O’Driscoll’s Loss

As was the case for many people, it was the goldfields that drew John O’Driscoll to the shores of Western Australia. He was born in about 1865 in Loveland, Ohio, USA. The son of an Irish immigrant, he arrived in Australia in 1889. By 1899, he had moved west and established himself on the Murchison goldfields as a storekeeper.

When John moved to the west, he left behind his beloved, Annie Frances Howard. Once established at Lennonville, he returned to her home in Echuca, Victoria, and in 1900, they married.

The couple returned to the Murchison and began their lives together at Lennonville. In February 1901, John applied for a Publican’s General License for the Lennonville Hotel. The building was constructed of wood and iron and had seven bedrooms, two sitting rooms, and a kitchen. He intended to run the hotel as an inn or a public house.

Locality plan of the Murchison, showing the location of Lennonville. Courtesy of the State Records Office of WA (AU WA S2168- cons5698 1038).

At that point, Annie was pregnant. Their child, a boy named John William Howard O’Driscoll, was born on 31 July 1901 at Cue. For John, joy at the birth of their son quickly turned to despair. Annie grew increasingly unwell and, 13 days after giving birth, on 13 August, she died. She was buried at Cue cemetery.

John was unable to care for his son. He placed baby John in the care of Mrs Sweeney of Kalgoorlie. She was to look after him until he was old enough to travel to Echuca, where his Aunty, Ellen Howard, would raise him. She carried out the plan, and they arrived in the town in January 1902. Sadly, he did not live long. Despite Ellen writing to Mrs Sweeney in April 1902 to let her know that baby John was well, it seems, in the same month, he died. He was buried in Echuca Cemetery.

It is not known if John was aware of his son’s death. Throughout 1902, he was quiet. The license for the Lennonville Hotel was transferred in December 1901, and his quarter share in the Wheel of Fortune North mine was sold for £2,000 in January 1902. In 1903, he returned. On 15 May 1903, he applied to become the licensee of the Lennonville Hotel. He was involved in the town’s social activities. He helped establish a Lennonville branch of the Licensed Victuallers’ Association of W.A., was appointed a member of the Lennonville Local Board of Health, and successfully bid to run the publican’s booth at the Lennonville Australian Workers’ Association Sports Meeting.

The townsite of Lennonville circa 1900. Courtesy of the State Records Office of WA (AU WA S2168- cons5698 1038).

Signs that his luck was changing were short-lived. At 11:30 pm, on 21 December 1903, a candle was left burning in the cook’s room of the Lennonville Hotel. It was too close to a curtain, and as the wind blew, it caught fire. There was nothing anyone could do. Only a few hours later, the hotel was completely destroyed.

The fire burnt fiercely and in a very short space of time the structure, which was composed of wood and iron, was a mass of smouldering ruins.

Mount Magnet Miner and Lennonville Leader (WA : 1896 – 1926); 25 December 1903; Page 3; A Destructive Fire

John owned the hotel, and it was uninsured. Initially, he tried to continue running in some way. A building he owned on Wray Street in Lennonville was removed to the hotel spot to act as a temporary bar. Unfortunately, it proved too difficult. John left Lennonville and, by January 1904, he was in Fremantle and drinking heavily. He was taken to a Private Hospital suffering from acute alcoholism and exhaustion. On 4 February 1904, at the age of 40, he died. He was buried on the same day in the Roman Catholic denomination at Fremantle Cemetery.

John died Intestate. Trying to find next of kin was impossible. Some people knew he was from America, but no one knew if he still had family there. Some knew he was a widower, but no one knew about his son. Much of his life was unknown and was recorded as such on the death certificate. Advertisements in the newspaper yielded no results. John owned property in Perth and Lennonville and had a large amount of savings. For over a decade it was administered by the Curator of Intestates’ Estates.

In 1917, advertisements relating to John’s Estate were again placed in the newspapers. This time, Mrs Sweeney responded, hoping to receive payment for caring for baby John. She advised them of John’s son and told them that John had relatives in Ohio. First, Western Australian officials contacted the Echuca Police and were informed that John junior died many years ago. Next, solicitors Henning and Brockman began investigating. They wrote to Mr Stevenson (an Attorney in Loveland, Ohio), who very quickly informed them that John’s father (also named John) was still alive.

John’s father was aged in his 90s, so his son (John’s brother), Nicholas Driscoll, acted as his Attorney. He left the United States on 27 October 1918 and arrived in Fremantle on 3 January 1919. The Sunday Times later described him as “a big Yank, with a cigar between his teeth…” who walked into the office for the Curator of Intestate Estates and proved he was related to John O’Driscoll. After months in Western Australia, the properties were sold, and John’s Estate (which totalled nearly £3,000) was handed to his brother.

It was an extraordinary story, with some newspapers painting the quest to find the next of kin as ‘romantic.’ Only The Murchison Times and Day Dawn Gazette were puzzled as to the length of time it had taken to find relatives. They also knew John’s story and the sadness that had befallen him, noting that, “Word of his death shortly afterwards reached the place in which he had done well for a time, and then lost all that was dear to him in about twelve months space of time.

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