*** Revised and updated (2021) ***
At the outset of the 19th century, with the British Empire now firmly establishing Australia as an outpost, it became increasingly apparent that the authorities would have their hands full with rebels and rogues as bolting became more prevalent. Van Diemen’s Land, had been established as a colony in 1803, and ten years on the island was about to see an outbreak of bushranging the likes of which had never been seen before in Australia.
Perhaps the most important figure in the formative years of bushranging is Michael Howe, whose story was twisted through two hundred years of retellings until he became known as one of Australia’s most ruthless, bloodthirsty and dangerous outlaws. Howe embodied the new breed of Australian outlaw better than anyone else in the 1810s. The historical Howe was driven by a hatred of the British laws and their enforcers; his crimes were acts of desperation and survival. He avoided bloodshed where possible, and was known to be kind to those who he had no reason to dislike. Yet, despite the historical record backing up the idea of Howe as something of a “gentleman bushranger”, the rinsing and recycling of myths, half-truths and outright lies peddled as fact have had a lasting, damaging impact on our understanding of Howe’s story and the man himself.
Howe was born in 1787 in Pontefract, Yorkshire. Life during this time was rough on lower class families thanks to the Industrial Revolution, and poverty was rampant. For a young man in poverty there were really only two options: join the armed forces to fight for Queen and country; or lead a life of crime. Howe initially chose the former, briefly enlisting in the army before joining the Royal Navy on a man-of-war, then as well as on a merchant navy vessel. Howe absconded from the navy, however, by jumping overboard. Evidently the harsh treatment inflicted upon him as a sailor and soldier had pushed him to the edge and he had decided to pull the plug.
Now looking for a means of supporting himself, while also at risk of punishment if he was caught after absconding, Howe became a highwayman. He found himself convicted at York assizes on 31 July, 1811, for robbing a Miller on the King’s highway, and was transported to Australia for seven years in late 1812. Howe was sent to New South Wales on the Minstrel, where he was transferred to Indefatigable then taken to Van Diemen’s Land. One of Howe’s shipmates was a young man named James Whitehead, who would become an important part of Howe’s life.
As part of his sentence, Howe was assigned to the wealthy merchant and grazier, John Ingle, who had a reputation as a harsh and overbearing boss. Howe seemingly resented indentured servitude, and is believed to have clashed with Ingle before he took to the bush. No doubt the treatment of convicts was a driving factor in Howe’s rebellion.
Howe joined up with a gang of other bolters led by Peter Mills, the former Acting Deputy Surveyor of Lands at Port Dalrymple, and George Williams, former Acting Deputy Commissary of Stores and Provisions. Mills had run up debts and rather than deal with them, he took to the bush. The gang took up raiding farms and camps for supplies, even stealing herds of sheep and cattle for their own purposes, with most of the men being rather quiet and level-headed while others tended to be outspoken and volatile. Lieutenant Governor Macquarie issued a proclamation on May 14, 1814, in which he listed the gang members and gave them until the first of December to return to their assignments. If they returned on or before that date they would receive a pardon on the crimes committed during their absence.
Modern historians would have us believe that the incentive to betray his fellows was too strong, and Howe convinced a few of his mates to join him in turning in the rest with the traitors living it up in Hobart town before Howe again took to the bush. Of course, an examination of historical records makes it clear that this never happened. Howe, in fact, turned up at a spot called ‘The Ovens’ in August – nearly four months later to the day of the proclamation – with other members of the gang, and bailed up a party of soldiers who were escorting prisoners from Port Dalrymple.
Another oft-repeated fallacy is that Howe joined a gang of bushrangers led by a legendary rogue called John Whitehead. These accounts state that Whitehead had one of the largest bushranger gangs ever recorded with a purported member count of at least twenty eight, but it was not the case. Whitehead – real name James Whitehead – was simply one of the many convicts that joined the ever-growing gang. Confirmed members were Richard McGuire, Hugh Burn, Richard Collier, Peter Septon, George “Bumpy” Jones, James Geary, and an Aboriginal woman named Mary Cockerill, nicknamed “Black Mary”.
The gang operated mostly around New Norfolk, raiding farms. They tended to have the bulk of their members remain at camp, while a pair or small group would head out to get to work at the targeted farms. Interestingly, many of the attacks seemed to not simply be targeted at farms that looked likely to yield decent takings. It appeared that the bushrangers would attack based on information supplied to the them by harbourers, in particular a prominent figure named Edward Lord, known at the time to be the richest man in Van Diemen’s Land. It seems the outlaws were being used to cause grief to particular farmers in the region that were in conflict with their harbourers, as part of an ongoing, unofficial land war between wealthy settlers.
One farmer who had repeated run-ins with the bushrangers was Dennis McCarty. On one of these occasions, he had spotted some of the gang on the outskirts of his property making mocassins and opened fire. The gang bolted for cover and a battle ensued, during which one of McCarty’s servants launched into attack against the bushrangers with a cutlass. In the fight, most of McCarty’s men were injured and when Howe saw another member of his gang, James Geary, make a move to shoot one of the men dead he intervened to stop him. McCarty escaped and the bushrangers took all the spoils they could carry before leaving. In direct consequence of this, Charles Carlisle died and the charge of his murder was laid upon James Whitehead, Peter Septon, Michael Howe, Richard Collier, Hugh Burn, James Geary and Mary Cockerill.
Such affrontery was unacceptable and on 25 April, 1815, Lieutenant Governor Davey controversially declared Martial Law in an effort to come down hard on the elusive banditti. It did not produce the desired effect and on 10 May the gang raided the house of Adolarius Humphrey. The Humphreys were not home when the bushrangers arrived, but the outlaws went straight to work plundering the place and mouthing off about what they would do to their opponents if they came upon them. When Howe, Geary and McGuire were ransacking the place they found leg irons in the house — a clear indication Humphrey had been ill-treating his servants. In response to this they went on a rampage and destroyed everything they could in the place.
Feeling emboldened, the gang launched a revenge attack on McCarty on 18 May. Such a move, however, had been anticipated and a party of soldiers from Hobart had been stationed in the homestead while McCarty and his wife were out of the house. While James Whitehead scouted the perimeter of the homestead a soldier fired on him, killing him; a fire fight ensued. During the chaos, Whitehead’s body was decapitated in order to prevent the soldiers from claiming the reward on the head. Most versions of the story state Whitehead ordered Howe to “take his watch” as a code for the decapitation, upon which command Howe cut the head off and brandished it like a trophy at his attackers before escaping. Such a sensational depiction has no relationship to contemporary reports, which indicate that the decapitation was performed by persons unknown and was not observed. At any rate, the headless corpse, dumped on the doorstep, greeted McCarty when he arrived home. The head was later found dumped in the bush and the rest of the remains were gibbetted on Hunter Island in Hobart.
Howe soon stood up into more of a leadership role, his calm and commanding presence keeping the wilder inclinations of his mates under control. Howe took much pride in his position and referred to himself as the “Governor of the Ranges” (as opposed to the “Governor of the Town” who was the official head of government). Under his watch, however, the gang’s numbers began to dwindle. Hugh Burn and Richard McGuire were apprehended in a hut after a shootout with soldiers of the 46th regiment, and subsequently hanged. When the remaining gang undertook a raid of Richard Fry’s farm at Elphin, near Port Dalrymple, in September 1815, it was reported that they now consisted of only a half dozen members.
On 5 July 1816, members of the gang (Howe, Septon, Collier, Geary and George Jones) bailed up Thomas Seals in his hut. They baked damper and shot one of Seals’s cattle, which they butchered and ate, leaving the scraps for the dogs. They stayed for several days. When they left they took Seals with them and committed several robberies. They let Seals go in the evening.
On 8 September, 1816, the gang raided the property of Lieutenant Governor Davey. During this audacious robbery, Howe fixed himself some eggnog, and Peter Septon gave a sick man a drink made from wine and milk (a popular remedy for illness at the time). Before they left, Howe borrowed a dictionary and promised to return it.
At this time, Howe’s gang consisted of himself, Peter Septon, Richard Collier, James Geary, George Jones, Matthew Keegan, John Brown, John Parker, John Chapman, Thomas Coyne, Thomas McCaig and two native girls, one of whom was Mary Cockerill, the other’s name is unrecorded.
After months of easily evading the soldiers sent after them, Howe and Mary Cockerill were ambushed by soldiers from the 46th regiment in April 1817. Howe darted off and fired back at the redcoats before dumping his gear, including his knapsack and firearm. Typically, it is reported that in this incident Howe shot Mary either accidentally or because she was slowing him down. It is not clear from contemporary reports whether Mary was even shot. Assertions that she was pregnant with Howe’s child are without merit. In his effects, retrieved by soldiers, were the musket and a gardening book bound in kangaroo skin filled with hand-written notes.
Mary immediately began to help the police track the rest of the gang to their camp by the Shannon River. When the soldiers came upon the bushrangers, they mocked them and bolted into the bush. Mary also helped the authorities reclaim sheep the gang had stolen, and was rewarded for her assistance with clothes, food and accommodation.
At the time this was transpiring, the new Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, William Sorell, was settling in. Sorell issued a proclamation promising harsh penalties for the bushrangers and their harbourers, but an amnesty was also on offer in an attempt to bring an end to the lawlessness. Howe saw this as an opportunity to give up the outlaw lifestyle he had come to detest, and intended to negotiate his surrender by writing to Sorell.
The negotiations were managed carefully by Howe, who agreed to give the authorities the information they wanted on the condition that he be given a Royal Pardon. He was taken into custody in Hobart on 29 April, 1817, to await confirmation of the pardon. During this time he claimed that the esteemed magistrate, Robert Knopwood, was one of the associates of the gang, and had even personally escorted himself and a fellow gang member, George Watts, through the streets of Hobart. He mostly occupied himself with hawking items he had been knitting, while awaiting news of his pardon.
Howe’s incarceration did not last long as he took advantage of the relaxed security he had negotiated and fled to the bush once more. It is believed this was a response to receiving information from an associate named Beacroft that the pardon had been refused, though in actuality it had been approved. Reports that Howe had murdered his friend Peter Septon and attempted the same on Richard Collier are completely incorrect, as he was in Hobart, guarded by soldiers at the gaol, at the time. This is yet another case of crimes being dumped upon Howe to increase his fearsome reputation. It was, in fact, a new member of the gang named George Hillier who had committed the deed. Several other members of the gang had been captured or killed by soldiers in Howe’s absence including George Jones, who was shot and decapitated by soldiers.
Howe now found himself on the run again with no gang to go back to. He reconnected with George Watts, who had since left the gang, hoping to get supplies and information. Unbeknownst to Howe, Watts conspired with a stockman named William Drew to capture Howe and claim the reward. When Howe was in camp with the others two, they pounced on him and restrained him. The next day they began to escort him to town when Howe broke his bonds and revealed a hidden dagger. He stabbed Watts in the back and took his musket, which he promptly used to shoot Drew. Watts was not dead however and struggled back to town where he told of what happened before dying of his wounds.
Without friends, or at the least people he could trust, around him, Howe was living a solitary life in a hut by the Shannon River. His clothes disintegrated, his firearms ran out of ammunition and he could not readily find nutritious food. More significantly, his waking hours were spent in terror of the Aborigines, who were very active in the area launching spear attacks on white people. One murder that was pinned on him at this time had actually been committed by a band of Aboriginal men. During this time he was ambushed by bounty hunters, one of whom was a tracker named Musquito, who would later earn his own infamy as a bushranger. During this struggle, Howe lost his supplies again, including a journal made from kangaroo skin that he had written about his most intimate thoughts and ominous dreams.
Howe was now more vulnerable than ever. He clothed himself in a cloak of stitched together kangaroo skins, and his dark beard grew long and bushy. He was afraid to sleep for fear of death or capture. When an associate sent him word that he had supplies for him the offer was irresistible.
Howe’s associate, a kangaroo hunter named Warburton, had befriended a farmer named Worrell and had struck a deal to lure Howe and kill him for the reward of £200 on his head and free passage back to England. Warburton managed to track Howe down and told him there was ammunition and food in his home on the River Shannon. In actual fact the hut was concealing Worrall and an infantryman named Pugh who were waiting, poised with rifles. On 21 October 1818, upon arriving at the property, Howe hesitated to go inside but eventually did so with a pistol drawn. Once his eyes had adjusted to the gloom he baulked at the door like a frightened dog when he realised his fears were true. Howe growled “So that’s your game is it?” and fired a shot as Pugh knocked the gun from his hand. Howe ran off as fast as his feet would take him, musket balls whizzing past him. The bounty hunters chased Howe down to a muddy inlet. Howe was shot in the back and tumbled down an embankment. He noted the salt and pepper beard of Worrell and stated, “Black beard against grey beard for a million!” The pair wrestled before Pugh caught up and stabbed Howe through the ribs with his bayonet. Howe fell and then Pugh began to smash his skull in with the butt of his musket. With Howe’s life now extinguished in a brutal fashion, his broken head was cut off and displayed on a spike in Hobart Town as a warning to other would-be bushrangers of the wages of sin. The body was buried in a shallow grave by the river.
Mere months later, a pamphlet was released, declaring Howe to be the last and worst of the bushrangers. It was little more than an attempt to take the heat off the government by portraying Howe as a far more dangerous and cunning foe than he was. The implication was that this was why he was so hard to catch. The pamphlet was written by “Thomas E. Wells”, which was the pen-name of a senior public servant. Many of the outright lies that are accepted as truth started with this publication. One day the record will be set straight.
Michael Howe: The Last and Worst of the Bush-Rangers of Van Dieman’s Land by Thomas E. Wells
History of the Australian Bushrangers by George E. Boxall
History of Australian Bushranging Volume I by Charles White
The Outlaw Michael Howe: Director – Brendan Cowell