Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Ryan Brenan (1798–1868)

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John Ryan Brenan (1798?-1868), coroner and magistrate, was born in Ireland, the son of John Brenan, gentleman, and Maria, née Ryan. He was bred to the law and practised as an attorney. In 1831 he began to entreat the Colonial Office for a colonial appointment. With supporting letters from Lord Anglesey and a promise to invest £2000 of his own, he was at last given a letter of recommendation by the Colonial Office and sailed with his wife in the Jessie, arriving in Sydney in June 1834.

He was already known to Governor Sir Richard Bourke, who nominated him for appointment as crown solicitor, but the Colonial Office had already appointed Francis Fisher. Meanwhile Brenan set up a private practice and became solicitor of the Bank of Australasia. In February 1835 the office of coroner in Sydney fell vacant and, when Bourke asked him to restore its dignity, Brenan accepted the appointment despite the meagre salary of £100. Early in 1836 the principal superintendent of convicts became sick and Brenan was temporarily appointed. Feeling sure of Bourke's support and a permanent post, he acquired a farm and cattle station near Parramatta. Next year an action was brought against him in the Supreme Court by a settler whose assigned servants had been removed without the direct assent of the governor. The settler lost his case and Brenan was warmly reported to the Colonial Office by Bourke for discharging his duties with complete satisfaction. In September 1837, however, Glenelg not only refused to confirm Brenan's appointment, but also ordered the refund of an over-payment of £91 in salary. Brenan's many protests had little effect; the over-payment was deducted from his salary by instalments. He was nominated for appointment as clerk of the Crown at Port Phillip, but ordered to withdraw from private practice. Meanwhile, Governor Sir George Gipps had appointed him third police magistrate in Sydney and allowed him to continue as coroner. The combined salaries of £540 were less than Brenan had received as superintendent of convicts and in 1839 he had to sell his Parramatta estate. In spite of this hardship and severe illness in 1841, he managed to win annual prizes at the Floral and Horticultural Show for vegetables grown on his property at Prospect.

As a police magistrate Brenan's performance was highly controversial. Frequent quarrels with his two colleagues led once to a private arbitration being ordered by the governor. The press made much of his idiosyncrasies and in June 1840 he issued a writ for libel against the Commercial Journal, claiming £1000 in damages. In 1841 Gipps offered him the post of sheriff at a salary of £1000, but he declined the 'extreme responsibility and risk'. In 1844 the City Council made no provision for paying his magisterial salary and, as no other funds were available, he was thrust out of office. Later this action was found to be beyond the council's power, but by that time Brenan was on the verge of insolvency. His appeals for reinstatement fell on deaf ears, Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy reporting to London that he was 'a very unfit person' for the post.

Brenan died at Petersham on 5 June 1868, aged about 70. He was survived by two sons of his first wife Cecilia, née Mahon. After her death he had married Anna Maria Price at Kilkenny in 1826. One son, John O'Neill, was appointed the first water police magistrate at Sydney in June 1851, and sheriff in 1854.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 18-26
  • manuscript catalogue under Brenan (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

'Brenan, John Ryan (1798–1868)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




5 June, 1868 (aged ~ 70)
Petersham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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