Spotlight: Harry Power, a personal reminiscence

The Bulletin (Sydney, N.S.W.), Vol. 13 No. 704 (12 Aug 1893), p.20

Harry Power: A Personal Reminiscence.


Hare’s one-sided “Last of the Bushrangers” had started the talk, and yarns of the Kelly Gang led to stories of Harry Power, the daring bushranger, who, after spending some 20 years in prison, twice escaping therefrom at Williamstown and Pentridge, and being four times “east for death,” yet lived long enough to meet an unromantic, “natural” death in the dull waters of the Murray. Let me here tell my story.

One day at the end of 1889 I had gone up to Melb. University on official business connected with the Australasian Association for the Advance of Science. While I was there, a little grey man in black trousers, blue coat and soft felt hat, entered and asked for the Association secretary. The Professor being absent, however, the quiet-looking, little grey man was directed to me as a possible source of information on Association subjects.

“My name is Power,” said he. Noting my uninformed look, the visitor, with a peculiar quick, furtive, sidelong glance from the corner of his eye, observed, “I’m Harry Power!”
Something in the glance and the tone told me that he was none other than the ex-bushranger, and apparently my understanding was recorded on my face, for the little grey man, with “I see you know me, sir,” showed his appreciation of the fact. Power was desirous of being engaged as guide to a party of A.A.A.S. members who purposed an excursion into Gippsland. “There ain’t many people who know the ranges like I do,” said the little grey man.

“I had to know them once, you see, so I learned near every rock and stump, and every wallaby-track on them. I believe I’m the only man alive who knows where the crows nest in those parts. It’s a long time now since I was there, but I could take you to it still.” Then he described to me a wondrous, great rocky cliff, whitened with the crow-slime of ages, which at a certain time of the year was rendered almost black by the thousands of nesting crows upon it. His style was graphic, especially when his yarn verged upon the Sinbadic in its steepness.

“Once,” he went on, “when they were out after me, I was going through the ranges a little off the track, when I saw old Judge A’Beckett riding along the road on circuit. I followed him most of the afternoon waiting for a chance. I didn’t want to kill him, for I’d never kill anyone except in self-defence. My notion was to lift his purse, and so on, and splice him to a fence, and so keep him late for the assizes.”
So intent, however, was he on watching the Judge, that he neglected to keep an eye on his own safety. Then it came about that he himself was captured by a party of police and others who were following the Judge at some distance. That night, Judge A’Beckett, bearing that Power was in the gaol, and knowing the bushranger well, visited him in his cell. The Judge was much amused when the bushranger told him how near he had come to being the unwilling subject of a highway robbery.
“I knew I was safe in telling him, for I knew he was a good fellow and a straight, honest man, and wouldn’t use it against me. Ah, but his eye twinkled when he came to sum up in my case. No one but himself and me knew what I was after when they got me, and no one knew why the Judge smiled at me from the Bench. But he only gave me my proper stretch for horse-stealing. Yes, Judge A’Beckett was a decent fellow.”

I asked whether he had ever thought of writing his autobiography. “Yes, I’ve sometimes thought about it,” said he, “but I’ve made up my mind never to do it. You see, I’ve a married sister, who’s a decent, hard-working woman, and she has children. Now, it wouldn’t be nice for those children if I wrote a book about myself, with piles of stuff in it that any dirty blackguard could throw up at them when they were grown up to decent men and women. No, sir, books live longer and reach farther than memories, and I think it just as well to let the memory of their bad old uncle, Harry Power, die out quietly, and not have his doings always stuck before them in print. ‘The Vagabond’ once offered me a few hundreds for the true history of my life, but I thought of those little children, and I refused.”

In answer to an inquiry as to whether he didn’t find life pretty slow now, he said, smiling, “Well, I’m an old man now, you see. Besides, living up there (here his thumb pointed Pentridge-wards over his shoulder) gets you used to living quietly.”

Here he drifted on into reminiscences of Pentridge, and the time when he was chief cook there — and a good cook he was, so they say, thrifty as a Chinaman and cleanly as a Scotch housewife.
“Once,” said Power, “I had a dirty devil for an assistant, who wouldn’t keep his pots clean. He burned the skilly a couple of times, and I warned him, for that was bad for them all. A day or two afterwards I watched him again, and I saw the copper was dirty. It was bad luck for him. He put in the water, and when it was on the boil and he was going to put the meal in, I up with his heels and sent him in instead. Just so. He cried a bit after he got out, but it did him good. Of course, I got into a bit of a row, but I didn’t get much for it. You see, he sort of deserved it.”

Over another piece of his rough justice he escaped all punishment. He was in hospital, and very sick. A couple of larrikins were in, too, just well enough to make themselves a special and grievous nuisance. One of them had a concertina. How he contrived to get it into the gaol hospital was a mystery, but that he did manage it, the gaol records concerning Power’s interference with it and its owner prove. After “lock-up” at night, the larrikin owner of the squeaking instrument used to play on it, much to his own delight, but more to the disgust of the others.

“I waited one night,” said the little grey man, “till ‘lock-up’ was over, and the keys placed in guard. I knew then that, no matter how much row I made, no one could get into the ward inside a quarter of an hour. The blackguard began with his squeaking windbag, and a poor sick wretch asked him to stop. He wouldn’t. So I slipped out of bed, and took the towel-rollers off the door. I made the concertina-man take one, and I took the other. ‘Now, my boy,’ says I, ‘you and me’s going to play a duet, and I hope you’ll like it.’ He made a devil of a row. When the warders got in, I was a bit tired myself, but he was in a bad mess, and his concertina was smashed to smithereens. He didn’t play any more. They had me up, of course, over the business, but the visiting magistrate dismissed the case, saying my conduct deserved praise rather than punishment. He was right, too!”

“Since I’ve been out, though, I’ve got on pretty well. Big Clarke is very kind to me, and wants me to live on one of his stations for the rest of my life. But I prefer to knock about a bit. Sometimes I stay awhile at one of his places, and sometimes I go to see my sister. But I have an adventure now and again. Last time I went to see my sister, I found some surveyors at work on her place, and I asked her what they were doing there. She said they were surveying it, because someone had made a claim to it. You see she had no title, but had lived on it nearly long enough to get possessory title. My blood was up, and I wasn’t going to see the sister and the children done out of their bit of land. So I took my gun and rode out after those surveyors. I came on them, and ordered them to clear out. They said they didn’t take orders from old swagmen. ‘Then, by God,’ says I, ‘you’ll take orders from me. I’m Harry Power, the bushranger who always kept his word, and I give you my word now that if you ain’t on your horses and away inside two minutes I’ll shoot you in your tracks.’ Lord, it was fun to see them. They dropped their fixings and ran for their horses. Just to frighten them thoroughly, I rode after them about 10 miles. Their fixings are at the sister’s now. They never called for them, and I don’t think they will so long as they know I’m alive!”

If my memory serves, the old man lived long enough to see his sister get the coveted title. The A.A.A.S. excursion to Gippsland was, however, only to be a pleasure-trip, so Harry Power’s services as a guide were not required, I never met him again.

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