Spotlight: A Bushranger’s Autobiography (part two)

Australasian (Melbourne), Saturday 8 February 1879, page 6

(Continued from last week)


I was bred and born in Manuden, in Essex. I was brought up by a kind father and mother. They tried to give me a good education, but I paid no attention to it. I entered upon evil courses when very young. At 16 years of age, I was taken up for highway robbery, and was committed to Chelmsford gaol in 1835. On the day of trial, through the intercession of my father, and on account of my youth, I got off with 12 months’ imprisonment. When my time had expired, on the morning I was released from gaol, the first person I saw was my father waiting to accompany me home, where on arriving I was surrounded with kindness by my parents, and my father advised me never again to keep company with my old companions. I took his advice for some time, but not for long. I became acquainted with a young man, a greater vagabond than myself, who induced me to live like himself, by plunder both by day and by night. But this game did not last long. It brought me among my old companions and to Chelmsford gaol.

On January 3, 1837, I was tried for robbery, and, being an old offender, received 14 years’ sentence of transportation, while my companion was discharged. While I remained in gaol, waiting to go down to Portsmouth, one day I shall never forget, my father and mother, and sisters and brothers, came to take their last farewell of me. The tears rolled down their cheeks for their undutiful son and bad brother. I took my leave of them at the time, thinking I never should see them anymore. Shortly afterwards I was removed down to Portsmouth, and had been there only a few days when an order came down from London for 300 prisoners to go on board the ship Mangles, and I was one among the number. We sailed from Portsmouth March 15, 1837, and had a pleasant voyage (to Sydney). Soon after landing I was assigned to a gentleman in the interior of the country, a very hard and severe man. He did not allow me a sufficiency of food, and only a scanty supply of clothing. I had not been with him long when I was prosecuted several times for little or nothing. I found it impossible to remain with him and I took the bush, thinking to make my situation in life better; I was well aware I could not make it any worse. Through my not knowing the bush I was soon taken by the mounted police and brought back to my master again, after I had been tied up and received 50 lashes. I now made up my mind never to remain with him. I took the bush again, but was soon captured and sent to court, and sentenced to six months in a chain gang. I now thought within myself that I was rid of my master, but to my great mistake, when my six months in the chain gang were done, I was sent back to him once more.

I was now put to a standstill. I did not see what to do. I did not fancy stopping with him to be starved to death in the land of plenty. One night me and two other men went out and committed a robbery with arms in order to supply our wants, and things went on in this way for some considerable time. I had enough of everything I wanted. My master looked jealous, but he did not know how it was done, as I worked for him in the day, but worked for myself in the night. But, at last, I was bowled out. One night, with my two companions, a robbery was committed, and the next day we were taken up on suspicion and brought before a magistrate. My two companions were committed for trial, and I was discharged and again sent back to my old; master. In the course of two or three days I was told that one of my mates had turned King’s evidence, and I knew I might as well take the bush and have a run for it, as I was well aware I might expect to be transported, if not hanged. That night I bolted, with the intention of taking arms, and the first place I made for was one of my master’s sheep stations, to see one of my old farm mates.

I had not been long there when I heard the noise of a horse’s feet come galloping up to the hut. I ran to the door to see who it was, and who should it be but a man I knew very well, who had been in the bush about 18 months. He was a terror to the settlers in that part of the country, and was well mounted and armed. He dismounted and came into the hut. I liked his appearance very much. I got into a yarn with him and told him how I was situated, and that I liked his line of life, and would serve with him as his companion if he was willing. He looked at me, but gave me no answer. I then got up and went over to him and took his hand, and said, “Here is my band and my heart to go with you if you like.” He hesitated a little, and then said I could come. So, we bid the hutkeeper good day, and off we went together through the bush until we came to a road. Here my companion dismounted and tied his horse to a tree, and then concealed myself alongside of I the road ready to receive the first traveller that came by.

We had not been there long when I saw a horseman come riding along. When he came close up me and my companion jumped out into the centre of the road, and my companion cried out, “Stand; don’t move hand or foot, or I’ll blow your brains out. Get off that horse. Have you got any money?” The traveller got off, and I went up and searched him. I took £7 from his pockets and the watch off his neck. Then we led him and his horse a short way among the trees, where I ordered him to strip. He did not understand this, but I soon explained that I wanted his clothes, and in return I would give him mine. His were just my fit, and then I mounted his horse, which was a good one. We bid him good-day, and off we went full gallop. When night came on, we camped out, and the next morning we went to stick up a settler’s place about a mile distant.

We rode up to the house, and stuck them nil up. After searching the men, we ordered the mistress of the housed to get us some refreshment, which she did. After a good snack, and drinking a couple of bottles of wine, I went outside to look at the horses. While outside I heard a scream, and ran inside, where I saw my companion attempting some liberties with the mistress of the House. I checked him at once; when he drew a pistol from his belt, and was levelling it at me when I rushed upon him and struck it out of his hand. This led to a row between us, and I resolved to part from such a hot-tempered companion, as two of the same sort were better asunder. I left him there, and mounting my horse I went off by myself.

I was now left alone to manage a trade I did not much understand, but my heart was good to learn. I now was my own master, and it was my wish to remain so. I came out on a road after a long ride, and determined to stick up the first passenger that came. I had not been there very long when I saw a man come riding along, When close up I jumped out into the middle of the road, and used the word of command as I heard it from my companion yesterday, “Stand; don’t move hand or foot, or I’ll blow your brains out. What have you got in them leather bags before you on your saddle?” “They are the mailbags, sir,” he said; but there’s nothing in them but letters.” “How do you know what’s in them; unbuckle them and throw them from your saddle. Quick! I’ll soon see what’s in them.” On overhauling the bags I found, to my great satisfaction, they contained something else besides letters. I unsealed several and found they had money in them. I then mounted my horse, and set off about a mile with the bags, where I dismounted and searched the swag. It took me some time to open such a number of letters. The sum I found in them was £70, and cheques and orders £200. After this I was always very partial to mailmen.

 At this time Christmas was close at hand, and I went to a friend of mine, as I took him to be. At his place I was made welcome, and he appeared happy to see me. Two days before Christmas Day I gave him some money to go to a store and buy some rum and other things to make merry Christmas with. In the afternoon, by chance, I took a walk to meet him on his return. At length I saw him coming, and five constables with him. I concealed myself in the trees and let them go on, laughing in my sleeve to think how nicely they were sharped. My horse was up at his place, but that made small odds, as I could soon get another. I made for the main road to get a nag, as I did not fancy walking. When I got to the road, I stationed myself to receive the first swell that came. After a while I saw two gentlemen come riding together, engaged in a deep yarn; when close I rushed out, shouting to them to stand or be shot. They seemed quite astonished at my sudden command; but I ordered them to dismount and tie their horses to a tree, and then demanded their money, and made them turn out their pockets. They turned out £19 between them. Picking up this I mounted one of their horses, bid them good day, and pushed off into the bush.

My next attempt was on a settler’s house. I rode up to it, and bid the master of it good day. He made me no answer, and did not relish the looks of me, for he seemed frightened. There were four men on the farm besides himself. I bailed them all up, making one man tie the other. Next, I ordered the woman-servant to bind the master’s hands behind his back. All were now secured but the females, and these I wanted to wait on me. I now overhauled the place, and the first thing I saw was a double-barrel piece and a brace of pistols, and grasped them eagerly. The next thing that drew my attention was one of the men singing out to me, “For God’s sake, don’t rob my master, for he is a good man,” winking his eye at me the same time, as much as to say, he is a great vagabond. I next ordered the females to get me some refreshment as quick as possible, and after that I had a glass or two of wine. Then I untied the master’s hands, and made him load one of his own horses with a sackful of everything I required. I then mounted my own horse, and led the pack-horse by my side. I made for the mountains to have a spell, as the police were now rather busy. The country for me. I remained in ambush as long as my store lasted.

When this was done, I thought it was time to have another parley with the mailmen. So, I mounted my horse, and made for the road between Goulburn and Yass. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon the mail made its appearance. I rode up full gallop in front of the driver, and cried out, “Pull up, or I’ll blow your head off,” keeping a strict eye on the passengers at the same time. “Come down one and all, and be quick. Now turn out your pockets,” was the word; and then ordering them to stand back, and I put the contents of their pockets into my pocket. I next ordered them to stand back a distance of 100 yards, while I overhauled the mail. I dismounted and got up on the coach. I took the mail bags from the box, and likewise a carpetbag. I buckled them in the front of my saddle, mounted my horse, and bid them good day, and I turned mailman. After I had got about a mile in the bush, I rummaged the bags, and was employed for an hour in breaking letters open. The total sum of money the different letters contained amounted to £200. With this I thought I might as well take a trip down to Sydney. It was dangerous to remain in that part of the country, for the police were everywhere. The country was in a complete uproar after me.

I dung my horse, and took the coach down to Sydney. When I reached Sydney, I put up at a hotel in George street. I remained in Sydney about a month, regaling myself with every kind of sport. One night when I was at the play, I observed a man looking at me very hard as if he knew me. I recognised him to be a shipmate of mine, who came with me in the Mangles from England. I left the theatre and got out of Sydney as fast as I could. When I got up the country everything was very quiet. I thought it was time to give them another stir up, as they seemed so dull. I commenced again by sticking the first swell up who came the road. I had not been waiting long before Mr. P. M. arrived. I received him with open arms and the usual salute, “Stand; don’t move hand or foot, or I’ll blow your brains out.” He looked like a stuck pig. And the next word was, “Come off that horse. Now, turn out your pockets.” He turned out about £30; and then I cried, “Hand that watch this way.” He had a splendid suit of clothes on, which were about my fit. I took him into the bush a short distance, and made him strip. I took his clothes and gave him mine. After he had dressed himself, I struck a light and lit my pipe, and got into a great yarn with him about the affairs of the country. I handed him a cigar, and he had a smoke. After we had done smoking, I tied his horse to a tree, and took him with me to the side of the road, waiting to receive the next visitor that came that way. By and bye I saw two gentlemen coming on horseback. When they came up to where I was concealed, I sprang out, crying, “Stand, or I’ll blow your heads off.” “Pray, don’t hurt us, sir,” said the gentlemen. I made them dismount and turn out their pockets, and I got £11 between them. I now picked the best horse out, and mounted him. He was as lively as a bag of fleas. Then I bid them good-bye, and off I went. As I was riding through the bush, I saw three mounted policemen, well-armed. When they saw me they put spurs to their horses, and made towards me full gallop. I put spurs to my horse, and off he went like the wind. The further they came after me the further they got behind; and I soon gave them the go-by.

The next place I made for was Mr. Cardoe’s station, to pay his superintendent a visit, as he was a great wretch. Many a young man had he drove to destruction. When I arrived at his place he was walking in front of his house. I rode up to him, and he bid me good evening. I dismounted and put a pistol to his head, saying, “If you move, I’ll blow your head off!” All the men there was about the place was three. I ordered one of them to tie his hands behind him, and then to tie him to the verandah post. Then I went into the house and overhauled it. I found a single-barrel fowling piece and £4 in money. All the men seemed very pleased to serve him in the way I did. I now ordered one of the men to load my horse with things I wanted. I then untied him from the post, and ordered him to kneel down. “Oh, for God’s sake, don’t shoot me. I’ll never get another man flogged if you forgive me this time.” I forgave him, and I believe he behaved very kind to the men after that. I now mounted my horse and bid them good night, and left that part of the country.

I went to pay one of my friends a visit. When I came to his place I was treated with great kindness. I sent one of the females to a public house for some rum to regale ourselves. Someone that knew me saw me drinking there. This person went out and gave information, and I was taken when three parts drunk. They brought me to a public house sat Bungadore, where they confined me in the parlour with four men to guard me. Each man had a pistol. I rushed one of them, and took his pistol from him; the other three ran out of the door. I now had a run for it, but before I could reach the bush, I was surrounded with horsemen well-armed. I was brought back and secured in a curious manner. I had as many ropes and cords around me as a man could well carry, and so conveyed to gaol in a cart, tied up like a faggot.

In the course of two or three days I was taken before a magistrate, and committed for highway robbery. The magistrate who committed me was “Black Francis McCarty.” He tried all he could to hang me by trying to make the witnesses swear to more than they knew. But I had the pleasure of taking satisfaction of him afterwards, as you shall hear in the course of your reading.

The Dark Side of the Law

It is no surprise that things were very different in the colonial era. However, it can be a shock when we discover just how different things were – especially in relation to crime and punishment.

While flogging, leg irons and solitary confinement are well-known aspects of law enforcement in the colonial era, they merely graze the surface of how grim things could get in the name of upholding the law. Below are just some examples of the way law was enforced throughout the colonial era, giving some degree of context to why many convicts resorted to bushranging.

Relics of convict discipline, Beattie Studio, Hobart, c1914–41. [SLV]

The Bloody Code

Arising in the 17th century, the “bloody code” described the harsh stance on crime taken by the British authorities. Under this code, hundreds of offences became punishable by death ranging from severe crimes such as treason and murder, through to relatively minor ones such as property theft and creating a disturbance. The idea was to prevent crime against property by making the penalty so harsh for even minor charges that it became too big of a risk. It was later deemed that it was creating an awful waste of life, do many cases that would have been hanging offences were commuted to transportation sentences. Inevitably it was apparent that this approach was heavily slanted against the poor, but this was not acknowledged with any considerable sense of guilt or urgency to rectify the imbalance.

It wasn’t until 1823, when the New South Wales Act was passed in Britain, that Australia was able to craft its own laws. Up to this point it was British law without any regional variation to compensate for differences in circumstances between the British Isles and the Australian penal settlements. This meant that the harsh approach to law enforcement continued in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land in exactly the same way as it did in the motherland.

With such a dim view of crime that positioned even the most paltry of offences as worthy of death sentences, the act of pursuing fugitives in Australia was treated more like pest control than pursuing the course of justice. Bushrangers and bolters would face almost certain death if they came across soldiers, or constables (in the early days this was the title given to men specifically employed to recapture escaped convicts), or bounty hunters. If they were not shot, they would almost certainly hang. At that stage defendants were tried before a panel of judges, trial by jury wouldn’t come into place until the mid-1820s. It was rare for a defendant to get off with a term of imprisonment rather than death, with most prisoners resigning themselves to their fate.

With a mindset such as this, it is hardly surprising that the following punishments could evolve. It should be stressed that they are not for the squeamish.


One of the most infamous corporal punishments that were doled out to convicts was flogging. This was the most simple punishment, designed as a retribution for misdeeds and as a deterrent for other criminally minded individuals.

Typically, the victim would be bound to a tripod, known as “the triangle”, with their back exposed. They would be stripped to the waist and whipped repeatedly. The instrument of torture was a scourge that consisted of a handle and nine knotted strands of rope, hardened with tar. This was referred to as the “cat-o-nine-tails”, and the long lacerations that it left behind were described as a “cat’s scratch”. The minimum number of lashes was usually 50 (colloquially known as a “tickler”), though the maximum tended to fluctuate depending on the views on the safety of such a punishment at any particular time.

Cat-o-nine-tails [Hyde Park Barracks Collection.]

The wounds from flogging were typically quite considerable. It was not unheard of for a man to receive 150 lashes and have the flesh on his back left as bloodied pulp. A doctor was always to be in attendance to monitor the convict during proceedings, once the prevalence of convicts dying from the punishment became a cause for concern to authorities. If the offender passed out he would be splashed with water to revive him before resumption of the flogging. If he remained unconscious he was taken to his cell to rest before resuming the punishment. Following the flogging, the recipient would usually be taken to the infirmary where the wounds would be washed with salt water. After a few days, when the wounds began to heal, they would be sent back to work.

Women and children were not usually flogged, though there are anecdotes of women receiving lashes. Typically they would be struck with a cane (referred to

In some cases these whips and scourges were modified to make them even more damaging. For example, on Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour (also known as Hell’s Gates) the strands of the cat-o-nine-tails were laced with pieces of lead to ensure that each stroke broke the skin and inflicted as much pain as possible. This more brutal variation of the flaggellator’s tool became known as the “Macquarie Cat”.

In the case of many early bushrangers, flogging was a trigger to their taking the bush. Matthew Brady, for example, had received over 500 lashes by the time he escaped from Sarah Island. The dehumanising effect of such punishment was also a key factor in why William Westwood kicked off a murderous riot on Norfolk Island. Such was the traumatic effect of flogging on convict era bushrangers, that many, such as the Jewboy Gang, used the same to exact revenge on tyrannical masters or other authority figures.

Source: Police News, 03/06/1876 [SLV]

Hanging in Chains

One of the most infamous punishments utilised by the English was “hanging in chains”. This was the practice of displaying the corpse of a freshly executed criminal in a series of iron hoops and chains or a special cage made of bars and hoops called a gibbet, in a public area to act as a deterrent to other potential miscreants.

In New South Wales, this practice was carried out on Pinchgut Island (Fort Denison) in Sydney Harbour, where one body was known to have been gibbetted publicly for four years. It is said that this, above all else, terrified the local Aboriginal peoples who believe in treating the dead body as sacred. They believed that if a body was not laid to rest, the spirit was unable to rest.

In Bathurst, the bodies of the Ribbon Boys were gibbetted along the streets. The dozen men who were hanged for treason in their attempted rebellion lined the area now known as Ribbon Gang Lane.

Photograph of the skeleton and chains used to gibbet a man convicted of murder and hung at Goulburn around 1832-1833, taken between 1876 and 1877. [Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales]

In Perth, Tasmania, there was an area referred to as Gibbet Hill. Here a gibbet allowed a body to be displayed as people entered and exited the township. In 1837, bushranger John McKay was hung in chains here for many months. When the body was taken down the head was removed for phrenological study.

A key location for gibbetting was Hunter Island in Hobart. A small landmass just offshore near the docks, it was the perfect place to send a message to miscreants in the old English way.

On this tiny lump convicts were executed on wooden gallows and their corpses “hung in chains” from a gibbet post on the shoreline. The bodies would remain in place until they were deemed to have had a suitable deterrent effect, whereupon they were typically buried on the island. This is what happened to the headless body of bushranger James Whitehead.

During an attempted raid on Dennis McCarty’s farm by Michael Howe’s gang, Whitehead was shot and killed by soldiers. His gang members then removed the head to prevent the soldiers or McCarty from claiming the reward on it. The headless body was subsequently taken into Hobart Town, where it was hung in chains. It seems, from some accounts, that it remained in place long enough to be joined by the severed heads of Whitehead’s colleagues George “Bumpy” Jones and Michael Howe. Governor Macquarie would express dismay that he did not have the rest of Howe’s body to display as it had been buried in a shallow grave where it fell.

Hunter Island was later joined to the rest of the waterfront by filling in the gap with dirt to create a causeway, whereupon it ceased its function as a place of execution and displaying corpses, and became an industrial area.

A Price on Their Head

In the early days of colonial Australia, when a fugitive had “a price on their head” it was very literal. Whereas nowadays such terms as “headhunter” have more figurative meanings, they derive from days when a bounty hunter would take a severed head as a receipt to the relevant authorities in order to claim the reward for the capture of a fugitive. It was far easier to carry a head in a flour sack than lug a full corpse around. Due to the “Bloody Code”, there were no qualms about killing suspects as the presumption of guilt meant that they would likely be hanged anyway.

In some cases the severed heads would be put on public display; in Hobart the heads were put on spikes on Hunter Island, where the corpses of executed criminals were also displayed in gibbets. Other times the heads would be stripped of flesh and the skull used for “medical study”.

When Richard Lemon was shot dead, his head was removed and his arrested accomplice Brown was forced to carry it into Hobart Town. Perhaps the most infamous case of this happening was Michael Howe in 1818, who was decapitated after being shot, bayonetted and bludgeoned to death by soldiers. His head was displayed in Hobart and generated much interest from the locals. A similar fate had befallen other members of his gang, and in fact when Howe’s mate, James Whitehead, was shot by soldiers the head was removed by the gang so that the reward could not be claimed.

[From The Outlaw Michael Howe]

A Fate Worse than Death?

For most condemned men it was terrible enough to be sentenced to death, but to offenders of a Catholic faith there was something that brought even greater dread: dissection.

It was commonplace for universities and medical schools to get their cadavers from the prisons, where there was a steady supply of freshly executed bodies to cut up for examination. Students and veterans alike practiced their surgical trade on the bodies, often preserving pieces in jars.

This was particularly terrifying for Catholics who believed in the resurrection, and more precisely that the body needed to remain intact for that purpose. Therefore, for Catholics the sentence of dissection meant that not only would their earthly life be cut short, but they would also be denied eternal life. The sentence was a fate worse than death, for it meant perpetual punishment in eternity.

The Art of Hanging

In Australia, the only form of execution generally carried out was hanging. At the beginning of the colonial era, hanging utilised what was called the short drop method. In some locations a condemned person would be taken to a sturdy tree, upon which was affixed a rope with a noose on the end. In these cases the condemned usually stood on the back of a dray with the noise around their neck, and they would drop when the dray was moved away. In other places there would be a gallows scaffold made, so that multiple executions could take place at once. In these cases the condemned would fall through a trap door on a shortened rope. The short drop was quite ineffective as it strangled the condemned to death, which was a rather drawn out process.

Execution of Michael Magee. This illustrates in great detail the tools of destruction for a short-drop hanging. [Source]

In response to the inefficiency of the short drop, a long drop method was devised. This resulted in a much quicker death when down correctly. Essentially, as the body had to fall further, the weight abruptly stopping at the end of the rope would cause the neck to snap, causing a relatively painless and instant death. However, to do it properly required many calculations to be made to account for the height and weight of the condemned and how they impacted on the velocity of the fall and in turn that would define the length of the rope. Placement of the slipknot behind the ear was also important, as this would mean a sidewards snap, which would better break the neck.

The stages of a hanging, depicted on the front page of the Police News (14/04/1877).

As most hangmen were merely prisoners looking for time off their sentence, many of whom were illiterate or innumerate, needless to say it rarely went smoothly. Poor quality ropes would snap. A rope that was too short would cause strangulation, while a rope that was too long could result in decapitation.

There were many botched hangings of bushrangers. One of the most infamous was Henry Manns, who was hanged for his role in the Eugowra Rocks heist. His rope was too short and he was strangled to death slowly in front of a crowd, with the attending gaolers having to yank down on his legs to try and snap his neck. One of Jack Donohoe’s accomplices, William Smith, went through the drop with a cheap, dodgy rope, which snapped. When he came too he was under the dead bodies of the other men he was hanged with, resting against his own coffin – naturally he screamed hysterically. After much deliberation it was decided to hang him again with a better rope. The second hanging went as planned.

Moondyne Joe’s Cell

Moondyne Joe was so proficient at escaping from custody that a special cell was built for him in Fremantle. However, the cramped space, combined with poor ventilation and being chained in place led to Joe becoming gravely ill. On doctor’s orders he was permitted to engage in labour outside once a day, on his own, in the courtyard.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Moondyne Joe positioned himself behind the pile of stone that had been brought in for him to smash. Once he was certain he couldn’t be clearly seen by the guard, he proceeded to smash a hole in the perimeter wall with his hammer when he was supposed to be breaking rocks. Soon he had made a hole big enough to squeeze through and made his way to freedom. By the time the guard had realised what had happened it was too late, and Moondyne Joe was off to the bush again.

The escape-proof cell [Wikimedia Commons]

Cruel and Unusual Punishments

Perhaps no other figure in penal history in Australia is as infamous as John Giles Price. Price was the son of a baronet, and had moved to Van Diemen’s Land with his wife in 1836. Through his connections he gained the role of muster master of convicts and assistant police magistrate then in 1846 became the commandant of Norfolk Island. Price was to gain his infamy for his callous and dehumanising treatment of convicts. He believed in punishing the offenders through whatever means possible to deter further misbehaviour, with the punishments ranging from the moderate to the extreme.

A perfect illustration of this is presented in the punishment of Rocky Whelan, a convict who had spent much time on the island and would later go on to become one of Tasmania’s most deadly bushrangers.

The man was a native of County Wexford, and knew me at home when a boy. He informed me that he had been seventeen years on the island, and had not the slightest hope of ever leaving it; but his trials were only then about to commence, as the next time I saw him he was handcuffed to a lamp post, his hands tied behind his back, and a gag in his mouth, secured round his head by something resembling a head-stall, and there he remained exposed to the burning sun and the attack of flies and other insects for eight hours, merely for having a bit of tobacco in his possession. Besides this treatment Whelan had been repeatedly flogged, imprisoned in the dark cells with the black gag — a favorite instrument of torture at the time — in his mouth for eight consecutive hours at a stretch, it being the opinion of the doctor that the punishment could not be applied for a longer period without endangering the life of the prisoner. This gag, Cash tells us, was generally inflicted for some disrespect, whether real or imaginary, on the part of the prisoner towards the officials, when on their tour of inspection round the solitary cells. Whelan had been reduced to a skeleton, and the wounds on his back rarely had time to heal before being opened afresh by the cat, and all for some trivial offence such as men tioned. Under this treatment Whelan finally became so callous that he seemed to regard the lash, the dark cells, and all the rest of Price’s contrivances with the most: perfect indifference.

Source: Sydney Sportsman (Surry Hills, NSW : 1900 – 1954), Wednesday 7 August 1912, page 3

Another punishment Price seemingly enjoyed applying was the “pepper mill”. This punishment usually followed a flogging and saw the flogged man sent to grind cayenne pepper into dust. The convict was required to wear a mask for his own safety. The dust filled their eyes and lungs, and even stuck to their still-fresh lacerations as they crushed the peppers with a wheel. This would be repeated until Price was convinced that the lesson had been learned.

John Giles Price [WIkimedia Commons]

Later, the Australian gold rush had seen the population explode, and along with it came an explosion in crime. Ironically, the prisons soon became full and the Australian authorities were in a bind about what to do with the overcrowding. The solution came in the form of the acquisition of a fleet of abandoned ships that were converted into prison hulks. In Williamstown, at Point Gellibrand, the two harshest hulks in the fleet were Success and President. Here, the worst offenders were sent to be straightened out. Their possessions were destroyed; they were stripped, shaved bald, washed and deloused; then, after being uniformed, transferred to their cell. Talking of any kind was prohibited, as was any form of reading (including the Holy Bible), and the tiny portholes kept the prisoners in almost absolute darkness.

However, things got worse if any rules were broken. Typical punishments could be reduction in rations, being chained to the boltholes on deck, being flogged, or solitary confinement in the dark cell (known as the “black hole”). Another punishment was putting offenders in a cell that was too small to stand upright in. They were then suspended by their hands from the roof just high enough off the floor that they couldn’t sit down. The porthole was just on the waterline, and water would seep in through the mesh over the hole.

Another popular punishment in the hulks was to put irons on the ankles of the offender, and to lock their hands in a device that was essentially an iron bar, tethered to a belt at the waist. This kept their hands too far apart to allow them to effectively manipulate objects, or even to feed themselves.

It should come as no surprise that many of these punishments became popular on the hulks when John Giles Price was employed as the inspector general of prisons. It would prove to be his downfall as during a routine visit to the quarry at Point Gellibrand to inspect the convicts, he incited an attack by informing a convict that under the new rules that had just been implemented, any infraction would give prisoners an extra six months onto their sentence. This convict had been reprimanded for a very minor offence and only had one month left on his sentence, but under the new ruling he would have to remain on Success for an extra half a year. The furious convicts set upon Price with their tools and beat him to death on the beach.

Wax statue of a convict in “slops” on Success. [Author’s collection]

Maddening Silence

In the 19th century prisons began to adopt a Quaker ideal that the ultimate punishment is to leave the offender to ruminate on their misdeeds and punish themselves. To this end, prisoners were individually lodged in cells, all of which were juxtaposed to prevent the inmate looking across to another prisoner, and they were to remain in complete silence and isolation. In Port Arthur, this was known as the “model” or “separate” prison, and was reserved for the worst of the worst. While most prisoners were kept in the penitentiary, which was essentially a large dormitory, the separate prison was arranged in the panopticon style – a central guard point with corridors extending outwards to allow maximum visibility.

Corridor at Model Prison, Port Arthur. [Tasmanian Archives]

The “dark cell” in the separate prison took this to the next level by keeping the inmate in complete darkness. Modern studies have demonstrated that a human can spend thirty days in solitary confinement before suffering mental illness, but in the days when Port Arthur was operating inmates could be locked up in solitary for months. The bushranger William Westwood declared that after one of his many escapes he was sent by Commandant Booth to spend three months in the dark cell. The insane prisoners became a big problem for the authorities at Port Arthur and a lunatic asylum was built to house the men that had been completely broken by the treatment.

The corridors were carpeted to nullify the sound of movement, and inmates and guards wore cloth slippers for the same purpose. All verbalising was prohibited and inmates communicated with their guards using sign language. When moving around outside the cells the inmates wore calico masks that hid their identities to prevent recognition by other inmates. The result of such profound isolation and silence was that many of the prisoners began to suffer insanity, with hallucinations being a common symptom.

Many of the features of this system were adopted by prisons more broadly in the coming decades, notably the use of masks, silence and social isolation. However, in many cases these were employed only at the outset of a prisoner’s sentence to break them in, or as a punishment for rowdier inmates. Prisoners would be shifted to new cells every time they came back from work and were only referred to by the number pinned to their shirt, or their cell number.


Leg Irons

One of the most common punishments for offenders was to be put in leg irons. This saw iron shackles being placed around the ankles, joined together with an iron chain or attached to a ball and chain. The shackles – or irons – were riveted together by a blacksmith to make it more difficult to remove them, thus making them permanent for the duration of the prisoner’s sentence (though convict-made irons tended to be far less durable than those made by professional blacksmiths). In rare instances prisoners were able to mangle the irons in order to get their feet out.

The ball and chain was more typical on convict ships, with the device being removed upon arrival in Australia. Naturally the deterrent effect came from the very real risk of the weighted iron ball dragging the offender down if they jumped overboard. However, most existing examples of the ball and chain were actually replicas made in the 1860s and later as souvenirs, when the closure of many of the penal colonies saw a thriving tourism industry develop. During this time many of the “facts” about life in the convict era were spread by tour guides looking to shock and titillate their audiences.

Ball and chain [Sydney Living Museums]

Typically, offenders would have heavier irons attached depending on the severity of their offence. This could be in the form of thicker irons or heavier chains; the worse the behaviour, the heavier the irons. It was reported that while he was doing time on Norfolk Island, Martin Cash was at one time made to wear shackles as thick as a man’s arm, making him barely mobile.

As the irons were permanently attached to the convict’s ankles until a blacksmith removed them, they were forced to undertake literally every action with them on, including sleeping. In order to be able to undress while wearing the irons, convict uniforms featured trousers that lacked a fly, but rather buttoned up on the outside of the leg.

It was not uncommon for some offenders to have spent so much time in leg irons that it permanently crippled their ankles and feet. The infamous Tasmanian convict Mark Jeffrey was so badly crippled by his time in irons that he required two walking sticks to be able to move or stand. Due to the way the irons would bruise and break the skin, convicts began using strips of cloth bound around the ankle and big toe to try and pad against the shackle. This was referred to as a “toe rag”, and eventually became used as a derogatory term for a former convict.

Typically, the chain would be kept from dragging along the ground by attaching a cord to the central ring and connecting it to a belt around the waist. There were variations on the theme, of course, with one being belts on the calf that kept the irons from dragging – as depicted in photos of the Clarke brothers following their capture.

Rules for Prisoners and items of discipline such as handcuffs and chains. [Tasmanian Archives]

Time Marches On

In time the use of capital and corporal punishment in Australia was phased out, though not until well into the 20th century in some cases. As late as 1958 men were sentenced to be flogged, the last two being William John O’Meally and John Henry Taylor. As for execution, the last person legally executed in Australia was Ronald Ryan in 1967, though the death penalty was still applicable up until 1985, when New South Wales were the last to abolish it.

Given the cruel and severe nature of many of the punishments that convicts faced, it is little wonder that so many “took the bush” and why so many bushrangers would rather have died in battle than be captured alive. There is no evidence to suggest the severity of the punishments acted as a deterrent any more than a good upbringing and fair treatment. Indeed, many commentators viewed the prisons as a breeding ground for criminals as the old hands gave tuition to the young offenders. The punishments also had a brutalising effect on many, as evidenced by the later deeds of William Westwood and Rocky Whelan following years of floggings, solitary confinement and other punishments. It seems that the socio-economic factors in crime were overlooked or misinterpreted, with crime broadly considered the province of the underclasses. Indeed, many of the crimes people were subject to these punishments for breaking were crimes against property, demonstrating that the punishments were not so much about morals as they were about preventing the poor from competing with the ruling class over wealth and resources. Not much has changed, as there are many people that continue to campaign for the reintroduction of these extreme measures for many of the same reasons.

The most grisly bushranger stories

[Warning: The content in this article may be distressing for some readers. Discretion is advised.]

Justin Kurzel’s hyper-stylised and ultraviolent interpretation of True History of the Kelly Gang received positive reviews when it debuted in Toronto in September 2019 and seems to be landing blows in the UK where it opened this weekend. Many critics praised the gritty aesthetic and the subversion of history employed throughout. Fans of the historical Kelly story were not so embracing and questioned why the creative team felt the need to stray from history so radically to play up the violence and sex (and dresses). While Kurzel’s approach may be artistically valid, it certainly falls into his wheelhouse of telling grimy tales of psychopaths and nihilism. But is the Kelly story truly the one to use as a basis for this kind of story? Here is a list of five bushrangers stories more ripe for the Kurzel treatment than that of the Kelly Gang.

Kurzel’s Ned Kelly film exchanges historical accuracy for a grungy, gory aesthetic

1. Michael Howe: One of the earliest bushrangers to be labelled as such was Van Diemens Land’s most notorious outlaw. Already the subject of a film that took vast liberties with the history to create a twisted and gory tale of a madman (The Outlaw Michael Howe), the historical Howe has more than enough violence and weirdness in his story to sustain even the most subversion-inclined filmmaker. According to the generally accepted story, Howe was a former Navy man, and a violent ruffian who joined John Whitehead’s bushranging gang in 1815. This version of events also describes the banditti roaming through the Van Diemonian frontier raiding farms and torching them for good measure, and attacking Aboriginal camps where they would kill the men and take the women as sex slaves, which is how Howe supposedly paired up with “Black” Mary Cockerill, who was portrayed as his love interest in the 2010 film. During a violent gunfight, Whitehead was wounded and Howe hacked off his head to stop the attackers claiming the reward that was on it (in those days presenting an outlaw’s head was used as proof to receive the bounty).

Michael Howe

Howe frequently escaped the law, once being granted minimum security incarceration in exchange for giving evidence about his colleagues, from which he simply walked away. This has fuelled conspiracy theories that he was working for the government to dob in bushrangers in exchange for leniency, though the historical record shows it is not so clear cut. Howe was said to have murdered his confederates when his paranoia got the best of him and even escaped from capture on one occasion by murdering his captors with a hidden dagger. He shot Mary Cockerill with a blunderbuss to create a distraction during a chase allowing him to escape from soldiers, resulting in her helping the military track him down in spite when she had recuperated. He kept a diary bound in kangaroo skin, supposed to have been written in blood and detailing his lust for power. Eventually Howe became a hermit, his clothes disintegrated and he wore a cloak made of kangaroo skins he had stitched together. When a former associate tried to lure him into a trap, Howe fled to the Shannon River where he was cornered and bludgeoned to death. His mangled head was then hacked off and taken to Hobart for the reward. It was displayed proudly on a spike near where the Drunken Admiral restaurant now stands. Of course, as with a great many bushranging stories, even though this is the most widely accepted version of events it is also very wide of the mark in terms of accuracy, and the real Michael Howe was nowhere bear as bloodthirsty or savage as he has been made out to be.

The Outlaw Michael Howe was a gritty, “grimdark” retelling of the story of one of the earliest bushrangers.

2. Alexander Pearce: The historical Pearce has been the subject of two feature films that were released close to each other (Van Diemens Land, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce) due to the harrowing narrative of his last years. Pearce was transported to Van Diemens Land and suffered the fate of all convict transportees. Malnourishment, hard labour and floggings were the daily grind. Pearce soon joined a gang that managed to escape from prison and went bush in an attempt to gain liberty.

Illustration of Pearce after death by Thomas Bock

The bushrangers soon realised the fatal flaw in their plan was their complete inability to navigate the wilderness and find food. When the rations ran out they turned to cannibalism, the victims being hacked to death in their sleep and turned into food for the survivors. Eventually the few that were left went seperate ways and Pearce was apprehended while raiding a sheep farm. He was returned to prison but escaped again with another convict who he immediately took into the bush and slaughtered. When he was recaptured Pearce declared that human flesh tasted “better than fish or pork” and had some of his companion’s flesh in a pouch that he was saving for later. Naturally, he was hanged for his crimes.

Post-mortem sketches of cannibal convict, Alexander Pearce.

3. Thomas Jefferies: Called “The Monster” by those who heard of his despicable crimes, Jefferies was another Van Diemonian bushranger of the 1820s. He was a transportee who quickly climbed the ranks to become flagellator (the man who performed the floggings), which was a job he relished. Jefferies was known for abducting female convicts and taking them into the bush to have his way with them. When this behaviour lost him his privileges he went bush with three other convicts. Jefferies travelled through Van Diemens Land raiding farms and committing arson, rape and murder.

Jefferies by Thomas Bock

In his most infamous crime, he and his gang raided a farm, murdered a neighbour and wounded the owner, abducted the owner’s wife and child, and when the woman slowed down to tend to her infant Jefferies plucked it out of her hands and smashed the baby’s head against a tree until it was dead, before dumping the body in the scrub to be eaten by wild animals. Jefferies went deeper into the bush with the traumatised woman and raped her before releasing her to walk home two days later. It was this crime that earned him his nickname. Jefferies also killed and ate one of his gang members when they got lost in the bush, later admitting that he had cut the remains into steaks that he would fry up with bits of mutton, adding to his horrendous reputation. Later he also murdered a constable by shooting him through the head. When he was finally captured by John Batman, he was sentenced to death. Lynch mobs formed to try and break him out of prison so they would have the joy of administering the punishment themselves. There was supposedly an elderly woman that was so enraged she tried to stab him with a butcher’s knife through the cage of the wagon he was being transported in. Even bushranger Matthew Brady, who had been a former associate of “The Monster” and was captured after Jefferies had given the authorities information about his whereabouts, refused to be kept in a cell with him, telling the guards that he would decapitate the villain if he was not relocated. When Jefferies was hanged many sighed with relief that justice had been served.

The notorious Thomas Jefferies was the most despised man in Van Diemens Land.

4. Dan Morgan: The story of Dan Morgan’s life is a complex one to retell due to so many decades of misreporting and folklore obscuring the truth. The film Mad Dog Morgan is a perfect illustration of how difficult it is to tell the story with adherence to the facts. Yet, if one was to create a narrative based on the folkloric Morgan, it would have be one of the most violent and perverse stories put to film. Morgan has no definitive backstory, the only reliable account of his life starts when he was imprisoned on the prison ship Success for highway robbery in the 1850s. Success and its sister ship President were reserved for the worst criminals in Victoria. On these ships prisoners were isolated, kept in undersized cells with poor ventilation, and subject to cruel and unusual punishment. During the day Morgan was ferried to the mainland to break rocks, which is where he lost the tip of a finger when his hand was crushed. Morgan was also a witness to the murder of prison inspector John Price by convicts, who bludgeoned him to death with their tools over the harsh conditions he enforced. When Morgan was released he became a swaggie and never used his real name. He worked for a time breaking horses on stations around Victoria and New South Wales but eventually went rogue. He was joined by a man called German Bill or Fancy Clarke and began a career of robbery. One of their victims was Henry Baylis, the magistrate of Wagga Wagga, who they bailed up but quickly released. Baylis, accompanied by a party of police, located the bushrangers and engaged them in a shootout. During the battle, Baylis was shot but survived, but depending on which version you believe German Bill was either mortally wounded by police or by Morgan attempting to create a diversion to facilitate his escape. The more damning accounts of Morgan’s exploits tend to be based on hearsay and exaggerate his bloodthirstiness. He was accused of tying people naked to trees and leaving them to die from exposure; threatening a woman by backing her so close to a fireplace that her dress caught alight and badly burned her legs and back; branding people; making an old man dance on a table for him under threat of death; shooting a shepherd in the groin over a perceived slight; and tying people to fences and flogging them. While some of these may be grounded in actual incidents, albeit loosely, most are not. Even popular understanding of his known crimes portrays him as an unhinged monster. Most accounts of his visit to Round Hill Station suggest he got drunk on rum, then started shooting at people. He was supposed to have threatened the station manager whose wife begged for mercy so he shot the man in the hand instead, either putting a hole through it or blowing off one of the fingers. He then shot one of the staff who had gone for help, believing he was fetching the police. During another robbery, Morgan shot a Chinese man in the leg and in another he forced a station manager to write cheques at gunpoint.

Dan Morgan’s death mask

Eventually Morgan’s reign of terror ended when he was shot in the back at Peechelba station. His body was displayed and photographed then mutilated. A police superintendent had the jaw skinned so he could souvenir the beard; locks of hair were cut off and so was the head. There were also descriptions of the ears being hacked at and the scrotum being sliced off to be turned into a tobacco pouch. A film depicting Morgan as folklore describes him could indeed be a very grisly and twisted experience for the kind of director who wants to make a film that will shock and mesmerise.

The infamous murder of Sgt. McGinnity by Dan Morgan.

5. Jimmy Governor: Governor’s life was the basis of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which was first written as a novel by Thomas Kenneally then adapted by Fred Schepisi as a feature film. Both stick remarkably close to Governor’s real life. Governor was an Aboriginal man who worked briefly as a black tracker for the police. Undoubtedly he was used in acts of state sanctioned aggression against fellow Aboriginal people. Governor was part white on his grandmother’s side, which no doubt created some identity confusion. He then became a labourer for the Mawbey family, living in a hut on the edge of their property with his wife, a white woman, and their son, who was probably not Jimmy’s. Jimmy worked hard but was paid poorly and at the same time his wife complained about living in squalor away from her family, begging scraps from Mrs. Mawbey. She was also subjected to bullying from the Mawbeys and their associates for having married a black man. This reached breaking point when she threatened to leave Jimmy. He snapped and took his uncle with him to the Mawbey house where they slaughtered the women and most of the children with a nulla nulla (club) and a hatchet. Immediately afterwards they went on the run, but Jimmy decided to strike back at the white society that had bullied and demeaned him.

Jimmy Governor after his capture.

A murder spree began, where Jimmy targeted farms where he knew the families and murdered any women or children that were there, usually with his club. Jimmy had a list of around thirty names that he was systematically working through on his murderous vendetta. Jimmy and his brother Joe were made outlaws by act of parliament and stayed on the run for almost two years. Huge posses were formed to track them down as the murder count came to double digits. Governor was ambushed and shot in the jaw, but escaped. He survived by eating honey he took from a farmer’s beehive. He was soon caught and nursed to health so he could stand trial. He was found guilty of murdering the Mawbeys and hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol.
The murders committed by Jimmy Governor prompted one of the biggest manhunts in New South Wales history.

As can be seen, there are far more gory and gruesome stories in bushranging history than that of the Kelly Gang, though none are as easy a sell as a movie. Still, we have already seen some of these stories adapted to screen in some form: The Outlaw Michael Howe, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, Mad Dog Morgan and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Whether any of these horror stories would get the exposure of Kurzel’s punk-gothic homage to A Clockwork Orange with Ned Kelly helmets is unlikely, however.

William Westwood: An Overview

*** Revised and updated (2021) ***

William Westwood’s tale is one of a misguided youth who finds himself whisked away from all he held dear to endure a lifetime of punishment and lawlessness in Australia. He took to the bush as a teenager and soon became one of the most renowned highwaymen in Australian history under the pseudonym Jacky Jacky (alternatively written in the press as Jackey Jackey), but met a grisly end on Norfolk Island ten years after first arriving in New South Wales. What follows is a concise, summarised account of his life and bushranging career.

William Westwood was born on 7 August, 1820 and was raised in Manuden, Essex; he was the eldest of five siblings. As a youth he fell in with bad company and began acting up. At fourteen he had his first conviction: twelve months hard labour for bailing up a woman on the road and stealing clothes from her. Westwood’s accomplice Ben Jackson got off lightly with a flogging.

When he got out of gaol, Westwood went straight for a time, but was soon in court again as a result of stealing a coat, which he then pawned off. As this was his second conviction he found himself, at the age of sixteen, being transported with 310 other convicts on the convict ship Mangles on 18 March, 1837, for a term of fourteen years. Westwood was a surprisingly refined young man, with a decent education for the time and a strong grasp of language; he conversed freely with anyone he came across. He was described as standing at 5’5″, ruddy complexion, brown hair and grey eyes; a scar on the right side of his upper lip, another on the back of his right hand, a blister mark between the breasts and several tattoos — left arm: illegible blue mark, 7 Aug 1820, 3 Jan 1837; back of left hand: figure of the sun. The tattoos were likely either made while serving time in gaol or while waiting to be transported. Indeed, one of the tattoos was the date he expected to end his sentence and return to England.

When he arrived in New South Wales he was sent to Hyde Park Barracks. He was kept here until given his assignment. He was eventually assigned as a servant to Phillip King at Gidleigh Station, Bungendore. Westwood, now seventeen, endured a harsh journey from Rooty Hill to the place he was to work off his sentence. Days were hard and nights were spent sleeping on bare ground, chained to the axle of the supply wagon. Eventually he arrived at the station to start work, and it was here that he would spent the next three years under overbearing and tyrannical masters. He was always testing the boundaries, and after being spotted in town one night, having sneaked out of his quarters, was dragged back to Gidleigh and given fifty lashes. This only strengthened his resolve to rebel.

After suffering at the hands of his master, who saw fit to have him beaten and whipped at even the slightest offence, as well as being short changed on his already inadequate supplies and rations by the overseer, in 1840 Westwood absconded again. When he was inevitably caught, he was given another fifty lashes and sent to work in an iron gang near Goulburn. Conditions here were even worse than at his first assignment, but he knew it would be fleeting and expected to be sent to a new assignment when he was done.

Gidleigh, the station in Bungendore that Westwood absconded from, depicted by Phillip King [Source]

After his stint in the iron gang was done he was sent back to Gidleigh, much to his dismay. The routine played out again: Westwood absconded, was caught and given fifty lashes. The next time, Westwood wanted to make sure he stayed at large. He and two other convicts gathered enough supplies to last them until they got clear away, then, on 14 December 1840, they bolted.

It wasn’t long before Westwood fell in with the notorious bushranger Paddy Curran. The pair were associated from their time as convicts, and Westwood was eager to have a crack at bushranging. Unbeknownst to Westwood, Curran was extremely violent and his morals were diametrically opposed to Westwood’s in just about every way, but none so conspicuous as his attitude to women. As the story goes, during a house raid, Westwood walked in on Curran in the process of raping the lady of the house. Westwood struck Curran, preventing him from proceeding, and threatened to shoot him. Westwood decided he would rather work alone than associate with such a despicable person.

As Westwood got the hang of highway robbery, news of his daring began to spread through the region, though much of it was pure fiction. On one occasion it was said that he bailed up a commissary and upon discovering the commissary’s wife was in the coach, opened the door, swept the ground with his cabbage tree hat in a gentlemanly manner and invited her to dance with him – a request that she obliged. This and many other anecdotes have no tangible evidence to back them up however. Some accounts attested to his masterful horsemanship, likely honed while he worked as a groom at Gidleigh as part of his assignment. In one story he reputedly bailed up a man in Goulburn and implored him to note the time, then a few hours later he bailed up another gentleman near Braidwood, almost 100 kilometers away, and implored him to do the same in order to set a personal record. Again, this is not likely to be anything other than a flight of fancy. His taste for race horses was nigh on insatiable, with him stealing such creatures from Terrence Murray and several others in the region, either on the roads or from farms. He attributed his success in evading capture to his choice of fine horse flesh over the run down nags the police rode. Among his crimes, he robbed the Queanbeayan mail, and robbed Mr. Edinburgh among several others on the Sydney road. In fact, he took a particular liking to robbing mailmen as the takings were often rather good.

By his own account, there were several close shaves with police, including one where a supposed friend had taken money from him to purchase a Christmas dinner, but had instead procured the constabulary. On another occasion he narrowly avoided capture by hiding in a tree. Westwood had become a fly in the ointment to law enforcement, but it would only escalate.

William Westwood (illustration by Aidan Phelan)

On the afternoon of Monday 11 January, 1841, Jacky Jacky stole a black mare from Mr. McArthur before attempting to rob a mailman that night at Bungonie, whereupon shots were fired. The next day he raided a store at Boro Creek where he procured fine garments and dressed himself in haute couture so that he may cut a fine figure while about his nefarious deeds, including a rather fetching top hat. Such was the extent of his outrages that the entirety of the mounted police in the region, trackers included, were led by Lieutenant Christie and a Mr. Stewart in hot pursuit.

On 13 January 1841, things came to a head when a man arrived in Bungendore, shouting that he was being chased by a bushranger who meant to shoot him. Sure enough, Jacky Jacky soon arrived on a stolen horse, riding through Bungendore for fully an hour and a half, stopping only to have a chat with a man named Eccleston. Soon word reached the local magistrate, Powell, who went with his brother Frank and a local man named Richard Rutledge to capture the infamous bushranger, despite a distinct lack of weapons with which to defend themselves against the armed bandit. Alas after the posse hesitated in approaching the rogue, he caught wind of them and mounted his steed, riding off at full gallop. The men gave chase. A man named William Balcombe was riding ahead with Revered McGrath in a gig. Stopping the gig in the road, McGrath and Balcombe got out and Balcombe confronted the bushranger, McGrath also pulling a revolver on him. Westwood surrendered, complaining that he could have gotten away if his musket were not in such poor shape.

The desperado was escorted back to the local inn where he was detained. However, Jacky Jacky was not ready to go down without a fight and during the night he overpowered one of his guards and stole his weapons. He bolted out of the inn and across the plains. This did not go unnoticed and Frank Powell saw the fugitive legging it through the open space. Powell fired a pistol at Westwood without effect and gathered more firearms from inside before heading off in hot pursuit with a postman, who had become embroiled in the affair by accident. Soon Jacky Jacky was once more apprehended. But the next day while being escorted to Bargo Brush, Westwood escaped custody on foot. He made it a mile away before being recaptured. Not in the mood for any nonsense, the police tied Westwood to his horse for the remainder of the trip. That night, Westwood broke out of the lock up and stole the guard’s weapon and ammunition before taking a horse and riding to freedom.

The beginning of the end came when he called into the Black Horse Inn on the Berrima Road. Westwood casually walked in and ordered refreshments. He then proceeded to bail the place up. Folklore tells that he was served by Miss Gray, the publican’s daughter, who recognised that this man with pistol braces and fine clothes must be the infamous Jacky Jacky. She screamed and pounced on the bushranger, who fought to throw the girl off as she called for her mother and father. All three tried to restrain Westwood who shook them off time and again until a man named Waters, a carpenter that had been repairing shingles on the inn’s roof, entered and knocked Westwood out cold by striking him on the head with a shingling hammer. In truth it was Grey, the publican, and two assigned servants, Waters and McCrohan, who subdued the bushranger, who took two fierce blows to the head with the shingling hammer to go down. With Westwood captured, the Grays earned themselves a cool £30 reward and Westwood was quickly locked up in Wooloomooloo Gaol.

Westwood was put on trial for robbing the store at Boro and was sentenced to penal servitude for life. He was sent to Darlinghurst Gaol but was shortly caught trying to escape. He was then imprisoned on Cockatoo Island where he organised a party of twenty five other convicts to join him in an escape attempt. Escape from Cockatoo Island was considered impossible, but the impossible was no deterrent for William Westwood. The gang subdued a guard and tied him up. Breaching the boundaries they made it to the water and were about to risk sharks and drowning to swim to Balmain but were deftly captured by the water police. The New South Wales government had had enough of the troublesome Englishman and sent him to fulfill his sentence in Van Diemen’s Land with his co-conspirators. Perhaps Port Arthur could take them down a peg or four.

As the story goes, while being sent to Tasmania, the convict men were put in the brig of the prison ship, naked and shackled in an attempt to prevent any attempts to escape. This of course failed and the men broke free from their cages and tried to reach the deck. Soldiers battened down the hatches and kept things thus until arrival at Port Arthur. When the hatches were opened the prisoners were unconscious in the brig, having been denied food and adequate oxygen due to the captain’s decision not to risk opening the hatches to take food to the men during the several day trip.

Despite Port Arthur’s reputation as an inescapable prison, William Westwood managed to escape from Port Arthur multiple times. Most occasions resulted in a few days of freedom at most. In one attempt at freedom with two other convicts, the trio waded naked into the waters at Eaglehawk Neck. Westwood’s companions were taken by sharks and, in his panic, Westwood managed to lose his clothes after his bundled gear was swept away in the waters as he crossed. He was found days later wandering naked and starving.

Such repeated misbehaving saw him put in solitary confinement for almost three months. When he emerged he was assigned to the commissariat. At this time he helped rescue a boatload of soldiers after their vessel had capsized. His reward was to be sent to Glenorchy Probation Station. Here, as could be anticipated, he once more escaped on 31 July, 1845. This time he successfully took to bushranging with two others. They travelled up through the Tasmanian Midlands in an attempt to reach Launceston, where they planned to steal a boat and sail to Sydney. They became hopelessly lost and were unable to find a boat, resulting in one of the men leaving their company after getting lost, while the other remained until they reached Green Ponds, whereupon he left for fear that Westwood would shoot him as he was the designated guide through the bush and had only succeeded in getting them stranded in unfamiliar territory. When Westwood found himself alone again, he continued on foot towards Launceston, hoping to find a way off the island, but was recaptured before reaching his destination. By this time he was suffering a bout of deep depression and posed no resistance.
Source: The Courier (Hobart, Tas. : 1840 – 1859) 6 August 1845: 2.

Now having exasperated the Van Diemen’s Land government too, he was sentenced to death. The penalty was altered to penal servitude for life on Norfolk Island and Westwood found himself once more sailing to exile, this time headed to what was referred to as the Isle of Despair.

In February of 1844, there was a change of administration at Norfolk Island. Alexander Maconochie, the previous man in charge, had firmly believed in the benefits of rehabilitating offenders rather than simply punishing them, and to this end he reduced work hours, including a work-free Sunday, and created a “marks” system that meant that good behaviour would be rewarded. Flogging incidents were decreased but still strictly enforced in cases of sodomy, which were rampant throughout the prison. Perhaps the most significant measure Maconochie had brought in was vegetable patches. Inmates were given small gardens within which they could grow their own sweet potatoes and other vegetables, and were also given cooking pots and utensils so that they could cook their own meals, allowing them to eat in their cells in privacy. Only able to enact these reforms with the 600 newest inmates, the reforms were still considerably effective, with morale high and major incidents in the prison reduced. Despite Governor Gipps’ recommendations to the government to continue Maconochie’s residency at Norfolk Island, the decision had already been made and Major Joseph Childs became the new Commandant. As a military man with wide campaign experience, and a strict disciplinarian, he decided to institute a few changes to bring the convicts under his thumb. To this end incidents of flogging were increased, hours of labour were also increased, rations were reduced and the small gardens the prisoners were allowed, and the produce they had been growing therein, were banned. In a half-hearted attempt to respond to complaints the administration allowed convicts a cup of peas and a cup of flour every day. Unsurprisingly this was not met with the gratitude that was expected by the administration and Childs set in place a proclamation whereby food was to be served in bulk and individual cooking was prohibited. When the inmates were at work their utensils were confiscated on 1 July, 1846.

Front View of Gaol – Norfolk Island [Source]

This was the final straw and Westwood incited a work party to take up arms against the guards and administration of the island. Approximately 1,600 inmates joined in. Armed with a cudgel, Westwood claimed first blood when he clubbed a particularly despised guard to death. He then took up an axe and headed to the barracks, followed by a seething horde of convicts. Here he entered the kitchen and murdered the cook and upon spying two sleeping soldiers in an adjoining room, used the axe to stave in the skull of one soldier, which alerted the other. The soldier, seeing Westwood before him with the bloodied axe, begged, “Please, think of my wife and children!” to which the unrepentant bushranger replied, “Wife and children be damned.” Westwood then killed the soldier as brutally as the others. Still not satiated, but needing a moment of respite from the mayhem he had caused, Westwood filled a pipe with tobacco and had a smoke while the convicts rampaged around him. Westwood, having had his respite, took up his axe and headed for the commandant’s building. Bursting into the building with an escort, Westwood sought out the commandant. The commandant had secreted himself in a small storeroom adjacent to his office. Westwood tracked him down and took a swing at him, narrowly missing the commandant’s head as he ducked to avoid the blow. Managing to escape, the commandant roused a force of troops that descended upon the marauders and subdued them.

Westwood and thirteen other key figures in the riot, including bushranger Lawrence Kavanagh, formerly of Cash and company, were tried in September and charged with the murders. The evidence was irresistible and twelve of the men were sentenced to execution by hanging.

The morning of his execution, Westwood wrote a letter to the reverend of Port Arthur and also wrote a declaration that he was the only party guilty of the offence that all twelve sentenced men were condemned for. On 13 October, 1846, William Westwood was hanged for his crimes. He was twenty-six years old.

This is claimed to be William Westwood’s death mask. Some doubt has been thrown on the identity of the face in recent times and some now consider it doubtful that it is him.

A cast was supposedly made of his face and is the only visual record we have of the dashing young outlaw, despite its contended authenticity. Westwood was buried with the other hanged men in a mass grave called Murderer’s Mound on the boundaries of the prison. Such was the impact of the riots that the commandant was fired from his post and calls were made for the Norfolk Island penal colony to be shut down and the inmates transferred to Port Arthur. In a sense, Westwood has succeeded in bringing about a change in how convicts were treated, though he would not live to see the closure of one of the most brutal and dehumanising prisons in the British Empire.

Murder’s Mound – Norfolk Island [Source]

Harry Power: An Overview

Yes, I’ve been a bad man, and I am sorry for my sins, but here in my dying bed I can swear that no woman was ever the worse for me – Harry Power

When we picture bushrangers we think of wild young men on horseback dodging police and sticking up coaches but Harry Power certainly did not fit that image. Power (alias Henry Power, Johnstone) is forever remembered as the tutor of Ned Kelly but there was a time when he could capture the imagination on his own terms.

Power was born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1819 before emigrating with his family to England during the great famine. Settling in the north of England, Harry worked in a spinning mill in Manchester. It was not long before his rebellious nature manifested.

Power received three months imprisonment for vagrancy and later did time for drunkenness. His first major offence, however, was stealing shoes which got him transported for seven years, arriving in Van Dieman’s Land on 21 May, 1842. It’s probable that Harry reunited with his mother upon gaining his freedom as she had been transported to Van Dieman’s Land for stealing chickens in 1841. Receiving his ticket of leave in November 1847, Harry soon travelled to the mainland. He worked as a stockman in New South Wales before going south and becoming a horse dealer in Geelong.

In 1855 Harry was accosted by two mounted troopers who questioned him on where he got his horse. They refused to believe that he had legitimate ownership of the animal and when he refused to go with them to the station one trooper drew his sabre and threatened him. In a panic, Power shot the trooper in the arm and fled for the border where he was arrested. He was tried for horse stealing as Henry Johnstone and on 26 September 1855 was sentenced to thirteen years despite having paperwork to prove the legitimacy of his ownership of the horse. He was sent to Williamstown where he was imprisoned on the prison ship Success.

Harry Power’s first prison photo

While doing time on Success, Power was involved in a mutiny. The bushranger Captain Melville led a small group of inmates to steal the tow boat that took the launch boat from Success to shore on 22 October, 1856. During the ensuing scuffle a man named John Turner was drowned and a constable named Owen Owens was beaten to death with a rock breaking hammer. The convicts made it to shore but were soon recaptured. Harry, still as Henry Johnstone, was charged with the other seven men with two counts of murder. Only Melville was sentenced.

In the latter part of his sentence Power attempted to escape from imprisonment by trying to cut a hole in the floor of the prison hospital. Naturally he was foiled.

Power gained his ticket of leave in 1862 and headed back to Geelong where he immediately broke the conditions of his ticket and took to the diggings. He was soon back in court and in 1863 he was convicted of horse stealing in Beechworth. While in prison on that offence more charges were raised and Harry was dragged out of prison and tried again. He was found guilty of these charges, keeping him in prison for seven years. He was sent to Pentridge Prison but it would not hold him too long.

In Pentridge Harry befriended Jack Lloyd and his brother Tom. Harry would later call on them for sustenance when they were all out of gaol. He was prone to visits to the prison hospital due to a bowel stricture that could cause bouts of extreme discomfort and render him useless for labour for two to three weeks at a time.

On 16 February 1869 Power escaped from Pentridge. Having been assigned to a party clearing land by Merri Creek, Harry had made sure that he was on light duties due to his health. Entrusted with taking the refuse to the mullock heap, Power hid in a divot under the heap and when muster was called he slipped out through a gap in the wall. He acquired clothing from a nearby farm and armed himself with a crude handmade spear before stealing a horse and riding to freedom. He set up a camp on a mountain overlooking the King River Valley now known as Power’s Lookout. From here he sought support from the Lloyds and their relatives the Quinns, gradually expanding his network of sympathisers all the way out to Whitfield. Power knew that he would have to keep his sympathisers on his side and began a career of highway robbery in order to fund his supporters.

When Power robbed shanties and farms, unafraid to use violence on occasion, but this proved to be too much work for too little reward. Power now turned to highway robbery. Far from a charming highwayman, Power’s demeanour was coarse and belligerent and won him no sympathy from his victims. This sudden spate of robberies led to a big manhunt and much consternation around the colony. Power was believed to be cohabiting with a woman near Benalla at the time but nobody could find him.

In July he was spotted eyeing off horses at Mount Battery station and fired upon. With him was a young man who was probably fifteen year old Ned Kelly, a nephew of his sympathisers the Lloyds and Quinns. The owner of the station sneaked up behind the pair and fired at them causing young Kelly to momentarily freeze in terror before they mounted and escaped. Power seems to have discarded Kelly from his service after that for a time, courting others as assistants before opting to simply get on with bushranging solo.

One of Power’s most infamous robberies was near Porepunkah when he stopped a mail coach by placing logs in the road. He proceeded to take what little money he could from the travellers and attempted to deprive a young woman of her horse and saddle before sticking up a dairy cart and robbing that too. Power took one of the horses from the cart and used it to get away leaving the small group of his victims standing around a little bonfire he had made.

Power’s Lookout (Source)

Power had quickly become the biggest thorn in the side of the Victoria Police and a £200 reward was offered for his capture. Power ventured into New South Wales at this time and committed a series of robberies around the Riverina. It seemed for all intents and purposes that Power was untouchable. By the end of 1869 Power had seemingly vanished with no reported sightings or leads, rendering police pursuits ineffective.

Unfortunately, Power was not invincible and his health made for a difficult time in the bush. His bowel stricture and bunions resulted in frequent clandestine visits to doctors. To alleviate the pain in his feet he would wear boots so oversized they curled at the toes. The fact that he was well into middle age wouldn’t have been much help either.

February 1870 saw Power re-emerge with a vengeance robbing everyone from stockmen to police officers. After the initial string of robberies Harry Power and Ned Kelly reunited briefly. Likely Ned, in a bid to get some money for his mother who was behind in her rent, had begged Power for another chance. Together they robbed Robert McBean, a well respected magistrate, of his watch, horse and riding gear. The duo travelled as far as Geelong where Power checked out his old haunts with Ned by his side.

When Ned was found trying to open the gates at the Moyhu pound to release impounded stock, the poundkeeper threw him out of the saddle and thrashed him. This resulted in Harry and Ned later bailing the poundkeeper up. Ned threatened to shoot the poundkeeper on the spot but Power gave him three months to get his affairs in order before he’d be shot. Shortly afterwards Ned was arrested for assisting Power. During interrogation, Kelly described Harry as irascible and with a violent temper. He also described a hollow tree Power used as a lookout point (his “watchbox”) and his habit of seeing a doctor about his stricture. Ned was bounced around the courts but the various charges never stuck and he was soon released.

At this time Jack Lloyd was detained on suspicion of highway robbery. It was believed that he had committed several of the crimes attributed to Power, which he denied. Robert McBean, still furious about his encounter with the bushranger, had remembered a statement Power had made that he could buy his watch back from Jack Lloyd for £15. McBean suggested this to the police and soon Lloyd negotiated a deal with superintendents Nicolson and Hare to turn Power in; the temptation of the reward – now £500 – proving irresistible. Lloyd took a police party, consisting of Nicolson, Hare, Sergeant Montford and a black tracker named Donald, most of the way but got spooked and left the police to find their own way up Power’s Lookout during torrential rain. Fortunately, after days without food or sleep, Donald was able to find the camp due to smoke from a campfire. They approached Power’s mia-mia as he slept and Nicolson pounced on him. Dragged out by his feet, Power was unable to resist and was promptly arrested, complaining about not having a fair chance of escape while the starving police ate his food rations.

Power in Pentridge, photographed by Charles Nettleton.

Power was put on trial in Beechworth and promptly imprisoned in Pentridge for fifteen years. While in the gaol he became somewhat of a celebrity, being interviewed for a newspaper feature called the Vagabond Papers where he opened up about his life of roguery. He did not live quietly, frequently getting into trouble for smoking, being where he wasn’t meant to be and generally getting into mischief.

Power’s final mugshot

Once Power had completed his time he was released, in 1885, into a world that had left him behind. The Kelly Gang and the Moonliters had come and gone. The towns were becoming rapidly urbanised with trains and other modern conveniences. The prison ships at Williamstown were decommissioned and scrapped save for one – Success. Power now found himself in his twilight years acting as a tour guide on a craft that was once the source of much misery. Meanwhile, Power was living with his half-sister and her daughter in law. When Success went on tour in 1891 Power stayed behind to do a victory lap of the places he had known when his notoriety was fresh. Shortly after he departed, an unidentified (and unidentifiable) body was found drowned in the Murray River. Many historians have declared that this was Harry Power but without definitive proof his death remains a mystery.

Selected Sources:
“A MONTH IN PENTRIDGE NO. III” The Argus. 10 March 1877: 4.

“The Notorious Harry Power.” The Western Champion and General Advertiser for the Central-Western Districts. 19 December 1893: 3.

“HARRY POWER, THE BUSHRANGER.” The Narracoorte Herald. 13 March 1877: 4.

“A MEMORY OF HARRY POWER” The Argus. 27 June 1936: 6.

“RELEASE OF A RENOWNED BUSHRANGER.” The Herald. 9 February 1885: 2.

“Ned Kelly’s Tutor.” The World’s News. 26 December 1925: 8.

Spotlight: Prison Record of William Brookman


William Brookman was not a prolific bushranger, nor was he particularly noted in most history books. He was a member of the gang of Jerry Duce, real name Williams, former lieutenant of Robert Cottrell aka Bluecap. Duce had formed his own gang after Bluecap was captured and they were high end bushrangers worthy of being counted alongside the Ben Hall Gang – at least for a while.

Teenage Brookman was with the gang when they struck at Mossgiel and robbed locals at a racing meet. They then moved on to a store where they encountered Constable McNamara. The policeman wrestled with Brookman whose pistol went off, injuring the officer. In the scuffle Brookman and Duce were overpowered and arrested but their confederates Kelly and Payne bolted at the first sign of trouble.

Duce and Brookman were sentenced to death for wounding with intent to kill but the sentence was commuted to 15 years each. Brookman was released from prison on 8 March 1875 and what he did next was not recorded.

Looking for Ned: Life versus Legend


Many people have a very clear image in their head of Ned Kelly: tall, muscular, bushy beard and pompadour hairstyle. This image is Ned Kelly a day before his execution, almost six months after he was nearly shot to pieces at Glenrowan. So, if this is Ned at the end of his life how close is it to how he was in the prime of life? The truth is, even within his lifetime the idea of Ned and how he appeared was not always in line with the reality and the perception of a person can be very heavily influenced by the image we have of them. Ned’s legend has only grown since those days and the ideas of him have become so entrenched and polarising it’s time we began to try and figure out who Ned Kelly the person was. So how do we find the “real” Ned Kelly?

They say a picture says a thousand words so for this exploration we will be looking at the known images of Ned and analysing them. The earliest image of Ned is a portrait taken when he was on remand in Kyneton charged with aiding Harry Power. This image shows a gaunt looking fifteen year old in ill-fitting clothes (probably handed down from his deceased father) with a gentle wave in his hair, parted on the left demonstrating prie in his appearance. He is tight lipped and stares determinedly past the photographer almost like a challenge to some unnamed opponent. He may have been the most notorious fifteen year old of the day but nobody could have known the height of infamy this strong-bodied and hot-headed youth would reach. It was at this time that Ned was subject to an immense amount of ostracism on multiple fronts. The general public looked at him with suspicion and scorn for his criminality, many of his family and friends also looked at him with scorn because they believed he had turned Harry Power in (it was actually his Uncle Jack Lloyd who was instrumental in Harry’s capture but that’s a story for another day). So here was Ned, a teenager dealing with his own adolescence, needing to provide for his family and being treated like a black snake by all and sundry with the notable excetion of Sergeant Babington and Superintendent Nicolson who he would later write to asking for financial aide to help tide the family over. If ever there was a recipe for an angry and troubled youth this was it and Ned’s behaviour following his release from Kyneton would portray exactly this. The McCormick incident he details in his Jerilderie letter and the brawl with Senior Constable Hall demonstrate Ned to be short tempered and confrontational, traits that would land him in serious trouble.

Black snake: Ned Kelly at fifteen

The next image is Ned’s prison mugshot taken as he was finishing his sentence in Pentridge Prison.  By the time this image was taken Ned was a hardened eighteen year old and he sports a short layer of stubble that accentuates his strong jawline. Again with pursed lips and narrowed brows this is Ned Kelly finally reaching manhood among the worst of the worst the Victorian penal system had to offer. Gone is the determined gaze of the wild fifteen year old, replaced with a hardened complicity forced into him by hard labour and enforced isolation. Incidentally there is an incredibly strong probability that during his stint here Ned crossed paths with his old teacher Harry Power and the notorious Captain Moonlite himself, Andrew Scott, who was something of a go-to guy in Pentridge for contraband (which Ned did not partake in). Ned had spent the past two plus years learning various skills including bricklaying that were to soon do him well on the outside. His time at Point Gellibrand on the Sacramento would have been his first and only time seeing any body of water greater than a river. Ned kept his head down in prison and earned himself an early remission around the time this photograph was taken. Life in Pentridge was a horror show that many fully grown men struggled to survive, let alone a seventeen year old country boy, and Ned was determined never to go back. Legend states that Ned once remarked that the next time they got him into a prison they’d have to hang him.

Ned Kelly during his stint in Pentridge

When Ned Kelly was released from prison he went straight – for a while. There are multiple images claiming to be Ned during this time but the only one that has been authenticated is an image that was not known to authorities of the time depicting Ned in his underwear, boxing shorts and slippers in a boxing pose which, according to the handwritten annotations on the foot of the image, was taken to commemorate his boxing match with Wild Wright. Ned looks every inch the confident young man, his features much softer in expression than the previous two images but still strong. This is the Ned of legend – tough, skilled with his hands and handsome. If only his notorious temper and personal brand of justice hadn’t toppled this path to success we may have never seen the ensuing outbreak of lawlessness that thrilled, entertained and terrified the nation for three years and cemented his place in our history.

Ned Kelly as a nineteen year old boxing champion

That this image was apparently unknown to authorities in the time of Ned’s outlawry explains why it was never used to try and demonstrate his appearance. Instead, when the Kelly gang bailed up the police camp at Stringybark Creek and killed three of the troopers the police were still relying on his prison mugshot. Thereafter the police created a myriad of doctored images to try and convey Ned’s potential appearance to assist in his capture. The results range from passable to ludicrous.

This image puts Ned Kelly’s head on the shoulders of James Nesbitt, a fellow Pentridge inmate and partner of Captain Moonlite, with an added beard and longer hair to update his look creating a surprisingly accurate image of the outlaw
This rather uninspired mock up merely adds a hand drawn beard and moustache to Ned’s mugshot and darkens his eyes

Not all of the mock ups were photographic. Illustrated papers of the day took the route of rather unconvincingly adding facial hair to the known photographs of Ned in etchings to make him more closely resemble the descriptions of him, usually with the image of the bushranger as a fifteen year old as the primary source. The effect was rather akin to a child wearing a false beard to look older.

This bearded fifteen year old Ned looks perplexed at the clumsy attempt to depict his likeness
A drawing based on the above etching graced the cover of G. Wilson Hall’s account of the Kelly gang
Despite the assertion that this is Ned sketched as he was leaving Benalla, it is quite clearly another portrait based on the fifteen year old Ned mirrored and with added beard, messy hair and stink-eye that lends Ned a strange and intimidating appearance
This etching, based on Ned’s mugshot, was used in a feature about the police killings at Stringybark Creek and makes him look rather more portly than it should, which has the unique quality of lending him a more thuggish countenance

With these inaccurate depictions of Ned it’s hardly surprising that he went unrecognised for so long. In fact the lack of definitive likenesses fed into the popular media of the day with cartoonists having the flexibility to simply portray a stereotypical bearded bushranger to act as a proxy for Ned. These cartoons effectively set Ned up as the arch criminal and created a visual shorthand for unmitigated criminality that could be effectively employed against controversial political figures of the day.

This Thomas Carrington cartoon shows Ned Kelly dancing around the banner of Communism with Victorian premier Graham Berry and a little lady representing The Age newspaper (Source: Melbourne Punch (Vic. : 1855 – 1900) 13 February 1879: 5.)
berry blight.png
This Carrington cartoon gives Ned a far different appearance more in line with how most people commonly imagined the rugged bushranger to be in order to highlight the dodgy behaviour of the Victorian government. (Source: Melbourne Punch (Vic. : 1855 – 1900) 27 February 1879: 5.)

When we look at the known images of Ned it tells us an awful lot about how the events of his life shaped him as well as showing where many of the ideas about Ned came from. There is one very controversial image that is supposedly Ned that has recently seen the light of day and has been nicknamed “Lumberjack Ned”. This image is of great interest to Kelly historians as this may be the only image to depict Ned and Dan Kelly together and more importantly it was a photograph owned by Ellen Kelly herself if the provenance proves to be true.

lumberjack ned.jpg
This low fidelity copy of the “Lumberjack Ned” photograph was published by The Australian (Source)

The image can be viewed at the Ned Kelly Vault in Beechworth inside a specially made box as the Kelly descendants that gave permission for the image to be exhibited had strict conditions for its display including that the image not be published in its full resolution. Many who have seen the image are split on the likelihood that the larger of these two men is in fact the most infamous outlaw in Australian history. More research needs to be undertaken and no doubt as time passes the opportunity to see this image in all its glory and make a more thorough and public analysis will eventuate. Until then we must be satisfied with the existing verified imagery. Should it prove to be legitimate it would be the most incredible image yet of Ned highlighting his imposing physique with rippling muscles in his arms, a neatly groomed beard and soft smile even showing teeth. This is a much more relatable Ned, a tradesman and pioneer who could have led a very different life under other circumstances.

Since Ned’s execution he has become a part of Australian folklore and his likeness, especially in his armour, has become an icon representing rebellion and toughness in a uniquely Australian way. This idea of Ned is closely associated with the idea of the Eureka rebels who were willing to lay down their lives in the pursuit of liberty and equality, thus Ned in his armour is often paired with the Eureka flag better known as the Southern Cross. In recent years Ned has been referred to as the “original hipster” for his unique beard and hairstyle. The idea of Ned as a rugged outdoorsman and “alpha male” accentuates the idea of Ned Kelly that appeals to the public consciousness and creates an almost aspirational figure for some who wish to possess such qualities. While this notion has taken root in Australian culture, it has very little to do with the historical Ned Kelly as we’ve seen.

A fabulous tattoo design by artist Paula Stirland using all-too-familiar iconography (Source)

Oral traditions and art helped to create a mythological Ned Kelly, which many will fight to protect while others fight to tear it down for, just as Captain Cook has become for many Australians a symbol of British colonialism and genocide while to others he represents ingenuity, determination and enlightenment, Ned Kelly is a symbol for people to focus their loves, hates, confidence and timidity on to. But what happens to the idea of this man so loved and reviled by so many when we look back on that image of the defiant, ill-kept and impoverished fifteen year old with only ten years ahead of him in his then-uncertain future? Or when we look at the photograph of the embittered eighteen year old whose rebelliousness, carelessness and anger has led him to the worst prison in Victoria? Does this entrench our ideas or elaborate on them? Will we ever reach a satisfactory and mutually acceptable understanding of the man Ned Kelly was or are we doomed to forever argue over preconceived ideas of Australia’s most notorious outlaw based on misremembered stories and popular culture? The real Ned Kelly is out there, you just need to look beyond the beard and helmet.

Despite what much imagery indicates, Ned Kelly never rode a motorcycle. Incidentally, this is a piece by John Harding who is actually a fantastic artist and you can see more of his work here

Spotlight: “I Welcome Death as a Friend” – The Last Letter of William Westwood

William Westwood has gone down in history as one of the most significant bushrangers and convicts in no small part due to the effect his letter to the reverend at Port Arthur had on activists petitioning for an end to transportation of convicts and sweeping reforms to the penal system. He gained a reputation as a gentleman bushranger, sweeping through the Monaro atop fine race horses and bailing up travellers from Goulburn to Sydney. Adopting the sobriquet of Jackey Jackey he was always polite to his victims (insofar as one could be considered to be polite when ordering people to turn out their pockets at gunpoint) and was famously captured by a waitress as he napped on a sofa in the Black Horse Inn. Westwood became a massive headache to the authorities due to his proficiency as an escape artist. Having escaped from Cockatoo Island and Port Arthur, among others, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Norfolk Island. When the new administration of the penal colony under Major Joseph Childs eliminated the prisoners’ veggie patches and cooking privileges, reinstated flogging, and increased work hours the convicts snapped. For his part in leading the resulting “Cooking Pot Riot”  wherein an unusually savage Westwood personally murdered four staff and almost killed the commandant with an axe,  he was sentenced to execution by hanging along with about a dozen others. On the morning of his execution, Westwood dictated his renowned letter. It is herein reproduced in its entirety:

H. M. Gaol, Norfolk Island,

Condemned Cells, 1846, Oct. 3

REVEREND SIR, — As in duty bound to you for the kindness you have shewn to me, and the interest I have always seen you take in those that have ever been under your spiritual care, whatever may be their fate, I have been induced to write to you, hoping this may find you in good health, and in the enjoyment of all God’s choicest blessings. I have to inform you that long before this letter reaches your hands, the hand that wrote this will be cold in death. I do not grieve that the hour is fast approaching that is to end my earthly career. I welcome death as a friend; — the world, or what I have seen of it, has no allurements in it for me. ‘Tis not for me to boast; but yet, Sir, allow a dying man to speak a few words to one who has always shewn a sympathy for the wretched outcasts of society, and ever, with a Christian charity, strove to recall the wretched wanderer to a sense of his lost condition. I started in life with a good feeling for my fellow-man. Before I well knew the responsibility of my station in my life, I had forfeited my birthright. I became a slave, and was sent far from my dear native country, my parents, my brothers, and sisters — torn from all that was dear to me, and that for a trifling offence. Since then I have been treated more like a beast than a man, until nature could bear no more. I was, like many others, driven to despair by the oppresive and tyrannical conduct of those whose duty it was to prevent us from being treated in this way. Yet these men are courted by society ; and the British Government deceived by the interested representations of those men, continue to carry on a system that has and still continues to ruin the prospects of the souls and bodies of thousands of British subjects. I have not the ability to represent what I feel on the subject, yet I know from my own feelings that it will never carry out the wishes of the British people! The spirit of the British law is reformation. Now, years of sad experience should have told them, that instead of reforming the wretched man, under the present system, led by example on the one hand, and driven by despair and tyranny on the other, goes on from bad to worse; till at length he is ruined body and soul.

Experience, dear-bought experience has taught me this. In all my career, I never was cruel – I always felt keenly for the miseries of my fellow creatures, and was ever ready to do all in my power to assist them to the utmost, yet my name will be handed down to posperity [sic] branded with the most opprobrious epithet that man can bestow. But ’tis little matter now. I have thus given vent to my feelings, knowing that you will bear with me, and I know that you have and will exert yourself for the welfare of wretched men. It is on this account that I have strove, though in but a feeble manner, to express my feelings. The crime for which I am to suffer is murder. Revd. Sir, you will shudder at my cruelty, but I only took life — those that I deprived of life, tho’ they did not in a moment send a man to his last account, inflicted on many a lingering death – for years they have tortured men’s minds as well as their bodies, and after years of mortal and bodily torture sent them to a premature grave. This is what I call refined cruelty, and it is carried on, and I blush to own it, by Englishmen, and under the enlightened British Government. Will it be believed hereafter, that this was allowed to be carried on in the nineteenth century?

I will now proceed to inform you what has happened to me since I left Port Arthur. I was sent to Glenorchy probation station. I was then determined if possible to regain my freedom, and visit my dear native country, and see my parents and friends again. I took the bush, with two men; one of them said that he knew the bush well, but he deceived me and himself too. Our intention was to take a craft from Brown’s River ; we were disappointed — there was no craft there. We then turned to go to Launceston, thinking to get one there, and to cross to the Sydney main. But after leaving New Norfolk, I lost one of my mates, and the same night the other left me at the Green Ponds. I was soon after taken and sent to Hobart Town. I was tried, and sent to Norfolk Island, and this place is now worse than I can describe. Every species of petty tyranny that long experience has taught some of these tyrants, is put in force by the authorities. The men are half-starved, hard-worked, and cruelly flogged.

These things brought on the affair of the first of July, of which you have no doubt heard. I would send you the whole account, but that I know you will have it from better hands than mine. I am sorry that this will give you great pain, as there are several of the men that have been under your charge at Port Arthur concerned in this affair. Sir, on the 21st of September, 1846, Mr. Brown arrived in the Island with a commission to form a Court, and try the men. On the 23rd of September he opened the Court, fourteen men were then arraigned for the murder of John Morris, that was formerly gate keeper at Port Arthur. This trial occupied the Court nine days. The jury retired, and returned a verdict, and found twelve out of fourteen guilty of murder. On the 5th of October the sentence of death was then passed on us, and to be carried into effect on the 13th of October, 1846. Sir, the strong ties of earth will soon be wrenched, and the burning fever of this life will soon be quenched, and my grave will be a haven — a resting place for me, William Westwood. Sir, out of the bitter cup of misery, I have drank from my sixteenth year — ten long years, — and the sweetest draught is that which takes away the misery of living death; it is the friend that deceives no man ; all will then be quiet — no tyrant will then disturb my repose, I hope, William Westwood.

Sir, I now bid the world adieu, and all it contains,

WM. WESTWOOD, his writing.



” I, William Westwood, wish to die in the Communion of Christ’s Holy Church, seeking mercy of God through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. — Amen.

Source: Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer (NSW : 1845 – 1860), Saturday 28 November 1846

Death Mask of William Westwood aka Jackey Jackey

Michael Howe: An Overview

*** Revised and updated (2021) ***

At the outset of the 19th century, with the British Empire now firmly establishing Australia as an outpost, it became increasingly apparent that the authorities would have their hands full with rebels and rogues as bolting became more prevalent. Van Diemen’s Land, had been established as a colony in 1803, and ten years on the island was about to see an outbreak of bushranging the likes of which had never been seen before in Australia.

Perhaps the most important figure in the formative years of bushranging is Michael Howe, whose story was twisted through two hundred years of retellings until he became known as one of Australia’s most ruthless, bloodthirsty and dangerous outlaws. Howe embodied the new breed of Australian outlaw better than anyone else in the 1810s. The historical Howe was driven by a hatred of the British laws and their enforcers; his crimes were acts of desperation and survival. He avoided bloodshed where possible, and was known to be kind to those who he had no reason to dislike. Yet, despite the historical record backing up the idea of Howe as something of a “gentleman bushranger”, the rinsing and recycling of myths, half-truths and outright lies peddled as fact have had a lasting, damaging impact on our understanding of Howe’s story and the man himself.

Howe was born in 1787 in Pontefract, Yorkshire. Life during this time was rough on lower class families thanks to the Industrial Revolution, and poverty was rampant. For a young man in poverty there were really only two options: join the armed forces to fight for Queen and country; or lead a life of crime. Howe initially chose the former, briefly enlisting in the army before joining the Royal Navy on a man-of-war, then as well as on a merchant navy vessel. Howe absconded from the navy, however, by jumping overboard. Evidently the harsh treatment inflicted upon him as a sailor and soldier had pushed him to the edge and he had decided to pull the plug.

Now looking for a means of supporting himself, while also at risk of punishment if he was caught after absconding, Howe became a highwayman.  He found himself convicted at York assizes on 31 July, 1811, for robbing a Miller on the King’s highway, and was transported to Australia for seven years in late 1812. Howe was sent to New South Wales on the Minstrel, where he was transferred to Indefatigable then taken to Van Diemen’s Land. One of Howe’s shipmates was a young man named James Whitehead, who would become an important part of Howe’s life.

(From History of Australian Bushranging Volume I by Charles White)

As part of his sentence, Howe was assigned to the wealthy merchant and grazier, John Ingle, who had a reputation as a harsh and overbearing boss. Howe seemingly resented indentured servitude, and is believed to have clashed with Ingle before he took to the bush. No doubt the treatment of convicts was a driving factor in Howe’s rebellion.

Howe joined up with a gang of other bolters led by Peter Mills, the former Acting Deputy Surveyor of Lands at Port Dalrymple, and George Williams, former Acting Deputy Commissary of Stores and Provisions. Mills had run up debts and rather than deal with them, he took to the bush. The gang took up raiding farms and camps for supplies, even stealing herds of sheep and cattle for their own purposes, with most of the men being rather quiet and level-headed while others tended to be outspoken and volatile. Lieutenant Governor Macquarie issued a proclamation on May 14, 1814, in which he listed the gang members and gave them until the first of December to return to their assignments. If they returned on or before that date they would receive a pardon on the crimes committed during their absence.

Modern historians would have us believe that the incentive to betray his fellows was too strong, and Howe convinced a few of his mates to join him in turning in the rest with the traitors living it up in Hobart town before Howe again took to the bush. Of course, an examination of historical records makes it clear that this never happened. Howe, in fact, turned up at a spot called ‘The Ovens’ in August – nearly four months later to the day of the proclamation – with other members of the gang, and bailed up a party of soldiers who were escorting prisoners from Port Dalrymple.

Another oft-repeated fallacy is that Howe joined a gang of bushrangers led by a legendary rogue called John Whitehead. These accounts state that Whitehead had one of the largest bushranger gangs ever recorded with a purported member count of at least twenty eight, but it was not the case. Whitehead – real name James Whitehead – was simply one of the many convicts that joined the ever-growing gang. Confirmed members were Richard McGuire, Hugh Burn, Richard Collier, Peter Septon, George “Bumpy” Jones, James Geary, and an Aboriginal woman named Mary Cockerill, nicknamed “Black Mary”.

Michael Howe (illustrated by Aidan Phelan)

The gang operated mostly around New Norfolk, raiding farms. They tended to have the bulk of their members remain at camp, while a pair or small group would head out to get to work at the targeted farms. Interestingly, many of the attacks seemed to not simply be targeted at farms that looked likely to yield decent takings. It appeared that the bushrangers would attack based on information supplied to the them by harbourers, in particular a prominent figure named Edward Lord, known at the time to be the richest man in Van Diemen’s Land. It seems the outlaws were being used to cause grief to particular farmers in the region that were in conflict with their harbourers, as part of an ongoing, unofficial land war between wealthy settlers.

One farmer who had repeated run-ins with the bushrangers was Dennis McCarty. On one of these occasions, he had spotted some of the gang on the outskirts of his property making mocassins and opened fire. The gang bolted for cover and a battle ensued, during which one of McCarty’s servants launched into attack against the bushrangers with a cutlass. In the fight, most of McCarty’s men were injured and when Howe saw another member of his gang, James Geary, make a move to shoot one of the men dead he intervened to stop him. McCarty escaped and the bushrangers took all the spoils they could carry before leaving. In direct consequence of this, Charles Carlisle died and the charge of his murder was laid upon James Whitehead, Peter Septon, Michael Howe, Richard Collier, Hugh Burn, James Geary and Mary Cockerill.

Such affrontery was unacceptable and on 25 April, 1815, Lieutenant Governor Davey controversially declared Martial Law in an effort to come down hard on the elusive banditti. It did not produce the desired effect and on 10 May the gang raided the house of Adolarius Humphrey. The Humphreys were not home when the bushrangers arrived, but the outlaws went straight to work plundering the place and mouthing off about what they would do to their opponents if they came upon them. When Howe, Geary and McGuire were ransacking the place they found leg irons in the house — a clear indication Humphrey had been ill-treating his servants. In response to this they went on a rampage and destroyed everything they could in the place.

Feeling emboldened, the gang launched a revenge attack on McCarty on 18 May. Such a move, however, had been anticipated and a party of soldiers from Hobart had been stationed in the homestead while McCarty and his wife were out of the house. While James Whitehead scouted the perimeter of the homestead a soldier fired on him, killing him; a fire fight ensued. During the chaos, Whitehead’s body was decapitated in order to prevent the soldiers from claiming the reward on the head. Most versions of the story state Whitehead ordered Howe to “take his watch” as a code for the decapitation, upon which command Howe cut the head off and brandished it like a trophy at his attackers before escaping. Such a sensational depiction has no relationship to contemporary reports, which indicate that the decapitation was performed by persons unknown and was not observed. At any rate, the headless corpse, dumped on the doorstep, greeted McCarty when he arrived home. The head was later found dumped in the bush and the rest of the remains were gibbetted on Hunter Island in Hobart.

Howe soon stood up into more of a leadership role, his calm and commanding presence keeping the wilder inclinations of his mates under control. Howe took much pride in his position and referred to himself as the “Governor of the Ranges” (as opposed to the “Governor of the Town” who was the official head of government). Under his watch, however, the gang’s numbers began to dwindle. Hugh Burn and Richard McGuire were apprehended in a hut after a shootout with soldiers of the 46th regiment, and subsequently hanged. When the remaining gang undertook a raid of Richard Fry’s farm at Elphin, near Port Dalrymple, in September 1815, it was reported that they now consisted of only a half dozen members.

On 5 July 1816, members of the gang (Howe, Septon, Collier, Geary and George Jones) bailed up Thomas Seals in his hut. They baked damper and shot one of Seals’s cattle, which they butchered and ate, leaving the scraps for the dogs. They stayed for several days. When they left they took Seals with them and committed several robberies. They let Seals go in the evening.

On 8 September, 1816, the gang raided the property of Lieutenant Governor Davey. During this audacious robbery, Howe fixed himself some eggnog, and Peter Septon gave a sick man a drink made from wine and milk (a popular remedy for illness at the time). Before they left, Howe borrowed a dictionary and promised to return it.

Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey was one of the Howe Gang’s repeat targets. On more than one occasion members of the gang infiltrated the homestead and took items they needed.

At this time, Howe’s gang consisted of himself, Peter Septon, Richard Collier, James Geary, George Jones, Matthew Keegan, John Brown, John Parker, John Chapman, Thomas Coyne, Thomas McCaig and two native girls, one of whom was Mary Cockerill, the other’s name is unrecorded.

After months of easily evading the soldiers sent after them, Howe and Mary Cockerill were ambushed by soldiers from the 46th regiment in April 1817. Howe darted off and fired back at the redcoats before dumping his gear, including his knapsack and firearm. Typically, it is reported that in this incident Howe shot Mary either accidentally or because she was slowing him down. It is not clear from contemporary reports whether Mary was even shot. Assertions that she was pregnant with Howe’s child are without merit. In his effects, retrieved by soldiers, were the musket and a gardening book bound in kangaroo skin filled with hand-written notes.

Mary immediately began to help the police track the rest of the gang to their camp by the Shannon River. When the soldiers came upon the bushrangers, they mocked them and bolted into the bush. Mary also helped the authorities reclaim sheep the gang had stolen, and was rewarded for her assistance with clothes, food and accommodation.

At the time this was transpiring, the new Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, William Sorell, was settling in. Sorell issued a proclamation promising harsh penalties for the bushrangers and their harbourers, but an amnesty was also on offer in an attempt to bring an end to the lawlessness. Howe saw this as an opportunity to give up the outlaw lifestyle he had come to detest, and intended to negotiate his surrender by writing to Sorell.

Lieutenant Governor Sorell; the so-called “Governor of the Town” (Credit: Archives Office of Tasmania)

The negotiations were managed carefully by Howe, who agreed to give the authorities the information they wanted on the condition that he be given a Royal Pardon. He was taken into custody in Hobart on 29 April, 1817, to await confirmation of the pardon. During this time he claimed that the esteemed magistrate, Robert Knopwood, was one of the associates of the gang, and had even personally escorted himself and a fellow gang member, George Watts, through the streets of Hobart. He mostly occupied himself with hawking items he had been knitting, while awaiting news of his pardon.

Howe’s incarceration did not last long as he took advantage of the relaxed security he had negotiated and fled to the bush once more. It is believed this was a response to receiving information from an associate named Beacroft that the pardon had been refused, though in actuality it had been approved. Reports that Howe had murdered his friend Peter Septon and attempted the same on Richard Collier are completely incorrect, as he was in Hobart, guarded by soldiers at the gaol, at the time. This is yet another case of crimes being dumped upon Howe to increase his fearsome reputation. It was, in fact, a new member of the gang named George Hillier who had committed the deed. Several other members of the gang had been captured or killed by soldiers in Howe’s absence including George Jones, who was shot and decapitated by soldiers.

Howe now found himself on the run again with no gang to go back to. He reconnected with George Watts, who had since left the gang, hoping to get supplies and information. Unbeknownst to Howe, Watts conspired with a stockman named William Drew to capture Howe and claim the reward. When Howe was in camp with the others two, they pounced on him and restrained him. The next day they began to escort him to town when Howe broke his bonds and revealed a hidden dagger. He stabbed Watts in the back and took his musket, which he promptly used to shoot Drew. Watts was not dead however and struggled back to town where he told of what happened before dying of his wounds.

Without friends, or at the least people he could trust, around him, Howe was living a solitary life in a hut by the Shannon River. His clothes disintegrated, his firearms ran out of ammunition and he could not readily find nutritious food. More significantly, his waking hours were spent in terror of the Aborigines, who were very active in the area launching spear attacks on white people. One murder that was pinned on him at this time had actually been committed by a band of Aboriginal men. During this time he was ambushed by bounty hunters, one of whom was a tracker named Musquito, who would later earn his own infamy as a bushranger. During this struggle, Howe lost his supplies again, including a journal made from kangaroo skin that he had written about his most intimate thoughts and ominous dreams.

Howe was now more vulnerable than ever. He clothed himself in a cloak of stitched together kangaroo skins, and his dark beard grew long and bushy. He was afraid to sleep for fear of death or capture. When an associate sent him word that he had supplies for him the offer was irresistible.

As he became more desperate, Michael Howe dressed himself in rags and kangaroo skins.

Howe’s associate, a kangaroo hunter named Warburton, had befriended a farmer named Worrell and had struck a deal to lure Howe and kill him for the reward of £200 on his head and free passage back to England. Warburton managed to track Howe down and told him there was ammunition and food in his home on the River Shannon. In actual fact the hut was concealing Worrall and an infantryman named Pugh who were waiting, poised with rifles. On 21 October 1818, upon arriving at the property, Howe hesitated to go inside but eventually did so with a pistol drawn. Once his eyes had adjusted to the gloom he baulked at the door like a frightened dog when he realised his fears were true. Howe growled “So that’s your game is it?” and fired a shot as Pugh knocked the gun from his hand. Howe ran off as fast as his feet would take him, musket balls whizzing past him. The bounty hunters chased Howe down to a muddy inlet. Howe was shot in the back and tumbled down an embankment. He noted the salt and pepper beard of Worrell and stated, “Black beard against grey beard for a million!” The pair wrestled before Pugh caught up and stabbed Howe through the ribs with his bayonet. Howe fell and then Pugh began to smash his skull in with the butt of his musket. With Howe’s life now extinguished in a brutal fashion, his broken head was cut off and displayed on a spike in Hobart Town as a warning to other would-be bushrangers of the wages of sin. The body was buried in a shallow grave by the river.

Mere months later, a pamphlet was released, declaring Howe to be the last and worst of the bushrangers. It was little more than an attempt to take the heat off the government by portraying Howe as a far more dangerous and cunning foe than he was. The implication was that this was why he was so hard to catch. The pamphlet was written by “Thomas E. Wells”, which was the pen-name of a senior public servant. Many of the outright lies that are accepted as truth started with this publication. One day the record will be set straight.

Further reading:

Michael Howe: The Last and Worst of the Bush-Rangers of Van Dieman’s Land by Thomas E. Wells

History of the Australian Bushrangers by George E. Boxall

History of Australian Bushranging Volume I by Charles White

Further viewing:

The Outlaw Michael Howe: Director – Brendan Cowell

Damon Herriman as title character in The Outlaw Michael Howe (Credit: Cordell Jigsaw Productions)

Matthew Brady: An Overview

*** Revised and updated, 2021 ***

The charismatic and daring Matthew Brady is one of the most renowned characters in Australian history for his fearlessness and chivalrous nature as much as his criminality. Few outlaws in Australian history have been viewed so favourably, most being referred to in quite overblown and dramatic language. While it is indisputable that, as a general rule, Brady exercised much discretion and gentleness during his exploits, he was responsible for innumerable robberies and one murder by his own hand. Unfortunately, most of his story has been lost to time through both poor contemporary recording in both official documents and in the press, meaning that very little of his story is verifiable. Yet, what is recorded demonstrates a tale at least as worthy of recognition as those of Ben Hall or Ned Kelly – if not more so.

Born in Manchester, England, in 1799, Matthew Brady was employed as a gentleman’s servant before being taken on a charge of forgery in 1820. In his records, his name is recorded as “Mathew Bready”, though this is likely the result of a record taker trying to spell the name phonetically from it being delivered in a Mancunian accent. At Lancaster Quarter Sessions on 17 April, he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation.

On 3 September 1820, Brady was sent with 159 other convicts to Van Diemen’s Land on board the Juliana, arriving 29 December that same year. In his records, he was described as standing at 5’5½” tall, with dark brown hair and blue eyes. He was also tattooed with images of a man and woman on his left arm, a fish and the letters TB on his right arm.

He was assigned to work in the employ of William Brest, but soon found himself sent to Van Diemen’s Land’s harshest prison of the time, Macquarie Harbour, aka Sarah Island, for repeated infractions – mostly absconding or plotting to escape. Brady had a deep-seated resentment of the authorities, which was only cemented by his treatment by them. During 1821 through 1823 he was flogged repeatedly for infractions ranging from neglect of duty to absconding, enduring a cumulative total of 525 lashes.

Inducing a gang of convicts to escape from Sarah Island with him in June 1824, the men succeeded in stealing a whaleboat, taking the doctor from the penal settlement as a hostage, and traversing the stormy waters off the coast of Van Diemen’s Land. They were pursued at sea by the authorities but were able to trick them by pulling into a cove, out of sight, long enough for the pursuers to pass them. At one point during their flight, Brady’s confederates attempted to flog their prisoner as an act of vengeance, but Brady stayed their hands as the doctor had treated him well on the island. They arrived in the Derwent River after nine days, and upon going ashore became free-booters.

The gang stole firearms from a settler and took to the bush, raiding homesteads to take what they needed. Brady built a reputation of treating women with kindness and respect that endeared him to many. Brady impressed upon his associates a strict code of conduct, through which he was determined that they should never be guilty of injuring the defenceless. This meant a prohibition on stealing more than they needed, and under no circumstances molesting women in any way.

Over the next few months the numbers of the gang dwindled as members were either captured or killed. During one particularly nasty raid, the gang were met with resistance and a gunfight broke out. One of the gang lost and eye during the fight and was located days later wandering aimlessly in the bush on the verge of death from dehydration. Eventually the only men left from the initial band of escapees were Brady and James McCabe. McCabe was an impulsive young man with sharp features and a pockmarked face, but seemed to respect Brady enough to work with him and follow his lead.

The pair began making connections and developing a network of harbourers around the Tasmanian midlands. One of these harbourers was a former constable named Thomas Kenton. He would plan robberies with Brady and McCabe, though never actually took part in them himself, merely taking a cut of the takings in exchange for giving the bushrangers a safe haven. Kenton would put out a white sheet to signal the coast was clear to the men, who were soon joined by a boy named Hyte.

Unbeknownst to the bushrangers, Kenton had been conspiring with the authorities and in early 1825 he arranged a meeting with Brady, McCabe and Hyte as a cover for an ambush. Though Brady had a bad feeling about it, the others convinced him to follow through with the meeting. Brady’s instincts proved to be correct, as when they reached Kenton’s hut they were pounced on by soldiers. McCabe bolted, but the others weren’t so lucky. Hyte was taken easily, but Brady had to be severely bashed before he could be subdued. Their hands were bound and Hyte was taken to town to be lodged in the lockup, but Brady was kept in Kenton’s charge until the soldiers returned. Brady, badly concussed and bleeding from the head, asked to be laid on the bed, which was done, then requested a drink. While Kenton was out of the hut collecting water, Brady thrust his hands in the fire to burn away his bonds. He then took up his gun, and when Kenton returned Brady threatened to shoot him. He relented but informed Kenton that one day he’d get revenge, before escaping.

Matthew Brady [Archives Office of Tasmania.]

Brady and McCabe met up again and formed a new gang. They escalated their operations, and in one raid decided to utilise their victim’s boats to transport the booty. After the man’s servants had scuttled the first boat, the bushrangers transferred everything to a second one and took one of the servants to direct the boat to their hideaway at Grindstone Bay. However, during the night the gang got horrendously drunk and a brawl erupted, during which their captive was killed. As a result, Brady ordered the remaining alcohol be destroyed and swore his gang to temperance in order to prevent further incidents. The one dissenting voice was James McCabe who left the gang after another fight. He was captured two weeks later between Hamilton and Bothwell.

Lieutenant Governor Arthur was greatly vexed by the continued and escalating depredations and put out a declaration in April 1825 stating:

His Honour has directed that a reward of £25 shall be given for the apprehension of either [Brady and accomplice James McCabe]; and that any prisoner giving such information as may directly lead to their apprehension shall receive a ticket-of-leave, and that any prisoner apprehending and securing either of them, in addition to the above reward, shall receive a conditional pardon.


Fifty acres of land, free from restrictions, will be given to the chief constable in whose district either McCabe or Brady is taken, provided it shall be certified by the magistrate of the district that he has zealously exerted himself in the promulgation of this order, and to the adoption of measures for giving it effect.

In response to this perceived affront, Brady is said to have offered his own proclamation:

It has caused Matthew Brady much concern that such a person known as Sir George Arthur is at large. Twenty gallons of rum will be given to any person that will deliver his person unto me. I also caution John Priest that I will hang him for his ill-treatment of Mrs. Blackwell, at Newtown. 

Sir George Arthur circa 1837. [Dixon Library, State Library of New South Wales.]

As Brady’s notoriety grew, so did his ambition. There seemed to be a desire to use the gang’s lawlessness to ridicule the forces of law and order, exemplified in their raid on the township of Sorell. The bushrangers stuck up a wealthy household and kept the occupants prisoner overnight due to intense storms. In the morning the gang trekked into Sorell with their prisoners and stuck up a party of redcoats who had been out looking for the gang in their own barracks. The soldiers had been caught in torrential rain and returned to base empty handed with waterlogged muskets, thus had no defence against the bushrangers. The gang then set their sights upon the town gaol. Upon breaching the stronghold they attempted to free the occupants of the cells, however the inmates were too afraid to leave. The soldiers and the gang’s other prisoners were promptly locked up. They were soon met with resistance from outside, as Lieutenant Gunn had heard of their presence and tracked them down. The two bushrangers on sentry opened fire on Lieutenant Gunn, who was hit in the right arm, injuring it badly enough to necessitate amputation. Before leaving, the gang built a scarecrow to act as a decoy to allow them escape. Surprisingly, it worked as the locals were convinced there was still at least one bushranger guarding the gaol.

Desperate to escape from Van Diemen’s Land, Brady and what remained of his gang managed to steal a brig called Glutton, and intended to use it to gain access to a larger craft called Blue Eyed Maid and make their way across Bass Strait. Unfortunately the gang got cold feet and they retreated back to land.

Following this, Brady learned of what Thomas Kenton had been up to since their last meeting. Kenton had been gaoled for letting Brady escape, and had since his release had been spreading lies about Brady, while attempting to paint himself in a better light. Brady tracked Kenton down to a hotel called the Cocked Hat, and rode there with gang members Bryant and Williams. Brady calmly informed Kenton that he would be killed for his betrayal and slandering. Kenton was unrepentant and proceeded to goad Brady, who responded by shooting him in the head. This was the only murder Brady himself would perform.

One of the various proclamations issued by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur [Archives Office of Tasmania.]

By now it was becoming harder for Brady to trust his gang members as people, tempted to seek the reward, infiltrated the gang in order to act as a spy. By now Lieutenant-Governor Arthur had raised the stakes to 300 guineas or 300 acres of land for settlers and a free pardon and free passage to England for convicts for bringing in Brady.

A matter of days after Kenton’s murder, a posse engaged Brady’s gang in a running gunfight, having been tipped off by a traitor named Cowen. Brady was badly injured by a bullet that passed through his calf. The gang split up, Brady seeking refuge in an island at the North Esk River with his accomplices Murphy and Williams. Cowen led a posse to the hideaway, and although Brady escaped, Murphy and Williams were shot dead in their sleep by their pursuers, leaving Brady alone in the bush without supplies and badly wounded. He was spotted soon after by bounty hunter John Batman, after Brady had spooked some of Batman’s cattle. Brady was hobbling nearby with a sapling he had cut down for a crutch. Batman challenged him with a musket and Brady surrendered.

James McCabe, Matthew Brady and Patrick Bryant as sketched by Thomas Bock.

After being busted when attempting to cut through a prison wall to facilitate escape, Brady and the remaining members of his gang were put on trial, with Brady pleading guilty to all charges. The bushrangers were found guilty and duly sentenced to death by hanging. Thereafter Brady’s cell was allegedly filled with gifts of fruit and sweets, letters and flowers from admiring women. His last act of defiance was complaining vocally about being forced to share a cell with Thomas Jeffries – a bushranger who was a cannibal and murderer. Brady ranted to his guards that if he was not relocated he would cut Jeffries’ head off. When guards searched Brady they found two large knives on his person and promptly relocated him to another cell. Brady subsequently expressed disgust at having to be hanged with Jeffries.

Matthew Brady was hanged in Hobart on 4 May, 1826. He was buried in an unmarked grave, though for a time a small cairn had been placed over his grave to mark it. By the 1870s the cairn had been removed.

Many of the stories associated with Brady have been exaggerated or embellished over the years, thanks mostly to poor research by posthumous authors and inadequate recording of the events at the time they were unfolding. Nevertheless, the little that was recorded demonstrates Brady to have been a man of strong morals, despite his lawlessness, and of remarkable constitution. His gentlemanly manner and audacious crimes have helped keep his memory alive for the almost 200 years since his execution.

Further reading:

Matthew Brady : Van Diemen’s Land bushranger by K.R. von Stieglitz.

Matthew Brady and Ned Kelly kindred spirits, kindred lives by Paul Williams

And wretches hang : the true and authentic story of the rise and fall of Matt Brady, bushranger by Richard Butler.

The Van Diemen’s Land warriors; with an essay on Matthew Brady by George Mackaness.

Brady : McCabe, Dunne, Bryan, Crawford, Murphy, Bird, McKenney, Goodwin, Pawley, Bryant, Cody, Hodgetts, Gregory, Tilley, Ryan, Williams, and their associates, bushrangers in Van Diemen’s Land, 1825-1827 from James Calder’s text of 1873 together with newly discovered manuscripts ; edited by Eustace Fitzsymonds.