Australian Dictionary of Biography

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David George O'Donnell (1860–1946)

by Robert Haldane

This article was published:

David George O'Donnell (1860-1946), policeman, was born on 2 July 1860 at Bullengarook, near Gisborne, Victoria, eldest son of Irish parents Michael O'Donnell, farmer and former prison warder, and his wife Johanna, née Barry. His younger brother was Nicholas O'Donnell.

O'Donnell was educated at St Michael's School, North Melbourne, St Mary's School, West Melbourne, and in 1872-76 at St Brigid's School, Gisborne. In August 1876 he joined the Victorian Permanent Artillery, motivated by what he later described as 'a youthful fascination inherited from the clans of Tyroconnell for the military, police and penal services'. Service in the Artillery Corps, known colloquially as Stubbs's Bulldogs, was then a condition of recruitment into the police force. O'Donnell was well fitted for both military and police service. He was a strong athlete, who stood 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall and in his prime weighed 22 stone (140 kg). On 23 February 1878 he transferred from the artillery corps to the police force as a constable and was shortly after sent to Wahgunyah for 'extra special duty' relating to the Kelly gang. To keep himself in readiness he regularly ran 1000 yards (914 m) and 'swam 1000 yards in the Murray against the stream'. He remained at Wahgunyah until July 1880, then served at the police depot, Russell Street, and Port Melbourne before finding his niche as a detective with the Criminal Investigation Branch in 1885. In 1900 he was promoted from senior constable to sergeant.

Known to the public as 'Australia's roving detective', O'Donnell was described by his peers as 'a man absolutely free from any evil propensity'. During his thirty-seven-year career he received only eight formal commendations for his investigative work, largely because exemplary performance was routinely expected of him. Different investigations took him as far afield as Egypt, Colombo and London. A man of considerable courage, he was awarded the Royal Humane Society's bronze medal for rescuing a drowning woman and her baby from Port Phillip Bay.

Ability, physical prowess and courage all combined to make O'Donnell's a household name in Melbourne. But his crusade against illegal gambling, particularly the operations of John Wren, and his relentless, incorruptible efforts to close the Collingwood totalizator and other gambling houses made him almost legendary. In Frank Hardy's book Power Without Glory (Melbourne, 1950), he features as detective sergeant Dave O'Flaherty. Using informers, surveillance, subterfuge, battering-rams and large teams of policemen, O'Donnell prosecuted illegal gambling operators in a manner unprecedented in Australia. And he paid for it. Forced to carry a revolver, he was constantly followed by criminals, and on 5 January 1906 a bomb was thrown through the front window of his home at 6 Royal Terrace, Nicholson Street, Fitzroy.

O'Donnell retired with a pension on 31 August 1915, with the rank of sergeant, first class, and bought Erinvale at Gisborne where he served as a local councillor for sixteen years. A prolific writer and diarist, he published his memoirs in weekly instalments in the Gisborne Gazette in 1924-26, under the heading, 'Reminiscences of a Victorian detective'. He had married an Irishwoman, Ellie Hickey, on 8 February 1887; they had three sons and three daughters. Predeceased by his wife and two of their children, O'Donnell died at Elwood on 1 August 1946. His estate was valued for probate at £227.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Brennan, John Wren (Melb, 1976)
  • R. Haldane, The People's Force (Melb, 1986)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1906, 3 (10)
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Jan 1906
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 Jan 1906
  • Punch (Melbourne), 22 June 1911
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 24 Jan 1920
  • Gisborne Gazette, 23 May, 6, 13, 27 June, 18 July, 29 Aug, 26 Sept, 5 Dec 1924, 9 Jan, 3 Apr 1925
  • Victoria Police record of conduct and service of D. G. O'Donnell (held at police headquarters, Melbourne)
  • 9 vols of scrapbooks of D. G. O'Donnell (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Haldane, 'O'Donnell, David George (1860–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 July, 1860
Bullengarook, Victoria, Australia


1 August, 1946 (aged 86)
Elwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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