Colac Court records: on the other side of the world

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Colac Court of Petty Sessions register 1849-1865.

In July 2010 Dawn Peel, historian from Colac, Victoria, Australia, was browsing the web and located an item of interest in the catalogue of the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA. Dawn was intrigued at this item in their special collections. A copy of a few pages was provided to Dawn who soon realized the value of this item. It was a leather-bound journal with almost 250 pages for the period 1849-1865. Even more exciting – it was the first Court of Petty Sessions register for Colac.

Duke University purchased the register in 1961 from Berkelouw Books in Sydney to add to their British colonial special collection.

Dawn continued her communication with Duke University who were fascinated to hear from someone with so much local Colac knowledge from the other side of the world – so much so that they gave priority to digitizing the complete register and in November 2010 it was made available for free access on the web.

Mitch Fraas was the reference librarian at Duke University who received Dawn’s initial enquiry and he has followed it through to the end. He documented the “saga” of the register and has kindly agreed to provide a copy – it’s worth reading!


About the Register

This register dates back to the very early years of Colac – back to when the settlement developed around the holdings of Hugh Murray and his family. And the first magistrate in this journal? Hugh Murray of course.


The entire register covers the period 1849-1865 however the actual court proceedings are from 1849 to 1860. The pages for the years 1860-1865 contain court notes, affidavits and recognizances. The Court of Petty Sessions registers from 1860 are available at PROV – see other Colac court records below.


Making the Register more accessible

Dawn immediately notified members of the Geelong & District Historical Association whose instant reaction was “we have to index it”.
The group downloaded the very large high resolution version of the register and put together a team with local knowledge and familiarity with transcribing old handwriting and court registers.

As the journal was free format with many cases not even starting at the beginning of a line, but part way through, a trial indexing run found that it was not so easy to pick out the names so a second trial run was done with transcribing the text in full. This ended up being much quicker and more accurate.

The transcribing team was Joan Davis, Pam Jennings, Dorothy Moore, Di Russell and Susie Zada. Any name or word that could not be transcribed or created uncertainty was highlighted for further checking. Each batch of transcribed pages was then sent to Dawn who had the most detailed knowledge of early Colac people and names. Dawn then added her corrections or suggestions.


Access the Register

Access to the register is completely free and the various components are available on different servers around the world!

On-line digital version

The full digital version produced by Duke University is available on the Internet Archives site. It can be viewed on-line and is also available for download.

IMPORTANT: Read the Page Numbers section below for further instructions.


Transcribed text version

The transcribed text version can be downloaded here. Surnames have been typed in capitals and line breaks have been inserted to separate individual cases.

Where a known name was spelt incorrectly in the original register, the correct name has been added in brackets and both versions included in the index.

Where we have not been able to decipher a name or word, it appears as [?] and is highlighted in yellow. If you know the name or word please let us know.

IMPORTANT: Read the Page Numbers section below for further instructions.


Index to the records

The index is included in the Geelong & District Potpourri database

A separate index for the register has not been produced as there are many other Colac names included in the Potpourri database which is a continually evolving database.

Entries for Magistrates and Clerks of Petty Sessions have only been included where they appear as part of court proceedings as there would be far too many entries for these individuals. Instead a single entry for each shows the range of years and page numbers in which they appeared.

IMPORTANT: Read the Page Numbers section below for further instructions.


Page Numbers

It is important to understand Page Numbers used in the digital copy, the transcribed version and the index.

In the transcribed version the PAGE NUMBERS appear in RED at the top of the start of each equivalent digital page. These are the same page numbers used in the index.

In the on-line digital version the corresponding page numbers are written in PENCIL in the top right hand corner of every second page.

If you have downloaded the digital copy in PDF format, the page numbers can be found in the same place as the on-line digital version or you can jump to the relevant page in Acrobat Reader by adding 2 to the page number [the PDF file includes the cover and inside cover, therefore page 1 is actually the third “page” in the PDF file.] There are an extra 3 pages inserted after page 302 therefore you will need to add 5 to the page number after page 203.

If you are having trouble finding the correct page number, just browse forward or back to find the correct page.


Colac at the time of this register

To gain an understanding of Colac at the time of this register, you will enjoy reading Dawn Peel’s article ‘Colac 1857: snapshot of a colonial settlement’, in Provenance, no. 7, 2008 - the Journal of the Public Records Office of Victoria.


Some people in the register

The following biographies have been written by Dawn Peel unless otherwise stated.   Photos have been provided courtesy of the Colac & District Historical Society.




Colac MURRAY Hugh.jpg
Hugh Murray is commemorated as Colac district’s first permanent white settler, having arrived in the district from Van Diemen’s Land with his sheep in 1837, when he was 23 years of age. His early arrival and his status as an educated free man who was a major landholder, led to him taking responsibility for many aspects of life in the emerging settlement. He was appointed a magistrate in 1848, and initially he and David Stodart, the other newly appointed magistrate, were the only ones within a radius of 30 miles of the settlement. There was no courthouse and no regular sitting days, so sittings were held, firstly in the local inn, and then a store, when summons were issued by application to the magistrate. When a Court of Petty Sessions for Colac was formally proclaimed in 1848 two further Justices of the Peace were appointed, and sittings, starting from mid-1849, were held in a new building of 24 feet by 12 feet in size. In 1866 Hugh Murray resigned as a magistrate in protest against the appointment of former storekeeper, Joseph Connor, to the bench. Hugh Murray died in Colac in 1869.









Colac STODART David.jpg
David Stodart was appointed a magistrate in Colac at the same time as Hugh Murray. Stodart had come to Van Diemen’s Land as a child in 1821, but later returned to the United Kingdom, where, after studying in Edinburgh he graduated as a doctor. He returned to Australia in 1840. His training as a doctor led to his brother-in-law, Hugh Murray suggesting he came to the Colac district, where he arrived in late 1840. He became a grazier on his property Corunnun, and practised as a doctor only in emergencies. He retired to Geelong, buying Glenlieth House in 1876. He died there in 1890.












Colac CALVERT John.jpg
John Calvert was an educated landowner of Scottish birth, whose property, Irrewarra, was northeast of the Colac settlement, adjacent to that of his brother-in-law, Hugh Murray. Calvert, like Murray, took an active role in local affairs, including the Presbyterian Church and the school. He was appointed to the bench in 1849. In 1866 he went to England to educate his sons and died in London in 1869 at the age of 62 years.











DENNIS, Alexander

Colac DENNIS Alexander.jpg
Alexander Dennis was a Cornishman – he and his family had been in the area since 1840, when they purchased a station which they later named Tarndwarncoort. Dennis actively supported the Methodist church and also held the position of Correspondent to the Board for the Protection of Aborigines. In later years he was to become a Shire Councillor, and a leader of the Pastoral and Agricultural Society as well as an acclaimed sheep breeder. He was appointed as a magistrate in 1849 and for forty years sat on the local bench. He died in 1892, as possibly the longest serving magistrate in Victoria.









MURRAY, Andrew

Colac MURRAY Andrew.jpg
Andrew Murray was another pastoralist, a younger brother of Hugh Murray. He was married to the sister of David Stodart. His main property was Wool Wool, north of Lake Colac, adjoining Stodart’s Corunnun. Andrew Murray’s appointment as a magistrate was made in 1857. He established a home in Melbourne during the 1860s, but retained his interest in Wool Wool until his death in 1889. Like his brother Hugh and brother-in-law John Calvert, he was a supporter of the Presbyterian congregation.










McCAIG, John

John McCaig is believed to have come to Colac early in the 1850s as an agent for Fred Champion, a Geelong storekeeper with a branch in Colac. McCaig soon opened his own store and became the postmaster in 1852. He was active in local affairs and could be seen as the leading Catholic layman, and generously supported their school building programme. McCaig was the Catholic representative on the local School board where he worked alongside Hugh Murray and John Calvert. A local committee to improve roads and drains had his support, as did the local Land League; he put himself forward as a candidate for the Legislative Assembly at a bye-election held in 1857, but was unsuccessful; the Roads Board of 1859 saw him as a member. His appointment as a magistrate was made in 1858, and he resigned the position in 1862 when he left Colac.

Clerks of Petty Sessions

FARRER, James Steadman

James Farrer was appointed Clerk of Courts in Colac during 1851 at the age of 22. He had migrated from England in 1849, with a letter of introduction to Governor La Trobe, which helped to obtain a position in the Melbourne Post Office. In 1854 he married Anne, the daughter of Larpent farmer Thomas Vaughan. His transfer to the position of Clerk of Courts in Buninyong was the result of his application for the position, claiming that he found the tyrannical manner of one of the magistrates intolerable. He subsequently left the government service, and after other ventures he purchased land at Modewarre, where he died at his home, West Bank, in 1910.


Colac DUNDERDALE George.jpg
George Dunderdale was 35 at the time of his appointment as Clerk of Courts in Colac in November 1857. He was well educated, having finished his education at the English College in Lisbon, Portugal, and he had subsequently worked in England as a journalist and teacher. He came to Australia in 1853, after having spent some time in the USA. Dunderdale experienced life on the goldfields in New South Wales and Victoria. He came to Colac to teach in the Catholic school in 1854, where his work was well regarded by school inspector Bonwick. On hearing of Farrer’s resignation as Clerk of Courts he quickly applied for the post, which he subsequently held until 1868 when he transferred to Alberton. During his time in Gippsland he used his journalism skills in writing articles, many of which were later drawn on in his 1898 publication, The Book of the Bush. He had retired in 1886 and died in Melbourne in 1903.







Other Colac court records

Other Colac court records are available at the Victorian Archive Centre. These include:

In December 2010 another early court record was located by Dawn Peel and transferred to Public Record Office Victoria. This series is:

The future

We are waiting for permission to include a photograph of the old Court House in this Wiki.  There may also be a few more biographies to be added.

In the meantime we all owe a special thank you to Dawn Peel for being the catalyst in making the Colac Court of Petty Sessions register 1849-1865 available for all to enjoy.


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