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Here is his story :

Born 6 March 1820 at St.Marys, Limerick, Ireland to parents James Speerin and Margaret Taylor.

Nothing is really known about his first 36 years of life.

His Australian story begins with a marriage in Geelong, Victoria, Australia to Mary Ann Buckley in Jan 1856. Mary was 22 years old and a single Irish female from Co. Clare who arrived in Geelong, Victoria in Feb 1854 on the Marchioness of Salisbury. She arrived with 100 other single Irish females who were sponsored to Australia to work.

John was 10 years older than Mary Ann and in Oct 1856 , the couple sailed to Sydney, NSW on the Cheetah. Mary was pregnant with their first son James Edward Speerin.

Here is a picture of what Sydney Cove looked like in 1856.

When the couple disembarked in Sydney, they lived and worked in the buildings that can be seen in the background. Today, this part of the city is called The Rocks, and is heritage listed.

What kind of work did John engage in?

As far as I can determine, there already was another John Speerin (pawnbroker) in Sydney. He came to Sydney in Feb 1850 with his mother Ellen ODea from Limerick. Clearly these 2 men knew each other as both names appear on an application for a liquor license which John needed to hold the position of publican at one of the local taverns called The Observer Hotel. From my calculations, John worked in the hotel from 1856 to around 1867.

There are many newspaper reports from this period about many violent episodes that occurred including a report of an attempted stabbing of John , malicious damage to the Observer Hotel premises, illegal activity on these premises such as gambling and selling liquor out of hours and reports of John accepting clothing and goods in lieu of payment for alcohol.

Here is a photo of the Observer Hotel around 1856

The Observer Hotel as it appears in June 2011.

This environment clearly took its toll on Johns personal life as well for there are newspaper reports about his wife Mary Ann Speerin. During this time, Mary Ann gave birth to 5 children, but sadly only the 2 eldest survived infancy. They were James Edward Speerin and Thomas Speerin. Mary clearly had a drinking problem and sadly she died at age 33 years in 1864 leaving John with 2 small sons.

Here is the autopsy report on her death.

Sydney Morning Herald 15 June 1863 ( page 3)

Mary Ann Speerin, of the Observer Hotel, George Street, was charged with using threatening language towards her husband, John Speerin.

The plaintiff stated that, on two occasions, she had threatened to cut his throat and had also threatened to take her own life.

Some time ago, she attempted to drown herself.

He was also afraid that she would do her children some bodily harm.

Mary was ordered to find sureties to keep the peace for 12 months. In default: to be imprisoned for 14 days.


EMPIRE newspaper Sydney 29 Jan 1864

DEATH FROM DRUNKENNESS.-The adjourned inquest

on the body of the woman, Mary Ann Speerin, aged

thirty three years, was concluded yesterday afternoon, before the City Coroner, at Moores, Observer Tavern, George-street North. The husband of the deceased,

John Speerin, is landlord of The Observer Tavern, close to the house at which the Inquest was held.

She was a great drunkard, and for some time before her death, which occurred about eight oclock on the morning of Monday last that she was ailing, the effect of her intemperance.

A post mortem ex-ruination of her body made by Drs. Shaw and Eichler, and in the presence of Dr. Hamilton, showed that death was caused by a complication of diseases, the result of Intemperance.

Death was hastened by the want of timely medical advice, and proper food of a nourishing character.

VERDICT: Death by intemperance.

The jury held the husband highly censurable for not supplying the deceased with such necessary requirements.


I can only speculate on what John did following the death of Mary as he did not have any brothers or sisters or parents here in Sydney to help look after his children.

John remarried in 1867 to Elizabeth Jane Summers, a young single woman who was 20 years his junior. Elizabeth was born in Sydney to convict parents, Francis Summers and Rebecca Laws, from Norfolk, England. She had 8 brothers who all seemed to prosper in their chosen business endeavours. Following the marriage, it seems John and Elizabeth moved from The Rocks area and both of them opened a new business in Surry Hills, Sydney. Their new venture was a wood and coal business which John and Elizabeth operated till his death in 1882 and her death in 1884.

John and Elizabeth raised the 2 children from the marriage to Mary as well as having a further 9 children , 4 males and 5 females. The youngest child, George Speerin, was only 1 year old when his father died.

Sydney Morning Herald 25 Nov 1882

SPEERIN  November 17, 1882, at his residence, 63 Arthur Street, Surry Hills, after a short and painful illness, John Speerin, aged 59 years. 
Sydney Morning Herald 18 Nov 1882 Funerals.
The friends of the deceased Mr John Speerin, are respectfully invited to attend his funeral to move from his late residence, No 63 Arthur Street, Surry Hills Tomorrow (Sunday) Afternoon at 1 oclock to the Necropolis. W. Stewart 
The friends of Messrs James, Thomas and Ernest Speerin are invited to attend the funeral of their late beloved father, John Speerin to move from his late residence, No 63 Arthur Street, Surry Hills Tomorrow (Sunday) Afternoon at 1 oclock to the Necropolis. 
Notice also for friends of Messrs William, Francis, George, Thomas, Henry and James Summers to attend the funeral of their late deceased brother-in-law.

Here is the headstone at the grave of Francis ( his son) and John Speerin

Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney, NSW, Australia. June 2011.

So, how would you summarise the life and times of John ?

I believe John had a life well before his Australian story began. Maybe one day we will have access to further records which will clarify this part, but suffice to say he survived a long voyage to Australia in the 1850s , and after a somewhat difficult and sad first marriage to Mary, he managed to find a happy heart with his marriage to Elizabeth.

As the words say,

When Irish hearts are happy

All the world seems bright and gay.


John, it seems to me, was a very hard worker who chose to work initially in a harsh and dangerous environment as a publican. It is not clear if he had any formal education, but I dont doubt his business skills .

Was he happy he came to Australia ?

I choose to think that he was. He never returned to his home country of Ireland or saw his parents and siblings again, but loving thoughts of those he left behind were probably not far away in his mind.

When he died in 1882, John Speerin was survived by his wife Elizabeth Jane Speerin, 10 children and 2 grandchildren, Thomas Edward Speerin and Ethel Victoria Speerin.

Pamela Hector

June 2011

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Last update: June 2011

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