Trove Tuesday – John Finn Charged with Incendiarism

18 December 2018

John Finn sketch from a trial record in 1903

Today’s Trove blog post is revisiting some earlier research. My great great grandfather John Finn was charged, and finally acquitted,  of arson in 1903. Back in the 1980s when I first discovered this family scandal, I searched the Brisbane Courier and the Truth on microfilm at the State Library of Queensland. While the Courier only had the bare facts, the Truth did a full page with illustrations, including sketches of John and his daughter Mary, my great grandmother.

So why revisit? The facts and the story won’t change, not in those newspapers I have already looked at. But the Telegraph is now digitised and in Trove and back then I never thought to look at that newspaper. Searching the Telegraph in Trove I have been finding out details not reported in the other two newspapers. It really does pay to check every newspaper just in case.

For example, the Telegraph on 15 September 1903 had the headline – Alleged Arson – Charge of Incendiarism – Case Dismissed. What followed were eight paragraphs recapping the story but also including information I had not previously seen.

There was more detail about how the fire had actually started and where. Apparently there was a piece of straw hat and its wire about 18-20 inches from the fireplace. Somehow that doesn’t seem sufficient to start a fire and burn a house down. The fire was partially put out by neighbours, and the fire brigade completed the fire’s ‘extinction’.

John’s family had been formally evicted from the home on 30 August 1903 (but had left a week earlier on 22 August). A deputy bailiff had taken possession of the house and seized the household effects. These were then sold for £1 13s which was not sufficient to meet outstanding rent and costs. Later in the article it was reported that 12 weeks rent was owed.

This detail told me just how poor the Finn family were and probably desperate as John’s wife Sarah had died the previous year leaving John with nine children. The youngest child was only three years old and I suspect that the older children were looking after the younger ones while John looked for work.

The house was insured and the owner held no ill will towards John and his family and believed that there was no ill will towards himself from the Finn family.  The evidence did not sustain the charge and the police magistrate dismissed the case and John was free to go home with his family.

This account was a bit different from the Truth which openly stated that John had a drinking problem and had abandoned his children and gone off to Ipswich. Even though this was a more sensational account of the fire, it was the only report that included the sketches of John and daughter Mary Finn and the house in Hampstead Street, Woolloongabba. In the absence of any photograph of John this sketch is just wonderful and I now have an image of my great grandmother when she was just 17 years old. Although she looks much older dressed up for court and with her hat on.

Although John was acquitted, he had still been arrested and sent to gaol pending the trial. This means that I have some excellent prison records for him as well. His family fortunes never improved and he ended his days in the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum after spending some time out in western Queensland. Three of his sons fought in WW1 where the youngest spent time in a German prisoner of war camp. Only six of his children married and had children and there are quite a few John Finn descendants today.

Revisiting Trove and going through the reports in the Telegraph have given me more family details on the Finn family. I need to now merge all the accounts into a comprehensive story that outlines what must have been a very sad and desperate time after the death of my great great grandmother Sarah Finn. Thanks Trove.


Shauna has been tracing her own family history since 1977 and is a Fellow of the Queensland Family History Society. In 2009 Shauna received the Australasian Federation of Family History Organisations (AFFHO) Services to Family History Award for her achievements in Queensland, Canberra and Victoria.

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