Criminal Pasts: Family History

Brickey Gaol

I’ve spent most of this week trying to trace the trail left by my Great Great Grandfather on the legal record of 1870s Victoria. In the past, I’ve considered this to be a family history project, but I’m beginning to realise it is also (or instead?) a biographical project—the protagonist just happens to be an ancestor of mine, who has been of interest to many people throughout my extended family. I’ve been researching his life off and on for the past couple of years, but with some more solid research experience behind me, I feel better equipped to know where to look for information, and to understand what I find.

William Williamson, alias Brickey, appears in most of the books about the Kelly Outbreak in North-Eastern Victoria. (note – I’ve been selective about what I’ve read, there are way too many Ned Kelly books out there!) He was implicated in the events of the evening in April 1878 when Ned Kelly allegedly shot Constable Fitzpatrick in the wrist. Brickey was arrested the following day, along with Ned Kelly’s mother and brother-in-law. They were convicted of aiding and abetting the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick. The men were sentenced to 6 years with hard labour; Mrs Kelly got 3. The sentences were considered severe, and had no small part to play in Ned’s anger with the authorities. The presiding judge at the Beechworth Assizes was Judge Redmond Barry, who was to sentence Ned to death a few years later.

I’ve been keen to find the documentary evidence for Brickey’s criminal record. Family stories abound about how and why he was involved. Understandably, the books which have covered the Fitzpatrick affair have focused on Ned and his mother’s role, with Brickey mentioned only as an aside. My aim is to uncover as much of the “truth” as I can about Brickey’s involvement, so that I can consider it in the context of his long and otherwise peaceful life. I was surprised and gratified then, when I opened the (huge) book of the Minutes of Evidence taken in the 1881 Royal Commission into the Police Force of Victoria, to find that the very first witness—the Chief Commissioner of Police—discussed Brickey’s role in detail from the outset.  Brickey was not just a neighbour, he was very well-acquainted with the Kellys and their associates.

As well as wondering how well he knew the Kellys, I’ve also wondered how involved Brickey was in the general lawlessness of the North-Eastern region in the 1870s. His prison record—which I managed to download from the PROV— confirms (as I suspected) that he was known to the police, and had already spent time in Beechworth Gaol before the Constable Fitzpatrick affair. Finding the prison records was surprisingly easy—I’m sure last time I looked (a couple of years ago)—I’d decided that I’d need to go to Melbourne to see a hard-copy file. I wanted to know whether Brickey was in gaol at the same time as Ned, Dan or Jim Kelly, or their various uncles and other associates, to confirm my hunch that they had all had lots of time together. They did have time inside together, in Beechworth and Pentridge.

The next task is to try to get hold of the court files for Brickey’s trials, as I don’t think the cases were formally reported. I’ve seen the prosecutor’s file, which suggests that the Fitzpatrick case was handled perfunctorily, but I’d like to find out more. I’m trying not to give away too much of the story here as I hope to write a biography of sorts. But any clues, questions, or suggestions for researching criminal activities of the 1870s would be most welcome.

The photograph above is from Brickey’s prison file, presumably taken when he first entered the system at 25 years of age.

2 thoughts on “Criminal Pasts: Family History

  1. Hi Jennifer, I have recently been made aware of a possible connection between my Great Grandfather William John (John) McCandless and William (Brickey) Williamson. The life of William John (John) McCandless is shrouded in great mystery and also may somehow be linked to Ned Kelly and Brickie. I have very little verifiable details but one of the few details is that he moved to Albury/Howlong/Morewartha and later married Ernistina Diebert in 1877 and had two children but in the early 1880’s he disappeared under mysterious circumstances, never to be heard of again. There is no birth certificate, immigration record, or death certificate. There is a theory that he was a Kelly sympathiser, and he was fearful of being arrested by authorities who were rounding up Kelly sympathisers and changed his name and disappeared to avoid arrest. There is a Diebert family story with a possible link to Brickie but the details are nebulous. But interestingly my grandfather John William (Bill) McCandless (son of William John (John) McCandless) travelled in the late 1890’s from Howlong to Wallumbilla, Qld under a false name “William Williams / Williamson” for some reason. I am wondering if any of this rings a bell and you have any information of a connection. Thanks. Eric McCandless

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