Wantabadgery: 140 years on

On a stormy November night, six rumpled figures try to shelter inside swags. The grey woollen blankets that trap the rapidly depleting warmth from the quivering bodies are hardly protected by the oilskin sheets that form a waterproof crust and are heavy with rain water. One figure alone remains upright as rain pelts down in sheets. The darkness obscures his features beneath the curled brim of a drab coloured felt hat. As clouds shift and briefly allow light in from the moon, the man’s pale blue eyes seem to blaze. There’s a wild look about them, as if something animalistic were emerging. His normally sensual lips are tightened into a lupine snarl. He feels an ache in his limbs, old war wounds excited by the cold night air. Through the darkness, he stares with simmering rage at a handsome whitewashed homestead below him. The last plumes of smoke drift from the chimneys as the lamps are extinguished and the occupants retire to their beds to sleep in warmth and comfort. The amber glow fading in the windows mocks the men on the hill. It taunts them by leaving domestic comforts in plain view but frustratingly out of reach. The man with the lupine snarl fingers something in the folds of his threadbare coat, something hard and cold. His spidery fingers curl around the grip of a revolver. The walnut grip is unusually warm and inviting. It wants him to hold it, to feel its heft in his palm. He turns his gaze to the heavens. There is no moonlight visible in the night sky but on the ground is a different matter…

***

The story of the Wantabadgery siege is one of the most remarkable in bushranging history. There are equal measures of farce and horror, pathos and bathos. We see the figure of Andrew Scott/Captain Moonlite flip-flop between violent desperado and whimsical larrikin. There is a vibe that is reminiscent of the capers of bushrangers like Ben Hall and Bluecap and it reaches a peak with a gun battle wherein, miraculously, there was no bloodshed. Sadly, the same could not be said for what happened at McGlede’s farm afterwards, but here we will examine what happened at Wantabadgery Station on 15 November through to 17 November, 1879.

It is easy to dismiss the story of Andrew George Scott as not really being that of a “bushranger” at all. After all, he and his band of followers robbed no mail coaches, they didn’t gallop through the mountains on thoroughbred stallions waving pistols, and there were certainly no killings attributed to them prior to the clash at McGlede’s. The popular perception of what constitutes a “bushranger” is only really applicable to a small portion of people who fall under the banner. As one looks back through the stories of bushranging, even going back to the very beginning with Black Caesar in 1788, the common themes through them all are the rejection of society and a retreat to the wilderness. The romance of the bushranger comes from the idea that rejecting the confines of civilisation brings freedom, but the reality is naturally a far cry from that ideal. In the case of the Moonliters, as they will be referred to for the sake of brevity, they rejected society because they had all become outcasts in some aspect. In essence, they rejected the society that had rejected them. They were not bushmen seeking to return to their roots in the wilderness, they were the disenfranchised and discarded who has been beaten down by what referred to itself as civilised. In essence, what happened at Wantabadgery is a lesson about what happens when you push people too far and they go over the edge.

***

That night as exhaustion trumped his rage, Andrew Scott fell into a fitful slumber. His mind became a swirling Hibernian fog, with the spectres of his past lurching out at him. The echoes of his father’s sermons that he sat through as a boy in Rathfriland rolled around him as he recognised the smell of gunsmoke and a shadowy mound before him coagulated and morphed into the brassy-skinned body of a Maori warrior, a pool of crimson seeping out from under his outstretched arm. He saw the monolithic form of a poppet head looming from a mine at Mount Egerton and felt the chill of a winter in his former cell in Pentridge. All the while there was presence behind him pushing him deeper and deeper into the mist. He turned and came face to face with himself!

***

Andrew Scott had the most incredible fall from grace, going from a well educated high society man to a penniless tramp hawking the clothes off his back for enough money to buy bread. It all fell apart after he provided a suspicious alibi for the son of a Bacchus Marsh squatter who was up on stock theft charges. The following scandal resulted in the church sending him to fulfil his duties as lay reader in Mount Egerton. It was then that he became embroiled in the robbery of a bank. The evidence that supposedly linked him to the crime was flimsy and Scott would always protest his innocence. However, it was after moving to Sydney when an unpredictable chain of events saw him going to Fiji and agreeing to establish an agricultural company on an island there, before returning to Sydney and living the life of a debauched libertine off the money he was meant to be using on tools and supplies. His penchant for alcohol and pleasures of the flesh was out of control and he soon found himself in gaol over valueless cheques. He would spend the next decade of his life bouncing around prisons where he met James Nesbitt, which would be the trigger for him to sort his life out. When he was released in 1879 he decided to use his oratory prowess and his experience being at the mercy of the police and prisons to benefit others in the same predicament. His lecture tour on prison reform ground to a halt as police interfered and caused multiple performances to be shut down, which caused quite a stir among the press and public alike. Police would haul Scott and Nesbitt in on any crimes they could and this harassment saw Scott elect to leave the colony in the hope that he could find honest work north of the border, seeing as all he found in Victoria were closed doors. It seems to be indicative of the commonality of the disenfranchisement that he managed to gather a group of four to accompany him over the border.

James Nesbitt

James Nesbitt had met Scott in Pentridge while doing time for his involvement in a mugging and would soon become his partner in all things. It was left ambiguous as to whether their relationship had a romantic element, but there were enough hints in witness accounts and Scott’s own words and actions to indicate that there was indeed more to the pair than simply a platonic connection. Nesbitt was vital to keeping Scott going. Whether it was emotional support or taking care of Scott’s medical needs, Nesbitt was an attentive and devoted partner and Scott reciprocated in his own fashion.

Accompanying Scott and Nesbitt were Frank Johns alias Thomas Williams, a former confectioner with a crippled left hand who had joined Scott on his lecture tour as an assistant; and Gus Wernicke, a fifteen year old grocer’s assistant whose father had recently remarried to his aunt, with whom he had such an awful relationship that he ran away from home. As they travelled, they added Geelong native Thomas Rogan (alias Baker, alias Brown) to the mix. Rogan was a cobbler who had done two sentences for horse stealing and larceny served in Beechworth, Pentridge, Williamstown and Sandridge, but seemed keen to chuck his lot in with the gang and joined them near Sandhurst. It wasn’t until nearing the end of the journey that they adopted the impish Graham Bennett, who had been tramping the Riverina looking for work. The quintet had crossed paths with Bennett while he was residing in an abandoned hut on the edge of a farm. It didn’t take much pressuring to convince him to join them. However, by that time the group were starving, unkempt, broke and horrendously low on provisions. Their smart city clothes had been sold to get money for supplies and the men resembled animated scarecrows. Bennett began to grow edgy when he saw a pistol tucked under Scott’s coat in a pouch. Scott tried to convince him it was a telescope. The journey was gruelling and morale was at a low ebb when they reached the fabled Wantabadgery Station, desperate for a helping hand. Scott had been informed that here they could get work or at least food and shelter for the night.

***

Sunshine tickled the leaves around the boys as they arose from what slumber they had managed to snatch out of sheer exhaustion. Scott was already awake and standing to attention, the rage of the previous night still charging through his veins. Bennett approached Scott with a miserable expression.

“I hope you won’t be offended, sir, but after last night I think I’ll be better off on the tramp alone as before.” Scott responded by brushing open his coat and showing the boy his revolver.

“I’m Captain Moonlite,” Bennett’s eyes widened and he stumbled slightly as Scott brandished the weapon. “You must do one of two things, either join us of your own accord and we will all share alike, or you must join us by compulsion.

***

In the early 1860s, Dan Morgan had gained the nickname “the traveller’s friend”. His notoriety had struck fear into the hearts of the owners and superintendents of farms throughout the Riverina, which meant that they were all too afraid to refuse to help any scruffy looking swaggie that asked for assistance or work. If they refused, they risked raising the ire of Morgan, who was known to burn buildings on the farms of those he felt needed a comeuppance. However, Morgan had been killed in 1865 so his reputation no longer held any sway. Swaggies were frequently turned away or employed for little more reward than table scraps for dinner and the least mouldy hay in the barn as a bed. Sadly, desperation led many men, forced into itinerary habits by economic depression, to settle for whatever they could get. Unfortunately for the Moonliters, they had the additional headache of police dogging their movements and riding ahead of them into towns and farms to tell people not to employ them. In 1879, it didn’t matter if you had done your time in prison and paid your debt to society; the convict stain would determine the rest of your life and follow you everywhere, and it spread to all those who associated with you. For Scott, not only was he struggling, but he was responsible for the five young men who had followed him on foot from Fitzroy to Wantabadgery. It was his silver tongue, after all, that had lured them there. Hopes were high on Saturday, 15 November, but when they had been made to wait outside the homestead at Wantabadgery Station for two hours only to have the door slammed in their faces by Baynes, the superintendent, something inside Scott snapped. No work, no food, not even permission to sleep in the cowshed to stay out of the rain had been offered – the things he was promised were no more than words. For a former preacher, it must have been soul destroying to experience the milk of human kindness as little more than a fairytale. This made Scott a very dangerous man indeed. If there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s never make an enemy of a man with a gun and nothing to lose. That night as the boys slept on the hill overlooking the station, drenched by the rains, Scott plotted his revenge.

And therefore,–since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,–
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

– Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1

***

The young men spread out, each one armed with whatever firearm they could muster from the collection they had brought with them. Scott, now embracing the persona of Captain Moonlite, was armed with his Colt revolver and a Bowie knife. He tugged his beaten felt hat so that the brim shrouded his face in shadow. He stood up onto the verandah of Wantabadgery station, his crippled left foot making a scuffing, bumping sound as it dragged behind him along the boards. He balled his fist and thumped on the door. There was the sound of movement inside and the door opened slowly to reveal the station owner’s wife peering back from behind the door. The presentation of an octagonal bluesteel muzzle to her face immediately telegraphed Captain Moonlite’s intentions.

***

When the gang descended upon Wantabadgery Station at 9:30am on 16 November, all had code names and weapons. Scott, obviously, used Captain Moonlite to distinguish himself but Nesbitt, Williams, Wernicke, Rogan and Bennett were identified through the numbers 2-6 respectively. It is interesting to see how Scott embraced the persona of Captain Moonlite when he bailed up Wantabadgery Station. He was cooly methodical in how he directed his boys, and gave them numbers instead of referring to them by name in an effort to shield them from recognition. Accepting that he was now officially the villain, he stopped inhibiting himself and allowed his rage and whims to dictate his actions. The others seemed to feed off the energy and became quite animated and almost unruly from time to time; Wernicke in particular, which was marked difference from only a few days earlier when he had attempted to leave the gang to find his own way back to Melbourne out of frustration. The exception was Nesbitt who was almost timid and appeared to be the only person that could keep Moonlite grounded. This would be vital to ensuring that things did not escalate too wildly during the gang’s occupation of the homestead.

Over the course of the day more captives were added to the collection. An infamous and unpleasant incident was when Moonlite took a shine to a mare belonging to the McDonalds. As he attempted to mount the skittish horse it became wild with fright and Moonlite shot it dead, claiming it was too dangerous. It was a massive overreaction and an indication of how far Scott would allow the Moonlite persona to take over if unchecked. Among the workers captured by the gang was a Chinese man named Ah Goon, whose watch Scott stole. Scott was vehemently opposed to the Chinese workers being brought in on farms and taking jobs away from white men simply because they were willing to work for obscenely low wages. The practice was not only exploitative on the part of the farm managers, but in Scott’s opinion it was calculated by the Chinese to disempower the white labour market.

When Percy Baynes finally made an appearance it triggered Moonlite’s rage and almost made him lose control. The way Baynes had mistreated the group the day before was singularly responsible for the wrath being brought down upon the station and Moonlite threatened to murder and disembowel Baynes, but relented when Mrs. McDonald intervened. Baynes was unrepentant and continued to antagonise Moonlite throughout the day and even attempted to turn the gang against him. Such behaviour was ill-advised in the least and horrendously culpable at worst when dealing with armed bushrangers, and had it not been for the gang keeping Moonlite from carrying out his threats it is likely there would have been bloodshed and more than likely a grisly end for the curmudgeonly Baynes.

The gang took advantage of their unique position of power and helped themselves to new clothes to replace the rags they were in, as well as taking any weapons and ammunition they could find. They ate heartily, with Moonlite killing two fowl to cook and feed both his gang and their captives, except for Baynes. The relative success of their operation left them in good spirits. Throughout the day they took it in turns to sleep and guard. It seems remarkable that apart from Baynes there was no real attempts to attack the gang or escape to raise help.

The prisoners sat around the parlour, weary and subdued. The children fidgeted and grumbled as Bennett thumped tunes out on the piano and Moonlite sang with gusto. For the bushrangers it was a celebration of conquest, but for the captives it was demeaning. When all had settled, Moonlite finally acknowledged the strain the young ones were under and permitted them to be put to bed. He may be a vicious cutthroat but there was no need to make things uncomfortable for the children, he reasoned.

***

The way that the stick up of Wantabadgery station played out was a farce in the tradition of Johnny Gilbert and Ben Hall. Scott always had a flair for drama yet had been able to wrangle his compulsions effectively, but Captain Moonlite was his id let loose. At no point was this more apparent than his spur of the moment decision to go to The Australian Arms hotel. It was here that his thought process seems to have been quite difficult to follow. When confronted with the unattended pub, he helped himself to booze and the rifle behind the counter, but then went looking around the building where he found the children of the proprietors asleep and decided to take them with him. A modern mentality immediately assumes that he had very nefarious intentions in taking the children, yet Moonlite left a note for the parents and seemed simply to want to take the children to where there would be adults to look after them. It was a bizarre thing for him to do. Moonlite lacked the conscience of superego to define his choices, and somehow also appeared to be lacking in the judgement and mitigation of his ego. He was operating based on pure impulse and it seemed like he was enjoying it far too much.

Captain Moonlite

At 8pm word finally reached the police in Wagga Wagga that something was amiss in Wantabadgery. Despite the urgency of the situation, it wasn’t until 4am that a party consisting of Constables Rowe, Hedley, Johns and Williamson went to investigate. According to Rowe, they had been informed that 20-30 people were being held hostage by a gang of seven armed criminals. Given that the police murders in the Wombat Ranges was a fresh memory – only 13 months previous – it is little wonder that such a small police party should delay in getting involved.

***

The rumble of hooves tumbles through the darkness – tuttle-tut, tuttle-tut, tuttle-tut, tuttle-tut. As the riders come closer, the outlines of their uniforms become apparent; white belts and breeches catch the glow of the waning moon. The arrivals outside alert the dog, who bolts to the garden and begins to bark furiously. Now is the time for action and the bushrangers all gear up like mechanical toys, ready for battle. Nesbitt takes up a shotgun, the others arm themselves with pistols. Moonlite’s heart races as he prepares his Snider Enfield rifle. He flips open the receiver and feeds a cartridge inside. He takes a deep breath as he shoulders the rifle, memories come flooding back of preparing for battle against the Maori; the ache of the wait, the infernal calmness of the world around. The police arrive and hitch their horses to a fence. Constable Hedley sees a figure lurking in the shadows and calls on him to stand in the name of the queen, but he may as well be shouting at the wind. Scott’s finger tightens on the trigger. There’s a crack and a kick as he reels off a warning shot. The tangy smell of gun smoke fills his nostrils. The ball skims between Constables Rowe and Williamson. Moonlite watches the police scurry for cover. A smirk tickles the corner of his mouth. He tugs his pocket Colt out of its holster and steps into the light. The police return fire, hands trembling with anxiety and adrenaline. The barking of the dog is drowned by the barking of rifles as the rest of Moonlite’s men join the conflict. Moonlite strides out into the crossfire, caring naught for his own safety.

***

The account of what unfolds after the arrival of the police varies in many aspects depending on who tells the story. However, it is reasonable to suggest the following as an accurate summary. After Scott’s initial shot, the police sought cover and returned fire. A volley from the rest of the bushrangers served to let them know they were outnumbered. There was further exchange of gunfire and the police became overwhelmed. During the chaos a fire was lit in the barn then quickly snuffed out. The police hid in a forest of thistles then their horses were stolen by the gang. Very likely, at least one gang member rode a horse towards the police from a flanking position, prompting the constables to evacuate through swampland nearby on foot, pushing through water four feet deep. The bushrangers continued to fire after them, the shots hitting the trees. There were no deaths and no injuries, excepting the constables’ pride.

The police were demoralised but determined to regroup and make another attempt on the bushrangers once they had back-up. They headed to James Beveridge’s farm at Tenandra Park where they would acquire horses and before teaming up with police from Gundagai at 11am.

Though the battle that unfolded at Wantabadgery station is a deadly serious event, the lack of bloodshed allows us to appreciate the absurdity of the situation. Four police rode from Wagga Wagga expecting to be met with a few of rowdy swagmen or shearers, and ended up in a heated exchange of gunfire with half a dozen desperadoes and were hopelessly outclassed. Despite all their training, the police were no match for the untrained bandits.

While the police licked their wounds at Beveridge’s farm, the bushrangers were elated at their first victory. It was a victory that would be very short lived. As the sun rose over the Riverina, the Moonliters only had several hours of liberty left. By the end of the day two would be dead, the rest captured alive.


“I tried to leave the colonies but could not, and was persecuted with the surveillance of the police. The bread being taken from my mouth, and every prospect of honest livelihood gone, I came up the country and tried again to seek for work. As long as our money lasted we bought bread, and when our money was gone we sold our clothes and bought bread with what we obtained for them. We tried to get work but could not, and we fasted day after day. We have been without food for forty-eight hours. We went to Wantabadgery and walked up to the station. We were told the overseers and owners were out, but a servant came, and said that if we came in the morning we could see about work. The night was dark and rain was commencing, and we were told we could not see the superintendent then, but he afterwards came out and told us to go about our business, and we were insulted. We were refused admittance into a hut, and that night we slept on the hills, with nothing to eat and nothing to drink but the water that was falling around us. All our clothes were wet, and we hungry. Next day there was no work to be had, and we had nothing to do. Afterwards — and I admit it was foolish — we went and stuck up Wantabadgery. The police came down, and they fired on us and we fired on them. I will not say who fired first, but during the time I saw that the act that had been done would produce bloodshed and I courted death, hoping that a stray shot might end my life and that the prisoners, my friends, might give themselves up to the Crown. After the fight we left Wantabadgery station and took the police horses with us. Some of the police of this colony have behaved as brave men, but one or two have not.

– Andrew George Scott

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