Moonlite by Garry Linnell (Review)

In 2013 Paul Terry published what was rightly considered the most definitive account of the life of Andrew George Scott up to that point. Drawing on many sources, some of which had only recently been discovered, Terry’s In Search of Captain Moonlite was detailed but easy to read. Yet it left the reader wanting more. Now we have Garry Linnell’s Moonlite taking on the challenge and not merely rising to the occasion but usurping the throne.

Very few authors have really sunk their teeth into the Moonlite saga but for one reason or another, possibly due to the questions around Scott’s sexuality in light of the increasing visibility of the LGBT+ community, interest in the story of Captain Moonlite has really been booming in recent years. A number of projects in various stages of fruition since Paul Terry’s book was released have raised the prestige of Captain Moonlite to equate him more with Morgan, Hall and Thunderbolt in the bushranging pantheon, and have even come close to giving him his own little niche in Australian culture on his own terms. Thus Linnell’s grasping of the challenge of tackling this story with both hands is welcome and timely.

Anyone familiar with Captain Moonlite, as regular readers of A Guide to Australian Bushranging will be, have no doubt heard of the tragic love story between Andrew Scott and James Nesbitt, the infamous Mount Egerton bank robbery, the daring escape from Ballarat Gaol, the Wantabadgery siege and Andrew Scott’s spectacular fall from grace. All of that is covered in this book and much more besides. Like many history and non-fiction books, this is written in a style more commonly seen in a novel. People who have read Peter Fitzsimons’ books will know exactly what that looks like. However, unlike Fitzsimons’ books, this is not a bloated and absolutely comprehensive account. Though it is the most comprehensive to date, the focus is more on a narrative that is easy to follow and enjoyable to read while getting the information as accurate as possible. This will appeal to people that normally would steer away from non-fiction in favour of more breezy novels or memoirs. To put it another way, this is a text with broad appeal.

It is heartening to see the shift in the way Scott’s story has been told move away from the days of George Calderwood’s dry, sensationalist and frequently inaccurate 1971 biography to this more human depiction of Scott that relies very heavily on getting to the root of the myths to understand the man. Furthermore, rather than being a blow-by-blow account of Scott’s life, a musing on his sexuality or an exploration of the conflict between fact and fiction in his story, this is a more holistic view of Scott and what makes him such a compelling figure in history. There are brief tangents into the lives of “Nosey Bob” Howard, Sir Alfred Stephen, Sir Redmond Barry, Frank Gardiner, Ned Kelly, Marcus Clarke, Boulton and Park, and more all in the service of explaining the society that Andrew Scott was railing against and what shaped his life. By doing this we get a very enriched story of the mid to late 1800s on top of the most complete and accurate version of Scott’s biography to date. It is in seeing the world of Captain Moonlite that we fully comprehend what made him so remarkable.

People who have read Paul Terry’s In Search of Captain Moonlite will probably feel like some passages tread familiar terrain, which is natural given that both books tackle the same subject in a similar way. But there is so much more in this version of the story that whether you have read the previous books on the subject or not this will be a refreshing and enlightening take on it and show you things that you likely haven’t come across before. However, it feels at times like some parts of the story could have been explored a bit more. This is not to the detriment of the text by any means and possibly some readers would feel that any more detail than what is given would be too much. Any person that has done research on Captain Moonlite will likely tell you that it is very hard to cover everything in a complete and comprehensive way where this story is concerned, especially if you’re one person doing the research on your own. On that front Linnell has done an absolutely brilliant job. Reading through the acknowledgements it is clear that he had some really great people helping guide him where he needed to go, but the legwork was definitely done by Linnell himself.

Though it probably seems like a small thing, one of the best parts of this book is the inclusion of several pages of illustrations. The mix of photographs, etchings, records, and so on, really helps to visualise things that are described in the text, which is something most previous books on the subject have mostly avoided for one reason or another. As wonderful as the descriptions of the main players are, nothing has the same effect as being able to see the faces or places you’re reading about.

Moonlite is without doubt one of the most important bushranger books published to date and one of the best Australian history books that has hit the market in the past few years. Such a complete history of Andrew Scott and those who were drawn into his sphere of influence will provide an extremely useful resource for future researchers and that really is something that comes once in a blue moon. For anyone interested in the story of Captain Moonlite this is an absolute must have book. It is not only incredibly detailed, but it is a very enjoyable read. Linnell’s use of language really does breathe life into the story in a way many of the dry old history books just don’t seem capable of. It will captivate and most importantly is very re-readable.

Moonlite will be available on multiple formats from September 29, 2020. Find out more here.

A special thank you to Penguin Random House for providing an advance copy of the book for the purposes of this review.

Stringybark (Review)

In 2019 there was much consternation about the new Kelly Gang films that were brewing. The adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, was set to be a big budget extravaganza with many Nedheads expecting to see a burly, bearded bushranger clad in armour with guns blazing on the big screen. The other film project that was getting good press was Stringybark, a small-scale indie production that caught the attention of some notable Kelly-critical commentators thanks to a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign.

Well, True History fell short of its lofty ambitions. As it turns out, a scrappy, post-modern interpretation of their favourite bushranger full of cross-dressing and bad haircuts wasn’t what people expected when they heard a Ned Kelly film starring Russell Crowe was being made. On the other hand, Stringybark stayed pretty low-key even after its official launch at the Lorne Film Festival. In a way that has actually served it well – a sort of “tortoise-and-hare” way – that means the home audiences won’t necessarily be going in with big expectations of sturm und drang with helmets and Hollywood glitz.

With Stringybark making its way to Ozflix, straight off the bat it must be pointed out that if you go into this expecting a Ned Kelly film you’re going to be disappointed. This is unashamedly a film about the police who were sent to arrest Ned and Dan Kelly for the attempted murder of Constable Fitzpatrick, with particular emphasis on the party’s leader Sergeant Michael Kennedy. It’s a perspective that, frankly, is refreshing after so many variations on Ned Kelly’s response to discovering the police coming after him as part of the bigger scheme of his outlawed life.

It is abundantly clear from the outset that the angle this film takes is that the cops are the good guys and the Kellys are the bad guys. It is a perfectly valid viewpoint to take, of course, given that the police were there to capture men wanted for attempted murder and were shot dead by said fugitives in response. It is a perspective that has its fair share of strident champions – many of whom got involved with the film at the crowdfunding stage and were pushing Stringybark as a game-changer. Given that the filmmakers were not industry professionals, that was a lot of pressure to put upon them and, honestly, they did a valiant job of living up to the expectations of those who were pushing them to be the definitive anti-Kelly portrayal of the police killings.

On a technical level this film isn’t quite where it needs to be, unfortunately. It suffers at times from audio issues as well as camera work that struggles to maintain proper framing. Some of the action sequences are difficult to follow because there’s a lot of movement that obscures the action (this was rife with True History as well, so seems to be more of a stylistic trend in modern films than a fault per se.) That said, given that this is a film made by students on a tiny budget with limited resources it’s an admirable effort and they still manage some excellent work in spite of the rough edges. There are some very inspired shots that demonstrate that there was an aesthetic vision before the thing was put together rather than just a sort of on the fly attempt to craft interesting shots around what was happening on the day. In fact, I would go so far as to say that some of the shots that appear in this film are some of the best that we have seen in an on-screen depiction of this story thus far.

The score by Simon Rigoni is also a real strength as it is atmospheric and melodic without being overpowering. There is a trend in film scores now to have the music merely tie a scene together so that there’s something interesting to hear when people aren’t talking. Apart from one scene, where the police chat around a campfire, one never gets the sense that the music is ever just there because it has to plug a gap in the soundtrack, and that one exception is really only a result of the way the music is edited in the scene.

Hair and makeup was fantastic with some minor prosthetic work on the murdered police looking convincing without being too gruesome, though given the contemporary descriptions of Kennedy’s body upon its discovery the gore could have been amplified by ten and still been pulling punches. Likewise, the costumes felt authentic even if some of the details may have been off. There was a definite attempt to be as true to the descriptions of what the gang wore, as well as historical knowledge of how police dressed for bush work. It was good to see a film where the police were not shown in their uniforms while hunting the fugitives in the bush. It was also nice to see the correct firearms being used.

The cast were an interesting ensemble. Some performances were definitely stronger than others, Tim Head as Kennedy, Joshua Charles Dawe and Ned Kelly, and Ben Watts as McIntyre being absolutely the strongest in the ensemble. Given the nature of the project you were never going to see A-listers popping up, and everyone who appears does a solid job with their material. The characterisations were one of the weaker aspects of the film as while some characters were en pointe – specifically Kennedy, who feels like the most fleshed out – some others bore no resemblance to their historical counterpart – Joe Byrne being the worst offender in this regard. Those who side with the gang more than the police are going to struggle with this one because the Kelly Gang are outright villains. In fact, I would go so far as to describe them as cartoonishly villainous. They are vulgar and enjoy bullying the police who are powerless against them. While critics of the bushrangers and their supporters would suggest this is accurate, witness accounts do not exactly bear this out (but that’s a discussion for another article, and one well worth having.) Much of Ned Kelly’s more aggressive behaviours, such as driving the barrel of a pistol into someone’s cheek to intimidate them, are given to the other gang members in order to amplify their intimidation factor while Ned seems positively civil by comparison. In fact, Joshua Charles Dawe is probably one of the best on screen Ned Kellys to date, despite the lack of physical resemblance. There’s a nuance to the performance that makes the viewer feel like there’s something bubbling underneath the cruel and bullying exterior and subsequently it’s a shame he gets such limited screen time.

The police on the other hand are much more rounded and sympathetic characters, McIntyre being shown as something of a cheeky jack-the-lad figure that is quite at odds with the bookish and determined McIntyre we see depicted in the ex-policeman’s memoirs and contemporary accounts. An early scene has Kennedy, McIntyre and Scanlan pulling a nasty prank on Lonigan, which is obviously intended to show a sort of “locker room” mentality in the police station. Lonigan here comes across as somewhat oafish and paranoid, which is not an accurate depiction of a man who was known as a very capable officer who had a very justified wariness of their mission, though we do get a great character moment from him in recounting his clash with Ned in Benalla. It would have been nice to get more of Scanlan’s story as he is often forgotten owing to the fact that he neither survived the encounter to tell the story nor did he leave a widow or children to mourn him, but Jim Lavranos makes for a memorable performance all the same.

Some of the more heightened aspects of the ambush sequence are only disappointing because they weren’t necessary. Having the Kelly Gang dropping c-bombs may portray them as uncouth and therefore create a roughness that makes them seem dangerous, but it’s not necessary for making them intimidating. Case in point, Dawe’s Ned Kelly manages to be intimidating while speaking in a mostly civil manner with McIntyre just after Lonigan’s death simply by virtue of the body language employed. Another example of where the heightened drama didn’t quite work was in the death of Kennedy, which is written so as to show Ned Kelly as a cold blooded murderer. Kennedy appears to be in good health despite a cut on his forehead, so it isn’t clear why he would feel like he would need to write a letter for Ned to give to his wife if he dies, let alone for Ned to agree. Ned’s decision to allow Kennedy to write the letter is immediately undercut by his execution of the sergeant without any indication of why. What perhaps worked on paper lost a little something in translation to screen.

While the idea of having the gang appear at the end is actually a really clever one, the lack of motivation for their crimes can be hard to stomach, which is one of the reasons why most interpretations focus on their perspective rather than on the police. It feels like violence for the sake of violence, even though from the perspective of the victims that’s exactly how it would have seemed. This aspect is both one of the biggest strengths of the film and one of its notable weaknesses. It is a strength because it really drives home exactly why the story is being told the way it is, but it is also a weakness because by dehumanising the bushrangers it creates a disconnect that is very jarring. Without any indication of why the gang attack they are no more than soulless monsters that emerge from the wilderness to cause mayhem. To “unperson” the bushrangers makes them no different to the shark from Jaws or the Raptors from Jurassic Park. Perhaps having Ned talk to his gang and explain their plan could have changed that and given some sense of understanding to both sides rather than opting to cut one side out in favour of the other.

Overall Stringybark has notable flaws, but it also has significant strengths. It has enough respect for the history to stick closely to it throughout the majority of the film and weave in details that even the most lauded of Kelly films and miniseries have gotten wrong or omitted. It has a clarity of vision that means that nobody watching can possibly doubt what angle the film is taking. There are plenty of great visuals and performances in the mix as well as a great, understated score. It’s a Kelly film that dares to tell the other side of the story, which in itself is noteworthy. These are not aspects to be taken lightly, especially considering that this is not the work of some Hollywood veteran with tens of millions of dollars to play with. As a debut feature, tackling a historical piece, let alone one as turbulent and divisive as the Kelly story, is jumping into the deep end with lead weights on your ankles so it takes a certain amount of guts to even attempt it. Say what you want about whether or not you agree with the portrayal, or of the directorial choices, one thing that can’t be disputed is that when it comes to taking on as big a task as dramatising one of Australian history’s most controversial events Ben Head is as game as Ned Kelly.

Stringybark is available to rent online via Ozflix HERE

Ned and the Law (review)

Once again the Greta-Hansonville Hall saw droves of Kelly buffs arrive for a day of presentations exploring the history and culture pertaining to Ned Kelly. This year saw a new element added into the mix – a dinner portion held in the evening. The event, which was held on 22 February, proved to be a much grander affair than in previous years but no less of a community affair.

Replica of the Greta police station sign.

From the moment one entered the hall the tone was set. As usual it was decorated appropriate to the theme; this time featuring a mannequin in trooper’s clothes and display cabinets featuring items on loan from Adrian Younger, Steve Mayes, Tony King and Noeleen Lloyd pertaining to policing and the Kelly story. The auction table was laden with goodies to bid on and there was a table where books by independent authors were being sold. Morning tea was laid out and attendees munched away and had drinks (the tea and coffee variety; harder stuff came later) while awaiting the time to take their seats.

Kelly Smith taking names.

The first presentation was from Noeleen Lloyd and it detailed her journey as she tried to locate the site of the Greta police station. Along the way she gave a fascinating insight into the history of policing in the town and the men that took on the unenviable role of law enforcement there. Noeleen’s gift as a public speaker made the history digestible and relatable. Whether describing the conduct of policemen like heavy-handed Edward Hall, the venerable Robert Graham, or the trials and tribulations of establishing a functional police station in Greta, every topic of discussion was treated with respect and even-handedness, setting the tone for what ensued.

Noeleen Lloyd

The second cab off the rank was Dean Mayes who presented a condensed version of the life of his ancestor Joseph Ladd Mayes who had been one of the officers involved in the hunt for Ned Kelly. Mayes was an exemplary policeman whose reputation as a disciplined and effective officer of the law was well earned. Though his involvement in the Kelly story was minor compared to some more well-known police, it was clear that there was still a lot to tell, especially where Constable Fitzpatrick was concerned. Dean Mayes painted a portrait of a man driven by the desire to do the right thing at all times to the best of his ability, but who was also a man of action who wasn’t afraid to get dirt under his nails. It was clear from the way that it was spoken of that this history is precious to the family, with two generations thus far collecting as much of it as possible while they still can. The story of J. L. Mayes can be found at Dean’s dedicated blog (here) and is always expanding as new information comes to light.

Dean Mayes

A delicious spread was then eagerly tucked into for lunch during the break. It provided an opportunity for attendees to mingle and bid on the silent auction items that had been donated to help raise funds. Members of the NKS group posed for a group photo outside the hall to commemorate the event.

The auction table.

After the break, retired police Chief Inspector Ralph Staveley presented a talk on 19th century policing in Victoria. It was a very important insight into the difficulties faced by not only the police force as an organisation, but also into the typical lives of policemen of the period often due to political and systemic factors. The way this impacted on the hunt for the Kelly Gang was also explored, putting the cost both in monetary and human terms succinctly. Staveley’s easy manner of speaking and relaxed demeanour made his presentation a stand-out for many attendees who had not expected such a candid and fair approach to police history, especially in regards to the Kelly story.

Chief Inspector (ret.) Ralph Staveley

The final presentation was by Alice Richardson on visual representations of Sir Redmond Barry and the trial of Ned Kelly. It was a fascinating delve into the evolution of public perception of the famous judge. Looking through official portraiture to cartoons and modern art, Alice demonstrated a keen awareness of the use of symbolism in the images as well as a very powerful analysis of the factors that have morphed Barry over the decades from the wise and righteous judge into Ned Kelly’s nemesis. Perhaps the most shocking aspect for many in the audience was a legal analysis of the trial, which discussed the validity of many criticisms of Barry as judge and of the trial as a whole, challenging long held ideas of what had happened in a way that was not based in opinion, but rather in law. That it was able to bring some of Barry’s most dyed-in-the-wool critics to reconsider their stance is a testament to Alice’s insightful and unbiased approach to examining this monumental historical figure as much as her formidable range of knowledge.

Alice Richardson

With the conclusion of the first half of the event, tongues were wagging about the things picked up from the presentations and attendees discussed in a most civil manner their perspectives on what had been demonstrated by the speakers. Each presenter had allowed time for questions at the end of their presentation and remained approachable throughout proceedings, happily mixing with the crowd. Far from there being outrage or backlash about focus on the police and Judge Barry, or indeed a decided lean away from the largely pro-Kelly views held by many attendees, the predominant vibe seemed to be one of a newfound appreciation for the “other side” of the Kelly story and an embracing of these new people to the, for want of a better word, fraternity. It was a brilliantly positive outcome that was declared to have been unlikely or impossible by commentators from certain circles – of whom, strangely, there seemed no representation at the event insofar as the crowd were concerned. Surely, the fact that the sort of person who wears Ned Kelly on their shirt or skin, decorates their car with Ned stickers and accoutrements, and refers to themselves as a “sympathiser” can appreciate, welcome and embrace the opportunity to learn about the opposite side of the story is a sign that for the majority of hardcore enthusiasts on this topic it is history that is the most important thing, not digging their heels in and butting heads over the tired “hero or villain” debate.

Replica police uniform with portrait of Joseph Ladd Mayes.

After a long break to allow set-up, the majority of the attendees returned for the final portion of the event, which consisted of dinner, a presentation and the auction results. Sadly, the tyranny of distance had its casualties and not everyone was able to make it back after going off to find things to do during the recess (something that could ideally factor into next year’s event). The hall was now decked out with long tables stocked with wines for people to drink with their meal. The food (spit roast with salad and vegetables) prepared by Two Chefs and a Cook Catering of Wangaratta, was delicious, filling and well-received by the hungry attendees.

Brad Webb setting up.

Due to unexpected illness, there were slight changes to Billsons Brewery’s contribution, though they did still send staff to sell drinks both soft and a not-so-soft (which were a hit with the crowd). The intended presentation on the brewery had to be filled in at the last minute with Brad Webb talking about his website Ironoutlaw. Most people who have been involved with the Kelly community will be keenly aware of Webb and his website (Webb-site, if you will), which has been online since the mid-1990s and consistently gets high volumes of traffic – no mean feat in the modern era of social media dominating the information superhighway. Webb described the background of the site and explained much of the nitty gritty detail of website development and management, which was not to everyone’s tastes but was informative all the same.

Colt Navy revolver with holster, “darbies” (handcuffs), bullet mould, bullets, and locks on loan for the event.

With the auction winners getting their items and the thanks being delivered it was time to head off into the night with full tums and little showbags full of all kinds of stuff including promotional materials from businesses that had supported the event and booklets by Chester Eagle. Overall it was yet another roaring success, and deservedly so, and it seems the biggest question on everyone’s lips was: what’s next year’s theme?

Rock n Roll Outlaw Exhibition (review)

2020 marks 50 years since the release of Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly, starring Mick Jagger. It would have been remiss for such a significant pop culture moment to go without some form of commemoration and thus the Burke Museum in Beechworth have put together a limited exhibition about the controversial feature film.

Lined up to be accompanied by a series of events including concerts and film screenings, the exhibition opened in December 2019, just before a mixture of the holiday season and the catastrophic bushfires impacted on the plans, and subsequently attendance. Now the smoke has cleared, the museum is scrubbed clean, the renovated Chinese exhibit in the museum is finished and the souvenirs have been restocked. What better time to take a look at this special exhibition.

The exhibition is featured in the main foyer of the museum and is rather concise. The layout runs along one wall and from there is spread across a display case and two desks. Featured items in the exhibition are Mick Jagger’s suit of Ned Kelly armour, a vinyl LP of the soundtrack, and a record player. It also includes interactive features where children can decorate paper cutouts of the Kelly helmet and people can “cast” their own Ned Kelly movie.

The vast majority of the exhibition consists of newspaper clippings, magazine articles, production stills and a looped video of some behind the scenes footage of the movie being filmed in Braidwood. Placards explain the background of each set of clippings and charts the story of the film’s troubled production and release. Though not overly detailed, it conveys the key information well. The sense one gets as they read is that this was an almost doomed production from the outset that soon descended into farce. It provides a good insight into the history of the film for the uninitiated.

The inclusion of a record player was an unusual choice. There are a range of albums that you can choose from to play on the turntable, yet none seem to be particularly connected to the subject of the exhibition (except that some of the albums are by Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings who featured on the soundtrack). In theory it was a way of connecting the visitor to the era of the film but it just looks out of place.

Realistically, the only other item in the exhibition that seems particularly suited to such a display is the suit of armour, which is usually in the Ned Kelly Vault (an adjunct of the Burke Museum). Other than that, there’s not really a lot in the exhibition that couldn’t be better achieved by a book (or a magazine). The interactive element of asking people to cast their own Ned Kelly movie is probably the most unique thing in the exhibition and is actually a really good idea. Hopefully the forms that have been filled in can be kept for future reference as it would be very interesting to go back to them in ten years or more and see what the people of 2020 had to say on the matter.

Ultimately the exhibition is not worth going to Beechworth specifically for if you’re not local, but it does work well in conjunction with the rest of the museum, which is always highly recommended. If it relied more on unique objects and less on reading old clippings this would have been a much better experience for the visitor. Still, we can be thankful that the Burke Museum were gracious enough to provide something to mark the anniversary, however small.

Rock n Roll Outlaw will be on display at the Burke Museum, Beechworth, until 13 April, 2020. It is included with entry to the museum.

If you would like to read more about the infamous Mick Jagger film you can read our piece in defence of it here.

A Guide to Australian Bushranging on tour, 2019 [Blog]

With November 2019 seeing the 140th anniversary of the Wantabadgery Siege, the decision was made to make a pilgrimage to Wantabadgery. As no formal acknowledgement of the anniversary or notification of any organised commemoration thereof had been announced, I decided that somebody ought to fill the void — and who better than the chap that does all the bushranger stuff online? It should be pointed out before we continue that this recap is not all about bushrangers, but rather a recounting of the things that happened during the trip. Hopefully it will give you some travel ideas. That said, let us continue…

With Georgina Stones from An Outlaw’s Journal in tow, I headed up northeast of Melbourne. On the way we passed through Benalla, where Georgina added some fake flowers to Joe Byrne’s grave. Previously she had left real flowers, but this time wanted to leave something a little more enduring. Every time we go up I see if I can spot the little bust I placed on the grave. The tiny polymer clay portrait has been there through searing heat, bucketing rain and everything in between but is still looking pretty good despite being put through the ringer.

Giving Joe Byrne’s grave some TLC

Our first night was spent in The Empire in Beechworth. This heritage hotel was around in the days of the Kelly Gang and has an interesting anecdote connecting it to the Kelly story. Following the murder of Aaron Sherritt, his widow Belle and her mother Ellen were lodging in The Empire. Aaron’s inquest had been held in The Vine (no longer in existence, and definitely not the one in Wangaratta) and the pair had stayed on in Beechworth long enough to see Ned Kelly arrive for his committal. Having been convalescing in the hospital in Melbourne Gaol, he had been deemed fit enough for transportation to Beechworth via train. When being taken from the station to the gaol by buggy, he was taken past The Empire where he saw two women watching him from the balcony. He tipped his hat to them in a conspicuous show of gentlemanly behaviour, perhaps unaware that it was his machinations that had led to the brutal slaying of the husband and son-in-law of the two women he was saluting.

Upstairs in The Empire

Dining at The Empire was exquisite. Food and drink were top notch, and the service equally as commendable. That night we were the only ones in the building, which should have meant a nice, quiet stay. However, there were other occupants that were not keen on staying quiet — occupants who were not of the physical world. Disembodied footsteps and the sound of objects being shifted or dropped was pervasive throughout the night, though we did get some shut-eye. It should be added that the rooms at The Empire are nice and cosy with very comfortable beds, so if you’re looking for a place to stay, give them a look-in (the ghosts don’t cost extra).

The next morning after an obligatory visit to the Beechworth Bakery, we headed to the Beechworth Cemetery so that Georgina could pay her respects to Aaron Sherritt. While there I tracked down the grave of John Watt. Watt was the proprietor of the Wooragee Hotel on the outskirts of Beechworth. One night he answered the door of the pub to reveal three bushrangers who ordered him to bail up. Rather than comply, Watt turned to head back inside. One of the bandits shot him in the back, then they fled. It took Watt over a week to die from his wound. Subsequently, two of the bushrangers, James Smith and Thomas Brady, were hanged in Beechworth Gaol for the murder.

John Watt’s grave in Beechworth Cemetery

Upon leaving the cemetery, we began the journey into New South Wales. Our prior search for accommodation had led us to a motel in Gumly Gumly, just outside the city of Wagga Wagga. The accommodation was nice enough for the price, however our neighbours weren’t exactly the quiet type. One couldn’t help find some amusement in their loud interrogation as to whether their companions were “giving wristies” while blaring Spotify over a Bluetooth speaker right in front of our door. In fairness, they did apologise when they realised that it was actually people they had seen park and enter the room they were in front of and not a very potent hallucination.
For the next few days we were right in the heart of the territory connected to Dan Morgan and Captain Moonlite. After so many visits to Kelly Country, it was great to finally be immersing myself in other bushranger stories. The only major drawback was the threat of fire. Following prolonged drought, much of New South Wales was suffering from their worst bushfires in living memory. Though the region we were exploring was safe, one couldn’t help but think about the beleaguered fireys battling the blazes further north on the other side of the Blue Mountains. Driving through the lower portion of the state and seeing how bone dry it was and how wispy the vegetation looked, it did not take much imagination to picture it going up like a celluloid girdle on bonfire night. With the anniversary of the Wantabadgery Siege, there are no prizes for guessing where was first on the list of locations.

Wantabadgery is a small town between Wagga Wagga and Gundagai that is mostly farmland and built on a mix of steep hills and flat pasture. It was here in November 1879 that Andrew George Scott would seal his name in infamy. Having been the target of police harassment since his release from prison earlier in the year, Scott had decided to seek his fortune in New South Wales. Venturing out on foot from the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy with his companion James Nesbitt, Scott soon added Frank Johns, August Wernicke and Thomas Rogan to the mix. A few miles outside of Wantabadgery they convinced a swaggie named Graham Bennett to join them and from there they continued on to Wantabadgery station, which Scott had been told would provide them food, shelter and possibly work. When they got there they were made to wait outside for two hours to see the superintendent, who simply told them to go away. On that day 140 years ago it was cloudy and raining, but when we were there the heat was unrelenting, as were the flies. Despite the difference in climate, the immersion was easy. The terrain doesn’t appear to have altered much all these decades after the fact. It is very easy to picture the bushrangers huddled among the boulders on the outskirts of Wantabadgery station, trying to get some sleep after being turned away.

The Webb-Bowen memorial

The first stop for us was the Webb-Bowen memorial (“The hero of Wantabadgery”), which is the only real public acknowledgement of the bushranging event in Wantabadgery. The result of a wonderful community effort to honour the fallen officer, it features a metal sculpture by Max Burmeister and artworks by locals that portray Webb-Bowen as something of a pop culture figure (I personally really love the Warhol inspired piece on display there and would like to see that become a poster of some description). A simplified map is on display to indicate the significant spots in the area related to the events, which gives a decent indication of where to go and came in handy. It would have been nice to see some signage at the relevant sites akin to those placed at locations pertaining to the Ned Kelly story, but it is understandable that more of an effort hadn’t been made to draw attention to these places in that manner, especially as these are still working farms. Regardless of where you go that is connected to the Moonlite story, there is almost no acknowledgment of it or only a vague understanding of it. Captain Moonlite does not bring tourists into towns like Ned Kelly does, unfortunately.

The sweeping hills on the edge of Wantabadgery Station

Wantabadgery Station is currently a working cattle farm, concerned with raising black Angus, and by all accounts they do a very good job of it. No doubt they occasionally get visitors asking to see the homestead the Moonliters bailed up in 1879, but on this occasion I decided it was better to be more respectful than simply rocking up and asking to have a sticky beak. It must be remembered that a great many of the sites associated with bushranger stories are on private property, especially in the Riverina where bushrangers preferred to raid farms rather than rob mail coaches. One day, perhaps, I’ll pluck up the courage to get a look at the farm, but until then I must be satisfied with having stood at the gate, much as Moonlite and his boys did while waiting to see Percy Baynes.

Wantabadgery Station has much better security now than it did in 1879

McGlede’s farm was the location of the final shootout between the gang and police. While a gunfight had occurred at Wantabadgery station, there were no casualties. When a combined troop of police from Wagga Wagga and Gundagai intercepted the gang at the McGlede selection, however, a deadly battle ensued. It was here that James Nesbitt and Gus Wernicke were killed, and Constable Webb-Bowen was mortally wounded. There is nothing left of the selection now apart from the land. There are no signs pointing to it or seemingly anything at all to indicate the site. I stopped to ask some locals if they knew where to find it and they merely stared at me with the vaguely confused look cows usually give humans (Georgina did not find my bovine interrogation a-moo-sing). Having to be satisfied with having gone to the approximate location, the decision was made to head for Gundagai, where hopefully at least one of us might get enough phone reception to plot our return trip. I annoyed Georgina greatly by cranking up Slim Dusty’s version of “The Road to Gundagai” as we approached the town. It was a place that I had wanted to visit ever since I was a little boy. Some of my family members had visited back in the ’90s and brought us back souvenirs related to the statue of Dad and Dave, Mum and Mabel. It became something of an ambition of mine to see the real deal myself. It wasn’t hard to find exactly what I had sought for so long. The statue is right next to the visitor centre. The familiar shapes of the popular Steele Rudd characters immediately caught my eye. We parked and walked down to the statue. It was incredible to see these strange, almost malformed figures looming over me with hollow eyes. The statue was far bigger than I had imagined, and far more detailed. It’s original location when unveiled in the 1970s was opposite the statue of The Dog on the Tuckerbox (more on that later), but in 2005 it was relocated to the reserve next to the info centre. The connection to Gundagai comes from the old radio series of Dad and Dave of Snake Gully that used the song “The Road to Gundagai” at the beginning of each episode. To get a sense of Australian culture from the turn of the century, I recommend getting your hands on some form of media pertaining to Dad and Dave. I think Dad and Dave: On Our Selection, starring Leo McKern and Geoffrey Rush in the title roles, is a great way to get an introduction to the quirky world of the Rudd family.

Dad and Dave, Mum and Mabel

One of the best and newest attractions in Gundagai is the statue of Yarri and Jacky Jacky. These two courageous men are hugely important in the history of the town and more than deserving of such a beautiful sculpture to commemorate them. In the 1850s Gundagai was first founded on the flood plains of the Murrumbidgee river. Of course, the local Wiradjuri people had warned the whites about the risk of flooding; after all, the name of the place came from a word in the local dialect meaning “big water”. In 1852 the area was subjected to a catastrophic flood, destroying homes and leaving many people stranded amongst the gurgling floodwaters. Seeing that the people needed assistance, Jacky Jacky and Yarri led a rescue mission, riding out in bark canoes with other Wiradjuri men into the torrent to rescue survivors, saving 69 people. 89 of the 250 settlers perished in the flood, which left only three buildings intact when things settled. It is hard to say anything to adequately emphasise or exaggerate what is already an incredible turn of events. Happily, the statue stands in front of a series of information panels that describe Gundagai’s history. More effort needs to be made to highlight these stories of unity from our history, but this is a good start.

Yarri and Jacky Jacky statue by Darien Pullen

Antique shops have always been attractive to me, most likely because of my Dad’s hobby of looking for a bargain in any obscure place he came across. A collector of items ranging from ceramic horses to Inuit soapstone carvings, he played a big part in my fascination with collecting. Naturally, the moment I saw what appeared to be a decent collection of vintage knick-knacks I had to poke my head in. Beyond the rows of vintage clothing and antiques in Junque and Disorderly, a creaky staircase led up to the Gabriel Gallery, a collection of photography from the turn of the century by Dr. Charles Gabriel. The images were a fascinating look at the history of Gundagai and portrayed a vibrant community at the dawn of Federation. Of course, as is the way with basically every museum, big or small, there was one very unique part of the collection. In this case it was a walking stick and letters belonging to Henry Lawson, the great bush poet. If you have an interest in photography or early federal Australian history, the Gabriel Gallery is a great attraction to visit in Gundagai.

The Henry Lawson exhibit

After a brief rest to have a cool drink, we decided it was time we headed for the gaol. Gundagai Gaol is located on a steep incline behind the courthouse and is only accessible on a tour, which you can book in the information centre. The blistering heat proved not to be very conducive to getting up the hill without becoming out of breath, but it was good to tick off the list, even though we didn’t go in. The gaol consists of two small buildings around the size of camp dormitories, and was the location where the Moonliters were held after their capture. The courthouse being so close to the gaol meant that it was no effort to have a quick walk around the outside on the way back down the hill from the gaol. The courthouse is a handsomely designed and built structure that operates very rarely, but is still a functional courthouse. It was the place where the Moonliters were committed for trial, which would take place in the Supreme Court in Sydney.

Gundagai Gaol

We geared ourselves up for a visit to the local museum but a makeshift sign informed us that the opening hours had changed and we would not be getting in this particular day. Unfortunate, but not unexpected. The itinerary was subsequently shifted around and we made way for the cemetery. By this stage I was glad to be taking advantage of the air conditioning in the car. Throughout the trip the temperature rarely dipped below 30°C.

Gundagai Courthouse

The Gundagai Cemetery was a little way out of town but worth the visit. It is the one location that makes an effort to signpost anything connected to Captain Moonlite. The cemetery is surprisingly vast and open and the ground rock hard from the rigorous drought that has plagued the region. The monument marking the resting place of Senior Constable Webb-Bowen is hardly inconspicuous and juts out of the smattering of squat and crumbling grave markers, gleaming white. Next to it is the far more humble headstone belonging to Sergeant Edmund Parry who was killed by Johnny Gilbert in 1864. To see two officers of high esteem next to each other in such a way is just brilliant for the die-hard bushranger buffs.

The graves of Sgt. Parry (left) and Snr Const. Webb-Bowen (right)

To find Moonlite’s grave one must trek further uphill to the back of the cemetery. Here you will find a large rock with a plaque on it marking the resting place of the notorious preacher. Were it not for the seating heat and the incessant flies, the moment would have been quite profound – after all, this was my first time visiting the resting place of one of my favourite historical figures. I left a copy of my article about Wantabadgery on the grave, both as a sign of respect to Scott and his mates as well as the police, but also so that people that visited after us could learn something about the reason why the grave was significant enough to earn signage. I should point out that Scott would be fairly chuffed at being in such a prime location in the cemetery, looking down on the rest of the graves from beneath the shade. It was very rewarding to have finally connected with these historical figures.

Moonlite’s grave has the benefit of being the best shaded of the marked graves in Gundagai

The Dog on the Tuckerbox statue is a must-see if you are in Gundagai. This humble canine has become an icon ever since its unveiling in 1939. Inspired by a poem about a bullocky who is having a bad day, the statue depicts a cattle dog perched on a tuckerbox and is mounted on a plinth in a little pool. Recently the statue was vandalised but was quickly repaired and put back on his pride of place. There are some ruins adjoining the courtyard that used to be hotels for travellers going through the region, and there is a cafe where you can get a bite to eat and a Dog on the Tuckerbox souvenir. One of the more unexpected sights in this location is a cubist statue of folk musician Lazy Harry. Long time Kelly buffs will be well acquainted with Lazy Harry from his album about Ned Kelly, which has been on loop in Glenrowan for several decades.

The Dog on the Tuckerbox

After our jaunt through Moonlite country, we headed into Junee for a day without the focus being on bushrangers. Though Junee was on Ben Hall’s beat and was the location of a store his gang robbed multiple times, we had something else in mind.
Junee itself is quiet and pleasant, with easy to navigate streets. It wasn’t difficult to find the Licorice and Chocolate Factory, a huge brick building surrounded by gardens and gravel car parks. We were greeted by the sound of live music wafting as we walked into the premises. There were statues of sheep and dogs, the meaning of which were somewhat lost on us, and we made our way inside. Crossing through the cafe, we reached the factory where many warm and tasty smells lingered in the air – the rich aroma of chocolate mingling with the tang of licorice. There was not much to see through the big windows that kept the onlookers separated from the equipment on this day, but it would be interesting enough if we were on a guided tour, which the television display was obviously a part of. We went upstairs and looked at the homewares and knick-knacks, noting the beautiful writing sets and kitchenware. There was a lot of cast iron pieces as well, which were quite nice. We went back to the cafe and had hot chocolates, which were delicious and creamy. Georgina bought Orange Whiskey Marmalade, and although we didn’t buy any chocolate for fear it would simply melt in the heat, there was a lot of items we would have snapped up (though the chocolate boobs – yes, that’s a thing – were not on that list).

Despite my initial suspicions, this car is not, in fact, made of chocolate

Monte Cristo is one of the most spooky and well-known attractions in New South Wales and probably the best known thing in Junee. Billed as Australia’s most haunted homestead, it dates back to the mid-1870s and has many spooky stories attached to it. Restored from essentially ruins by Reg and Olive Ryan, the homestead is an impressive example of late-Victorian/early-Edwardian architecture. Though the buildings are starting to look a little shabbier than in the glory days after the restoration, one can appreciate the degree of work that went into essentially rebuilding the place. While I had believed that the property must have been remote, it turns out that Monte Cristo is right in the heart of Junee, making it super easy to find.

Monte Cristo Homestead

Though the place dates from later than the height of bushranging in the area, one can still imagine how the Crawleys who owned the property might have responded to news that the Kelly Gang and the Moonliters were close by in the late 1870s. Of course, the one thing everyone wants to experience at Monte Cristo is the paranormal, and if you’re open to it you won’t be disappointed. I personally witnessed a man’s shadow moving in “the boy’s room” when nobody was in there, and there were plenty of weird vibes in certain rooms. The Dairy Room is the most disturbing part of the property. Both Georgina and I entered thinking it looked nice and cozy, but that quickly changed. For me it struck when I realised the chain looped through a hole in the wall was not for locking the door. See, it was in this room that an intellectually disabled boy was restrained by a chain in that same spot, resulting in the extreme wear and tear on the bricks. In fact he had been in there, restrained, when his mother died of heart failure right in front of him and left there for days before someone went to investigate. It was in this building also that a caretaker was murdered by a local youth who allegedly was inspired to kill after watching the movie Psycho.

The Dairy

One must be careful not to let the spooky reputation get the better of you, as we almost gave a visitor a heart attack when he came past the original homestead and saw Georgina and I taking the weight off our feet on a bench. Certainly the place could have done without all the Halloween decorations everywhere, most of which appeared to have been left partly taken down. In the courtyard between the servants’ quarters and the ballroom were two old hearses filled with plastic skeletons. It cheapened the vibe of the place considerably. A recent addition to the site is the Doll Museum, which I knew we had to do as soon as I saw it. Though only a small building, the collection is huge and very impressive. The horror section should appeal to many visitors with replicas of Annabelle and Chucky in glass cabinets. There’s even a Ned Kelly doll in the mix. Seriously, Ned is everywhere!

The original 1876 Monte Cristo homestead (later, servants lodgings)

When our time in Wagga Wagga was at an end, it was time to head back towards the border. Of course, the Riverina was the home to many notorious bushrangers – Dan Morgan, Blue Cap, Harry Power – but our next stop put us in a key location in the Kelly story.
Jerilderie is not far from the border, but it isn’t exactly the kind of place you would go to unless you had a specific reason to, and you would be able to see the attractions in an afternoon. While trucks rumble through it at all hours, there is hardly any other traffic, and the place is so small that it really isn’t hard to understand how easy it was for the Kelly Gang to keep essentially the whole town prisoner in the pub. Alas, such is life where many of these old country towns are concerned, as infrastructure has frequently bypassed many of them, leading to isolation and a reduction in the strength of the local economy. A town like Jerilderie could definitely use the cash injection that tourism would bring, but the lack of tourism has led to many of the tourist attractions becoming little more than dots on a map. It’s a “catch 22”.

By the time we arrived, the heat was fairly intolerable. We stayed in Ned’s Studio Apartment, which was a really lovely spot. With its close proximity to everything the town offers as well as its own amenities enabling us to cook and clean our clothes, it was a perfect base during our stay. There was only one downside. At first we didn’t make much of the fact that the water tasted strange but when we washed our clothes and they smelled like they had been washed in a swimming pool we knew something was up. Sure enough, a bit of Googling revealed that Jerilderie has an issue with chlorine in the water supply. While easy to get around, it’s the kind of thing that is helpful to be aware of in advance and the sort of thing you don’t find out about unless you specifically look for information about it.

Ned Kelly dummy in the Royal Mail Hotel, Jerilderie

After our arrival in town, we stopped in at the Royal Mail Hotel, where the Kelly Gang had kept their prisoners while they robbed the bank. In 1879, this building was attached to the bank, which is now the location of a motor mechanic shop, and this feature proved useful to the Kellys. While Dan Kelly kept the prisoners guarded in what is now a dining room, Joe Byrne walked next door to the bank via a rear passage and began the work of robbing it. Where once Ned Kelly gave a speech about the circumstances of his life that led him to become an outlaw, now stand inactive arcade machines and dining tables. The walls are decorated with a mix of historical photos and framed photocopies of images from Ned Kelly: A Short Life. As Georgina had a whiskey and I unwound from driving through kilometres of parched New South Welsh farmland, the other patrons comprised entirely of a man of around his late thirties and his friend who was a “little person”. The pair added a bit of life to the bar. Perhaps we just went in at the wrong time, seeing as that night when we went there for dinner the bar room was full of men knocking back beers after a hard day’s work.

At the time of the Kelly Gang’s visit, the Jerilderie Motors shop was the bank and was joined to the Royal Mail Hotel (far right)

After settling in at the accommodation, we decided to take a quick look around town. It soon became apparent that when reports described Ned Kelly and Constable Richards going through the streets so Ned could make a mental map of the town, it wasn’t quite as much effort as one might imagine. Where the gang’s plot unfolded was in a small section in the heart of the town.

The old printing shop that was run by Gill, the newspaper editor, was only a short distance away from the hotel. Gill was the man Ned Kelly wanted to publish his letter. At some stage the place had been turned into a museum but there was no way in as the place was locked up and left alone, though a peek in the windows showed there were displays set up inside still.  No doubt there would have been interesting things to see in the museum had it ever opened, but alas it was another closed door to add to the list.

The Jerilderie Printing Shop

The Traveller’s Rest is situated in the street behind the council building, right by a giant windmill. This was the location of the infamous incident wherein Steve Hart took a watch from Reverend Gribble. Gribble complained to Ned Kelly, who in turn made Steve return the watch. It was also here that Ned had his last drinks before heading home after the bank robbery. It is said that he placed his pistol on the bar and said in his typical braggadocio fashion, “There is my gun. Anyone can take it and shoot me; but if you do, Jerilderie will drown in its own blood.”

The Traveller’s Rest

The telegraph office is probably the most iconic building in Jerilderie, owing to its very conspicuous signage stating its connection to the Kelly story. In the past it was open for visitors but now remains closed. A peek through the windows reveals not only the huge cracks in the walls, but also the few exhibits that have been left out to gather dust, the plaque on the wall in the main room and a bunch of boxes and crates that were evidently used for packing up items in the building. There is also a plastic box out front that presumably used to contain maps or pamphlets of some kind, but is now empty. I left a printout of my article on Jerilderie in the box for a visitor to collect with the intention that it could help set the scene as they explored the town.

Post and Telegraph Office

The old blacksmith shop was where Joe Byrne took the gang’s horses to be shod. No longer publicly accessible, in previous years it was able to be explored for $2, and a radio interview with Andrew Nixon, one of the smithies that worked there when the gang visited, would play in the background to set the scene. Now, apart from the Kelly trail signage there is nothing to indicate the historical significance of the building.

The Blacksmith Shop

Jerilderie’s information centre doubles as a lolly shop, appropriately dubbed Sticky Fingers. In a back room you can get information about the town and surrounding areas, while in the main entrance you can buy souvenirs and lollies. As well as getting maps and useful tips, I procured some sweet treats to enjoy. The souvenirs are the usual Kelly fare with Jerilderie slapped on where otherwise it would say “Glenrowan” or “Beechworth” or whatever town the things were to represent. It would be great to have something to purchase that reflected Jerilderie specifically, but sometimes you have to be satisfied with what you have on offer.

Display of antique items in the Jerilderie Bakery

A little further out is the site of the old police complex, where once stood the barracks, stables and lock-up. All that remains is the stables, and what I took to be the adjoining lock-up cell, but the printed sheet that explained the building was long rotted by the elements so it wasn’t exactly easy to find the info. Road works were being undertaken at the site so we had to dodge earth moving vehicles as we headed up to the stables. There is something strangely poetic about the dilapidated state of the building, excepting the recently installed guttering. It was here that the Kelly Gang had their base of operations in the town after locking the police up in the cell. The original police station is long gone, now a big empty patch of dirt marks where the police station used to be.

Remains of the police stables

As was becoming a recurring theme in our travels, we started our days in town at the bakery. The food is good, the prices reasonable and the service friendly. The mural of notable figures from the town’s history was certainly… unique. Now, at the risk of sounding perhaps a smidge insensitive, I am used to seeing wall murals that adhere to artistic conventions like balance in the layout and verisimilitude in the portraits. Evidently some degree of effort went into the portraits, but there’s something odd about  seeing a depiction of Joe Byrne with what looks like an advanced case of Proteus syndrome. Fortunately around the corner is a nice little exhibit of items found on the site, including a shortened Martini Henry rifle that may have been dropped by one of the trooopers that went to the town from Victoria in search of the gang. Out the back there is also a big statue of Ned Kelly made from bread tins, which I quite liked. It gave me a few little flashbacks to my short-lived baker apprenticeship seeing all those tins.

Mural painted on the interior wall of the bakery

After a short stay in Jerilderie, it was time to hit the road again. I made the executive decision to pass through Culcairn so that I could get a chance to see some key sites related to Dan Morgan. We stopped for brunch at the Culcairn Bakery and had some of the best, freshest food we had had the entire trip. Honestly, it was tempting to linger in town a bit longer, but we had places to be and things to see.
Just outside of town is the grave of John McLean, the stockman who has the dubious honour of being the first man murdered by Dan Morgan. After Morgan had drunkenly fired his pistol into a crowd of captives at Round Hill Station, a local squatter named John Heriot had been badly wounded when a bullet struck his leg. McLean had gotten Morgan’s permission to fetch a doctor, but Morgan’s accomplices convinced him that McLean was going for the police instead. When Morgan ordered McLean to stop and the man continued riding, Morgan shot him. He took McLean back to the station and stayed with him all night. McLean died soon after and even though the grave by the side of the road has a big sign next to it to tell the story, it is in fact a fake grave. The real grave is actually several hundred metres away by Round Hill Station.

John McLean’s Grave

Round Hill Station is another example of a bushranger site that has continued to thrive beyond its infamous past. Now billed as Round Hill Homestead, it is both a farm and a perfect place for functions such as weddings. As with Wantabadgery Station, I elected not to go wandering in uninvited, satisfied with knowing I had been to the spot, more or less, where Morgan went from just another highwayman to Morgan the Murderer.
The brief spell outside the car saw me swarmed with flies and seriously wishing I had one of those hats with the corks hanging off the brim. I happily shooed the last of them out of the car before we headed off towards Walla Walla.

Morgan’s Lookout

Morgan’s Lookout was one of the few things on the list that I had positioned as a must. Located on the outskirts of Culcairn, northwest of Walla Walla, the lookout is essentially a collection of huge boulders where Dan Morgan is believed to have made a camp so he could monitor the movements of police and potential victims from afar. There is no admission fee and it opens from sunrise to sunset. By the time we arrived the heat was blistering and the moment we stood outside it hit like opening a preheated oven. It appeared that some effort had been made to create a set of signs detailing the history and ecology of the location. Walking through the huge boulders was incredible. You could easily imagine Morgan sleeping inside the overhangs or lurking between the rocks, ready to pounce. A steel staircase allowed access to the top of the largest boulder. On the way around we met another visitor that was taking photographs – the only other living soul at the spot at the time. The hike up the stairs was almost as breathtaking as the view from the top of the lookout; once up on the platform you realise just how far Morgan would have been able to see. For what seemed thousands of miles around, everything was dry, mostly flat and yellow. It was easy to see how an enterprising bushranger would find the viewpoint useful. Unfortunately the weather proved intolerable and we headed back to the car quicker than originally intended. Once inside our conveyance we spent five or more minutes trying to get the flies out before resuming the trip.

Taking in the view from the top of Morgan’s Lookout (speaking of tops, you can get one of these Dan Morgan t-shirts from here)

We returned over the border much earlier than originally planned due to a decision to power through to Beechworth. This decision may have proved to have been wise given that only an hour or so after passing back through Wodonga we heard news of fires breaking out in Albury. Once we were back in Victoria we were relieved to once again see hills and the colour green. The trip was slowed considerably by road works, but hopefully soon there will be nice new road surfaces for drivers in the area. When we finally made it to Beechworth we checked in at the George Kerferd Hotel. This lavish accommodation, especially in comparison to our previous lodgings, is situated within the grounds of the former lunatic asylum (somewhat appropriate, some may say, for someone such as I). That night we indulged in Chinese food from the Chinese Village Restaurant. Georgina probably wouldn’t have felt the trip was complete without having done so at least once.

Old Beechworth Post Office

One of the best things to do in Beechworth is to explore the darker side by going on a ghost tour of the old lunatic asylum. As an enthusiast of all things paranormal, this came highly recommended and did not disappoint. Our original plan to walk from the accommodation was vetoed by our disinclination to walk after our dinner. This proved a wise decision as the asylum grounds are deceptively huge. The winding road to where the tours operate was suitably eerie as night closed in and a light drizzle began. The Asylum Ghost Tours signs, with their ominous bloody handprints, led us to the Bijou Theatre from where the tour would begin. The theatre is decked out with a mix of historical medical paraphernalia and ghostly themed decorations of questionable taste, but you can buy merchandise from there either before or after the tour. I bought a copy of the book Palace of Broken Dreams, which is an interesting read and details the history of the site. Our guide Bronwen was excellent, leading us through the buildings and recounting the history, both earthly and otherworldly, clearly and without any forced theatricality. It should be noted that this is not one of those tacky tours where you’re led into darkened rooms where some git in a Halloween costume will jump out and scare people. No, this tour lets the history and the location do all the work. As for paranormal experiences, both Georgina and I experienced things on the tour. For myself, I saw what appeared to be a young boy with a shaved head trying to hide behind some cars parked outside of what was at one stage an arts room, as well as hearing the voice of an older male in an empty room as we entered the complex where the nursery was housed. Throughout the tour, our guide was gracious in answering questions. My inclination during such tours is always to dig deeper where possible and Bronwen demonstrated that she was intimately acquainted with the place and the entities therein, as much as the history side of things, which was very impressive. Ultimately I would rate this tour extremely highly and recommend it for anyone with an interest in the paranormal or even just in the history of medicine in Australia.

Nursery display in the asylum

One of the important things we had to do while in the region was visit the El Dorado Museum for a meeting. Georgina’s work on An Outlaw’s Journal has led to a very close relationship with the museum as they are in the process of updating their collections and displays. As small local museums go, El Dorado is a beauty. Their collection ranges through all sorts of history from the colonial era to militaria and even geology. Our work with the museum at present is super secret, but Georgina took the opportunity to give the museum a beta copy of the book she has been working on about the El Dorado cow that Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt stole. As usual, it was a fruitful meeting and an absolute pleasure to meet the committee with whom we look forward to working with in future.

Meeting the committee at El Dorado Museum [Photographer: Sue Phillips]

As in previous visits, we went to the Beechworth Courthouse, where many infamous faces had their day in court. Recently restoration works were performed in parts of the building and the historical books in the library were treated to prevent any creepy crawlies from making a meal out of them. The courtroom is basically unchanged from the era that saw members of the Kelly gang and their families on trial there and there are some very interesting exhibits. The staff are friendly and happy to have a chat about the building and its history, and even though I’ve heard the spiel a half dozen times it never gets dull.

Georgina taking up the judge’s spot in the courtroom

We also made a trip to the Burke Museum, where they are doing refurbishment to a portion of the interior where the Chinese collection is housed. The Chinese artifacts are one of the most important collections in the museum, owing to the cultural significance both to the Beechworth community and the Chinese in equal measure, many of whom travel to Beechworth specifically to connect with their heritage. In light of this, I purchased a set of postcards with illustrations depicting frontier life for the Chinese featuring artwork by Andrew Swift. We were privileged enough to get a look through some of the historical photographs in their archives in search of sites connected to Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go back and get copies as intended. The team at the museum are friendly, enthusiastic and very helpful if you are looking for assistance in your research.

Georgina examines a photograph of The Vine Hotel

We also went to the Ned Kelly Vault, one of Beechworth’s best attractions. The small building houses the best singular collection of Kelly related relics in the world, spanning the whole story and it’s cultural influences. As a big enthusiast of film, it is always a hoot to see armour worn by Mick Jagger, John Jarratt and Heath Ledger on display, among the various other exciting items such as Ann Jones’ table, helmets and weapons used by Victoria Police, and a range of photos of people involved in the story, including an image purporting to show Ned and Dan Kelly prior to their outlawry (which can only be viewed in a specially constructed box). The volunteer-run museum has thousands of people going through its doors every year and hopefully things will continue to grow.

Replicas of Dan and Ned Kelly’s armour

Another spot we visited in Beechworth was the remnants of the old hospital. Essentially, all that remains of the busy frontier hospital is the stonework from the front wall. As impressive as it is, there is something rather melancholy in the absence of the rest of the building, but that’s progress for you. Once upon a time, this would have been bustling with nurses and doctors going about their duties, attending to patients from the town and the goldfields. Now, it’s just a bunch of carved stone leading onto an empty lot.

The dramatic remnants of the old Beechworth Hospital facade

The following day we started with a trip to the El Dorado Pottery, a favourite of mine. After making a few purchases, we headed through the Woolshed Valley. Although the speed limit along the trail is 100km p/h, the road is covered in fine dust and gravel – not exactly prime conditions in case of a need to stop suddenly at top speed. We briefly stopped at Reedy Creek so Georgina could dip her toes in the water. As we were leaving there were already locals coming down in their swimmers to cool off. It’s a beautiful spot to have a swim and no doubt Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt did as much back in the day. As we continued, we stopped at the site of the Sebastopol Flats, where Joe Byrne used to work and socialise with the Chinese. Georgina made a series of videos for her Facebook page covering aspects of the story related to the locations we were visiting, the last of which was The Devil’s Elbow, where Aaron Sherritt lived at the time of his murder. The trail is conveniently signposted throughout and you can read up on the history as you go. Unfortunately there is not a lot of structures left to see, so the signs do a fantastic job of explaining what things were there and their significance.

Reedy Creek

We then made our way back to Beechworth where we managed to get in on a tour through the Beechworth Gaol. Despite some factual inaccuracies on this occasion that only big nerds like myself would pick up on, the tour was lively and engaging. The gaol itself is in excellent condition, owing to the fact that it was only fifteen years ago that it was decommissioned. If you are in Beechworth, try and get on the tour, which operates twice daily. There are many links to not only the Kelly Gang (all of whom had served time there), but also more recent high-profile criminals such as Squizzy Taylor and Carl Williams. To drive home the Kelly connection, a set of dummies dressed in replica armour stands between the corridors of cells. For some reason Joe Byrne’s helmet had been swapped with a second Dan Kelly helmet, but not everyone is as pedantic enough to notice as I am. Hopefully there will be more attractions at the gaol soon to encourage visitors beyond the tour, but as in all things it requires money and time, which is often in short supply these days.

Dummies representing the Kelly Gang in armour

That night we returned to the Beechworth Gaol for an evening hunting for ghosts. The Beechworth Gaol is the location of the four hour long paranormal investigations hosted by Danni from Paranormal Prospectors. Entering the gaol with the lights off, after dark, was a confronting experience itself, but this was heightened by the fact that the electronic temperature gauge that had been set up in the aisle of the male cell block appeared to be floating when we entered, though it may have been an optical illusion caused by the dramatic change in lighting. Regardless of whether or not it was, this has to be hands down the single most paranormally active place I’ve ever been. We got EVPs, Georgina was poked in the back by a disembodied finger (with an EVP capturing a voice describing exactly that), the laser grid was manipulated to go brighter and duller, there were intelligent responses where whistling patterns were being repeated by a disembodied voice in various points in the prison, there were disembodied footsteps, and intelligent responses on the spirit box. One of the most incredible things was the table tipping, where the group lightly rested their fingertips on the edge of a small table and it began to tilt and spin. It spun so fast we were all running in a circle and it tipped so intensely it fell over several times, and yet nobody was gripping the table at all – I have no conventional explanation for it. Overall, it was absolutely exhilarating to experience and as a ghost buff I feel like I definitely got my money’s worth.

Interior of the gaol at the conclusion of the investigation (that’s not a ghost standing at the end of the corridor)

On the return trip we popped into the Beechworth Galleries, where we examined the bric-a-brac and marvelled at the welded sculptures. The statues, of which a considerable number depicted Ned Kelly in armour, are made by a South African artist and range from the whimsical to the absolutely astounding. Any garden or deck would be immediately improved by having one of these amazing artworks on display there – just don’t ask me how you’ll get a life-size elk made of steel home. A keen observer might recognise the artist’s work on display outside of the Billy Tea Rooms in Glenrowan.

A trio of welded Neds

We also made sure to visit Glenrowan. For me, this is where it all began in 1998 during a stop on the way to Beechworth for my grade six school camp. Of course, in some ways it was a very different place back then. For one, back then Bob Hempel was still fit enough to charge out of the animated theatre ringing a bell to attract visitors whenever a session was due to begin. Nowadays, he’s far more subdued but you still hear the crack of the “gunfire” echoing through the main strip to remind you of the attraction’s presence. Kate’s Cottage hasn’t really changed, though the pet birds are dead now and the re-created Kelly house is starting to sag like an under-baked cake, but they still play Lazy Harry on loop, and you can still get your Ned Kelly tea towels and ciggie lighters from there. The site of the siege has recently had the stolen wooden replica of the inn sign replaced with a metal one that is hopefully harder to pinch, though the metal sculpture approximating Ned’s armour at the capture site has already had the helmet stolen, having been there for only around a month.

Site of the Glenrowan siege

We had our brunch at the Vintage Hall Cafe, which is both a cafe and a shop that sells a mix of souvenirs and second hand items. It was here in 1970 that the Mick Jagger film had it’s Victorian premiere, and some local brainboxes decided to set off explosives around the building in protest (surprisingly this act did not somehow stop the film from existing). I managed to pick up a copy of the Monty Wedd Ned Kelly comic strip in a hardcover book, which was something I had been wanting for a long time. Then Georgina and I did our usual trip to Kate’s Cottage to browse the books. If you’ve got a decent wad of cash on you, you can pick up some really great titles from the range of second-hand books. I was very tempted by a number of the titles but decided to save up. Then it was a quick sojourn at the Billy Tea Rooms, which provide a lovely spot to have a bite to eat. We walked to the site of the siege where we had a moment of contemplating. It probably would have been longer than a moment if it wasn’t so hot that we could feel our skin baking.

A token of affection for an infamous pioneer family

After this we made our way to Greta to visit the cemetery, but ended up going to Moyhu and buying a fake plant centrepiece because we couldn’t find anywhere nearby that we could get flowers from. The volunteers that have been working to maintain and upgrade the facilities in the cemetery have done exemplary work and it is a pity that more of the smaller country cemeteries don’t get as much TLC. The Kelly graves are not marked, though with some research you can find out where the plots are. While many people complain that the graves are unmarked, it is very unlikely that it would make much of a difference. The marker at the gate is a tasteful memorial to the whole family, unified in the afterlife. Of course, having visited three quarters of the gang, we had to visit Joe Byrne one more time as we returned via Benalla (I doubt Georgina would have forgiven me if we hadn’t). From that point it was just a straight ride into the sunset on our way home where I hoped the cat hadn’t baked to death in my heat-trap of a house. Fortunately my mum had been an angel, as always, and made sure that the cat was looked after in my absence. By the time we got home we were both exhausted and decided that it was time to order a pizza now that we were somewhere that it would actually get delivered to.

It was indeed a very eventful trip. To experience the places where these incredible stories unfolded is always wonderful and exciting. It was good to see so much of the history preserved, but at the same time the amount of attractions that were poorly maintained or not maintained at all was disappointing. Australia’s heritage may not be full of Roman hippodromes or Greek amphitheatres, but what we do have is valuable and it is disheartening to see so much being lost because people either can’t afford to restore and maintain, or just can’t be bothered. Ideally, a town like Jerilderie could be thriving with frequent visitors coming through to visit the Kelly sites, if it wasn’t for the fact that they are so small and off the beaten track. Towns like Beechworth, in comparison, embrace their history and perhaps it could even be said that they take it for granted along with their accessibility due to proximity to the highway. It’s sad to see, but the reality is that it’s getting harder and harder to keep these things up and running in Australia, and these attractions will exist only as long as the people owning them are physically able to be there. Some young entrepreneur with a bit of cash behind them could revolutionise the tourism industry in bushranger country, but it would require real passion for the history as much as a fat bank account. These sites are our history and our culture and deserve to be maintained and cared for. Perhaps in the not too distant future, they will get the attention they need. Only time will tell.

The Nightingale (Review)

Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her breakout film The Babadook is a brutal tale of revenge set in the early days of Australian colonial history. Following a female convict who goes bush on a vendetta to bring justice to the men that defiled her and killed her family, The Nightingale captures a truly authentic sense of life in 1830s Van Diemens Land and the desperation shared by the convict class and indigenous peoples during the height of the frontier wars.

The protagonist of the piece is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict who lives with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and infant, waiting for the day that Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) fulfills his promise to let her go free, now her sentence has ended. However, Hawkins is infatuated with Clare and refuses to let her go, using his position to dominate and rape her without suffering the consequences. When Clare’s husband stands up to Hawkins it spells doom for the family and as a last act of vengeance before having to head to an assignment in Launceston, Hawkins takes his underlings Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood) to have their way with Clare. In the chaos the men murder the husband and infant and viciously assault Clare, leaving her for dead. When she comes to, Clare is determined to seek revenge and goes bush, using a tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to find the soldiers in the vandiemonian wilderness.

The performances in this film are absolutely top notch. Aisling Franciosi is absolutely mesmerising as Clare; every emotion is raw and real and conveys the strain and pain of her struggles in every haunted expression and angry snarl. There are some scenes where it is unclear what is acting and what are genuine reactions, so immersed in the role is Franciosi. On top of this, the beautiful songs, which earn Clare her nickname “the little nightingale”, are performed by Franciosi who is a trained opera singer. Another absolutely stand-out performance is from Baykali Ganambarr as Billy/Mangana. Bringing life to Billy with humour and gravitas in equal measure, we see a young man who has experienced more than his fair share of tragedy and horror in his lifetime, desperate to find the last of his people. Sam Claflin is stomach-churningly devious as Hawkins, Damon Herriman as Sergeant Ruse is a nasty and pathetic bully, and Harry Greenwood’s Jago is weak and terrified, the trio conveying the disorderly nature of the infantry in the country at the time. With many of the cast having to be bilingual, either shifting into Gaelic or Indigenous languages, it ratchets up the authenticity all the more.

The film debuted with no small amount of controversy, with filmgoers allegedly storming out of the theatre in disgust at the violence and critics attacking Kent’s use of said violence as exploitative and gratuitous. Many of those who watched the film felt drained by the end due to the relentless grimness, but overall responses were that it was a very powerful and well made film.

For the average filmgoers that watch movies to switch off and have a good time, this film is decidedly incompatible. This is calculated to be uncomfortable and confronting; it is a film to be studied, not watched. While it does not portray historical events, it is drenched in such historical authenticity that it works better to describe history than many films that are at strains to portray themselves as true history. The life of the convict in Van Diemens Land was one of toil and suffering. Female convicts were often taken as concubines by authority figures such as guards, soldiers and employers. The female factories were equipped with facilities to deal with pregnancies and births that came as a result of the exploitation of the women imprisoned there. The horrendous treatment of the Aboriginals in Van Diemens Land/Tasmania is well known and has become a major point of historical discussion in recent decades as the tug of war between “white blindfold” and “black armband” perspectives vie for dominance in discussions of our past and Kent sought assistance from indigenous elders to ensure she was staying true to the experience of the Aboriginals in her story. Even the brutality of the violence is far from over the top when looking at events that happened in the Apple Isle in that period. The scene where Clare is raped, her husband shot and her baby killed by having its head smashed has echoes of the crimes of bushranger Thomas Jeffries, who gained the moniker “The Monster” due to his savage treatment of his victims in the 1820s in almost the exact same way. Moreover, the majority of the violence in the film is implied, rather than seen. This is not a gory movie, but the psychological effect of the implication of violence is hugely impactful, as it should be. This is not gratuitous violence, nor is it the kind of violence that one can revel in. It’s cold, it’s brutal and it’s unflinchingly real – it has consequences. No doubt such realistic horror was a frightening thing for the sort of people with a very sanitised and bourgeois view of history. There is no opulence here, no beautiful frocks or romance. This is the vandiemonian frontier in all its gloomy, savage and wild spectacle.

Where The Nightingale falls down somewhat is in the character of Clare. Her motivation is clear from the outset but as the film goes on it seems like she begins to lose focus as she bounces around between her hatred of the soldiers, her mourning for her family, her fear of Billy and her attempts to assert independence despite having no survival skills. As a result, she tends to sort of fluke her way from point to point more and more as the film progresses, which creates a meandering pace at the midpoint when the character seems to be wandering aimlessly along with those she is supposed to be pursuing. For a character that was so driven and capable at the outset of her journey, it seems bizarre that she should grow less sure of herself and less competent as her journey continues, but that is precisely what happens. The one saving grace of this unusual character development is that it helps allow Billy to step up and avenge his people, reclaiming his identity as Mangana the blackbird.

Another element that is puzzling is the decision to present the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The almost square framing is very odd given that the standard now is usually the much wider 16:9. To most people is just jargon, but the truncated view actually has a considerable impact on the viewing experience. While it often acts to forcibly grab the viewer’s attention and bring them uncomfortably close to the action, much of the gorgeous cinematography feels far more underwhelming than is deserved, especially when we are talking about the lovingly re-created period sets or the stunning Tasmanian wilderness. This is a minor gripe though and the stumpier screen shape is used effectively throughout, despite the shortcomings of the format (pun unintended).

The key theme of the film is the futility of revenge. We have our two protagonists, Clare and Billy, driven to seek revenge for all that has been stolen from them (Clare, her family; Billy, his entire nation). When Clare gets the chance to take her revenge she discovers that it does not alleviate the burden of her grief, merely adding to it. Where she falters, Billy steps in and follows through. There is a small degree of satisfaction in knowing that some form of justice has played out, but it is not a clean resolution. The uncertainty of the ending highlights this fact. The Nightingale highlights that debts paid in blood rarely set things to rights, they just perpetuate violence and suffering — an eye for an eye leaves the world blind.

Another core aspect of the film is class. The pecking order in colonial Van Diemens Land drives everything in the story. Hawkins is driven by his compulsion to climb the ranks, and when he fails he passes his anguish onto his underlings and the convicts by bullying them, violating them and denying them any freedom they’ve earned. Further below the convicts are the Aboriginals who are treated like vermin to be caught and put to death, with their heads taken as trophies by colonists. This is a land where laws are merely impotent words, where corruption has rotted the tooth of the law to the point that it has no bite. One need only scratch the surface of recorded Australian history from this time to see that it is no stretch of the truth to portray things in this manner.

The Nightingale is a film that some will be lucky to get through given its violent subject matter and relentlessness, but to those who enjoy the art of film and storytelling it is a piece that stands up to multiple viewings, as there is a lot to peel away and examine. It is not hard to see why it won over the judges at the AACTA awards who awarded it most of the big gongs including best director, best screenplay and best actress among others. It is safe to say this film has earned a place beside films like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and The Tracker for daring to depict the uncomfortable truth of our past, even if it is through the filter of a fictional narrative.

The Nightingale is available to purchase in Australia on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as in digital format via iTunes, GooglePlay, Bigpond Movies, Fetch and Microsoft Network.

It is currently showing on screens in the UK and Ireland.

Cash & Company/Tandarra DVD Box Set (review)

Bushrangers are a surprisingly rare fixture on the Australian small screen. Since the introduction of television in 1956 for the Melbourne Olympic Games we have had Ben Hall (1975), The Trial of Ned Kelly (1977), The Last Outlaw (1980) and Wild Boys (2011) with bushrangers popping up as generic villains in shows like Five Mile Creek (1983). Yet, the most popular bushranger series was Cash & Company, followed by the spin-off series Tandarra and for a brief shining moment in the 1970s bushrangers were staples of the Australian small-screen. Now, Umbrella Entertainment have released an eight disc box set of both series to delight new fans and stir the nostalgia of old hands.

Cash & Company stars Serge Lazareff and Gus Mercurio as bushrangers Sam Cash and Joe Brady, and Penne Hackforth-Jones as widow and station owner Jessica Johnson. The setting is the goldfields of the 1850s with Cash and Brady on the run from crooked cops, always staying a step ahead of the law and getting involved in all sorts of exciting adventures.

Cash and Company: Joe Brady (Gus Mercurio), Sam Cash (Serge Lazareff) and Jessica Johnsonckforth-Jones) [Source: The Australian Women’s Weekly, 16/07/1975]

The leads form a brilliant double-act, with Lazareff wonderfully charismatic as straight-man Sam Cash and Mercurio as his sidekick Joe Brady engaging and funny, always ripe for a gag. Penne Hackforth-Jones as the feisty widow Jessica Johnson is a superb female lead, brave and wily with a wicked sense of humour. She more than holds her own bouncing between the bushrangers and their pursuers, willing to get in the thick of things to help the boys out. The dastardly Lieutenant Keogh, portrayed by Bruce Kerr, makes for a great villain in the mould of the Sheriff of Nottingham; snobbish, cunning and methodical with a real nastiness underlying it all. The show itself is a brilliant blend of fun action set pieces and witty humour strung together with great plots that capture the gold rush era and accurately reflect the bushrangers of the period. It is evident that the writers and production team had a love for real bushranging tales and you can find little nods to famous bushrangers, especially through character names like Morgan and McCabe. With such enjoyable and adventurous characters and stories to match it is easy to see why ‘Cash & Company’ attracted such an adoring audience.

Jessica Johnson (Penne Hackforth-Jones) and Joe Brady (Gus Mercurio) [Source: The Australian Women’s Weekly, 31/03/1976]

Tandarra debuted in place of a second season of Cash & Company as Serge Lazareff had taken his leave of the show in between the seasons. Sam Cash was written out off-screen, the previous season having been left open ended due to Lazareff’s involvement not having been confirmed for a reprise of the character before production ended. Cash was replaced by Gerard Kennedy as Ryler, a bounty hunter who was introduced in the final episode of Cash & Company. Ryler is a rough and tumble action hero type, a stark contrast to the charm and playfulness of Cash. To replace one of the heroes with someone that was meant to be the villain was a bold move, but one that surprisingly pays off. The bushranger angle was also changed, Joe Brady now on the right side of the law and the main characters frequently facing off against dodgy businessmen, extortionists and vicious bushranger gangs. Coming straight from Cash & Company, the change in tone in Tandarra is somewhat jarring, especially as the Celtic and folk elements that formed the score are replaced with a contemporary jazzy 1970s soundtrack full of synth, guitar and bongos. The vibe has shifted from upbeat and fun to being far more serious, the villains being more hard-edged. It is at least as good as Cash & Company, but it is a very different show at the same time. Gerard Kennedy as Ryler, while not being the heart-throb Lazareff was, is a great leading man and once again Penne Hackforth-Jones holds everything together as Jessica Johnson. Mercurio’s Brady seems almost out of place at times with the more serious tone of the show, but fortunately the character is one that transposes well to a more action-oriented interpretation. The writing continues to be excellent in this series and leaves one wondering what would have happened if the series had been able to continue.

Gerard Kennedy as Ryler in ‘Tandarra’ [Source: The Australian Women’s Weekly, 31/03/1976]

It is worth noting that the footage is archival and untouched, meaning that it retains the imperfections on the original film ranging from dust and scratches to the occasional dropped frame. While Umbrella Entertainment have proved themselves where restoration is concerned, the process is arduous and expensive. One day perhaps there will be an affordable way to restore these shows entirely but in the meantime this is more than adequate. The softness of the picture, complete with flecks and scratches, gives the episodes a warmth that enhances the experience and will no doubt tickle the nostalgia of older viewers.

[Source: The Australian Women’s Weekly, 19/02/1975]

As a viewing experience, this makes for great entertainment for young and old. Older viewers and those well-versed in bushrangers on screen will no doubt get a kick from spotting familiar faces popping up in bit parts. One drawback is the lack of subtitles, so those who are hearing impaired are out of luck this time around. No doubt if it is deemed viable a restored and remastered edition of the two series could manifest down the track with subtitles and maybe even extra features. Until then, this is still an enjoyable and worthwhile set to grab and may end up being the only way to enjoy these fantastic episodes for the foreseeable future.

The Cash & Company/Tandarra box set is a must-have for bushranger enthusiasts and fans of nostalgic television. Sadly, very few bushranger programmes and films make it to the home market, so this is a fantastic opportunity to get a fun, exciting and entertaining bushranger series that the whole family can enjoy.

If you would like to purchase the box set yourself, you can find it from Umbrella Entertainment here.

‘Mad Dog Morgan’ Blu-Ray (review)

Very few bushranger films are as deserving of the high definition restoration as Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan, and once again Umbrella Entertainment demonstrate just why what they do is so remarkable with this superb new release.

The menu is simple and easy to navigate, popping up over a backdrop of a montage of scenes from the film so that right from the get-go we see how much better this looks than the previous releases. Umbrella don’t usually go for elaborate menus and nothing here breaks that mold. It’s simple and effective and whets the appetite for the coming attraction.

The restoration of the feature is sublime. The work that the restoration team have put into preparing this for a 4K upgrade have absolutely outdone themselves. The contrast in the picture is bold, the colours vibrant and the details clearer than they’ve ever been seen before. The footage has been cleaned up so there’s no dust specs or scratches to remind the viewer that the vision is taken from 40+ year old film stock. In this process a lot of shots have been stabilised. This is most noticeable in the intro with its cavalcade of S.T. Gill illustrations, as well as the closing shot of Morgan’s corpse replicating a Carte de Visite. To see these once jumpy images rendered properly static, as they were always meant to be, is beautiful in itself, but it really is indicative of the attention given to crafting the best possible iteration of Mad Dog Morgan.

The film itself is the director’s cut, which has been the standard for quite some time and much superior to the sanitised Troma edit that was screened in the United States. Throughout, we have Detective Mainwaring’s interjections to signify each chapter of the story. It is a twisted tale of cruelty, revenge and how mistreatment can drive men to madness. Director Mora’s vision of a film that authentically captures the look and feel of the Gold Rush comes through clearly and viscerally. Dennis Hopper’s performance as Morgan is brilliant, the actor making himself the absolute embodiment of the “mad dog”. Some viewers may struggle to get beyond the more schlocky aspects of production, owing to it being a low budget film at the time of production, but to the dedicated viewer it really pays off. This is a film with layers that reveals new things with repeat viewings.

The special features on the disc include the features from the previous Umbrella DVD release, which were already fantastic, but include a swag of new interviews, commentaries and a documentary comparing the filming locations now to how they were in the film. The photography in this new documentary is absolutely gorgeous and not only highlights the beauty of the locations used in the film, but also drives home that the movie was filmed in Morgan country. The commentary track from Philippe Mora is well worth hearing too as he explains his decisions for choosing the locations and his reflections on the shoot. For aficianados of Australian film this is a must-have for your collection.

This new release demonstrates just how lucky we are that a company like Umbrella exists to release these classic, often obscure, films and series to the home viewing audience, as well as restoring landmark films so that future generations can see them at their best. The Blu-ray of Mad Dog Morgan is absolutely splendid and is an absolute score for film buffs and fans of the film. If you haven’t seen the film before then there has never been a better time to see it than now. Definitely check it out and see why it is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films.

Mad Dog Morgan is available from retailers and online. The DVD is still available as well.

The Armour: The Myths, The Facts (review)

On Saturday, February 22, 2019, the Greta Heritage Group held the second of what is planned to be an annual Ned Kelly themed event to raise funds to maintain and modernise the 104 year-old Greta-Hansonville hall. The previous theme was Max Brown’s Australian Son, this year the topic was The Armour: The Myths, The Facts.

Adrian Younger, master of ceremonies

Tickets for the event were sold out quickly this year and the numbers were bigger than the previous event. Support came from various quarters, with the Ned Kelly Vault in Beechworth loaning out their replicas of the armour to be displayed at the event. Each attendee received a goodie bag with postcards, a printout of documents pertaining to the armour, a copy of Chester Eagle’s The Armour and as a final sweet treat there was a small packet of Minties.

The event opened with a reading by Alan Crichton of a poem he had written about the armour that evoked the wild notion of the so-called Republic of North Eastern Victoria and the idea of the gang as “Knights of old”. There’s no doubt that Crichton has a gift for the written word and it was a perfect piece to set the mood.

Alan Crichton

The first presentation was Noeleen Lloyd’s run-down of the history of the armour. The story of the mysterious creation of the four iconic suits of iron and their subsequent misadventures through the siege of Glenrowan then years of being bounced around various owners, being jumbled, having bits stolen or acquired on the sly, attempts to destroy them and then eventually being recognised as culturally significant enough to display, is an incredible tale in itself. Noeleen’s talk covered this concisely, cleverly and without any need to discuss the moral arguments about the actions of the bushrangers or police.

Noeleen Lloyd

The second presentation was by blacksmith Nick Hawtin. Hawtin was tasked with creating exact replicas of the armour for the township of Jerilderie and in so doing gained some fascinating insights into how the armour may have been constructed. After a video of the Catalyst report on tests performed on Joe Byrne’s armour was shown, Nick spoke about his experience in studying the minute details of each suit and analysing the materials and process. He identified that while the majority of the steel was from plough mouldboards, there was also sheet metal used and likely much of it was scrap metal from various blacksmiths. By incorporating his knowledge of the craft, culture and history of blacksmithing, he was able to recognise the methodology used, the likely tools used and subsequently offer some valuable insights into the process. By virtue of the processes used it is incredibly unlikely that the suits were constructed in the bush or by one person. If the story of the suits being constructed by a creek have any validity, he supposed that it was that the armour was adjusted there rather than constructed in the bush. There was enough material in Nick Hawtin’s account to fill a decent sized book and hopefully some day we can get a published account of his knowledge.

Nick Hawtin

The third presentation was by Brad Webb of He discussed Ned Kelly in popular culture, drawing upon early etchings in illustrated newspapers through to film, television and comics, but especially comics (Webb believes Ned Kelly provided inspiration for the superhero The Invincible Iron-Man). There is no doubt that the Kelly armour has captured the imagination of countless people around the world and continues to do so.

Brad Webb

At this time there was a brief change of pace as Nick Hawtin got his forge fired up to demonstrate the difficulty in adequately heating steel of the thickness and type used for the armour. After several minutes of cranking a fan to heat up the coke the crowd was ushered inside for lunch to emerge again when the metal was heated. It was evident from the demonstration that a bush forge would have been impractical and inadequate in heating up the sheets of metal used to craft the armour, further asserting that the bulk of construction must have occurred in blacksmith shops, likely by multiple smiths.

Nick Hawtin demonstrates the ancient art of blacksmithing

The final presentation was by artist Joe Zapp, who had been painting a portrait of Ned throughout proceedings. He discussed his work and his fundraising before auctioning off the painting and some prints. Zapp uses an impressionist style to create images quickly and expressively. The result is a stylised portrait that is endowed with feeling and movement. The sale of his work raised a fair amount for the hall and no doubt the buyers will be pleased as punch with their purchases.

Joe Zapp with the painting he created during proceedings

It was fantastic to see so many people turn out for the event and demonstrating their mutual love for the Kelly story while supporting the fantastic work done by the Greta volunteers. While the Kelly story seems to often bring out the worst in people online, in person it seems to be a very different situation and it’s nice to be reminded that a mutual appreciation for history and folklore can be a wonderful tool for uniting people rather than a device for dividing them.

Review: Teenage Bushranger by Kerry Medway

The name John Dunn is one that has been immortalised in songs, stories and film yet his story is one that very few people have heard. The historical fiction approach applied by Kerry Medway in Teenage Bushranger enables us to see the junior member of the Hall Gang in a unique way that leads us to sympathise with the young renegade.


Teenage Bushranger, now in its third edition, is written from the perspective of Dunn as he awaits his execution for murder. Throughout he reflects on his notorious career as well as his early life, often ruminating on what was wasted by pursuing bushranging. Dunn comes across as youthful, exuberant and penitent for his crimes but most importantly he is relatable. This is a Dunn that is fallible and suffering from the folly of youth, struggling to come to terms with his actions. To see his world through his own eyes brings it all alive from racing horses to being twitterpated over Peggy Monks or even the thrill of robbing a mail coach. Dunn’s discovery of his faith in his last days shows a young man grappling with seeking forgiveness while wondering if he really could be forgiven for his awful crimes. When you finish the book you leave feeling more understanding of how easily someone can end up on a very bad path when they have a lack of positive guidance and how it is that so many condemned men throw themselves into religion as they face the ultimate punishment. Medway’s Dunn is a superb realisation of a historical character who is well rounded and human.


Another strength of the book is in its portrayal of Ben Hall and John Gilbert. You truly get the sense that as Medway was writing he had an intimate understanding of the personalities of these two men that went beyond merely their acts as stamped into the history books. Gilbert is a skirt-chasing adrenaline junkie who is also extremely worldly and skilled in many fields. Hall on the other hand is aloof and driven by a need to survive as much as by his anger, which often explodes, yet can find moments of jubilation where he’s compelled to playfully bounce a little boy on his knee during a raid. It is easy to see how these men might seem alluring to a young tearaway like Dunn.

A key factor of this book, however, is an emphasis on Christianity. This on the surface may seem a deterrent to some readers who could consider it “preachy” but it never comes across as anything other than a) contextually appropriate; and b) an extra layer of meaning to the journey of the protagonist. This is not a sermon per se, but it does draw heavily upon Bible verses to illustrate the path to redemption that Dunn would have taken in prison. This provides a very interesting insight into how faith manifests, especially for those unaccustomed to religious belief or practice. It must be remembered that religion in the 19th century was extremely important to attitudes and everyday life, a fact that is hard to imagine in these secular times. There are some parts of the book that follow the narrative that are of a heavily religious bent that act as a Q&A for people curious about the beliefs of Christians, but these are optional to read if they aren’t your cup of tea.

Where the text gets a little shaky is where a number of oral traditions work their way in (for example the Clarke brothers assisting in the failed Araluen robbery or Ben Hall and Billy Dargin being friends). However, these do work in context as many of these instances can be attributable to the unreliability of the narrator, the root cause of such misinformation in the first place. This does not detract from the rest of Medway’s fantastic research. Really, it’s so minor as to barely rate a mention but bushranger enthusiasts can be very pedantic.

Kerry Medway has crafted a breezy, fun and engaging account of John Dunn’s life that is empathetic and authentic. It doesn’t shy away from Dunn’s criminality, in fact it uses it to support his redemption story. This is a version of the story that will appeal to readers across a broad spectrum of ages, though is probably better suited to mature readers, and provides an intriguing and sensitive insight into one of the handful of people ever declared an outlaw in Australian history.

If you would like to purchase your own copy of Teenage Bushranger, you can do so from this link.

For more info on Kerry Medway, including his background and upcoming events go to

A big thank you to Kerry Medway for providing me with his excellent books to review.