With the beginning of September, long-time follower and occasional contributor to A Guide to Australian Bushranging, Julia Dąbrowska has penned this prose and accompanying artwork to commemorate the death of the “Wild Colonial Boy”, Jack Donahoe (sometimes spelled Donohoe, Donahue). While he died in a bloody stoush with police on this day in 1830, Julia’s short piece gives us a snapshot at where that story began in 1828.
Easy to escape, hard to survive
It has been said, “In Australia it was easy to escape. The hard thing was to survive.” A young man, hiding in the high grass and ferns has already understood it. The young man is Jack Donahue, a Dublin-born convict who was transported in Australia three years ago. He is breathing quickly, his forehead is covered with sweat. The day before Jack was sentenced to death by hanging along with his two gang members, George Kilroy and William Smith. He managed to escape, despite having leg irons. Jack knows that the first thing he needs to do after his successful (for now) escape is to get rid of them.
“I need me a saw or an axe to cut the bloody leg irons off,” he thinks. After several more hours of walking, Jack spots a farm. He goes into a tool shed next to a piggery, finds an axe and a saw. After a while, he frees himself from the leg irons. Then he goes into the piggery. He picks up some stale bread, onions and carrots meant to be the food for the pigs, like he used to do while working on a pig farm. Jack knows that he may not always be lucky enough to steal food from a farm not being noticed. So he leaves the piggery with pockets of his prison uniform full of food. His next plan is to find some former convicts who may help him. And to team up with some other bushrangers.
Dressed like a London dandy
A short, blonde-haired young man dressed in a worn out prison uniform sits on a fallen tree next to the Richmond road. This man is Jack Donahue, who had recently escaped while being transported from the court to the gaol. Next to him lay the clothes Jack had stolen from some Sydney gentleman.
“A bloody good haul,” thinks Jack. He looks at his own dirty clothes, gathers some dry grass and twigs and lights a fire. Half an hour later, the prison uniform is burning in the fire. And what is Jack now wearing? A blue coat, silk cravat, thin white shirt adorned with lace, white trousers and brown boots. Now he’s not dressed like a convict, but like a true London dandy.
Sydney Monitor (NSW : 1828 – 1838), Saturday 11 September 1830, page 4
CORONER’S INQUEST ON HIS BODY.
On Monday an Inquest was convened by MAJOR SMEATHMAN, Coroner, at the Fox and Hounds, kept by Henry Ball, Castlereagh Street, on the body of John Donohoe.
Henry Gorman. — I am a constable at Bargo; on the 1st of September I and several of the Mounted Police were encamped in the evening, about five o’clock, on Mr. Wentworth’s farm, Bringelly, when one who was on the look-out, said “here come two constables whom we expected?” they were then about a mile and a half distance; one of the Police said, “no they are bushrangers!” Three men were leading a packhorse; I and two of the Police-men took one side of a creek, and the serjeant and another man the other side; we made towards, and came up with them on some forest land; a man on the horse, who I thought was a bushranger named Walmsley, saw us first, and immediately jumped off; deceased took off his hat, and waiving it over his head, threw it in the air, saying, “come on! I am ready for a dozen of you!” The other two took off their coats and hats and went behind trees; we held a parley with them about twenty minutes, before a shot was fired, all parties being behind trees, when one of the Police-men fired, and nearly took down one of the men, who I thought was Webber; after this they appeared shy. Two of them fired their pieces at me, and I fired at them, but without effect on either side. One of the Police men named Mugglestone then fired and Donohoe fell. We chased the other two, but could not come up with them. On returning deceased was quite dead; the other two Police-men did not fall in with us till the Deceased fell; Mugglestone shot the deceased.
John Mugglestone, a private of the 39th regt, now in the employ of the Mounted Police, stated to the same effect, with the addition, that his carbine was loaded with two balls, and that they found on the horse’s back some flour, sugar, and women’s wearing apparel, and that deceased had a watch in his pocket.
Serjeant W. Hodson deposed to the same effect, but with the addition, that he knew the other two bushrangers to be Walmsley and Webber, and that he thought deceased was Donohoe as Dr. Gibson was robbed by him, and the Doctor knew him well, having been Juror when deceased was tried some ago. Deceased was in the agonies of death when he came up to him; he found on his person a small pistol and a watch, (watch produced) no money was on his person; on the horse was found a great many papers among the rest grants of land, transfers, and receipts. The deeds are made out in the name of “Denis Begly, Prospect” and the transfers in the name of Edward Wright (deeds and papers produced); Gorman loaded his piece with a carbine ball and pistol ball, which it appeared by Mr. Jilks had been lost only a week. The pack-horse or rather mare was aged, and marked E.S.
The Jury returned a verdict of Justifiable Homicide, without reference to identity. But from a wound in the cheek, and another under the cheek arising from scrophula, there is little doubt but the deceased is the notorious outlaw Donohoe. Donohoe’s life has no doubt been harrassing. But at the same time, it must be allowed that in comparison of the lives of the wretches at Moreton Bay, it was a happy life, and his death much less painful than those of scores who have deceased in that horrid settlement. And so long as such settlements exist, we doubt not we shall never want in this Colony either Donohoe’s and Dalton’s. It is fit and proper, that cruelty should be visited on the nation which practises it with retribution. God is just.
‘On Monday, as Mr. Scott and the Rev. Mr. Erskine were proceeding to Parramatta in a chaise, they were stopped by two armed bushrangers, who were on the point of robbing them, when one of the marauders recognised Mr. Scott as his former master at Emu Plains, on which he shook hands with him in a friendly manner, declaring he would never hurt a hair of his head; they then took to the bush.
A cast of the head of the notorious Donohoe is to be taken.
On Monday a prisoner named Joseph Smith was sentenced to receive one hundred lashes for knocking down Mr. Medley, Superintendent to Mr. George Allan, and nearly choking him.
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), Saturday 4 September 1830, page 2
DEATH OF DONOHOE.
This daring marauder has at length been met by that untimely fate which he so long contrived to avoid. On Wednesday evening, at dusk, as a party of the Mounted Police were riding through the bush at Reiby, near Campbell Town, they came up with three bushrangers, one of whom was Donahoe; on being called upon to stand, they threw away their hats and shoes, and ran off, when the Police fired, and killed Donahoe on the spot, one ball entering his neck and another his forehead. Favoured by the dusk, the others made their escape, and in defiance of the dreadful fate of their comrade, that very night broke into a hut and carried off what they wanted. The body of Donahoe was removed to Liverpool, and will be brought to Sydney this morning.
Thus is the Colony rid of one of the most dangerous spirits that ever infested it, and happy would it be were those of a like disposition to take warning by his awful fate.
Julia Dąbrowska is a long time follower of A Guide to Australian Bushranging, and an enthusiast for all things related to Jack Donahoe (also variously spelt Donohoe, Donahue et al). After many discussions about the topics of bushranging and Donahoe, I invited Julia to write about her experience of being so invested in the topic from so far away. Julia lives in Poland, not a place where one expects bushrangers to be known about, let alone one that doesn’t usually make the top five list of most infamous bushrangers. Hearing her perspective highlights the universal appeal of these figures and their stories, and sometimes it takes an “outsider” to draw our attention to something that has been under our noses the whole time.
Julia’s boundless enthusiasm for the story of the “Wild Colonial Boy” truly demonstrates that at their core these bushranger stories are very human, and there’s something deeply relatable about the themes that emerge as we explore the history of these rebels and bandits. I’m sure that you will enjoy reading Julia’s own account of discovering this slice of Australian history in a place so far away, and I am very appreciative that she took the time to write for the website.
There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Duggan was his name. He was born and raised in Ireland, in a place called Castlemaine.
Fortunately, I can recall what exactly caused me to develop interest in bushrangers. My earliest memory involved with bushrangers is listening to the song “Wild Colonial Boy” and learning its lyrics back in 2015, when I was just 14 years old. I imagined main character of the song – Jack Duggan (or Jack Doolan) like this :
I learned the lyrics of the song, I sang it at a campfire, but I did not know who the real person who inspired the song was. Jack Donahue – the Irish name speaks itself, who the person was. A tough, brave young man, who would always fight for what he believes in and who would choose death over surrendering. After discovering the story behind the song, I immediately started to read every article about Jack Donahue I could find. Although real-life Wild Colonial Boy was completely different to what I imagined in terms of appearance, his personality was exactly how I thought about him.
As O’Donahue made his escape to the woods he did repair Where the tyrants dared not show their face by night and day And every week in the newspapers there was published something new Concerning that bold hero boy called brave Jack Donahue [...] Resign to you, you cowardly dogs its a thing I ne’er will do For I’ll range these woods and valleys like a wolf or kangaroo Before I’ll work for Government said bold Jack Donahue
When I’m thinking of Jack Donahue now, always the same image comes to my mind. A brave, determined young man, dressed in elegant clothes, shouting to policemen who ambushed him that he can defeat them all. A man who would never surrender, despite the fact that not surrendering means death.
I must say that I find Jack Donahue’s elegant style of clothing, typical for upper-class gentleman of the 1820s, as much astonishing as his daring and self-confidence. When one thinks about a bushranger – an escaped convict who hides in the bush, and therefore lives in very harsh conditions – the elegant clothes are the last thing that comes to mind. Jack Donahue was described as wearing a black top hat, blue coat lined with silk and white pleated shirt – a far cry from how I imagined a bushranger to have looked for the first time.
When hearing the word “bushranger”, most people would recall Ned Kelly, Ben Hall, Dan Morgan and Captain Thunderbolt – definitely the best-known bushrangers. Their stories are really thrilling, but the story of Jack Donahue is equally interesting. The story of Ned Kelly is more or less known even outside of Australia. That cannot be said about the story of Jack Donahue – it would be exceedingly difficult to find any non-Australian who knows his story.
Although story of Jack Donahue and his daring robberies is undoubtedly very thrilling, I must say that I feel somewhat sorry for him. For a young man, who was orphaned as a boy and spent all his childhood and teenage years living in poverty, without any perspectives for his future life, turning to a life of crime was the easiest way to survive.
I want the memory of Jack Donahue never to fade away. I learned the lyrics of “Bold Jack Donahue” and “Wild Colonial Boy”. I sing them on every Saint Patrick’s Day (as a homage to Jack Donahue being Irish) and on every campfire I go to. I wonder whether I am the first person in my country who sang them.
Jack Donahue – definitely extraordinary and complex character. Brave, tough, determined, clever – no wonder that he managed to gain a status of a folk hero and his story still appeals to imagination of many people (to my imagination too).
This is what do I find interesting about Jack Donahue.
“Surrender to such cowardly dogs is a thing I’ll ne’er do. This day I’ll fight with all my might,” cried Bold Jack Donahue.
Lyrics from Bold Jack Donahue. Traditional.
As with most bushrangers who transcend history to become enshrined in folklore, Jack Donahoe (aka Donohoe, Donahue) made the leap from brigand to legend in his final stoush with the forces of law and order. His recklessness in the face of death seemed to strike a chord with Australians of a certain class.
This year marks 190 years since Donahoe’s death, so it seems appropriate to recount the final battle that sealed his place in history.
Donahoe and his partners William Webber and John Walmsley had been ruling the roads, sheltered by sympathisers who kept them fed and clothed in clean garments. These merry highwaymen approached their occupation with great pluck and a level head, one time even liberating a victim of his rum by pouring it into a chamber pot that they took away with them. Naturally such flagrant lawlessness was causing the settlers to wring their hands in dread, lest they be bailed up on the road or have their homes raided.
As is typical of the press throughout Australian history, the more the bushrangers eluded the police, the more the press put them on blast. Donahoe in particular had become something of a celebrity and everyone seemed to have a story about being bailed up by him.
One could feasibly have overheard conversation in the pub that sounded like, “I was robbed by Donahoe on the Cobbity Road, I was! There he were, bold as brass, astride a cob with a pair of barking irons in his hands. ‘Up with your copper,’ says he. Who am I to refuse a bushranger? So I gives it him and off he trots waving his hat about and whooping like a mad owl! So as you can imagine, I’m a bit light on cash so you’ll have to pay for the ale this time, my handsome.”
In July, Donahoe had been shot in the right shoulder during a shootout. The wound had mostly healed, but not well, and continued to give him trouble. Victims described him as having visible stiffness in the shoulder, though it didn’t hinder him terribly. In the afternoons he and his colleagues would perform robberies then escape to their hideouts in the Parramatta region just before dark when the police were unable to track them properly.
The authorities were growing tired of chasing the bushrangers through the wilderness and were hoping for a breakthrough. This came in the form of locating one of the gang’s treasure troves in an old cave hideout, but the bushrangers were nowhere to be found. The search party, under Lieutenant MacAlister, magistrate of Argyle, with the assistance of an Aboriginal tracker referred to as “Black Jemmy”, decided to change tactics. Rather than root around for the bandits like a bushpig in search of truffles, they elected to split up and keep watch on hotspots where the fugitives were known to haunt.
Sergeant Hodson of the 57th regiment led a party of troopers to the vicinity of Bringelly. The team consisted of Hodson, two men named Muckleston and Warburton, Chief Constable Farley, Constable Gorman and some others. They spent a fortnight combing through the bush with no success and at sunset retired to their camp in a hollow on the property of a man named Wentworth. It is easy to imagine the frustration the mounted police were feeling after months of fruitless bush-bashing.
After yet another day without result, on the 1st of September 1830, Farley headed off on his grey horse to procure provisions as the rest of the party unsaddled their horses. It was about five o’clock when fate decided to throw the beleaguered bluebottles a bone.
A Fortuitous Arrival
The thing about bushranging that often gets overlooked is that riding horses through the bush is far more romantic than it is practical. The reality was that much of the time was spent travelling on foot, simply because it was a far more efficient way to get through tangled scrub and between the gnarled, twisted trees with branches that jut out at just the right height to peg out an incautious rider like washing. Thus, on the afternoon of the first of September the trio of Donahoe, Webber and Walmsley headed back to their hideout on foot. Of course, riding a horse in the bush is not the same as guiding one through it, and the bushrangers were leading a black packhorse laden with their ill-gotten gains into the scrub. No doubt they would have seen the police campfire about a mile away.
“‘Ere, do you see that fire over yonder?”
“Ah, probably some hapless gloak got stuck out in the bush as the sun went down. Pay it no mind; keep walking.”
And so it was that the police clapped eyes for the first time upon the men that had been causing them such frustration. They too opted not to mount up, dashing into the bush on foot to cut the bushrangers off, leaving two of their number to watch the camp. Hodson was determined to bring the bushrangers in by any means necessary. As the bushrangers approached a creek, Hodson decided to split the group up to get the bandits in a pincer movement should they cross. Hodson took two constables to the left, the others went on the right.
The right-hand party kept up with the fugitives seemingly undetected, but when they got within a hundred yards, the bushrangers knew something was up. Donahoe signalled to the others by taking off his hat and waving it. They ditched the packhorse and took shelter behind the trees. Being resourceful, they were equipped for battle already. Donahoe was the first to take a snap at the authorities.
“Come on you cowardly rascals, we’re ready if there’s a dozen of you!”
The Battle of Bringelly
Donahoe had long made it known that he’d rather receive his death on the receiving end of a musket ball than at the end of a rope. He even carried a small pistol secreted in his trousers so that in the event that he was captured he could shoot himself. Two of his previous colleagues had been sent to the gallows, one of whom suffered the trauma of his rope snapping once he fell through the drop. The poor fellow then had to wait for the executive council to decide whether he could be freed. They decided it was better to have another crack at making the bushranger dance on air, so the drama on the scaffold was played out a second time, and this time it went to plan. No doubt Donahoe was aware of how easily executions were botched and the thought of such indignity was unpalatable to him. It is not unlikely that such a fate was on his mind when he tried to encourage Webber and Walmsley to engage the troopers in battle with him.
For half an hour there was an awkward lull as both sides debated about starting the attack. Eventually it was the troopers that felt the itch in their trigger finger first. Warburton raised his firing piece and launched a ball at a tree where he had seen Webber take cover. This shot, however, only succeeded in hitting the tree trunk and sending a small shower of splinters flying out. The shot was only off by about an inch.
The bushrangers opened fire, exchanging shots with the police through the gloom and the ashen puffs of gun smoke. Though the firing was intense at such close quarters and under such limited cover none of the blows landed. Donahoe continued to taunt his attackers.
“Come on, I could beat the whole bloody colony! Charge, my boys!”
Donahoe’s reckless shouting and gesticulating made him the obvious target for Muckleston, whose aptitude with the rifle was well known. He watched the bushranger’s shelter like a hawk eyeing off a rodent in the grass, waiting for the opportunity to strike. He held his breath as Donahoe stuck his head out from cover to take aim. The smooth face and flaxen hair catching the last hints of light as darkness set in provided an ample target. Mucklesworth’s finger squeezed the trigger and his rifle kicked like a mule as it squeezed two lead balls out of the muzzle in a puff of smoke. They found their mark in the left temple and the neck of the man referred to as “Bold Jack”.
Seeing their leader fall, the others elected to give up and retreat. They ran at top speed deeper into the bush, discarding their hats, coats and shoes in order to facilitate an easier, more stealthy passage through the wilderness.
Abandoned by Webber and Walmsley, Donahoe lay on the ground, bleeding and barely conscious. As he gurgled his last breaths he must have realised that he had died as he had hoped – in battle, not on the scaffold. He hadn’t had to use his secret weapon after all. The battle had been as abrupt as it was violent.
The troopers attempted to follow Webber and Walmsley but by now the darkness had set in. They returned to Donahoe and his body was searched. As well as the horse pistol and rifle, the troopers found his secret pistol tucked away in his trousers pocket. The packhorse was also retrieved and searched. In the cargo were a watch, stolen bank documents, flour, meat and women’s clothes – hardly the treasure trove one would expect from a renowned highwayman.
The confrontation had been brief and violent. The constabulary had their prize lashed to the back of a packhorse and taken to Sydney. The body was then taken to the hospital where it was kept until the official procedures were carried out.
Sketches were made of the body laid out on the mortician’s slab, and a death mask was made by a tobacconist. Unlike later masks that were used for phrenological study, this mask would provide a reference for a collection of tobacco pipes shaped like the outlaw’s head, complete with bullet wounds. If contemporary accounts are to be believed, they were very popular.
After the inquest was conducted, Donahoe was buried in an unmarked grave in Raby. The lack of a marker or monument meant the bushranger’s admirers would have nowhere to go to spare a thought for the wild colonial boy.
With Donahoe buried, all that remained was to catch up with Webber and Walmsley. They would not remain at large long, and when the law finally caught up with them their true colours went on display.