When we picture bushrangers we think of wild young men on horseback dodging police and sticking up coaches but Harry Power certainly did not fit that image. Power (alias Henry Power, Johnstone) is forever remembered as the tutor of Ned Kelly but there was a time when he could capture the imagination on his own terms.
Power was born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1819 before emigrating with his family to England during the great famine. Settling in the north of England, Harry worked in a spinning mill in Manchester. It was not long before his rebellious nature manifested.
Power received three months imprisonment for vagrancy and later did time for drunkenness. His first major offence, however, was stealing shoes which got him transported for seven years, arriving in Van Dieman’s Land on 21 May, 1842. It’s probable that Harry reunited with his mother upon gaining his freedom as she had been transported to Van Dieman’s Land for stealing chickens in 1841. Receiving his ticket of leave in November 1847, Harry soon travelled to the mainland. He worked as a stockman in New South Wales before going south and becoming a horse dealer in Geelong.
In 1855 Harry was accosted by two mounted troopers who questioned him on where he got his horse. They refused to believe that he had legitimate ownership of the animal and when he refused to go with them to the station one trooper drew his sabre and threatened him. In a panic, Power shot the trooper in the arm and fled for the border where he was arrested. He was tried for horse stealing as Henry Johnstone and on 26 September 1855 was sentenced to thirteen years despite having paperwork to prove the legitimacy of his ownership of the horse. He was sent to Williamstown where he was imprisoned on the prison ship Success.
While doing time on Success, Power was involved in a mutiny. The bushranger Captain Melville led a small group of inmates to steal the tow boat that took the launch boat from Success to shore on 22 October, 1856. During the ensuing scuffle a man named John Turner was drowned and a constable named Owen Owens was beaten to death with a rock breaking hammer. The convicts made it to shore but were soon recaptured. Harry, still as Henry Johnstone, was charged with the other seven men with two counts of murder. Only Melville was sentenced.
In the latter part of his sentence Power attempted to escape from imprisonment by trying to cut a hole in the floor of the prison hospital. Naturally he was foiled.
Power gained his ticket of leave in 1862 and headed back to Geelong where he immediately broke the conditions of his ticket and took to the diggings. He was soon back in court and in 1863 he was convicted of horse stealing in Beechworth. While in prison on that offence more charges were raised and Harry was dragged out of prison and tried again. He was found guilty of these charges, keeping him in prison for seven years. He was sent to Pentridge Prison but it would not hold him too long.
In Pentridge Harry befriended Jack Lloyd and his brother Tom. Harry would later call on them for sustenance when they were all out of gaol. He was prone to visits to the prison hospital due to a bowel stricture that could cause bouts of extreme discomfort and render him useless for labour for two to three weeks at a time.
On 16 February 1869 Power escaped from Pentridge. Having been assigned to a party clearing land by Merri Creek, Harry had made sure that he was on light duties due to his health. Entrusted with taking the refuse to the mullock heap, Power hid in a divot under the heap and when muster was called he slipped out through a gap in the wall. He acquired clothing from a nearby farm and armed himself with a crude handmade spear before stealing a horse and riding to freedom. He set up a camp on a mountain overlooking the King River Valley now known as Power’s Lookout. From here he sought support from the Lloyds and their relatives the Quinns, gradually expanding his network of sympathisers all the way out to Whitfield. Power knew that he would have to keep his sympathisers on his side and began a career of highway robbery in order to fund his supporters.
When Power robbed shanties and farms, unafraid to use violence on occasion, but this proved to be too much work for too little reward. Power now turned to highway robbery. Far from a charming highwayman, Power’s demeanour was coarse and belligerent and won him no sympathy from his victims. This sudden spate of robberies led to a big manhunt and much consternation around the colony. Power was believed to be cohabiting with a woman near Benalla at the time but nobody could find him.
In July he was spotted eyeing off horses at Mount Battery station and fired upon. With him was a young man who was probably fifteen year old Ned Kelly, a nephew of his sympathisers the Lloyds and Quinns. The owner of the station sneaked up behind the pair and fired at them causing young Kelly to momentarily freeze in terror before they mounted and escaped. Power seems to have discarded Kelly from his service after that for a time, courting others as assistants before opting to simply get on with bushranging solo.
One of Power’s most infamous robberies was near Porepunkah when he stopped a mail coach by placing logs in the road. He proceeded to take what little money he could from the travellers and attempted to deprive a young woman of her horse and saddle before sticking up a dairy cart and robbing that too. Power took one of the horses from the cart and used it to get away leaving the small group of his victims standing around a little bonfire he had made.
Power had quickly become the biggest thorn in the side of the Victoria Police and a £200 reward was offered for his capture. Power ventured into New South Wales at this time and committed a series of robberies around the Riverina. It seemed for all intents and purposes that Power was untouchable. By the end of 1869 Power had seemingly vanished with no reported sightings or leads, rendering police pursuits ineffective.
Unfortunately, Power was not invincible and his health made for a difficult time in the bush. His bowel stricture and bunions resulted in frequent clandestine visits to doctors. To alleviate the pain in his feet he would wear boots so oversized they curled at the toes. The fact that he was well into middle age wouldn’t have been much help either.
February 1870 saw Power re-emerge with a vengeance robbing everyone from stockmen to police officers. After the initial string of robberies Harry Power and Ned Kelly reunited briefly. Likely Ned, in a bid to get some money for his mother who was behind in her rent, had begged Power for another chance. Together they robbed Robert McBean, a well respected magistrate, of his watch, horse and riding gear. The duo travelled as far as Geelong where Power checked out his old haunts with Ned by his side.
When Ned was found trying to open the gates at the Moyhu pound to release impounded stock, the poundkeeper threw him out of the saddle and thrashed him. This resulted in Harry and Ned later bailing the poundkeeper up. Ned threatened to shoot the poundkeeper on the spot but Power gave him three months to get his affairs in order before he’d be shot. Shortly afterwards Ned was arrested for assisting Power. During interrogation, Kelly described Harry as irascible and with a violent temper. He also described a hollow tree Power used as a lookout point (his “watchbox”) and his habit of seeing a doctor about his stricture. Ned was bounced around the courts but the various charges never stuck and he was soon released.
At this time Jack Lloyd was detained on suspicion of highway robbery. It was believed that he had committed several of the crimes attributed to Power, which he denied. Robert McBean, still furious about his encounter with the bushranger, had remembered a statement Power had made that he could buy his watch back from Jack Lloyd for £15. McBean suggested this to the police and soon Lloyd negotiated a deal with superintendents Nicolson and Hare to turn Power in; the temptation of the reward – now £500 – proving irresistible. Lloyd took a police party, consisting of Nicolson, Hare, Sergeant Montford and a black tracker named Donald, most of the way but got spooked and left the police to find their own way up Power’s Lookout during torrential rain. Fortunately, after days without food or sleep, Donald was able to find the camp due to smoke from a campfire. They approached Power’s mia-mia as he slept and Nicolson pounced on him. Dragged out by his feet, Power was unable to resist and was promptly arrested, complaining about not having a fair chance of escape while the starving police ate his food rations.
Power was put on trial in Beechworth and promptly imprisoned in Pentridge for fifteen years. While in the gaol he became somewhat of a celebrity, being interviewed for a newspaper feature called the Vagabond Papers where he opened up about his life of roguery. He did not live quietly, frequently getting into trouble for smoking, being where he wasn’t meant to be and generally getting into mischief.
Once Power had completed his time he was released, in 1885, into a world that had left him behind. The Kelly Gang and the Moonliters had come and gone. The towns were becoming rapidly urbanised with trains and other modern conveniences. The prison ships at Williamstown were decommissioned and scrapped save for one – Success. Power now found himself in his twilight years acting as a tour guide on a craft that was once the source of much misery. Meanwhile, Power was living with his half-sister and her daughter in law. When Success went on tour in 1891 Power stayed behind to do a victory lap of the places he had known when his notoriety was fresh. Shortly after he departed, an unidentified (and unidentifiable) body was found drowned in the Murray River. Many historians have declared that this was Harry Power but without definitive proof his death remains a mystery.
“A MONTH IN PENTRIDGE NO. III” The Argus. 10 March 1877: 4.
“The Notorious Harry Power.” The Western Champion and General Advertiser for the Central-Western Districts. 19 December 1893: 3.
“HARRY POWER, THE BUSHRANGER.” The Narracoorte Herald. 13 March 1877: 4.
“A MEMORY OF HARRY POWER” The Argus. 27 June 1936: 6.
“RELEASE OF A RENOWNED BUSHRANGER.” The Herald. 9 February 1885: 2.
“Ned Kelly’s Tutor.” The World’s News. 26 December 1925: 8.