The Battle of Bringelly

“Surrender to such cowardly dogs is a thing I’ll ne’er do. This day I’ll fight with all my might,” cried Bold Jack Donahue.

Lyrics from Bold Jack Donahue. Traditional.

As with most bushrangers who transcend history to become enshrined in folklore, Jack Donahoe (aka Donohoe, Donahue) made the leap from brigand to legend in his final stoush with the forces of law and order. His recklessness in the face of death seemed to strike a chord with Australians of a certain class.

This year marks 190 years since Donahoe’s death, so it seems appropriate to recount the final battle that sealed his place in history.

The Gang

Donahoe and his partners William Webber and John Walmsley had been ruling the roads, sheltered by sympathisers who kept them fed and clothed in clean garments. These merry highwaymen approached their occupation with pluck and a level head, one time even liberating a victim of his run by pouring it into a chamber pot that they took away with them. Naturally such flagrant lawlessness was causing the settlers to wring their hands in dread, lest they be bailed up on the road or have their homes raided.

As is typical of the press throughout Australian history, the more the bushrangers eluded the police, the more the press put them on blast. Donahoe in particular had become something of a celebrity and everyone seemed to have a story about being bailed up by him.

One could feasibly have overheard conversation in the pub that sounded like, “I was robbed by Donahoe on the Cobbity Road, I was! There he were, bold as brass, astride a cob with a pair of barking irons in his hands. ‘Up with your copper,’ says he. Who am I to refuse a bushranger? So I gives it him and off he trots waving his hat about and whooping like a mad owl! So as you can imagine I’m a bit light on cash so you’ll have to pay for the ale this time, my handsome.”

In July Donahoe had been shot in the right shoulder during a shootout, the wound had mostly healed but not well and continued to give him trouble. Victims described him as having visible stiffness in the shoulder, though it didn’t hinder him terribly. In the afternoons he and his colleagues would perform robberies then escape to their hideouts in the Parramatta region just before dark when the police were unable to track them properly.

The Hunt

The authorities were growing tired of chasing the bushrangers through the wilderness and were hoping for a breakthrough. This came in the firm of locating one of the gang’s treasure trove in an old cave hideout, but the bushrangers were nowhere to be found. The search party, under Lieutenant MacAlister, magistrate of Argyle, with the assistance of an Aboriginal tracker referred to as “Black Jemmy”, decided to change tactics. Rather than root around for the bandits like a bushpig in search of truffles, they elected to split up and keep watch on hotspots where the fugitives were known to haunt.

Sergeant Hodson of the 57th regiment led a party of troopers to the vicinity of Bringelly. The team consisted of Hodson, two men named Muckleston and Warburton, Chief Constable Farley, Constable Gorman and some others. They spent a fortnight combing through the bush with no success and at sunset retired to their camp in a hollow on the property of a man named Wentworth. It is easy to imagine the frustration the mounted police were feeling after months of fruitless bush-bashing.

After yet another day without result on the 1st of September 1830, Farley headed off on his grey horse to procure provisions as the rest of the party unsaddled their horses. It was about five o’clock when fate decided to throw the beleaguered bluebottles a bone.

A Fortuitous Arrival

The thing about bushranging that often gets overlooked is that riding horses through they bush is far more romantic than it is practical. The reality was that much of the time was spent travelling on foot, simply because it was a far more efficient way to get through tangled scrub and between the gnarled, twisted trees with branches that just out at just the right height to peg out an incautious rider like washing. Thus, on the afternoon of the first of September the trio of Donahoe, Webber and Walmsley headed back to their hideout on foot. Of course, riding a horse in the bush is not the same as guiding one through it, and the bushrangers were leading a black packhorse laden with their ill-gotten gains into the scrub. No doubt they would have seen the police campfire about a mile away.

“‘Ere, do you see that fire over yonder?”

“Ah, probably some hapless gloak got stuck out in the bush as the sun went down. Pay it no mind; keep walking.”

And so it was that the police clapped eyes for the first time upon the men that had been causing them such frustration. They too opted not to mount up, dashing into the bush on foot to cut the bushrangers off, leaving two of their number to watch the camp. Hodson was determined to bring the bushrangers in by any means necessary. As the bushrangers approached a creek Hodson decided to split the group up to get the bandits in a pincer movement should they cross. Hodson took two constables to the left, the others went on the right.

The right-hand party kept up with the fugitives seemingly undetected, but when they got within a hundred yards the bushrangers knew something was up. Donahoe signalled to the others by taking off his hat and waving it. They ditched the packhorse and took shelter behind the trees. Being resourceful, they were equipped for battle already. Donahoe was the first to take a snap at the authorities.

“Come on you cowardly rascals, we’re ready if there’s a dozen of you!”

The Battle of Bringelly

Donahoe had long made it known that he’d rather receive his death on the receiving end of a musket ball than at the end of a rope. He even carried a small pistol secreted in his trousers so that in the event that he was captured he could shoot himself. Two of his previous colleagues had been sent to the gallows, one of whom suffered the trauma of his rope snapping once he fell through the drop. The poor fellow then had to wait for the executive council to decide whether he could be freed. They decided it was better to have another crack at making the bushranger dance on air, so the drama on the scaffold was played out a second time, and this time it went to plan. No doubt Donahoe was aware of how easily executions were botched and the thought of such indignity was unpalatable to him. It is not unlikely that such a fate was on his mind when he tried to encourage Webber and Walmsley to engage the troopers in battle with him.

For half an hour there was an awkward lull as both sides debated about starting the attack. Eventually it was the troopers that felt the itch in their trigger finger first. Warburton raised his firing piece and launched a ball at a tree where he had seen Webber take cover. This shot, however, only succeeded in hitting the tree trunk and sending a small shower of splinters flying out. The shot was only off by about an inch.

Donahoe waits to strike.

The bushrangers opened fire, exchanging shots with the police through the gloom and the ashen puffs of gun smoke. Though the firing was intense at such close quarters and under such limited cover none of the blows landed. Donahoe continued to taunt his attackers.

“Come on, I could beat the whole bloody colony! Charge, my boys!”

Donahoe’s reckless shouting and gesticulating made him the obvious target for Muckleston, whose aptitude with the rifle was well known. He watched the bushranger’s shelter like a hawk eyeing off a rodent in the grass, waiting for the opportunity to strike. He held his breath as Donahoe stuck his head out from cover to take aim. The smooth face and flaxen hair catching the last hints of light as darkness set in provided an ample target. Mucklesworth’s finger squeezed the trigger and his rifle kicked like a mule as it squeezed two lead balls out of the muzzle in a puff of smoke. They found their mark in the left temple and the neck of the man referred to as “Bold Jack”.

Seeing their leader fall, the others elected to give up and retreat. They ran at top speed deeper into the bush, discarding their hats, coats and shoes in order to facilitate an easier, more stealthy passage through the wilderness.

Abandoned by Webber and Walmsley, Donahoe lay on the ground, bleeding and barely conscious. As he gurgled his last breaths he must have realised that he had died as he had hoped – in battle, not on the scaffold. He hadn’t had to use his secret weapon after all. The battle had been as abrupt as it was violent.

The troopers attempted to follow Webber and Walmsley but by now the darkness had set in. They returned to Donahoe and his body was searched. As well as the horse pistol and rifle, the troopers found his secret pistol tucked away in his trousers pocket. The packhorse was also retrieved and searched. In the cargo were a watch, stolen bank documents, flour, meat and women’s clothes – hardly the treasure trove one would expect from a renowned highwayman.

Skirmish between bush-rangers and constables, Illawarra [Source]

The Aftermath

The confrontation had been brief and violent. The constabulary had their prize lashed to the back of a packhorse and taken to Sydney. The body was then taken to the hospital where it was kept until the official procedures were carried out.

Sketches were made of the body laid out on the mortician’s slab, and a death mask was made by a tobacconist. Unlike later masks that were used for phrenological study, this mask would provide a reference for a collection of tobacco pipes shaped like the outlaw’s head, complete with bullet wounds. If contemporary accounts are to be believed, they were very popular.

After the inquest was conducted, Donahoe was buried in an unmarked grave in Raby. The lack of a marker or monument meant the bushranger’s admirers would have nowhere to go to spare a thought for the wild colonial boy.

With Donahoe buried, all that remained was to catch up with Webber and Walmsley. They would not remain at large long, and when the law finally caught up with them their true colours went on display.

Donahoe’s death mask.

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