Forgotten Bushrangers: The Leabrook Bushrangers

One of the more enigmatic tales associated with the history of bushranging is that of the so-called “Leabrook Bushrangers”. While most cases of bushranging are fairly clear cut, this 1909 cold case sees the definition of what can fall under the banner of bushranging stretched to its outer limits.

We begin our story in Adelaide Hospital, South Australia. Medical staff are doing all they can for a policeman who has been brought in with a terrible wound in his jaw. An article in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner gives some of the details:

While in the execution of his duty in Eastry-street. Knightsbridge. (S.A.). Constable William Hyde was shot in the jaw, and now lies in the Adelaide Hospital in a precarious condition. It appears that Constable Hyde had arrested one of three suspicious characters who were lurking in the neighbourhood, and while taking the man to the lockup companions of the prisoner sought to effect his release. After some scuffling one of the men produced a revolver, and fired five shots at the constable, one of which lodged in the officer’s jaw. They then made off in the darkness, and the constable was found by a passer-by. Bleeding profusely, and in a semi-conscious condition. An alarm was given, and the wounded constable taken to the hospital. A diligent search for the assailants was made with the aid of black trackers, but no arrests have yet been reported. Hyde is 35 years of age. and a popular member of the force. The doctors hold out no hope of his recovery.

Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1889 – 1915), Saturday 9 January 1909, page 5

Constable William Hyde had been shot on 2 January and succumbed to his injuries two days later. It would emerge that the desperate robbers had been cornered in an alleyway while trying to escape after being busted in the act of initiating a robbery at the tramway office. Seeing no escape, they fired at Hyde who was grappling one of them. The shot hit him in the face and smashed his jaw.

Source: Gadfly (Adelaide, SA : 1906 – 1909), Wednesday 6 January 1909, page 9

Even in 1909, with the use of telegraphs being commonplace and allowing for faster transmission of information than ever before in history, the news of the horrific crime didn’t reach New South Wales until several days after the worst fears of the doctors were realised. Though this was a vast improvement over the speed of information in the early days of bushranging, it meant that locating the fugitives, if they had ventured into New South Wales, would be nigh on impossible.

Adelaide, Thursday. — The remains of Constable William Hyde, the victim of the Knight’s bridge outrage, whose tragic death aroused so much sympathy, were buried yesterday in the West Terrace Cemetery. Amongst those in attendance were the premier (Mr. Price), the Chief Secretary (Mr. Kirkpatrick), the Minister for Education (Mr. Coneybeere), and the Commissioner of Police. All branches of the police force were represented. A company of 123 police, including 13 members of the mounted force, marched in front of the horses. The lines of sympathetic onlookers were unbroken, and probably over 10,000 paid their last respects to the dead officer, while it is estimated that 6000 were present at the graveside.

Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1930), Friday 8 January 1909, page 5

Public sentiment at the time was seemingly one of outrage, as is to be expected. A reward of £250 for the capture of the suspected bushrangers was offered, though without descriptions or names it was not going to be easy to prove that anyone brought in was guilty. The reward was raised in February, with predictable results.

The Government have decided to increase from £250 to £500 the reward offered for information leading to the conviction of the murderer of the late Constable Hyde at Knightsbridge on the night of January 2.

Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 – 1931), Tuesday 2 February 1909, page 6

Police in South Australia and New South Wales kept in communication to try and identify leads. It was generally believed that the guilty men had headed into New South Wales, rather than Victoria, Western Australia, or the Northern Territory. In late February, police in Sydney seemed to pick up a lead that they felt had strong potential:

The Sydney police have sent word to Adelaide that they have reason to believe that two men whom they have in custody were implicated in the shooting of Constable Hyde at Kensington. Their names are given as Percy McKay and William Roberts and they have been committed for trial in Sydney on a charge of having stolen jewellery.

Mount Barker Courier and Onkaparinga and Gumeracha Advertiser (SA : 1880 – 1954), Friday 26 February 1909, page 2

No doubt this would have caused considerable consternation among the communities back in South Australia. Now it has become a waiting game as the two men were put on trial. Had the Sydney Police really found the killers?

Percy McKay and William Robertson, two young men, were committed for trial at the Sydney Police Court on Monday for stealing jewellery from a dwelling, and the Sub-Inspector of police objected to bail being granted because they were good grounds for believing that the accused were implicated in the shooting of a police-constable in Adelaide recently. The magistrate thereupon refused bail. The policeman referred to was Constable Hyde, who was shot on January 2 last, and who died shortly afterwards.

Narracoorte Herald (SA : 1875 – 1954), Friday 26 February 1909, page 3

Despite the confidence from the Sydney Police, it would soon transpire that these men were not the shooters at all, and thus the supposed “good grounds” for believing it was McKay and Robertson were fairly dubious. The police were back to square one with no new leads.

As the hope around the case faded to despair, locals decided that the least they could do was to arrange some form of memorial to the slain officer. More than half a year later, with no new developments, plans were put in motion:

Seven months have elapsed since Constable William Hyde was murdered at Knightsbridge and, unfortunately, his murderers are still at large. Some time ago a committee of local residents was formed for the purpose of perpetuating the memory of the constable, and it was decided to plant an oak tree, to be surrounded by an ornamental tree-guard, on the spot where he was shot, at Eastry-street, Knightsbridge, near the Marryatville school. The ceremony of planting the tree will take place tomorrow at 3.30 p.m. Mr. Peter Wood, acting chairman of the Burnside District Council, will plant the tree, in the presence of members, of the Kensington and Norwood District Council, and the children attending the Marryatville school.

Express and Telegraph (Adelaide, SA : 1867 – 1922), Tuesday 3 August 1909, page 4

The memorial tree was eventually replaced with a plaque that was installed at the fence of the house that was subsequently built on the site, then later affixed to the shop that replaced the demolished house. A memorial garden was opened in 1981, and in 2021 a new sculpture was unveiled there depicting Hyde’s uniform and a newspaper reporting on the incident that took his life.

The culprits were never identified and therefore the case went cold with nobody ever held to account for the murder that shocked the Knightsbridge community. To this day it is referred to by some as a bushranging case, but it lacks the hallmarks of bushranging — specifically, the crime took place in a town and there was no evidence that the criminals resided in the bush. We will likely never find out who did the crime, but as the criminals have disappeared into the fog of time and become forgotten, Constable Hyde is remembered for his bravery and dedication to his duty.

The sculpture at the Constable Hyde Memorial Garden [Source]

You can read more about this case here:

Click to access An-Unsolved-Crime.pdf

John Francis Peggotty: The Birdman of Coorong

The story of John Francis Peggotty is one of the most bizarre in bushranging only made more bizarre by the fact that it seems to be nothing more than an elaborate urban myth perpetuated by an enthusiastic tourism board. South Australia can’t lay claim to many bushrangers, and certainly none of the calibre of those found in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania so why did this story capture the imagination? The short answer is novelty.

According to the stories John Francis Peggotty was born three months premature in Limerick, Ireland in 1864. As an eighteen year old he travelled to South Africa where he learned to ride ostriches (ostrich racing being a popular sport there). Peggotty’s tiny, underdeveloped frame was ideal for the pursuit of riding large flightless birds and he became wildly proficient. For reasons undetermined, Peggotty left South Africa for England where he went on a crime spree, his tiny body effortlessly sliding down chimneys to give him access to homes where he could pilfer all he desired like some sort of strange reverse-Santa Claus. Getting nabbed and doing time in gaol did nothing to deter the tiny Irishman and he set his sights on Australia and joined his uncle’s farm in New South Wales. Farming proved to be unappealing to Peggotty and he took his leave and went to South Australia where he soon took up a life of lawlessness.

Peggotty resumed his crime career with his unique modus operandi but it wasn’t long before Peggotty in a Fagin-esque manner began recruiting urchins to join him in his exploits, teaching them his tricks for stealthy break and enter. Peggotty would not trade his ill-gotten gains for cash as many would presume, but rather took much pleasure in wearing the stolen jewellery and was frequently seen bedecked in gold chains of various sizes, glimmering rings and jangling bracelets. Adorned in jewellery and little else, Peggotty was a weird figure indeed.


Tiring of the break-and-enter business Peggotty decided to take inspiration from the likes of Captain Thunderbolt and Frank Gardiner and go bush and become a highwayman. Unable to mount a horse because of his size Peggotty took advantage of the birds brought to South Australia for the lucrative ostrich feather trade, liberating a bird and riding it like it was a gallant steed. Peggotty bailed up travellers throughout the Coorong on his ostrich, liberating them of anything that crinkled or tinkled before word began to spread that this impish outlaw had become a veritable menace. Choosing to haunt the region by the shores of Lake Albert with its towering walls of sand, Peggotty atop his fowl steed was irrepressible. The police soon set out in search of the so-called “Birdman of the Coorong”.

Gallant Steed: Peggotty preferred avian mounts to equine ones

In a short time Peggotty had numerous robberies and two murders to his name and a sizeable reward on his head. Things came to a head when the birdman attempted to rob a fisherman named Henry Carmichael on 17 September of 1899. Carmichael was not in the mood for such nonsense from who he thought was no more than a juvenile delinquent at first but soon realised from the bushranger’s quirky steed that this was the infamous Birdman. Grabbing his rifle and levelling it at Peggotty, Carmichael was determined to claim the reward. Peggotty knew not to mess around and took off, the ostrich leaving Carmichael in the dust. As bullets whizzed past him, Peggotty ducked and weaved but the fisherman was far too proficient and a bullet struck the ostrich and brought it down. Peggotty tumbled to the ground and another bullet penetrated the delicate frame of the bushranger who crawled into the undergrowth and seemingly vanished, never to be seen or heard from again. Some say that beneath the mountainous sand dunes is a tiny skeleton wearing a small fortune in gold and jewellery waiting to be found.

In all probability the lack of records and contemporary news articles indicates that this is in fact pure myth. That Peggotty is a name plucked straight from the works of Charles Dickens also gives it away. That hasn’t stopped the powers that be from using the tale of the Birdman to foster tourism in the Coorong in a bid to help the district recover after a particularly nasty period of drought that caused quite a lot of pain to the locals. The tale is a cracking yarn full of adventure and humour that aims to connect South Australia to the great bushranging tales of the Eastern states. It is also a fantastic way of creating a bit of legend around the wild ostriches of the Coorong, large flightless birds imported for their feathers but let loose when they were either released or escaped. it may not be the truth but it is a cracking good yarn.

Tourist Attraction: Have you got what it takes to be a Birdman?


“Aye, Aye Captain”: The Captains of Bushranging

While there have been a great many nicknames and nom de plumes for bushrangers, nothing caught on in quite the same way as the tendency to call bushrangers “Captain”, but why the militaristic prefix? Perhaps the origin lies in the names given to the legendary highwaymen of the British Isles and America many of these bushrangers would have grown up hearing about like Captain Gallagher, Captain Hollyday, Captain Lightfoot and his associate Captain Thunderbolt. Furthermore, the titles the bushrangers gave themselves were on occasion even mimicked by copycat bushrangers. Here we see a selection of the most notable bushranging captains ranging from the obscure to the legendary.

1. Harry Readford, aka Captain Starlight

Henry Readford was the main inspiration for the character of Captain Starlight in Robbery Under Arms though he did not use this pseudonym himself. He was born in Mudgee, New South Wales but lived in Queensland as a young man. While working as a stockman in Longreach he devised a plan to steal cattle along with two accomplices, George Dewdney and William Rooke. The men stole 1000 cattle and herded them through the Strzelecki desert to South Australia. Readford was soon arrested and put on trial in Roma where he was found not guilty. Readford continued his stock theft however and did time in Brisbane for horse stealing. Readford died from drowning in 1901 while attempting to swim across Corella Creek during a flood. While Readford does not technically fit the description of “bushranger” as his crimes were not strictly committed from the bush, nor did he seek refuge in the bush to escape authorities, his contribution as inspiration for the greatest fictional bushranger warrants his inclusion in this list.

2. Frank Pearson, aka Captain Starlight

The other Captain Starlight is somewhat of an enigma. On his records it claims he was born in London but Pearson would rarely tell the same origin story twice and was at various times known to claim he was born in America or Mexico. He was also prone to using so many aliases that it was almost impossible to keep tabs on his movements – which was presumably the idea. What is known is that he arrived in Australia in 1866 and kept a reasonably low profile before taking to crime in 1868 as “Doctor Pearson”. Teaming up with a chap named Charley Rutherford he robbed post offices and stations in northern New South Wales, generally making themselves a lawless reputation that prompted police to hunt them down. Pearson and Rutherford intercepted the police party as they were gathering supplies in a store and there was a shoot out that resulted in Constable McCabe being shot in the chest and Pearson being shot in the arm and wrist. McCabe would later die form his injury. The bushrangers fled and stole horses to aide their escape before splitting along the Darling River. Pearson continued to Mount Gunderbooka where the authorities had sealed off access to the waterholes. Pearson was captured in a cave severely dehydrated and suffering from bull-ant bites. He was tried for murder, found guilty and sentenced to death. The death sentence was commuted however to fifteen years imprisonment in Darlinghurst Gaol. During this time Pearson studied art and in particular became exceedingly good at crafting stained glass windows, one of which was donated to the local church. When Pearson was freed in 1884 he allegedly returned to bushranging, some claiming he helped stick up a police station in South Australia and locking the police in their own cells (a crime also attributed to Captain Moonlite who had been dead for four years by that point). Pearson spent the rest of his days in Queensland where he got himself in trouble for forgery and obataining goods under false pretenses. After doing time in St Helena he ended up in Toowoomba prison and eventually headed to Western Australia where he continued to spread fanciful stories about himself and ended up working for the Western Australia Geological Survey, dying in 1899 after drunkenly swallowing cyanide tablets.

3. Thomas Smith, aka Captain Midnight 

parramatta gaol
Parramatta Gaol

Captain Midnight is yet another enigma who operated mostly in the Dubbo region in the 1870s. He had scores of aliases and started out as a cattle thief for which he was given 5 years in Bathurst Gaol. He was released early and went straight back into crime doing time at Darlinghurst and Parramatta. Midnight escaped Parramatta Gaol in 1872 and was soon making a nuisance of himself with accomplices, specialising in stealing cattle in Queensland and selling them in New South Wales.  After an incident in September 1878 when an accomplice was nabbed in Marthaguy, Midnight was intercepted by Senior-Sergeant Wallings, Senior-Constable Souter and Constable Walsh. In the ensuing chaos Midnight shot Wallings in the chest, killing him before riding off on Wallings’ horse. Midnight was soon tracked down and captured on Cuttaburra Creek by a party led by Sub-Inspector Francis Duffy. The police shot Midnight in the body and killed his horse before arresting him. He was taken to Old Wapweelah Homestead where he died from his wounds saying he’d lived like a dog and wanted to die like one.

4. Andrew George Scott, aka Captain Moonlite

moonlite mugshot

Andrew Scott, as has been discussed in other articles here, was an Irishman from Rathfriland who moved to New Zealand and fought in the Maori Wars. He was a trained civil engineer and when he moved to Australia in 1868 he became a lay reader for the Church of England in Bacchus Marsh then later in Mount Egerton. When he was embroiled in a bank robbery in Mount Egerton, Scott quit the church and moved to Sydney where he soon ended up in prison for using dodgy cheques. After he was released he was re-arrested and extradited back to Victoria where he was tried and found guilty of robbing the bank in Mount Egerton using the alias Captain Moonlite. Scott escaped from Ballarat Gaol and was transferred to Pentridge Prison where he met James Nesbitt. Once out of gaol he tried doing a lecture tour on prison reform but was harassed by police and decided to move back to New South Wales, accompanied by his friends Nesbitt, Tom Williams, Tom Rogan and Gus Wernicke. Starving and broke Scott tried to get food, shelter or work at Wantabadgery Station but was turned away. That night he snapped and decided to live up to his reputation as Captain Moonlite and stick up the station. The gang held the station and its occupants captive and had a stoush with police from Wagga Wagga, but forced the police to retreat and stole their horses. The next day the gang were intercepted by police from Gundagai and in the gunfight that spilled over to McGlede’s farm, Nesbitt, Wernicke and Constable Webb-Bowen were fatally wounded, the bushrangers dying there and the policeman a few days later. Scott and the other surviving bushrangers were put on trial and found guilty of the murder of Constable Webb-Bowen. Scott and Tom Rogan were sentenced to death and hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol in January 1880.

5. Frederick Wordsworth Ward, aka Captain Thunderbolt


Frederick Ward was Australian born and grew up in Windsor, New South Wales. His first brush with the law was when he was gaoled for horse stealing with his cousin. In 1863 he and another prisoner, Fred Britten, escaped from Cockatoo Island prison by swimming across Sydney Harbour. Fred Ward then took to bushranging as Captain Thunderbolt around Uralla. He was accompanied by his wife a half-Aboriginal woman named Mary Ann Bugg, and formed a gang with Tom Hogan, Tom McIntosh and John Thompson. During a shootout Thompson was shot and the two Toms fled to Queensland. Thunderbolt formed a second gang with Jemmy the Whisperer and Pat Kelly but that gang fell apart when Jemmy shot a policeman. When Mary Ann was arrested and gaoled for vagrancy, Thunderbolt worked with a lad named Thomas Mason until Mason was arrested in 1867. Thunderbolt then worked with another half-Aboriginal woman known as Yellow Long, who died of pneumonia while on the run. When Mary Ann got out of gaol she and Thunderbolt were reunited but not for long as they now had four children together and Mary Ann needed to look after them. For a time Thunderbolt worked with a boy named William Monckton who later surrendered to police. Things came to an end when Thunderbolt was chased by Constable Walker to Kentucky Creek and shot dead. Even though the body was positively identified as Fred Ward some people believe that he escaped and there was a cover-up to hide that someone died in his place.

6. Frank McCallum, aka Captain Melville

Francis McNeish McNeill McCallum was a colourful character indeed. He was born at sea but raised in Scotland and from his teens used aliases to obscure his actions. He was transported to Van Diemans Land in 1837 for house breaking and served time at Point Puer Boys prison at Port Arthur. For years the teenager was flogged and kept in solitary confinement until gaining his first taste of freedom by going bush with a boy named Stanton – it didn’t last long. When McCallum was eventually liberated he went bush and the legend of Captain Melville began. There were claims that Melville lived with Aboriginals before crossing the Strait to Victoria in 1851. Melville appears to have operated around the northern part of the colony in areas like Ballan, Inglewood and Mount Macedon. The Melville caves in Mount Kooyoorah and Mount Arapiles as well as the Melville Forest are claimed to be named after him. The stories about Melville are many and few of them can be substantiated, though his reputation is as a charming highwayman who would occasionally stick up a station for a good meal and a pleasant sing-along. In 1852 he teamed up with William Robert Roberts and decided to make their fortunes from the diggings – by robbing the miners. By working the roads around the Ballarat diggings they made themselves a small fortune and made the poor decision to treat themselves to a night at a brothel. After a few too many drinks Melville let slip about the reward on his head and a prostitute escaped to notify the authorities. After attempting to steal a police horse to escape on Captain Melville and Roberts were arrested and taken to Geelong Gaol. When he was finally tried in 1853 by judge Redmond Barry, he was sentenced to 32 years imprisonment for highway robbery – by the time he would get out of  prison he would be an old man and this realisation did not make him a cooperative captive. Taken to the prison hulk Success he tried to bite off a warder’s nose and spent 20 days in solitary confinement. Each day the work party would be rowed from the moored ship to the land where they were employed building a wharf among other amenities. During the transfer one day Melville and two accomplices bashed Constable Owens and threw him overboard and a fellow convicts was killed. Melville was sentenced to life imprisonment in Melbourne Gaol where he attempted to murder the gaol governor. In the end Frank McCallum, alias Captain Melville, was found dead in his cell where he had strangled himself to death.

7. John Kerney, aka Captain Thunderbolt

South Australia had its own Captain Thunderbolt in the form of John Kerney, the son of a cabinet maker. Living in Adelaide, 22 year old Kerney decided to follow in the footsteeps of the infamous highwaymen of New South Wales teamed up with his brother David and a friend called Thomas Field and stole a shotgun before going bush in 1866. Along the way they added Thomas Creamer, John Martin, and Robert Allen to their number. The gang would stick up travelers in the usual fashion and four innocent were arrested and convicted for the crimes. The bushrangers took to wearing black masks and on the night of 19 May 1866 broke into the home of Ann Taylor, a widow, firing their guns indiscriminately and forcing the terrified woman to the floor. They made off with Taylor’s watch and jewellery. The robberies continued with one victim refusing to back down and lashing out at Kerney with a whip. In October of 1866 the wild career of the Thunderbolt Gang came to an abrupt end when the Kerneys and Field were arrested. The boys were tried and in March 1867 they were found guilty of armed robbery and sentenced to death. This sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment in Yatala Prison, Dry Creek.