*** Revised and Updated, 2021 ***
Known by some as the “bloodiest bushrangers”, the Clarke Gang operated in the Braidwood district of New South Wales between 1865 and 1867 led by Thomas Clarke and his uncle Patrick O’Connell. Members were always changing, but the mainstays tended to be Tommy Clarke, Pat O’Connell, John Clarke and Tom O’Connell.
The Clarkes were descendants of convicts, and worked as stockmen around Braidwood. Though they were frequently suspected of involvement in duffing the police struggled to find anything to pin on them, though this hasn’t stopped myriad authors posthumously declaring them to be guilty. This came to a head in May 1861 when Tommy Clarke was arrested and tried for stock theft. Clarke’s boss Hugh Wallace was convinced he was guilty. The lack of evidence saw him cleared, but the damage was done. Wallace sacked Tommy and his father, John Clarke snr, and the newly unemployed Tommy joined his uncle Pat in 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 people like William Berriman. The Clarkes and associates were sometimes referred to as “The Jingera Mob”, but were mostly referred to as “the boys”. Because we can’t be certain that the gang were necessarily innocent or guilty of all of the crimes attributed to them, the following will discuss the crimes most commonly associated with them.
When Ben Hall’s gang encroached on the Jingera Mob’s territory in 1865 to rob the Araluen gold escort, Tommy Clarke was believed to be the mysterious new member of the gang. Typically, despite being assumed to be a suspect, Clarke was not involved but he would soon lead his own gang to fill the vacuum left by the deaths of bushrangers like Dan Morgan, Ben Hall and Johnny Gilbert.
The story of the gang really started when Tommy surrendered to police then made a daring escape from Braidwood Gaol on 3 October 1865. Allegedly, with the help of Jim Dornan, otherwise known 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. A reward of £200 was offered for his capture.
A series of robberies were conducted around the area that were attributed to “the boys”. In these cases, the offenders were cloaked and masked, making positive identification impossible. One of the earliest examples of such was the raid on Foxlow Station on 29 December 1865. Six armed and disguised bushrangers held up the station and robbed it of over £300 worth of supplies. One of the suspects was Tommy Clarke, but there was no way to prove it.
The gang, supposed to have consisted of Tommy Clarke, Pat and Tom O’Connell and two Berriman brothers, raided the stores of Mr. Hoskins taking children’s boots, clothing, medicine, lollies, rum, wine, whiskey and chests of tea. Tommy Clarke was reportedly dressed in white moleskins, a monkey jacket and a handkerchief tied around his face. The others had blackened their faces to hide their identities or wore strips of crepe as a mask. Hugh Vallance, the superintenrident, thanked the gang for not mistreating the women and children. The 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, and on 23 February they robbed the hotel and store at Crowns Plains before moving to Mudmelong. A prisoner had 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 O’Connell entered the hotel for a drink he was promptly arrested and darbied. O’Connell, who was in his thirties, was a tall man for the time, standing at six feet, and had a crippled right hand. 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 O’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. Following the humiliation the police suffered in Mudmelong, the bushrangers were cocky and had become complacent. Two prisoners escaped and alerted the police. Knowing that they could not afford to risk losing such an opportunity, the police set off straight away. Meanwhile the gang, having taken all they wanted from Rosebrook, 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 who protected them (and enjoyed the spoils from the gang’s activities), the Clarkes decided to step things up. Recruiting a sympathiser, named William Fletcher, the plan was to hit the boom town Nerrigundah, as there was believed to be no police presence there.
9 April 1866 the gang began work around the Gulph Goldfields. It is generally accepted that the gang in this day consisted of Tommy and John Clarke, Pat and Tom O’Connell, Bill and Joe Berriman, and William Fletcher. In the afternoon they began bailing up travellers at Deep Creek, including John Emmott, who was shot in the thigh as he attempted to throw the gold he was carrying into the scrub. The prisoners were held in a pub in Deep Creek while some of the gang rode to Nerrigundah at night. They rounded up the locals and imprisoned them in the London Tavern, then Tommy Clarke attempted to rob Pollock’s Store where a large amount of gold was being stored in a safe. However, Mrs. Pollock threw the key into the street where the bushrangers couldn’t find them. Unbeknownst to them, there were two police in town – Constable Smyth, a new recruit, and Constable O’Grady, who had been sick in bed with “colonial fever”. O’Grady and Smyth walked to the store and O’Grady opened fire. His shot hit Fletcher and a gunfight broke out. Fletcher and O’Grady were both killed. Despite being pursued, and even performing more robberies after they left Nerrigundah, the gang avoided capture.
On 5 June 1866 Thomas Clarke and Patrick O’Connell were officially declared outlaws under the Felon’s Apprehension Act of 1865. While Tommy was a stocky 5’6″ tall, with sandy hair and handsome features, Pat was 5’11”, dark haired, and had part of his thumb and left forefinger missing, which made holding firearms difficult. Both were incredible horsemen and preferred escape over a confrontation with police.
That month they returned to Michelago. In Kennedy’s Pub, locals were held in the parlour while gang members ransacked Levy’s Store. Later Tommy Clarke and Pat O’Connell got drunk and had a fight in the pub. This is widely seen as John Clarke’s first time officially with the gang though he was believed to have been 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. The charge didn’t stick and John Clarke went free. In September, their associate William Berriman was captured and put in gaol.
On 17 July, Pat O’Connell was killed by Constable Kelly when the gang were intercepted and engaged at Krawarree. Shot while attempting to ride away from the troopers, O’Connell fell from his horse and was trampled by the police horses before the body was taken to the coroner.
In November, Tom O’Connell was captured and given a life sentence. The 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 men to become special constables in an effort to bolster the police effort. The 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 surveyors while making connections in town to gather information. Breaking into the syndicate was no easy task but Carroll and his men began to make headway and discovered an intricate network of friends, relatives and crooked police protecting the bushrangers. 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 police-issue revolvers and intrusive questions betrayed the fact that they were policemen. When Carroll stepped the operation up a notch and began making arrests things took a deadly turn.
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 widely believed that the Clarke sisters had informed Tommy of the true nature of the new arrivals who had been making their presence known in town, and subsequently Tommy, arranged to lure the men into the bush then murdered them, assisted by his mate Bill Scott. McDonnell and Phegan’s bodies were found a few hundred metres away from Carroll and Kennagh’s near Jinden and immediately Tommy Clarke and Bill Scott became the prime suspects, despite a lack of evidence.
Bill Scott had been sighted with the gang in recent months and now became a fully fledged member. Later that month, Clarke’s uncle Mick O’Connell and another sympathiser, James Griffin, were arrested. Griffin turned traitor in an effort to secure his own release and informed police that the Special Constables were murdered by Thomas Clarke and Bill Scott, confirming their suspicions. The reward was set at £5000, the largest such reward yet offered in Australia until the Kelly Gang in 1878.
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 drew too much attention, and some 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 frequently supplied them with clothing. He 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 following 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 seemingly vanished, and when a badly decomposed corpse was found near Manar, it was assumed to be Scott. Though the body wash identifiable, and no cause of death could be reasonably determined, it was hypothesised that Scott was killed by the Clarkes for trying to turn on them after the police murders. Officially, the unidentified corpse was put to rest as a victim of accidental death, but the police and the press had made their minds up.
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 put an end to 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, charged with wounding Walsh with intent to kill.
Found guilty, 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 Bloodiest Bushrangers by John O’Sullivan
The Clarke Gang: outlawed, outcast and forgotten by Peter C. Smith
The Clarke Bushrangers: A Clash of Cultures by Judy Lawson