Spotlight: Portrait of James Nesbitt

James Nesbitt, Bushranger (Picture Credit: National Portrait Gallery)

Carlton boy, James Nesbitt, was not a master criminal by any far stretch of the imagination. Spending time in prison for taking part in a mugging, his behaviour seems to have been driven by a generally poor capacity for judgement rather than maliciousness and largely informed by a rough childhood thanks to his mentally unstable and extremely abusive father. Likely, this tendency to follow and to seek paternalistic figures was what drew him to befriend Andrew George Scott in Pentridge Prison (at one point landing him in trouble for giving Scott tea as a gift). Nevertheless, once both men were at liberty they met up and stayed together until Nesbitt’s death separated them in 1879.

While Scott toured Victoria lecturing on prison reform, Nesbitt was his constant companion, the pair even living together for a time in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. When Scott suggested that the newly formed gang comprised of himself, Nesbitt and tearaways Gus Wernicke, Tom Rogan, Graham Bennett and Thomas Williams, head North for Sydney to find work, Nesbitt was all for it. It soon eventuated that the gang became desperate for supplies and turned to bushranging, Nesbitt acting as an important element in maintaining morale.

When the gang stuck up McGlede’s Station and were besieged by police, Nesbitt fought valiantly to defend his comrades and made the poor decision to attempt to create a diversion and enable Scott and the boys to escape. Firing like mad and running away from the homestead he caught the attention of the attacking police and was promptly shot dead. When Scott saw Nesbitt’s body after the gang were captured he broke down, weeping uncontrollably and kissing Nesbitt. While awaiting execution, Scott wrote a series of letters to Nesbitt’s mother and wore a ring woven from a lock of Nesbitt’s hair. The letters were never delivered.

Nesbitt was buried in Gundagai cemetery with Gus Wernicke and in 1995 Andrew Scott’s remains were removed from Rookwood cemetery and re-interred in Gundagai so that his final wish to share a grave with Nesbitt could be granted.

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