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Donnelly History


Photograph of William Donnelly wearing his Pocket Watch and Fob. Date unknown.

Cameron Collection


William Donnelly's Pocket Watch and Rob. Engraved Mother on the inside cover.

Cameron Collection

James Donnelly was a coach driver when he first met Johanna McGee. Her father did not agree to this match and was extremely angry when the 2 eloped. James left for Canada on his own in 1842 and in 1844 Johanna, with their first born son, James Jr. joined him. Around 1845 the family moved to the Roman Line (Con. 56, Lot 18) in Biddulph Township. They made an arrangement with absentee landlord, John Grace to clear and work the land. Over the next 10 years the family grew into 7 sons and 1 daughter: James Donnelly Jr. (1841-1877), William Donnelly (1845-1897), John Donnelly (1847-1880), Patrick Donnelly (1849-1914), Michael Donnelly (1851-1879), Robert Donnelly (1853-1911), Thomas Donnelly (1854-1880), Jane [Jenny] Donnelly (1857-1916).


A lot of the hostility towards the Donnelly began when James Sr. Donnelly killed Patrick Farrell over a land dispute in 1857. John Grace, having never living on the land himself, decided to sell.  James Donnelly refused to leave. He had worked the land and it was his. After much dispute, the Farrell and Donnelly families went to court and it was decided that it would be equally divided 50 acres going to Farrell and 50 to the Donnelly's. Later, at a community logging bee a fight broke out between Farrell and James Sr. Donnelly. The result was bloody. Patrick Farrell was killed and James Sr. was accused of murder. James Sr. went into hiding for a year; sometimes he disguised himself in Johanna’s clothes in order to work in the fields. He often hid in the homes or barns of friends, but as the winter came he finally turned himself in. The courts sentenced him to hang.  In response, Johanna circulated a petition for clemency. After receiving many signatures, Johanna walked to Goderich to present the petition at the Huron County Courthouse. The sentence was shortened to 7 years imprisonment in Kingston Penitentiary.  Then Attorney General John A. MacDonald recommended clemency.


During this time the Donnelly family had little source of income, with James Sr. away in Kingston Penitentiary. In 1861, Johanna donated land to build a school. This is where the Donnelly boys went to school, and it allowed them to be well educated. Johanna had a contract to clean the school, cater to events at the school, which earned extra money for the family during this difficult time. While James Sr. was held at Kingston, the 7 Donnelly boys were growing up into hardworking, hard drinking young men.


In 1873, William along with three of his brothers: Michael, John and Tom, decided to start a stagecoach business that ran from Exeter to London. Soon other stagecoach companies started up, including the Flanagan’s company, which would become the Donnelly's main rivals. This created a rivalry that was not only destructive to the business, but also to the civilians of the town. With construction of the Grand truck railway to Sarnia, the stagecoach businesses went downhill. By spring of 1877, the rivalries got out of hand. There were a number of fires in Lucan, often of stables containing horses, stagecoaches, harness and feed belonging to the stage business owners including the Donnelly's. After this destruction, the Donnelly brothers gave up the stagecoach business. In 1878, Bridget Donnelly came from Ireland to live with her aunt and uncle. 


In Jan. 1879, Father John Connolly arrived in Biddulph as the newly appointed priest of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church. He believed that with his help, the wild Biddulph days would end and was instrumental in forming the Biddulph Peace Society. By fall, this group was severely divided and the more radical members formed the Vigilance Committee. They met at the Cedar Swamp Schoolhouse. The night of the massacre the committee had been drinking. Around midnight they started on a journey to the Donnelly homestead that would only end in death. The Vigilance committee picked up their weapons and walked three miles to the Donnelly homestead on a cold winter’s night. Earlier in the day, James Donnelly Sr. & Tom had gone to Lucan to Armitage Grocery store and also to the post office where James Donnelly Sr. posted the last letter of his life. He was writing to his lawyer in London, Mr. Meridith, telling him to be ready to post bail and take their trial before a judge and asking Mr. Meridith to handle the case on their behalf since there was not the slightest cause for their arrest. On the 15th of January Pat Ryder’s barns were burned.  When Ryder found out that all the Donnelly boys were at a wedding that night, he arrested James Sr. & Johanna. The first trial was in Lucan and then adjourned to Granton on February 4th. While in Lucan they picked up Johnny O’Connor to do farm work and watch the house the next day while the family went to court. 


Just before bed on the night of February 3rd, the Donnelly’s were enjoying apples after a late supper. John Donnelly went to Will’s home in Whalen Corners to pick up the cutter needed to take the family to trial the next day and decided to stay the night. Later in the evening the household began to retire. James Sr. & Johnny in 1 bedroom, Johanna & Bridget in the other bedroom and Tom in his room off the kitchen. Under the cover of darkness, the vigilantes surrounded the house. James Carroll, who was the ringleader, lead the intrusion entering the house alone and handcuffed Tom. This awoke James Sr. Donnelly who asked James Carroll “What have you got against us now?” Eventually everyone in the Donnelly household was awake. Carroll let out some sort of signal, and the house erupted in chaos. Men came violently into the house. Tom, who was handcuffed, tried to run out the front door, but was stabbed with a pitchfork and beaten with a shovel. James and Johanna were beaten and trampled, and Bridget ran upstairs, was followed and killed. The only person left alive was Johnny O’Connor. He saw Bridget run upstairs and tried to follow but she slammed the door in his face in terror. He then ran back into the room where he was sleeping, and hid under the bed behind a clothesbasket.  He could see through a crack between the bed and basket, and witnessed the whole murder on that dreadful night. Through all of this terror Johnny waited for the mob to leave, for fear they would kill him if they saw him - he was a witness. The vigilante committee set the house on fire with oil from the family’s lamps. When he could wait no longer, he got out, having to step over the severely injured Donnelly family members. He ran across the road to Patrick Whelan`s house, woke the family up and told them what he had seen.


Meanwhile the group set out to William Donnelly’s house 3 miles up the road. Once there, they stayed in the bushes outside calling for Will to open the door. However, upon hearing the ruckus John Donnelly, who was staying the night at Will’s, opened the door and was shot as he opened the door. Thinking they had shot Will, the men left believing they had killed the leader of the Donnelly's.


After that horrid night, 6 of the Main ringleaders were put on trial including: Thomas Ryder, James Carroll, John Purtell, Martin McLaughlin, John Kennedy & James Ryder. However, after two years of trials no one was ever convicted for the brutal massacre of five Donnelly family members in the early hours of February 4, 1880. Johnny O’Connor, the only witness, was only 12 years old and because of his age, the court gave no credence to his testimony.


The Murdy Funeral home was in charge of the burial but the wakes were held at the home of Michael O’Connor, Johnny’s father. Bob Donnelly erected a massive tombstone in 1889 to sit on the grave in St. Patrick’s cemetery. The tombstone sat on the site for 75 years when in 1964 the parish priest ordered it removed due to unwanted attention, the tombstone itself had become a tourist attraction. Tourists were chipping pieces off the stone for a souvenir as well as going in the church. The Donnelly descendants did hear that the tombstone had been removed and approached the Catholic Church who denied removal of the tombstone. The descendants were required to seek legal council at which time the Catholic Church did admit to storing the tombstone in a barn by the church. The original tombstone was given to William Donnelly’s grandson, William Lord.  The family erected a new tombstone but without the accusing words “murdered” under the names of the 5 dead. Mr. Lord passed away a few years ago and we did contact his widow about the tombstone and were told that it was buried and it was the wish of the family that it never be returned to Lucan.

Wilberforce Colony

Events in Cincinnati directly led to the formation of the Wilberforce Settlement. The Ohio Black Laws of 1804 and 1807 restricted the movements of free Blacks and required them to pay a $500 bond per individual to guarantee that they would stay out of trouble. Enforcement of these laws increased in 1829 resulting in violence.


As Cincinnati increased enforcement against the Black community, anti-slavery groups were already searching for a way to rehabilitate the blacks to a safer community. Frederick Stove, a member of the Society of Friends or Quakers, purchased 800 acres for the new colony on their behalf at $1.50/acre. Land was purchased in the names of J.C. Brown and Stephen Dutton. The land was spread on both sides of the road (now known as Highway #4).


After the initial purchase of the land, Israel Lewis bargained with the Canada Company for the entire township of land. He agreed to pay the money demanded in a few days. Later, he agreed to buy 4000 acres for $6000. When he was unable to follow through on this deal, the Canada Company was skeptic of their dealings with Lewis and the rest of the community. They were also afraid that land sales would be affected if more Blacks settled. They ceased to do business with the Wilberforce settlers. 


Lewis sold land to fellow residents of the Wilberforce community. Members who purchased land from Lewis could not get the deed or repayment for the improvements they had done to the property and were left without ownership. The Canada Company’s land agents eventually agreed to pay the squatters for improvements if they would leave the property. Payment was never fulfilled. Many left Wilberforce with absolutely nothing to show for the years of work they had invested in clearing the land for farming and building.


Issues of racism began to arise in the township. In the London Times, dated May 4, 1849, a reward was offered by Lord Elgin for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for burning the barns of some of the Wilberforce residents. On October 19, 1848, the barns of William Bell, Ephraim Taylor and Daniel A. Turner were burned. None of the barns belonging to the Irish settlers were targeted that evening.


In Cincinnati, the Black Laws began to relax again as many realized that the cheap labour force had left when they had chased the Black community from the city. Some members of the Wilberforce Settlement returned to the northern states, others moved to urban areas like London and Chatham, and some married settlers of other communities in southern Ontario. 


The Village Voice, August 21, 1995.


The Wilberforce Settlement 1830 Plaque located just outside the Museum's log cabin. 

Founding of Lucan, Ontario


The Founding of Lucan Plaque located just outside the Museum's barn. 

Lucan was founded in anticipation of the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway to Sarnia, projected in 1854 and built 1855-59. The first settlers had been members of the Wilberforce Colony in 1830-35. One of this group, Peter Butler Sr., had by 1855 acquired the western part of the site of Lucan and called it Wilberforce. The eastern part was acquired jointly by the Hon. Donald and John MacDonald, and the first village lots were sold in 1855. A steam grist mill, stores and hotels were built. Lucan Post Office was opened on June 1, 1857, and, with the completion of the railway, the settlement prospered. The Lucan Foundry, a large plant specializing in agricultural machinery, was founded in 1861.


John MacDonald renamed the settlement to Marystown, in honour of his wife. When a duplicate Marystown was found to have already registered with the Post Office the name Lucan was put forth and accepted by the postal authorities. At the suggestion of George Dublin Hodgins, Lucan was named in tribute to Lord Lucan, a prominent landowner in Ireland. A county by-law passed in 1871 provided for the incorporation of Lucan as a village.

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