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John Michael Finnerty (1853–1913)

by Ted Mayman

This article was published:

John Michael Finnerty (1853-1913), mining warden and magistrate, was born on 31 January 1853 in Limerick, Ireland, third son of Charles Finnerty, army officer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Mathews, who were Anglicans. The family arrived in Western Australia in 1859 where the father was staff officer of enrolled military pensioners at Fremantle. In 1867-72 John attended Rugby School in England, where he was a mediocre scholar and a top Rugby player. He returned home in 1873 and worked as clerk to Sir Archibald Burt.

He then went pearling and traded to Malaya. In 1878-82 he worked a pastoral lease on the Gascoyne River with John H. Monger and built there the first brick house in the north. After two visits to England, in 1886 he was inspector of police at Derby when the Kimberley goldfield was proclaimed. Next year he was warden and resident magistrate at Halls Creek to cope with the colony's first gold rush. In 1889 he moved to Southern Cross on the Yilgarn goldfield as warden and, from 1891, resident magistrate again. Here, on 10 December, he married Bertha Mary Oats (d.1911) from Cornwall, whose father William was the town's first mayor. Next year Finnerty ruled against leaseholders who applied for exemption from the labour clauses of the Goldfields Act, 1886, which required manning of leases while awaiting capital and company development; this caused unemployment and tied up possibly rich country. The Act was amended to allow the minister to grant exemptions.

On 17 September 1892 Arthur Bayley rode in to Southern Cross and applied to Finnerty for a reward claim. Riding to inspect the find, it is said that Finnerty visited a near-by rock-hole and wrote down its Aboriginal name, Coolgardie, which the goldfield was later named. It started Western Australia's greatest gold rush. Finnerty saved lives when water was short by persuading the government to provide tanks along the road and by ordering diggers back to Southern Cross, allowing them to resume their claims after the winter rains. In an outspoken community he used common sense to interpret the regulations of an Act which gave wide supervisory powers to wardens. On Coolgardie when newcomers broke specimens from Bayley's Reward lease, Finnerty ruled that a lease could be entered for alluvial gold, but not within fifty feet (15.24 m) of the reef or lode. This was the origin of the famous dual title, part of the 1895 Act. Giving a title to the alluvialist as well as the lessee was an important cause of the following mining boom. The immediate granting of leases aided the investment of British capital and the extension of company mining; the dual title allowed the simultaneous mining of alluvial and reef gold on the leases.

Finnerty helped plan the town of Coolgardie where he was warden from 1894; it rapidly became the third largest town in the colony but then the field declined. In 1900 he was appointed to Kalgoorlie, the main centre of the eastern goldfields. In 1911 he retired to a property near Geraldton where he died of diabetes with infection on 8 December 1913, survived by two daughters and a son. He was buried in the Urch Street cemetery with a gravestone erected by goldfields friends.

He had been a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Freemason and president of the Coolgardie Liedertafel. With the rank of lieutenant-colonel he commanded the Goldfields Regiment of the Volunteer Defence Force. A great raconteur, he wore a full beard with a 'walrus' moustache and had a commanding but genial presence. He was a big man, physically and officially, good at his job. For twenty-five years Finnerty interpreted the mining acts with discretion and his decisions were respected. As a bushman, his authority and leadership were accepted in the camps: no officer of the Crown was held in higher regard in the mining community.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Uren, Glint of Gold (Melb, 1948)
  • A Reid, Those Were the Days (Perth, 1933)
  • J. Kirwan, My Life's Adventure (Lond, 1936)
  • G. Casey and T. Mayman, The Mile that Midas Touched (Adel, 1964)
  • University Studies in History and Economics, 2 (1955), no 3
  • RAHSJ, 43 (1957)
  • Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), 11 Mar 1902
  • West Australian, 22 May 1935
  • D. Mossenson, Gold and Politics … (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1952).

Citation details

Ted Mayman, 'Finnerty, John Michael (1853–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


31 January, 1853
Limerick, Limerick, Ireland


8 December, 1913 (aged 60)
Geraldton, Western Australia, Australia

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