Forgotten Bushrangers: John Johnston

With the death of Captain Thunderbolt and the arrest of Harry Power, many believed that bushranging was a thing of the past, a disgraceful chapter to relegate to the history books. However, despite the lack of big names in the majority of the 1870s, there was plenty of bushranging happening throughout the colonies. One of the various bushrangers in New South Wales during the early 1870s left out of the books is John Johnston.

John Johnston was a seaman from London, England, born in 1829. A man of notably diminutive stature, he only stood at four feet, seven inches tall (139cm). He had dark brown hair and hazel eyes, with a large nose that bore a conspicuous bump. He was employed on the ship Orphens but deserted when the ship was wrecked off the coast of New Zealand – a very dishonorable act. He arrived in New South Wales in 1863 but soon fell foul of the law, found guilty of horse and cattle stealing and given twelve years in Parramatta Gaol.

Parramatta Gaol (Source)

After serving nine years, Johnston found himself again at liberty. Not knowing what to do with himself, the now 44 year old turned to bushranging. In an appropriately short period of time, Johnston gained a warrant for horse stealing in Singleton. Johnston had stolen two horses and corresponding saddles and bridles from William John Dangar, a noted pastoralist whose brother Henry Dangar was a prominent surveyor, entrepreneur and politician on whose property the infamous Myall Creek Massacre took place; and another brother, Thomas Gordon Gibbons Dangar, was also a politician and owned a store in Singleton that had been robbed by the Jewboy gang in 1840 that had immediately led to their capture. When spotted on Long Bridge, West Maitland, by Constable Bowden and called upon to surrender, Johnston presented a revolver. After threatening the policeman the bandit took off. The next depredation took place on 24 July, 1873, when Johnston bailed up a boy named Willard at Camberwell, depriving him of his horse, saddle and bridle.

Following on from his previous robbery, Johnston struck again on 27 July at Warland’s Range, robbing Rev. Father Patrick Finn, the Roman Catholic priest from Murrurundi. Johnston approached the priest on foot. Stopping Finn on the road by grabbing the reins of the horse, Johnston demanded that Finn dismount. After some heated exchange, from Finn Johnston gained a horse, saddle, bridle and a purse containing seven sovereigns as well as the priest’s coat. Two days later the horse, minus accoutrements, was recovered by Constable Egan. Johnston was busted while working as a ploughman for a selector named Donnewald. Johnston was living in a hut in Double Gully provided by Jacob Donnewald, who was doing a five year stint in Parramatta Gaol, where he had probably befriended Johnston.

Constable George Thompson of Muswellbrook was aware of the warrant for Johnston’s arrest and had received intelligence that he had been spotted on Wybong Creek. On 15 August, taking with him mounted trooper Patrick Sweeney, he made a rendezvous with Constable James Rutherford, who had camped overnight at the creek in the hope of spotting Johnston. Unfortunately after a search they found no trace. The police then headed to Sandy Creek to the residence of a man named Donnewald where they suspected Johnston may have been hiding. To their relief and chagrin they found that Johnston had indeed been there but had left for Double Gully a half hour previous. The police took off for Double Gully and upon arrival found a horse saddled and bridled and tied to a tree near a house. The police dismounted and tied their horses about seventy yards from the house before proceeding on foot. Johnston appeared in the kitchen window, dressed in leggings, black felt hat with a white turban and dark coat, his face covered in black whiskers, and Sweeney, knowing it was their target, responded “That’s the man.” Johnston saw the troopers coming and bolted, Rutherford shouting “Man, man!” while gesturing towards the fugitive.  The troopers switched their attention to the tiny figure hurtling over a paddock toward a mountain. Rutherford levelled his gun at the figure.

“Surrender, Johnston, and throw up your hands!”

Johnston paid no heed. Reeling off a shot, Rutherford missed his target. The police took off, Rutherford launching three more bullets in Johnston’s direction. Sweeney turned back to fetch the horses, sensing that they weren’t going to be able to catch the bushranger on foot. Roused by the gunfire, a local man named Brackenreg rode up to Thompson who commandeered Brackenreg’s horse and galloped forward. The pounding of hooves caught Johnston by surprise and he turned and ran towards the horse, possibly hoping that by doubling back he could throw the officer off his tail. When it became apparent that this was not a sound solution he doubled back again towards the mountain. In the meantime, Sweeney and Rutherford had mounted and were riding up. Sweeney presented his gun, Rutherford stating “It’s no use firing, you’ll never hit him. The man’s too far.” It was at that point that Sweeney fired his last shot which stuck true and Johnston pitched forward with his hands outstretched. He struggled back to his feet but collapsed onto his knees and elbows. With his right hand he fumbled about his body, Thompson assuming that the bushranger was searching for a revolver.

“Johnston, if you attempt to move your hands I’ll fire!” Thompson boomed from atop Brackenreg’s horse. Johnston looked up at the Constable with a pained expression:

“Thompson, I’m sorry…”

Johnston fell. The troopers took the limp body back the the house, Johnston vomiting en route and laid him out in the kitchen. By the time they reached the house Johnston had expired. The police examined the body and found that a bullet had entered his body from his right hip. On his person was a powder flask, two sovereigns, two half-sovereigns, two shillings and a sixpence, a comb, a pocket knife and a box of percussion caps.

An examination of the body was done by Jacob de Leon, on 16 August. He found that the bullet had penetrated the pelvis and ruptured the bladder and arterial vessels in the pelvic region leading to nervous shock and internal haemorrhage. After the inquiry, the jury deemed the shooting to be justifiable homicide.

Selected Sources:

“A BUSHRANGER SHOT DEAD.” The South Australian Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1858 – 1889) 2 September 1873: 3.

“A SUPPOSED BUSHRANGER SHOT.” The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1871 – 1912) 23 August 1873: 239.

“INQUEST ON THE BODY OF THE BUSHRANGER JOHNSTON.” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) 22 August 1873: 5.

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