South Australian Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1858 – 1889), Friday 23 January 1880, page 6
THE EXECUTED WANTABADGERY BUSHRANGERS.
Andrew George Scott, alias Captain Moonlite, who expiated his last crime in Darlinghurst Gaol on Tuesday, January 20, was born in the north of Ireland in or about the year 1843, and was consequently 37 years of age. He had the usual “highly respectable parentage,” his father being a clergyman of the Church of England, who now holds a tenure in the District of Coromandel, in the north of New Zealand. The family came to Auckland some years ago, when Andrew George was quite young. Though we are not, as we expected to be, in possession of an autobiography of the executed criminal, written for one of our contributors, and withheld from him by the prison authorities of New South Wales, we are able from information supplied us by that gentleman to give the salient points in Scott’s career. He early evinced a desire for a free and roaming life. He found his way to Sydney soon after the immigration of his family, and for some time knocked about the port, doing odd jobs and shipping for short voyages. Upon one of these, while in New Caledonia, something happened to the master of a vessel called the Sarah Pile — a difficulty occurred with the authorities we believe — and Scott induced the crew to lift the anchor and sail for Sydney. He had been brought up as a civil engineer, and displayed much ingenuity and ability. Upon this occasion, he navigated the vessel safely and expeditiously to Sydney, and was complimented and paid by her owners. He also served in the war with the Maoris in New Zealand, and distinguished himself. During an encounter with the enemy he received a wound from a bullet in the leg, which caused him to limp slightly ever afterwards. It is difficult, in the absence of the narrative to which we have alluded, to place these events in his life in proper sequence but it is probable that, after both the maritime and battle experiences, Scott found himself located at Bacchus Marsh — it was erroneously reported — a lay reader. He applied for the requisite credentials, but was refused by the then Metropolitan upon grounds not specified. It is evident, however, that Scott hung upon the skirts of the church, and was admitted into society on the strength of his piety. It was here that he formed the acquaintance of a young bank manager named Brunn, who, with the local schoolmaster was very intimate with the future felon, to their cost. The trio struck up a romantic friendship, such as young men form, and spent all their time in one another’s society. One of the darkest spots in the history of Scott in his allowing Brunn, the victim of the Egerton bank affair, to lie under the stigma of having outraged the trust reposed in him. The details of the Egerton bank affair are pretty well known.
One night the bank was stuck up by an armed man wearing a mask upon his face, the manager being first ordered to bail up, then secured, and finally gagged. The features of the robber were effectually hidden by the mask; but his voice the manager recognised as that of his friend Scott. This recognition, however, had no particular effect upon his friend, and Scott, having effectually gagged the manager, took him to the school, which was not far away, and caused him to write upon a piece of paper, and to pin the paper to a desk, “Captain Moonlite has stuck me up and robbed the bank.” Then he tied the manager to a tree, and returning to the bank he stole over £2,000 in notes, coin, and gold. His ingenuity in devising means to escape detection at once came into play, and having a horse ready, he got upon its back and galloped to a neighboring township, seven miles distant from Egerton, doing the journey in the remarkably short space of half an hour. This was done with the intention of afterwards showing that it could scarcely be possible for him to have robbed the bank at Egerton and to have been seven miles off within half an hour after the robbery. He did, in fact, afterwards establish an ‘alibi’ in this manner, and so successful was he in removing suspicion from himself, that the bank manager and the schoolmaster were accused of the robbery, and Scott was brought by the police as a witness against them. Both the accused were committed for trial, and at the trial the manager was discharged because the jury could not in his case agree, and the schoolmaster was admitted to bail and bound over to surrender when called upon.
Scott said he thought of the name Moonlite through having acquired it when running cargoes at Cuba and on the Spanish Main. If so, it is difficult to determine at what period of his history he was there. He said that he meant Moonlight but dictated the short spelling in the heat of the moment. Some time after the robbery he went to Sydney, assumed fine clothes, sported money, and got into some of the best circles in Balmain and the North Shore. He gave himself out as a gentleman in search of a maritime venture — a vessel fitted for a yacht, and yet capable of carrying any light remunerative cargo which he might pick up about the South Seas. He was in treaty for the Barque Celestia, and gave a series of dinners on board of her as she lay in Neutral or one of the bays on this side of Port Jackson Harbour. This was in the year 1872. Thinking the Celestia too large for his purpose, he forfeited his deposit upon the purchase, and bought a smaller craft. He then organised a crew, and judging from the selection he made and the mysterious hints he dropped — hints which find easy interpretation by the light of his subsequent career — his mission was not intended as that of a peaceful trader, and it is fortunate the cheque he gave in part payment was found to be valueless, which led to his arrest; for there is little doubt that such an unscrupulous, bold, determined man as Scott has shown himself, if in possession of a smart craft and a crew who would obey his orders, would have been, at least for a time, a scourge as a pirate. His proposals to the other desperadoes to seize the mail steamer — a scheme which only the lack of capital prevented him from attempting — prove that there were no lengths to which he would not have gone. While serving the 18 months’ imprisonment for the offence of obtaining goods — to wit, the vessel — under false pretences, something leaked out about the Egerton affair, and on making enquiries Scott was identified as being at any rate suspected of complicity in the robbery. The police ferreted out the fact, too, that the gold which Scott had sold to the bank in Sydney for means wherewith to keep up the state in which he lived was identical in quality and fineness with that stolen from Egerton, and he was remanded to Ballarat to answer the charge of robbery. It was while awaiting his trial that Scott made one of the most determined gaol breakings ever known in this colony. He got out of Ballarat gaol by first cutting a hole through the wall of his cell into another occupied by a prisoner named Dermoodie, and then with Dermoodie’s assistance, taking off the lock of the cell door and securing the warder outside. Relieving the warder of his keys, they liberated four other prisoners, and all six managed, by using a rope made from a blanket, to scale the gaol wall without being seen and to escape. A reward of £50 each was offered for the recapture of the men, and all but Scott and Dermoodie were speedily taken. These two remained together, and for a long time successfully eluded the vigilance of the police; but the two were not well mated, for while Scott was rash and determined, Dermoodie was weak and timid of doing anything that would make their case worse in the eyes of the law than it was already. During the time they were together an incident occurred which appears very similar to some that took place at Wantabadgery. Scott wanted to stick up a bank, but Dermoodie was afraid of doing anything that might lead them to take life, and Scott, turning upon him in a raging passion, denounced him as a mean coward, and gave him five minutes to live. Dermoodie fell on his knees and begged for mercy, and Scott relenting kicked him away contemptuously. Not long after this the police received information that Scott had been seen lurking about some diggings near Sandhurst, and efforts being at once made to arrest him he was caught by a clever stratagem.
At his trial, as at that of last month, Scott conducted his own defence, and made out a very plausible case, displaying remarkable ability in speech and cross-examination. His chief desire was to prove that the gold which he sold in Sydney was not identical with that stolen from Egerton. He knew that he had a portion of it in his belt once when wrecked on a reef, and calculated upon the sea-water altering the quality, which is assayed to very minute fineness. The “expert” however, was not to be swayed, for though Scott kept him in the box a whole day he maintained that the bars tallied in assay with that recorded of the missing Egerton gold. His cleverness, however, did not avail him, for he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. Scott claims to have acted with all fairness to his quondam friend Brunn, and gets furious if accused of having behaved badly in the matter. He says that he was committed for contempt of court because he would not give evidence that would damage him. Scott proved himself one of the most troublesome prisoners ever seen within the walls of Pentridge. He was at first given the post of schoolmaster’s assistant, but repeated acts of insubordination lost him the billet. He formed a ring in the place, and led a band of malcontents. It is said that he inspired most of the outrages, for the last of which Weechurch forfeited his life. Nothing could quell or subdue him, neither kindness nor harshness. He was just as defiant in the animals’ cage of a cell, in which uncontrollable criminals are confined, as in the wards, and he was not only insubordinate himself, but the cause of insubordination in others. His sticking up of Chief Warder Kelly, whom he robbed under arms, ‘videlicet’ a blunt dinner-knife, and his subsequent defiance of the whole resources of the institution, are well known. His object was to be brought before the Supreme Court, and it is palpable that his love for theatrical display led him into the commission of a capital offence. So long as he lived he would talk and display that oratorical ability for which he deemed himself famous. The authorities seem glad to have been rid of him, for despite all his bad conduct, he was discharged after serving some seven years and four months of his ten years’ sentence. He would interview the governor of the gaol, petition the Government and authorities, appeal by letter to the chaplain, and bother everybody with his grievances. One of his greatest grievances he mentioned at the lectures he delivered after his release, to the great delight and astonishment of his audiences — “He had once asked to be supplied with a work on the differential calculus, and the brutal authorities actually had the audacity and fiendish cruelty to get him a common work on mathematics!” After leaving Pentridge, at the commencement of the present year, Scott commenced a lecturing tour, opening at Ballarat, where he was refused the use of the Academy of Music, by order of the owner, Mr. W. J. Clarke. He however got the Alfred Hall, and attracted good audiences. After doing some of the towns in the vicinity of Egerton he came to Melbourne, and induced a well-known theatrical agent to take up his cause, assuring him that his intention was to get an honest living. He lectured in the Temperance Hall to some 500 people, speaking with great fluency, and giving an interesting account of his life in Pentridge, where, to use his own hackneyed phrase, “Tyranny and injustice are practised at the country’s cost and to its shame.” His subsequent lectures at Williamstown, Emerald Hill and Collingwood were financially failures, and he announced his intention to go home to his father. The Lancefield bank robbery brought him into notoriety again, though he was acquitted of any share in the affair, and was loud in his complaints against the police, and especially the detectives, for endeavoring to connect him with it. He was also suspected — without reason, too, it is fair to assume — of being concerned in the robbery and murder of the late Mr. Frank Bates, the actor. It is known that he went to the Williamstown Stockade and endeavored to effect the release of an old gaol chum — one Johnstone or Johnson — and it is said that he then formed and promulgated the idea to some friends to attempt the sticking-up of the outward bound mail steamer. After the events above recorded Scott cleared out, and was not heard of until the news came that the Wantabadgery station had been stuck up, and that he was in command of the desperadoes. This was on the 5th of November. The party, consisting of Scott, Rogan, Nesbitt, Wernicke, Williams, and Bennett, stuck up the station, committed a series of outrages upon the owner and his servants, and Mr. Weir, the local post-master, and after carousing there until early on the morning of Monday, retired to a place called McGlede’s farm, a few miles away, where they were attacked by the police. Wernicke, a young lad, the son of a Melbourne publican, was shot, with Nesbitt, Scott’s particular friend, and the gallant Sergeant Bowen. Nesbitt’s death seemed to completely unman Scott, who surrendered, and was taken with the rest to Gundagai, where a preliminary investigation took place. Scott’s behavior and defence at that trial, and the one in Sydney, to which city he was remanded, have been the theme of numberless comments and reports, filling pages of the daily papers of the dates of their occurrence, and it is unnecessary to dilate upon them now. The wretched being, who has paid the penalty justly demanded by a country whose laws he outraged, would, under happier auspices, have been a useful member of any community. He possessed considerable ability, even with regard to matters concerning which he had not had any special or technical education. In spite of what has been said of his personal courage, it is indisputable that he continually showed a disregard for his own safety. When his party wished to surrender he turned on them, and threatened them with death at his own hands if they did; and he performed many deeds — some of them decidedly unlawful — demanding the exercise of nerve, decision, and courage — as witness his escape from Ballarat Gaol. A record in a Bible left at the house of a friend in Sydney showed that at one time he was a Cadet in the Britannia British man-of-war. His love of licence, which many persons of his kind confound with liberty, led him to the commission of deeds, the last of which has landed him in a dishonored grave, and must have caused his relatives incalculable misery. His life and fate should be a warning to those of our youth who are too prone to regard lightly, or with aversion, the necessary restraints which society is bound in its own defence to place upon the lawlessly disposed. A contempt for constituted authority leads by almost insensible gradation to the commission of offences, and consequent punishment.
Rogan, the other prisoner hanged on Tuesday for participation in the Wantabadgery outrage, appears to be in reality a member of a family in Victoria named Baker. There has been great secrecy observed with regard to his identity, and his namesake, the Melbourne detective, failed to recognise him as being known to the police. It is, however, now ascertained that he had been convicted of larceny at St. Kilda, of burglary at Beechworth, and had served one sentence of two years’ imprisonment, which fact weighed doubtless with the New South Wales Executive. He was about twenty or twenty-one years of age, of somewhat forbidding countenance, his features being of a negro cast. It was said that he was a brother of Nesbitt, the bushranger shot at McGlede’s, but this is denied, and though he somewhat resembled Nesbitt at first sight in appearance, there was in reality no similarity of features. When the encounter took place, Rogan sought shelter under the bed, and does not appear to have taken any part in the shooting, which makes the decision of the New South Wales Government inexplicable, unless, as we have surmised, his previous career influenced the members of the Cabinet. He not only was concealed during the fight, but when he might have committed murder, and had the weapons at hand, he refrained from doing so.
In 2013 Paul Terry published what was rightly considered the most definitive account of the life of Andrew George Scott up to that point. Drawing on many sources, some of which had only recently been discovered, Terry’s In Search of Captain Moonlite was detailed but easy to read. Yet it left the reader wanting more. Now we have Garry Linnell’s Moonlite taking on the challenge and not merely rising to the occasion but usurping the throne.
Very few authors have really sunk their teeth into the Moonlite saga but for one reason or another, possibly due to the questions around Scott’s sexuality in light of the increasing visibility of the LGBT+ community, interest in the story of Captain Moonlite has really been booming in recent years. A number of projects in various stages of fruition since Paul Terry’s book was released have raised the prestige of Captain Moonlite to equate him more with Morgan, Hall and Thunderbolt in the bushranging pantheon, and have even come close to giving him his own little niche in Australian culture on his own terms. Thus Linnell’s grasping of the challenge of tackling this story with both hands is welcome and timely.
Anyone familiar with Captain Moonlite, as regular readers of A Guide to Australian Bushranging will be, have no doubt heard of the tragic love story between Andrew Scott and James Nesbitt, the infamous Mount Egerton bank robbery, the daring escape from Ballarat Gaol, the Wantabadgery siege and Andrew Scott’s spectacular fall from grace. All of that is covered in this book and much more besides. Like many history and non-fiction books, this is written in a style more commonly seen in a novel. People who have read Peter Fitzsimons’ books will know exactly what that looks like. However, unlike Fitzsimons’ books, this is not a bloated and absolutely comprehensive account. Though it is the most comprehensive to date, the focus is more on a narrative that is easy to follow and enjoyable to read while getting the information as accurate as possible. This will appeal to people that normally would steer away from non-fiction in favour of more breezy novels or memoirs. To put it another way, this is a text with broad appeal.
It is heartening to see the shift in the way Scott’s story has been told move away from the days of George Calderwood’s dry, sensationalist and frequently inaccurate 1971 biography to this more human depiction of Scott that relies very heavily on getting to the root of the myths to understand the man. Furthermore, rather than being a blow-by-blow account of Scott’s life, a musing on his sexuality or an exploration of the conflict between fact and fiction in his story, this is a more holistic view of Scott and what makes him such a compelling figure in history. There are brief tangents into the lives of “Nosey Bob” Howard, Sir Alfred Stephen, Sir Redmond Barry, Frank Gardiner, Ned Kelly, Marcus Clarke, Boulton and Park, and more all in the service of explaining the society that Andrew Scott was railing against and what shaped his life. By doing this we get a very enriched story of the mid to late 1800s on top of the most complete and accurate version of Scott’s biography to date. It is in seeing the world of Captain Moonlite that we fully comprehend what made him so remarkable.
People who have read Paul Terry’s In Search of Captain Moonlite will probably feel like some passages tread familiar terrain, which is natural given that both books tackle the same subject in a similar way. But there is so much more in this version of the story that whether you have read the previous books on the subject or not this will be a refreshing and enlightening take on it and show you things that you likely haven’t come across before. However, it feels at times like some parts of the story could have been explored a bit more. This is not to the detriment of the text by any means and possibly some readers would feel that any more detail than what is given would be too much. Any person that has done research on Captain Moonlite will likely tell you that it is very hard to cover everything in a complete and comprehensive way where this story is concerned, especially if you’re one person doing the research on your own. On that front Linnell has done an absolutely brilliant job. Reading through the acknowledgements it is clear that he had some really great people helping guide him where he needed to go, but the legwork was definitely done by Linnell himself.
Though it probably seems like a small thing, one of the best parts of this book is the inclusion of several pages of illustrations. The mix of photographs, etchings, records, and so on, really helps to visualise things that are described in the text, which is something most previous books on the subject have mostly avoided for one reason or another. As wonderful as the descriptions of the main players are, nothing has the same effect as being able to see the faces or places you’re reading about.
Moonlite is without doubt one of the most important bushranger books published to date and one of the best Australian history books that has hit the market in the past few years. Such a complete history of Andrew Scott and those who were drawn into his sphere of influence will provide an extremely useful resource for future researchers and that really is something that comes once in a blue moon. For anyone interested in the story of Captain Moonlite this is an absolute must have book. It is not only incredibly detailed, but it is a very enjoyable read. Linnell’s use of language really does breathe life into the story in a way many of the dry old history books just don’t seem capable of. It will captivate and most importantly is very re-readable.
Moonlite will be available on multiple formats from September 29, 2020. Find out more here.
A special thank you to Penguin Random House for providing an advance copy of the book for the purposes of this review.
With November 2019 seeing the 140th anniversary of the Wantabadgery Siege, the decision was made to make a pilgrimage to Wantabadgery. As no formal acknowledgement of the anniversary or notification of any organised commemoration thereof had been announced, I decided that somebody ought to fill the void — and who better than the chap that does all the bushranger stuff online? It should be pointed out before we continue that this recap is not all about bushrangers, but rather a recounting of the things that happened during the trip. Hopefully it will give you some travel ideas. That said, let us continue…
With Georgina Stones from An Outlaw’s Journal in tow, I headed up northeast of Melbourne. On the way we passed through Benalla, where Georgina added some fake flowers to Joe Byrne’s grave. Previously she had left real flowers, but this time wanted to leave something a little more enduring. Every time we go up I see if I can spot the little bust I placed on the grave. The tiny polymer clay portrait has been there through searing heat, bucketing rain and everything in between but is still looking pretty good despite being put through the ringer.
Our first night was spent in The Empire in Beechworth. This heritage hotel was around in the days of the Kelly Gang and has an interesting anecdote connecting it to the Kelly story. Following the murder of Aaron Sherritt, his widow Belle and her mother Ellen were lodging in The Empire. Aaron’s inquest had been held in The Vine (no longer in existence, and definitely not the one in Wangaratta) and the pair had stayed on in Beechworth long enough to see Ned Kelly arrive for his committal. Having been convalescing in the hospital in Melbourne Gaol, he had been deemed fit enough for transportation to Beechworth via train. When being taken from the station to the gaol by buggy, he was taken past The Empire where he saw two women watching him from the balcony. He tipped his hat to them in a conspicuous show of gentlemanly behaviour, perhaps unaware that it was his machinations that had led to the brutal slaying of the husband and son-in-law of the two women he was saluting.
Dining at The Empire was exquisite. Food and drink were top notch, and the service equally as commendable. That night we were the only ones in the building, which should have meant a nice, quiet stay. However, there were other occupants that were not keen on staying quiet — occupants who were not of the physical world. Disembodied footsteps and the sound of objects being shifted or dropped was pervasive throughout the night, though we did get some shut-eye. It should be added that the rooms at The Empire are nice and cosy with very comfortable beds, so if you’re looking for a place to stay, give them a look-in (the ghosts don’t cost extra).
The next morning after an obligatory visit to the Beechworth Bakery, we headed to the Beechworth Cemetery so that Georgina could pay her respects to Aaron Sherritt. While there I tracked down the grave of John Watt. Watt was the proprietor of the Wooragee Hotel on the outskirts of Beechworth. One night he answered the door of the pub to reveal three bushrangers who ordered him to bail up. Rather than comply, Watt turned to head back inside. One of the bandits shot him in the back, then they fled. It took Watt over a week to die from his wound. Subsequently, two of the bushrangers, James Smith and Thomas Brady, were hanged in Beechworth Gaol for the murder.
Upon leaving the cemetery, we began the journey into New South Wales. Our prior search for accommodation had led us to a motel in Gumly Gumly, just outside the city of Wagga Wagga. The accommodation was nice enough for the price, however our neighbours weren’t exactly the quiet type. One couldn’t help find some amusement in their loud interrogation as to whether their companions were “giving wristies” while blaring Spotify over a Bluetooth speaker right in front of our door. In fairness, they did apologise when they realised that it was actually people they had seen park and enter the room they were in front of and not a very potent hallucination.
For the next few days we were right in the heart of the territory connected to Dan Morgan and Captain Moonlite. After so many visits to Kelly Country, it was great to finally be immersing myself in other bushranger stories. The only major drawback was the threat of fire. Following prolonged drought, much of New South Wales was suffering from their worst bushfires in living memory. Though the region we were exploring was safe, one couldn’t help but think about the beleaguered fireys battling the blazes further north on the other side of the Blue Mountains. Driving through the lower portion of the state and seeing how bone dry it was and how wispy the vegetation looked, it did not take much imagination to picture it going up like a celluloid girdle on bonfire night. With the anniversary of the Wantabadgery Siege, there are no prizes for guessing where was first on the list of locations.
Wantabadgery is a small town between Wagga Wagga and Gundagai that is mostly farmland and built on a mix of steep hills and flat pasture. It was here in November 1879 that Andrew George Scott would seal his name in infamy. Having been the target of police harassment since his release from prison earlier in the year, Scott had decided to seek his fortune in New South Wales. Venturing out on foot from the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy with his companion James Nesbitt, Scott soon added Frank Johns, August Wernicke and Thomas Rogan to the mix. A few miles outside of Wantabadgery they convinced a swaggie named Graham Bennett to join them and from there they continued on to Wantabadgery station, which Scott had been told would provide them food, shelter and possibly work. When they got there they were made to wait outside for two hours to see the superintendent, who simply told them to go away. On that day 140 years ago it was cloudy and raining, but when we were there the heat was unrelenting, as were the flies. Despite the difference in climate, the immersion was easy. The terrain doesn’t appear to have altered much all these decades after the fact. It is very easy to picture the bushrangers huddled among the boulders on the outskirts of Wantabadgery station, trying to get some sleep after being turned away.
The first stop for us was the Webb-Bowen memorial (“The hero of Wantabadgery”), which is the only real public acknowledgement of the bushranging event in Wantabadgery. The result of a wonderful community effort to honour the fallen officer, it features a metal sculpture by Max Burmeister and artworks by locals that portray Webb-Bowen as something of a pop culture figure (I personally really love the Warhol inspired piece on display there and would like to see that become a poster of some description). A simplified map is on display to indicate the significant spots in the area related to the events, which gives a decent indication of where to go and came in handy. It would have been nice to see some signage at the relevant sites akin to those placed at locations pertaining to the Ned Kelly story, but it is understandable that more of an effort hadn’t been made to draw attention to these places in that manner, especially as these are still working farms. Regardless of where you go that is connected to the Moonlite story, there is almost no acknowledgment of it or only a vague understanding of it. Captain Moonlite does not bring tourists into towns like Ned Kelly does, unfortunately.
Wantabadgery Station is currently a working cattle farm, concerned with raising black Angus, and by all accounts they do a very good job of it. No doubt they occasionally get visitors asking to see the homestead the Moonliters bailed up in 1879, but on this occasion I decided it was better to be more respectful than simply rocking up and asking to have a sticky beak. It must be remembered that a great many of the sites associated with bushranger stories are on private property, especially in the Riverina where bushrangers preferred to raid farms rather than rob mail coaches. One day, perhaps, I’ll pluck up the courage to get a look at the farm, but until then I must be satisfied with having stood at the gate, much as Moonlite and his boys did while waiting to see Percy Baynes.
McGlede’s farm was the location of the final shootout between the gang and police. While a gunfight had occurred at Wantabadgery station, there were no casualties. When a combined troop of police from Wagga Wagga and Gundagai intercepted the gang at the McGlede selection, however, a deadly battle ensued. It was here that James Nesbitt and Gus Wernicke were killed, and Constable Webb-Bowen was mortally wounded. There is nothing left of the selection now apart from the land. There are no signs pointing to it or seemingly anything at all to indicate the site. I stopped to ask some locals if they knew where to find it and they merely stared at me with the vaguely confused look cows usually give humans (Georgina did not find my bovine interrogation a-moo-sing). Having to be satisfied with having gone to the approximate location, the decision was made to head for Gundagai, where hopefully at least one of us might get enough phone reception to plot our return trip. I annoyed Georgina greatly by cranking up Slim Dusty’s version of “The Road to Gundagai” as we approached the town. It was a place that I had wanted to visit ever since I was a little boy. Some of my family members had visited back in the ’90s and brought us back souvenirs related to the statue of Dad and Dave, Mum and Mabel. It became something of an ambition of mine to see the real deal myself. It wasn’t hard to find exactly what I had sought for so long. The statue is right next to the visitor centre. The familiar shapes of the popular Steele Rudd characters immediately caught my eye. We parked and walked down to the statue. It was incredible to see these strange, almost malformed figures looming over me with hollow eyes. The statue was far bigger than I had imagined, and far more detailed. It’s original location when unveiled in the 1970s was opposite the statue of The Dog on the Tuckerbox (more on that later), but in 2005 it was relocated to the reserve next to the info centre. The connection to Gundagai comes from the old radio series of Dad and Dave of Snake Gully that used the song “The Road to Gundagai” at the beginning of each episode. To get a sense of Australian culture from the turn of the century, I recommend getting your hands on some form of media pertaining to Dad and Dave. I think Dad and Dave: On Our Selection, starring Leo McKern and Geoffrey Rush in the title roles, is a great way to get an introduction to the quirky world of the Rudd family.
One of the best and newest attractions in Gundagai is the statue of Yarri and Jacky Jacky. These two courageous men are hugely important in the history of the town and more than deserving of such a beautiful sculpture to commemorate them. In the 1850s Gundagai was first founded on the flood plains of the Murrumbidgee river. Of course, the local Wiradjuri people had warned the whites about the risk of flooding; after all, the name of the place came from a word in the local dialect meaning “big water”. In 1852 the area was subjected to a catastrophic flood, destroying homes and leaving many people stranded amongst the gurgling floodwaters. Seeing that the people needed assistance, Jacky Jacky and Yarri led a rescue mission, riding out in bark canoes with other Wiradjuri men into the torrent to rescue survivors, saving 69 people. 89 of the 250 settlers perished in the flood, which left only three buildings intact when things settled. It is hard to say anything to adequately emphasise or exaggerate what is already an incredible turn of events. Happily, the statue stands in front of a series of information panels that describe Gundagai’s history. More effort needs to be made to highlight these stories of unity from our history, but this is a good start.
Antique shops have always been attractive to me, most likely because of my Dad’s hobby of looking for a bargain in any obscure place he came across. A collector of items ranging from ceramic horses to Inuit soapstone carvings, he played a big part in my fascination with collecting. Naturally, the moment I saw what appeared to be a decent collection of vintage knick-knacks I had to poke my head in. Beyond the rows of vintage clothing and antiques in Junque and Disorderly, a creaky staircase led up to the Gabriel Gallery, a collection of photography from the turn of the century by Dr. Charles Gabriel. The images were a fascinating look at the history of Gundagai and portrayed a vibrant community at the dawn of Federation. Of course, as is the way with basically every museum, big or small, there was one very unique part of the collection. In this case it was a walking stick and letters belonging to Henry Lawson, the great bush poet. If you have an interest in photography or early federal Australian history, the Gabriel Gallery is a great attraction to visit in Gundagai.
After a brief rest to have a cool drink, we decided it was time we headed for the gaol. Gundagai Gaol is located on a steep incline behind the courthouse and is only accessible on a tour, which you can book in the information centre. The blistering heat proved not to be very conducive to getting up the hill without becoming out of breath, but it was good to tick off the list, even though we didn’t go in. The gaol consists of two small buildings around the size of camp dormitories, and was the location where the Moonliters were held after their capture. The courthouse being so close to the gaol meant that it was no effort to have a quick walk around the outside on the way back down the hill from the gaol. The courthouse is a handsomely designed and built structure that operates very rarely, but is still a functional courthouse. It was the place where the Moonliters were committed for trial, which would take place in the Supreme Court in Sydney.
We geared ourselves up for a visit to the local museum but a makeshift sign informed us that the opening hours had changed and we would not be getting in this particular day. Unfortunate, but not unexpected. The itinerary was subsequently shifted around and we made way for the cemetery. By this stage I was glad to be taking advantage of the air conditioning in the car. Throughout the trip the temperature rarely dipped below 30°C.
The Gundagai Cemetery was a little way out of town but worth the visit. It is the one location that makes an effort to signpost anything connected to Captain Moonlite. The cemetery is surprisingly vast and open and the ground rock hard from the rigorous drought that has plagued the region. The monument marking the resting place of Senior Constable Webb-Bowen is hardly inconspicuous and juts out of the smattering of squat and crumbling grave markers, gleaming white. Next to it is the far more humble headstone belonging to Sergeant Edmund Parry who was killed by Johnny Gilbert in 1864. To see two officers of high esteem next to each other in such a way is just brilliant for the die-hard bushranger buffs.
To find Moonlite’s grave one must trek further uphill to the back of the cemetery. Here you will find a large rock with a plaque on it marking the resting place of the notorious preacher. Were it not for the seating heat and the incessant flies, the moment would have been quite profound – after all, this was my first time visiting the resting place of one of my favourite historical figures. I left a copy of my article about Wantabadgery on the grave, both as a sign of respect to Scott and his mates as well as the police, but also so that people that visited after us could learn something about the reason why the grave was significant enough to earn signage. I should point out that Scott would be fairly chuffed at being in such a prime location in the cemetery, looking down on the rest of the graves from beneath the shade. It was very rewarding to have finally connected with these historical figures.
The Dog on the Tuckerbox statue is a must-see if you are in Gundagai. This humble canine has become an icon ever since its unveiling in 1939. Inspired by a poem about a bullocky who is having a bad day, the statue depicts a cattle dog perched on a tuckerbox and is mounted on a plinth in a little pool. Recently the statue was vandalised but was quickly repaired and put back on his pride of place. There are some ruins adjoining the courtyard that used to be hotels for travellers going through the region, and there is a cafe where you can get a bite to eat and a Dog on the Tuckerbox souvenir. One of the more unexpected sights in this location is a cubist statue of folk musician Lazy Harry. Long time Kelly buffs will be well acquainted with Lazy Harry from his album about Ned Kelly, which has been on loop in Glenrowan for several decades.
After our jaunt through Moonlite country, we headed into Junee for a day without the focus being on bushrangers. Though Junee was on Ben Hall’s beat and was the location of a store his gang robbed multiple times, we had something else in mind.
Junee itself is quiet and pleasant, with easy to navigate streets. It wasn’t difficult to find the Licorice and Chocolate Factory, a huge brick building surrounded by gardens and gravel car parks. We were greeted by the sound of live music wafting as we walked into the premises. There were statues of sheep and dogs, the meaning of which were somewhat lost on us, and we made our way inside. Crossing through the cafe, we reached the factory where many warm and tasty smells lingered in the air – the rich aroma of chocolate mingling with the tang of licorice. There was not much to see through the big windows that kept the onlookers separated from the equipment on this day, but it would be interesting enough if we were on a guided tour, which the television display was obviously a part of. We went upstairs and looked at the homewares and knick-knacks, noting the beautiful writing sets and kitchenware. There was a lot of cast iron pieces as well, which were quite nice. We went back to the cafe and had hot chocolates, which were delicious and creamy. Georgina bought Orange Whiskey Marmalade, and although we didn’t buy any chocolate for fear it would simply melt in the heat, there was a lot of items we would have snapped up (though the chocolate boobs – yes, that’s a thing – were not on that list).
Monte Cristo is one of the most spooky and well-known attractions in New South Wales and probably the best known thing in Junee. Billed as Australia’s most haunted homestead, it dates back to the mid-1870s and has many spooky stories attached to it. Restored from essentially ruins by Reg and Olive Ryan, the homestead is an impressive example of late-Victorian/early-Edwardian architecture. Though the buildings are starting to look a little shabbier than in the glory days after the restoration, one can appreciate the degree of work that went into essentially rebuilding the place. While I had believed that the property must have been remote, it turns out that Monte Cristo is right in the heart of Junee, making it super easy to find.
Though the place dates from later than the height of bushranging in the area, one can still imagine how the Crawleys who owned the property might have responded to news that the Kelly Gang and the Moonliters were close by in the late 1870s. Of course, the one thing everyone wants to experience at Monte Cristo is the paranormal, and if you’re open to it you won’t be disappointed. I personally witnessed a man’s shadow moving in “the boy’s room” when nobody was in there, and there were plenty of weird vibes in certain rooms. The Dairy Room is the most disturbing part of the property. Both Georgina and I entered thinking it looked nice and cozy, but that quickly changed. For me it struck when I realised the chain looped through a hole in the wall was not for locking the door. See, it was in this room that an intellectually disabled boy was restrained by a chain in that same spot, resulting in the extreme wear and tear on the bricks. In fact he had been in there, restrained, when his mother died of heart failure right in front of him and left there for days before someone went to investigate. It was in this building also that a caretaker was murdered by a local youth who allegedly was inspired to kill after watching the movie Psycho.
One must be careful not to let the spooky reputation get the better of you, as we almost gave a visitor a heart attack when he came past the original homestead and saw Georgina and I taking the weight off our feet on a bench. Certainly the place could have done without all the Halloween decorations everywhere, most of which appeared to have been left partly taken down. In the courtyard between the servants’ quarters and the ballroom were two old hearses filled with plastic skeletons. It cheapened the vibe of the place considerably. A recent addition to the site is the Doll Museum, which I knew we had to do as soon as I saw it. Though only a small building, the collection is huge and very impressive. The horror section should appeal to many visitors with replicas of Annabelle and Chucky in glass cabinets. There’s even a Ned Kelly doll in the mix. Seriously, Ned is everywhere!
When our time in Wagga Wagga was at an end, it was time to head back towards the border. Of course, the Riverina was the home to many notorious bushrangers – Dan Morgan, Blue Cap, Harry Power – but our next stop put us in a key location in the Kelly story. Jerilderieis not far from the border, but it isn’t exactly the kind of place you would go to unless you had a specific reason to, and you would be able to see the attractions in an afternoon. While trucks rumble through it at all hours, there is hardly any other traffic, and the place is so small that it really isn’t hard to understand how easy it was for the Kelly Gang to keep essentially the whole town prisoner in the pub. Alas, such is life where many of these old country towns are concerned, as infrastructure has frequently bypassed many of them, leading to isolation and a reduction in the strength of the local economy. A town like Jerilderie could definitely use the cash injection that tourism would bring, but the lack of tourism has led to many of the tourist attractions becoming little more than dots on a map. It’s a “catch 22”.
By the time we arrived, the heat was fairly intolerable. We stayed in Ned’s Studio Apartment, which was a really lovely spot. With its close proximity to everything the town offers as well as its own amenities enabling us to cook and clean our clothes, it was a perfect base during our stay. There was only one downside. At first we didn’t make much of the fact that the water tasted strange but when we washed our clothes and they smelled like they had been washed in a swimming pool we knew something was up. Sure enough, a bit of Googling revealed that Jerilderie has an issue with chlorine in the water supply. While easy to get around, it’s the kind of thing that is helpful to be aware of in advance and the sort of thing you don’t find out about unless you specifically look for information about it.
After our arrival in town, we stopped in at the Royal Mail Hotel, where the Kelly Gang had kept their prisoners while they robbed the bank. In 1879, this building was attached to the bank, which is now the location of a motor mechanic shop, and this feature proved useful to the Kellys. While Dan Kelly kept the prisoners guarded in what is now a dining room, Joe Byrne walked next door to the bank via a rear passage and began the work of robbing it. Where once Ned Kelly gave a speech about the circumstances of his life that led him to become an outlaw, now stand inactive arcade machines and dining tables. The walls are decorated with a mix of historical photos and framed photocopies of images from Ned Kelly: A Short Life. As Georgina had a whiskey and I unwound from driving through kilometres of parched New South Welsh farmland, the other patrons comprised entirely of a man of around his late thirties and his friend who was a “little person”. The pair added a bit of life to the bar. Perhaps we just went in at the wrong time, seeing as that night when we went there for dinner the bar room was full of men knocking back beers after a hard day’s work.
After settling in at the accommodation, we decided to take a quick look around town. It soon became apparent that when reports described Ned Kelly and Constable Richards going through the streets so Ned could make a mental map of the town, it wasn’t quite as much effort as one might imagine. Where the gang’s plot unfolded was in a small section in the heart of the town.
The old printing shop that was run by Gill, the newspaper editor, was only a short distance away from the hotel. Gill was the man Ned Kelly wanted to publish his letter. At some stage the place had been turned into a museum but there was no way in as the place was locked up and left alone, though a peek in the windows showed there were displays set up inside still. No doubt there would have been interesting things to see in the museum had it ever opened, but alas it was another closed door to add to the list.
The Traveller’s Rest is situated in the street behind the council building, right by a giant windmill. This was the location of the infamous incident wherein Steve Hart took a watch from Reverend Gribble. Gribble complained to Ned Kelly, who in turn made Steve return the watch. It was also here that Ned had his last drinks before heading home after the bank robbery. It is said that he placed his pistol on the bar and said in his typical braggadocio fashion, “There is my gun. Anyone can take it and shoot me; but if you do, Jerilderie will drown in its own blood.”
The telegraph office is probably the most iconic building in Jerilderie, owing to its very conspicuous signage stating its connection to the Kelly story. In the past it was open for visitors but now remains closed. A peek through the windows reveals not only the huge cracks in the walls, but also the few exhibits that have been left out to gather dust, the plaque on the wall in the main room and a bunch of boxes and crates that were evidently used for packing up items in the building. There is also a plastic box out front that presumably used to contain maps or pamphlets of some kind, but is now empty. I left a printout of my article on Jerilderie in the box for a visitor to collect with the intention that it could help set the scene as they explored the town.
The old blacksmith shop was where Joe Byrne took the gang’s horses to be shod. No longer publicly accessible, in previous years it was able to be explored for $2, and a radio interview with Andrew Nixon, one of the smithies that worked there when the gang visited, would play in the background to set the scene. Now, apart from the Kelly trail signage there is nothing to indicate the historical significance of the building.
Jerilderie’s information centre doubles as a lolly shop, appropriately dubbed Sticky Fingers. In a back room you can get information about the town and surrounding areas, while in the main entrance you can buy souvenirs and lollies. As well as getting maps and useful tips, I procured some sweet treats to enjoy. The souvenirs are the usual Kelly fare with Jerilderie slapped on where otherwise it would say “Glenrowan” or “Beechworth” or whatever town the things were to represent. It would be great to have something to purchase that reflected Jerilderie specifically, but sometimes you have to be satisfied with what you have on offer.
A little further out is the site of the old police complex, where once stood the barracks, stables and lock-up. All that remains is the stables, and what I took to be the adjoining lock-up cell, but the printed sheet that explained the building was long rotted by the elements so it wasn’t exactly easy to find the info. Road works were being undertaken at the site so we had to dodge earth moving vehicles as we headed up to the stables. There is something strangely poetic about the dilapidated state of the building, excepting the recently installed guttering. It was here that the Kelly Gang had their base of operations in the town after locking the police up in the cell. The original police station is long gone, now a big empty patch of dirt marks where the police station used to be.
As was becoming a recurring theme in our travels, we started our days in town at the bakery. The food is good, the prices reasonable and the service friendly. The mural of notable figures from the town’s history was certainly… unique. Now, at the risk of sounding perhaps a smidge insensitive, I am used to seeing wall murals that adhere to artistic conventions like balance in the layout and verisimilitude in the portraits. Evidently some degree of effort went into the portraits, but there’s something odd about seeing a depiction of Joe Byrne with what looks like an advanced case of Proteus syndrome. Fortunately around the corner is a nice little exhibit of items found on the site, including a shortened Martini Henry rifle that may have been dropped by one of the trooopers that went to the town from Victoria in search of the gang. Out the back there is also a big statue of Ned Kelly made from bread tins, which I quite liked. It gave me a few little flashbacks to my short-lived baker apprenticeship seeing all those tins.
After a short stay in Jerilderie, it was time to hit the road again. I made the executive decision to pass through Culcairn so that I could get a chance to see some key sites related to Dan Morgan. We stopped for brunch at the Culcairn Bakery and had some of the best, freshest food we had had the entire trip. Honestly, it was tempting to linger in town a bit longer, but we had places to be and things to see.
Just outside of town is the grave of John McLean, the stockman who has the dubious honour of being the first man murdered by Dan Morgan. After Morgan had drunkenly fired his pistol into a crowd of captives at Round Hill Station, a local squatter named John Heriot had been badly wounded when a bullet struck his leg. McLean had gotten Morgan’s permission to fetch a doctor, but Morgan’s accomplices convinced him that McLean was going for the police instead. When Morgan ordered McLean to stop and the man continued riding, Morgan shot him. He took McLean back to the station and stayed with him all night. McLean died soon after and even though the grave by the side of the road has a big sign next to it to tell the story, it is in fact a fake grave. The real grave is actually several hundred metres away by Round Hill Station.
Round Hill Station is another example of a bushranger site that has continued to thrive beyond its infamous past. Now billed as Round Hill Homestead, it is both a farm and a perfect place for functions such as weddings. As with Wantabadgery Station, I elected not to go wandering in uninvited, satisfied with knowing I had been to the spot, more or less, where Morgan went from just another highwayman to Morgan the Murderer.
The brief spell outside the car saw me swarmed with flies and seriously wishing I had one of those hats with the corks hanging off the brim. I happily shooed the last of them out of the car before we headed off towards Walla Walla.
Morgan’s Lookout was one of the few things on the list that I had positioned as a must. Located on the outskirts of Culcairn, northwest of Walla Walla, the lookout is essentially a collection of huge boulders where Dan Morgan is believed to have made a camp so he could monitor the movements of police and potential victims from afar. There is no admission fee and it opens from sunrise to sunset. By the time we arrived the heat was blistering and the moment we stood outside it hit like opening a preheated oven. It appeared that some effort had been made to create a set of signs detailing the history and ecology of the location. Walking through the huge boulders was incredible. You could easily imagine Morgan sleeping inside the overhangs or lurking between the rocks, ready to pounce. A steel staircase allowed access to the top of the largest boulder. On the way around we met another visitor that was taking photographs – the only other living soul at the spot at the time. The hike up the stairs was almost as breathtaking as the view from the top of the lookout; once up on the platform you realise just how far Morgan would have been able to see. For what seemed thousands of miles around, everything was dry, mostly flat and yellow. It was easy to see how an enterprising bushranger would find the viewpoint useful. Unfortunately the weather proved intolerable and we headed back to the car quicker than originally intended. Once inside our conveyance we spent five or more minutes trying to get the flies out before resuming the trip.
We returned over the border much earlier than originally planned due to a decision to power through to Beechworth. This decision may have proved to have been wise given that only an hour or so after passing back through Wodonga we heard news of fires breaking out in Albury. Once we were back in Victoria we were relieved to once again see hills and the colour green. The trip was slowed considerably by road works, but hopefully soon there will be nice new road surfaces for drivers in the area. When we finally made it to Beechworth we checked in at the George Kerferd Hotel. This lavish accommodation, especially in comparison to our previous lodgings, is situated within the grounds of the former lunatic asylum (somewhat appropriate, some may say, for someone such as I). That night we indulged in Chinese food from the Chinese Village Restaurant. Georgina probably wouldn’t have felt the trip was complete without having done so at least once.
One of the best things to do in Beechworth is to explore the darker side by going on a ghost tour of the old lunatic asylum. As an enthusiast of all things paranormal, this came highly recommended and did not disappoint. Our original plan to walk from the accommodation was vetoed by our disinclination to walk after our dinner. This proved a wise decision as the asylum grounds are deceptively huge. The winding road to where the tours operate was suitably eerie as night closed in and a light drizzle began. The Asylum Ghost Tours signs, with their ominous bloody handprints, led us to the Bijou Theatre from where the tour would begin. The theatre is decked out with a mix of historical medical paraphernalia and ghostly themed decorations of questionable taste, but you can buy merchandise from there either before or after the tour. I bought a copy of the book Palace of Broken Dreams, which is an interesting read and details the history of the site. Our guide Bronwen was excellent, leading us through the buildings and recounting the history, both earthly and otherworldly, clearly and without any forced theatricality. It should be noted that this is not one of those tacky tours where you’re led into darkened rooms where some git in a Halloween costume will jump out and scare people. No, this tour lets the history and the location do all the work. As for paranormal experiences, both Georgina and I experienced things on the tour. For myself, I saw what appeared to be a young boy with a shaved head trying to hide behind some cars parked outside of what was at one stage an arts room, as well as hearing the voice of an older male in an empty room as we entered the complex where the nursery was housed. Throughout the tour, our guide was gracious in answering questions. My inclination during such tours is always to dig deeper where possible and Bronwen demonstrated that she was intimately acquainted with the place and the entities therein, as much as the history side of things, which was very impressive. Ultimately I would rate this tour extremely highly and recommend it for anyone with an interest in the paranormal or even just in the history of medicine in Australia.
One of the important things we had to do while in the region was visit the El Dorado Museum for a meeting. Georgina’s work on An Outlaw’s Journal has led to a very close relationship with the museum as they are in the process of updating their collections and displays. As small local museums go, El Dorado is a beauty. Their collection ranges through all sorts of history from the colonial era to militaria and even geology. Our work with the museum at present is super secret, but Georgina took the opportunity to give the museum a beta copy of the book she has been working on about the El Dorado cow that Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt stole. As usual, it was a fruitful meeting and an absolute pleasure to meet the committee with whom we look forward to working with in future.
As in previous visits, we went to the Beechworth Courthouse, where many infamous faces had their day in court. Recently restoration works were performed in parts of the building and the historical books in the library were treated to prevent any creepy crawlies from making a meal out of them. The courtroom is basically unchanged from the era that saw members of the Kelly gang and their families on trial there and there are some very interesting exhibits. The staff are friendly and happy to have a chat about the building and its history, and even though I’ve heard the spiel a half dozen times it never gets dull.
We also made a trip to theBurke Museum, where they are doing refurbishment to a portion of the interior where the Chinese collection is housed. The Chinese artifacts are one of the most important collections in the museum, owing to the cultural significance both to the Beechworth community and the Chinese in equal measure, many of whom travel to Beechworth specifically to connect with their heritage. In light of this, I purchased a set of postcards with illustrations depicting frontier life for the Chinese featuring artwork by Andrew Swift. We were privileged enough to get a look through some of the historical photographs in their archives in search of sites connected to Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go back and get copies as intended. The team at the museum are friendly, enthusiastic and very helpful if you are looking for assistance in your research.
We also went to the Ned Kelly Vault, one of Beechworth’s best attractions. The small building houses the best singular collection of Kelly related relics in the world, spanning the whole story and it’s cultural influences. As a big enthusiast of film, it is always a hoot to see armour worn by Mick Jagger, John Jarratt and Heath Ledger on display, among the various other exciting items such as Ann Jones’ table, helmets and weapons used by Victoria Police, and a range of photos of people involved in the story, including an image purporting to show Ned and Dan Kelly prior to their outlawry (which can only be viewed in a specially constructed box). The volunteer-run museum has thousands of people going through its doors every year and hopefully things will continue to grow.
Another spot we visited in Beechworth was the remnants of the old hospital. Essentially, all that remains of the busy frontier hospital is the stonework from the front wall. As impressive as it is, there is something rather melancholy in the absence of the rest of the building, but that’s progress for you. Once upon a time, this would have been bustling with nurses and doctors going about their duties, attending to patients from the town and the goldfields. Now, it’s just a bunch of carved stone leading onto an empty lot.
The following day we started with a trip to the El Dorado Pottery, a favourite of mine. After making a few purchases, we headed through the Woolshed Valley. Although the speed limit along the trail is 100km p/h, the road is covered in fine dust and gravel – not exactly prime conditions in case of a need to stop suddenly at top speed. We briefly stopped at Reedy Creek so Georgina could dip her toes in the water. As we were leaving there were already locals coming down in their swimmers to cool off. It’s a beautiful spot to have a swim and no doubt Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt did as much back in the day. As we continued, we stopped at the site of the Sebastopol Flats, where Joe Byrne used to work and socialise with the Chinese. Georgina made a series of videos for her Facebook page covering aspects of the story related to the locations we were visiting, the last of which was The Devil’s Elbow, where Aaron Sherritt lived at the time of his murder. The trail is conveniently signposted throughout and you can read up on the history as you go. Unfortunately there is not a lot of structures left to see, so the signs do a fantastic job of explaining what things were there and their significance.
We then made our way back to Beechworth where we managed to get in on a tour through the Beechworth Gaol. Despite some factual inaccuracies on this occasion that only big nerds like myself would pick up on, the tour was lively and engaging. The gaol itself is in excellent condition, owing to the fact that it was only fifteen years ago that it was decommissioned. If you are in Beechworth, try and get on the tour, which operates twice daily. There are many links to not only the Kelly Gang (all of whom had served time there), but also more recent high-profile criminals such as Squizzy Taylor and Carl Williams. To drive home the Kelly connection, a set of dummies dressed in replica armour stands between the corridors of cells. For some reason Joe Byrne’s helmet had been swapped with a second Dan Kelly helmet, but not everyone is as pedantic enough to notice as I am. Hopefully there will be more attractions at the gaol soon to encourage visitors beyond the tour, but as in all things it requires money and time, which is often in short supply these days.
That night we returned to the Beechworth Gaol for an evening hunting for ghosts. The Beechworth Gaol is the location of the four hour long paranormal investigations hosted by Danni from Paranormal Prospectors. Entering the gaol with the lights off, after dark, was a confronting experience itself, but this was heightened by the fact that the electronic temperature gauge that had been set up in the aisle of the male cell block appeared to be floating when we entered, though it may have been an optical illusion caused by the dramatic change in lighting. Regardless of whether or not it was, this has to be hands down the single most paranormally active place I’ve ever been. We got EVPs, Georgina was poked in the back by a disembodied finger (with an EVP capturing a voice describing exactly that), the laser grid was manipulated to go brighter and duller, there were intelligent responses where whistling patterns were being repeated by a disembodied voice in various points in the prison, there were disembodied footsteps, and intelligent responses on the spirit box. One of the most incredible things was the table tipping, where the group lightly rested their fingertips on the edge of a small table and it began to tilt and spin. It spun so fast we were all running in a circle and it tipped so intensely it fell over several times, and yet nobody was gripping the table at all – I have no conventional explanation for it. Overall, it was absolutely exhilarating to experience and as a ghost buff I feel like I definitely got my money’s worth.
On the return trip we popped into the Beechworth Galleries, where we examined the bric-a-brac and marvelled at the welded sculptures. The statues, of which a considerable number depicted Ned Kelly in armour, are made by a South African artist and range from the whimsical to the absolutely astounding. Any garden or deck would be immediately improved by having one of these amazing artworks on display there – just don’t ask me how you’ll get a life-size elk made of steel home. A keen observer might recognise the artist’s work on display outside of the Billy Tea Rooms in Glenrowan.
We also made sure to visit Glenrowan. For me, this is where it all began in 1998 during a stop on the way to Beechworth for my grade six school camp. Of course, in some ways it was a very different place back then. For one, back then Bob Hempel was still fit enough to charge out of the animated theatre ringing a bell to attract visitors whenever a session was due to begin. Nowadays, he’s far more subdued but you still hear the crack of the “gunfire” echoing through the main strip to remind you of the attraction’s presence. Kate’s Cottage hasn’t really changed, though the pet birds are dead now and the re-created Kelly house is starting to sag like an under-baked cake, but they still play Lazy Harry on loop, and you can still get your Ned Kelly tea towels and ciggie lighters from there. The site of the siege has recently had the stolen wooden replica of the inn sign replaced with a metal one that is hopefully harder to pinch, though the metal sculpture approximating Ned’s armour at the capture site has already had the helmet stolen, having been there for only around a month.
We had our brunch at the Vintage Hall Cafe, which is both a cafe and a shop that sells a mix of souvenirs and second hand items. It was here in 1970 that the Mick Jagger film had it’s Victorian premiere, and some local brainboxes decided to set off explosives around the building in protest (surprisingly this act did not somehow stop the film from existing). I managed to pick up a copy of the Monty Wedd Ned Kelly comic strip in a hardcover book, which was something I had been wanting for a long time. Then Georgina and I did our usual trip to Kate’s Cottage to browse the books. If you’ve got a decent wad of cash on you, you can pick up some really great titles from the range of second-hand books. I was very tempted by a number of the titles but decided to save up. Then it was a quick sojourn at the Billy Tea Rooms, which provide a lovely spot to have a bite to eat. We walked to the site of the siege where we had a moment of contemplating. It probably would have been longer than a moment if it wasn’t so hot that we could feel our skin baking.
After this we made our way to Greta to visit the cemetery, but ended up going to Moyhu and buying a fake plant centrepiece because we couldn’t find anywhere nearby that we could get flowers from. The volunteers that have been working to maintain and upgrade the facilities in the cemetery have done exemplary work and it is a pity that more of the smaller country cemeteries don’t get as much TLC. The Kelly graves are not marked, though with some research you can find out where the plots are. While many people complain that the graves are unmarked, it is very unlikely that it would make much of a difference. The marker at the gate is a tasteful memorial to the whole family, unified in the afterlife. Of course, having visited three quarters of the gang, we had to visit Joe Byrne one more time as we returned via Benalla (I doubt Georgina would have forgiven me if we hadn’t). From that point it was just a straight ride into the sunset on our way home where I hoped the cat hadn’t baked to death in my heat-trap of a house. Fortunately my mum had been an angel, as always, and made sure that the cat was looked after in my absence. By the time we got home we were both exhausted and decided that it was time to order a pizza now that we were somewhere that it would actually get delivered to.
It was indeed a very eventful trip. To experience the places where these incredible stories unfolded is always wonderful and exciting. It was good to see so much of the history preserved, but at the same time the amount of attractions that were poorly maintained or not maintained at all was disappointing. Australia’s heritage may not be full of Roman hippodromes or Greek amphitheatres, but what we do have is valuable and it is disheartening to see so much being lost because people either can’t afford to restore and maintain, or just can’t be bothered. Ideally, a town like Jerilderie could be thriving with frequent visitors coming through to visit the Kelly sites, if it wasn’t for the fact that they are so small and off the beaten track. Towns like Beechworth, in comparison, embrace their history and perhaps it could even be said that they take it for granted along with their accessibility due to proximity to the highway. It’s sad to see, but the reality is that it’s getting harder and harder to keep these things up and running in Australia, and these attractions will exist only as long as the people owning them are physically able to be there. Some young entrepreneur with a bit of cash behind them could revolutionise the tourism industry in bushranger country, but it would require real passion for the history as much as a fat bank account. These sites are our history and our culture and deserve to be maintained and cared for. Perhaps in the not too distant future, they will get the attention they need. Only time will tell.
One of the men involved in the story of Captain Moonlite is Thomas Williams, the alias of Frank Johns. Johns was the son of a pious Ballarat family who had been employed as a confectioner before engaging in a career of lawlessness. It was during this time that he severely injured himself, his left hand being crushed by a roller. The plunge into lawlessness was a massive shock to Johns’ family and the community as he had always been known as a quiet and well behaved young man. While living as a bushranger, Frank Johns assumed the pseudonym of Thomas Williams, which was the name of a childhood friend of his from Sunday school. Naturally the father of the real Thomas Williams was shocked to read of his son’s apparent involvement in bushranging, however a little relief came when the truth emerged.
After his capture at McGlede’s farm, Johns was severely clubbed with a revolver causing multiple injuries to his head. At the end of proceedings, all defendants were found guilty in the murder of Constable Webb-Bowen and sentenced to death. The statement that follows was written by Johns in an effort to set the record straight as he saw it. When the sentence was put before the executive council, as per the usual process, Johns and Graham Bennett had their death sentences commuted to long prison terms due to their youth and clean records. Andrew Scott and Thomas Rogan were not spared their appointment with the hangman however.
Sadly, Johns may have avoided execution over the death of Webb-Bowen, but he was later hanged after killing a fellow inmate in prison. ~AP
THE BENNETT CASE.
The following letter was addressed on July 2 to Mr. A. Campbell, M.L.C, by the convict Johns when under sentence of death:
‘I write at a gallop, without any premeditation a plain unvarnished statement of the truth. We met Bennett about eight miles from Gundagai, at a traveller’s hut on a station. He was alone, and told us he was on the tramp looking for work. In the course of conversation the Kelly gang was mentioned. He said that rather than do as they had done, or act dishonestly for a living, he would starve. Scott asked him what he thought of Moonlight — that is, himself. He said he heard but very little of him, but that little was enough to convince him that Scott was a villain.
The next morning (we all camped at the hut that night), he decided to come with us, little knowing on what errand Scott was. In the course of the day Bennett happened to catch a sight of Scott’s revolver under his coat in a pouch. He asked him what it was for Scott told him a telescope. But Bennett seemed suspicious of us after this ; and I heard Scott remark to Nesbit that Bennett knew we were armed, and he thought it advisable to keep him with us. Shortly after this we came to the station (which we afterward stuck up), and being treated rather roughly by the superintendent, Scott determined, to be master for awhile. All this time Bennett knew nothing of us. We were five then, and Scott thought it advisable to get another man, so as to make six. No one then would then be alone, he said, but we could always be in twos when doing anything. Scott expressed his intention of asking Bennett to join us, and, if he refused, to compel him. He then turned to Bennett and showed him his revolvers, telling him that he was Moonlight, and intended to stick up the station. As near as I can remember he used these words then, ‘You must do one of two things, either join us of your own accord and we will all share alike, or you must join us by compulsion.’ What Bennett answered I cannot just recollect, but I know he seemed not to be capable of realising the situation.’ ****
When we went down to the Murrumbidgee River to wait for sight, or a favorable chance to attack the station he (Bennett) wandered once unnoticed for the moment — while we were engaged in getting rid of the superfluous contents of our swags — away from us a little down the river. Scott told me to go and bring him back at the point of the revolver, if he refused to come quietly. ****
He came back with me, evidently seeing it was useless attempting to escape from five persons with arms. He came to the station with us. Scott instructed each of us to keep an eye on him, in case of what he called treachery. ****
I am perfectly certain that he did not shoot Bowen, for the ball found in the wound was fired from a Colt’s revolver (so it was proved by an expert in court), and the only men who had such revolvers were Scott and Nesbit. I know it was reported that Bennett shot Bowen ; but I don’t believe it. There was a favorite Colt’s revolver of Scott’s which I noticed did not appear in any of the courts after the affair.
I thought at the time, and still think, that Scott probably shot the man and then then threw this revolver away into one of the paddocks about. ****
Had justice been given Bennett he would have been discharged. Let the poor fellow go now. ****
On a stormy November night, six rumpled figures try to shelter inside swags. The grey woollen blankets that trap the rapidly depleting warmth from the quivering bodies are hardly protected by the oilskin sheets that form a waterproof crust and are heavy with rain water. One figure alone remains upright as rain pelts down in sheets. The darkness obscures his features beneath the curled brim of a drab coloured felt hat. As clouds shift and briefly allow light in from the moon, the man’s pale blue eyes seem to blaze. There’s a wild look about them, as if something animalistic were emerging. His normally sensual lips are tightened into a lupine snarl. He feels an ache in his limbs, old war wounds excited by the cold night air. Through the darkness, he stares with simmering rage at a handsome whitewashed homestead below him. The last plumes of smoke drift from the chimneys as the lamps are extinguished and the occupants retire to their beds to sleep in warmth and comfort. The amber glow fading in the windows mocks the men on the hill. It taunts them by leaving domestic comforts in plain view but frustratingly out of reach. The man with the lupine snarl fingers something in the folds of his threadbare coat, something hard and cold. His spidery fingers curl around the grip of a revolver. The walnut grip is unusually warm and inviting. It wants him to hold it, to feel its heft in his palm. He turns his gaze to the heavens. There is no moonlight visible in the night sky but on the ground is a different matter…
The story of the Wantabadgery siege is one of the most remarkable in bushranging history. There are equal measures of farce and horror, pathos and bathos. We see the figure of Andrew Scott/Captain Moonlite flip-flop between violent desperado and whimsical larrikin. There is a vibe that is reminiscent of the capers of bushrangers like Ben Hall and Bluecap and it reaches a peak with a gun battle wherein, miraculously, there was no bloodshed. Sadly, the same could not be said for what happened at McGlede’s farm afterwards, but here we will examine what happened at Wantabadgery Station on 15 November through to 17 November, 1879.
It is easy to dismiss the story of Andrew George Scott as not really being that of a “bushranger” at all. After all, he and his band of followers robbed no mail coaches, they didn’t gallop through the mountains on thoroughbred stallions waving pistols, and there were certainly no killings attributed to them prior to the clash at McGlede’s. The popular perception of what constitutes a “bushranger” is only really applicable to a small portion of people who fall under the banner. As one looks back through the stories of bushranging, even going back to the very beginning with Black Caesar in 1788, the common themes through them all are the rejection of society and a retreat to the wilderness. The romance of the bushranger comes from the idea that rejecting the confines of civilisation brings freedom, but the reality is naturally a far cry from that ideal. In the case of the Moonliters, as they will be referred to for the sake of brevity, they rejected society because they had all become outcasts in some aspect. In essence, they rejected the society that had rejected them. They were not bushmen seeking to return to their roots in the wilderness, they were the disenfranchised and discarded who has been beaten down by what referred to itself as civilised. In essence, what happened at Wantabadgery is a lesson about what happens when you push people too far and they go over the edge.
That night as exhaustion trumped his rage, Andrew Scott fell into a fitful slumber. His mind became a swirling Hibernian fog, with the spectres of his past lurching out at him. The echoes of his father’s sermons that he sat through as a boy in Rathfriland rolled around him as he recognised the smell of gunsmoke and a shadowy mound before him coagulated and morphed into the brassy-skinned body of a Maori warrior, a pool of crimson seeping out from under his outstretched arm. He saw the monolithic form of a poppet head looming from a mine at Mount Egerton and felt the chill of a winter in his former cell in Pentridge. All the while there was presence behind him pushing him deeper and deeper into the mist. He turned and came face to face with himself!
Andrew Scott had the most incredible fall from grace, going from a well educated high society man to a penniless tramp hawking the clothes off his back for enough money to buy bread. It all fell apart after he provided a suspicious alibi for the son of a Bacchus Marsh squatter who was up on stock theft charges. The following scandal resulted in the church sending him to fulfil his duties as lay reader in Mount Egerton. It was then that he became embroiled in the robbery of a bank. The evidence that supposedly linked him to the crime was flimsy and Scott would always protest his innocence. However, it was after moving to Sydney when an unpredictable chain of events saw him going to Fiji and agreeing to establish an agricultural company on an island there, before returning to Sydney and living the life of a debauched libertine off the money he was meant to be using on tools and supplies. His penchant for alcohol and pleasures of the flesh was out of control and he soon found himself in gaol over valueless cheques. He would spend the next decade of his life bouncing around prisons where he met James Nesbitt, which would be the trigger for him to sort his life out. When he was released in 1879 he decided to use his oratory prowess and his experience being at the mercy of the police and prisons to benefit others in the same predicament. His lecture tour on prison reform ground to a halt as police interfered and caused multiple performances to be shut down, which caused quite a stir among the press and public alike. Police would haul Scott and Nesbitt in on any crimes they could and this harassment saw Scott elect to leave the colony in the hope that he could find honest work north of the border, seeing as all he found in Victoria were closed doors. It seems to be indicative of the commonality of the disenfranchisement that he managed to gather a group of four to accompany him over the border.
James Nesbitt had met Scott in Pentridge while doing time for his involvement in a mugging and would soon become his partner in all things. It was left ambiguous as to whether their relationship had a romantic element, but there were enough hints in witness accounts and Scott’s own words and actions to indicate that there was indeed more to the pair than simply a platonic connection. Nesbitt was vital to keeping Scott going. Whether it was emotional support or taking care of Scott’s medical needs, Nesbitt was an attentive and devoted partner and Scott reciprocated in his own fashion.
Accompanying Scott and Nesbitt were Frank Johns alias Thomas Williams, a former confectioner with a crippled left hand who had joined Scott on his lecture tour as an assistant; and Gus Wernicke, a fifteen year old grocer’s assistant whose father had recently remarried to his aunt, with whom he had such an awful relationship that he ran away from home. As they travelled, they added Geelong native Thomas Rogan (alias Baker, alias Brown) to the mix. Rogan was a cobbler who had done two sentences for horse stealing and larceny served in Beechworth, Pentridge, Williamstown and Sandridge, but seemed keen to chuck his lot in with the gang and joined them near Sandhurst. It wasn’t until nearing the end of the journey that they adopted the impish Graham Bennett, who had been tramping the Riverina looking for work. The quintet had crossed paths with Bennett while he was residing in an abandoned hut on the edge of a farm. It didn’t take much pressuring to convince him to join them. However, by that time the group were starving, unkempt, broke and horrendously low on provisions. Their smart city clothes had been sold to get money for supplies and the men resembled animated scarecrows. Bennett began to grow edgy when he saw a pistol tucked under Scott’s coat in a pouch. Scott tried to convince him it was a telescope. The journey was gruelling and morale was at a low ebb when they reached the fabled Wantabadgery Station, desperate for a helping hand. Scott had been informed that here they could get work or at least food and shelter for the night.
Sunshine tickled the leaves around the boys as they arose from what slumber they had managed to snatch out of sheer exhaustion. Scott was already awake and standing to attention, the rage of the previous night still charging through his veins. Bennettapproached Scott with a miserable expression.
“I hope you won’t be offended, sir, but after last night I think I’ll be better off on the tramp alone as before.” Scott responded by brushing open his coat and showing the boy his revolver.
“I’m Captain Moonlite,” Bennett’s eyes widened and he stumbled slightly as Scott brandished the weapon. “You must do one of two things, either join us of your own accord and we will all share alike, or you must join us by compulsion.“
In the early 1860s, Dan Morgan had gained the nickname “the traveller’s friend”. His notoriety had struck fear into the hearts of the owners and superintendents of farms throughout the Riverina, which meant that they were all too afraid to refuse to help any scruffy looking swaggie that asked for assistance or work. If they refused, they risked raising the ire of Morgan, who was known to burn buildings on the farms of those he felt needed a comeuppance. However, Morgan had been killed in 1865 so his reputation no longer held any sway. Swaggies were frequently turned away or employed for little more reward than table scraps for dinner and the least mouldy hay in the barn as a bed. Sadly, desperation led many men, forced into itinerary habits by economic depression, to settle for whatever they could get. Unfortunately for the Moonliters, they had the additional headache of police dogging their movements and riding ahead of them into towns and farms to tell people not to employ them. In 1879, it didn’t matter if you had done your time in prison and paid your debt to society; the convict stain would determine the rest of your life and follow you everywhere, and it spread to all those who associated with you. For Scott, not only was he struggling, but he was responsible for the five young men who had followed him on foot from Fitzroy to Wantabadgery. It was his silver tongue, after all, that had lured them there. Hopes were high on Saturday, 15 November, but when they had been made to wait outside the homestead at Wantabadgery Station for two hours only to have the door slammed in their faces by Baynes, the superintendent, something inside Scott snapped. No work, no food, not even permission to sleep in the cowshed to stay out of the rain had been offered – the things he was promised were no more than words. For a former preacher, it must have been soul destroying to experience the milk of human kindness as little more than a fairytale. This made Scott a very dangerous man indeed. If there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s never make an enemy of a man with a gun and nothing to lose. That night as the boys slept on the hill overlooking the station, drenched by the rains, Scott plotted his revenge.
And therefore,–since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,–
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
– Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1
The young men spread out, each one armed with whatever firearm they could muster from the collection they had brought with them. Scott, now embracing the persona of Captain Moonlite, was armed with his Colt revolver and a Bowie knife. He tugged his beaten felt hat so that the brim shrouded his face in shadow. He stood up onto the verandah of Wantabadgery station, his crippled left foot making a scuffing, bumping sound as it dragged behind him along the boards. He balled his fist and thumped on the door. There was the sound of movement inside and the door opened slowly to reveal the station owner’s wife peering back from behind the door. The presentation of an octagonal bluesteel muzzle to her face immediately telegraphed CaptainMoonlite’sintentions.
When the gang descended upon Wantabadgery Station at 9:30am on 16 November, all had code names and weapons. Scott, obviously, used Captain Moonlite to distinguish himself but Nesbitt, Williams, Wernicke, Rogan and Bennett were identified through the numbers 2-6 respectively. It is interesting to see how Scott embraced the persona of Captain Moonlite when he bailed up Wantabadgery Station. He was cooly methodical in how he directed his boys, and gave them numbers instead of referring to them by name in an effort to shield them from recognition. Accepting that he was now officially the villain, he stopped inhibiting himself and allowed his rage and whims to dictate his actions. The others seemed to feed off the energy and became quite animated and almost unruly from time to time; Wernicke in particular, which was marked difference from only a few days earlier when he had attempted to leave the gang to find his own way back to Melbourne out of frustration. The exception was Nesbitt who was almost timid and appeared to be the only person that could keep Moonlite grounded. This would be vital to ensuring that things did not escalate too wildly during the gang’s occupation of the homestead.
Over the course of the day more captives were added to the collection. An infamous and unpleasant incident was when Moonlite took a shine to a mare belonging to the McDonalds. As he attempted to mount the skittish horse it became wild with fright and Moonlite shot it dead, claiming it was too dangerous. It was a massive overreaction and an indication of how far Scott would allow the Moonlite persona to take over if unchecked. Among the workers captured by the gang was a Chinese man named Ah Goon, whose watch Scott stole. Scott was vehemently opposed to the Chinese workers being brought in on farms and taking jobs away from white men simply because they were willing to work for obscenely low wages. The practice was not only exploitative on the part of the farm managers, but in Scott’s opinion it was calculated by the Chinese to disempower the white labour market.
When Percy Baynes finally made an appearance it triggered Moonlite’s rage and almost made him lose control. The way Baynes had mistreated the group the day before was singularly responsible for the wrath being brought down upon the station and Moonlite threatened to murder and disembowel Baynes, but relented when Mrs. McDonald intervened. Baynes was unrepentant and continued to antagonise Moonlite throughout the day and even attempted to turn the gang against him. Such behaviour was ill-advised in the least and horrendously culpable at worst when dealing with armed bushrangers, and had it not been for the gang keeping Moonlite from carrying out his threats it is likely there would have been bloodshed and more than likely a grisly end for the curmudgeonly Baynes.
The gang took advantage of their unique position of power and helped themselves to new clothes to replace the rags they were in, as well as taking any weapons and ammunition they could find. They ate heartily, with Moonlite killing two fowl to cook and feed both his gang and their captives, except for Baynes. The relative success of their operation left them in good spirits. Throughout the day they took it in turns to sleep and guard. It seems remarkable that apart from Baynes there was no real attempts to attack the gang or escape to raise help.
The prisoners sat around the parlour, weary and subdued. The children fidgeted and grumbled as Bennett thumped tunes out on the piano and Moonlite sang with gusto. For the bushrangers it was a celebration of conquest, but for the captives it was demeaning. When all had settled, Moonlite finally acknowledged the strain the young ones were under and permitted them to be put to bed. He may be a vicious cutthroat but there was no need to make things uncomfortable for the children, he reasoned.
The way that the stick up of Wantabadgery station played out was a farce in the tradition of Johnny Gilbert and Ben Hall. Scott always had a flair for drama yet had been able to wrangle his compulsions effectively, but Captain Moonlite was his id let loose. At no point was this more apparent than his spur of the moment decision to go to The Australian Arms hotel. It was here that his thought process seems to have been quite difficult to follow. When confronted with the unattended pub, he helped himself to booze and the rifle behind the counter, but then went looking around the building where he found the children of the proprietors asleep and decided to take them with him. A modern mentality immediately assumes that he had very nefarious intentions in taking the children, yet Moonlite left a note for the parents and seemed simply to want to take the children to where there would be adults to look after them. It was a bizarre thing for him to do. Moonlite lacked the conscience of superego to define his choices, and somehow also appeared to be lacking in the judgement and mitigation of his ego. He was operating based on pure impulse and it seemed like he was enjoying it far too much.
At 8pm word finally reached the police in Wagga Wagga that something was amiss in Wantabadgery. Despite the urgency of the situation, it wasn’t until 4am that a party consisting of Constables Rowe, Hedley, Johns and Williamson went to investigate. According to Rowe, they had been informed that 20-30 people were being held hostage by a gang of seven armed criminals. Given that the police murders in the Wombat Ranges was a fresh memory – only 13 months previous – it is little wonder that such a small police party should delay in getting involved.
The rumble of hooves tumbles through the darkness – tuttle-tut, tuttle-tut, tuttle-tut, tuttle-tut. As the riders come closer, the outlines of their uniforms become apparent; white belts and breeches catch the glow of the waning moon. The arrivals outside alert the dog, who bolts to the garden and begins to bark furiously. Now is the time for action and the bushrangers all gear up like mechanical toys, ready for battle. Nesbitt takes up a shotgun, the others arm themselves with pistols. Moonlite’s heart races as he prepares his Snider Enfield rifle. He flips open the receiver and feeds a cartridge inside. He takes a deep breath as he shoulders the rifle, memories come flooding back of preparing for battle against the Maori; the ache of the wait, the infernal calmness of the world around. The police arrive and hitch their horses to a fence. Constable Hedley sees a figure lurking in the shadows and calls on him to stand in the name of the queen, but he may as well be shouting at the wind. Scott’s finger tightens on the trigger. There’s a crack and a kick as he reelsoff a warning shot. The tangy smell of gun smoke fills his nostrils. The ball skims between Constables Rowe and Williamson. Moonlite watches the policescurry for cover. A smirk tickles the corner of his mouth. He tugs his pocket Colt out of its holster and steps into the light. The police return fire, hands trembling with anxiety and adrenaline. The barking of the dog is drowned by the barking of rifles as the rest of Moonlite’s men join the conflict. Moonlite strides out into the crossfire, caring naught for his own safety.
The account of what unfolds after the arrival of the police varies in many aspects depending on who tells the story. However, it is reasonable to suggest the following as an accurate summary. After Scott’s initial shot, the police sought cover and returned fire. A volley from the rest of the bushrangers served to let them know they were outnumbered. There was further exchange of gunfire and the police became overwhelmed. During the chaos a fire was lit in the barn then quickly snuffed out. The police hid in a forest of thistles then their horses were stolen by the gang. Very likely, at least one gang member rode a horse towards the police from a flanking position, prompting the constables to evacuate through swampland nearby on foot, pushing through water four feet deep. The bushrangers continued to fire after them, the shots hitting the trees. There were no deaths and no injuries, excepting the constables’ pride.
The police were demoralised but determined to regroup and make another attempt on the bushrangers once they had back-up. They headed to James Beveridge’s farm at Tenandra Park where they would acquire horses and before teaming up with police from Gundagai at 11am.
Though the battle that unfolded at Wantabadgery station is a deadly serious event, the lack of bloodshed allows us to appreciate the absurdity of the situation. Four police rode from Wagga Wagga expecting to be met with a few of rowdy swagmen or shearers, and ended up in a heated exchange of gunfire with half a dozen desperadoes and were hopelessly outclassed. Despite all their training, the police were no match for the untrained bandits.
While the police licked their wounds at Beveridge’s farm, the bushrangers were elated at their first victory. It was a victory that would be very short lived. As the sun rose over the Riverina, the Moonliters only had several hours of liberty left. By the end of the day two would be dead, the rest captured alive.
“I tried to leave the colonies but could not, and was persecuted with the surveillance of the police. The bread being taken from my mouth, and every prospect of honest livelihood gone, I came up the country and tried again to seek for work. As long as our money lasted we bought bread, and when our money was gone we sold our clothes and bought bread with what we obtained for them. We tried to get work but could not, and we fasted day after day. We have been without food for forty-eight hours. We went to Wantabadgery and walked up to the station. We were told the overseers and owners were out, but a servant came, and said that if we came in the morning we could see about work. The night was dark and rain was commencing, and we were told we could not see the superintendent then, but he afterwards came out and told us to go about our business, and we were insulted. We were refused admittance into a hut, and that night we slept on the hills, with nothing to eat and nothing to drink but the water that was falling around us. All our clothes were wet, and we hungry. Next day there was no work to be had, and we had nothing to do. Afterwards — and I admit it was foolish — we went and stuck up Wantabadgery. The police came down, and they fired on us and we fired on them. I will not say who fired first, but during the time I saw that the act that had been done would produce bloodshed and I courted death, hoping that a stray shot might end my life and that the prisoners, my friends, might give themselves up to the Crown. After the fight we left Wantabadgery station and took the police horses with us. Some of the police of this colony have behaved as brave men, but one or two have not.“
What follows is a report on theinquest conducted into the deaths of the bushrangers James Nesbitt and Gus Wernicke along with a brief account of the condition of Constable Webb-Bowen following his wounding at McGlede’s farm. While some details, especially in the latter report, are incorrect, it must be remembered that many of the articles of the time were published as the news was still unfolding, resulting in errors due to the sluggish rate of verification compared to what is possible now.
Both bushrangers were shot during the gunfight the day after the Moonlite Gang had successfully fought off the police from Wagga Wagga at Wantabadgery Station. The particulars of the gunfights are addressed in the evidence presented by witnesses. The deaths of the pair affected Andrew Scott (Captain Moonlite) deeply, especially as Nesbitt, who he had befriended in Pentridge prison, was most likelyhis lover. In fact, in the 1990s Scott’s body was disinterred to be relocated to Gundagai in keeping with his last request to be buried with Nesbitt.
Constable Edwin Mostyn Webb-Bowen died from his wound shortly after this article was first published. For his conspicuous bravery in the line of duty he was posthumously promoted to Senior Constable. He is buried in Gundagai next to Sergeant Edmund Parry, who was murdered by Johnny Gilbert. ~ AP
INQUEST ON THE BODIES.
The inquest on the remains of the bushrangers shot in the late encounter was commenced this morning before C. W. Weekes and a jury of tvelve. The jury having viewed the bodies an adjournment was made until two o’clock, when the following evidence was adduced :—
Constable Rowe, stationed at Wagga, recognised the bodies as those of two men shot at McGlede’s farm on Monday last, near Wantabadgery ; he did not know who fired the shot. which killed them ; on Sunday last the Wagga police received information that the Wantabadgry station was stuck-up by seven armed men ; witness and three other constables started for the place and arrived at the station at five o’clock on Monday morning just at daybreak ; went to the back of the house, as the front was dangerous, and explored for an attack; left the horses tied to a fence about four hundred yards from the place and walked up; when about twenty yards from the house a dog barked ; at the same time a man came from the door into the garden with a double-barelled gun ; Constable Headley called on him to stand in the Queen’s name ; the man fired in the direction of Constable Williamson and witness and started to run back to the house ; Williamson, Headley, and John fired after him ; the man went inside and called to the others to fire ; witness and the other constables went back a little distance and waited some time ; they could see several armed men moving about the garden and outhouses ; there were six or seven men and they went to the stable and made a fire there ; they then crawled or walked off in different directions through the thistles ; as it was evidently their intention to surround them, the constables drew back to open ground, and the men opened fire which the police returned ; no shots however took effect on either side ; some of the men then got on horseback and tried to surround the police who retreated through water up to their middles, the bushrangers firing all the time ; the bushrangers then got the police horses which they took to the station ; witness and another constable went to a Mr. Beveridge’s, four miles from the station, to get fresh horses and wait for reinforcements which had been sent for by the man who gave the Wagga police information ; Constable Headley had gone up a hill and disappeared ; about eleven on Monday morning Sergeant Carroll and the Gundagai police arrived at Beveridge’s ; the eight police then started under the charge of Sergeant Carroll at six a.m., and at Wantabadgery were joined by Constable Headley, when they went to McGlede’s ; on the way they heard that the Wantabadgery Hotel was stuck-up ; at McGlede’s they saw a large number of men, who were bushrangers and people bailed up by them ; Sergeant Carroll and the others called on the desperadoes to surrender ; one of them said, “surrender be —, come on and fight ; the bushrangers opened fire, and the police took up positions and returned it ; there was sharp firing for twenty minutes ; the two men on whose bodies the inquest was being held were seen by witness after firing ceased ; they were dying, one in the kitchen and one inside the house ; another bushranger was shot through the arm and two were taken unhurt ; the sixth was missing, but was arrested on Tuesday morning under a bed in the house ; after the fight witness saw Constable Bowen lying in a paddock twenty-five yards from the house, shot in the neck ; the four prisoners arrested were brought to Gundagai on Tuesday morning, and two dead bodies at nine o’clock last night ; witness did not see the men fall, but whilst the firing was going on he saw the younger of the two lying on his back near Constable Bowen; I had previously seen both the men who died firing on the police, the older at Wantabadgery, the younger at McGlede’s ; one of the prisoners ran out of the house and surrendered to Constable Wiles and witness at the back of McGlede’s kitchen ; did not see the other surrender ; no shots were fired after the surrender.
Sergeant Cassin, stationed at Adelong, deposed that on Monday morning, being off duty at the Gundagai quarter-sessions, he heard of the Wantabadgery station being stuck up by seven bushrangers ; witness, accompanied by Sergeant Carroll and the Gundagai police, left town at half-past nine and arrived at Beveridge’s about twelve and met the Wagga police and proceeded as described by the previous witness; under Sergeant Carroll’s instructions the police advanced on McGlede’s on horseback, about twenty paces apart, all in uniform; the bushrangers opened fire on the police; witness and another constable moved towards the bushrangers, firing on the house and shouting until they startled the horses; when the horses were startled, witness dismounted and joined in the general attack ; the police, at witness’s suggestion, charged on the house, jumping over the fence witness called to the police, “come on, we’ll pepper them,” when witness was within a few yards of the house he saw one bushranger running away ; witness followed him; he fell on his back, as witness thought on purpose to get a good shot at him, so he struck him with his rifle on the arm to disable him, and left him lying on the ground; witness then turned to the house and saw another bushranger, who fired three shots at him ; that was the man who afterwards gave the name of Moonlight; witness snapped his rifle, but it would not go off, having injured it when he struck the man lying on the ground ; Moonlight then ran into the kitchen, followed by witness; two shots were fired from the kitchen through the window, and Sergeant Carroll, who was near the witness, was returning fire; witness pushed the kitchen door open and fired a shot, when Moonlight cried, “I surrender,” and ran out of the back door, followed by witness, who handcuffed him, and then turning round found that the firing had ceased and Constable Bowen was wounded ; recognised the bodies of the dead bushrangers as two of those fighting at McGlede’s; one of them was he whom witness had hit; the elder died about five in the afternoon, the younger about three ; witness saw no one absolutely fire except Scott alias Moonlight ; one bushranger was missing at the close of the fight; Sergeant Carroll went after him, placing witness in charge of the prisoner and arms.
Constable Gorman, stationed at Gundagai, corroborated the previous evidence as to the bushrangers opening fire on the police while in uniform. Witness had fired at the older of the two dead bushrangers (whom he identified as Nesbitt alias Lyons) through the kitchen-window, and shot him through the right temple. The rest of the bushrangers then called out, “surrender—we surrender.”
Joseph Brown, detective in the Victorian police force, identified the body of the eldest dead bushranger as that of James Lyons alias Nesbitt; though he believed Nesbitt to be his proper name, he had served a sentence of four and a half years in Pentridge as James Lyons, for assault and robbery, and was discharged about March this year; he was a mate of Scott alias Moonlight since his discharge, and had been under close surveillance; about two months ago, at the time of the Lancefield bank robbery, witness had a conversation with Lyons, who said he and Scott were about to leave the colony; witness believed the younger of the two men to be Augustus Wrenckie, son of a hotelkeeper in Swanston street, Melbourne.
Hannah McGlede recognized the dead bodies as those of two men who with four others called at her house on Monday morning and got some bread and milk ; they got on their horses when the police came in sight, and when the police came up the bushrangers got off their horses and went into the house ; witness wanted to run out of the kitchen, but Nesbitt prevented her, pointing his revolver at her; a bullet came through the window, passing so close to witness that she fancied she was shot, and fell into the fireplace ; the bullets then came flying into the kitchen, and Nesbitt begged of Scott to surrender; Scott said no, he would not, that he was not frightened of twenty of the b— traps ; Scott used to load in the kitchen, go out and fire, and return to load; on returning one time he said one of the traps was shot ; Nesbitt had been very frightened before this, running about and dodging at the bullets, but now he took courage and began to fire ; witness got an opportunity then and escaped from the house ; two of the bushrangers had called at her house five days before and asked for milk, and on getting it wanted to pay for it, but witness’s husband refused, and gave them good advice.
Robert McKillop, a duly qualified medical man, deposed as to the cause of death in each case, from numerous gunshot wounds ; Nesbitt had two bullets at the back of the brain, yet lived till five in the afternoon. The jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.
LATER PARTICULARS.— Dr. Roberts, of Sydney, visited the wounded man, Constable Bowen — who, by the way, is said to be a relative of the late Governor of Victoria — to-day. His opinion was given in evidence at the magisterial inquiry. He does not think it safe to look for, or operate for the extraction of the ball for some days, when he will return to do so. The bushrangers, when committed for trial, will be removed to Darlinghurst gaol. The Gundagai people are enthusiastic over the conduct of the local police. A public meeting will be held on the subject. The police court proceedings will probably last until Saturday. Moonlight was heavily ironed last night, but the irons were taken off him before the sitting of the court to-day, and had not been replaced when I saw him ; but as efforts at escape were expected a constant watch was kept outside his cell.
The following is by the special reporter of the Cootamundra Herald :—
Having spent Tuesday and a good part of Wednesday night in gathering information concerning the whole affair from the police, the McGledes, and others, I am able to give a very full account of the great fight at Wantabadgery. Can also write from a personal meeting and conversation with the members of the gang who survived the fight. Following are the details I gathered :— When the gang made their first surprise at Wantabadgery, twenty seven miles from Gundagai, they came on foot, carrying swags; and are said to have thus previously passed through the township evidently for the purpose of taking stock ; for they have not concealed the fact that it was their intention to attract the police out, capture them, and make a raid upon the banks. They however had formed rash estimates of our brave troopers. They remained at the station; and having gathered all the hands and made sure of them, went and stuck up Shaw’s public-house, a mile and a half distant; gathered all from there (except the hostess), taking them also to the station. Whilst away on this fatal errand, a shearer who happened to be passing the public-house, where he was intending to take up his quarters for the night, saw the woman crying, and got from her his first knowledge of the state of affairs. Having £40 in his own pockets, he made tracks at anything but a trot to Gundagai. He rode furiously into town, reaching there at 10.30 o’clock p.m. At once reported. By a happy coincidence, a fleet messenger carried the news to Wagga. From Wagga the police immediately started for the scene ; but those from Gundagai didn’t leave till ten a.m. Monday. Consequently, the former reached Wantabadgery before daylight on Monday. The gang were evidently expecting them, as on their dismounting and approaching the house, which was a substantial fortress, the whole gang, six in number, rushed out and opened fire upon the police. The gang succeeded in cutting them off from their horses and in driving them into a lagoon where they were up to their waists in water.
At this juncture one of the troopers showed the white feather, a luxuriant patch of thistles (despite the pricks) affording him an ignominious hiding-place. He was subsequently discovered at the station. The gang having secured the horses left the police, who found their way to Tenaudra Park, four miles off. Returning to the station the former took two station horses, four police horses, and a pack-horse, and started for Eurongilly, intimating that they expected four more police from Gundagai whom they would tie up, and cut the man to mincemeat who dared to betray them. On the way to Eurongilly they met Mr. John A. Beveridge with two men, armed, coming to assist the police. These were bailed up, Mr. Beveridge’s horse shot under him, and he was ordered to collect and burn the arms. These orders being carried out, they all started for a settler’s named McGlede. On the way they met with Trooper Wiles of Bethugra alone on the way to join the Gundagai force at the station. The leader thus coolly accosted him, “O, we’ve been looking for you. Bail up!” They disarmed him. Wiles undoubtedly acted properly under the circum stances in surrendering against such formidable odds ; for besides the gang themselves, they were flanked by about a dozen civilians previously pressed into service. They took Wiles, Beveridge, and party to McGlede’s. Here Moonlight (the leader) and his men held a court-martial on Beveridge as to whether they would shoot him, and they decided to carry out the sentence of death, Moonlight levelling his rifle at him said, “I give you three minutes to live.” But here poor old McGlede, whose hoary head seemed to command respect, went on his knees to Moonlight and prayed for Beveridge’s life. Moonlight lowered his rifle and drawing a large bowie-knife flourished it across his face, sayling, “I’ve a b—y good mind to cut off the tip of your nose and ears and make you chew them, you b—r.” Mr. Beveridge, in describing this little bit of playfulness, says he first felt very frightened, but afterwards felt as if he could let the determined wretch do as he chose, whose glaring countenance seemed to paralyse him.
Moonlight’s attention was here fortunately attracted by an alarm of the approach of troopers; and true enough the house was being approached by the Gundagai police, those from Wagga (who had received fresh supplies of horses from Mr. James Beveridge), and Sergeant Cassin of Adelong—nine in all. The gang turned out to meet them, one of them covering Constable Wiles and threatning to shoot him if he dared to move away. He was on horse back. Senior-sergeant Carroll (Gundagai), who had command of the whole force by seniority of rank, ordered his men to defile so as to present as scattered a front to the enemy as possible, and form a half-circle. In this style they advanced upon the house to a distance of two hundred and fifty yards. The gang secured their horses in a small paddock, except one which they hitched to the corner of the house. The officer commanding called out “surrender” when all the force took it up; but Moonlight savagely replied, “surrender be d—d come on and fight it out!” and fired the first shot at Constable Gorman, who was on the extreme left, then one at Carroll, and a third at Cassin in quick succession. The troopers then opened fire. At the very commencement of the conflict the prisoner Constable Wiles made a daring and successful attempt to join his comrades, risking his life. The man who, as stated above, had him covered, was obliged to turn and fire at the police, when Wiles made a clean bolt of it. “One, two, three,” went the shot-guns, and the bullets whizzed past his ears. Several shots were fired at him; but he fortunately escaped. He managed afterwards to get possession of a musket and revolver, and took up his position in the ranks.
The police were kept at bay for about half-an-hour during a continuous shower of bullets—four of the gang leading inside the house for Moonlight and one of the youngest of them, who appeared to be a capital marksman. The troopers made the best use of fences, stumps, and trees to protect themselves. Sergeant Carroll, becoming impatient, advanced to within one hundred yards under cover of a brush fence. They were attacking the front of the house at this time; and Moonlight and his comrades retreated into a detached kitchen. The sergeant made a rush for the house and managed to put a bullet under the front window into the building. The civilians now finding it becoming rather sultry in the house made their escape across the paddocks in the direction opposite to the police. The gang remained in the kitchen, keeping McGlede’s wife with them, flattering themselves that she would be the means of protection for them from the troopers’ bullets. They thought the police knew she was in the kitchen with them and that they would not fire in for fear of hitting her. The sergeant took up a position at the right corner of the house ; and here he had a marvellous escape.
Moonlight, observing Gorman approaching on the left in a wheat-paddock, boldly stepped outside to fire at him. Gorman was only fifty yards off. “Here’s a b—y trap,” said Moonlight, “coming through the wheat-paddock,” and, sighting him, fired. Gorman allowed him a second or two for aim and suddenly ducked, the ball passing over his head; and then replied by firing three shots, but missing his target. He made for a small stump, about a foot thick, very low, and put himself in a lying position behind it. Here he was fired at by Moonlight three times, each bullet going into the stump. Gorman fired again, ripping up the ground in front of Moonlight’s feet, which caused the latter to retreat to the back of the kitchen. It was during this interchange of courtesies that Carroll had his narrow escape. He was not observed by Moonlight, though only ten yards from him, hidden by the corner of the building ; he took aim at the daring captain, whose fall appeared certain. But the sergeant’s rifle snapped. He coolly tried the same cartridge a second time—but with the same result, when he drew his revolver. Too late however. The doomed bird had flown! Gorman made a rush for the house and fired a shot through the kitchen window.
Constable Williamson here took up the position vacated by Gorman, and the latter went inside the house. Constable Bowen, just as Williamson was leaving him, was at this time making for the kitchen when to the horror of his comrades he was shot by Moonlight. The ball entered the left side of his neck, making a decline towards the spinal cord; and exclaiming “my God, I’m shot!” the brave young hero fell. He had, in the heat of the contest, exposed himself too much to the fire of the enemy. He treated cover with contempt, but paid the penalty of his courage. The struggle now waxed so fierce that no one had time to look after the fallen man. But the fight was nearly at an end. Bowen and Constable Barry had been together at the former’s fall and Moonlight and another of the gang, a youngster, were outside the kitchen at the back, so that they were not seen by Carroll, Gorman, or Williamson. Moonlight’s mate here wanted him to cave in ; but he refused, and was about to fight again when the young man threw his arms round him to prevent him shooting. Whilst in this act Constable Barry fired and shot the young man in the side, and he dropped from his daring captain and afterwards died from the wound.
The captain was here driven back to the kitchen, where the whole party had a warm time of it from the front. Gorman, who was in the house, here got into one of the skillion rooms, and pulled the curtain off the window to enable him to see into the kitchen. One of the gang (whose name is given as Rogan) fired at him, the bullet whizzing past his elbow. Gorman placed his revolver in the broken pane, and, taking deadly aim, shot Rogan in the temple. He never spoke after being hit. Senior-sergeant Carroll then ran to the back of the kitchen on the right side ; Gorman and Williamson on the left; Cassin, Wiles, and Barry on the right. The gang, from the inside, then called out “we’ll surrender!” Carroll told them to come outside and throw up their arms. One ran out and rolled over. Cassin, thinking he was wanting to have a shot in a lying position, the better for his aim and self-protection, rushed forward and struck him with the rifle across the arms to disable him. Gorman rushed into the kitchen, revolver in hand, and secured a second man, knocking him down with his revolver. Moonlight made a rush as if to escape, when Cassin struck him on the shoulder with the butt of the rifle, knocked him down, and secured him. The fight—a most desperate one, that proved the gallantry of our brave troopers—was now virtually over, having lasted nearly an hour. It was then found that the sixth man was missing, and it was concluded that he got away with the civilians at the time they escaped from the house. After these men were secured, to the surprise of the police they found Mrs. McGlede crouched in the fireplace, her husband and children being concealed in a cellar. They also discovered that Mrs. McGlede had had a very narrow escape, a ball having passed close by her and perforated a funnel. Here also took place a most affecting scene. Moonlight was deeply moved at the sight of one of his comrades lying dead upon the floor. He tenderly raised the dead man’s head upon his knee, saying he had been the best friend he ever had. He caressed him, and bathed his own hands in his comrade’s blood. It was also found that one of the young members of the gang had received a ball through the muscle of his left arm; but it was only a flesh wound.
Directly the struggle was over attention was directed to Constable Bowen, the wounded police man. Dr. McKillop, who was in the vicinity, having been requested to be near by senior-sergeant Carroll, was sent for. When he came he found Bowen in a very critical state. After consultation over his state, a messenger was dispatched to Wagga for a second medical man, and he arrived during the night. At the request of poor Bowen himself, the Rev. Mr. Holt was brought from Gundagai. But though the ball was not extracted he seemed to keep himself up in good spirits and was able to go to sleep, everything possible being done to give him relief.
The prisoners were guarded in McGlede’s all that night, and brought to Gundagai on Tuesday afternoon. But before starting into town with their precious dead and living charges, the police made a happy discovery—one which had led to some comical surmises. From a hint dropped casually by Mrs. McGlede to the police that they should make a further search of the house and kitchen, “for fear that any of the marauders might be left behind,” they did make the search. They were handsomely rewarded. In one of the skillion rooms of the house they found the man who had escaped, whose flight had caused the senior-sergeant, with several other troopers and two volunteers (the latter having rendered assistance to the police during the battle) to set out on a wild-goose chase towards Junee. The escaper was found snugly sandwiched, to coin an appropriate word, between two mattresses on the bed, having two loaded revolvers with him. Some egg shells found also in this ludicrous nest have led to the jocular suspicions before referred to. Old people, you know, are very often superstitious ; and the only way in which the heads of the McGlede house hold could account for the remarkable circumstance about the shells was that Providence had directed the hen to go and lay there especially for the poor hungry and affrighted man—a repetition of the scriptural incident of Elijah and the ravens. But most people don’t believe in miracles in these modern times, and try to account for it differently. Your reporter doesn’t profess to be able to unravel the mystery.
The wife of Constable Bowen was away on a holiday trip to Sydney; and on receipt of the sad news of the fall of her husband received a fearful shock. She came up by the mail train on Wednesday morning, reaching Gundagai by coach from Cootamundra at noon. I met her on the way and was the bearer of a kindly message to her from her husband, whom I had seen that morning at daybreak. She was in a frightful state of anxiety. “He’s dead!” she screamed; but I hastened to assure her that he was alive and showing signs of recovering, and she burst into tears of joy. It was a most affecting scene and tried the nerves of your poor scribe. It was with difficulty she was held in the coach by Sergeant Parker, who did all he could with others to soothe her. Seeing she had a suspicion that I was not telling the sacred truth I briefly related my interview with him. He had requested me to tell her that he was anxious to see her ; that he felt he was safe, and was being kindly nursed. She warmly shook me by the hand on parting, and seemed relieved. Her husband is a tall and very handsome young man, of whom she might well feel proud. He appears to be about twenty-seven, is well educated, and of very gentlemanly address. When I saw him on Wednesday morning he had just awoke from a serene sleep—somewhat refreshed, but sobbing with pain. His arms were paralysed, and he said his pains were of a sharp shooting nature.
Towards morning a messenger had brought him the news that the gang were the Kellies, and he almost rose from his bed with delight. He said he had been longing for an encounter with this notorious band. He will, however, by this time have learned that this joy is yet to come if ever. If it ever does happen that the police have a conflict with the Kellies, if the brave young Bowen should be against them he will either fight a manly and glorious victory or die in the struggle.
Mr. Edward Horder writes in very complimentary terms of the courage and determination of the New South Wales police, as lately displayed in the speedy capture of the Wantabadgery bushrangers. His object in writing to us (Echo) is to suggest that some thing should be done to assist the family of Constable Bowen, and he concludes his letter, as follows:— “We all know that in times of ordinary sickness it is expensive to provide the necessary comforts, ,&c. I therefore enclose herewith my cheque for £5 towards that object. I trust a good sum will be collected and forwarded to Mrs. Bowen without delay. I do not for one moment doubt that all our men engaged in this encounter deserve the fullest and most liberal recognition it is in the power of the government to bestow.”
[Source: “INQUEST ON THE BODIES.” The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle (NSW : 1864 – 1881) 22 November 1879: 4.]
After his release from Pentridge Prison, Andrew George Scott struggled to get back on his feet. While he may have been determined to right the wrongs of his past, the police were seemingly determined to stifle those efforts. Scott was kept under constant police surveillance in the hope that at some point he would slip up. This harassment came to a head in several well publicised incidents.
On 9 July, 1879, it was claimed that three men attempted to instigate an escape from the Williamstown battery of 19 year-old William Johnson, alias Andrew Fogarty, who was doing a two year sentence for housebreaking. Scott, Nesbitt and Johnson had done time together in Pentridge, their sentences overlapping from 5 April to 11 April, 1878, whereupon Nesbitt was transferred to Williamstown where convicts were housed in the old military barracks at Fort Gellibrand and employed upgrading the batteries. After Nesbitt was transferred, Johnson and Scott remained in Pentridge together until Scott’s release on 18 March, 1879. It was alleged that one of the men broke open a window and tried to give Johnson two revolvers to help him escape. Ultimately, the men disappeared and no escape was ever undertaken, but police immediately assumed Scott’s guilt. The press, naturally, leaped upon the story as evidence that the notorious Captain Moonlite was preparing a gang.
At the time, Scott and Nesbitt were in town looking for a venue in which Scott could give a presentation of one of his lectures on the need for prison reform. The lecture series had been a source of both pride and humiliation for Scott as audiences had responded overwhelmingly positively, but as the performances grew in popularity the police began to crack down on them, causing several events to be cancelled. There remained a question over the motivation for such a heavy-handed response to the lectures – was it merely an effort to prevent slanderous lies from being given a platform or was it censorship to obscure the truth of the allegations?
Scott was keenly aware of something of a smear campaign being launched against him and he was being touted as the murderer of an actor named Francis Marion Bates, who was found dead and looted in Melbourne. A man supposedly fitting Scott’s description had been seen following Bates shortly before he disappeared. After an inquest was held, it would be established that Bates had not been murdered at all, but had died of congestive heart and lung failure. Unfortunately for Scott, the general public had already been led to believe it was an open and shut case with blood on Scott’s hands. All he could hope for was that the public’s notoriously short memory would see the claim forgotten once his name was cleared in the matter.
The Williamstown battery was not much of a gaol by any stretch, only holding 18 prisoners at the time (one of which acted as the cook) and was merely a wooden building with plastered interior walls. The barracks had never been intended to house convicts and its rather flimsy construction had not weathered the conditions on Hobson’s Bay well at all. At night there was no guard on duty, but there were three warders on staff: Henry Steele, the senior warden; Turner and Robert Durham. At 8pm Steele headed off to his home on Twyford Street, leaving Durham in charge. The gaol was separated into three parts: the warder’s room, where the staff slept; the prisoner’s dormitory; and the kitchen, where the cook resided. Durham did the final inspection at 10pm and saw nothing awry. When Turner returned on the last train from Melbourne, he arrived at the barracks at 12:30am and went straight to bed. Durham retired soon after. At 1:30am Durham and Turner heard a knocking at the warder’s room and prisoner’s dormitory. Durham got up to investigate and was informed by William Johnson that there was rain coming in through a window about three feet above ground level. Durham got onto Johnson’s bed and saw that the window appeared to have been jimmied open, but not enough to allow a person in or out, and the fastenings appeared to have been cut with a knife. It was at this point that Durham recalled that he had seen a group of four men or boys loitering around the railway station and battery reserve at 2pm the previous afternoon, which he later asserted had looked like they were up to no good. He would swear that he recognised Andrew Scott and James Nesbitt walking to the beach and out of view. The prisoners had, at that time, been working on the reserve and Durham would recall seeing Johnson leave his cart to go to where the two men had disappeared. Durham was on it like a fly on a fresh cowpat, but could not reach them before Johnson returned to work. Durham spoke to the two men and said they had no right to speak to the prisoners, to which the man he identified as Scott replied, “This is a public road, is it not?” Durham had reported the incident to Steele when he had returned at 6pm but until the apparent attempted break in he had put it out of his mind.
With things settling down at the barracks, Henry Steele learner of the incident and reported it to the Williamstown police. The suggestion that the notorious Captain Moonlite was involved prompted a speedy response and a warrant was quickly issued. At the time the offence was being reported, Scott and Nesbitt were on foot and travelling to Clunes via Buninyong. When they arrived in town on the 17th they turned themselves in. Two revolvers Scott had allegedly disposed of had been found and were kept by the police as evidence. At the same time police had been warned to make sure their weapons were in good working order and arrangements were being made to send Johnson back to Pentridge.
Scott and Nesbitt, safely in custody, were sent to Melbourne to await trial with a supposed associate named Frank Foster, alias Croker, and kept in the Swanston Street lock-up. Foster had been named during initial investigation and was arrested at Talbot the day after Scott and Nesbitt turned themselves in. Foster had been serving a six year sentence in Pentridge for housebreaking at the same time as the others, but had gained his freedom in 1878 after a petition from the people of Talbot had been lodged to the government. Foster, it appeared, had been wrongfully imprisoned for the preceding five years after being framed. Yet, as far as the police were concerned Foster was guilty, they just hadn’t found a crime to pin on him yet. Associating him with Scott meant they finally had an opportunity to put him away without any pesky interference from do-gooders setting him free.
When questioned after his arrest, Scott’s name was cleared in relation to the Bates case when the two key witnesses actually saw Scott in person and emphatically denied he was the man they had seen. Typically, this was a fact most of the press tried to gloss over, eager to foster the image of Scott as an arch-fiend. Scott requested that he be furnished with the evidence supposedly collated against him and his associates in the Williamstown incident, but Detective Mackay, who was in charge of the investigation, refused to do so. The trio were remanded to Williamstown on Wednesday, 23 July, and a hearing was set for the Friday. No doubt it was an anxious wait for the men.
On 25 July, Scott, Nesbitt and Foster appeared at Williamstown Police Court, charged with unlawfully conveying a pistol into the gaol at Williamstown battery. They were represented by Mr. Read, with Sub-Inspector Larner appearing for the prosecution. Henry Steele, Robert Durham, Edwin Robinson (son of the battery-keeper), and a prisoner named William Baker appeared to give evidence for the prosecution. Baker stated in his evidence that Scott, accompanied by Nesbitt and another man, had knocked on a window asking for Fogarty (Johnson’s alias) and was directed to the correct spot, whereupon he opened the window and gave Johnson a revolver. Johnson then allegedly refused to take it out of fear and Nesbitt spoke threateningly about the guards before they left. An interesting element of Baker’s testimony was that while all other witnesses claimed that it was raining that night, Baker claimed the weather was clear and dry.
Johnson also provided evidence. He confirmed that on the afternoon of the 9th he absconded work to speak to Scott and Nesbitt, but couldn’t confirm that they had any involvement with breaking open the window. More compelling was Johnson’s confession that his previous evidence to Detective Mackay was a string of lies that he was under pressure from his charges to swear, being constantly threatened while the investigation was occurring. He claimed that the fear of reprisals from the warders at the gaol was what motivated him to perjure himself, and it was a gang of larrikins that had jimmied his window open, and no revolver was ever passed through. As important as the evidence was, the bench determined that Johnson was an unreliable witness and he was removed from the box.
Further thickening the plot was the testimony of a fellow inmate named McIntosh, whose bed was closer to Johnson’s than Baker’s, in which he stated he could not verify who the men outside were and that the object passed through was a chisel, not a revolver. A pawnbroker named Ellis also testified that he had sold two revolvers to Scott, but they were larger than the ones produced as evidence. A lad named Patrick McMullen testified that Scott had asked for a form to give him permission to see Johnson, which had been presented when the encounter at the Battery Reserve occurred. Rev. Lewis, a clergyman from Blackwood, testified that Scott had given him a pair of revolvers, and a Blackwood Senior Constable named Young also testified that he had seen the defendants in the area on 13 July, corroborating the reverend’s evidence.
The hearing was over quickly with Mr. Read addressing the court by stating that as the object allegedly passed through the window could not be verified, and since the Williamstown Battery was not an official gaol in the legal sense, and there being no compelling evidence that an escape had actually been attempted, the complaint could not be sustained. The bench was inclined to agree and the defendants were acquitted. The result caused a response from onlookers that the men, and indeed the furious prosecution, could hardly have expected – applause. If ever there was a sign that the general public in Victoria were becoming disenfranchised with the police, surely this was it. Yet, however much the hoi polloi had their distrust of authority, it was incomparable to that of Scott, who had endured insult and injury at the hands of the police, and with two charges they had laid against him having fallen through he knew it was only going to get worse.
For months civil unrest had been brewing due to an economic depression that was hitting Victoria hard. Rallies in the cities were held and workers battled for their rights. Outside the cities, swagmen tramped the countryside looking for work, and now Andrew Scott – former engineer, soldier, and clergyman – found himself in that same sinking boat along with James Nesbitt, Thomas Williams and Gus Wernicke. No doubt it came as no big surprise that when a bank robbery was carried out in Lancefield, Scott and Nesbitt were blamed, despite being nowhere nearby.
At 10:10am on 15 August, two men entered a branch of the Commercial Bank of Australia at Lancefield. One presented a revolver and ordered Arthur Morrison, the accountant, to stay quiet or he would be shot claiming that the two robbers were members of the Kelly Gang and had locked up the police. Morrison was then bound with ropes and gagged with a piece of wood. With one robber keeping watch, the other took as many coins and notes as he could carry. When a customer named Charles Musty accidentally interrupted the robbery, he too was bailed up. Ironically, had the robbers ordered Musty to hand over his cash they would have gained an additional £200. While all this was happening, Zalmonah Wallace Carlisle, the manager, was blissfully unaware as he enjoyed the fresh air in the garden in his way to the post office. Within a few moments the damage was done and the robbers had fled with £866 9s 4d. The initial report to the police stated that the two offenders matched the description of the outlaws Ned Kelly and Steve Hart. In response to this Superintendents Hare and Sadleir, who were in charge of the hunt for the Kelly Gang, were sent out to Lancefield accompanied by Sub-Inspector O’Connor and his Queensland native police. It soon emerged that the crime had not been committed by the Kellys at all and there were only two other men that police suspected of the crime.
Once again, Andrew Scott and James Nesbitt were hauled in by the police. They were questioned about their whereabouts during the robbery. Scott and Nesbitt had no hesitation in stating they had been in Melbourne the whole time. Upon further investigation the alibi was solid and, much to the chagrin of the police, the pair were released.
This was the last straw for Scott. He decided that Victoria was only a place of misery for him and his companions and their fortunes lay north in New South Wales. He informed police that he intended to leave the colony in the hope that they would cease haranguing him. Taking all he could carry in a swag, Andrew George Scott, the man popularly known as Captain Moonlite, headed off in search of greener pastures accompanied by his partner James Nesbitt and their friends Frank Johns, alias Thomas Williams, and Augustus Wernicke. They would never return.
As for William Johnson, the young man at the centre of the Williamstown incident, immediately following the acquittal of Scott, Nesbitt and Foster he was transferred to Pentridge. He would remain in and out of prison until January of 1883.
Regarding the Lancefield bank robbery, it would later transpire that the robbery had been undertaken by two men named Cornelius Bray and Charles Lowe. Bray would claim he was desperately seeking work and fell in with Lowe who told him he could guarantee him employment. He then claimed he was forced to participate in the robbery on pain of death if he refused. Lowe responded that Bray was merely trying to paint him blacker than he was in order to gain sympathy. The pair were found guilty, Bray receiving five years hard labour and Lowe receiving eight years, the first to be carried out in irons.
“Numerous petty insults were given us by the police. I honestly felt I was unsafe in Victoria. I feared perjury and felt hunted down and maddened by injustice and slander. I left Melbourne with my friends, carrying my blankets, clothes and firearms. I felt rabid and would have resisted capture by the police. Though I knew I had committed no crime, bitter experience had taught me that innocence and safety from accusations were different things. My life and liberty had been endangered by perjury and … they would be endangered till I could secretly escape from those who seemed to hunger, if not for my blood, for my liberty and safety.”
Captain Moonlite is a name well known by bushranger enthusiasts, but his story is often overlooked. Yet, Moonlite’s tale is perhaps one of the most tragic in the pantheon of bushranging. It is a tale of a ragtag bunch of men and boys from social disadvantage being pushed so far into desperation by capricious and vindictive agents of the law and a lack of support from society or their families that they become violent criminals and pay the ultimate price for their fall from grace. For those of us who take an interest in social justice it becomes an intriguing look at what contributes to delinquency.
Andrew George Scott was a bundle of contradictions: well educated, brave and likeable with a well defined sense of justice and righteousness, he was also a hedonist who turned to conning people to fund his playboy lifestyle. Within a year he had gone from being a sober, much revered preacher to partying hard and getting himself arrested for buying a yacht with dud cheques. He was all too fond of liquor and seems to have had as much of an eye for the lads as the ladies. But it was his time in Pentridge that changed his perspective and seemingly his personality. After meeting Jim Nesbitt he suddenly had a reason to walk the straight and narrow. The promise of seeing Jim once he was out of gaol seems to have had an extremely positive impact on him. Once on the outside he felt compelled to share the horror of his experiences in prison in a bid to instigate prison reform. As he toured young men gravitated to him because they saw the rogue in him, but they also found acceptance. For tearaways like Gus Wernicke coming from abusive and neglectful backgrounds it must have been life changing to meet this man who told the most wonderful stories of his adventures and was genuinely interested in them for who they were rather than what he could get from them.
It seems that harassment and oppression were the keys to Scott’s mental breakdown. An inability to find gainful employment due to his convict past drove him to poverty and desperation. Surely the conduct of the Victoria police in 1879 must have been worthy of investigation if Scott’s claims that they not only followed him everywhere but actively turned potential employers against him are accurate. He and Nesbitt were ersatz fathers for Williams and Wernicke to some degree and so must have felt an intense pressure to provide for them if not for themselves. In this case, if Scott had been allowed to pursue honest employment without police making it impossible for him to find a willing employer it’s very likely that he would have lived rather a quiet life with Jim and the boys, at the very least for a time. Alas it was not to be.
When the boys turned bushrangers in order to go to New South Wales and find employment the police continued their tricks, riding ahead of the troupe as they ventured through the North East of Victoria on foot and warning station superintendents and shop owners about the band of criminals on their way. The inability to find work or even buy food resulted in the gang reputedly living off of damper and black tea, only getting meat in their diet by shooting koalas. These were not bushmen – these were street urchins from the city led by a disgraced man of the cloth. Tension must have been high and Scott would have been feeling it acutely. He wanted a better life and in pursuit of it had been pushed further and further away from it. The last straw came at Wantabadgery Station where not only were they forced to wait for two hours to see someone about work or accomodation, when they finally saw Percy Baynes, the manager, they had the door effectively slammed in their face, forcing them to sleep in the open on a hill during a storm. Scott’s pride was badly wounded and his desperation at critical mass, tipped to breaking point by the careless and callous behaviour of one man at the wrong time. Scott’s decision to bail up the station was impulsive and the personality of “Captain Moonlite” was dramatically different from Scott himself. The unkindness seems to have awakened Mr. Hyde and disabled Dr. Jekyll lending the Irishman a callous and almost murderous disposition.
Scott’s actions at Wantabadgery show him to be a man who had become unhinged. When he shot horses, threatened to lynch Baynes and kidnapped the children from the Australian Arms, it didn’t come from any kind of logic, it came from a heart bubbling over with rage and pain caused by the indignity he was living through, which in turn was thrust upon his companions simply for associating with him. When the gang eventually went to McGlede’s farm and fought the police in one last climactic gunfight “Moonlite” died and Andrew Scott began to resurface. In that one afternoon Scott had lost everything that gave his life meaning. His true love died in his arms, then Wernicke, who for all intents and purposes was as close to a son as he was ever likely to have, followed suit. One can only imagine what was going through Wernicke’s head when he was shot and left bawling on the ground alone in the middle of the gunfight, even being clubbed by a policeman as he lay dying before being rescued by Scott moments before expiring. Dying in Andrew Scott’s arms was likely the most affection Wernicke had received in many years. It cannot be stressed enough how important it was for Scott to have befriended this pug-nosed fifteen year old, scruffy and infested with lice and fleas due to neglect, living in his father’s illegal brothel without friends or prospects. The day he met Scott and company he finally had people who cared about him and somewhere to belong. Thinking he’d been abandoned as he lay dying would have been terrifying. That Scott swooped in under fire and cradled him until he died in his arms would have been as much of a relief for Wernicke as it was a burden for Scott, knowing he was responsible. It would have been impossible to process such tragedy. The one thing that gave him strength thereafter was the hope that he could protect the other three (Rogan and Bennett had joined the troupe on their travels). The tragedy is compounded with the fact that his efforts to make amends failed spectacularly. What does it say about Scott that he would even attempt to sway a judge and jury to sentence him to execution to protect the others? What does it say about justice in those days that he and Rogan should be hanged?
In the end the only member of the gang not put to death was Bennett, the only one who actually (supposedly) killed during the fight. With Wernicke and Nesbitt shot, Scott and Rogan hanged for Constable Bowen’s murder and Williams later hanged on unrelated offences while serving time for his involvement with the gang, it seems unfair on the boys, especially on Rogan who hid under a bed in terror and never fired a shot. These lives were brutally and prematurely snuffed out – a miserable end to miserable lives.
The story of Captain Moonlite is the tale of desperate people brought together by their disenfranchisement and eventually killed because they were pushed too far. As with many bushrangers we see basically people who are in their hearts good men and boys pushed to madness by a society that would not allow them to move on from their mistakes.
We had no intention of being bushrangers…. misery and hunger produced despair and in one wild hour we proved how much the wretched dare. It must be seen that Wantabadgery was the place where the voice of hunger drowned the voice of reason and we became criminals. – Andrew Scott
For years Andrew Scott had been at loggerheads with the authorities in Australia and had even toured the country lecturing on prison reform. Finally tiring of being dragged in on suspicion of every offence under the sun from robbery to assault simply because of his reputation after being convicted of the robbery of the bank at Mount Egerton, Scott decided to become Captain Moonlite once more and give the police cause to rue the way they’d bullied him. Taking his companions Jimmy Nesbitt, Tom Rogan, Graham Bennett, Gus Wernicke and Thomas Williams on the road, they decided to become bushrangers and make their way North.
Tired of being unable to procure work due to the police scaring employers off hiring him, Scott decided to head north where it was unlikely that he would be recognised. The boys decided to join him, even though Scott tried to discourage them. Taking only what they could carry on their backs the Moonliters, as they would be known, set off on foot for New South Wales. Unfortunately their plans to seek work en route were foiled by police that were following the group’s movements and overtaking them to warn townspeople about the imminent arrival of Captain Moonlite and his crew. Things began to get desperate as the boys were forced to get by on damper and tea. Occasionally they would be able to shoot themselves a couple of koalas to cook up or even the odd sheep that had wandered too close to a fence. Scott soon heard of a station near Gundagai called Wantabadgery that was run by a benevolent farmer who would always help out swagmen by providing either work or rations, so it was decided they would head for there. As they approached they discovered a young man in an abandoned hut named Graham Bennett who joined the troupe on their quest. Passing through the township of Clarendon they visited David Weir’s store and purchased flour. Weir took pity on the miserable half-starved boys and gave extra than what Scott had paid for – an act of kindness that Scott would make note of.
They arrived at Wantabadgery Station on 15 November, 1879, but were unaware that the station was under new management and when they were greeted at the gate by the new manager, Percy Baynes, after being made to wait for more than two hours they were unceremoniously told to leave without any assistance. This was the final straw for Scott who stewed as the group were forced to sleep on a hill overlooking the station during heavy rain. As the night went on he devised a plan – not a good plan, but a plan nonetheless – to stick up the station and make an example of the lack of charity that had been extended to he and his poor boys.
The next morning the group descended on the station once more with pistols drawn. Scott had given the boys code-names to conceal their identities. Nesbitt was Number Two, Williams was Number Three, Wernicke Number Four, Rogan Number Five and Bennett Number Six. The gang stuck up the homestead and held the employees of the station prisoner inside while Mrs. McDonald, the wife of the new owner, prepared food for the boys. As workers were brought in Scott noticed one of the workers was Chinese, a man named Ah Goon. Scott was indignant and believed this was proof of the insolence and greed of the station management as Chinese workers commanded lesser wages than their European equivalents and thus were hired by people looking to cut costs at the expense of their fellows. He stole a watch chain from the unfortunate man and considered it a fair trade for the job he was perceived to have stolen. The food was served and the gang ate all they could and as the day went on Scott tried to keep the atmosphere light.
When the station owners, Claude and Falconer McDonald, returned Scott took a liking to one of their horses. When he attempted to mount the horse it reared dangerously and Scott began to lose control so shot the unfortunate creature in the head. One of the visitors to the property that day was Weir, the shop keeper. As Scott recognised him, he made sure that he was treated kindly. There was a moment of terror when the station manager returned from a morning outing and Scott recognised him as the man that had refused his gang charity. He attacked the man with a horrendous verbal display and threatened to gut him or hang him. Baynes was not intimidated, and his insistence on spitefully riling up Captain Moonlite began to push the bushranger over the edge. Mrs. McDonald begged for Baynes to be spared and Moonlite relented for a time but Baynes had more guts than brains. Things flared up again when he called Nesbitt a “poof” and again when he tried to coerce Wernicke into mutiny. Moonlite’s fury rose to greater heights and it was incredibly difficult to calm him down.
The day wound on and as night settled in alcohol was passed around, making everyone merry. A turkey was cooked and served to all of the prisoners (though Baynes was pointedly excluded from this). At one point Andrew Scott took Claude McDonald with him in a buggy to a nearby pub called the Australian Arms Hotel. As the publican and his wife were absent, Scott decided to steal their rifle, raid the till, take some grog and the children who had been asleep upstairs. He left a note for the parents explaining that he had taken the little ones with him to the station. When the group returned to the station festivities were resumed. A piano was wheeled into the dining room and Graham Bennett, rather a fine tinkler of keys, played for the assemblage. Soon the women and children were sent to bed, then much later the men. Baynes was forced to sleep on the floor.
Meanwhile back at the Australian Arms, James Patterson and his wife, the parents of the abducted children, returned to find the pub ransacked and their children kidnapped. Mrs. Patterson was understandably inconsolable as her husband went to seek help. Word soon reached the police in Wagga Wagga and a party comprising of constables Howe, Williamson, Headley and Johns was sent out at 9:00pm.
It was 4:00am when the police finally arrived at Wantabadgery Station. There were no lights on inside, but there was movement. Captain Moonlite had been on sentry while his boys slept inside. He sent Falconer McDonald and Percy Baynes onto the roof of the house to give him a bird’s eye view of what was happening. The police tied their horses to the fence and proceeded towards the homestead but disturbed the farm dog who began to bark at them. Moonlite promptly opened fire with a double-barrelled shotgun. Nesbitt joined in and the police attempted to return fire, but found themselves outclassed. Moonlite threatened to burn the place to the ground if the police didn’t make themselves scarce, and Thomas Rogan started a fire in the barn. Shots continued to ring out as the police retreated through a swamp. Moonlite was furious at Rogan as he stamped out the fire that had been started without his direction. As the spoils of war the gang took the police horses, Wernicke attempting to mount one and having never ridden before almost went flying as the horse took off. The police meanwhile were forced to travel the two and a half miles to the home of James Beveridge, a local squatter.
Weary after the confrontation with the police, Moonlite instructed the gang to prepare to move on. They took their supplies and loaded up horses and proceeded to take the road. With Moonlite riding with Rogan, the only competent riders, at the front of the pack it must have been a comical sight to observe these supposedly bloodthirsty bushrangers struggling to stay in a saddle.
As the morning wound on word had reached Gundagai that there were bushrangers out in Wantabadgery and the Wagga Wagga party had been overwhelmed. Senior-Sergeant Carroll decided to act and took a party of police to sort the rogues out. Consisting of himself and Sergeant Cassin and Constables Webb-Bowen, Barry and Gorman, the troopers had a wealth of experience dealing with bushrangers and other hostiles – especially Constable Webb-Bowen whose reckless bravery was well noted. The Gundagai party rode out to James Beveridge’s house where they teamed up with the Wagga Wagga police and got a rundown of the events from the previous night. As a combined force the police rode out to Wantabadgery Station to take care of the bushrangers.
As the Moonliters ventured down the path from the homestead they came upon a team of farmhands led by none other than James Beveridge. The men had heard that there were bushrangers nearby and had decided to pitch in. The portly Beveridge was surprised by the flash Irishman with the wild eyes that pressed him about the groups movements.
“What are you about?” Moonlite asked “We’re looking for bushrangers,” replied Beveridge, to which Moonlite glibly responded “Well, you’ve found them.”
Moonlite then forced the men to dismount and line up along the roadside. As they did so he explained that they were now on trial for illegally carrying firearms with intent to kill. He selected two of the farmhands and two of his own men to act as jury and the “verdict” was not guilty. Irritated by the outcome, Moonlite decided to leave with one more bit of vindictiveness and ordered Beveridge to shoot his own horse. Beveridge begged Moonlite to reconsider but the bushranger could not be swayed and shot the horse himself, wounding it and leaving Beveridge with no option but to put it down.
As the Moonliters rode awkwardly along the road, herding their new prisoners, they were alerted to the sound of hoofs approaching and saw the troopers thundering towards them. The party had found the dead horse on the road and knew they were close and had ramped up their speed. The gang opened fire, the prisoners ran for cover and the police returned fire. The gang rode to the nearest building which happened to be a farmhouse owned by Edmund McGlede. As the police continued to pursue the gang, a posse of local militia had also arrived on the scene and took up positions on the ridge overlooking the action. The gang attempted to tie up their horses as they arrived at the hut and their prisoners sought refuge in the McGlede’s underground dairy.
Spreading out around the tiny homestead and barn, the police quickly engaged the desperadoes. With the gang taking cover behind the trees and saplings around the house, Wernicke reeled off a few shots before being shot in the wrist and abdomen, his tiny, malnourished, teenage body no match for police bullets. He hit the ground crying out for his captain. Meanwhile Nesbitt, Bennett and Williams were moving behind trees around to the kitchen of the McGlede’s house. Scott was beside the chimney and Gorman was undetected on the opposite side of the very same. Scott heard Wernicke crying out but the gunfire was too heavy and he too retreated to the kitchen.
Now fairly trapped, the gang hunkered down. Bennett nursed his arm, a bullet having sliced through the flesh just below the left shoulder, with Williams clasping his pistol but making no effort to fire. Rogan was nowhere to be seen, a fact that undoubtedly played on Scott’s mind. Scott thundered up and down the kitchen cursing the police when Nesbitt pulled him aside and the men locked eyes. Nesbitt appealed to Scott’s humanity and made him promise not to kill anyone. The half-crazed Irishman did as he was told. At that moment the sound of hooves outside caught Scott’s attention and he ran to the window and fired with a revolver. The shot hit the flank of Constable Barry’s horse and the trooper leaped out of the saddle as the horse fell. Scott moved away from the window, satisfied. As he turned he saw Bennett look out the window and take aim with his pistol and reel off a shot. Outside Constable Webb-Bowen had made the poor decision to reload in the open and Bennett’s bullet struck him in the neck. The bullet tore through muscles and sinews, driving into the constable’s spine and paralysing him instantly. Webb-Bowen fell yelping “Oh God! I’m shot!” before being dragged to relative safety by Gorman. Gorman was resolute and got as close to the building as he could.
Inside the kitchen Nesbitt took Scott’s Snider rifle and positioned himself at the far end of the room near the window. Just outside, officer Gorman was positioned just underneath that exact window. He flung open the shutter and wheeled around coming face to face with Nesbitt who put up his hand defensively. In a split second Gorman fired through the window, the bullet striking Nesbitt in the temple and driving through his skull and brain and out near the base of his neck. Nesbitt collapsed as Scott bounded across the room. Scott slumped to the floor and cradled Nesbitt in his arms, kissing him passionately and trying in vain to stop the bleeding by wrapping cloth around Nesbitt’s mangled skull. Nesbitt died slowly and silently in Scott’s arms. From this moment on Scott would put no value in his own life except to try and save the boys that had foolishly followed him into the mouth of doom. It was at this time that Scott heard, through the gaps in gunfire, the Wernicke was still alive and still crying for help. Scott tore himself away from Nesbitt’s corpse and ran outside. He could see Wernicke struggling with Sergeant Cassin who was trying to take the boy’s rifle away. Unable to pry the gun away he clubbed Wernicke in the head with his rifle to such a degree that the stock shattered. Scott growled as he approached and firing intensified. Somehow dodging bullets, Scott scooped Wernicke up and cradled him as he ran back into the kitchen. The wounded fifteen year old must have taken a slight comfort in the fact that his captain had not left him behind after all, but as Scott cradled him he died with a whimper. Wernicke left the world with nobody to care about his passing except the man who had thoughtlessly engineered the situation that killed him.
With Wernicke’s death the rest of the Moonliters gave up the fight. The police burst into the kitchen with no resistance. Williams was clubbed in the face as he was handcuffed and Bennett put up no resistance. With Bennett, Williams, and Scott accounted for the hunt was on for Thomas Rogan. It wasn’t until the next morning that Edmund McGlede would find Rogan armed with a pistol and knife cowering under the bed in the master bedroom. The bushrangers and the mortally wounded Constable Webb-Bowen were transported to Gundagai where the policeman was treated in a makeshift hospital and the bushrangers given a rushed committal hearing. Within a week Webb-Bowen died of his wounds. The premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, had sent the wounded constable a letter commending his bravery that reached him just before he died. Webb-Bowen’s widow wrote back to the premier thanking for the gesture, which had given the dying man much comfort as he lay dying.
The police at Wantabadgery were instant celebrities, with the papers singing their praises and a special meeting of the New South Wales police held in Sydney to celebrate the force finally clawing back credibility after the media drubbing they had received thanks to the Kelly gang’s visit to Jerilderie earlier that year.
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.