Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John (Jack) Donohoe (1806–1830)

by Russel Ward

This article was published:

John Donohoe, attributed to Sir T. L. Mitchell , c1830

John Donohoe, attributed to Sir T. L. Mitchell , c1830

State Library of New South Wales, Original : P2/361

John (Jack) Donohoe (1806?-1830), bushranger, was born in Dublin and there convicted on 3 April 1823 of 'intent to commit a felony'. Sentenced to transportation for life, he reached Sydney Cove on 2 January 1825 in the Ann and Amelia. He was assigned to John Pagan of Parramatta and then, after a short period in a road-gang, to Major West, a Parramatta surgeon who owned an estate at Quaker's Hill.

On 14 December 1827 with two confederates, Kilroy (Kilray or Gilroy) and Smith, he robbed a number of bullock-drays on the Sydney-Windsor road. Tried on two counts in the Supreme Court in February 1828 before Judge John Stephen, they were found guilty and, with perhaps superabundant justice, on 1 March twice sentenced to death. Kilroy and Smith were duly hanged (once), but Donohoe escaped from custody between the court and the gaol in Sussex Street. During the next two years and a half he became the most celebrated bushranger in Australia, leader of a gang which included at various times, Webber, Walmsley, Underwood and others. They ranged over country from the Bathurst area south to the neighbourhood of Yass, east to the Illawarra, and north through the County of Cumberland to Wollombi on the southern approaches to the Hunter River valley.

In the official notices which fruitlessly offered £20 for his apprehension, Donohoe was described as '22 years of age, 5 feet 4 inches (163 cm) in height, brown freckled complexion, flaxen hair, blue eyes, and has a scar under the left nostril'. In the late afternoon of 1 September 1830 a detachment of soldiers and police came up with the gang in the Bringelly scrub near Campbelltown. During the ensuing fight Donohoe urged the police to 'come on, using the most insulting and indecent epithets'. He was killed by a ball fired by Trooper Muggleston.

Donohoe's courage won him many admirers, and as 'Bold Jack Donohoe' his name (pronounced 'Donahoo') for decades afterwards was as well known as those of the later Ben Hall and Ned Kelly. A Sydney tradesman fashioned a line of clay pipes, the bowls of which were moulded to resemble Donohoe's head, bullet-hole and all. While his body lay in the morgue, (Sir) Thomas Mitchell made a handsome pencil drawing (now in the Mitchell Library) of the head and shoulders and to this was added a quotation from Byron

No matter; I have bared my brow.
Fair in Death's face—before—and now.

Many ballads about Donohoe's life and death were composed and some still circulate in oral tradition. The most popular may have been the prototype of the best-known Australian folk-song, 'The Wild Colonial Boy'; in all its extant versions the fictional hero, Jim Doolan, Jack Dubbin, John Dowling et al., preserves Donohoe's initials.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Meredith, The Wild Colonial Boy (Syd, 1960)
  • M. H. Ellis, ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’, Bulletin, 25 Feb 1953
  • convict indents (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Thematic Essay

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Russel Ward, 'Donohoe, John (Jack) (1806–1830)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 28 May 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

John Donohoe, attributed to Sir T. L. Mitchell , c1830

John Donohoe, attributed to Sir T. L. Mitchell , c1830

State Library of New South Wales, Original : P2/361

Life Summary [details]


Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


1 September, 1830 (aged ~ 24)
Campbelltown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: unknown
Sentence: life