Spotlight: Captain Starlight’s Cattle Raid

T. A. Browne was the real name of colonial era author Rolf Boldrewood. Boldrewood wrote many popular tales of frontier life and bushrangers, drawing heavily on his own experiences and on popular news stories as inspiration. The central character of Boldrewood’s magnum opus, Robbery Under Arms, is Dick Marston; a young stockman who becomes wrapped up in the exploits of the dashing Captain Starlight.

The theft of a thousand cattle by Captain Starlight and his gang is one of the major set pieces in “Robbery Under Arms”, and like with most events and characters in Rolf Boldrewood’s writing, was based on an actual event.


Henry Redford was a Queensland cattle duffer and part-time bushranger who performed one of the most daring heists in Australian colonial history. In 1870 he stole 1000 cattle from Bowen Downs Station near Longreach and moved them overland through the Strzelecki Desert to South Australia for sale, netting £5000. It was a daring accomplishment unrivalled by even experienced stockmen. It wasn’t until 1872 that Readford was arrested and tried for the crime. A sympathetic (or impressed) jury found him not guilty. The tale is recounted in the news article below.

(Images from “Robbery Under Arms”, 1920)

Western Grazier (Wilcannia, NSW : 1896 – 1951), Friday 26 May 1944, page 4


The Greatest Cattle Stealing Case In Our History

STORY OF HENRY REDFORD

The greatest cattle stealing swindle of all time in Australian history was way back in 1870— that of Henry Redford, stockman and his associates.

“Thank God, gentlemen, the verdict is yours, not mine,” said the Judge, and smiting the bench with his gavel, he left the courtroom. In the year 1860 explorers William Landsborough and Nat Buchanan, after tracing the Fitzroy and the Belyando Rivers west of Rockhampton, decided to go land-seeking still further west in the country traversed three years previously by A. C Gregory.

They travelled 150 miles beyond the Belyando, and came to good country near a mountain, which subsequently they named Mount Cornish. After the usual formalities, they obtained a lease of thousands of square miles of the wonderful rolling downs country in this neighborhood; and they formed two stations — one, Mount Cornish, a cattle station, and the other, Bowen Downs, a sheep station. In due course the proprietors of these two stations formed themselves into the Landsborough Company, and their brand, L.C.5, became known in all the saleyards of Australia. Two more part owners came into the company, namely, Morehead and Young, but in the slump In the middle ‘sixties, just prior to the discovery of Gympie gold, the three original pioneers, Buchanan, Landsborough and Cornish, were obliged to sell out their interests very cheaply, and Morehead and Young were left in possession. Thus, but the luck of the game, those who found the country were deprived of the rich harvest in later years.

In November, 1867, Bill Butler, over seer of Bowen Downs Station, made a 400-mile journey eastward to Gracemere Station, near Rockhampton, to buy from the Norwegian pioneer family, the Archers (formerly of Durundur) a stud bull. Bill selected a great white bull (named Whitey), an imported animal, who was pure white, and of remarkable appearance. This animal was branded A on the near and off rumps (Archer’s brand), so Bill branded him also with an S, for extra identification. He drove the bull home to Bowen Downs, and Whitey was liberated amongst the cows and heifers of Morehead and Young.

Just as Whitey was settling down to domestic felicity a villian [sic] appeared on the scene, and Whitey’s wanderings recommenced.

The villain was named Henry Redford, a stockman, with two mates and large ideas. Redford and Company lurked in a concealed gully on the Thompson River, near Mount Cornish, where they built stockyards and gradually accumulated a herd of over a thousand L.C.5. cattle, including many hundred cows and heifers who belonged to Whltey’s harem. No suspicion was attached to the comings and goings of Redford and his mates, Doudney and Brooke, who were employed by a teamster named Forrester, of Tambo. The stockyard builders had formed the tremendous plan of lifting a thousand cattle and droving them a thousand miles to South Australia, where they expected to sell them for £5,000.

THE BIG PLAN

They planned the biggest cattle steal in the world’s history. Never in the wilds of Texas were a thousand head rustled at one go. We do these things on a proper scale in Australia, even though Australia’s boys prefer to read stories of Zane Grey’s Wild West instead of our Wilder West. When the mob in the hidden stockyards were ready to start on their trans continental amble, Whitey refused to be separated from his sweethearts and wives.

To avoid raising too big a dust, the cattle were divided into three mobs, and were slowly droved down the Thompson River, day after day and week after week, leaving Bowen Downs further in the rear. The plan of the ‘lifters’ was to abandon the cattle and take to the bush, should they ever be pursued.

Anxiously they watched the horizon behind them for signs of pursuit, but, in that land of great distance, great mobs and great carelessness, their absence remained unnoticed. After three weeks the bellowing mob reached the junction where the Barcoo joins the Thompson country, completely uninhabitated and following the track blazed by E. B. Kennedy In 1847. They were 200 miles south of Bowen Downs, 200 miles west of Tambo Police barracks, and 200 miles north-west of Bulloo Barracks at Thargomindah which were in the charge of the intrepid Inspector J. M. Gilmour, who was even then searching the country west of Cooper’s Creek for bones presumed to be the remains of explorer Leichhardt, missing since 1847.

DOWN THE COOPER’S

The three herds were now joined into one big bellowing mob, and the daring duffers, following a very careful itinerary, drove them slowly down Cooper’s Creek towards the South Australian border at Oontoo. No human being was there to question the thieves, who were as bold as the brass they hoped to make from the sale. These were the days of slow police communication and there was nothing to fear except pursuit by black trackers from Bowen Downs. Every time a mob of emus galloped behind the duffers to the north, Red ford and his co-pirates imagined that they saw Inspector Gilmour or his equally famous offsider, Trooper Ludovic, with the two Bulloo black-trackers, Tiger and Tommy. But no Tigers or Tommies appeared, and as the season was good, the lowing kine wound quickly down the lea — in other words down Cooper’s Creek —till they came to the stockade of Burke and Wills Camp 65, which had been the focus of the drama that had thrilled and horrified a continent ten years previously.

Now, who will deny that Redford and his mates were game? For despite the tragedy of Burke and Wills, there Aussie duffers formed a plan to drive their mob down Gregory’s old path along StrzeIecki Creek towards Mount Hopeless, where Burke had been baffled. Redford was a Hawkesbury River native — one of that tough breed, descendants of convicts, outlaws, free settlers, soldiers and aborigines, who had fed on bacon and corn and ridden their shaggy ponies up and down the gullies sinces [sic] the days of Governor Bligh.

These men are the original hillbillies of Australia, distillers of moonshine, rough as bags, broad in the shoulders, narrow in the waist, long in the head, and with small hands and feet.

Redford, who by now had changed his name to Collins, was of the same Hawkesbury river breed as Postman Peat, who carried Her Majesty’s Mails on horseback from Peat’s punt, along Peat’s Ridge, to Newcastle, twice a week for 50 years, wet or dry.

Redford had the same do-or-die spirit, as now he tailed his purloined mob over the border into South Australia at Oontoo, in the district of the Three Corners of Death .

STURT’S DESERT COUNTRY

Ahead, of them the Strzelecki Creek meandered southwards in a series of waterholes, some dry and some full, and some fresh and some salt, through a desert country inhabited by the notorious Tinga Tingana blacks. This was Sturt’s Stony Desert Country, and the cattle lowed and mooed as they sensed what was ahead of them.

Whitey bravely led on, but several small mobs broke away and headed back to the north, to become a prey for dingoes and Tinga Tinganas.

The route lay through Nappamerrie, Innamincka and Burley Burley water holes, after which the Strzelecki Creek did the disappearing trick and bobbed up again in a series of soaks a few miles apart until the duffers and their mob came to Murtie Murtie waterhole, 70 miles below Innamincka.

The trio were well equipped with shooting irons, and were able to vary their diet of everlasting beef with the black duck which were abundant in the lagoons and swamps of the disappearing Strzelecki. That experienced traveller, Whitey, who had now inspected the scenery from England to Rockhampton and thence most points westward to Bowen Downs, vowed that he had never seen anything like the parrakeelia and maneroo weed of the Strzelecki. Now the Tinga Tingana waterhole was reached, headquarters of the dreaded tribe of that euphonious name, but the natives made no attempt to bar Whitey’s progress.

On he went via Yerungarrowie and Goora Goora waterhole, until finally Whitey and Redford and their thousand beefy companions sighted the roof of a slab humpy!

They had come to Artacoona Well the furthest outpost of polite society in South Australia, inhabited by the Walke Brothers, who named their station Wallelderdine. Bowen Downs eight hundred miles to the north-east. The robbers felt safe from pursuit, but their problem was how to dispose of the booty without being pinched.

Walke’s Wallelderdine Station was the fringe of South Australian settlement, and word would soon spread about the passage of such a big mob down the Strzelecki. The simple-minded Walke Brothers could scarcely believe their eyes as they saw the cloud of dust on the northern horizon of their desert-bounded station, which betokened the arrival of Whitey and his attendants, come all the way from Queensland through the graveyard of Burke and Wills.

Redford, alias Collins, announced that he was a Queensland grazier, travelling a mob belonging to himself and his brother overland to the saleyards at Port Augusta.

WHITEY SOLD

They asked the Walkes for provisions and clothing from the station stores, offering in exchange two prime L.C.5 cows, but the Walke Brothers had cast covetous eyes on Whitey. that deep-thewed wanderer of the waste lands.

Little did the Walkes realise that Henry Redford, in the stillness of the night, by the Strzelecki’s brackish sand holes, had already decided to sell this pedigreed champion whose value was more than £500, anonymously to the first bidder in preference to shooting him before reaching the more settled districts.

In exchange for three pairs of moleskin trousers, 150 lbs. of flour, 7 lbs. of tea, cream-of-tartar and baking soda, and some plug tobacco, Whitey changed hands.

This transaction was Harry Redford’s only mistake. It also proved a bad deal for the Walkes.

Refreshed by a feed of damper, the three musketeers of Mount Cornish next drove their bull-less herd in the direction of Mount Hopeless, passing Mulligan Spring — so named because the blacks’ name for It was Mullachan.

Mount Hopeless and Mullachan were both out-stations of Blanchewater, which specialised in breeding Indian Army remounts (walers), of which there were 3,000 head on the station.

As the mob passed through the dried mud of Lake Crossing, between Lakes Blanche and Callabonna, their hooves padded over the spot where a few years later the skeleton of a diprotodon was found by scientists and amazed the whole world. At length they reached Mount Hopeless Station, which had been pioneered by John Baker in 1858, and went on to the homestead at Blanche water. John Baker was absent, but his manager, Mr. Mules, opened his eyes at such a huge mob appearing from the desert. Now Hawkesbury Henry had had enough of cattle duffing, flies and heat, and his only desire was to convert the herd into cash, split the divvy with his pals and leave the quart pots of the Strzelecki for the flesh pots of the Torrens. So he made a proposition.

SOLD FOR FORTUNE

Mr. Mules jumped at the chance of buying the mob, which it had never entered his head to believe were duffed, for, in all Australian history, cattle duffers had never lifted more than a few head at a time.

So the deed was done, and the duffers departed for Adelaide to cash their draft of £5,000.

The scene changes to the courtroom at Roma in Queensland, 300 miles west of Brisbane.

There, on the 11th day of February, 1873, before Judge Blakaney on circuit, the case of Regina v. Redford is called.

The prisoner, Henry Redford, Is indicted that he in March, 1870, at Bowen Downs Station, feloniously did steal 100 bullocks, 100 cows, 100 heifers, 100 steers and one bull, the property of Morehead and Young.

Sounds a bit paltry, considering that the mob was 1,000 in addition to Whitey.

Mr. Pring, Q.C., prosecuted for the Crown, and plain Mr. Paul defended the prisoner.

JURY EMPANELLED

Forty-eight jurymen were empanelled, but after strenuous and prolonged objections by both sides, only seven good men and true remained in the box.

The prisoner produced no evidence.

Mr. Pring, Q.C., then addressed the jury. He said that the prisoner’s guilt was beyond all doubt, that the evidence could not be answered, and that it only remained for the jury to give a verdict which would put a stop to the abominable habit of cattle-duffing in Western Queensland for all times. (No applause from the public gallery, which was crowded with cattle-duffers. Seven red faces In the jury box, which was also crowded with cattle-duffers).

Mr. Paul, counsel for the prisoner, next addressed the jury, which listened to him with bated breath. He ridiculed the evidence given by the lunatic McPherson, and asked that the Court should direct the jury to put such evidence out of their minds.

“This informer” he said “is trying to escape the penalties of his own crimes by giving evidence against his quondam mate.” Continuing Mr. Paul pointed out eloquently that the prisoner had been held under arrest for 12 months without a trial and had suffered great hardships through being refused bail.

At the conclusion of Mr. Paul’s address, which had lasted for an hour, the jury looked sorrowful.

The Judge, in his summing up, instructed the jury not to be led away by the specious though clever address by counsel for the prisoner. He instructed them to dismiss from their minds the hardships said to have been endured during the 12 months Redford was conined [sic] awaiting trial. These remarks were uttered, no doubt, with a view to making the prisoner appear a martyr.

The Jury then retired at 9 p.m., the case having lasted since 10 a.m. that day.

NOT GUILTY

The jury returned to court at 10 p.m., after an hour’s retirement.

“What is your verdict, gentlemen?” asked the Judge’s associate. “Not guilty!” said the foreman in a still, small voice.

(Sensation In the Court).

“What did you say?” thundered the Judge.

“Not guilty,” replied the foreman, guiltily.

After a pause His Honor said: “I will new discharge the prisoner, but before doing so, I wish to remark that I thank God, gentlemen of the jury, that the verdict is yours, not mine,” and smiting the bench with his gavel, His Honor retired in a huff and a hurry.

The sequel came a few months later after His Honor’s return to Brisbane.

The Government of Free and Easy Land uttered the following terrible malediction against Roma:

PROCLAMATION

Wednesday, 5th April, 1873.

By the Most Honorable George Augustus Constantine, Marquis of Normanby, etc., Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Colony of Queensland.

“Whereas it is now deemed expedient to withdraw for the time hereafter mentioned from the District Court of Roma, the criminal jurisdiction of such Court, now before I, George Augustus Constantine, Marquis or Normanby, Earl of Mulgrave, all in the County of York, in the Peerage of the United Kingdom; the Baron Mulgrave of New Ross, in the County of Wexford, in the Peerage of Ireland; a member or Her Majesty’s most honorable Privy Council, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Colony of Queensland and its dependencies

DECLARE and ORDER

that the criminal jurisdiction possessed by the Court at Roma shall be with drawn therefrom for the term of two years.”

Thus by bell, book and candle, on this Black Wednesday, the Honorable George Augustus Constantine (you know the rest) formally blacklisted, reprimanded stigmatised, chided, castigated, admonished. lectured, reproved, condemned, execrated and generally anathematised the Roma Jury Panel which had found Henry Redford not guilty!

So ends the true story of Henry Redford, alias Starlight, the hero of Rolfe Boldrewood’s fictitious, false and fantastic fable, “Robbery Under Arms.”

Redford was still alive when that book was published, and had been adjudged “not guilty,” so Boldrewood had to beware of the laws of libel.

I have now told the full and true story for the first time, as Redford died in 1903 in the Northern Territory, and all the actors of the drama, including the seven jurymen and the Great White Bull himself, have long since passed away.

It is said that the Walke Brothers went broke through neglecting their own business while engaged on Her Majesty’s business at Roma.

It is also undeniable that John Baker, of Mount Hopeless, was under no obligation to return the 1,000 head which his manager, Mules, had bought from ‘Henry Collins’; for, as Redford was adjudged ‘Not Guilty,’ the receipt given to Mules was valid.

What became of the £5,000 only the lawyers and Henry Redford know. — ‘Man’

[Source: State Library of Queensland]

Bushranging: A Female Perspective

Bushranger history has long been the province of male authors and historians, even as far back as 1818 with the infamous pamphlet Michael Howe: The Last and Worst of the Van Diemen’s Land Bushrangers by T. E. Wells being perhaps the first dedicated text on the subject. However, in recent years we have seen a new guard forming that is being largely driven by female authors and historians, whose unique perspectives on both an emotional and intellectual level have challenged long held beliefs and, in many cases, set the record straight by digging up information that has long been forgotten or ignored by their predecessors. The first signs of this shift in the 1970s when Margaret Carnegie wrote the first biography of Daniel Morgan, Morgan: The Bold Bushranger. It went beyond the oft-repeated hyperbole about how nasty Morgan was and returned to the source material with a fresh pair of eyes to sift through it all and get to the truth of the man rather than the infamous legend. Similarly, Dagmar Balcarek’s contributions in subsequent decades infused many bushranger stories with more feminine sensibilities and helped inject some life into what was seen at the time as stale and boring by many.

Here we will showcase some of the more notable individuals who are, at present, making a big impact on our understanding of some of the most notorious men (and women) in Australian history.

Carol Baxter

Captain Thunderbolt & His Lady by Carol Baxter (2011)

Carol Baxter is one of the most notable female historians where bushranging is concerned. Her biography of Frederick Wordsworth Ward and Mary Ann Bugg is the most definitive account to date, locking in place an understanding of the story derived from recorded facts rather than folklore and hearsay. This refusal to accept many of the long held assumptions and oral traditions has seen her looked down upon in some quarters, but respected by others. Baxter describes her situation succinctly on the website for her book:

I soon realised that the role of mediator had become my own. As a professional researcher, genealogist and historian, I had no personal connection to either Fred or Mary Ann and no pre-conceived ideas, prejudices or agendas. All I sought was the truth. And the truth was most surprising. Many of the well-known Thunderbolt and Mary Ann stories proved to be wrong. Utterly and unquestionably wrong. They were myths propagated by the ignorant and perpetuated by the gullible, and are still being voiced today – vociferously – by those with a personal, political or financial agenda.

Carol Baxter

Baxter’s background in genealogy has given her a knack for sniffing out information that is often overlooked or forgotten. Rather than regurgitating the same old stories about Thunderbolt that have done the pub circuit for 150 years, Baxter made an effort to find the truth of who the historical Ward and Bugg were. The result is a new understanding of these fascinating historical figures that has redefined how they are portrayed.

Jane Smith

Not all librarians have a knack for writing, but in the case of Jane Smith it is certainly true. A desire to write children’s books cane to Smith after working with children in a library setting, resulting in her series of children’s non-fiction books on Australian bushrangers. Since then she has written a historical fiction series (Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy), and the definitive biography of Captain Starlight.

Captain Starlight
The Strange but True Story of a Bushranger, Imposter and Murderer
By Jane Smith (2015)

While most historians and authors have been more inclined to write about the Kellys, Ben Hall or Frank Gardiner, Smith’s decision to chronicle the life of the notorious Frank Pearson has gifted bushranger enthusiasts a detailed account of a frequently forgotten figure. The ability to put her resources to use in nailing down the narrative of a renowned conman, notable for his use of aliases, demonstrates her formidable prowess as a historian.

It is also important that so much of her work is aimed at younger audiences, as it reflects a desire to ensure these stories are kept alive into the future, which is essentially the purpose of historians and authors.  In an interview with A Guide to Australian Bushranging, Smith explained what keeps her so engaged with researching and writing about bushrangers, and history in a broader sense:

I really enjoy history; I enjoy learning about how things were in the past and marvelling at the differences and similarities compared with life today. I think that knowing something of history is really important if you want to be a well-rounded human who can make informed decisions. When I was at school, however, I found history lessons boring. It seemed to me that history just meant memorising names and dates – and yet it’s so much more than that!

Jane Smith

Judy Lawson

One of the most important things a historian must do is ask questions. In the case of Judy Lawson, her journey of exploration is a series of questions that started from one key query: did Tommy Clarke really murder the special constables in the Jingera Ranges?

The Clarke Bushrangers: A Clash of Cultures by Judy Lawson

This question resulted in her book The Clarke Bushrangers: A Clash of Cultures, which explores the crimes attributed to the Clarke bushrangers and the cultural context in which they arose. The discussion around the police murders raises more questions than answers, leaving the conclusion open for the reader to interpret rather than the author feeding their opinion as fact. By providing an alternative viewpoint on the crimes, Lawson has challenged the deeply held assumptions that have made the Clarkes a taboo subject in the Braidwood district for 150+ years.

The second edition of her book goes further, examining many of the other crimes attributed to the Clarkes and their associates in the same way, bringing readers to reassess their views. Ultimately, this was all born from encountering a depiction of events that contradicted the information that she had come upon herself independently. This assumption of guilt, combined with the assumption that the crimes were the result of some innate criminality, or simply the product of work-shy laggards who simply didn’t want to follow the rules proved irksome, and were motivations to set the record straight.

Today we can sit back in our climate controlled houses, complaining about our increasing weight while planning our next overseas trip and say well if they had lived an honest life they would not have had those dreadful things happen. But is that the answer? Can the events of the 1860s in Braidwood be attributed only the the fact that the boys were seen as dishonest? They were not in this class alone.

Judy Lawson, The Clarke Bushrangers: A Clash of Cultures

This assumption of guilt where many bushrangers are concerned has been all too common, but authors like Lawson are working hard to turn the tide.

Georgina Stones

Followers of A Guide to Australian Bushranging will be familiar with Georgina Stones, who has frequently contributed to the website and social media. Her work on Joe Byrne sheds light on parts of his story that had been overlooked or completely ignored by other historians, and has allowed Byrne’s story to be studied in much the same level of detail as Ned Kelly’s. Her ongoing project, An Outlaw’s Journal, is a mixture of her historical research and short stories based on, or inspired by, the recorded history. While this has, in some corners, attracted some level of controversy, Stones’ work does not shy away from some of the more taboo or risque aspects of Joe’s life and times. In her research she has uncovered some aspects of Joe’s early life not otherwise talked about such as his role as a witness in the murder case of Ah Suey, and his relationship to Ellen Salisbury.

An Outlaw’s Journal by Georgina Stones

Since then, Stones has also begun a second project titled Michael Howe: Governor of the Woods, which operates in much the same way as An Outlaw’s Journal. Her research has quickly redefined the way Howe is viewed, and is proving to be invaluable in learning the stories of his gang members, and the men that hunted them. Though the research is ongoing, the impact this has on our understanding of the early Tasmanian bushrangers is profound, and she has plans to release a book later this year.

Michael Howe: Governor of the Ranges by Georgina Stones

Stones’ interest is firmly on peeling away the myths to uncover the forgotten histories of the bushrangers, but she is the first to admit that her age and gender play a significant role in how her work is perceived. During a live stream on A Guide to Australian Bushranging’s Facebook page she explained:

Sometimes I don’t think that we’re taken seriously for our work and I think we’re dismissed. I mean, I honestly believe sometimes that if I was a man perhaps some of my work might be taken a bit more seriously and I mightn’t be sometimes spoken down to as often as sometimes I am, which is a bit upsetting but true. I think people assume we are soft on these men, like because we’re females we’re just doe-eyed, but I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of the time people like Judy Lawson and Carol Baxter, the reason why they’ve been able to kind of shine a new light is because as females we can kind of… understand things a bit different and deeply than maybe what men sometimes do.

Georgina Stones

“Aye, Aye Captain”: The Captains of Bushranging

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

1. Harry Readford, aka Captain Starlight

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

2. Frank Pearson, aka Captain Starlight

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

3. Thomas Smith, aka Captain Midnight 

parramatta gaol
Parramatta Gaol

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

4. Andrew George Scott, aka Captain Moonlite

moonlite mugshot

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

5. Frederick Wordsworth Ward, aka Captain Thunderbolt

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

6. Frank McCallum, aka Captain Melville

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

7. John Kerney, aka Captain Thunderbolt

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


Spotlight: Outlawed! Rebels, Revolutionaries and Bushrangers

In 2004, right on the tail end of the last bout of Ned Kelly mania, the National Museum of Australia put together an exhibition looking at outlaws from around the world. Jo Duke, curator, did an amazing job of assembling a formidable collection of items that covered everything from Robin Hood to Pancho Villa. The exhibition was fascinating and had an enormous amount of unique historical items, many of which I would love to see again in a similar showcase. In all the exhibitions that I’ve been to at the museum this is by far one of my favourites and not just for the obvious reasons. I had the good fortune to attend when it was housed at Melbourne Museum and below are some of the photographs I still have from my visit.

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Ben Hall’s pocket colt revolver with initials carved into the grip (National Library of Australia)
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At top is the Tranter revolving rifle used by Johnny Gilbert when he was shot dead at Binalong (John Pickup); at bottom is Constable Bright’s Calisher and Terry carbine used to shoot Gilbert (National Museum of Australia)
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Sam Neill’s Captain Starlight costume from Robbery Under Arms (Performing Arts Collection of South Australia)
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Joe Byrne’s armour (Private Collection)
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Ned Kelly’s colt revolving carbine (Private Collection)
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Death mask of Andrew George Scott alias Captain Moonlite (Historic Houses Trust of NSW)
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Death mask of Thomas Rogan (Historic Houses Trust of NSW)
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Death mask of Ned Kelly (School of Anatomy, University of Melbourne)
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Death mask of Dan Morgan (School of Anatomy, University of Melbourne)
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An iconic silhouette