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Joseph Thomas Reilly (1836–1915)

by R. H. W. Reece

This article was published:

Joseph Thomas Reilly (1836-1915), merchant and newspaperman, was born on 23 December 1836 at Richmond Barracks, Dublin, eldest child of Joseph Reilly, quartermaster sergeant, and his wife Catherine, née Regan, both of Brannockstown, Meath. In 1851 the family migrated to Fremantle, Western Australia, where his father was in the Pensioners' Force. Young Joseph already had experience in printing on the Jersey Times and found work on Edmund Stirling's Perth Inquirer. He soon moved to the rival Perth Gazette, but left to be clerk to the police magistrate court.

On 10 April 1855 he married Mary Lucille Burrows, dressmaker, schoolmistress and a native West Australian; they had twelve children, of whom six survived, and from 1866 fostered two orphans. From 1855 Reilly was bookkeeper for the merchant Joseph Farmaner; when Walter Padbury acquired the business in 1865 Reilly became, briefly, a partner, but lost an expensive lawsuit against Padbury for breach of contract. He then set up his own firm on St George's Terrace, with branches at Guildford and York, to export sandalwood to China, horses to India and Singapore, even kangaroo dogs to Japan; he also engaged in pearl-dealing.

Reilly had been active in the Swan River Literary and Debating Society and in 1864 with G. F. Stone established the Perth Building Society, Western Australia's first. He was elected twice (1864 and 1874) to the Perth Town Council and stood unsuccessfully for chairman in 1877. Understanding Englishmen better than did most Irish Catholics, he assisted his church and community in a colony where Protestants reigned. He sided with Dr Joseph Serra against Bishop John Brady during the controversies of the early 1850s and backed Fr Matthew Gibney from his arrival in 1863, sometimes accompanying him on pastoral missions.

Reilly had long advocated establishment of a Catholic newspaper. In 1874 he founded, with Gibney and Fr John O'Reily, the Western Australian Catholic Record which he edited until 1879, campaigning against the 1876 High School Act which Catholics believed undermined state support for denominational education. He had been appointed honorary secretary of the first District Board of Education in Perth in 1871 and spoke effectively in its defence. The need for Catholics' enfranchisement led him to become first secretary of the Reform League of 1878 which fought for responsible government.

In 1870 he had been forced out of business when losses from the export of timber and advances to farmers against supplies of sandalwood and wool destroyed his credit in London; he formed a partnership with J. H. Monger in a new trading venture which brought him into close friendship with (Sir) John Forrest.

Reilly moved to Adelaide in 1879 for two years, and then to Victoria where he edited the suburban Prahran Chronicle and, later, the rural Koroit Sentinel. Politically conservative, he was, however, attracted by the land nationalization theories of Henry George and campaigned for settlement of the urban unemployed.

Gold discoveries in Western Australia drew him back there as correspondent for the Melbourne Age in 1893. With his wife as bookkeeper and his son John as partner, he established the Northam Advertiser. Reilly knew all sides of the newspaper business, from machine room to front office or editor's chair. As editor he tended to pontificate; in private he was witty, generous, intelligent, the soul of honour. A small slight man with neat hands, he had a full fluffy beard and beetling brows.

His newspaper soon circulated beyond his district, as far as Albany and Geraldton. Its success owed much to his wife's 'forethought, prudence and firmness'. They also published the Southern Cross Herald in 1894-96 which closed after their son John's death from typhoid. Joseph Reilly was active on the Northam Municipal Council, as a magistrate, in establishing a Catholic church, mechanics' institute and building society, and in conservative politics.

Mary Reilly died in 1902. Her husband continued editing the Northam Advertiser until 1905, when he sold it to (Sir) Hal Colebatch and others and retired. On 30 May 1906, he married his housekeeper, 30-year-old Annie Fernihough, more from convenience than affection.

In Perth in 1903 Reilly had published his massive and unedited Reminiscences of Fifty Years in Western Australia. Though containing much original writing, it was primarily a compilation of reports of public meetings, newspaper controversies and official documents. It was as much an almanac as a personal memoir. He led an uneventful, retired gentleman's existence, occasionally involving himself again in journalism and community affairs. Survived by his wife and the son and five daughters of his first marriage, he died at Northam on 13 October 1915 and was buried there. His estate was sworn for probate at £3878.

Select Bibliography

  • D. S. Garden, Northam, an Avon Valley History (Melb, 1979)
  • L. M. Quinlan, Undaunted Spirit: The Life and Times of Joseph T. Reilly (Melb, 1980)
  • Northam Advertiser, 16 Oct 1915
  • letters to Perth Building Society (Perth Building Society)
  • letters to Bishop Salvado (New Norcia Archives)
  • letters to Bishop Gibney (Catholic Archdiocese of Perth Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. H. W. Reece, 'Reilly, Joseph Thomas (1836–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 July 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]


23 December, 1836
Richmond Barracks, Dublin, Ireland


13 October, 1915 (aged 78)
Northam, Western Australia, Australia

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