As one delves into the history and folklore of bushranging, the name Jack Donohoe comes up regularly, but there’s usually not a lot of clearly defined information to accompany the name. Donohoe has suffered the fate of Thunderbolt, Hall and Kelly – the myths have become ingrained in the story as much as the facts. Was Jack Donohoe really worthy of folk hero status?
Donohoe was born in Dublin, Ireland in around 1806 and was transported to Australia in 1825 for “intent to commit a felony” as a teenager. Donohoe was not fond of the prison life and as soon as the opportunity presented itself he absconded, taking to the bush. Teaming up with two fellow convicts, Kilroy and Smith, Donohoe engaged in a spot of highway robbery, bailing up three carts just outside Bathurst. The gang got away with a little cash and a keg of rum but were found soon after and tried. Found guilty of highway robbery, the trio were sentenced to hang but the legend of “Bold Jack” Donohoe was just about to begin. Somewhere along the line between Bathurst Gaol and court Donohoe managed to escape custody without being noticed until muster was called. The frantic search turned up zilch and Donohoe went bush in pursuit of pastures new. Kilroy and Smith on the other hand met their fate on the gallows in a disturbing display of the incompetence of colonial executions.
Donohoe never worked alone, understanding the importance of division of labour and, perhaps, safety in numbers. Ganging up with eight other bushrangers led by native-born William Underwood, Donohoe quickly made his mark on colonial New South Wales. The robberies were many and the spoils great. Donohoe himself dressed as an upwardly mobile gentleman in his navy blue coat and top hat. It was at this time that the bushrangers understood the value of a sympathiser network, making an effort to reconnect with former convict colleagues that had done their time and acquired properties and businesses for themselves. The gang would provide goods to their friends from their crimes and in turn the sympathisers would provide shelter and protection.
A noted distinction of this gang of Bathurst bushrangers was their ruthlessness. Whereas bushrangers like Matthew Brady, who operated around the same time, had a code of honour in a vainglorious effort to affect an air of decency, Donohoe’s gang believed the end justified the means which is why a disastrous raid on the farm of James Hassall saw the bushrangers use the station staff as human shields during a gunfight. By luck or by providence there were no fatalities. The outrages had caused quite a stir in the community and police forces were mobilised in a search for the notorious bushrangers. One such party stumbled upon the bushrangers’ camp, still kitted out with their tools and supplies, and waited for the men to return. When the gang arrived at camp they were escorting some freshly pinched cattle but seeing the police sitting around their fire they decided to engage them in a gunfight – a bad decision. For the next two hours the bushrangers and police battled each other, at one point the police stopping to eat the bushrangers’ dinner rations and inviting them to join. In the end nearly the entire gang was dead or captured with Donohoe one of the lucky ones to escape. A couple of days later the party encountered the remaining bushrangers and opened fire killing Donohoe’s mate and badly wounding Donohoe’s left arm.
In late 1830 Donohoe and Underwood were accompanied by William Webber and William Walmsley on their various depradations. Once more Donohoe was in top form but the success was short lived and the men soon resorted to raiding the farms of poor and well-to-do alike. A common modus operandi was for the gang to denude their victims and make them stand on the side of the road stark naked (save for their shirt if they were lucky) while their clothes were rifled through in search of hidden treasures. At this time Underwood mysteriously disappeared and it is supposed he was murdered by other members of the gang when they discovered that he had been keeping a journal of their exploits. However the more likely scenario is that he simply took his leave of the gang as he was allegedly shot by police in 1832. Regardless of the veracity of these claims the remaining trio continued business as usual. The robbery of Mr. Eaton proved to be one of the more horrifying of the gang’s acts. During the robbery Eaton was shot and as he lay mortally wounded on the road the gang stripped him and took all they desired, leaving Eaton on the road where locals found him and took him home where he could be seen by a doctor. With the gang becoming ever more desperate the road for Donohoe was soon to reach a short end at Bringelly.
A police party had once again found the gang’s camp and when they were returning from visiting sympathisers nearby they were set upon. Donohoe took cover behind a tree and taunted the police. Little did he realise he was facing some of the best marksmen New South Wales had to offer and as he poked his head around he was shot in the throat and temple. As Donohoe lay dying his confederates ran away. When Donohoe’s body was searched a small pistol was found in his coat which was supposedly reserved in the event that he should need to take his own life to avoid being taken alive.
After Donohoe died a mold was made of his head for a death mask by a tobacconist. There were two castings made from the mold, prominently showing the bullet wound in his forehead, both have vanished over time. Clay pipes were made of Donohoe’s likeness, the bowl of the pipe sculpted based on the death mask. These morbid curios were quickly snapped up. Songs were written about him, his exploits and his death; nearly all of them were tremendously inaccurate, but the most prominent was a ballad titled Bold Jack Donohoe which later provided a basis for the more famous Wild Colonial Boy that lifted its lyrical content heavily from the former.
As for Webber and Walmsley, Webber was soon shot down by police and Walmsley turned informer in an attempt to overturn his own execution. Walmsley dobbed in all of their sympathisers resulting in dozens of men and women losing their farms and livelihoods and returning to convict status. Despite this Judas act Walmsley met his end on the gallows all the same, the slipknot was the one thing he couldn’t weasel out of.
“BUSHRANGERS—NOTED AND NOTORIOUS” Truth (Brisbane, Qld. : 1900 – 1954) 20 January 1935: 36.
“TERRIBLE HOLLOW.” Queensland Times (Ipswich, Qld. : 1909 – 1954) 24 March 1932: 4
White, C. History of Australian Bushranging Volume I. Angus and Robertson, 1900.