William Fletcher had a respectable trade before he joined Tommy Clarke and Pat O’Connell in bushranging, though he had recently been in trouble after getting drunk at the races and attempting to try out one of the horses. It was April 1865 and the bushrangers had long been operating in the Braidwood district, but had decided to branch out. They set their sights on the Gulph goldfields and Nerrigundah, a mining boom town, but they needed someone who knew the area to scout for them, which it appears Fletcher was willing and able to do.
On 9 April, the gang set to work. They picked a spot on the road out of Nerrigundah near Deep Creek to bail up passers-by and waited. The identities of the members of the gang that day are, as in most crimes attributed to the Clarkes, debatable. What is most likely, based on witness reports, is that Tommy and John Clarke, their uncles Pat and Tom O’Connell (referred to more commonly by the Anglicised ‘Connell’), William Fletcher. There was also a man named “Joe”, who was identified as a man named Joe Bishop, but he had not worked with the gang before and was not known to have done so later on. Some have speculated that Bill Berriman’s brother Joseph was the mystery man, partly because one of the witnesses claimed Bill Berriman was present, although he may have mistaken Pat O’Connell for Berriman. For the sake of this retelling, we will be working on the assumption that Pat was mistaken for Bill Berriman, and we will refer to the other man simply as Joe.
The bushrangers disguised themselves with cloth masks and cloaks as other bushrangers had taken to doing in recent crimes. Pat O’Connell wore a blue mask and cloak, some of the others wore red masks and grey cloaks. Tommy Clarke seemed to prefer a blue coat and a blackened face. While most of the bushrangers wore disguises, it does not appear from witness accounts that Fletcher was disguised. The cloak and mask combination helped stymie efforts to identify the offenders, as evidenced by the subsequent confusion as to the identities of the bushrangers that struck at Nerrigundah.
The first robbery of the day was of a small group of Chinese men who were then kept under guard in the bush as more victims were added. Marian Groves, the innkeeper at Deep Creek, was bailed up but not robbed as she was carrying no valuables. A mailboy named Griffith was robbed, the bushrangers taking £50 in half-notes from the mail. It was typical of the time for cash bills to be sent in halves at separate times due to highway robbery, as half a note was valueless without its pair.
Robert Jones of the Golden Fleece Hotel in Nerrigundah was also bailed up, as was a store owner named Donald Sutherland. Jones was obviously familiar with members of the gang as Tommy Clarke addressed him as “Bob”.
The biggest haul came when John Emmott was riding on horseback to his father’s store, the Bee Hive in Moruya, when he found his path blocked by Tommy Clarke. As he tried to turn back he was cut off by the other bushrangers. He plunged his hand into his coat to grab the gold nuggets he was carrying, intent on throwing them into the scrub. The gang opened fire, and Emmott’s horse was shot dead. A bullet went through the back of Emmott’s thigh, passing straight through. The unlucky traveller found himself pinned under the dead horse and bleeding freely from his wound. He was robbed and ordered to join the other prisoners. When he tried to explain he could not walk he was struck with the butt of a pistol. However, Tom O’Connell took pity on Emmott and reprimanded his rough accomplice, then helped Emmott rest before fetching him water.
The prisoners were then taken to the pub in Deep Creek where they were kept under guard. A group consisting of the two Clarkes, Pat O’Connell and William Fletcher headed to Nerrigundah, where they hoped to steal gold from Pollock’s store. Pollock was a gold buyer, and since gold escorts no longer took the gold from the diggings after Ben Hall’s gang had attempted to rob the Araluen escort in 1865, he kept it in a safe in his store for when he made his trips to Sydney every four weeks. Of particular interest to the gang was that Sgt. Nelson Hitch, the head of the local police, was absent to give evidence in a stock theft case in Moruya. The only other policeman they knew of was Constable Miles O’Grady, who was bedridden with ‘Colonial Fever’, which was likely a euphemism for Cholera. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to strike it rich.
Despite the confusion, it is very likely that the party that entered Nerrigundah around 6:00pm consisted of Tommy Clarke, Pat O’Connell, William Fletcher and John Clarke. It is possible that Tom O’Connell was acting as a scout on the outskirts of town, explaining his apparent absence from Deep Creek and his absence from the events that were unfolding in Nerrigundah.
The gang set about rounding up prisoners and lodging them in Willis’ London Tavern. It was estimated that forty people had already been imprisoned there without violence when two of the bushrangers, probably Tommy and Pat, decided to tackle Pollock’s store, which was across the road.
When they entered the store, Mrs. Pollock was tending to a handful of customers. Immediately they were bailed up and Clarke demanded the key to the safe. Reluctantly it was given over and the bushrangers plundered the store, taking silver-mounted meerschaum pipes, clothes and boots. As they escorted their new prisoners to the London Tavern, Mrs. Pollock snatched the key from Tommy’s hand and threw it into the street. As it was already dark, being almost 8:00pm, and there were no street lamps, it could not be found. In his fury, Clarke was said to have slapped Mrs. Pollock and told her that if she were a man he’d have killed her for such an act. The new prisoners were added to the collective and Tommy searched in the street with a candle for the key but without success.
As this was unfolding, a messenger had slipped away down a side street and notified Constable Smyth of what was taking place. Smyth was new to the town, having only been in Nerrigundah for four days prior, and only having graduated to a full constable on the first of the month. It seems that Fletcher had not been updated about the new copper, and thus had not been able to relay that information to the gang. Unsure how to proceed, Smyth suggested that the messenger find Constable O’Grady and notify him.
Upon hearing the news, O’Grady hauled himself out of his sick bed, dressed in his uniform and armed himself. Despite being in a terrible state from his fever, or woozy from the laudanum that would have been given to him to treat it, he headed out to meet Smyth. As he passed the Golden Fleece Hotel, Mrs. Jones begged O’Grady not to proceed as he was in no state to confront bushrangers. O’Grady replied, “I must do my duty.” As noble a statement as that was, the reality was that O’Grady could barely walk in a straight line but Smyth was not in a position to confront a gang of armed bushrangers alone.
The last of the prisoners were being rounded up at the London Tavern when Fletcher bailed up the local butcher, Robert Drew. When ordered to fork out his money, Drew scrunched up the £40 in notes he had in his pocket and threw it over the heads of the gang. There was a commotion as Drew was roughed up and forced inside while Tommy looked for what had been thrown.
It was just after 8:00pm when O’Grady and Smyth made their way down the main drag of Nerrigundah towards the London Tavern. O’Grady staggered and stumbled along, very unsteady on his feet. Upon seeing the lights on in the tavern, the police knew where they were headed.
William Fletcher was standing outside when O’Grady spotted him, Pat O’Connell next to him just inside the door. Without a word, O’Grady raised his rifle and fired at who he assumed was one of the bushrangers. The bullet struck Fletcher in the right arm, passing through the flesh and punching into his ribcage and lodging in his chest. He collapsed, fatally wounded. A second later, Smyth fired and the bullet lodged in the door jamb next to Pat’s head.
The bushrangers rushed into the street and fired at the troopers; one appeared to kneel for a better shot or to check on his fallen confederate. All were armed with pistols. Immediately the crowd inside the tavern spilled out into the street to see what was happening. Down the road, upon hearing the gunshots, Mrs. Jones doused the lights in the Golden Fleece. Not seeing a way they could fire effectively with such a big crowd of civilians in the firing line, the police hared down a side street. Several more shots were exchanged until a rifle bullet struck O’Grady in the back, piercing his kidney and pushing out of his navel. It was too dark to see who the rifleman was.
Smyth took O’Grady’s revolver and ran all the way back to the police barracks, while O’Grady struggled to the Golden Fleece. When Mrs. Jones opened the door, O’Grady explained that he was shot and collapsed into her arms. Meanwhile, the surviving bushrangers mounted up and fled, leaving Fletcher behind. An hour after Fletcher had been shot, he expired. O’Grady was carried by a group of miners back to the barracks where he died about three hours later.
Smyth attempted to form a posse, but only one man volunteered and he changed his mind when he saw that nobody else was willing. It wasn’t until Sgt. Hitch got back and found out what had happened that men were willing to volunteer to track the bushranger’s down.
The bushrangers had returned to Deep Creek, where they drank and gathered supplies. A Chinese man was roughed up, and another made an escape as the gang were loading up their packhorses. One of the gang made a move to raid the store across the creek when a cry rang out for the gang to mount up, “The Gulph people are upon us!” The gang took off along an old bridle track as an army of enraged Chinese miners descended upon the pub with their lanterns lighting the way.
By some accounts, Hitch’s posse managed to cut the gang off at a creek, laying in ambush until they arrived to water their horses. The posse opened fire and the gang retreated without their packhorse. With no ammunition left, and having not been able to capture the bushrangers, the posse returned home with what could be retrieved from the horse.
The inquests on Fletcher and O’Grady were held the following day, a verdict of justifiable homicide was lodged in the case of Fletcher. Tommy Clarke and Pat O’Connell were found culpable in O’Grady’s death. O’Grady was buried in the local cemetery then later transferred to the cemetery in Moruya. A monument was subsequently erected in Nerrigundah to his memory. As for Fletcher, he was buried without a coffin or a marker in the bush outside Nerrigundah.
Soon after this the recently legislated Felon’s Apprehension Act was implemented to declare Tommy Clarke and Pat O’Connell outlaws.