Bushranging Gazette #9

Monday, 1 November 2021

Point Gellibrand Seawall

A decaying section of convict-built sea wall at Point Gellibrand, Williamstown, has been highlighted as a site of significance by local historians, who are calling for the site to be protected.

As reported by Star Weekly, the wall was built by convicts serving time at Hobson’s Bay on the hulks, including Ned Kelly while he was imprisoned for receiving a stolen horse. Several other notable bushrangers were imprisoned on the Williamstown hulks at various times including Dan Morgan, Captain Melville and Harry Power. The famous timeball tower is a relic from that period.

We believe, and we can virtually say with 100 per cent surety, that Ned Kelly did work on it as a labourer […] The wall protected one of the colony’s first roads, named aptly Battery Road, which ran between the two main colonial batteries set up to protect us from invasion, and the southerly gales which lash the beachfront. The bluestone was quarried from the convict quarry close by and had distinctive tally marks chiseled into a single bluestone when a certain quota was met.

Geoff Dougall, maritime historian

The state government in collaboration with the local government has begun the process of restoring and preserving the wall, employing SMEC as consultants for the project. Parks Victoria and Heritage Victoria are also involved in establishing how best to proceed. No significant efforts have been made to protect or restore the sea wall since the 1960s, and the site has become a significant part of the lives of local residents. Work on the preservation is slated to begin in 2022.

National Trust to take on Pentridge Prison

Pentridge Prison has provided a conundrum since it’s closure in 1997. It has changed hands several times as developers have struggled to do anything useful with the massive complex. An aborted effort to build luxury apartments on the site of the former Jika Jika maximum security section was followed by the installation of a number of cafes, and more recently many of the original buildings have been painstakingly restored to preserve the historical features while repurposing the site as a community hub. The notorious D Division that housed the gallows, as well as inmates including Eddie Leonski, Ronald Ryan, Jean Lee and Chopper Read, has provided a venue for ghost tours, and cells in the building were leased as wine cellars. Heritage status has stymied many efforts to obliterate the most conspicuous elements of the former “bluestone college” such as it’s enormous outer walls, but now that the most historically significant buildings have been restored the National Trust has stepped up to help present Pentridge’s dark and illustrious history to the public.

A, B and H divisions will be opened to the public for the first time since the prison’s initial closure in 1997, with the warder’s residence acting as a visitor’s centre, managed by the National Trust who also manage a number of other significant historical sites across Australia and Victoria including Old Melbourne Gaol. The new venture is expected to open up in Spring 2022 and is anticipated to be a major tourist attraction. There is still some resistance in parts of the community towards embracing Pentridge as a historical site and community gathering place with playgrounds and cinemas, as the history in the location is still very recent and many locals are able to remember when it was still operating as a prison.

The Corkman who sent Ned Kelly to the gallows

The Irish Times has published an article discussing the life and times of Sir Redmond Barry. The article presents a rather balanced perspective on Barry, focused more on his achievements and character than many other pieces about the man, which prefer to cast him merely as Ned Kelly’s arch nemesis rather than looking at him from a broader viewpoint as well.

Barry’s role in the Eureka rebel trials as well as his important part in the foundations of the city of Melbourne get mentions, as well as his involvement with the Aboriginal population.

Bushranging buffs will be familiar with Barry’s frequent cameos throughout Bushranging history, popping up in the stories of scores of bushrangers including Dan Morgan and Captain Moonlite.

Berrima Gaol for Sale

The heritage listed Berrima Correctional Centre is open for prospective developers and investors as of late October 2021. Dating back to the 1830s, the site is rich in convict history, having been designed and partially constructed by convicts and been active in one capacity or another up until 2020 when it was finally considered no longer fit-for-purpose. It is expected that the site will become home to the typical fare of property developers – hotels, apartments and retail outlets – but is also anticipated to become a tourist attraction as well.

The site’s long and dark history, if properly preserved for tourists, could provide a unique and important heritage and cultural touchstone. Naturally it has connections to bushranging history, including the first man executed on the site, Paddy Curran, who had been a short-lived accomplice of William Westwood before Westwood left his company upon interrupting Curran sexually assaulting a woman. Westwood also did time at the gaol following one of his captures, but these are just two of the many, many stories connected to the site.

An enterprising bushranging enthusiast with a lazy $5-10 million could snap up the location and turn it into one big museum. Any buyer will be required to maintain the most significant heritage elements such as the exterior walls and gates, but any parts not heritage listed are free to be dealt with at the owner’s discretion.

The Drover’s Wife

While not exactly bushranger-focused, Leah Purcell’s upcoming film, The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson, looks set to tick the boxes for enthusiasts of the subject. The film is an adaptation of the story Purcell previously delivered as an award-winning play and a novel, and was inspired by a short story by Henry Lawson (though it strays wildly from the source material and becomes it’s own thing).

Leah Purcell as Molly Johnson

Due to Covid-19, the film’s release in Australia has been pushed back to May 2022, but Purcell recently gave an interview with Cowboys & Indians discussing many aspects of the film, including the importance of having stories like this presented for audiences.

Ned Kelly on Blu-ray

Imprint Films released a new, high-definition Blu-ray of Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly at the end of September. A limited edition, it improves the picture and sound considerably from previous formats, creating the best looking and best sounding edition of the film to date.

The release also comes with special features, an audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin, film trailer, and a documentary featurette. The documentary is of particular interest as it provides unique insights into the film’s troubled production history, and explains a lot of the unique setbacks faced by the predominantly UK film crew, from people who were there.

Ned Kelly is available now through Via Vision.

In slightly tangential news, this month Mick Jagger announced that The Rolling Stones would no longer play the song Brown Sugar in concert. The song, written by Jagger while in Australia filming Ned Kelly, concerns African slavery, interracial sex, violence and drug use in very provocative terms. Jagger stated that he would never write anything like that now.

While filming Ned Kelly, a prop gun exploded and injured Jagger’s right hand. For scenes filmed after the incident, Jagger kept his bandaged hand out of frame. During breaks, Jagger worked on Brown Sugar, playing an acoustic guitar that he had with him, despite the treating doctor warning him he may never be able to play again.

Our African Roots

Towards the end of October, SBS aired a feature-length documentary about African heritage in Australia, Our African Roots, which aimed to dispel the preconceived ideas that African people only arrived in Australia relatively recently and have not impacted impacted on Australia’s culture in any meaningful way. Presented by Santilla Chingaipe, who also compiled the research behind the series, it offers a unique perspective on Australia’s past.

By taking the audience back to the first fleet, the documentary establishes that African men have been here since the first ships arrived from the England. Of the dozen men of African descent who were among the first fleet, only two are given particular note, one being our first bushranger, John Caesar. The section on Caesar is exceptionally brief and light on information, but the audience is treated to some nice footage recreating Caesar in action.

John Caesar (Mohammed Osman)

Bushranging enthusiasts will be disappointed that John Caesar was not given more attention, however there is plenty of other fascinating history on offer in this special presentation. One figure given particular attention is a former convict nicknamed Billy Blue, whose influence over the development of early Sydney can be seen in a great many places and signs, but whose fame has become obscured over time. One of Billy Blue’s descendants is Australian composer Jye Bryant, who some bushranger enthusiasts will be aware wrote a recent musical about Captain Moonlite, and who appears in the documentary to discuss the musical he has written about this fascinating figure. Perhaps the most covered figure in the production is first fleeter John Randall whose lineage is one of the most intriguing in Australian history that even manages to incorporate a link to Don Bradman’s “Invincibles”, and would easily warrant a documentary all its own. There is a book to be released connected to the documentary, also written by Santilla Chingaipe, the details of which are to be confirmed.

Our African Roots is available to view on SBS On Demand.

New Gold Mountain

SBS treated Australian history buffs this month to a new miniseries inspired by the trials and tribulations of the Chinese miners on the Australian goldfields entitled New Gold Mountain. The series follows a murder mystery that brings together several otherwise very separate lives all around the diggings.

For casual viewers who are used to commercial television that throws then a cliffhanger every ten minutes before an ad break, New Gold Mountain may seem too slow. It takes its time to tease out the clues and relationships, building a sense of mystery and intrigue. The highlights are definitely in the middle two episodes more than the end pieces, with all sorts of drama unfolding and little historical nods throughout, such as the arrival of Lola Montez who performs her infamous “spider dance”, and refugees from the Chinese camp following the Buckland riots.

The Chinese protector in the series is Captain Frederick Standish (Dan Spielman), who is clearly meant to be an interpretation of the historical counterpart of the same name, who later became the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police. Standish is best remembered for his role in the creation of the Melbourne Cup and the pursuit of the Kelly Gang.

It should be noted that there are no “bushrangers” in the series, though there is a camp of outlaws in the bush, and a brief shootout between them and a posse that is searching for them. Perhaps in a future series we might see bushrangers in a more prominent role as the gold rush saw a boom in bushranging, and often saw Chinese miners robbed, or in the case of Sam Poo, actually turn to bushranging themselves.

An “outlaw” in New Gold Mountain

The filming was done predominantly at the famous gold rush theme park Sovereign Hill in Ballarat, Victoria, which gives the location a historically accurate look while also having the necessary lived-in appearance. Oddly, the costumes for the extras were period accurate, likely due to them being regular performers at Sovereign Hill with their own costumes, but the leads look completely anachronistic. Shing and other Chinese characters who opt for western clothing look like they have stepped out of the 1870s, and Shing’s hat, considered a key piece of his costume by the designer and director, resembles a modern day Akubra more than anything available in the 1850s. Newspaper proprietor Belle Roberts, on the other hand, dresses like it is 1900, with a light shirt, waistcoat, skirt and straw hat, which would have been considered unseemly in the era the show is set, but is evidently meant to represent her bucking the trends of the society and assuming a more masculine role, which works artistically but not historically as presented. The police uniforms are also from the 1870s, but oddly these goldfields police are in mounted police uniforms, complete with leather shako and white breeches, which are vastly different from the uniforms worn by goldfields police, or even mounted police, of the time. Such things are cosmetic though, and shouldn’t be considered a reflection on the quality of the overall production, which is excellent, especially by Australian standards.

The series is full of excellent performances from the main cast, especially Yonson An as headman Leung Wei Shing and Mabel Li as the terrifying Zhang Lei. The ending implies we may get to see a second series, hopefully following the further adventures of Shing and Hattie (portrayed by Leonie Whyman). The soundtrack by Caitlin Yeo is superb, and evokes the strong emotions of the series while also creating a blend of eastern and western musical sounds that reflects the setting of the show.

New Gold Mountain is available to stream on SBS On Demand. You can also learn more about the show’s characters here.

This month on A Guide to Australian Bushranging

A Limited Series from the Archives

TASMANIAN HISTORY.

EARLY TROUBLES OF THE COLONISTS

Illustrated by a Sketch of the Career of Michael Howe, “The last and worst of the Bushrangers.”

Written by J. E. Calder.

An eight part serial penned by colonial historian James Erskine Calder, first published in the 1870s, detailing the story of the most infamous bushranger in Tasmanian history – Michael Howe. Calder draws from historical records, contemporary reports and interviews to record the most accurate account of the life and times of Howe and his confederates possible, debunking many myths, misconceptions, inaccuracies and fabrications popularised by other authors, which have taken root in the common understanding of the story.

Unfolding on A Guide to Australian Bushranging over 8 days from 16 November, 2021.

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