Considered by many to be the bloodiest bushranger gang in history, the Clarke Gang raised Hell in the Braidwood district of New South Wales between 1865 and 1867 led by Thomas Clarke, a notorious stock thief.
The Clarkes were convict stock who worked as stockmen around Braidwood. Though they were frequently suspected of involvement in duffing the police struggled to find anything to pin on them. This came to a head in May 1861 when Thomas Clarke was arrested and tried for stock theft. Clarke’s boss Hugh Wallace was convinced Clarke was guilty. The lack of evidence saw him cleared but the damage was done. Wallace sacked Thomas and his father John snr and struck with unemployment Thomas fell in with his uncle Pat Connell and embarked on a career of crime.
Over the next five years Thomas was frequently in trouble, suspected of crimes ranging from stock theft to highway robbery with William Berriman. The gang in its infancy adopted the moniker The Jingera Mob, but history would come to remember them as the Clarke Gang.
When Ben Hall’s gang encroached on the Jingera Mob’s territory in 1865 to rob the Araluen gold escort Thomas Clarke was believed to be the mysterious new member of the gang. Clarke was not involved but he would soon lead his gang to fill the vacuum left by the deaths of Ben Hall and Johnny Gilbert. Tommy surrendered to police on theft charges not long after the failed robbery but made a daring escape from Braidwood Gaol on 3 October 1865. With the help of Jim Dornan, better know as “The Long Tailor”, Tommy got over the perimeter palisade wall and escaped into the bush on a horse that had been planted for him. Soon with a reward of £200 on his head he would form a gang with his cousins and usher in the new phase of bushranging with a daring raid on Foxlowe Station on 29 December 1865.
Tommy Clarke, Pat and Tom Connell and two Berriman brothers raided the stores of Mr. Hoskins taking children’s boots, whisky and chests of tea. Tommy Clarke was reportedly dressed in white moleskins, a monkey jacket and a handkerchief tied around his face while he led the raid. The others had blackened their faces to hide their identities. Hugh Vallance thanked the gang for not mistreating the women. The Clarke gang would return here on a number of occasions in future to raid the stores and police were soon stationed here to guard it
In February 1866 the gang robbed the post office in Michelago with the now familiar aggression that the gang was being known for. On 23 February the Clarke Gang robbed the hotel and store at Crowns Plains before moving to Mudmelong. A prisoner escaped from the hotel and notified police who correctly anticipated the gang’s next move and headed straight to Mudmelong where two policemen were stationed in Morris’ hotel. They mingled with patrons while waiting for the bushrangers to show up and when Tom Connell entered the hotel for a drink he was promptly arrested and darbied. When the rest of the gang arrived looking for him the police opened fire. A fierce standoff ensued during which the bushrangers threatened to burn the hotel down if the police didn’t surrender. Soon Tom Connell was freed, four police were held prisoner in the hotel and their weapons taken by the triumphant bushrangers. Police reinforcements were sent to the town to no avail having just missed the gang.
On 21 March the gang performed the Rosebrook Station Raid. Sticking up the family of Mrs Mary Ann Hartnett in Cooma, the bushrangers herded the family into a room and robbed the stores, ransacked the house, ate their fill and played music. Clearly after the humiliation the police suffered in Mudmelong the bushrangers were cocky and had become complacent. Two hostages escaped and alerted the police. Knowing that they could not risk losing such an opportunity the police set off straight away. Meanwhile the gang, having taken all they wanted from Rosebrook, had headed for another nearby station. The police found the gang at Rose Valley Station where a shoot out took place but the gang once more escaped.
Reaching newer heights of infamy but still enjoying the support of a syndicate of family and friends, the Clarkes decided to echo the depredations of the great bushrangers by taking control of a whole town just like the Hall Gang did in Bathurst. Recruiting a sympathiser named William Fletcher the plan was to stick up the boom town Nerrigundah. On 9 April 1866 the gang began operating around the Gulph Goldfields. Tommy Clarke, Pat Connell and William Fletcher started at Deep Creek bailing up travellers and plundering Wallis’ Hotel, and Drew the butcher, as they entered Nerrigundah. Rounding up the locals and imprisoning them in the London Tavern, the gang moved into Pollock’s Store. A shoot out occurred between them and Constables Miles O’Grady and Smyth. Fletcher and O’Grady were shot dead.
On 5 June 1866 Thomas Clarke and Patrick Connell were officially declared outlaws under the Felons Apprehension Act of 1865. That month they returned to Michelago. Raiding Kennedy’s Pub, locals were held in the parlour while gang members ransacked Levy’s Store. Later Tommy Clarke and Pat Connell got drunk and had a fist fight in the pub. This was John Clarke’s first time officially with the gang though he was suspected of being involved with some of the previous incidents.
On 16 July John Clarke was charged with giving sustenance to an outlaw. The police had surmised he was operating as a member of the gang but no clear information to base charges on had come to hand so they had decided to find a way around such a complexity. Unfortunately the charge didn’t stick and John Clarke went free. In September William Berriman was captured and put in gaol. On 17 July Pat Connell was killed by Constable Kelly when the gang were intercepted and engaged at Krawarree. Shot while riding away from the troopers, Connell was trampled by the police horses severely disfiguring his head.
In October 1866 Alexander Bradley was captured and in November Tom Connell was captured. The once great Clarke Gang was rapidly crumbling but Tommy Clarke was still at large and the government was desperate to bring him in. Late in 1866 Sir Henry Parkes selected a number of men to become special constables in an effort to bolster the police effort. Four special constables headed by coach to Braidwood: John Carroll, Aeneas McDonnell, John Phegan and Patrick Kennagh. Camping outside the town the men pretended to be prospectors while making connections in town to gather information. Getting closer to the syndicate was no easy task but Carroll and his men began to make headway. However the desire for results began to make Carroll impatient and the syndicate had already begun to clam up around the men as their conspicuous revolvers and intrusive questions betrayed the fact that they were policemen. When Carroll stepped the operation up a notch and began making arrests the game was up.
On 9 January 1867 the special constables were found murdered in the bush outside Jinden. A one pound note was pinned to Carroll’s chest. It was believed that the Clarke sisters had informed Tom of the true nature of the new prospectors who had been making their presence known in town and subsequently Tommy worked with members of the syndicate to create a lure for the men for seeking the blood money on Clarke’s head. McDonnell and Phegan’s bodies were found a few hundred metres away from Carroll and Kennagh’s and immediately Tommy Clarke and his associate Bill Scott became the prime suspects. Scott had been sighted with the gang in recent months and was by now a fully fledged member of the gang. Later that month Clarke’s uncle Mick O’Connell and a sympathiser, James Griffin, were arrested. Griffin turned traitor and informed police that the Special Constables were murdered by Thomas Clarke and Bill Scott, confirming their suspicions. The reward for the outlaws was raised to £5000, the largest such reward yet offered in Australia.
In the wake of the police murders the syndicate began to fall apart. For the gang’s sympathisers they had no qualms about accepting the proceeds of crime from the various robberies but murder was a step too far and people began to withdraw their support. Tommy and John Clarke were now operating with Bill Scott and Jim Dornan. In all the time since he had helped Tommy Clarke climb over the wall of Braidwood Gaol the “Long Tailor” had not waned in his support and had taken up with the gang at the first practical opportunity. Things were not all peachy however and in February 1867 Jim Dornan was found dead with skull fracture on Guys Range. Theories abounded about what had happened. Some suspected that he had been trying to get away from the gang in the wake of the murders but had accidentally fallen from his horse and died from the subsequent head wound.
The death of the “Long Tailor” could not stop the Clarkes and on 2 March they raided Gundaroo. Frazer’s Stores were robbed followed by robberies in Bungendore and Boro. In April Bill Scott was found dead near Manar, possibly killed by the Clarkes for trying to turn on them out of fear following the police murders. Time was running out for the Clarke brothers.
On 27 April a group of 15 police led by Senior Constable Wright surround a hut near Braidwood occupied by Tom and John Clarke. Having followed a tip off they decided to pit the kabosh on the bushrangers once and for all. Wright untethered Tommy Clarke’s horse to create a lure and hid. When the brothers emerged to tend the horses Tommy clued in to the trap immediately and he and John rushed back inside and armed themselves. The police promptly engaged them in a shoot out with reinforcements from Ballalaba arriving in the afternoon. In the end the bushrangers surrendered. During the battle John had sustained a significant injury to his shoulder and tracker Sir Watkin Wynn had also received a major injury to his left arm that would result in amputation. Another policeman, Constable Walsh, had also been injured in the fight. Once the firing had ceased the bushrangers emerged and shook hands with their foes. The Clarke brothers were taken to Bateman’s Bay before being sent to Sydney for trial.
Found guilty of wounding with intent to kill, the brothers were sentenced to death. On 25 June 1867 Thomas Clarke and his brother John were hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol. The bodies were given to their sisters for burial in Rookwood cemetery.
The Clarke Gang : outlawed, outcast and forgotten by Peter C Smith
The Bloodiest Bushrangers by John O’Sullivan