Spotlight: Westwood and Kavanagh

Stamped bricks line the pavement in Campbell Town, Tasmania, detailing the identities of convict transportees that were sent to Van Diemen’s Land.

Two of the most infamous bushrangers to have graced Tasmania’s shores, William Westwood (alias Jackey Jackey) and Lawrence Kavanagh, were both executed for their role in a deadly riot on Norfolk Island in 1846.

These two were convict transportees who had a number of escapes under their belts. Westwood in particular was known for repeatedly escaping custody and fleeing to the bush.

Westwood was mostly known for his crimes around Bungendore, which is near modern day Canberra. He had been transported for stealing a coat and pawning it, and poor treatment at the hands of his master and overseers saw him abscond from his assignment whenever possible. He developed a reputation as a “gentleman bushranger” for his quiet, polite temperament. Eventually, after multiple escapes, Westwood was shipped off to Van Diemen’s Land, where he was interred at Port Arthur – otherwise known as Hell on earth. The authorities believed it would straighten him out.

Port Arthur could barely contain Westwood, who repeatedly escaped, but typically found himself recaptured in a matter of days. On one occasion he essentially surrendered, having no food, no other supplies, and being completely naked as his clothes had been washed away when he crossed Eaglehawk Neck.

Eventually he was assigned to a station at Glenorchy, from which he escaped again with two others. They planned to escape on a boat. One abandoned them at Kempton (then known as Green Ponds), while the other stayed until they reached New Norfolk.

This incorrigible behaviour saw Westwood sent to an even worse gaol – Norfolk Island, also known as the Isle of Despair. This is where his path crossed with Kavanagh’s.

Kavanagh had been transported for burglary and spent most of his youth as a convict, transported to New South Wales in 1828 at the age of 17. Like Westwood, Kavanagh was known to escape custody and go bushranging, which saw him sent to Norfolk Island for nine years. When this didn’t straighten him out, demonstrated by another escape from Hyde Park Barracks after a transfer, he was sent to Port Arthur.

At Port Arthur he teamed up with Martin Cash and George Jones, and the trio escaped from the prison on foot. After surviving the hazardous swim across Eaglehawk Neck and the subsequent journey through the bush, they began a career of bushranging. The trio built a log fortress on Mount Dromedary and were joined by Martin Cash’s common law wife Eliza. Kavanagh’s time with the gang ended when he accidentally shot himself in the left arm while attempting to walk over uneven terrain near Bothwell. He turned himself in, but devised a bogus story about having killed the others so the authorities would stop searching for them – it didn’t work.

For his bushranging, Kavanagh was sentenced to death, but at the last minute it was commuted to Imprisonment on Norfolk Island for life. He was joined by Cash, who had miraculously cheated the hangman despite being convicted for murder. Their companion Jones unfortunately didn’t get the same leniency and was hanged.

Throughout 1846, anger had been rising among the convicts on Norfolk Island as the new administration had begun to repeal many practices introduced by the former, ousted administration, which encouraged compliance and hard work through rewards. Instead, they were punished with longer work hours, smaller rations, less privacy and more frequent floggings among other cruel and unusual punishments. In January their garden plots, with which they were permitted to grow their own vegetables, were taken away. Floggings were so frequent and so severe that the ground around the triangle was soaked with blood. Rations reduced when supplies free scarce. Promises to improve the situation were not honoured.

The breaking point was when the convicts’ utensils were confiscated by the authorities. This was the last sliver of civility the men had been permitted, and the guards were sent into the cells, while the prisoners were otherwise engaged, and removed the tin pots (from which the subsequent riot gets its name), kettles and any other implements.

When the convicts discovered the treachery, they secretly began to communicate and, the following day, William Westwood armed himself with an axe handle and incited the others to riot.

“Now my men,” said he, “I’ve made up my mind to bear this oppression no longer; but remember, I’m going to the gallows; if any man, therefore, funks, let him stand out of the way. Come on!”

Citizen (Sydney, NSW : 1846 – 1847), Saturday 31 October 1846, page 4

Westwood led on a heaving mass of furious convicts, similarly armed, as he attacked and killed four police and attempted to kill the commandant.

Soldiers soon arrived and suppressed the rioters. Fourteen were charged with the murders, twelve were convicted, including Lawrence Kavanagh and Westwood. As he awaited death, Westwood was adamant none of the other condemned men were guilty, only himself, but the execution went ahead on 13 October 1846. The bodies were dumped in a mass grave dubbed, Murderers Mound, where they remain.

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