Tragic tale of Edward killalea and his death at Wollongong’s Commercial Hotel

Shellharbour Municipal Council Aldermen, 1869. L-R: William James (Mayor), Fraser, John, Thomas Fenwick, Thomas Coughrane, William Fryer, Edward Killalea (circled), John Russell, Richard Hall (Clerk).This photograph was donated to Shellharbour Council by Frank James in 1937 (Kiama Reporter and Illawarra Journal 18 August 1937). Frank’s father was William James and the family lived at ‘Bravella’, Dunmore. Picture: Shellharbour City Museum


WHEN an Illawarra civic leader died on the sofa of Wollongong’s Commercial Hotel in 1872 the news caused a sensation.

Edward Killalea was elected to the Shellharbour Municipal Council just two years before his death in 1872 from the “effects of excessive drinking” and taking a does of strychnine “enough to poison the entire population of Wollongong”.

Killalea was on his way from Sydney, south to his home at Shellharbour where he had been summoned as a witness in a court case when he decided to rest-up at the Commercial in Crown St Wollongong.

The Shellharbour alderman’s wife Maria had separated from him after a domestic dispute. As a result, Alderman Killalea was hitting the grog heavily.

It was about 8pm on a Friday night in August 1872 when Killalea arrived at Wollongong by horseback and decided to bunk at the Commercial Hotel before continuing the exhausting journey home to Shellharbour.

The Commercial was one of Wollongong’s longest operating pubs, established in 1847 before it was demolished to make way for a David Jones department store in the 1960s. It was located at the corner of

Killalea’s intended brief stopover would go down in history as one of the pub’s more memorable visits.

Killalea was born in Ireland in 1816, and at the age of about 19 he and some friends were involved in a fight which resulted in the death of two men. Subsequently Killalea was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to be transported to Australia for the term of his natural life.  He arrived at Sydney Cove in 1836 before assigned work in the Illawarra.  After nine years Killalea received his ticket of leave and in 1850 a conditional pardon.

With his ticket of leave, Killalea married Shellharbour girl Maria Campbell in 1847 at Jamberoo, he being about 31 years of age and his new wife about 17 years old. The Killalea family lived a mostly non-eventful life rearing a large family on their Shellharbour property, with Edward buying land and by the 1860s becoming a successful businessman. He was involved in various projects, including the Shellharbour Steam Navigation Company; was a partner in a company to extract gold from the beach on his property (today’s’ Killalea State Park); and his election to Shellharbour Municipal Council.

All this came to a crashing end in 1872. Maria decided to leave the respected alderman and his seven sons and six daughters aged between one and 25.
Killalea’s intended brief stopover at Wollongong’s Commercial Hotel would go down in history as one of the pub’s more notable visits.

Eliza Osborne had been host of the Commercial since the early 1860s and had experienced just about everything imaginable as a publican in a frontier settlement. Her single storey weatherboard pub, however, was about to double as a mortuary in 1872 when her nephew and assistant, George Cochrane found Killalea dead in the pub’s parlour. The Shellharbour identity stabled his horse on Friday night before having a meal, a “session” at the bar and retiring to his room.

Crown Street, Wollongong in the 1870s. Inset: Publican, George Cochrane and Edward Killalea’s estranged wife, Maria. Pictures: Wollongong City Libraries.

Sinking a few “hot nobblers” he told host Osborne that he had been on a heavy drinking binge since his wife left him five months previous. Cochrane greeted him the following morning and began preparing his breakfast before he saddled his horse to leave for Shellharbour. His trusted pony was not to carry his master home that day – or ever.

As midday approached, Killalea was still hanging about the Commercial saying he felt ill and decided to have a lie down. Cochrane found the ailing traveller resting at the pub later that evening and prepared him a hearty dinner. By this time Killalea was complaining of severe sickness and had taken several fits.

Cochrane became worried and called for an emetic of mustard and luke-warm water. Sergeant Sheridan was soon on the scene after the deteriorating guest attracted the attention of bar patrons with his cries of pain from the nearby parlour. Most who had gathered around the dying guest thought he was suffering the effects of a savage drinking session, but it was soon realised that it was much more serious. Despite the arrival of Doctor Lyons he died on the sofa in the parlour.

Searching his body, Sergeant Sheridan found a small bottle marked “poison” that contained enough strychnine to kill the entire population of Wollongong. An autopsy was conducted on his body in the hotel with his stomach, kidneys and bladder removed and placed in jars for examination. The coroner came to the decision that Killalea “came to his death by strychnine, taken by him whilst labouring under the effects of excessive drinking.” He was 56.

 © Copyright 2023 Mick Roberts

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1 reply

  1. Love the idea of a few ‘nobblers’!

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