith left 3p. Baker drowned with just the 11d on his person. All that 65 year old John O'Brien had to leave was his swag. Despite having 4-17-3 Butler died of starvation at Broken Hill. The Inquests could be very detailed - Wilks left a 1 Queensland note, a few papers, and a photograph of a woman. 23.5% of adults had just a few personal possessions or less than 10.

Rather ironically when Williams was drowned in the Darling River, the only possession that he left was a boat. Wisdom committed suicide by rifle wound - and left wearing apparel and a gun.

A further 12% left money or goods valued at between 10 and 100.

Only 6.7% left over 100 - and most of these were in the 200 to 400 range. Of the 1319 deaths investigated only 11 people left large amounts of 1000 or more - though it must be remembered that in 194 cases the assets were not known or not stated. Margaret Carver cut her throat; she left 1000. Patrick O'Brien left 1000 and the remains of his burnt hotel. Fisher who was murdered left 1500. Hill left 2200. Swift and Maher each left 4000. 50 year old Cummerford found drowned at Wilcannia left 11,000.

Mention of insurance cover is made in a few cases. When 21 year old Anasthasia Higgins secumbed to lung disease her life was insured for 1,000. Burt had a Life Policy and some furniture.

In 2% of the cases the deceased left things like Horses or Drays. Burton left a dray and team of horses which were given up to his wife. Boomer left a dray and team of bullocks valued at between 150 and 200. Marks left a watch, bible, horse and bridle, 4 shillings in silver and 3 shillings worth of stamps. Benson left 10 cash and two horses which were sold for 20. The 6 horses and a dray owned by Everis were valued at about 15.

Very few people whose death required an inquest seemed to have left Property in the West - just 1.1% of the deceased adults. Since inquests were conducted soon after the death there was probably not always enough time to ascertain the assets such as property held by the deceased and these assets could have been listed as Unknown or Unstated. Unless the information is given it is also hard to know the value of property that has been left. Patrick Smith left a hotel in the Cobar district but its value was not known. Durkin left a house and other property at Broken Hill - again value unknown. Surrey left land worth about 50. McIntyre left Real Estate at Balranald. Prendergast however left Stock 600, Selection 640 acres, Conditional Purchase 1280 acres, Life policy 300. The Inquest could be quite outspoken in its findings; Cox was said to formerly have had considerable property but had wasted it in dissipation.


1,319 Inquests were held in Western New South Wales for the ten years 1881 to 1890. The ages of the deceased ranged from a premature baby to an 84 year old. 40% had been born in Australia. The most common single cause of death was drowning - 21.2%. When individual causes were grouped under headings, 42.7% of the deaths were Accidental, 40.3% were due to Natural Causes. 36% of the adults died penniless. Because the assets of 194 of the deceased were not known or not stated a meaningful analysis of the value of the assets is not possible. Of the information provided only 11 people left amounts of 1000 or over and 1 person held an insurance policy for 1000. Very few people left Property.


Although every attempt has been made to give accurate information details should be checked in the official records.

Rusheen Craig.


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