Murder at Meredith

A shot split the night, and William Purcell buckled at the knees and fell forward to the ground. He groaned momentarily, the charge from the gun shattering his heart. William Patrick Purcell, an Irish baby thirty-four years before, baptised in hope in Cork City, put into Grangegorman Prison, Dublin as a four-year-old with his mother, a thief, and transported for his mother’s crime across the seas to the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land. William Patrick Purcell, a young, itinerant saddler and harness maker, the profession of his step-father, who crossed the seas once again for a new life in the Victorian goldfields. Here he met the daughter of a Ballarat miner, and a new family was started. William Patrick Purcell lay there, his life expired. Dead, before his eighth child was born.

Saddler William M. Jackson with his display of saddlery and leather work in the pavillion at the Stanthorpe Agricultural Show, 1920 Saddler 1920
Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Public Domain This work has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.


 “Another drink, Will?”

“No, I’ll be right, Tom.” William had had enough of the stale beer smells. They had been at the Royal Hotel in Meredith, Victoria since dusk, and it was now almost 11. At that time of night only a few stragglers remained. William Purcell had only had a few drinks,[1] whereas Thomas Coghlan had been drinking steadily all night.

“Well, you’ll have to have a few drinks with me to wet the young’un’s head after it’s born.”

“Wet? You’ll damn near drown it, at the rate you’ve been drinking tonight.” The bar stool rocked as Tom laughed, and William put a hand out to steady him.

“I’ll have a drink,” said a woman’s voice.

“No, you won’t,” said John Stowe immediately, as he came out from behind the bar. “Now Margaret, I told you before, stop annoying my customers and go home.”

“I was just saying they could buy a lady a drink.” That drew a couple of snickers from the other end of the bar. “Anyway, I can’t go home. I’ll get another one of these,” Margaret drunkenly pointed to her eye, where a bruise was developing.

Ignoring her injuries, John continued, “And where did you get that bottle of beer from?” Margaret Dawson muttered something in return as he herded her out to the verandah where she seated herself on a form with her bottle.

John returned and poured a glass of beer. As he pushed it across the counter he said, “You’d better make this your last, Tom.” Tom nodded.

Tom picked up the previous conversation with William. “How many kids have you got now?”

“Seven, the next one will make it eight.”

“Good God, man. You’ll have your own cricket team soon.”

Both men laughed and Tom drained the last of his beer. They left their stools and, with some farewells to the others in the bar, went out the door, passing Margaret Dawson on the verandah.

Office at Fountain's Camp outside Toowoomba, ca. 1870 Hut with picket fence and bark covoured roof. An unidentified woman is standing on the porch.Slab Hut
Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Public Domain This work has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

Margaret had been drunk since the afternoon. She had completed some sewing for Mrs Armstrong and left home to deliver it. Home for Margaret was a simple dwelling, bark and slabs laid on a framework of saplings and fastened with hoop iron. Inside was a dirt floor, and partitions of brown paper and old bags formed two or three rooms. It was on the outskirts of Meredith, about half a mile from town, and she shared it with her husband, Thomas. The Dawsons, who were from County Monaghan in Ireland, had lived in their meagre hut near the railway line for 12 years, their family of grown children living elsewhere.

For the sewing, Margaret earned two shillings, which she promptly spent on whiskey. She took it home and devoted the afternoon to drinking it. Thomas, a teetotaller, became more irate as the day wore on, and by 4 pm, Margaret had finished her sewing earnings.

“I need to go to town for some more liquor,” said Margaret, getting up from the chair where she had spent most of the afternoon.

Thomas was furious. Margaret’s drinking was the cause of most of their arguments; besides, they needed the money she made from dressmaking. His right leg, almost useless from chronic sciatica, prevented him from working at his job as a road labourer with the local shire. Instead, with the aid of crutches, he tended a large vegetable garden on their three quarters of an acre allotment on the outskirts of town. Excess produce was sold to neighbours to provide a tenuous income.

“No, you’ve had enough,” Thomas replied, grasping his wife’s arm as she headed for the door. Margaret broke free, and again Thomas grappled with her and then struck her across the face. Stunned momentarily, the inebriated woman was even more determined to go. Thomas followed her out the door.

“You come back here, Margaret,” he shouted, unable to catch her because of his crippled leg. He was no match for his determined wife, and she set off to walk the half mile to town. There she spent some time at Mr Marshall’s Huntsman Inn before going to John Stowe’s Royal Hotel.


Thomas Coghlan was very drunk, and held William’s shoulder as they walked down Staughton Street towards Purcell’s house. Purcell was an athletic man, being a strong boxer and cricket player. He was reputed to be a good musician too, and when he had lived in Ballarat, he was a member of the volunteer band. John Stowe watched them for a while, but after they had gone about 30 yards and reached the newly-built Shire Hall, he lost sight of them.

Another patron was leaving, and the publican walked away for a short time with him, finishing off a conversation. When John Stowe returned Margaret Dawson was gone.

Meredith Shire Hall built 1878Meredith Shire Hall built 1878
Photo from (Submitted by MNugent)

Margaret knocked at the door of her hut. “Thomas, are you going to let me in?” Thomas Dawson had woken when Margaret knocked, but remained silent.

“Did I not tell you he would not let me in, Mr Purcell?” Margaret said.

William knocked loudly at the door. “Mr Dawson, will you not let your wife in?”

Thomas, fearful of the man, took down his gun. The two moved away to the outside corner of the house. Dawson, hearing whispering and suspecting improper behaviour, came out with his loaded gun and fired. William was shot through the heart.

Margaret mopped frantically in vain with her dress as the warm, sticky blood oozed from the fallen man’s chest. The blast had come from her husband’s double-barrelled gun, kept loaded for the hares that destroyed his garden. That thought sobered Margaret into instinctive vigilance. She looked to the front of her house, where the shot had come from, but saw no one. Recalling warnings that Thomas had given in the past, regarding herself and other men, she knew she had to go. She stood up, and without looking back, ran a desperate quarter mile to the O’Briens.

Margaret rapped at the door. “Mrs O’Brien, I need you to let me in.” A light went on in the house and she heard the loud voice of Mr O’Brien, talking with his wife. A few moments later a woman’s voice came from inside.

“Margaret, go home. My husband won’t allow me to open the door to you.” Margaret walked away and found refuge in one of the O’Brien’s sheds, where she leant her back against a corner and slid down to the floor, pondering what had just happened.

Back at the Dawson house, Thomas emerged after having dressed himself. He walked the three yards to the body. There was no sound; there was no movement in the moonlight. Thomas limped the quarter of a mile to the Meredith police camp to rouse Constable Wilson.

“Constable Wilson,” he called.

Wilson went to the door. “Who’s there?”

“Thomas Dawson,” was the reply. “I have shot a man and have come to give myself up; here is the gun.” The constable noticed that one barrel of the gun held by Dawson was damp, the other still loaded. It was the early hours of Thursday morning, 13th March, 1879.

The murder, of course, created a sensation in the small town of Meredith. As William’s body lay in the Dawson’s front yard awaiting a post mortem by Dr Pincott, much rumour and insinuation was bandied about by the local population. Depending on where their loyalty lay, the rumours included: Dawson shot Purcell for no reason; Mrs Dawson pleaded with Purcell to accompany her home; Purcell insisted on accompanying her home, despite her pleas to stay away; Dawson interefered with the body to make it look like something untoward was happening (by unbuttoning Purcell’s trousers); Purcell and Mrs Dawson were ‘carrying on’ in the yard beside the house; Dawson shot Purcell when he was down low to the ground; Dawson shot Purcell when he was standing fully upright.

The inquest was held and Dawson committed to trial in Geelong in July, four months later. There, he was found guilty of manslaughter, the judge ruling that Dawson had reason to be suspicious but not to take the law into his own hands. The judge considered that Thomas Dawson had spent enough time in custody and he was released.

There was much sympathy for the widow and fatherless children. Collections for their support were taken in Meredith, Geelong, Ballarat and further afield. Over £136 was raised. This included £3 15s from Altson and staff, Bourke St, Melbourne. David Altson had a large saddlery business there. Perhaps William Purcell worked for him on his way to Ballarat from Tasmania. Jessie Purcell, William’s wife, set herself up in a dressmaking business in Ballarat.

1. As reported by the publican of the Royal Hotel – The Shocking Murder at Meredith. (1879, March 17). Geelong Advertiser (Vic. : 1859 – 1926), , p. 3. Retrieved from [back]

The Meredith Murder. (1879, March 21). Kerang Times and Swan Hill Gazette (Vic. : 1877 – 1889), , p. 4. Retrieved from
The Shocking Murder at Meredith. (1879, March 17). Geelong Advertiser (Vic. : 1859 – 1926), , p. 3. Retrieved from * This article has details on the Dawson children, that would be helpful to anyone researching this family.

Genealogy Snapshot

Name: William Patrick Purcell (abt 1845-1879)
Parents: John Purcell (? – ?) and Ellen Fitzgibbon (abt 1823-1898)
Spouse: Elizabeth Jessie Bainbridge (abt 1847-1938)
Spouse’s Parents: John Bainbridge (abt 1818-1885) and Elizabeth Short (1820-1901)
Surnames: Purcell, Fitzgibbon, Bainbridge, Short, Bennett
Relationship to Shelley: great, great, grandfather (2x great grandfather) William is Shelley’s 2x great grandfather

  1. William Patrick Purcell (abt 1845-1879) great, great, grandfather (2x great grandfather)
  2. Isabella Purcell (1875-1936) (great grandmother)
  3. Walter Henry Bennett (1896-1934) (grandfather)
  4. Father
  5. Shelley


This entry was posted in Bennett Ancestors, Shelley's Ancestors and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Murder at Meredith

  1. Denise Doyon says:

    Well done, Shelley!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shelley says:

    Thanks, Denise.


  3. Fascinating but sad story. I am impressed with the newspaper cutting and transcript provided by Trove, (from footnote) in the UK we have to subscribe to British Newspapers archive and we don’t get a transcription.


  4. Shelley says:

    Thanks for your comment, Sylvia. Yes, Trove is such a great resource for anyone researching Australian history.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Shelley, that is a great story.


  6. Graeme Dawson says:

    I believe that Thomas Dawson was my great grandfather, his son Charles my grandfather and Charles son William my father. When researching Dawson family history we discovered the story of the murder and found it to be a tragic episode from the past. I am Graeme Dawson and can be contacted at


  7. Pingback: William Patrick Purcell (1845-1879) | Shell's Family 52 Ancestors

  8. Pingback: Time to Shift up a Gear | Shelley's Family Histories and Mysteries

  9. Pingback: Favourite Photo – Week 2 | Shell's Family 52 Ancestors

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