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Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

R v Connolly and Fairless [1826] NSWSupC 41

capital punishment, woman - capital punishment, public - highway robbery - Crown mercy

Execution, 10 July 1826

Source: Australian, 12 July 1826



A more than usual concourse of people was attracted towards the gaol and places in its vicinity, in the forenoon of Monday last.[1 ]  An unfortunate female, with a man who had been her accomplice, were destined on that morning to fulfil the dread sentence of the law; both of them having been convicted of robbing a man on the highway.  At half past 9 the unfortunate people left the condemned cell, in which, with the rev. clergyman, Mr. Therry, they had been for some time previously preparing their minds by religious exercises, for the awful and final scene which awaited them.  The man, named James Connolly, accompanied by the rev. clergyman, under sheriff and attendants, walked first, and was followed by his ill-fated female companion, Bridget Fairless.  They took a direction along the terrace in front of the gaol, through the central passage which opens into the yard containing the fatal pile of scaffoldings, passed along under the drop, and between two rudely constructed coffins, the vehicles which were shortly to convey their inanimate remains to the grave, and stopped at a few paces distance from the drop.  The unfortunate people listened with a degree of composure to the sub-sheriff whilst he read the fatal warrant, which again informed them that being found guilty of having knowingly violated the laws of their country, those laws condemned them to suffer death.  Mr. James and the rev. clergyman then represented the futility of their indulging hopes of earthly mercy any longer, and conjured them to declare at once the part which each had taken in the offence of which both had been convicted.  The man, in a firm and composed tone, confessed his having been partly concerned in the act of robbery.  It appeared from Connolly's confession that Bridget Fairless, their prosecutor, and himself, had left Sydney, some weeks since, for Parramatta, they stopped at the Cheshire Cheese, a public-house on the road, and there the unfortunate woman joined in the drinking and merriment which was going forward for some time.  She left the house with her two companions, and proceeded some distance on the road, when another individual came up and demanded his money of the carter.  Connolly declared that upon his desiring the female to go away, just at that moment she complied, that he followed her, and that both of them returned the next morning to the place where the cart had been stopped, and on the road picked up the money which was subsequently found by the police in his possession, and for which he was about to pay the forfeit of his life.  The woman said nothing, but continued to gaze on a crucifix, with an appearance of resignation and firmness.  She seemed about 34 years of age, and was decently and modestly attired.  A deep silence, now and then broken by the lamentations of some females who stood on a hill overlooking the place of excecution [sic], who were perhaps acquaintances or relatives to the criminals, prevailed whilst the latter kash [sic], and with the assiduous clergyman put up their fervent petitions for the Almighty's saving mercy.  Both rose, after passing more than a quarter of an hour in prayer, firmly and collected.  Conolly appeared eager to ascend the fatal ladder.  His arms were pinioned, and those of the unfortunate female.  She did not evince any unusual trepidation on again passing the rough coffin designed to shroud her lifeless body, nor in following her companion in their ascent to the fatal scaffold, which she did with a slow but firm step.  The apparatus of death was not long adjusting; the drop fell, and after a few moments struggling, the unfortunate criminals were no longer conscious of what passed around them.  Death was not long in seizing on his victims.  During the time prescribed by law the bodies continued suspended at the sport of the winds.  They were afterwards coffined, and resigned to their friends.  Several women were in waiting outside the gaol to receive the remains of the unfortunate woman Fairless, intending to hold a wake over them.



[1 ] 10 July 1826.  Fairless (called Bridget Fairley in the Australian of 21 June 1826, and Fearly in the Sydney Gazette of 21June 1826, but Fairless in the Gazette of 12 July 1826) was sentenced to death on 19 June 1826: Australian, 21 June 1826; Monitor 23 June 1826; Sydney Gazette, 21 June 1826.   Adding to the confusion, Connolly was called John Collins in the Sydney Gazette of 21 June and 12 July 1826, and in the Monitor of 23 June and 14 July 1826.  The latter report said that Fairless "appeared to be about 36 years of age."  It went on to say that a "strong feeling of disgust was excited in the minds of the multitude assembled to witness the awful spectacle; by the indecent conduct of a number of persons of both sexes, whose boisterous and unseasonable mirth, blasphemous language, and turbulent disposition, was in the highest degree scandalous and disgraceful.  For the sake of public decency, we hope Mr. Rossi will scatter a few of his corps delite among the mob on such occasions in future, to preserve order."  Rossi was Principal Superintendent of Police.

There was certainly scope for Crown mercy in cases of highway robbery. In the 1825 cases of two highway robbers (Watson and Golding), for example, Forbes C.J. hinted that execution might be appropriate, since it had been so frequent lately.  Governor Brisbane replied, however, "that I am induced to shew Mercy to both in Pursuance of the principle which had hitherto guided me in the Extension of Mercy in such Cases, as it does not appear by your Letter, or from your notes, that either of the Prisoners actual committed violence with the Act of Robbery; and under the Impression that the sending of these Prisoners to Norfolk Island, will as effectively prevent their future Crimes or Injury to Society, as their actual Removal from the World. This Conviction combined with the opinion that Executions do not deter the Commission of Crimes have weighed with me in extending Clemency towards these two Individuals."  (Source: Chief Justice's Letter Book , Archives Office of New South Wales, 4/6651, pp 37-38.)



Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University