Note: The following will be discussing people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent and will also include images of persons now deceased.
Few bushrangers have such a horrific and blood soaked history as Jimmy Governor, the Aboriginal bandit who struck terror in New South Wales at the turn of the last century. Governor ended the lives of nine people, mostly women and children, and signified the end of the colonial era in Australia with his three month rampage at the dawn of federation and he was also the last outlaw in Australia’s history to date. The following is a brief overview of his tumultuous life.
Governor was born to Aboriginal parents though his maternal grandfather was Irish, resulting in him having dark red hair (by some accounts). Governor was a Wiradjuri man and grew up learning the ways of his people. Although there is nothing recorded to definitively confirm this, it is more than likely. Jimmy was a hard worker and skilled. His skill breaking in horses was in high demand around Gulgong and Breelong before he became a police tracker at Cassilis in the 1890s. He soon left the force very disillusioned but having developed vital tracking skills.
Jimmy was well liked by many who knew him and seems to have integrated well into white society thanks to his determination to succeed and aptitude for whatever he turned his hand to but he was still far from equal, a pain he carried deep inside. He married a sixteen year old named Ethel Mary Jane Page when he was twenty three and this would prove to be the beginning of the end.
Jimmy received a fencing contract at the Mawbey farm in Breelong and took his new wife with him. Ethel’s parents relocated to Dubbo and this seemed to fuel her isolation, which was firmly entrenched by Jimmy’s choice of accommodation – an Aboriginal camp near a creek outside of the station. The young family had a humpy for shelter, a far cry from Ethel’s previous lifestyle. When Jimmy worked on the fences Ethel would often travel to the homestead to do chores in exchange for rations for Mrs. Mawbey and her family and friends, who were not at all approving of her marriage. In their downtime Jimmy and his brother Joe would hunt possums, Jimmy favouring his nulla nulla (club) and Joe a tomahawk.
Things came to a head when Ethel tried to get a cup of flour from Mrs. Mawbey. Instead of getting the rations she received a verbal shredding about her marriage to Jimmy. Heading back to the humpy Ethel was beside herself. When Jimmy came back to the camp he and Ethel had an argument. Part of the dispute, Jimmy would later claim, was:
“The missis wanted a fortune dropped on her. She wanted us to rob people of money, and leave it at Jim Watson’s corner fence 2 ½ miles from Gulgong. Her brother Willy was to go there and get it when it was all over.”
The blue was explosive and Ethel expressed her feelings about living in away from other white people or family and barely being able to feed herself and their infant son. Jimmy took this rejection of his way of life and the criticism of his capacity to provide for his family as a statement that his wife would leave him. Years of alienation and insecurity welled up inside him and exploded in a murderous rage. “I suppose I am alone in this world with no one to care for me.” he bemoaned. Jimmy’s rage turned to who he felt must be responsible for making his wife feel this way – the Mawbeys. Grabbing his nulla nulla and taking his brother Joe and uncle Jacky Underwood with him Jimmy confronted Mrs. Mawbey and Ellen Kerz the local school teacher.
Jimmy pounded on the door and when Mrs. Mawbey answered he demanded an apology. When not only was the apology not forthcoming but he was met with further insults, Kerz calling him “black rubbish”, Jimmy snapped. The men went on a rampage and slaughtered Mrs. Mawbey, Helen Kerz and three children; Grace and Percy Mawbey and their friend Elsie Clarke.
With the blood of the Mawbeys and Kerz still warm, Jimmy Governor decided to go on a self-destructive spree of revenge killings, hoping to take out as many people who had slighted him as possible before he was inevitably put to death. According to some accounts Jimmy had a hit list of more than twenty potential victims including whites, Chinese and fellow Aboriginal people. This was not a man to be trifled with.
It seemed like the Governor gang were unstoppable, adding the murders of Elizabeth O’Brien and her infant at Poggi, Kiernan Fitzpatrick at Wollar and Alex McKay at Ulan to their tally. Others were wounded and allegedly there were rapes as well. With more than 2000 people hunting these bushrangers down and Jimmy and Joe Governor being declared outlaws under the Felons Apprehension Act (the last people in Australia to be given such a distinction) with a reward of £1000 for their capture, it was only a matter of time before justice struck swiftly.
The first of the gang to be captured was Jacky Underwood who was quickly tried and executed on 14 January, 1901. His last utterance was asking if he would be in heaven in time for dinner.
Time was running out for the “Breelong murderers” and things came to a head when Jimmy and Joe were ambushed on 13 October, 1900. A shot was fired hitting Jimmy in the mouth but he managed to get away alive. He and Joe split up and Jimmy spent the next few weeks struggling with his injury, living off oranges and honey for sustenance. He soon became too unwell to remain at large and was captured on 27 October by a civilian posse. Governor was taken to Sydney for trial. Mere days later Joe Governor was shot dead near Falbrook Creek, his body laid out and photographed.
Jimmy’s trial was of considerable interest at the time and the papers covered it in detail. The grim events of Jimmy’s bushranging career all seemed to come back to his tumultuous relationship with his wife and his rage against the world. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.
Jimmy Governor was hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol at 9am on 18 January, 1901. He spent his last night with ministers and his last moments were spent smoking a cigarette. His last words were incoherent to the observers – possibly spoken in his nation’s language – and are thus unrecorded. Thus ended the life of Australia’s last outlaw.
“JIMMY GOVERNOR.” The Pioneer (Yorketown, SA : 1898 – 1954) 10 November 1900: 3.
“JIMMY GOVERNOR.” Cootamundra Herald (NSW : 1877 – 1954) 24 November 1900: 2.