Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Monday 24 November 1873, page 2



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

Written by J. E. Calder.


It was never the policy of Howe’s party, to remain long in one place; so getting rid of their booty amongst their confederates, they made off for the midland districts, and were at Scantlings or York Plains a day or two afterwards. The main road ran through these plains then, so they took up their quarters within view of it, in case of any thing in their particular line passing that way. But Mr. Stocker’s late surprise, seems to have been a caution to others, and they caught nothing except one poor penniless traveller, who chanced to be sauntering about there, and who fell into the net of course.

But notwithstanding the dulness of the road whilst they were at York Plains, they did not pass their time in inaction, and for want of something better to do, they drove in forty or fifty head of Styne’s and Troy’s cattle, and slaughtered them all for their tallow, rendering it down quite professionally, or rather making others do it for them, who they unceremoniously pressed into the service from a rather distant stock station, and worked them like horses for three days, disposing of the proceeds amongst certain friends of theirs, and facetiously naming the place “the Tallow Chandler’s shop,” in honour of this adventure.

Not being able to get anything out of the prisoner Yorke, who fell into their hands on the 27th November, they made the best use of him that they could, and as he happened to be going to Hobart Town, they made him the bearer of a letter to Colonel Davey, which ought to have a place in the “Complete Letter-writer” of half a century ago, as a masterpiece of impudence and contemptuous disrespect of the Governor. This is the letter spoken of by the old colonial historian W. C. Wentworth, in his history of New South Wales and Tasmania. The death of this old colonist is recorded in the papers received by the June mail, and a portrait and brief memoir of him are given the Illustrated London News of the 27th of April 1872. His work, though quite out of date now, is still well worth reading.

It was the misfortune of the eccentric Colonel Davey, that though he had many good qualities, he had not the knack of gaining the respect of anyone. I have been told that he was one of those jovial persons whom everyone likes, but no one esteems, and was familiarly styled by his drinking acquaintances “Mad Tom the Governor.” He tolerated a large amount of familiarity from his friends, or more properly companions, which proverbially begets contempt, and this was sometimes carried to such lengths, that even this too kind-hearted man could not endure. He might be found quite as often at the Union Hotel in Campbell-street, Hobart Town, (owned, and I believe then kept by Captain Ferguson) as at Government House. From this old sailor-landlord I have heard that some of his companions carried frolic so far with him as not to be always bearable, and at last when he saw them approaching the place, he was wont to escape their half-vulgar pleasantries by flying to the sofa and feigning sleep, till they were gone, when His Honor woke up again, greatly refreshed with his slumbers, and the exeunt of his friends. It is told of him that on the day of his landing here, he conducted himself in a very odd and ungovernor-like manner. Everyone knew that he was going to land publicly at a certain hour, and the bulk of the population poured forth to see the ceremony and give him the best welcome they could. The day was, as the good old fellow expressed it, “As hot as hell,” and when he lauded he answered the hurrahs of the crowd, not by taking off his hat to them, but by pulling off his coat, and made the best of his way up to Government House in his shirt-sleeves, at the head of the noisy tatterdemalions who followed him.

The bushrangers had no more respect for him than others had, and addressed him accordingly. They did indeed acknowledge that they were rather troubled by the military, but seemed to be quite indifferent about himself, and say a good deal that is not too complimentary, of the Governor. The concluding passage of their letter is very rich, as also a preceding one, in which they declare their belief that the Almighty will protect them from all designs against them, and that to destroy them is impossible — a prediction which was terribly falsified before very long.

This letter of Howe and his party is often mentioned by writers on the early history of Tasmania, and though once published, I believe there is but one copy of it extant, except a reprint of it in The Mercury of 22nd March last. For the benefit of those who may not have seen it, but who are curious in such matters, and who may like to know in what language they addressed the chief authority, I transcribe it from your paper exactly, preserving all its orthographical and other errors, and curious superfluity of capital letters:

“From the Bushrangers to the Honble. T. Davey, Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land.

“Sir— “We have thought proper to write these Lines to you — As We have Been Kept In the Dark so long — We find it is only to keep us Quiet untill By some Means of or other you think you Can Get us Betrayed But We will stand it No Longer We Are Determined to have it full And satisfactory Either for or Against us As we are determined to Be Kept no longer In Ignorance We think ourselves Greatly Injured By the Country At large In Laying To Hour Charge that Hored and Detestable Crime which We have fully satisfied the Eyes of the Publick In All our Actions To the Contrary During our Absence from the Settlement – I Have Not the least Doubt But you Are Glad that those New Hands goining us We Are Glad also though you think I Dare say they Will prove to our Disadvantage And We think to the contrary And He who preserved us from your plotts In Publick will Likewise Preserve Us from them In secret as we Are Not unacquainted with Your haveing A party In secret And Likewise where they are And where we As Much Inclined to take Life As you Are in Your Hearts We Could Destroy All the partyes you can send out And Without We Have A Little Quietness More than What We have Had you shall soon Be convinced of what I say Therefore if you Wish to prevent it send word out By the Bearer Richard Westlick* which we Expect To Return on the 9th of the ensuing Month With An Answer To Us Don ‘ot think to Defraud Us By sending out A party on this head for if you do Take Away the Mans Life if they Are Either with him Or Watching him for We Will Be watching Likewise You must Not think to Catch Hold Birds with Chaff Therefore To Affirm the Answer Either for or Against us that We will Receive Clap on it the Kings Seal And your Signature we have weighed well within our own Brests the Consequences that will Attend to these Siccumstances Therefore I would Have you Do the same for the Good of the Peaceable And Well Disposed Inhabitants of the Territorys of this Land So No More at Present

Michl Howe Richd Colier (i.e. Collier) Matthew Keggan (i.e. Keegan)

Jas Garry (i.e. Geary) John Chapman John Brown

Peter Septon Thomas Coyne Dennis Curry

George Jones James Parker

Nov 30 1816″

This letter was duly placed in the hands of the Governor by their messenger, who they detained for some time whilst it was being written, and whilst Geary swore them all, one by one, to fulfil the threats contained in it, if need should be. Not having their Bibles with them, they took the oath on some other book, which did just as well. Many commands were laid on Yorke, and he was entrusted with some messages from Howe himself, of a most menacing nature, particularly to the chief magistrate, Mr. Humphrey, and another. Tell them, said he “to take care of themselves, as we are resolved to take their lives, and to prevent them from keeping stock, or growing grain, unless there is something done for us. Tell Humphrey he may reap what grain he likes, but that we can thrash more in an hour, than he can reap in a year.” … “I was detained” says Yorke, “about three quarters of an hour, during which time he charged me to be strict, in making known, what he had said to me, and what I had seen,” &c. He was then allowed to depart.

Whether Mr. Westlick brought back a reply or not, is more than I can say; but if so, it does not seem to have been a favourable one, for they continued at their old practices, until they were all shot, hanged, or otherwise disposed of.

Some time after writing the above letter, two of the party acceded from the main body, and remained about York Plains after the others left. Here they were joined by a third man named Elliott, and were overtaken, 15th of March, 1817, at this place, by a party of the 46th commanded by Ensign Mahon, and a plucky fight took place, in which Chapman and Elliott were shot dead by the soldiers, and the other escaping a little longer, was finally taken by a once well-known settler named Kimberly.

During the last week of Colonel Davey’s Government, Howe and his party paid another visit to Pittwater, where they conducted themselves in a very extraordinary manner, but without violence or even rudeness. Their bravado deportment is thus described by a writer of this period. “In some houses they remained several hours, and appeared complete masters of the settlement, commanding with undaunted authority wherever they went; and were not in the least intimidated at the fate of their companions recently shot at Scantling’s Plains,” that is Chapman and Elliott. They left the settlement without plundering any one, except of a small quantity of provisions.

Immediately after this prank, the Government of Colonel Davey closed; and on the 9th of April 1817, Sorell reigned in his stead.

As the last named officer was coming up the river Derwent on the 8th, the ship was boarded by Captain Nairn, from whom he received an account of the state of the colony, and much information about the bushrangers then at large; and he at once commenced to concert measures to put them down, even before landing. He seems to have learned from Nairn, that the chief cause of the successes of these fugitives, and their very existence in the woods, was the connivance they received from secret confederates, who were far more numerous than themselves, and were the real cause of all the mischief, and that the bushrangers were, as it seemed to him, then a stranger, more nominally then really principals in the outrages of the times, and he therefore dealt his first blows at them. His Gazette proclamation against these inciters to violence, is dated the 14th of April, but it was really drawn up before he landed. But he does not seem at this early period of his rule, to have quite understood the extent of the criminality of the outlaws, so well as he did that of those who encouraged them, or he would certainly have modified one passage of it, which offers something very like amnesty to all who chose to lend a helping hand to root out these supporters of the bushranging classes. The passage in question may be understood differently by some, from the view I take of it, but to me it does not seem to exclude the bushrangers themselves from its advantages; and after events, confirm me in my translation of its meaning, for Howe himself (who at this time had quarrelled with, and separated himself from his. party) was the very first man to claim the benefit of the Proclamation, and Sorell actually accepted his proffer of service to put down bushranging. This act of the new Governor was amongst the very few errors committed by him whilst here.

In wishing to punish those instigators to disorder, Sorell seems to have been actuated by feelings similar to those, that used to regulate the conduct of Sir Godfrey Kneller on the Magisterial bench, who once dismissed a prisoner who was brought before him, on a charge of robbing his employer, and sent the prosecutor to goal instead, for purposely putting temptation in his way. The story is told by several old writers, and Pope speaks of it thus in one of his poems.

” Faith! In such case, if you should prosecute,

I think Sir Godfrey should decide the suit.

Who sent the thief that stole the cash away,

And punished him who put it in his way.”

The Proclamation above spoken of, appeared when Howe was at the Tea Tree Brush by himself, having as above stated, quarrelled, with Geary and the rest of his old bush confreres, He wrote at once to Sorell offering to surrender, whereupon the Governor accepted Captain Nairn’s offer to bell the cat, that is to negotiate personally with Howe in his lair to accept Governmental clemency; and after a good deal of parleying, the solitary outcast was safely lodged in the Hobart Town Gaol on the 29th of April, or just three weeks after the Governor’s arrival. This seemed to be one great step gained in the way of restoring quiet, but it did not prove so.

In one of Sorell’s early despatches to his official superior the Governor-in-Chief at Sydney, which relates to this transaction, he informs him that he actually gave Captain Nairn a conditional pardon for Howe “for all offences, murder excepted, * * * upon the condition of his detailing all transactions, pointing out all accomplices, and using his utmost efforts in aiding the troops to find his companions.” And he then goes on to say that he considers “the acquisition of this man of the first importance” and adds “Permit me to solicit your Excellency’s favourable consideration of the case of Howe, and to entreat in the strongest terms, that in the event of his doing his utmost for the detection of his accomplices and abettors, you will be pleased to add to my pressing recommendation, your Excellency’s powerful support in the transmission of his case to the Throne.” (Despatch 3rd May, 1817.) The above extracts are copied exactly from this extraordinary despatch.

Howe’s implication in the deaths of Carlisle and O’Birne, did not deter him from accepting the Governor’s terms, Perhaps he thought that his share in these deplorable transactions, could not be brought home to him, as none but his own mates could swear he was present, except his companion Black Mary, who though the cause of the conviction of another for this offence, namely Collier, was not likely to swear against Howe, and this view of the case probably presented itself to both Governors, for two or three months afterwards, the Governor in Chief, Macquarie, promised to exert himself in his favour.

But Howe was always a child of misfortune as well as crime, from the commencement of active life; and either through the mistake or treachery of a trusted accomplice, Edward Beagent, the intelligence of Macquarie’s real intentions to pardon him, never reached him till too late, when he seems to have got some inkling of it, but not before he had quite done for himself with Sorell.

On his arrival in Hobart Town, he was placed in gaol; but Sorell says he was more nominally than really a prisoner, and was allowed to walk about the town pretty much as he liked, but always in charge of a constable, three of whom were told off for this service, Dodding, Ambridge, and Parsons, who took it in turn and turn about to keep an eye on him, as he was a slippery customer at best. What leisure he had either when unable or not disposed to go out, he employed for his own profit, in knitting certain woollen articles, at which it seems he was an adept. He underwent at this time frequent examinations, before Sorell and his old acquaintance Humphrey, about his past career, and above all who were the secret accomplices of himself and party. Of these persons (all of whom he seems to have regarded with small affection, for any one of them would have betrayed him had they dared), he gave ample intelligence; but very little evidence of worth could be extracted from him, that was likely to damage his old mates. In this respect, he seems to have resembled the familiar Guido Faux, who even when under torture, to force him to impeach his companions in the famous Gunpowder Plot, remained faithful to the last, or at least refused to tell enough to implicate them.

Once after his surrender, he accompanied a party of military (Despatch 10th May, 1817) in search of Geary and the rest of his old mates; but even though he had had a bitter quarrel with, and had separated from them shortly before his surrender to the Government, he did as little as he could to promote the success of the search, Sorell himself assuring us that ” he did not perform any service with regard to the discovery of his associates.” (Despatch, September 13th, 1817.)

He was naturally very anxious to know his fate as soon as possible. There was at this time in the service of the Judge Advocate, either as butler or groom, an old Bushranging confrère of Howe’s of the name of Edward Beageant (whom I have named before,) with whom he contrived to have a little quiet chat in his rambles about the town. This man’s master seems to have had a better opinion of him then he deserved, and got him the coveted indulgence of a Ticket of Leave, a good deal against the Governor’s wish, who did not think much of him. Beagent undertook to let Howe know the determination of the Governor in Chief, as soon as possible after the despatch arrived; and they arranged between them what signal he was to give, if it were favorable, and what if it were not. I have explained before in what manner Howe employed his leisure, and he mostly worked at a fixed bench, that stood just outside of the old gaol gate in Murray street, which I dare say many will still remember. As soon as the despatch came down from Sydney, Beagent was to manage, either by eaves-dropping, or some other sly process, to learn how it fared with Howe; and if it were favourable, as it really was, he was to stroll past the place where Howe sat at work, and drop the words “all right,” as quietly as he could into Howe’s ear; but if it were not thus all right, he would then order him to make him a cap, thus symbolising the Executioner’s cap, that he was shortly to wear; and as Howe was a notoriously clever fellow at getting away from any one, he was then to take whatever measures seemed best at the moment for making his escape.

Months passed away, and Howe was still in gaol; and vessel after vessel came in from Port Jackson, without bringing any word concerning the doom of the prisoner; but it arrived at last, and in it (I quote from Sorell’s writings.) Macquarie “promised his intercession for pardon” for Howe. Beageant took measures to ascertain the contents of the despatch, or at least pretended to do so; but whether he was himself deceived, or wished to do Howe a disservice, I do not know, but he soon afterwards took the preconcerted quiet stroll down Murray-street, and addressing Howe, ordered him to make the cap, and then walked on his way. Howe’s countenance did not betray his inward emotions, but his heart must have sunk within him as his last hopes of life went out. It was now dusk, and watching his keeper for a minute of inattention, he was off like a deer for the woods again.

We are informed by Commissioner Bigge, it was just before this, that Howe with Beagent’s assistance, was very nearly successful in making his escape from the colony altogether, in an American vessel; but as usual with this unlucky man, he was disappointed through the captain acquainting the Government of the plot. According to Sorell’s belief—which is however rather hinted at than positively expressed—Howe at this time was not chargeable with the guilt of murder. By what train of reasoning, or by what evidence he acquitted him of participation in the deaths of Carlisle and O’Birne, I cannot undertake to explain. But it would have been well for Howe himself, and others also, had he been successful in escaping, and thus have avoided the further guilt of two dreadful deaths, that I shall shortly have to detail.

Some minutes elapsed after his flight from gaol, before his absence was observed, and the hue-and-cry raised for pursuit; so Howe had just time to call at the hut of an acquaintance that stood somewhere on Lester’s Hill, Murray street, about a third of a mile from St. David’s Cathedral, where it is supposed he obtained a small supply of provisions, and then fled directly, and had reached the woods, that were not then far off, before any pursuit began.

His flight was soon reported to the Governor, who could hardly believe it at first, as he held in his hand at the moment, the certainty of pardon for him for past offences, and to the last never knew exactly the particulars of the cause of his flight, though he seems to have guessed it pretty nearly; for writing soon afterwards to General Macquarie of this escape he says, “His object is yet a mystery; but I have reason to think that he was stimulated to go off, by its being represented to him, that his pardon was uncertain.” It was on the 28th of July that he absconded.

Where he passed, or how he spent this anxious night, is unknown, and how he managed to regain his old haunts, is equally uncertain; but he soon took to his old practices again, but now by himself, for he never rejoined his old associates, or took up with any one afterwards; but I think it must have been before recommencing his career of guilt, that he made one more effort to regain the favour of Sorell, probably after discovering the deception that had been practiced on him. But he was soon made to understand, that his case was now a hopeless one, by receiving no response to the letter that ho wrote to Sorell.

[To be continued.]

*This man, Rd. Westlick, must have been a confidential agent of Howe’s party, and not the bearer of this letter. In the Gazette of January, 11th 1817, there is a long extract from the sworn declaration of the real bearer, who is there styled John Yorke, touching the conduct of Howe and his men, whilst they had him in charge,

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