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James Kenniff (1869–1940)

by Grenfell Heap

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Patrick Kenniff

Patrick Kenniff (1863-1903) and James (1869?-1940), cattle duffers, were sons of Irish-born James Kenniff, selector, and his wife Mary, née Stapleton. Patrick was born at Main Creek, near Dungog, New South Wales, on 28 September 1863. James's birth was not registered. After convictions for stock stealing in northern New South Wales, they overlanded in 1891 with their father to the Springsure district of Queensland, being joined later by their younger brothers Thomas and John. Living by bush work, they also raced horses and opened books on the local race meetings.

Moving to the Upper Warrego in 1893, they occupied blocks in the Hoganthulla and Killarney resumptions and later the Ralph block which adjoined William Collins and Sons' Carnarvon-Babbiloora consolidation. With convicted cattle duffers Thomas Stapleton, John and Richard Riley and others, they launched a reign of 'mild terror' from their base on Ralph, stealing cattle from Carnarvon and other neighbouring stations. During this period both brothers served prison terms. When neighbouring cattlemen protested, the government terminated the Kenniffs' lease of the Ralph block and established the Upper Warrego police station thereon.

The Kenniffs now assumed a more truculent attitude, riding armed through the district, and moved their base across the Dividing Range to Lethbridge's Pocket. They developed a special animosity towards the manager of Carnarvon, Albert Christian Dahlke.

When the charred remains of Dahlke and Constable George Doyle of the Upper Warrego police station, who had set out during Easter 1902 to arrest the Kenniffs for horse-stealing, were found in Lethbridge's Pocket, strong suspicion fell on Patrick and James Kenniff. Although he did not see the actual murders, Doyle's Aboriginal tracker, Sam Johnson, heard shooting and when he neared the arrest scene the Kenniffs pursued him, but he escaped. Despite a reward of £1000 and a large police manhunt, they were not taken until 23 June at Arrest Creek, south of Mitchell.

Chief Justice Sir Samuel Griffith presided over the trial in Brisbane. Found guilty of wilful murder, both prisoners were sentenced to death but execution was deferred, pending an appeal. Even before the trial there was much public sympathy for the Kenniffs. This was partly a manifestation of public discontent with unemployment and a drought, and partly a revival of the old antipathy between squatter and cockatoo farmer among New South Wales expatriates. The appeal, financed by funds contributed by supporters, was dismissed by a full bench of the Supreme Court; the only dissenter was Mr Justice Real who was not convinced of James's guilt. Patrick was executed on 12 January 1903 and buried in South Brisbane cemetery with Catholic rites; the sentence of James was commuted to life imprisonment.

Exacerbated by sectarianism, public controversy over the case gave a strong impetus to moves for the abolition of capital punishment in Queensland. Sympathy for the Kenniffs was greatly stimulated by the appearance of two ballads, 'The Kenniffs' and 'The hanging of Paddy Kenniff'. James eventually served only twelve years. After working on cattle-stations in the north-west he fossicked in the ranges north of Charters Towers and died there of cancer on 8 October 1940. He was buried in Charters Towers cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Heritage, 1 (1968), no 9, p 3, 2 (1969), no 1, p 3.

Citation details

Grenfell Heap, 'Kenniff, James (1869–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




8 October, 1940 (aged ~ 71)
Charters Towers, Queensland, 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.