Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Trove Tuesday: In which Bessie Phelan recognises a wanted murderer

It was early in May 1895. Bessie Phelan, 26 years old, was working at Ford's Bakery in Sydney Road, Coburg (a suburb of Melbourne), serving customers. She lived with her parents, Daniel and Jane, and five siblings. Her father had not long retired from his job as a Chief Warden at Pentridge Prison just up the road. Another brother, William (my husband's great-grandfather), was teaching at Balmattum in country Victoria.

Then began a series of incidents that ended up being reported in newspapers across the country and even in New Zealand.

Bessie had been reading the news in the paper that morning and it included the story about a man wanted for the murder of his wife and her mother in Collingwood (also a suburb of Melbourne). A man came into her shop to buy buns but only had a sovereign so she told him she couldn't change it and suggested he go next door to get the change. While he was gone she read the newspaper article again because she thought he resembled the description of the wanted man.

Coburg Leader 11 May 1895
After Dooley left the shop she sent word to her father, the ex-warden, who told the police and a hunt began. They were joined by more and more men as word quickly spread around Coburg. Daniel Phelan was in the group that found Dooley and they set off after him 'in hot pursuit' and he was caught and taken to the police station. Unfortunately he managed to swallow what turned out to be arsenic and he later died.

Coburg Leader 11 May 1895
All of the newspaper reports comment on Bessie Phelan's skill in recognising the wanted man, especially because he had dyed his hair, moustache and eyebrows. Apparently Bessie noted Dooley's thick upper lip and missing tooth.

Coburg Leader 11 May 1895

The Coburg newspaper waxed lyrical and called Miss Phelan a heroine. The journalist suggested that there should be some Government reward for her "quick-witted observation and action". 

Coburg Leader 11 May 1895
As I was researching this story I read a number of articles published in newspapers all over the country but they all called our heroine 'Miss Phelan'. As there were five Phelan sisters I didn't know which one was working in the bakery. Then I read the Bendigo Advertiser and it gave her name as Bessie, who was the second daughter. And just this week I was looking at the New Zealand equivalent to Trove - Papers Past- and I found Bessie named in an article published in an Auckland paper. So the lesson to learn from this is to widen your search to interstate papers and beyond.

The other thing I found out from the reports was that Bessie was working in a bakery. I had no idea that she was working.


  1. Really interesting :) I do like PapersPast as the imaging is very clear. Often I find stories reprinted in other papers including across the ditch.

  2. Great find! Love that 'trye woman's whit'. I assume Bessie did not actually get any actual award or reward for it, other than this praise in the newspapers.

  3. This is a great story thank you for sharing it, did she ever get a reward for his capture? In your case the story was added to in the more distant papers, which assisted your research , I found one story where a man with one arm involved in a fight, in a distant paper he was recorded as having only one leg!

  4. Great story enhanced by your introductory comments.

  5. I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

    Thanks, Chris
    What a great story... clever lady.


I love to read your comments. Thankyou for your interest.



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