We had no intention of being bushrangers…. misery and hunger produced despair and in one wild hour we proved how much the wretched dare. It must be seen that Wantabadgery was the place where the voice of hunger drowned the voice of reason and we became criminals. – Andrew Scott
For years Andrew Scott had been at loggerheads with the authorities in Australia and had even toured the country lecturing on prison reform. Finally tiring of being dragged in on suspicion of every offence under the sun from robbery to assault simply because of his reputation after being convicted of the robbery of the bank at Mount Egerton, Scott decided to become Captain Moonlite once more and give the police cause to rue the way they’d bullied him. Taking his companions Jimmy Nesbitt, Tom Rogan, Graham Bennett, Gus Wernicke and Thomas Williams on the road, they decided to become bushrangers and make their way North.
Tired of being unable to procure work due to the police scaring employers off hiring him, Scott decided to head north where it was unlikely that he would be recognised. The boys decided to join him, even though Scott tried to discourage them. Taking only what they could carry on their backs the Moonliters, as they would be known, set off on foot for New South Wales. Unfortunately their plans to seek work en route were foiled by police that were following the group’s movements and overtaking them to warn townspeople about the imminent arrival of Captain Moonlite and his crew. Things began to get desperate as the boys were forced to get by on damper and tea. Occasionally they would be able to shoot themselves a couple of koalas to cook up or even the odd sheep that had wandered too close to a fence. Scott soon heard of a station near Gundagai called Wantabadgery that was run by a benevolent farmer who would always help out swagmen by providing either work or rations, so it was decided they would head for there. As they approached they discovered a young man in an abandoned hut named Graham Bennett who joined the troupe on their quest. Passing through the township of Clarendon they visited David Weir’s store and purchased flour. Weir took pity on the miserable half-starved boys and gave extra than what Scott had paid for – an act of kindness that Scott would make note of.
They arrived at Wantabadgery Station on 15 November, 1879, but were unaware that the station was under new management and when they were greeted at the gate by the new manager, Percy Baynes, after being made to wait for more than two hours they were unceremoniously told to leave without any assistance. This was the final straw for Scott who stewed as the group were forced to sleep on a hill overlooking the station during heavy rain. As the night went on he devised a plan – not a good plan, but a plan nonetheless – to stick up the station and make an example of the lack of charity that had been extended to he and his poor boys.
The next morning the group descended on the station once more with pistols drawn. Scott had given the boys code-names to conceal their identities. Nesbitt was Number Two, Williams was Number Three, Wernicke Number Four, Rogan Number Five and Bennett Number Six. The gang stuck up the homestead and held the employees of the station prisoner inside while Mrs. McDonald, the wife of the new owner, prepared food for the boys. As workers were brought in Scott noticed one of the workers was Chinese, a man named Ah Goon. Scott was indignant and believed this was proof of the insolence and greed of the station management as Chinese workers commanded lesser wages than their European equivalents and thus were hired by people looking to cut costs at the expense of their fellows. He stole a watch chain from the unfortunate man and considered it a fair trade for the job he was perceived to have stolen. The food was served and the gang ate all they could and as the day went on Scott tried to keep the atmosphere light.
When the station owners, Claude and Falconer McDonald, returned Scott took a liking to one of their horses. When he attempted to mount the horse it reared dangerously and Scott began to lose control so shot the unfortunate creature in the head. One of the visitors to the property that day was Weir, the shop keeper. As Scott recognised him, he made sure that he was treated kindly. There was a moment of terror when the station manager returned from a morning outing and Scott recognised him as the man that had refused his gang charity. He attacked the man with a horrendous verbal display and threatened to gut him or hang him. Baynes was not intimidated, and his insistence on spitefully riling up Captain Moonlite began to push the bushranger over the edge. Mrs. McDonald begged for Baynes to be spared and Moonlite relented for a time but Baynes had more guts than brains. Things flared up again when he called Nesbitt a “poof” and again when he tried to coerce Wernicke into mutiny. Moonlite’s fury rose to greater heights and it was incredibly difficult to calm him down.
The day wound on and as night settled in alcohol was passed around, making everyone merry. A turkey was cooked and served to all of the prisoners (though Baynes was pointedly excluded from this). At one point Andrew Scott took Claude McDonald with him in a buggy to a nearby pub called the Australian Arms Hotel. As the publican and his wife were absent, Scott decided to steal their rifle, raid the till, take some grog and the children who had been asleep upstairs. He left a note for the parents explaining that he had taken the little ones with him to the station. When the group returned to the station festivities were resumed. A piano was wheeled into the dining room and Graham Bennett, rather a fine tinkler of keys, played for the assemblage. Soon the women and children were sent to bed, then much later the men. Baynes was forced to sleep on the floor.
Meanwhile back at the Australian Arms, James Patterson and his wife, the parents of the abducted children, returned to find the pub ransacked and their children kidnapped. Mrs. Patterson was understandably inconsolable as her husband went to seek help. Word soon reached the police in Wagga Wagga and a party comprising of constables Howe, Williamson, Headley and Johns was sent out at 9:00pm.
It was 4:00am when the police finally arrived at Wantabadgery Station. There were no lights on inside, but there was movement. Captain Moonlite had been on sentry while his boys slept inside. He sent Falconer McDonald and Percy Baynes onto the roof of the house to give him a bird’s eye view of what was happening. The police tied their horses to the fence and proceeded towards the homestead but disturbed the farm dog who began to bark at them. Moonlite promptly opened fire with a double-barrelled shotgun. Nesbitt joined in and the police attempted to return fire, but found themselves outclassed. Moonlite threatened to burn the place to the ground if the police didn’t make themselves scarce, and Thomas Rogan started a fire in the barn. Shots continued to ring out as the police retreated through a swamp. Moonlite was furious at Rogan as he stamped out the fire that had been started without his direction. As the spoils of war the gang took the police horses, Wernicke attempting to mount one and having never ridden before almost went flying as the horse took off. The police meanwhile were forced to travel the two and a half miles to the home of James Beveridge, a local squatter.
Weary after the confrontation with the police, Moonlite instructed the gang to prepare to move on. They took their supplies and loaded up horses and proceeded to take the road. With Moonlite riding with Rogan, the only competent riders, at the front of the pack it must have been a comical sight to observe these supposedly bloodthirsty bushrangers struggling to stay in a saddle.
As the morning wound on word had reached Gundagai that there were bushrangers out in Wantabadgery and the Wagga Wagga party had been overwhelmed. Senior-Sergeant Carroll decided to act and took a party of police to sort the rogues out. Consisting of himself and Sergeant Cassin and Constables Webb-Bowen, Barry and Gorman, the troopers had a wealth of experience dealing with bushrangers and other hostiles – especially Constable Webb-Bowen whose reckless bravery was well noted. The Gundagai party rode out to James Beveridge’s house where they teamed up with the Wagga Wagga police and got a rundown of the events from the previous night. As a combined force the police rode out to Wantabadgery Station to take care of the bushrangers.
As the Moonliters ventured down the path from the homestead they came upon a team of farmhands led by none other than James Beveridge. The men had heard that there were bushrangers nearby and had decided to pitch in. The portly Beveridge was surprised by the flash Irishman with the wild eyes that pressed him about the groups movements.
“What are you about?” Moonlite asked “We’re looking for bushrangers,” replied Beveridge, to which Moonlite glibly responded “Well, you’ve found them.”
Moonlite then forced the men to dismount and line up along the roadside. As they did so he explained that they were now on trial for illegally carrying firearms with intent to kill. He selected two of the farmhands and two of his own men to act as jury and the “verdict” was not guilty. Irritated by the outcome, Moonlite decided to leave with one more bit of vindictiveness and ordered Beveridge to shoot his own horse. Beveridge begged Moonlite to reconsider but the bushranger could not be swayed and shot the horse himself, wounding it and leaving Beveridge with no option but to put it down.
As the Moonliters rode awkwardly along the road, herding their new prisoners, they were alerted to the sound of hoofs approaching and saw the troopers thundering towards them. The party had found the dead horse on the road and knew they were close and had ramped up their speed. The gang opened fire, the prisoners ran for cover and the police returned fire. The gang rode to the nearest building which happened to be a farmhouse owned by Edmund McGlede. As the police continued to pursue the gang, a posse of local militia had also arrived on the scene and took up positions on the ridge overlooking the action. The gang attempted to tie up their horses as they arrived at the hut and their prisoners sought refuge in the McGlede’s underground dairy.
Spreading out around the tiny homestead and barn, the police quickly engaged the desperadoes. With the gang taking cover behind the trees and saplings around the house, Wernicke reeled off a few shots before being shot in the wrist and abdomen, his tiny, malnourished, teenage body no match for police bullets. He hit the ground crying out for his captain. Meanwhile Nesbitt, Bennett and Williams were moving behind trees around to the kitchen of the McGlede’s house. Scott was beside the chimney and Gorman was undetected on the opposite side of the very same. Scott heard Wernicke crying out but the gunfire was too heavy and he too retreated to the kitchen.
Now fairly trapped, the gang hunkered down. Bennett nursed his arm, a bullet having sliced through the flesh just below the left shoulder, with Williams clasping his pistol but making no effort to fire. Rogan was nowhere to be seen, a fact that undoubtedly played on Scott’s mind. Scott thundered up and down the kitchen cursing the police when Nesbitt pulled him aside and the men locked eyes. Nesbitt appealed to Scott’s humanity and made him promise not to kill anyone. The half-crazed Irishman did as he was told. At that moment the sound of hooves outside caught Scott’s attention and he ran to the window and fired with a revolver. The shot hit the flank of Constable Barry’s horse and the trooper leaped out of the saddle as the horse fell. Scott moved away from the window, satisfied. As he turned he saw Bennett look out the window and take aim with his pistol and reel off a shot. Outside Constable Webb-Bowen had made the poor decision to reload in the open and Bennett’s bullet struck him in the neck. The bullet tore through muscles and sinews, driving into the constable’s spine and paralysing him instantly. Webb-Bowen fell yelping “Oh God! I’m shot!” before being dragged to relative safety by Gorman. Gorman was resolute and got as close to the building as he could.
Inside the kitchen Nesbitt took Scott’s Snider rifle and positioned himself at the far end of the room near the window. Just outside, officer Gorman was positioned just underneath that exact window. He flung open the shutter and wheeled around coming face to face with Nesbitt who put up his hand defensively. In a split second Gorman fired through the window, the bullet striking Nesbitt in the temple and driving through his skull and brain and out near the base of his neck. Nesbitt collapsed as Scott bounded across the room. Scott slumped to the floor and cradled Nesbitt in his arms, kissing him passionately and trying in vain to stop the bleeding by wrapping cloth around Nesbitt’s mangled skull. Nesbitt died slowly and silently in Scott’s arms. From this moment on Scott would put no value in his own life except to try and save the boys that had foolishly followed him into the mouth of doom. It was at this time that Scott heard, through the gaps in gunfire, the Wernicke was still alive and still crying for help. Scott tore himself away from Nesbitt’s corpse and ran outside. He could see Wernicke struggling with Sergeant Cassin who was trying to take the boy’s rifle away. Unable to pry the gun away he clubbed Wernicke in the head with his rifle to such a degree that the stock shattered. Scott growled as he approached and firing intensified. Somehow dodging bullets, Scott scooped Wernicke up and cradled him as he ran back into the kitchen. The wounded fifteen year old must have taken a slight comfort in the fact that his captain had not left him behind after all, but as Scott cradled him he died with a whimper. Wernicke left the world with nobody to care about his passing except the man who had thoughtlessly engineered the situation that killed him.
With Wernicke’s death the rest of the Moonliters gave up the fight. The police burst into the kitchen with no resistance. Williams was clubbed in the face as he was handcuffed and Bennett put up no resistance. With Bennett, Williams, and Scott accounted for the hunt was on for Thomas Rogan. It wasn’t until the next morning that Edmund McGlede would find Rogan armed with a pistol and knife cowering under the bed in the master bedroom. The bushrangers and the mortally wounded Constable Webb-Bowen were transported to Gundagai where the policeman was treated in a makeshift hospital and the bushrangers given a rushed committal hearing. Within a week Webb-Bowen died of his wounds. The premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, had sent the wounded constable a letter commending his bravery that reached him just before he died. Webb-Bowen’s widow wrote back to the premier thanking for the gesture, which had given the dying man much comfort as he lay dying.
The police at Wantabadgery were instant celebrities, with the papers singing their praises and a special meeting of the New South Wales police held in Sydney to celebrate the force finally clawing back credibility after the media drubbing they had received thanks to the Kelly gang’s visit to Jerilderie earlier that year.