The Nightingale (Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan Kelly: An Overview

Forever consigned to popular culture as Ned Kelly’s little brother, Dan Kelly was a young man of only nineteen when he lost his life fighting the police. Like so many “boy bushrangers” his young life was snuffed out without him having ever fulfilled his potential, wasting his youth on a life of crime. But there was more to Dan Kelly than just having Ned Kelly as his big brother.

Studio portrait of Dan Kelly

Daniel Kelly was born on 1 June, 1861 to John “Red” Kelly and Ellen Quinn. He was named after one of his father’s brothers and christened in the church in Beveridge, Victoria, where the family were living in a house John had built. Before Dan was born, there had been Mary Jane (died in infancy), Annie, Ned, Maggie and Jim. Dan would be followed by Kate and Grace. Dan’s infancy years were quiet for the family. John turned his hand to a number of occupations but was primarily employed doing odd jobs around the district and splitting timber. Financial strain, however, soon saw John attempting to distill his own whiskey. Unfortunately he took to drinking most of the produce himself. The difficulty saw the family relocate to Avenel, but here their problems would not only continue, they would worsen.

[Source: The Illustrated Australian News, 17/07/1880]

John spent six months in gaol in 1866 for stealing and butchering a calf. This meant that for half a year Ellen was reliant on her brothers for help around the place. The Quinn brothers were not model citizens by the furthest stretch, Jimmy Quinn being the worst of the lot. Jimmy was too fond of liquor, quick to violence and did not discriminate when choosing a target. No doubt Dan’s exposure to this would have negatively shaped his young mind. When John was released from gaol he was a broken man. Dan was barely five years old when his father died of dropsy, an old term for oedema (build-up of fluid in the soft tissues), likely linked to his alcoholism. He was buried in Avenel. The family soon found themselves frequently homeless, moving from Avenel to an abandoned pub in Greta. Here the Kellys co-habited with Ellen’s sisters, both of whose husbands were in prison at the time, and their children while they attempted to make ends meet.

The new home in Greta was short-lived. One night John Kelly’s brother James had arrived at the house drunk and his sexual advances were rebuffed by Ellen. He returned later that same night and burned the place to the ground. The children inside were asleep but the sisters remained awake, fearful of retribution. After another binge at the local pub, James threw incendiary devices at the house until a fire took hold, but thankfully there were no fatalities. The families were now homeless again and devoid of earthly possessions such as clothes and furniture. When James was tried he was sentenced to death by Sir Redmond Barry. This was later commuted to a long prison sentence by the executive council. The Greta community got together and helped the victims get back on their feet. Ellen soon gained a lease on a selection on the 11 Mile Creek. Things were starting to look up.

This portable lock-up was formerly used in Greta and likely was the one that held young Jim and Dan Kelly before they were transferred to Wangaratta.

With his big brother Ned, only twelve himself when Red died, acting as man of the house, Dan and his brother Jim often ran wild. By 1870 things had changed dramatically for the family. Ellen had her selection but the land was not fit for crops. The family had to rely on the money they made from lodgers and travellers looking for a drink. Fifteen year-old Ned worked for a time as Harry Power‘s offsider, and then found himself in and out of gaol, eventually copping three years for receiving a stolen horse. Jim was now the man of the house in Ned’s absence. Jim was not a good candidate, however, and would coax Dan into mischief; their first arrest occurring when Dan was only ten years old.

In September 1871, Jim and Dan had borrowed horses without permission from a hawker named Mark Krafft. Krafft had been grazing his horses at the Kelly selection, as he had frequently done, and the boys had taken them for a joyride. Jim had previously been working as Krafft’s servant to get some extra money, the pudgy child being less physical than his big brother and thus less suited to splitting work. Constable Ernest Flood, newly stationed in Greta, nabbed them on a charge of illegally using a horse and took the children to Wangaratta to be kept in the logs until trial. When they went to court two days later the case was quickly dismissed on account of Jim’s and Dan’s ages (12 and 10 respectively) and the fact that Jim had been a servant of Krafft for a time. One can only imagine the impact that the experience of being taken away from their family and locked up in a cell with a bunch of strange, grown men waiting for trial for two days would have been on the children. It would eventuate that Flood was nothing but bad news for the family, allegedly stealing their horses and selling them to railway workers and sexually assaulting Dan’s big sister Annie and making her pregnant, though the truth of this is debatable owing to there being no solid evidence to back the claims.

Jim, only fourteen, ended up in gaol in 1873 with two sentences of 2 1/2 years to be served consecutively for helping shift stolen cattle. With Red gone and Ned and Jim in gaol, Ellen was on the lookout for a new man to help around the house and to protect her from her brothers or anyone else that might come sniffing around with bad intentions. She took the bold move of selling grog on the sly to travellers and seemed to think she had found her man in Bill Frost, an itinerant worker who had lodged with the family. Frost engaged in a sexual relationship with Ellen, from which she became pregnant with a daughter. Frost was apparently not keen to be a father and skipped town. Ellen, not one to be passive, tracked him down and took him to court for maintenance. After a long and bitter dispute she won but the infant died before the first maintenance payment came through. One can only imagine how this would have impacted young Dan, who had to assume the role of man of the house.

It wasn’t all gloomy for Dan though. According to some accounts, while his big brothers were doing time, Dan was lavished with affection from his sisters. Some considered this made him spoiled, but at any rate he managed to keep his nose clean during this period. It was at this time that Ellen took in George King, a 25 year-old American-born traveller, miner and stock thief. It was a remarkably short courtship as they were married in 1874, just after Ned came home from Pentridge. Within a month Ellen gave birth again. No doubt Dan, now thirteen, was relieved not to have the responsibility of being the male head of the household anymore. Between Ned and George the role was well taken care of.

Dan’s main hobbies at this time were much the same as the majority of young men in the country – riding and hunting. Dan would latch onto groups of boys who were out kangaroo hunting and took much pride in his marksmanship. He also took much joy in racing his peers on horseback. A brilliant description of Dan came from Joseph Ashmead, a friend of the Kelly family, in an unpublished memoir:

He was riding a smart black pony, and proudly told us it was a galloper and could clear any fence in the north east. The boy was alert and active with piercing black eyes that took in everything at a glance. He wore strapped trousers, a red shirt and straw hat tilted forward, secured by a strap under his nose. The back of his head was broad and covered with close cropped hair as black and shiny as a crow; his jaw was heavy, his lips thin, and when closed tightly, there seemed to be something cruel in them, but when they relaxed into a smile, he appeared to be a jovial, good-natured fellow. His name was Dan Kelly and he was a great lover of horses. I was the only one of the boys who had a horse. A bay pony. She had belonged to a clergyman and was an honest goer. Dan ran his eye over my over my horse and proposed that we should have a race, a challenge that I gladly accepted. When Dan found that he could not shake me off, he developed a great respect for me, and declared there was not a kangaroo in all the country who could get away from us, so we went kangaroo hunting, not once but many times. I left my cows to look after themselves, or bribed some of the boys to look after them for me, with the promises of some sinews out of the kangaroo’s tail to make whip crackers with.

No doubt Dan’s hunting provided much needed meat for the family, or at least was able to be sold to raise money for other goods. Seemingly Dan left home at the first opportunity to seek work. By some reports he travelled into New South Wales to work on sheep stations around the Monaro region as a shearer. He was also reported to have worked in Chesney Vale with Ned as a brick layer, but was not very good at it. It is likely that this is when Dan took up possession of an abandoned miner’s hut by Bullock Creek in the Wombat Ranges and began prospecting for gold. Sluices were later constructed along the creek and this would have provided a bit of pocket money. No doubt the seasonal nature of most of these jobs left Dan with a considerable amount of free time in between and he soon found himself adopting the larrikin culture of the day.

[Source: Melbourne Punch, 30/10/1873]

The fast riding, clownishly attired, skirt chasing lifestyle of the larrikin had become a widespread issue throughout the colonies. Gangs of youths in porkpie or billycock hats worn on jaunty angles, short Paget coats and jackets, bell-bottom trousers, colourful sashes and pointy high-heeled boots would loiter in public areas making a nuisance of themselves. Dan became a founding member of the “Greta Mob”, who populated the streets around Greta and Wangaratta. Apart from Dan, the mob consisted mostly of his cousins Tom and Jack Lloyd and a young Wangaratta jockey named Steve Hart, with the rotating roster of associates typical of these forms of social group. Their primary interests were fast horses, smoking, booze and chatting up girls. The boys were known to ride full gallop through the streets and challenge each other to various horse tricks. Steve Hart, for instance, could get his horse to vault over the railway gates, much to the chagrin of the gatekeeper. The Greta Mob adopted as their signature the larrikin badges of high-heeled boots, cocked billycock hats with the hatstring worn under the nose (to stop the hat flying off when riding at full gallop) and brightly coloured sashes worn around the waist. The style was clownish but that’s not unusual for teenage boys of any era. Unfortunately, Dan was still living in hand-me-downs and cut an odd figure in his threadbare, oversized, outdated outfits. The only verified photographic images we have of Dan illustrate this clearly. He wears a rumpled hat, a baggy sack coat with missing buttons and fraying cuffs as well as baggy trousers held up with a piece of rope. He was known to grow his hair long and seems to have cultivated a moustache at some point. But what Dan lacked in creole couture he made up for in his riding and his drinking. It has been written that Dan had many sweethearts but whenever they were unavailable for a night of frivolity he would employ the services of working girls, though it is incredibly unlikely that a fifteen year-old boy would have the presence of mind or the funds to engage in that lifestyle, regardless of the usual rampant libido they enjoyed.

1 Dan_Kelly_Colourised_2.png

One of the few times Dan graced the courts was in relation to a supposedly stolen saddle. In March 1877 he was charged with stealing the saddle in question in Benalla and was tried during the Beechworth general sessions before Judge Hackett. It had taken five months to lay charges against the teenager. The saddle in question was one that Dan had purchased from a man named Roberts in exchange for a different saddle and £1, and he produced a receipt to prove it, which was verified in court. Along with Jack Lloyd and his brother-in-law Bill Skillion, Ned Kelly was present during the hearing as a witness to back up his little brother. In the end the case was dismissed and Dan walked away with a sense of vindication. Judge Hackett stated that he “did not see why the prisoner was there at all” as his case was clear-cut. During this case Dan displayed a trait that distinguished him from his older brothers – he provided no resistance to arrest and complied happily with the police. This could be interpreted by some as overconfidence in his ability to dodge a conviction, but more likely Dan understood that resisting arrest was a fool’s game and further that he was innocent of the crime of which he was accused (which a trial would – and did – prove). This would not be the last time he displayed a conspicuous willingness to comply.

While he had been waiting to appear in court over the saddle charge, Dan met two boys from the Woolshed Valley named Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt. They were also waiting to appear in court that day over a charge of assault against a Chinaman named Ah On. It would eventuate that the pair would not get their day in court that same day, remanded to be tried in the next session. What exactly transpired between the young men in that cell can only be guessed at, but this would prove to be a fateful friendship.

Dan’s first and only conviction came from an incident at Goodman’s store, Winton, on September 28, 1877. Dan had travelled into town to exchange meat for goods. When he arrived the establishment wasn’t open and therefore no trade took place. Annoyed, Dan went drinking with his cousins Tom and Jack then returned with them to Goodman’s store, drunk. Dan smashed in the door and took the goods he sought. A man going by the name Moses Solomon was also there and claimed he was assaulted by the rowdy larrikins. Tom Lloyd lingered and flashed Mrs. Goodman, the other two pushing Tom into her with the lights out. Dan was found guilty of wilfully damaging the property and sentenced to three months in Beechworth Gaol. Tom Lloyd was additionally charged with intent to rape but was found not guilty, yet still got six months for his part. Dan did his time in Beechworth Gaol without incident. Almost miraculously for a Kelly boy he managed to get through his sentence without incurring any additional penalties. Three months crushing granite would have given Dan bigger muscles, but also greater resolve to walk the straight and narrow once he was out. Unfortunately fate had a different plan for him.

Tom Lloyd, Dan’s cousin [Source: Victoria Police Museum, VPM3061]

While Dan was still in prison a warrant was issued for his arrest. A witness saw two young men they believed to be Dan Kelly and Jack Lloyd leading a mob of stolen horses near Chiltern. They reported it to the police and the paperwork was duly issued. This was noted by Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick after reading the announcement in the Police Gazette. On April 15, 1878, Fitzpatrick was sent from Benalla to take over at Greta police station. Fitzpatrick informed his superior, Sergeant Whelan, that he knew of a warrant for Dan Kelly and intended on arresting him on his way to the station. Fitzpatrick went alone to the Kelly property and what occurred has been subject to much scrutiny and debate. The general thrust is that Fitzpatrick enquired after Dan but found he was away. The constable then asked a neighbour, Brickey Williamson, about Dan’s whereabouts before electing to return to the Kelly house and wait. He was greeted by Dan who offered to go quietly on the provision that he could finish his dinner first. After this, a scuffle broke out and Fitzpatrick was wounded in the wrist. The policeman claimed Ned Kelly had shot him, Ned Kelly claimed he wasn’t even there. Each witness account conflicted with the others in some way. Regardless, Dan and Ned immediately fled to the Wombat Ranges. Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Dan’s brother-in-law Bill Skillion were arrested and charged with aiding attempted murder.

Constable Fitzpatrick [Source: Victoria Police Museum, VPM2580]

For six months Dan and Ned hid in the ranges. A second, fortified, hut was built further up the creek from Dan’s place using thick logs, and both huts were equipped with whiskey stills. The intention was to raise money for Ellen Kelly’s defence by selling gold and bootleg whiskey. Unfortunately it was not enough and Ellen got three years, the men each received six years.

After the trial police parties were organised to bring the Kelly brothers to justice. Warrants had been issued for their arrest. There was £100 on each of their heads; Ned for attempted murder, Dan for aiding and abetting. A party was sent from Mansfield to find the Kellys in the Wombat Ranges. The party consisted of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and constables Michael Scanlan, Thomas McIntyre and Thomas Lonigan. When Ned found the police party’s tracks he sent Dan to find their camp, which he duly did. The next day the brothers, roused by McIntyre firing a shotgun while hunting parrots, went to the police camp with Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. They hid in the spear-grass and intended on ambushing the camp to take the police guns and horses. When the bushrangers emerged they held McIntyre at gunpoint. When Lonigan ran to cover and moved to fire at the arrivals, Ned shot him. There was a moment of disbelief as Lonigan struggled on the ground. Dan remarked “He was a plucky fellow. Did you see how he went for his gun?” He then seized the police shotgun and searched the tent. When Lonigan’s identity was revealed, Dan exclaimed that “He won’t be putting any of us poor buggers away again.”

[Source: State Library of Victoria]

McIntyre took a particular dislike to Dan, describing his nervous laughter and his “grotesque” appearance in his oversized hand-me-down clothes. McIntyre fully believed that Dan would be the one to put a bullet in him.

Dan insisted McIntyre be handcuffed but Ned refused, believing a fear of being shot was incentive enough for the trooper to obey his orders. This did not sit well with Dan who grumbled that the police would just as soon clap cuffs on them.

When Kennedy and Scanlan returned from scouting McIntyre tried to persuade them to surrender but a gunfight broke out. Scanlan was shot, McIntyre escaped on Kennedy’s horse and Kennedy fired at the Kellys with his pistol. A bullet from Kennedy hit Dan’s shoulder as the sergeant retreated into the bush after McIntyre. Kennedy was soon killed by Ned a considerable distance from the camp. The gang looted the bodies and Dan took Scanlan’s pocket watch. The salvageable items were collected and the tent burnt as the gang escaped.

Source: Weekly Times. 16 November 1878: 17

As a result of the incident at Stringybark Creek, Ned and Dan were outlawed with a reward of £500 each. At this stage Joe and Steve were unidentified.

In December 1878 the gang re-emerged near Violet Town. They stuck up Younghusband’s Station on Faithfuls Creek in the afternoon and began herding the staff into a shed. They kept the staff as prisoners in the tool shed overnight and stole new outfits from a hawker’s wagon. That night the gang chatted with their captives, answering questions but with Ned doing most of the talking. Dan and Steve were overheard talking about how they’d like a lark with the female prisoners. In the morning the nearby telegraph poles were damaged by Ned, Joe and Steve. In the afternoon Ned, Dan and Steve headed into Euroa to rob the bank, leaving Joe on sentry at the station. The timing was meticulously arranged to coincide with a funeral that would keep the townsfolk occupied during the gang’s activities. Dan acted as a guard, standing at the rear of the bank, making sure that nobody escaped or interrupted while Ned and Steve robbed the place. Once the loot had been acquired the bushrangers headed back to the station with the bank staff and the manager’s family and servants. On the way Dan rode in the stolen hawker’s wagon and kept his gun trained on Mrs. Scott, the bank manager’s wife, who was driving a buggy alongside, in case she tried to escape or raise an alarm. The raid went off without a hitch and the gang escaped with thousands of pounds to distribute among their families and sympathisers. Before they left, Dan gave Constable Scanlan’s watch to Becroft, the hawker’s assistant, and money with which to repair it. It is unclear what the nature of the damage was.

[Source: Melbourne Punch, 19/12/1878]

In February 1879 the gang struck again at Jerilderie. They travelled over the border to answer a challenge that they wouldn’t last 24 hours in New South Wales. The gang roused the police in the middle of the night and locked them in their own cells. Mrs. Devine, the wife of the senior constable, recalled how as the gang occupied their home during their stay Dan would bounce her son on his knee but later spoke in quite a violent manner in order to make her work faster as she decorated the courthouse for mass. The gang then went through town disguised in police uniforms pretending to be reinforcements against the Kelly Gang. On the Monday Dan and Joe had their horses shod at the blacksmith and investigated the telegraph lines before the gang put their plan into full effect. Ned, Steve and Joe robbed the bank while Dan kept prisoners under control next door in the hotel. The gang had successfully managed to occupy the town for a whole weekend unmolested and rode away with thousands of pounds in unmarked notes that could not be traced. In response, the New South Wales government doubled the reward for the gang to £8000.

Dan Kelly (John Ley) helps Mrs. Devine (Anne Pendlebury) prepare the courthouse for mass in ‘The Last Outlaw’ (1980)

Upon leaving New South Wales, the gang split up to reconvene at the Byrne selection at a set date and time. Only Dan arrived on time. He stayed for dinner and questioned the Byrnes about whether the other gang members had been past. Dan seems to have had a good relationship with the Byrnes, frequently stopping by in much the same manner for a meal and a chat. Dan also seemed to be the most active gang member, being reported as having been spotted more than any other member of the Kelly Gang. It is also probable that he partook in Joe’s favourite past-time of visiting the Sebastopol opium dens for a smoke and card games.

Over the course of 1879 and early 1880, Dan and Joe Byrne tested the loyalty of the Sherritts and various other sympathisers that were suspected of turning on the gang. On 14 May, 1880, Dan paid a visit to his uncle Tom Lloyd. Lloyd’s neighbour, a police informant named Jacob Wilson, saw horses in Lloyd’s garden and began snooping. He was found behind the cow shed by the dogs and the barking roused everyone in the house. Uncle Tom sent the dog to chase the man down and he climbed up a cherry tree. Dan Kelly and cousin Tom Lloyd, who were unarmed, fetched the dog and yelled taunts to the police they assumed were nearby, before going back inside. Wilson was so terrified he stayed in the tree until morning. Incidents like this were increasingly common and the gang began to stop visiting certain people in case they were spotted.


More concerning to the gang however was the rumour that had been circulating that the Sherritts were in cahoots with the police, fuelled by the vicious game of “Chinese Whispers” that accounted for the gang’s bush telegraph. On one occasion Dan arrived at the Sherritt selection on Sheepstation Creek looking for Jack Sherritt, Aaron’s younger brother. When he was told Jack wasn’t home he pushed his way inside with a revolver drawn and searched for him. Dan said they wanted to speak with him. Unbeknownst to Dan, Jack was at that moment speeding away to speak to Assistant Commissioner Nicolson in a desperate attempt to seek protection. Nicolson told him to go to a local pub and use that as his alibi. It was clear to everyone that the gang was getting desperate and had cottoned on that something was up and Ned was determined to address it in his next big scheme.

In early 1880 a plan had been devised by Ned Kelly to escalate the gang’s activities. The banks were too heavily guarded to rob as they had done previously, so now they were struggling to find ways to keep their network of sympathisers on-side. The gang’s health was also deteriorating as the rigours of life on the run was wearing them down. Ned suffered sciatica and sandy blight, Joe struggled with withdrawals as his opium supply was cut off due to lack of funds, and Dan was described by one witness as looking gaunt and hollow-cheeked. Police parties were coming closer than before to catching the gang and even had the assistance of an elite team of black trackers from Queensland on top of a network of police spies and informants. Ned wanted to end the pursuit in dramatic fashion by luring a trainload of police and trackers to be derailed at Glenrowan. He sent Dan and Joe to create a commotion at Aaron Sherritt’s hut, where a team of constables had been allocated to protect him, as the bait. On Saturday 26 June, Dan and Joe kidnapped Aaron’s neighbour Anton Wick and used him to lure Aaron to his back door whereupon he was murdered by Joe with a shotgun. Dan guarded the front door in case the police that were hiding inside tried to escape. The two bushrangers then terrorised the party of constables as they cowered in the bedroom, Aaron’s mother-in-law and pregnant wife stuck between the two sides. Attempts to burn the place failed and the outlaws rode away two hours later. It would be midday the next day before any of the police were brave enough to see if they had gone. Initially Ellen Barry, the mother-in-law, stated that Dan had been quiet when entering the hut with a pistol. It was only later when attempts were being made to gain a payout from the police that she would describe him resting on the table as he looked at the murdered Sherritt with a grin.

sherritt hut.jpg
Aaron Sherritt’s Hut

Dan and Joe arrived at Glenrowan at around 5am on 27 June, 1880. Dan was immediately employed with tending the horses and carrying the gang’s armour into the Glenrowan Inn. Over the course of the day Dan guarded the prisoners in the inn and even initiated dancing to keep them entertained. He was seen to get intimate with Jane Jones, the publican’s daughter, she having been spotted sitting on his knee and kissing him, even being given one of his revolvers to use while she kept the prisoners at bay when Dan had to leave the room. As the weekend rolled on and the special train did not appear as expected, tensions began to rise. Multiple times during the gang’s stay at Glenrowan, Dan told Ned they should leave and argued the point only to be shouted down by his brother who was determined that they would stay and fight. The longer they waited the more difficult it became to keep the prisoners under control and the more they risked accidentally derailing a civilian train. Ned refused to heed his brother’s pleas. When Ned decided to release Thomas Curnow, the school teacher, Dan argued publicly with him as he knew Curnow could not be trusted. Curnow had spent the day trying to butter Ned up, a suspicious Dan watching like a hawk. Sure enough, when the train did appear in the early hours of 28 June, Curnow warned the police that the tracks were damaged and the gang was in Glenrowan. Just before the train arrived, Dan had told the prisoners to head home, however they were detained by Ann Jones who told them to wait for Ned to make a speech. If Dan’s instructions had not been countermanded a considerable amount of the tragedy that was to unfold could have been avoided.

Dan Kelly’s armour [Source: Victoria Police Museum, VPM1799]

When the train arrived the gang dressed in their homemade armour and engaged in a gun battle. Ned and Joe were wounded early on and they retreated inside. Ned soon disappeared into the bush behind the inn and Dan took control of the situation, doing his best to evacuate the women and children despite the relentless firing from police. Joe was shot dead by a police bullet early in the morning and Dan and Steve became very disheartened, believing Ned had also been killed or had abandoned them. When Ned re-emerged just before 7am the remaining gang provided covering fire from the inn, but within a half hour Ned was captured and the two bushrangers were stuck in the inn surrounded by police in broad daylight. Dan had received a bullet in the leg that shattered his knee and necessitated a retreat into the inn. At 10am the rest of the prisoners were released and Dan and Steve remained inside. As the prisoners left they shook Dan’s hand.

What happened in the inn next is unknown but it is possible that Dan was struck in the neck by a bullet while his helmet was off and killed or that he took his own life by taking poison. All that is known for certain is that at 3pm the inn was burned and while it was on fire his corpse was witnessed by multiple people, in the back room still in body armour and resting on a pillow made of sacks. The body was effectively cremated in the fire and the burnt remains released to his family. Later, Dr. Hutchison, a medic who had been called up to assist during the siege, retrieved what was believed to be Dan’s foot from the ruins and the scorched bones were handed down through the family.

The bodies of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart in the Glenrowan inferno, sketched by Thomas Carrington.

Around 200 people attended the wake at Maggie Skillion‘s home, many of whom were drunk and armed. Police efforts to reclaim the bodies were scrapped in response, the risks being too high. Though there are a number of (probably deliberately) conflicting oral histories with respect to the location of the last resting place of the two outlaws, most accounts indicate Dan Kelly was buried in an unmarked double grave in Greta cemetery with Steve Hart. The location within the cemetery of the exact double grave they were interred in is a closely guarded secret in family traditions in an effort to avoid the graves being disturbed. Unfortunately, this has added fuel to the fire of conspiracy theories and in one infamous case a particularly motivated “truther” went through the cemetery plunging steel probes into grave sites hoping to prove that there were no coffins in them. When Ellen Kelly died the 1923, she was buried in an unmarked plot next to the official spot where Red Kelly’s youngest son is buried.

Somewhat grotesque depiction of the wake for Dan and Steve. Maggie Skillion stands at the door with a shotgun while an oath of vengeance is sworn over the charred corpses. Kate Kelly rests on her knees in the foreground. It was not reported who had sworn the oath in most accounts. [Source: Australasian Sketcher, 17/07/1880]

In the years after Glenrowan there were rumours that Dan and Steve had escaped to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. In 1911, novellist Ambrose Pratt, author behind the memoirs of Captain Thunderbolt’s apprentice William Monckton, published a book claiming to be the memoirs of Dan Kelly. In fact, many people claimed to be Dan Kelly over the years, most notably a tramp called James Ryan whose ridiculous attempt to cash in on the survival rumours were published in the press and convinced scores of people who lacked knowledge of basic facts of the story. Ryan’s story even inspired the utterly woeful film The Glenrowan Affair. Ryan was killed by a coal train in the 1933 and is buried in Ipswich, Queensland. In order to lure tourists, the cemetery even erected a memorial telling the story of the claimant. None of the alleged Dans ever had any solid case to back their claims up but the myths of a miraculous escape from the burning inn persist to this day.

Dan Kelly was, in most ways, at least as competent as his big brother. As a horseman, tracker and marksman, his abilities were perhaps even better. Certainly he was more ruthless than Ned, a pragmatism that some interpreted as callousness or even psychopathy. It must be remembered that the gang were wanted dead or alive (preferably dead) and mistakes could not be afforded. Dan was a much better judge of character than Ned and certainly better at performing under pressure. Even the Kelly matriarch was known to have held Dan in more regard than Ned in these measures.
Unlike his brothers, Dan was fairly successful at avoiding trouble. In fact, it is probably telling that the worst trouble in Dan’s life seemed to come from following Ned’s and Jim’s lead. Imagine how different the story would have turned out if Dan had been able to accompany Fitzpatrick as intended, before Ned and Ellen had attacked the policeman. A stint in the logs, a quick trial during which the mistaken identity could be proven and Dan could have gone home as a free man. Sadly, as in all things, life never pans out the way we think it should.

Spotlight: The capture and death of Fred Lowry as it was reported 

When bushranger Fred Lowry met his end after a heated confrontation with police it created a sensation across New South Wales. Here we have excerpts from an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald about some of the happenings as well as the outlaw himself.

Photograph of the deceased Fred Lowry (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

“ON Sunday last, just as divine service was concluded, considerable excitement was caused by the arrival in town of a party of policemen in coloured clothes with a dray, in which was the dead body of Lowry, the noted bushranger, and the following prisoners :- Lawrence Cummins, charged with robbery under arms, and supposed to be the man who lately shot his brother, John Cummins, when on his way to Binda in custody on a charge of bushranging; Thomas Vardy, licensed victualler of the Limerick Races Inn, Cook’s Vale Creek ; Robert and Henry Hogan, Vardy’s stepsons ; and Thomas Brown, James Williams, a lad of sixteen, and John Watson, an aboriginal native, employed in Vardy’s service. The Last six named prisoners were all charged with harbouring bushrangers, and with being accessory to robberies after the fact.

The body of Lowry was removed to the hospital, where, in the course of the afternoon, it was seen by numbers of people. He appears to have been a very tall young man, measuring six feet two inches, and probably weighing thirteen stone, well made, with small hands and feet, white skin, small moustache, and a particularly well-developed chest. Taken altogether he was physically a very fine man. He is described as having been twenty-seven years of age; and although he must have led a life of mingled dissipation and hardship, he did not appear to be any older. 

Some doubt was expressed as to the body being that of Lowry, the bushranger; Mr. Horsford, the gaoler, who had known Lowry at Cockatoo Island, where he was undergoing a sentence under the name of Frederick M’Gregor, considered that the hair was much darker than that of the man he had known, and that he was much stouter, and was of opinion that deceased was not Lowry, though he was not able to speak positively. Mr. Fogg, a settler at the Narrawa, and his wife came into town on Monday and saw the body, which they declared was not that of Lowry; but it seemed they have not seen Lowry for three years, and although called at the inquest they did not attend. On the other hand, the Rev. H. H. Gaud, who had seen Lowry some twelve months back, believed that deceased was he, as did also Mr. Moses Baird, who, however, had not seen Lowry for seven or eight years. The evidence taken at the inquest is all in favour of the view of deceased being identical with Lowry ; and it is quite certain that he was the man who robbed the Goulburn mail on the 2nd July last-Mr. Futter, Captain Morphy, and the coachman (Michael Curran) having positively identified him, and Captain Morphy’s watch having been found in his possession.

There is every reason to believe that he is the man who in conjunction with Foley robbed the Mudgee mail. Foley and Lowry, it may be remembered, escaped together from Bathurst gaol on the 13th February last.”

It is intriguing that despite there being far less consensus about the identity of the corpse there have been no noted conspiracy theories raised in intervening years about Lowry escaping death such as the one about Captain Thunderbolt, which was generated with far less supporting evidence.

The report goes on to give a run down of Lowry’s criminal history using excerpts from other publications to illustrate. The history of the deceased out of the way the article continues with the account of the coroner, Dr. Waugh who states in part (with a seeming addiction to semi-colons):

“I directed [Detective] Camphin to keep guard in front with the same instructions, while Saunderson and myself would search the house; at the same time I told all the men that I suspected Frederick Lowry, the bushranger, was in the house, and to be prepared; we then dashed up to the house; we saw a girl, who seemed to be frightened and who was half-crying; Saunderson and I dismounted, hung our horses up to the front of the house, and went on to the verandah; I asked the girl if there was anyone in her room; she said “no”; I looked in and saw only a little child; the girl was about half-dressed; I then went into the bar and called for Vardy the landlord; Vardy came out of his bedroom into the hall adjoining the bar; I asked if he had any strangers in the house; he said “yes”; I asked where they where; he nodded his head to the room they were in; I asked if he knew who they were; he said no, and to look out; I went to the parlour door adjoining the room he mentioned and leading to it; it was locked inside; I knocked and asked for admittance; I got no answer; I then said if the door wore not opened at once I would break it open; I then knocked my shoulder against the door for the purpose of breaking it open; I failed in the first attempt, and I no sooner took my shoulder away than a shot was fired from inside, and a voice exclaimed “I’ll fight you, b__s”; the shot came through the door and wounded the horse I had been riding in the back; I removed the horse from that place and gave him to Vardy, and told him I should hold him responsible for him ; I then went back to the bar-door, and then the parlour door was opened and a man came out with a revolver in each hand crying out “I’m Lowry; come on ye b__’s, and I’ll fight ye fair”; at the same time he presented one of the revolvers at me; I covered him directly; I think we both fired together; at that time we were four or five yards apart ; he then advanced upon me within three feet; I covered him again, and we both, fired in each other’s faces; the second shot I fired he dropped his revolvers and staggered; I jumped forward and seized him by the neck, struck him with my revolver on the head, and told him he was my prisoner; I brought him into the bar; he continued to struggle; Saunderson came to my assistance; we then shoved the deceased into the yard, threw him on his back, and putting my knee on his chest I handcuffed him ; he then said he was Lowry, and was done…”
To further support the assertion of the corpse’s identity various effects of the deceased’s are detailed in the article:
“Lowry’s vest [a black-cloth vest bound with blue, with buttons like silver] ; it is similar to that described as having been worn by the robber of the Mudgee mail; I produce a thin black cloth sac coat claimed by Lowry, a brown Inverness cape, another heavier one, a cabbagetree hat with broad black ribbon, and an elastic riding-belt: one of the capes
contained a flask of powder, a few percussion caps, two dice, a gold watch, chain, and key ; I believe, from the description, that the watch belongs to Captain Morphy, who was robbed on the Big Hill, Goulburn, on the 2nd July ; I also found two knives, one £50 note, and altogether £164 19s. 6d., in notes stolen from the Mudgee mail, all except £10 in notes, £2 in gold, and 19s. 6d. in silver ; the money, except the silver, was in a little bag in Lowry’s trousers pocket…”

The article closes with a note of what was to come next:

“The body will be kept till Thursday, when Mr. Kater is expected to arrive. In the meantime some photographic likenesses of deceased have been taken by Mr. Gregory.”
Interestingly, the in-depth article detailing the thrilling exploits and capture of one of the Lachlan’s greatest outlaws is followed by two curious stubs wherein we are informed of a morning tea to welcome a new pastor and that a farmer in Wollongong had killed a pig of “unusual size”, highlighting the old adage that life goes on.


Source: ​“THE CAPTURE AND DEATH OF LOWRY, THE BUSHRANGER.” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) 4 September 1863: 2. <;.

Forgotten Bushrangers: “Cranky Sam” Poo

One of the things that defines Australian bushranging is the diversity of those that become bushrangers. Surprisingly, the only Chinese bushranger that seems to be of note is Sam Poo, whose career as a highwayman was as short-lived as it was violent.


Not a lot is known about Sam Poo’s early life, except that he was probably born around 1835 and his real name was likely Li Hang Chiak. It is believed he arrived on the Australian Goldfields from Singapore in the 1860s looking for fortune and possibly escaping trouble back home. He quickly gained the nickname “Cranky Sam” from the others on the Talbragar Goldfields in New South Wales due to his short temper and antisocial behaviour.

The Goldfields were a place of high tensions between the white and Chinese diggers. Fights and riots were commonplace between the two races and it is believed that Sam Poo was right in the thick of it, emerging in the wake of the infamous Lambing Flat riots. Sam’s interest seemed to have been more from personal resentment rather than the more conscientious motive of trying to fight back against institutional racism. Sam Poo disliked his fellow Chinese miners as much as his white rivals and became increasingly antagonistic and socially isolated. As time went on he withdrew from the Talbragar diggings and would spend hours shooting at a tree stump then digging out the bullets, recasting and firing them again. Then one day in 1865 he disappeared without explanation.


In an unprecedented move for a Chinese miner, Sam Poo had taken to the bush to live the life of a highwayman. He reputedly robbed ten Chinese miners on the diggings as his warm-up before heading to the highway. Armed with a sawn-off rifle and a clunky old revolver he operated on the Golden Highway between Dubbo and Dunedoo. Aggressive and only able to communicate in broken English at best, he was very intimidating to white travellers who were already anxious about the Chinese. As January 1865 drew to a close, things began to escalate…

This murky image accompanied a retrospective article about Sam Poo, bushranger. Published in The Queenslander, February 20, 1936.

Billabong Station

On January 30, 1865, Elizabeth Golding, who lived with her husband Robert Golding at the Plunkett’s Billabong Station near Dubbo, saw Sam Poo talking to her daughter in the late morning. The discussion appeared to be heated. He soon returned and spoke with Mrs. Golding stating “If I cannot have my will of the girl, I will of you.” Mrs. Golding noted he was carrying a sawn-off rifle with a piece of leather around the barrel. Mrs. Golding ran to seek help. By the time her husband arrived Sam Poo was gone.

Three days later while riding around the property, James Francis Plunkett saw Sam Poo in one of his shepherd’s huts. He later discovered a flour bag had been emptied and some leather leggings had been cut. The cut leather, it would be found, was that which Sam Poo had wrapped around his rifle, indicating he had been hiding on the property for some time. 

Shoot-out with Senior Constable Ward

 On February 3, John Cluff saw Sam Poo in the neighbourhood. Poo emerged from the scrub and threatened Cluff with his sawn-off rifle. He asked Cluff where he was going. Cluff informed him he was going to see his boss, Plunkett, to which Sam Poo replied “Go on or I will give you one too.” gesturing to his pistol on a log nearby.

Senior Constable John Ward

Senior Constable John Ward was returning to Coonabarabran from taking a prisoner to Mudgee for trial. Two stockmen informed him just outside of Barney’s Reef (between Birrawa and Dunedoo) of where Sam Poo was camped and reported that he had been committing offences in the area. Ward investigated and found Poo camping in the scrub. When Sam Poo saw Ward he bolted. Ward gave chase on horseback and Poo drew his rifle and said “You policeman. Me fire.” Ward dismounted and took cover behind his horse as he drew his revolver. Poo, by chance rather than skill, shot Ward in the groin, a devastating hit that drives into his abdomen. Ward fired 3 shots at Poo as he escaped.

 James Francis Plunkett found Ward and took him back to his homestead and sent for the doctor. While waiting for help Ward expressed distress about his family and dictated an account of the shoot-out with Sam Poo knowing that he was close to death, which Plunkett recorded. Plunkett prayed for Ward, who died at 4.00pm and was quickly buried.

The next day, Dr. William King arrived after travelling 50km to treat Ward only to discover the patient was already dead and buried. 

This photograph was published decades later in a retrospective article.

 The hunt for Sam Poo

 Armed police and mounted posse-men joined a manhunt for Sam Poo over two weeks. Driven by the desire for justice to be served to the man who created a widow with four children, they scoured the bush around the Golden Highway. 

On February 18, the posse found Sam Poo camped in the scrub not far from where he’d murdered Senior Constable Ward. Stockman Harry Hughes, a half-caste tracker, approached Sam Poo with mounted constables Burns, McMahon and Todd. Realising he’d been found, Sam Poo fired his rifle at Hughes, tearing the tracker’s hat near his right ear. The troopers returned fire without hesitation and Sam Poo was shot in the thigh. Collapsing to the ground, he pulled out his pistol and reeled off a few shots at the approaching lawmen. He was easily overpowered, disarmed and taken prisoner. 

Picture Credit: Michael Pennay via Flickr

The Trial of Sam Poo

Sam Poo was taken to the Mudgee hospital and treated for his wounds and thereafter transferred to Bathurst to stand trial for the murder of Senior Constable Ward and the attempted murder of Harry Hughes.

On October 11, Sam Poo pleaded not guilty before Justice John Fletcher Hargrave with Sing Shigh translating. The trial was reported in newspapers across New South Wales and concluded quickly with Sam Poo found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. 

On December 19, 1865, Sam Poo, the Chinese bushranger once known as “Cranky Sam”, was hanged in Bathurst Gaol, aged 35. He as described as being completely unaware of what was happening, clapping his hands at the door to his cell before his arms were pinioned. Three other Chinese prisoners were brought in to witness the execution. He uttered no final words before the noose was placed around his neck, the hood drawn over his face and the trapdoor opened. He was left hanging for the required thirty minutes to ensure the execution was effective.


Selected sources:

“NEWS OF THE WEEK.” Mount Alexander Mail (Vic. : 1854 – 1917) 5 January 1866: 2. Web. 10 Jul 2017 <;.

“Sam Poo Was Australia’s Only Chinese Bushranger” The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939) 20 February 1936: 10. Web. 10 Jul 2017 <;.

“Cranky Sam—Australia’s Only Chinese Bushranger” Truth (Sydney, NSW : 1894 – 1954) 4 January 1953: 28. Web. 10 Jul 2017 <;.

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)

Spotlight: Portrait of James Nesbitt

James Nesbitt, Bushranger (Picture Credit: National Portrait Gallery)

Carlton boy, James Nesbitt, was not a master criminal by any far stretch of the imagination. Spending time in prison for taking part in a mugging, his behaviour seems to have been driven by a generally poor capacity for judgement rather than maliciousness and largely informed by a rough childhood thanks to his mentally unstable and extremely abusive father. Likely, this tendency to follow and to seek paternalistic figures was what drew him to befriend Andrew George Scott in Pentridge Prison (at one point landing him in trouble for giving Scott tea as a gift). Nevertheless, once both men were at liberty they met up and stayed together until Nesbitt’s death separated them in 1879.

While Scott toured Victoria lecturing on prison reform, Nesbitt was his constant companion, the pair even living together for a time in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. When Scott suggested that the newly formed gang comprised of himself, Nesbitt and tearaways Gus Wernicke, Tom Rogan, Graham Bennett and Thomas Williams, head North for Sydney to find work, Nesbitt was all for it. It soon eventuated that the gang became desperate for supplies and turned to bushranging, Nesbitt acting as an important element in maintaining morale.

When the gang stuck up McGlede’s Station and were besieged by police, Nesbitt fought valiantly to defend his comrades and made the poor decision to attempt to create a diversion and enable Scott and the boys to escape. Firing like mad and running away from the homestead he caught the attention of the attacking police and was promptly shot dead. When Scott saw Nesbitt’s body after the gang were captured he broke down, weeping uncontrollably and kissing Nesbitt. While awaiting execution, Scott wrote a series of letters to Nesbitt’s mother and wore a ring woven from a lock of Nesbitt’s hair. The letters were never delivered.

Nesbitt was buried in Gundagai cemetery with Gus Wernicke and in 1995 Andrew Scott’s remains were removed from Rookwood cemetery and re-interred in Gundagai so that his final wish to share a grave with Nesbitt could be granted.

Spotlight: THE LEGEND OF BEN HALL (2017) Clip – “The bills are cut in half”

The Legend of Ben Hall is a 2016 independent Australian film depicting the last few months of the life of legendary outlaw Ben Hall. This clip shows part of the fateful hold-up at Jugiong that sealed the fate of the Hall gang.

The Legend of Ben Hall is available in Australia and Germany on DVD and Blu-Ray, iTunes, Ozflix and YouTube Movies. It has also been signed up for HBOEurope and is released in America on DVD and Blu-Ray on August 1, 2017.

Spotlight: Trailer – Mad Dog Morgan (1976)

Philippe Mora’s 1976 film Mad Dog Morgan is, to date, the only depiction of Morgan’s life on screen. Starring Dennis Hopper, it mixes fact and fiction to create a version of Morgan that tries to examine the man behind the legend and what pushes a man to a life of violence and robbery.

Mad Dog Morgan is available on DVD and YouTube.

Spotlight: Ben Hall, the Bushranger.


This engraving of Ben Hall was published twenty days after his death. It appears to portray him as robust, heavier in build than he appears in existing photographs, and heavily bearded. The low-crowned hat and single button jacket he sports were popular in the early 1860s. It is possible this portrait is based on descriptions of Hall circa the time of his death combined with a now missing portrait of Hall that was taken in Melbourne when he was a squatter. 

Like most bushrangers, Hall never made it to a third decade of life, being gunned down remorselessly by police at the age of twenty seven. The harsh living conditions, poor diet, stress and bushy beards tended to make bushrangers look far older than they truly were. Their youth added to the glamour of the outlaws, but it was often difficult for settlers to comprehend how the criminal proportions of their exploits were being carried out by boys as young as thirteen or fourteen. 

Picture Credit: Calvert, Samuel, 1828-1913 artist. Wood engraving published in The illustrated Melbourne post. May 25, 1865. SLV Source ID: 1648449