Bushranger Book Club, September 2021

It has been a while since a dedicated post reviewing media on A Guide to Australian Bushranging, but what better time than the present to look at some of the recent releases and currently available literature pertaining to this broad field of interest?

Tommy Bell – Bushranger Boy, books 1-3 by Jane Smith

It is often said these days that getting kids to read is one of the hardest things to do as a parent, especially with younger children. With the Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy series by Jane Smith, we have books about bushranging that are a perfect balance of fun and education for primary school aged readers. All too often books on the subject for this demographic are very dry and uninspiring, and at times wildly inaccurate or oversimplified, but not so with this imaginative series that uses a splash of magic to transport the reader to key parts of bushranger history. Tommy Bell’s magical cabbage-tree hat is just the trick to allow kids to have a relatable character to follow through the olden days.

Book one is Shoot-out at the Rock, and sees Tommy transported back in time for an encounter with Captain Thunderbolt. After Tommy Bell falls behind in his history lessons and steals a donut from a classmate, he is sent to stay with his grandparents near Uralla. Here he discovers the magical cabbage-tree hat inside Thunderbolt Rock that transports him back in time to when Captain Thunderbolt and Fred Britten had a chase and gunfight with the police there. The experience gives Tommy a bit of perspective on his own troublesome behaviour, and stokes a passion for history and bushrangers.

This book starts the series off strong, and sets up the character of Tommy Bell, as well as his family and his horse Combo, very effectively. Young readers will undoubtedly get a kick out of this exciting tale of highway robbery and a dramatic clash with police, and gain a history lesson and a moral lesson at the same time.

Following the narrative is a guide to the history that the story is based on, and a mock Q &A with Thunderbolt. The inclusion of the non-fiction section sets this up as an educational text as much as an entertainment for young readers, and these are features of the subsequent books as well.

Book two, The Horse Thief, sees Tommy becoming mixed up in the early exploits of Frank Christie, alias Gardiner. The Gardiner narrative is interspersed with Tommy travelling to and from a riding competition with his parents and his horse Combo. We are also introduced to Tommy’s new classmate named Francis, who seems to want to get Tommy mixed up in his mischief, setting up a point of comparison with Gardiner roping his friends into horse theft.

Whereas book one’s strength was in its simple story and fairly tame depiction of bushranging, thanks largely to Thunderbolt being a far more “family-friendly” outlaw, book two is a bit more ambiguous. Thematically, it still hovers around the morals of the bushrangers (or lack thereof), and how sometimes it isn’t so straightforward as seeing criminals as inherently evil or nasty, and everyone else as good and pleasant. Frank Gardiner is a scary horse thief who Tommy is clearly afraid of, but as villainous as he is the squatter, William Lockhart Morton, doesn’t seem any better, and even Tommy Bell finds it hard to justify the sorts of punishments that the criminals are subjected to. That the book doesn’t talk down to its readership and make everything clear-cut and black and white is one of the things that elevates it over the usual fare that children are given.

Book three is The Gold Escort Gang, and acts as a direct follow up to its predecessor by exploring the infamous Eugowra Rocks heist. It runs the story of Gardiner assembling his heist crew parallel to Tommy’s schoolmate Francis, from the previous installment, trying to rope him into stealing the rich kid’s bike with his “gang”. As with the prior books, the comparison between past and present is key to making the stories relatable, and therefore informative.

While most children’s books these days try to incorporate some form of gross out gag or toilet humour, these books are thankfully a little more high-brow, with the closest to this bring Tommy encountering Gardiner and Johnny Gilbert skinny dipping in a lake, then having to ride away naked when they couldn’t get dressed in time to evade the police who come up on them unexpectedly. This should hopefully endear the books a bit more to parents who struggle to find books for primary aged readers that aren’t about poo, bums, farts or other bodily fluids and functions.

In this tale, Tommy is right in the thick of the action during the robbery, and attention shifts away from Gardiner to Ben Hall, who is portrayed sympathetically. Again, the moral of the story is more nuanced than what you would normally find in a children’s book; Tommy uses his experience with Gardiner and Hall to reflect on his relationship with Francis in the present and comes to the conclusion that there is a compromise to be made between doing the right thing and being someone’s friend.

All three books feature bold, fun illustrations that are very stylised but suit the vibe of the text perfectly. The only criticism to be made on that front is that the costumes and such as illustrated tend to be based on American Westerns rather than the very distinct Australian style of the era. Nonetheless, it adds a little something to spice up the reading experience.

The first four Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books are available in a boxed set from Big Sky Publishing (book four, Outback Adventure, featuring Harry Readford, alias Captain Starlight), and form a really neat set to get kids interested in bushrangers. From an educational standpoint, as much as a parental one, it is very hard to go part these books. If you have kids, or know someone who does, then these cone highly recommended.

Books four to six will be reviewed in a future Book Club.

If you would like to purchase the Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books, you can find them online here.

In the Company of Madness by R.B.R. Verhagen

Few recent novels on the subject of Australia’s history focus on the light side, and In the Company of Madness is no exception. This is an intertwining narrative that takes the disparate strands of the lives of a bushranger, a priest and a soldier and braids them into a poetic, tragic and powerful human story about the foundations of Van Diemen’s Land and the human suffering that they were built on. What’s more, this is based on real people and events, and portrays them faithfully and in detail, which seems like more of a novelty than it should. Specifically, In the Company of Madness is about Alexander Pearce, Rev. Philip Connolly, Lt. John Cuthbertson and all their struggles in the fledgling southern colony.

Some bushranger enthusiasts will go into this book with at least a superficial knowledge of Pearce and his reputation as a cannibal; a fact that is handled artfully. They may also be familiar with the brutality of Macquarie Harbour, but Verhagen makes the suffering all the more savage by framing it through the lived experiences of convicts as well as through the tyranny of the overseers. The feeling of dread and hopelessness is palpable as one reads the artfully constructed prose. As for the murder and cannibalism, that is well handled as well, leaving most of the horror to the reader’s imagination, rather than revelling in the gruesome or gory.

The narratives chop and change throughout the book from chapter to chapter, while the whole is divided into three acts, a prologue and an epilogue. The text itself is rich and dense, and requires the reader to really take in what is being conveyed. This is not a book to be flicked through mindlessly while waiting at the airport, it demands the reader’s full attention.

Verhagen has evidently done diligent research in preparation for this book, and as a result his characters are not only authentic, but engaging. Enthusiasts of Tasmanian history will be pleased to see many important figures popping up such as Robert Knopwood and Lieutenant Governors Sorell and Arthur, as well as detailed descriptions of key environs such as Macquarie Harbour and Hobart Town. This interpretation of Van Diemen’s Land is alive and immersive, riddled with vice and full of people from all walks of life tumbled together in a barely functional penal colony.

It should come as no surprise that this is not a book for the faint-hearted as it contains a considerable amount of adult material. In the hands of a lesser writer this would come across as exploitative or merely titillation, but Verhagen uses the sordid side of the tales he is telling to highlight core truths about the human condition and the respective struggles faced by each core character. Pearce struggles against the brutal oppression and tyranny that he is subjected to, his humanity reduced to a crude approximation somewhere a little above a wild animal; Cuthbertson’s hubris and bigotry allows him to dehumanise those in his charge and torture them to death if only to scare the rest into compliance; Connolly struggles with his human urges and his devotion to Catholicism that requires their suppression. Readers should be aware that some of these moments are very confronting indeed and some may go so far as to find them distressing, so discretion is advised. For those who persevere with the book, it will be a rewarding and moving experience.

To supplement his book, Verhagen has curated a page of his website with maps, music and imagery to help round out the experience, which you can find here.

If you would like to procure a copy of In the Company of Madness, there is only very limited stock left, but can be purchased online here.

A special thanks to Jane Smith for providing copies of the Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books for this review.

Bushranging: A Female Perspective

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

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

Carol Baxter

Captain Thunderbolt & His Lady by Carol Baxter (2011)

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

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

Carol Baxter

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

Jane Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Smith

Judy Lawson

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

The Clarke Bushrangers: A Clash of Cultures by Judy Lawson

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

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

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

Judy Lawson, The Clarke Bushrangers: A Clash of Cultures

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

Georgina Stones

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

An Outlaw’s Journal by Georgina Stones

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

Michael Howe: Governor of the Ranges by Georgina Stones

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

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

Georgina Stones

“Not everything is black and white.”: Historian and author Jane Smith interviewed

The publishing world can be a harsh one, where even the most talented authors struggle to gain a foothold. One success story is Australian author, historian and librarian Jane Smith, who has carved out a niche for herself as a storyteller specialising in Australian history. Her series of children’s books about Australian bushrangers, with their colourful and cartoony covers, may be familiar to some readers. With the release of a new collection of her first four Tommy Bell books slated for release this month, Jane took the time to discuss her work with Aidan Phelan for A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

Thank you Jane for taking the time to have a chat. The first thing we perhaps should discuss is Tommy Bell, Bushranger Boy. How would you best describe the series to readers who are new to it?

‘Tommy Bell, Bushranger Boy’ is a historical fiction adventure series for children aged from about six to twelve. It features a contemporary boy who goes back in time to have adventures with real-life bushrangers. The books are light, easy reads, full of action, adventure and humour, with accurate historical background and facts thrown in.

What was your inspiration for devising the series?

I am fascinated by history and have always loved historical fiction. I wrote a nonfiction history series for children called ‘Australian Bushrangers’, which was published by Big Sky Publishing in 2014. It was actually the publisher who gave me the idea of a fictionalised version of the bushranger stories to follow on from this series. I thought it would be a great idea to feature a contemporary child who time-travels to the bushranging era, as it would allow children to see (through Tommy’s eyes) some of the great differences – and some of the similarities – between life in the nineteenth century and life today. As a school librarian, I was always looking for books that would get kids reading. I wanted to write books that would be engaging and full of action. The real-life bushranger stories just seemed to lend themselves to this format. 

You’ve clearly done the leg work to get the history right as much as you can, but we are essentially talking about true crime here. Was it hard to find a way to present it in a child-friendly way?

One thing I love about writing historical books is that the framework – the true history – is already there. And yes, I had already done the research for the nonfiction series, so the next step was working out how to weave in Tommy’s contemporary, fictional story. The true bushranger stories present real opportunities because they are so full of action. The challenge was in deciding how to present them and which stories to pick out. There were so many stories, and I wanted to write fairly short books, so I had to be selective in which episodes to include. I’m writing for young children, so I didn’t want to write too much that was bloodthirsty or would give them nightmares, and I didn’t want to glorify the bushrangers or their crimes. However, I saw this latter problem as an opportunity to explore moral dilemmas. For instance, Captain Thunderbolt was by all accounts a pretty personable fellow (if he wasn’t robbing you at gunpoint!). He could charm people. He wasn’t as violent as some of the other bushrangers, but he did commit some violent crimes. Human behaviour is complex, and I let Tommy see that. I have him being charmed by Captain Thunderbolt, while at the same time feeling troubled by his behaviour and wondering just how he should deal with it. I’ve written Tommy sometimes as a victim of a bushranger’s crime and sometimes as a witness. Sometimes he even gets caught up with the gang as an accomplice. At the same time, there are parallel problems going on in Tommy’s contemporary life. From book two onwards, for instance, he befriends Francis, a boy who frequently gets into trouble at school and often drags Tommy in with him. I hope that these comparisons will get children thinking about right and wrong, and noticing that not everything is black and white. So, to answer your question: yes, it was challenging!

Of all the bushrangers you have included in the series – people like Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall, Captain Moonlite, Mary Ann Bugg, and Harry Readford – which was the one that most captured your imagination?

That’s a hard question! One thing I learned through my research is that they were all so different – different backgrounds, different motivations, different crimes, different outcomes. I found Captain Thunderbolt (Fred Ward) pretty fascinating, largely because there are so many legends surrounding him that obscure the truth. He was probably the most likeable of them all. I feel saddest about Ben Hall, whose adulthood started off in such a promising way. He had a wife and child and a good reputation as a stockman and horseman, and he had a share in a property – but then he met Frank Gardiner, and his wife left him, and his life spiralled out of control. One thing led to another, and he came to a very sad end. 

You’ve also used the information you accumulated in the creation of the series to produce a series of non-fiction books about the bushrangers that cross paths with Tommy, also aimed at a younger audience, as well as teaching notes; clearly you have a passion for teaching children about this part of history. What is it about the bushrangers that you feel can teach children valuable lessons?

I really enjoy history; I enjoy learning about how things were in the past and marvelling at the differences and similarities compared with life today. I think that knowing something of history is really important if you want to be a well-rounded human who can make informed decisions. When I was at school, however, I found history lessons boring. It seemed to me that history just meant memorising names and dates – and yet it’s so much more than that! I really just love the idea of bringing the stories of the past to life. The bushranging stories in particular have a lot going for them in this regard. We can use them to show kids what life was like in the gold rush era in an entertaining way. Stories about hardship and poverty and crime and justice can also facilitate great discussions about right and wrong and everything in between. As a librarian, I also care very deeply about information literacy – in other words, having the skills to distinguish fact from fiction. There are so many myths about bushrangers, and they provide excellent materials to show children how to analyse information critically. We can even use them to teach kids about primary and secondary information sources – what they are, and whether they are reliable. The conflicting stories of the bushrangers provide great case studies!

Are there plans to continue expanding the series?

I have drafted some more books in the series, so yes, I’m hoping more of them will come out before too long.

Jane Smith [Source]

In addition to the Tommy Bell series you have Carly Mills, Pioneer Girl, in which a girl can use a magical shawl to travel back in time to meet iconic women such as Caroline Chisholm, Nellie Melba and Lilian Cooper. How has that been received?

The series is very new, but it’s been well received so far. The books have had some great reviews and I’ve had some lovely feedback from readers. 

It’s fantastic to see the stories of notable women in history given a spotlight too, and it looks like you’re branching out to include women such as Florence Nightingale and Amelia Earhart in the series. What plans have you got for the future of the series?

You’re right: the book on Florence Nightingale is due out any day now, and the one on Amelia Earhart will come out later this year (that was a fun one to write – so much action!). I’ve also been preparing books about Marie Curie and Miles Franklin. There may be more – we’ll see! The options are endless. 

Of course, children aren’t your only audience. You have two books for mature readers, Ship of Death: Tragedy of the Emigrant, and Captain Starlight: the Strange but True Story of a Bushranger, Impostor and Murderer. Do you sometimes worry that you might be overachieving just a tad with such a fantastic catalogue already to your name?

Haha, never! I’m always looking out for the next story. 

Ship of Death, your book about the Emigrant’s ill-fated voyage to Queensland from Plymouth in 1850, has received some great praise. Can you give a little insight into how that project came to be?

I was on a family holiday at Stradbroke Island, when we visited the beautiful Dunwich Cemetery. I noticed twenty-six little white unnamed crosses in two rows. At one end of them stood two graves with inscriptions explaining that they were the final resting places of two doctors who died from typhus at the Dunwich quarantine station while attending the sick from the 1850 voyage of the Emigrant. At the other end was a plaque that listed the names of those who had died at sea or in quarantine. There were 48 dead in all – two doctors, a cook, a sailor, and 44 passengers. The plaque gave names, place of origin and, where known, date of death. It got me thinking: these were real people. Adventurous people, no doubt, with loved ones and interesting lives. There was so much more to them than these statistics, but the statistics were all we had left of them. It got me wondering about the stories of those people. And the people who had been left to mourn them: what had become of them? I decided to find out their stories and bring it all to life: the people, the voyage, the quarantine and the aftermath. I wanted to pay tribute to the doctors and the captain and all those involved in the tragic incident.

On top of all of this research and writing, you also do talks about the myriad topics you have written about. How has that been given the disruption over the virus?

Sadly, there have been cancellations! I was engaged to appear at my first festival in 2020, but of course that never happened. I’m pleased to say that things have been picking up lately though. Two festivals this year, and a handful of other talks are coming up. It’s ironic to think that promotion for my book about an infectious disease and a period of quarantine has been limited by an infectious disease and quarantine!

If all that wasn’t enough, you also offer editing and proofreading services for authors. Clearly you have a passion for helping other authors get off the ground too.

Yes. I realised early on that it’s writing the second and subsequent drafts of my books that I really enjoy. I love the polishing stages. I don’t mind whether it’s my own book or other people’s books! Most of the authors I’ve edited have been new to the publishing industry and don’t realise how much there is to learn about it. I can remember being in that situation myself, so I’m happy to help guide others through it. 

This month sees the new Tommy Bell box set, which puts the first four books in the series together. Was there a particular motivation behind collecting the books in a box set now?

It was my publisher’s idea. I think that when there are lots of books in a series, sometimes it can be overwhelming for a school librarian; they wonder how many to get or whether it’s worth getting a few if they can’t get them all. Budgets are always tight. I think that if a school library doesn’t have any of them yet, this four-volume box set will make a great starter pack. As for the timing: I think it’s just that it’s a good time to remind people that they’re out there, while the Carly Mills books are in the spotlight. By the way, this year’s Book Week theme is ‘Old worlds, new worlds, other worlds’ – so my books will support the theme perfectly!

I should point out that your writing has been receiving awards and nominations too. Shoot-out at the Rock was a Children’s Book Council of Australia ‘notable’ book in 2016, The Runaway was shortlisted for the Speech Pathology Australia ‘Book of the Year’ in 2019, and your book Captain Thunderbolt was shortlisted for an Australian Book Industry Award in 2015. How does it feel to have your work acknowledged with such nominations and awards?

It’s really gratifying. Not many authors make a living out of writing, and even award-winning books are not particularly lucrative. So I suspect that few authors are motivated by financial gain. What we do like, though, is to know that our books are of good quality and are being enjoyed by their target audience. I’m really stoked about the recognition that my books have received so far.

Jane Smith, historian and author extraordinaire, it looks like there are many things to look forward to, and we shall watch this space with interest. Thank you very much for your time.

If you would like to learn more about Jane Smith and her books you can go to her website, https://www.janesmithauthor.com/books.html

For teaching notes pertaining to her books you can head to https://www.janesmithauthor.com/teaching-notes.html

And if you would like to check out the Tommy Bell boxed set, you can head to https://www.simonandschuster.com.au/books/Tommy-Bell-Bushranger-Boy-Slipcase-Books-1-4/Jane-Smith/Tommy-Bell-Bushranger-Boy/9781922488206

Bushranging Gazette #3

Saturday, 1 May 2021

The past month has been much quieter on the news front than in previous months, but there are still new things to report and a little bonus feature at the end.

New film about Sgt. Kennedy in development

Filmmaker Darren Hawkins of Lonely Hill Films is attempting to get a feature film about Sergeant Michael Kennedy off the ground. The project, titled Michael, is described as “a dramatic retelling of an often forgotten side of the iconic Ned Kelly saga, told from the perspective of one of the murdered police, his family, his community and the repercussions that still echo today.”

The story of the police killings at Stringybark Creek has been retold on film many times, beginning with 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, and most recently being the subject of 2019’s Stringybark. Where this film will differ from previous versions, according to Hawkins, is that it focuses on the Kennedys but is not designed to be a take-down of the Ned Kelly legend.

Hawkins explains, “It’s told from the perspective of one of the murdered police, his family, his community and the repercussions that still echo today. It’s core narrative is from one of the turning points in the Kelly saga from a side that is so often overlooked. We’re not about tearing apart the Kelly story or legacy, rather, about addressing an imbalance.”

The decision to make a film about Kennedy has been met with great enthusiasm from his descendants, especially Leo Kennedy who is the slain sergeant’s great grandson. Kennedy released a book, co-written with Mic Looby, in 2018 titled Black Snake, which tells the story of Michael Kennedy and his family, as well as attempts to tear down popular perceptions of Ned Kelly.

“Michael was an exemplary policeman; and an all round good man. Telling his story will set the record straight on many accounts,” says Kennedy, “We hope this movie – Michael – will play a huge part in achieving that.”

Hawkins is currently raising funds online to create a short feature that can be used as a proof of concept to help gather funds for an eventual full-length feature film. Donations can be made via the Australian Cultural Fund with all donations over $2 being tax-deductible. The campaign will run until May 31, 2021.

You can donate here.

Ned’s armour back on display

With the Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, the State Library of Victoria took the opportunity to do some renovations. One of their projects was to create a space for their most popular exhibit: the armour worn by Ned Kelly.

The armour is on display in a purpose-built cabinet that controls the climate and environmental conditions in order to preserve the contents. The cabinet, in turn, is on display in a designated space that is dedicated to the Kelly story.

Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed that a piece of the armour is missing – the left shoulder plate. This piece is owned by Museums Victoria, who had loaned the piece to the library for display with the armour. With the arrangement expiring, it would appear that either the piece has been reclaimed by the museum, who are in the midst of redesigning much of their interior and displays, or has been respectfully withdrawn from display by the library until another agreement is made.

Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy Box Set

This month a box set of Jane Smith’s first four Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books is slated for release.

The historical fiction books, aimed at audiences aged 6+ and illustrated by Pat Kan, focus around a time-travelling boy who crosses paths with some of history’s most renowned bushrangers such as Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner and Captain Thunderbolt, and have been published by Big Sky Publishing since 2016.

In the first box set are the books Shoot-out at the Rock, The Horse Thief, The Gold Escort Gang and Outback Adventure.

In addition to this popular set of chapter books, Jane Smith has also published multiple non-fiction books on bushrangers. For children she has published Captain Thunderbolt (shortlisted for an ABIA 2015), Captain Moonlite, Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner, and Captain Starlight. For older audiences she has also published Captain Starlight: the strange but true story of a bushranger, impostor and murderer.

Teaching notes for all of the children’s books can be downloaded freely from the author’s website: https://www.janesmithauthor.com/teaching-notes.html

You can find out more about the books here: https://www.janesmithauthor.com/books.html

Australian Bushranging Podcast

On the A Guide to Australian Bushranging YouTube channel there is now an ongoing podcast. Though it is only two instalments in, there is much fertile ground to be covered in upcoming episodes. You can listen to the first two podcasts below.

This Month’s Articles on A Guide to Australian Bushranging

– An interview with author of Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy, Jane Smith.

– An interview with Darren Hawkins and Leo Kennedy about the in-development film Michael.


Canaries and Magpies

Convict uniforms at Port Arthur

At the beginning of the British occupation of Australia, convicts wore the same clothes they were transported in. It wasn’t until the early part of the nineteenth century that there were calls for a standard issue of clothing for convicts, along with other penal reforms.
The first convict uniforms consisted of a linen shirt, white duck trousers, stockings, a blue kersey wool jacket and a woollen cap. As time went on, however, uniforms changed and were generally used to distinguish between classes of convict.

Throughout New South Wales the majority of convicts were dressed in “slops” — uniforms cut to a single, standard size and made of white duck, which was stamped with broad arrows. These uniforms did not weather well, and had to be replaced frequently. Many transportees were made to wear their slops through the duration of the transportation process and into their sentence once they reached Australia. Ticket-of-leave men were allowed to wear civilian clothing, and eventually convicts that were educated but still had much of their sentence to endure wore grey woollen uniforms.

Van Diemen’s Land was given its own classes of convict uniforms. From 1833 onwards, as soon as convicts arrived in Van Diemen’s Land they were given their “punishment suit”. For the regular convicts was the “canary” — a woollen uniform with side-buttoning trousers (to allow removal while wearing leg irons) that was dyed bright yellow. The colour allowed the convicts to be easily spotted in the bush or amongst crowds. They wire a grey woollen cap in the winter months and the rest of the time wore leather caps with large side flaps that could be tied up, and when let down formed a brim to keep the sun off.

In 1814, Government Macquarie devised the “magpie” uniform, which had the same design as the canary, but instead of being completely yellow it comprised juxtaposed black and white panels that were inspired by a harlequin costume. These punishment suits later became available in black and yellow and yellow and grey. In Van Diemen’s Land these were worn by the worst offenders and recidivists. They not only made the wearer even more noticeable, but acted to humiliate the wearer.

In order to stop the illegal trade in repurposed uniforms, the government stamped broad arrows onto every part of the uniform. Often, convicts would salvage the good parts of the fabric, recondition it and trade it. Very often, as a further punishment, convicts were made to wear their uniforms until they had completely rotted away, shoes included. For this reason, very few original examples remain today.