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Joseph Dempsey (1851–1939)

A pioneer of the Neweastle district, Mr. Joseph Dempsey, of Haveloek-street, Mayfield, died on August 25. He was 88. Mr. Dempsey knew Newcastle and the Hunter River long before the great steel works came into being. He knew it when water fowl swarmed into the swamps at Carrington and when bush animals might have been hunted about the hills of Mayfield.

A well-known figure in the district, Mr Dempsey was the father of 14 children. Three of the boys served with the A.I.F.. and two were killed in action.

In his younger days Mr. Dempsey went to the Mudgee district where he was engaged for some time in a carrying business. Always with him was his violin. After a hard day on the road, the young man consoled himself by drawing music from the instrument; and even when his family had grown about him in the Newcastle district he spent his leisure time with his violin. His love of music was in the blood. It is appearing in his family to-day;  two of his daughters Misses Dorothy and Katie, are well known in the musical world of Sydney and Newcastle.

Out beyond the Liverpool Ranges on one occasion he met the famous bush ranger, Thunderbolt. The outlaw did not harm the young man but conversed with him for some time. Other notorious bushrangers had been met by Mr. Dempsey in his travels, but none attempted to molest him.

At one time Mr. Dempsey had a dairy form at Mescheto Island. They were hard days then. The only means of communication with the island was by rowing boat, The small craft was used to carry the milk down to the smelting works wharf (now the Steel Works wharf). It was used to carry the family to school at Carrington; and to tow loads of fodder from the city to the farm when the dry season set in. There were no guiding lights in the harbour in those days. The dairyman and one of his growing sons had to depend on their sense of direction to find them the landing place on foggy mornings.

Rising at 3 a.m. Mr. Dempsey and these of the family who were old enough to assist milked the cows and then set out with the milk for the mainland. It was usually about 4 a.m. when the small vessel pushed off. If it were choppy the task of man-handling the boat down stream was a real job. When the river was wrapped in fog in winter the task was almost impossible. Frequently the rowers were lost in the fog; and on one occasion were upset by a strong current. Fortunately, the milk had been delivered and they were returning with the empty cans when the accident happened. The cans floated, and were subsequently picked up.

Dempsey's horse, Tony, was almost as well-known on the mainland as its master. It was a spanking, well-groomed trotter and went swiftly on the rounds. The horse was stabled on the mainland about where the Steel Works stands. There the milk was placed on a cart and sent to its destination. Mr. Dempsey was a splendid rider, and the fences on Moscheto Island were no obstacle when he was in the saddle. He seldom waited to open a gate, but he and a companion when out for a ride took the fence in their stride. He was an ardent supporter of aquatic sports, which in those days were frequently held on th Hunter River. He was interested in the rowing ability of the late Mr. Tom Croese, who had often pitted his skill in handicaps against George Towns. Towns afterwords became world champion.

There were 14 children in the family - 10 sons and four daughters. There ore now 21 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Three of his sons fought with the A.I.F. Roy enlisted with the 7th Light Horse when he was 18. He was afterwards transferred to the artillery and was killed in France. Donald (35th Battalion) was also killed; the third son, Harry (34th battalion) returned home, he was w0unded in a foot.

During his younger days at Moscheto Island Mr. Dempsey was brought into close contact with some of the earlier wrecks on the Newcastle coast. When the Cawarra went to her doom on July 12, 1866, barrels of flour and sugar floated upstream and went ashore on the island. A stray cask of rum also washed ashore.

Mr Dempsey's love of the violin and his kindly feeling towards his fellow man were in evidence on several occasions when he visited the city. Finding a street violinist endeavouring to scratch a tune, Dempsey was wont to borrow the violin and play the tune as it should be played. Every time he did it he attracted a crowd and people showered coins into a hat. In his house in Mayfield to-day the old violin is a silent reminder of the "old master". It is a treasured possession of the family.

Original publication

Citation details

'Dempsey, Joseph (1851–1939)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Joseph Dempsey, n.d., photographer unknown

Joseph Dempsey, n.d., photographer unknown

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate, 2 September 1939, p 16

Life Summary [details]


15 August, 1851
Maitland, New South Wales, Australia


25 August, 1939 (aged 88)
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.