The Tragic Life of Abraham Colles

In the pages of local history of the Athboy area the name of Abraham Colles of Ballyfallon will have been unheard of by most people and long forgotten about by others. However, having been born into a rich and famous family, his life in the Athboy area was marked by great sadness and ultimately a tragic ending.

Born in 1815, Abraham Colles was the son of the world famous Doctor and Anatomist of the same name, Dr. Abraham Colles (1773 – 1843). Colles Sr was born in Kilkenny where his family owned the famous Kilkenny Marble Works. He studied medicine in Edinburgh, was apprenticed in London, and returned to practice medicine in Dublin where he soon made a name for himself. He was elected to the staff of The Meath Hospital and of Dr. Steven’s Hospital where he practised surgery for the next 42 years. He became Master of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1802 at the age of 28. He became most famous for his work in anatomical research and indeed his pioneering work in that field is remembered to this day. “The Colles Fracture” (a fracture of the carpal extremity of the radius bone in the wrist) , the “Colles Ligament” and the “Colles Fascia” bear his name to this day. In spite of his busy academic and research schedule, Dr. Colles never forgot the poor and he regularly held free clinics in Dublin City. When he died in 1843 at his home on St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, his public funeral was one of the biggest ever seen in Dublin and the entire faculty, staff and students of the College of Surgeons filed out of the college in procession to escort the passing funeral cortège to its final resting place in Mount Jerome Cemetery.

The elder Abraham Colles. (Source: Wikipedia)

Dr. Abraham Colles had eleven children, nine of whom survived into adulthood. All his sons attended Trinity College in Dublin including his namesake son, Abraham Colles (b. 1815), who studied law.

Sometime around 1840 young Abraham Colles married Anna Countess Hopkins, daughter of William Hopkins of Mitchelstown House, Athboy. It is unclear just exactly when the Colles family took up residence at Ballyfallon but it is certain that they lived there as early as 1847. In 1856 Colles signed a 21 year lease on the house and lands of Ballyfallon leasing them from William Martley. Griffith’s Valuation records show that he held 630 acres in Ballyfallon and a further 403 acres in Drisoge which he leased from Lord Darnley. Colles was also a Justice of the Peace and regularly presided over the Petty Sessions Court in Athboy. It can be safely assumed therefore that Abraham Colles was a man of wealth and influence and lived a comfortable life in his large country house in Ballyfallon.

However, in 1858 an unbelievably tragic event was to befall the family of Abraham Colles. Between them Abraham and his wife Anna Countess had five children. Within the space of just a few weeks all five of their children were dead. Abraham, aged 8, died on March 20th 1858, Isabella, aged 9, died on March 24th, Anna Countess, aged 4, died on March 25th and Mary, aged 16, died on March 27th.  These four children were all buried in St. James Old Cemetery, Athboy, following a joint funeral.  The Meath People and Cavan and Westmeath Chronicle newspaper of April 3rd 1858 reported on the funerals, giving the cause of death as “scarletina”, and added that a fifth child, along with her mother, was ailing from the disease, but  they were expected to make a recovery.  This was not to be however, because that child, Sophia, aged 11, died on April 7th.  She too was buried along with her siblings in St. James Old Cemetery, Athboy.

The gravestone of Abraham Colles and his family.

Following the deaths of their five children Abraham had one more daughter, Maria Theodora (sometimes recorded as Maria Theresa), born in 1861. Life went on as normal with little of note being recorded for Abraham Colles except for one incident of a large fire at Ballyfallon in October 1864. The Dublin Evening Mail tells the story on 8th October 1864:


Shortly after two o’clock this morning, a fire was discovered issuing from one of the haycocks in the haggard of Abraham Colles, Esq, J.P., at Ballyfallon, near this village. His servant man, Peter Walsh, was fortunately up at that hour for the purpose of driving two men to the Hill of Down Railway Station, en route to the Ballinasloe Fair, to which place Mr. Colles himself had proceeded on the previous evening. The alarm was given, and in a brief period of time all the men and women of the neighbourhood assembled. The Head Constable, with Constables Riordan and O’Connell, were quickly in attendance with their party, and rendered material assistance in saving a large amount of property. The fire in the first instance extended to a large rick of hay before there was sufficient assistance or water. This rick lay quite close to the burning cock, and for some time it was feared that the entire haggard, comprising about 300 tons, would be consumed; but the night was calm and the concerns well sheltered, otherwise it would have been impossible to save any of the property, as water had to be carried a long distance. On the suggestion of Sergeant Riordan, a cock of some 50 tons in extent was removed by the aid of horses and rakes. This sensible step had the effect of separating the burning portion altogether from the remainder of the haggard. There were in all some 60 tons of hay destroyed. The origin of the fire is not as yet satisfactorily accounted for, but the prevailing opinion in the district is that there was no malice connected with it, Mr. Colles being a gentleman who is highly esteemed by all classes and creeds.

Nothing more is recorded about Abraham Colles in the Athboy area until 1877. It will be recalled that in 1856 he signed a 21 year lease on the house and lands at Ballyfallon. When that lease was coming to an end in 1877 it appears that his landlord, James Martley, was unwilling to renew. There was claim and counter-claim and legal argument between both parties and the case came before the Trim Quarter Sessions Court in 1878. The following article appeared in the Freeman’s Journal on Oct 11th 1878:


Yesterday, at the Trim Quarter Sessions, the Chairman, Mr. Neligan, Q.C., gave judgement in the case of Abraham Colles, claimant, and James B. Martley, respondent. It was a claim for compensation under the Land Act for improvements done during the tenancy of the claimant. His Worship, said that the claimant held lands at Ballyfallon, in this county, under a lease dated 1st November 1856. The lease was for a period of 21 years, and terminated in November 1877, and on the expiration of the lease the respondent exercised his undoubted right of taking up possession of the lands, and therefore Mr. Colles filed his claims, under the 4th Section of the Land Act, seeking compensation for various items, and the total claim amounted to the very large sum of £2681, and was disputed in its entirety, and various items were pleaded as a set-off. He would go through those various items as well as he could, and he believed that the conclusion he would come to would not be satisfactory to either of the parties, and they would probably think themselves hardly dealt with..The first claim was for drainage, and the entire sum amounted to £605. A great portion of this drainage had been effected a considerable time ago, and it was quite clear, having regard to the provisions of the act, he must consider the benefits derived from the drainage which was enjoyed by the person who made it.

He had been referred to various authorities upon the subject, and he had no hesitation in saying that it was a general rule which seems to have been adopted that ten years’ enjoyment of the improvements was amply sufficient to pay for the drainage. If a man goes in for fancy drainage there was no benefit for it. However, this land was a fit subject for drainage, and therefore the land, having regard to its character and nature, ought to repay the man who drained it. The drainage, he was of opinion, was extremely well done, but it was done injudiciously. He could not in this case go back to drainage made more than ten years previous to the expiration of the lease, and he had, therefore, to go back for ten years and see how much drainage had been accomplished since 1867. The total amount on expenditure from that year to the termination of the lease was £433. 12s. 3d. That was the sum he had to deal with, and, considering the margin always taken in these valuations, and the drainage made during the first three or four years of the ten years, he could not allow the full amount. The claims made for the last three or four years he would allow in the entirety, and reduce the claim for the first years. His Worship then dealt in detail with the claims under the head of drainage and allowed a sum of £147 s. 10s. 3 d. As to levelling fences there was a claim for £285 odd. In reference to this claim, he believed that the value of the levelling paid for its cost every year. Such a state of things must arise, as admitted by several of the witnesses, and it was also admitted that seven years’ enjoyment ought to pay the tenant who levelled the fences. Therefore he would make seven years enjoyment amply paying for the erection of these fences. As to unexhausted manure, he would disallow the claim. His Worship referred to the different items in the claims, and then, alluding to the set-off made by the respondent against the claimant for alterations to the house and out offices, in regard to which respondent claims £103, he said all he could do was to allow the sum to be divided between the parties – that was a sum of £51. 10s each. In reference to the item of set-off for deterioration of the land, that was a matter he could not allow to pass unnoticed. They constantly found that in cases where ignorant and uneducated men found their leases were running out they would, for the last two or three years of their term – when the strict hand of the law did not restrain them – seek to run as much as they could out of the land by a ruinous and wasteful system of husbandry. They then cared little how they gave up the land, and totally disregarded the covenants that might be in their leases. When such cases came before them (the Chairmen) it was their duty to call attention to it and to pass upon those who had adopted such conduct severe remarks. It was greatly to be regretted that in a case like this, between such gentlemen, such a course was adopted. The house at Ballyfallon was a gentleman’s residence, in the country, with land about it. Mr. Martley, who was the landlord, might fairly say, when the lease expired, that he wished the place for himself, and the moment that wish passed Mr. Martley’s lips, by every legal obligation – every obligation which he considered higher than legal – Mr. Colles was bound to have considered the interest of the gentleman from whom he held the property for the last 21 years; and he certainly was not at liberty to injure the property. It was also to be regretted that when Mr. Colles found that the lease was not to be renewed that he should have permitted such a state of things to occur as had been proved. His steward or head gardener, he did not know which, but who was a confidential employee, commences to draw away the soil, and for a whole week he had carts working on it. Shrubs, tree and everything that could be removed was removed. Some of the best of the land was broken up, and oats sown on it. There was a strict covenant against the letting of the land as conacre, but what had been done? The moment the oats sprung up – perhaps the strict legal effect of the covenant was evaded, but certainly the spirit was not as regarded conacreage – they were sold on the foot. A second wasting crop was taken in the following year, the next year the land was meadowed, and the meadowing was cut and taken away. Coupling that with the wilful carrying away of the soil of the garden, he could not come to the conclusion that there was anything unreasonable in Mr. Martley asking him to mark his sense of such conduct, and to ask something for the deterioration of his land caused by this conduct. He would deal with it according to the strict rights between parties. It would be hard, perhaps, to arrive at the distinct money worth for deterioration. In that respect he had heard evidence as to the amount of money expended , and as to what it would be required to expend to bring it back to heart. He had a great deal of difficulty in coming to a conclusion in this matter, and he would not give Mr. Martley all his witnesses proved, but still he did not that think the sum which he was about to award too much, considering the evidence. He thought he would mark his sense of the conduct that had been adopted if he allowed Mr. Martley under this head the sum of £100. The final result of his decision was that the amounts payable under claim and set off having been respectively ascertained, the latter much exceeded the former. He therefore applied so much of the set-off as was necessary against the claim and dismissed the claim with costs.

Mr. Thomas K. Lynch, solicitor, appeared for the respondent, and Mr. Hinds appeared for the claimant

Following the termination of his lease on the house and lands at Ballyfallon, Abraham Colles moved with his wife and only daughter to live at Corballis, Laytown, Co Meath. It is quite clear to the reader of the previous paragraph concerning the legal proceeding between Abraham Colles and J.P. Martley, that Colles was a man labouring under severe pressure. However worse was to come. Within less than one year Abraham Colles would be dead. The Freeman’s Journal of July 23rd, 1879 tells the story.


(From our Correspondent, Drogheda, Tuesday Evening)

This evening a very sudden death occurred in the coffee-room of Keappock’s White House Hotel. Mr. Abraham Colles, J.P., of Corballis, Laytown, County Meath, brother to Mr. Colles, of the eminent firm of Meade and Colles, Solicitors, Dublin, went into the coffee-room of the hotel, after arriving from Liverpool per the Drogheda steamer. He was sitting there after partaking of some refreshments when he took a fit and died in a short time. At seven o’clock p.m. the borough coroner, John Costello, Esq., held an inquest on the body. The jury, 10 in number, of which Mr. Hugh Harbenson was foreman, having been empanelled, viewed the body. Mr. John Tiernan, Solicitor, stated that he appeared on behalf of the next of kin. The coroner informed the jury that the Police had made a search and found in the travelling bag of the deceased a bottle and a package labelled “strychnine”. It might be necessary to have a post mortem examination made. Dr. Kelly remarked that he had known the deceased for the past 18 months, and he had been labouring under delusions. The Hon. Hugh McDonnell, Callan, was examined, and stated that he saw deceased in the coffee-room and spoke to him, but deceased made no reply. Witness went out, and in 15 minutes afterwards heard he took a fit. Robert Brattan, of Callan, deposed that while taking his dinner in the coffee-room his attention was attracted by the deceased, who was spitting out on the carpet. He saw the deceased, who sat in a corner of the room, suddenly stretch out and his arms and legs fell backward from the chair on which he was sitting. His face was twitching convulsively. Thomas Harris, waiter in the hotel, deposed that deceased called for, and was supplied by him with a glass of whiskey and some biscuits, which witness left on the table. He returned in ten minutes and found the glass empty and took it away. Constable Allen produced a small empty bottle, labelled “poison – strychnine”, and a small packet labelled “poison”, which he found in the deceased’s travelling bag. The bottle bore the label of Anderson and Adams, Grafton Street, Dublin. Ten pounds and a gold watch and chain were also found. Doctors Adrian and Delahoyde were examined. The former stated his belief that the deceased died from congestion of the brain, caused by convulsions. The jury resolved to have a post mortem examination made and the contents of the stomach analysed before coming to a verdict. The inquest was accordingly adjourned.

The inquest was resumed about 2 weeks later. The Freeman’s Journal of 8th August 1879 completes the story.


(From our Correspondent, Drogheda, Wednesday)

Today the borough coroner of Drogheda, John Costello, Esq., resumed the adjourned inquest, in Keappock’s Hotel, regarding the late mysterious death of Abraham Colles, Esq., J.P., in the coffee room of the above hotel, report of which has already appeared in the “Freeman”. Mr. John Tiernan, solicitor, appeared on behalf of the next of kin of the deceased. Medical evidence was given. Sub Constable Dawson proved to have gone to the establishment of Messrs. Anderson and Adams, Apothecaries and Chemists, Grafton Street, Dublin, with the empty strychnine bottle found in the hand bag of the deceased. The manager of the establishment, on referring to his book, found that Mr. Colles, the deceased, purchased the bottle full of strychnine on 3rd of July. The manager also stated that Mr. Colles was in the habit of buying poison for rats. A certificate was read from Professor Cameron, of Dublin, in which he said, having analysed the viscera of the deceased, he found therein strychnine in considerable quantities, sufficient to account for his death. The jury, having consulted, returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased died from the effects of a dose of strychnine, taken by himself while labouring under temporary insanity. The deceased’s life was insured for £2000.

Following his suicide in Drogheda, Abraham Colles was buried in Athboy in the same plot as his five young children. His wife, Anna Countess, lived on in Laytown until her death in 1895. She too was brought back to be buried in Athboy alongside her husband and children. Their only surviving daughter, Maria Theodora (or Theresa), never married. In 1901 the census records show her as living in Waterloo Road, Dublin, with her cousin. In 1911 she lived in Wellington Place, Pembroke, Dublin and described her occupation as “dividends”. Some time after this Maria moved to London where she died in the Kensington area of the city in 1940.

The Colles family are buried in the cemetary of  St. James Church of Ireland Church. Their family plot is visible just to the right of the church tower. (Source: David Gilroy)

The Colles Family grave in Saint James Old Cemetery in Athboy still stands to this day. It consists of a large tall headstone with marble inserts on three sides. One side reads :


The marble insert on the west side reads:


The marble insert on the north side reads:


This large headstone was once enclosed by a very fine high railing which has now rusted away. The whole structure, once an impressive sight, is now a crumbling monument to a melancholy life.

16 Replies to “The Tragic Life of Abraham Colles”

    1. Peter
      Thanks for the comments. Yes a very interesting character indeed. There is no record that I could find to say what was the cause of death of all the children in such a short time. It had to be one of the incurable infectious diseases of the day I suppose. Maybe rubella or meningitis….who knows. Probably not one of the “poor man” diseases like Cholera but again who knows. There is a lot of info in the archive of the College of Surgeons about Dr Colles (senior) and other members of the Colles family but no mention of this unfortunate tragedy. Maybe someone reading this story will have an answer!!!!
      Again thanks
      Bernard Walsh


      1. Hi Bernard,

        Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I guess one could look at the timeframes and spreads of the deaths and rule out certain illnesses, based on incubation periods, latency periods, etc. I wonder if we have a medical historian reading that might be able to comment?

        Looking forward to reading any other articles you write here.



  1. Bernard, I was looking up Tithe allotment books and discovered Abraham Colles was the Landlord in my both my parents farmhouses and lands in 1860’s and in 1879 his name is crossed out and replaced by another. When I googled his name I couldnt believe so much came up about him and his father. Sad in the end though. Also I am from Laois and now live in Drogheda so know the territory. Thanks for an excellent account. A Ryan


  2. Thanks for your reply Annette. Yes, Abraham was indeed a very interesting and complicated character. I wonder where your ancestors were from though. I know that Abraham had land interests in Kilkenny (his father’s ancestral home) as well as here in Meath.


    1. Sorry Bernard, I just found your reply 7 months later. The land was near Kilkenny, just over the Laois border about 20 miles from Kilkenny city.


  3. My name is Jacqueline Colles ancestor of Abraham Colles. I live in Zimbabwe in Africa and would very much like to make contact with any Colles family in Ireland.


    1. The home place was about 3 miles from Kilkenny city. They lived in mill mount a beautiful house overlooking the river more. The house has been kept in excellent repair and still lived in today.
      The marble works runs along by the river and you will still find pieces of the marble in the area.
      Don’t hesitate to contact me if I can give you further information. I live near Millmount.


      1. Thanks Teresa for the info. All traces of the Colles family have long disappeared from Athboy.


      2. I wonder if you know that the term “Colles Fracture” it was a Named named after a dr. Colles in Dublin.
        It is a wrist fracture and to this day is referred to as a Colles fracture in medical terms.
        If you make contact with Patrick Nolan archeological society Kilkenny, college road Kilkenny I am sure he can point you in the direction of written material regarding the Colles FAmily.
        Come back to me if you don’t have replies, I will try to research some material for you.
        My late father often spoke about the Colles family.
        Unfortunately most of the generation who would remember the family are now departed.
        Regards Teresa Nolan


    2. Hello Jacqueline and Teresa. My name is Michael Colles and I am a great great grandson of the surgeon Abraham Colles b.1773 d.1843, My great grandfather was Henry J C Colles, my grandfather John Mayne Colles, died 1922 and my father Ronald Mayne Colles.
      As far as I know there are no Colles families left in Ireland, as my father came to live in Kew, England with his father and mother, brother Charles and sister Ruth during the troubles in Dublin. (I am not sure if his father came to England as he died around that time)
      I have two brothers John (who has visited Millmount and the marble quarry) and Christopher.


      1. Michael
        It may be of interest to you to know that the archives of The Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin have a file on Abraham Colles (the Surgeon) with some other letters and papers from other Colles family.(nothing unfortunately about Abraham, the son, in whom I was interested) There are also some interesting “medical instruments” from his era. If you find yourself in Dublin at any time it might be worth a visit. You will need to make an appointment in advance. Contact details are on the RCSI website.
        Bernard Walsh


  4. Bernard,
    I was just Googling to check some dates of Abraham Colles (the surgeon) when I spotted your article on his son Abraham. Our family tree only shows him, his wife Anna and daughter Maria Theresa, so I was fascinated to learn that they had had five other children, who had all succumbed to scarlet fever and to read about the fire and Abraham’s loss of his lease and his suicide. Non of this was known to me or my two brothers who I have shared it with.

    In 2002, we were invited by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, to attend their dinner celebrating the 200th anniversary of Abraham Colles’s appointment as President of the College in 1802. So we have seen the Colles Room and the display.
    I think all the information that the RCSI holds, has been thoroughly researched by Martin Fallon for his book on Abraham Colles, published in 1972.

    Thank you so much for all your research and detailed information on Abraham. It gives a good idea of life back then, and so interesting to learn about him and his family. His 5 children have now been added to our family tree.
    Michael Colles – (Birmingham, England)


    1. So sad to learn about the tragic end to the family. They were very well regarded in the area where they had the marble works. They employed many people and supplied housing and lots of perks to their employees.
      The remains of the houses are probable still in the area,, as I remember them well.
      The son of one of their workers still lives in the area. He is a stone cutter following his fathers trade.
      I trust your family tree is now complete. Kind regards Teresa Nolan


    2. Michael
      Great to hear from you and I am glad that the story of Abraham (Jnr) means something to you and your family. I was fascinated by him from a local history perspective. Unfortunately, the monument on that grave is now falling apart through the ravages of time and the laws of Isaac Newton!!!!!



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