Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Cornelius Marconi (1876–1922)

by Betty Crouchley

This article was published:

Joseph Cornelius Marconi (1876-1922), goanna oil manufacturer, was born probably on 21 April 1876 in London, son of Cornelius Joseph Mahoney, cooper, and his wife Eunice Clara, née Proud. The family arrived in Australia about 1886 and Joseph worked with his father in Sydney as a dealer in building materials; from about 1900 they spelt their surname Marney. He became a member of a marionette show in a travelling vaudeville troupe, then traded briefly as a dealer in Newcastle, and later joined the sideshow circuit, adopting the name Marconi and using Brisbane as his home base. As manager of Lyn Vane's snakebite act, and through association with 'Professor' James Morrissey, he learned of plants to which goannas were thought to resort when bitten, and of the Aborigines' belief in the healing properties of goanna fat.

From about 1910 Marconi manufactured and sold liniments and salves, the ingredients including oils distilled from herbs and goanna fat; sufferers from ills ranging from arthritis to varicose veins attested to his products' efficacy. Entrepreneur as well as showman, he skilfully used comic advertising and especially testimonials: in his delightfully illustrated Modern Nursery Rhymes (Brisbane, 1921) the rhymes were interspersed with testimonials, and his ubiquitous goanna trade marks were seen along every bush road and railway line. The Queensland government proclaimed the goanna a protected species in certain areas in 1918 and he was refused a patent application, but Marconi's sales throughout Australia and New Zealand continued to increase. He opened a shop in inner Brisbane in 1920 and in May 1922 the Marconi Curative Institute, offering massage, hydropathic and herbal treatment. He was particularly interested in the treatment of children suffering from poliomyelitis.

With his carefully cultivated Italianate appearance, Marconi was one of the most picturesque and best known figures in Brisbane. His hospitality was a byword: the small factory under his home, Astra, at Bulimba was a Mecca to local children. He topped the poll in the erstwhile strongly Labor ward of Bulimba in the Balmoral Shire Council's 1921 election as a Nationalist candidate, and proved an energetic and effective councillor.

Marconi's skull was fractured when he intervened in a fracas in Elizabeth Street on 21 October 1922, and he died a few hours later in Brisbane General Hospital. After a largely attended funeral service he was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Bulimba cemetery. He had married Mary Teresa O'Neill in Newtown Registry Office, Sydney, on 27 September 1904. She predeceased him but he was survived by three of their four daughters and three sons, of whom Norman Charles (1905-1959) was a pioneer of aviation in Queensland. His father was remembered by Bulimba schoolchildren in their chant: 'Old Marconi's dead, knocked on the head/ Goannas are glad, children are sad/ Old Marconi's dead'.

Marconi's 'Australian bush remedy' became part of folklore. The business remained in family hands until 1982 when the rights of manufacture were sold, Astra was demolished and a large collection of goanna memorabilia was destroyed.

Select Bibliography

  • National Trust of Queensland Journal, 7 (Nov 1983), p 13
  • Brisbane Courier, 25 Oct, 1, 3 Nov, 5 Dec 1922
  • Truth (Brisbane), 29 Oct 1922
  • Bulletin, 16 Oct 1984
  • SCT/CG202, 15/20 (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Betty Crouchley, 'Marconi, Joseph Cornelius (1876–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 27 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mahoney, Joseph Cornelius
  • Marney, Joseph Cornelius

21 April, 1876
London, Middlesex, England


21 October, 1922 (aged 46)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

skull fracture

Cultural Heritage

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