The Donnelly Deception and The Mahogany Ship.

An exposure of the fabricated accounts of Hugh Donnelly on his alledged discoveries and descriptions of the Mahogany Ship. condensed version from a forthcoming publication by the author, being a history of the Discovery,Exploration and Settlement of the Port Fairy and Towerhill district and a biographical dictionary of the Pioneer Families,which has been the subject of research for the past five years. Researcher,Compiler and Author: Joan Williams Fawcett copyright. Joan Williams Fawcett. 1999 This Document,or any part thereof,may not be reproduced without permission of the author Joan Fawcett. On the coast of South West Victoria between the former trading ports of Warrnambool and Port Fairy, and east of the dunes at the locality known as 'The Cutting", lies the remains of an intriguing mystery vessel. Of supposed ancient age and purported Dutch or Portuguese origin the vessels' enigmatic arrival and subsequent resting place has been the subject of much conjecture and debate.

The various searches for the "Mahogany Ship",by which name the ancient vessel is now referred,has,from as early as 1836, yielded a voluminous collection of anecdotal sightings and descriptions amongst which are the seemingly genuine recollections of Hugh Donnelly,whose accounts of the vessel have been generally regarded as a reliable foundation for searchers of the wreck throughout the last one hundred and ten years.[1]

Donnelly's accounts of his visits to the old wreck between the years 1836-48 have usually been regarded as plausible especially when combined with his claimed arrival in 1836 as a fifteen year old boy employed in the foremost whaling Fishery based near Port Fairy .[2] In subsequent years,and especially throughout the 1890 public search attempt,Donnelly was to the fore with accounts of descriptions of the wreck and the early history of Port Fairy, and his claims were at times supported by men of public credibility.

Throughout the known forty nine articles and letters which are accredited to Donnelly,are many statements of his experiences during colonial settlement,and in particular in regard to the ancient vessel. [3]

In 1901 in an article titled "The Hopkins River Revisited" Donnelly is recorded as having stated :- "...I go back to the year of 1836,and the incident that occurred to two boat's crews,twelve in number. Our mission was to bring a boat back from there,that three brave fellows in search of seals had capsized in the surf ..and which proved fatal to one of them..... we were under the command of the Mills brothers......" [4]
This account of the incident involving three sealers is usually regarded as leading to the first European sighting of the ancient vessel, and Donnelly's claims of his involvement lent authenticity to the incident.

Hugh Donnelly recorded in 1898:-
"In describing the romantic appearance of olden times of Port Fairy, you move my memory back to 1836, when a boy of fifteen.. with my dearest friends and protectors on the island..the Mills'.. I know of no other living person of the present day who can give as much personal knowledge of the Port as myself..."

and he had previously recorded in 1891 in regard to the wreck:- "..during the year 1836 up to 1846, she was disappearing in the loose dry sand...Her length and beam could be made out by the point of her timber.Little of her hull was visible, a trifle on her beam ends,supposed to be about 70 tons burden.."[6]

During 1890, Donnelly was involved in the first major search attempt formed to locate the old vessel on the hummocks previously known as the "ancient stranger" :- "..The search for the Mahogany ship continues..Old Hugh Donnelly, who was whaling with the Henty's, has come forward to aid in her recovery. He saw her in 1836, and claims to be able to put his foot where the hull is not two feet below the sand...." [7] and Donnelly recorded in that year:- "..the year 1846, that was the last year I saw the wreck. Several of her timbers were visible, some of them 12 or 15 inches above the surface of the sand, and some three feet above the sea level..." and at the same time Mr.J.Archibald, quoted Donnelly as :- " .. describes her as lying "almost broadside on her stern,.. fast in the brow of the loose dry sand,on the edge of the natural verdure of the hummocks..."[8]

and in the following year - 1891 - Hugh recorded:- "the wreck that Mr Mills alludes to never was on the hummock.... what that gentleman must have said was that she was well up on the beach, or well up to the the time of his discovery she would not be more than three or four feet above sea-level and that was in or about the level of her when I paid my last visit in 1846...[9]

Donnelly's accounts of the locality and description of the old vessel lent credence to subsequent searches over the years,and have featured in many articles and publications. His personal accounts of the colonial era of European settlement at Port Fairy have permeated into many published accounts of the port's history,and are regarded as an authentic record of the early settlement of the region.

Recent research reveals that the Donnelly accounts are the contrived, inventive claims of an Irish labourer who did not arrive in Victoria until some five years later than he claimed,and who very likely never sighted the ancient vessel as stated, if at all. The only apparent genuine account of Donnelly's foremost knowledge of the vessel was that published in 1881 :-
" ...seeing you draw attention to an ancient wreck known to be lying on the hummocks between Warrnambool and Belfast, I,having joined the whaling party on Port Fairy Island under the command of Captain Campbell in 1842, and remained several years in the service, have often heard from the whalers of a wreck being seen in the locality mentioned,but nothing further. If it was seen by any of the old whalers, the attention of Mr James Clarke,of Panmure is worth notice....".

This account is a far cry from the later claims of Donnelly that he had arrived at Port Fairy as a fifteen year old whaling hand, and that he had visited the wreck during the years 1836-48,after having been a member of the party whaling at Port Fairy in 1836. Here he states quite clearly that he did not join the whaling party until 1842,as opposed to his later claims of having arrived in 1836, and he states that he had never seen the old vessel,only having heard of it from other old hands.

Donnelly initially only spent some nine years in the Port Fairy region from 1842 and at a later time spent a further thirteen years in the Towerhill-Woodford region.
He was unlikely to have seen the vessel in 1836,or at any time after, and states quite clearly in 1881 that he had only heard of it. His accounts of the location and history of the vessel and also the early settlement of the Port Fairy region, particularly prior to the year 1842,are for the main,an ingenious combination of artfully recited colonial events and grandiose claims of personal involvement, which include in part, authentic information on incidents that occurred during colonial settlement from the 1830's at Port Fairy and Portland,the latter information apparently being supplied to Donnelly by his old mate James Clarke.
Donnelly's letters and articles are peppered with references to his mate James {Jimmy} Clarke who was a Tasmanian born youth later employed as a whaling hand at Portland and Port Fairy in the early 1830's,and of whom, research supports the evidence that it was he who was supplying Donnelly with the information on events that occurred prior to 1842,many of which Donnelly later claimed as personal experiences.

Donnelly's Arrival in Victoria
Hugh Donnelly arrived in Victoria in the year 1841, when he and his wife Ann [nee McNally], and his six month old son Thomas arrived together at Melbourne on the 30th of July,as bounty emigrants,aboard the Westminster, the vessel bringing assisted British emigrants to Victoria through the agency of John Marshall for Messrs Enscoe and James,of Port Phillip.[11]
Donnelly is recorded as an illiterate 26 yo labourer, and his wife Ann as a 20 yo house servant and along with their son Thomas,they are listed as being natives of the county of Armagh. Also on board the vessel was Donnelly's sister-in-law Ann Fox, formerly Donnelly, nee McDonald, and her husband Hugh Fox, along with Ann Fox's four Donnelly children by her prior marriage to Patrick Donnelly.[12] The Donnelly's are recorded under the surname of Donnell, but Hugh Donnelly later claimed in 1856 that though he arrived under the surname Donnell on the Westminster, his correct name was Donnelly.[13]

Donnelly at Port Fairy
Hugh Donnelly made his way to Port Fairy,and claims to have signed on with Captain Campbell during 1842.[14] Campbell was in charge of a whaling and grazing station with the forementioned being established on Griffith's Island during 1836 and the latter being a large run established around the same time between the Merri and Moyne Rivers, and extending northwards into Yangery, and which in part became the reknowned Farnham Survey of later years. [15]
Donnelly was in the company of the early whaling hands of the Fishery from about 1842 until 1846,and on several occasions claimed to be a member of Charles Mill's boat crew.He would more likely have served only as an oarsman and spare hand on the whaling boats, the other positions available in the crew entailed experience and the men were usually hand-picked by the headsmen specifically for that reason, and these men had often worked in the same crew for many years.The men employed by the Company at Port Fairy usually performed their whaling duties during the months of April through till September, and in the interim were employed as hands on the Farm,especially in the bark-stripping and skin collecting trade, and part of their duties involved shepherding. After the whaling industry faltered during 1846 ,many of the old hands dispersed to other employment. Donnelly took up the employ of sawyer until 1851,and he later claimed to having relinquished his sawpit in October to a Mr Burrell for 40 [16] after which he claimed to have made his way to the goldfields. This would be a likely course of avenue and other contempory accounts confirm the major exodus to the fields at that time.
There is no contemporary evidence to suggest that Donnelly returned to the Port Fairy District from 1851 until the year 1861.
In 1852, there were letters awaiting him at the Port Fairy Post Office which remained unclaimed for some time.[17]

In the early months of 1853, a Hugh Donnelly appeared twice before the police courts in Geelong,[18] It is difficult to distinguish if this is the relevant Hugh Donnelly or his nephew Hugh who resided at Indented Head,[19] though given the ease of detection in 1856 by police of Hugh Donnelly's involvement in another stolen horse incident,from Geelong, it would suggest the possibility that Hugh was known to police.

Hugh Donnelly claimed both on his conviction record of 1856 and upon his second marriage in 1861 that he was a widower, with three children,with a date given of 1855 on the latter certificate for the death of his wife,and on the former he stated that he three children were living at Geelong.It is possible that Hugh made his way to the Indented head area between the years 1851-56 to where his relations - the Donnelly and Fox families- resided.[20]

Donnelly's arrest and conviction in 1856
On the 16th of July 1856 Hugh Donnelly, was convicted for the theft of a horse from Geelong on the 28th of the month prior, on which date he had been arrested on the charge,and Hugh's subsequent trial ,held at Melbourne resulted in a sentence of guilty and a conviction of "seven years on the roads." Donnelly was known " a little" to the owner of the horse, who lived at MuddyYalloak, near Geelong,indicating that Donelly probably resided at that time in the region. Donnelly's conviction records confirm his arrival on the Westminster in 1841,that his correct name was Donnelly though he arrived under the name Donnell, he claimed to be a widower, and that his three children had four cousins of the same name [Donnelly] at Geelong. [21]

Donnelly was described in 1856 as being 5'10,stout made,with a florid complexion,sandy hair,hazel eyes, and a large nose,mouth and chin.Smallpox marked his right temple and he had small scar on the centre of his forehead and his nose had been broken. [22]

In 1859,Hugh Donnelly was granted a discharge on the the 7th May, conditional upon his residing in the district of Avoca and that he report to the station at Amherst,and he was granted a ticket of leave during the week ending May 10th 1859 . On the 28th of June, Donnelly was granted permission to reside in the Ararat district,and was granted a Certificate of Freedom during the month of May, 1861 .[23]

Donnelly's return to Towerhill
Hugh returned to the Port Fairy area,and on the 18th September 1861 married Mary Jane Miller at the Church of England in Warrnambool [24] and the records show that Hugh stated he was a widower from the year 1855, he had three children living and none deceased.[25]
The Donnelly family was increased by further children who were born in the Woodford,Towerhill,Yarpturk district from 1861 - 76,whereafter Hugh departed to the Laang /Brucknell district where he had purchased his farm of over 174 acres in 1878, [26].

In 1890, Hugh was feted on a return visit to Port Fairy. He appears to have become swept up in the budding search for the Mahogany ship and he promised to assist in the search for the wreck he claimed to know so well, but was suddenly called home on urgent business [27]. He returned again at a later time after pleading a place in the search team,and did become involved briefly in the search but claimed that the dramatic changes in the coastline and his orders to work on Mill's bearings and not his own sighting were the reasons for lack of success. [28]

From 1890, until near the time of his death in 1903,[29] Hugh Donnelly produced a litany of ingenious claims in regard to his involvement in nearly every major incident that occurred in the Port Fairy region during colonial settlement, amongst them his involvement in '36 in the Hopkins River Incident and in '39 his account of the rescue of the passengers and crew of the Children. He also later claimed to been involved in formative civic affairs in regards to the townships of Belfast East and Warrnambool, including the survey of the Warrnambool bay. He claimed to have personally met Captain Armstrong,who along with Captain Wishart,is credited with the foremost baptism of Port Fairy Bay, and gave several accounts of being involved in miraculous rescues of ship's crews from dangerous wrecks,and gave an implausible account of a herculean encounter with "monsters of the deep' whilst a member of the Mill's crew.He was supposedly involved in the incident involving Port Fairy's only bushranger, and hinted as his participation in a rum smuggling incident on behalf of his employers.[30]

Only on one occasion was Donnelly very nearly publicly exposed, but with the backing of James Clarke he outbluffed his opponent George Philmore and managed to retain his credibility,though Philmore's was the more accurate of recorders of Donnelly's arrival as he claimed Hugh did not arrive at Port Fairy until 1843.[31]

During his time at Port Fairy,Hugh Donnelly later appears as having been caught up by stirring accounts of the exciting lawless heyday of the colonial whaling trade which combined with an obvious fascination for the ports' colonial history - and the flattering attention which attended his involvement in the Mahogany Ship search in 1890 - results in a seemingly genuine desire to record the foremost history of the region and in particular accounts of the wreck. After the death of James Clarke in 1898,Donnelly's claims of involvement in the foremost events became much more extravagant in detail.[32]

Unfortunately the accounts of Donnelly are rendered suspect and unreliable by his claims which were oft based on accounts of others prior experiences and publications,and the resulting cunning mix of historical facts and self - adventures leaves the researcher in a mire of untenable information,particularly in regard to the whereabouts of the old vessel.

Donnelly's claim,later fostered by another family member, to the existence of a journal alledgedly compiled by Hugh Donnelly and containing information and details of the ship,supposedly noted in 1836 upon a visit to the site by Donnelly and Capt Mills, has offered false hope to seachers for over one hundred years as to the possible existence of the only known contempory recording of the whereabouts of the wreck. Further suggestion that Hugh Donnelly received fragments of the old vessel {and had them made into rulers}-along with a chart of the vessel's location from the decamped surveyor William Pickering, in gratitude for Donnelly's assistance in helping Pickering to leave the district, is most unlikely. Hugh Donnelly was serving a gaol sentence at the time of Pickering's departure.

Any possibility that Donnelly may have worked at the fishery prior to 1841 and returned to Ireland to marry, and then yet again return to Victoria as a labourer, appears to be voided by the lack of any one reference to him being listed on any vessel in and out of Tasmania, especially to and from Port Fairy and Portland,prior to 1840, as opposed to the documenting by the author of many recorded trips of the whaling crew members working for the foremost Fisheries established at Portland and Port Fairy.Donnelly made it quite clear in 1881 when he stated publicly that he had never seen the ship, but had only heard of it from other whaling hands. Evidence to support the existence of the wreck in the dunes below Towerhill can be found from more reliable sources than Hugh Donnelly. About The Author Joan Fawcett is a local history researcher who is currently writing Pioneer Speake (an account of the European discovery and settlement of Port Fairy and Tower Hill).She also has one of the largest private collections in relation to the Mahogany Ship. Joan's research had led to a possible identification of the old wreck in the dunes which supports her belief that the vessel is not an ancient ship of discovery. Joan has spent nearly seventeen years researching local history and is currently preparing her work for publication.Her work is self funded. Links Richard Osburne and his Mahogany Ship claim Tafe Collection of Mahogany Ship newspaper articles Mahogany Ship and the China Syndrome-Synopsis

Sign Guestbook View Guestbook The Author would like to thank:-Philip Latimer (Mahogany Ship expert) for his support.

Graphics kindly supplied by Joan O'Donovan
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sources for this article can be obtained from Joan Fawcett.