Spotlight: A Bushranger’s Autobiography (part four)

Australasian (Melbourne), Saturday 22 February 1879, page 7


(Concluded.)

After this I again went up the country, and done several robberies on the other side of Goulburn, but the mounted police were soon in full chase of me, so I turned and went down until I got 100 miles, when I thought I would call and see Mr. Gray, who kept a large public house. I knew every room in this house, and where he kept his firearms.

One evening, just as it was getting dark, I tied my horse to a tree in the bush, and walked into the house. Mrs. Gray was behind the bar counter, and said, “Good evening, constable; have you heard any talk of Jacky Jacky, lately?”
“Yes, Mrs. Gray; I have heard of him up the country, and have been after him myself for the last month, but couldn’t meet with him. A glass of rum if you please, Mrs. Gray; if Mr. Gray is in I want to see him.”
“Go one of you,” said Mrs. Gray, “and tell Mr. Gray a constable wants him.”
When he came I wheeled round and gave the order “Bail up all; don’t move hand or foot or I’ll blow your brains out.”

When I had bailed them all up, I went straight to Mr. Gray’s bedroom and secured the arms, which made me master of the place. I also knew where the money was, and made Mrs. Gray pull out all the drawers in the chest. She pulled all out but one and it struck me she had her reasons for so doing, and I asked her why she didn’t open that drawer.

“There’s nothing in it, sir,” she said; but I requested her to open it, and about £70 in silver and £20 in notes explained why the drawer was left last.
“Now, Mrs. Gray, take that drawer down to the bar’, if you please, and empty what money there’s in the till into it.” This was done; and now I was master of all the cash as well as the arms in the house.

All the men I had bailed up stood in a passage a few yards in front of me. I now took up the drawer containing the money in my two hands, having first put the two guns I got in the bedroom under my arm; When I turned to go out of the front door, all the men rushed me, pinioned my arms behind my back. Then I saw what a mistake I had made in not making Mrs. Gray carry the drawer with the money outside; but it was too late. There were 12 or 14 men round me, as near as I can say, and although I had a tussle for it, I received a blow that knocked me down senseless, and when I came to myself, I found myself sectored in the taproom, with one end of a long chain round my neck, fastened with a padlock, and the other end made fast to a dray wheel laid in the middle of the room. There I remained all night like a monkey on a chain.

Next morning, I was placed in a cart with the chain made fast to the axletree, and in this conveyed to Berrima gaol. Shortly after I was removed, and conveyed to Sydney gaol in the year 1842. I was tried and convicted, and, with others, were transported for life to the penal settlement of Port Arthur, in Tasmania. Here I was associated with wretches of the foulest dye. It was their daily study to plunge one another into trouble.

I had not been long here when me and four others took the bush. After two days’ wandering our leader brought us back to the spot we started from. In three days more, we were all captured, tried before the commandant, and received 100 lashes apiece for absconding. I was also put in irons, and my daily work was to carry a log of wood l cwt. up and down the settlement road. This continued about nine weeks, when one day the commandant released me, and sent me to gang with the other men.

Shortly afterwards I absconded again, to obtain what I had long been deprived of — liberty. Along with three other men I took the bush, with the intention of making a canoe. After being out several days with nothing to eat, we became quite weak. One morning I smelt a great smell, like the smell of meat roasting. We were more like hounds put on a scent, and seeking the hare. At last, we got to the sea, and there on the beach we saw a huge whale, dead, I should say, several days. It had been harpooned at sea, and washed in by the tide. It was this dead whale we had smelled. We were now supplied with meat in plenty, and subsisted on the flesh of it for several days while making our canoe. When it was almost finished the constables came on us and called on us to submit; but this was out of the question, and we ran for it, hoping they would fire on us and we should be shot, as death was preferable to life at Port Arthur at that time. After a short pursuit my companions were taken, but managed to give the constables the slip for some days longer; but I was taken, and the whole party were tried before Captain Booth, and each received 100 lashes, with heavy irons, and to be chained to a ringbolt while we were stone-breaking, and in a small room by night.

I remained in this way for nearly 12 months, when Captain Booth released me, and once more sent me to ordinary hard labour with the other men. About four months afterwards I took the bush once more, with two men who knew it well.
We got to the place agreed on, and where I could see the main land at about two miles distance. We must get across to it, and had no boat. I was a very bad swimmer. and two miles was a long pull for a new beginner. But my two companions did not hesitate, but pulled off their trousers and plunged into the water, with me after them, with my trousers thrown over my neck, for I was determined to get over to the mainland or be drowned in the attempt. After swimming about a mile, one of my companions — and very soon after the other — was seized, and drawn down by the sharks. I was left alone to the mercy of the waves, expecting the same fate every minute. At last, after a desperate struggle, I got to the land, but had lost my trousers and shirt, and scrambled ashore quite naked. In this state I found myself alone in a bush that I did not know, and greatly grieved at the death of my two companions. I made a bed in the long grass and picked up some shellfish that kept me alive for three days. On the fourth day the constables saw me, and I was brought back to Port Arthur once more, where I was punished with 90 days’ solitary confinement and 12 months’ “E.H.L.C.” (extension with hard labour in chains).
After my 90 days’ solitary was done things took a change. Captain Booth left Port Arthur, and Mr. Champ came Commandant, who treated me with great kindness; he took off my leg irons and removed me from the chain gang and soon placed me as servant to Mr. Laidley, the commissariat officer at Port Arthur, and a better master I never had. I was with him three months when I was promoted into the commandant’s boat crew, and was going on well.

One day two gentlemen went out in their own boat to have a sail in the harbour, when they got capsized. The commandant’s crew launched his boat and rescued them. In reward for this I and others were removed from Port Arthur to Hobart Town, and sent to Glenorchy probation station, which was a great advance. I was here six months when I felt a longing desire to see Sydney again, and me and Thos. Grilling and Wm. Allom agreed to take the bush. Allom was to be leader, as he said he knew the country. We got away, and after a whole day and night, the next morning our leader brought us back close to the station. I then took the lead, and the first place we stuck up was Mr. T. Y. Lowe’s station to get arms. The next day was Sunday, and about dusk in the evening we stuck up Mr. White’s, in Kangaroo Bottom, where we got a double and single barrel gun and two brace of pistols, by which we could now stand fight with the constables. We also took three suits of clothes and other things we wanted.
The very next morning a party of constables came across us, and shots were exchanged, one of which tore the pouch off a constable’s belt, and it was a drawn battle. We now made for Brown’s River, hoping to seize a small craft there, but were disappointed. We then headed up for New Norfolk, and four miles above it we stuck up a farm-house, beginning with the huts and ending with the house, from which we took a supply of things needful. Allom now turned right round, and would soon have got us among the constables, when I took the lead, and made for the Dromedary, where Martin Cash once took up his refuge.
From the top of this hill, we could see for miles round the country. Among the rocks we made up a fire, and with melted snow made tea and had our supper, for we were hungry, and tired, and cold.

Next day Allom again took the lead. But I soon saw that he did not know the country, and I had some sharp words with him for deceiving us before we bolted by bragging of his acquaintance with it. We were very uncomfortable, a sign that misfortune was near. I took the lead through a thick scrub, but soon after I missed Gilling, for whom I had a sincere regard, and I called a halt for him to come up. After waiting a long time, I set to look for him, and cooeyed as loud as I dare; but I never saw him again. He sent me word afterwards, when he was lying under sentence in Launceston gaol, that he lost us by accident in taking a wrong turn, and was afraid to cooey.
Towards evening I and Allom made for the township or Green Ponds, and, after pitching on a place to camp in, Allom set out for the village to get some things we wanted. After waiting for him five or six hours I began to think he had fallen in with the constables, for he never came back. He was a resolute man, and had many good qualities; but he deceived me in saying he knew the bush of Tasmania. He told me afterwards, when I met him a prisoner in Norfolk Island, that he left me because he was afraid I would shoot him; but such a thing never entered my mind, and I always had a fear of shedding blood, though I often spoke rough to people I stuck up. When I found that Allom did not return, I was quite cast down. I was left to myself; ignorant of the country, hungry and tired, constables on the alert at all the townships, my comrades lost, and no hope of getting to the coast and escape.

I spent a very miserable night after Allom’s departure, and next day pushed on by myself to the Lovely Banks, where I was seen and challenged by a constable, who called on me to surrender. This roused me, and, levelling my gun at him, I ordered him to throw down his piece or I’d blow his head off. To my great astonishment he threw it down, at the first word. I bid him stand back, and then I took up his gun and fired it off, and rifled him of his ammunition. I was going to break his gun, but he begged hard of me to give it back to him, and did so and let him go. Yet this cowardly fellow afterwards swore in court that I fired five shots at him when I never fired at him at all.
I got some food at a house, and the second day after my encounter with the constable I reached Oatlands, but I was now too dejected to go any further. My lightness of heart, that never failed me before, now deserted me. At sundown I turned off the road some way and lighted a fire to have some refreshment, and then lay down to sleep very unhappy, and indifferent whether I ever woke again.
Next morning a stockman passing early through the bush saw me, and gave information to the constables at Oatlands police station, and I was soon surrounded by four of them well armed, captured, and sent down handcuffed to Hobart Town, where I was tried at the next assizes, and for the third time sentenced to transportation for life, and now with 10 years’ detention at Norfolk Island.

THE END


POSTSCRIPT.

The foregoing was, in fact, written by Westwood, on my suggestion. To a sanguine and nervous temperament like his, a Norfolk Island cell was as irksome as stable and halter to a zebra of the Zulu deserts. He could read pretty well ; but he soon wearied of it, and sought relief for his restlessness in an attempt to break out of “prison thrall.” But the strong stone walls and solid flooring of freestone blocks of the new octagon gaol might defy the industry of Trenck himself. There was, however, a vulnerable point. The ceiling of the cells was only wooden planks, two inches thick, and 13ft. from the ground. Westwood resolved that the ceiling should be cut through, though the gaol authorities supplied neither step ladder or saw. A step ladder was dispensed with by his standing on the shoulders of a fellow prisoner confined in the same cell; a saw was smuggled into his hands by a confederate employed about the gaol. This “saw” was an instrument once well renown at Tasmanian penal stations and at Norfolk Island. It was of steel, about three or four inches long, easily carried and concealed. With one of these, and elevated on his cell mate’s neck, he cut away cautiously and painfully for a fortnight at the wooden ceiling. The gaol was only one story high. If a hole were made in the ceiling the shingles of the roof could be removed by the hand, and egress secured. But to get clear off, he must creep along the roof to the boundary wall at the risk of being shot by the military sentry within the gaol; and if he jumped down he was almost sure to drop into the grasp of the patrol constable outside; and if he could evade these difficulties and get into the lemon groves, their densest thicket and deepest gully could afford him a hiding-place and freedom only for a day. Yet, for this one day’s exemption from convict “chains and slavery,” he would gladly saw his anxious road through the ceilings of all the cells in the gaol. A prisoner in a next cell overheard the sawing, and hinted to the gaoler that there was “something up” in Westwood’s cell. The result was that turnkeys came and surprised him when he had well nigh completed his opening in the ceiling, removed him to another, and placed him in heavier fetters. For some days he was in great perturbation at being detected, and to turn his thoughts into a calmer channel, I recommended him to ask for paper and write his life. The idea seemed to please him. I knew it would be slow and tedious employment for him. But he got the paper, commenced writing, and there was no more trouble with him. The end of his story is told in my introductory remarks. P.

EARLY TROUBLES OF THE COLONISTS by J. E. Calder (Pt. 6)

Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Tuesday 25 November 1873, page 2


TASMANIAN HISTORY.

EARLY TROUBLES OF THE COLONISTS,

Illustrated by a Sketch of the Career of Michael Howe, “The last and worst of the Bushrangers.”

Written by J. E. Calder.

[Continued.]

Without noticing in this place the destinies of his old companions in crime, who fell one by one into the hands of the military or others, I shall hasten on with Howe’s own history. It is a bloody one; but we could expect no other of such a man, now made doubly desperate by bitter disappointment.

That he still went on committing robberies (Sorell says chiefly of stockmen’s huts) is certain, for he soon contrived to possess himself of a musket, pistols, ammunition, and dogs again, which, now that he had broken with all his confederates, and quarrelled with his old mates, he could scarcely have got except by robbery.

Being now unaccompanied by any one, his solitary life in the woods must have been wearisome and wretched beyond expression; and to add to the miseries of his situation, he was now often chased for his life by the black natives, as was proved by a kind of journal he kept, that was found in his knapsack afterwards, which was taken from him in one of his hard conflicts with his white pursuers. His nights were even worse than his days, for it is recorded by himself that he never closed his eyes, but he dreamed he was pursued, one moment by the blacks and the next by the whites; and if it were possible that a man so degraded and lost to human sensations as this unhappy wretch could have felt as others feel, he might have exclaimed with Manfred,

“My slumbers – if I slumber – are not sleep,

But a continuance of enduring thought.”

and the reflection that all this unhappiness was self-inflicted, must have been, even to such a mind as his, in the last degree embittering.

About ten weeks after his flight from Hobart Town, his career of guilt and suffering was all but ended (10th of October, 1817), and but for his dog-like resolution, and determination never to be taken alive, nothing could have prevented him wearing the executioner’s cap in reality; but his time was not yet come.

Howe’s escape from Hobart Town was notified in the newspaper portion of the Gazette, just after it took place; but forty days elapsed before it was officially announced. There is no accounting for this delay now. But on the 6th of September, there appeared a Proclamation, offering a reward of one hundred guineas for his capture. The same proclamation included the names of two other great offenders, of whom one was George Watts, for whom eighty guineas each were offered.

This man Watts had been in the bush, but more as a robber of flocks than a bushranger, ever since 1807, but followed both callings indifferently. He must have been quite an extraordinary person, and an unusually shrewd one also. Having none of the coarse manners of an ordinary robber, his usual deportment, when not engaged in bushranging practices, was that of a man of the world, that is polished, affable, and quite the reverse of a low offensive fellow. Sorell describes him as having connections nearly everywhere, even in circles from which it might have been thought he would have been excluded – having the command of plenty of money, at a time when there was not much of that commodity in the colony, and possessed of such ascendency over his accomplices, as to have lived quite without fear of molestation from them. This influence, however, never reached the military portion of the community, who more than once gave the wealthy robber such a run for his life as he never had from any others; and the only time that this really sharp fellow was ever known to make a simpleton of himself, was in trying to make his old leader, Howe, a prisoner.

Watts began to think that it was time to give up his dangerous mode of life; and the Governor’s proclamation, though it included himself, seemed to present a fine opportunity for escaping military surveillance, and of removing from his own person the tempting reward offered for his own capture; and in an evil moment (under the persuasion of others more timid than himself) he resolved to “do the State some service,” by engaging in the dangerous adventure of bringing to justice a man who it was most unsafe to encounter at any time; and he set out for Howe’s retreat at New Norfolk, in good hope of bringing him to his last account.

Hunting about the place, and knowing many, he was soon on Howe’s track, and learned that he was in the habit of visiting the stock-hut of a settler named Williams, better known as “Coachy Williams,” which was on the Sorell Creek, about half-a-mile from its junction with the Derwent. The hut was in charge of a convict named William Drew, with the soubriquet of Slambo, by which he is best known in the early annals of the colony. Watts seems to have had no difficulty in involving this man in his plans for the capture of Howe.

I am informed by a young friend at New Norfolk, to whom I am indebted for some of the details of this narrative, that this Coachy Williams was one of those who planned the attack on Howe, though he took no part in it personally, and I derive some of the following account of an assault on Howe from him, who got it from a very old resident of that district, who saw the bushranger attacked, and his temporary capture by Watts and Slambo; and who also saw him marched off between them, after they had mustered and secured the solitary, but most determined robber, who ever disturbed the peace of Tasmania.

Slambo at parting from Watts, on the 9th of October, indicated the place where they should meet next day at early dawn, to proceed to Howe’s hiding place, namely, a point on some obscure path, that was well known to both, and they parted for the night, Watts going into Elizabeth Town, as New Norfolk was then called, with all the coolness of one who has nothing to fear.

But during the night he returned to the bush, and took up his sleeping quarters at the appointed spot, and lay there till daybreak. His friend Slambo was true to his time, and joined him very early, and led the way to a place called Long Bottom, where he expected Howe.

By the advice of Watts, Slambo left his gun behind him, so as not to awaken Howe’s suspicions, but the former took his own. Upon arriving at Long Bottom, Slambo called out two or three times, which Howe replied to from his concealment in or near to a creek. He then presented himself; but being a watchful man and suspicious from habit, and seeing also that Slambo had a companion with him, he would not approach, until Watts reassured him, by proposing that both should knock the priming out of their guns, which was agreed to and done, and the two outlaws met again. They then walked on a few yards together, when all stopped to light a fire and have breakfast. But this was only a ruse of Watts, and their apparent friendliness seems for once to have thrown the suspicious Howe off his guard; and he proceeded, but with some difficulty, to disengage himself of the knapsack he carried, the arm-slings of which were too tight for his great breadth of shoulder, whereupon his officiously obliging companions, most good-naturedly offered any assistance they could give to relieve him of his load, and when once behind for this purpose, both arms were secured, and he was thrown on the ground, before he knew what they were about with him. His hands were next tied in front by Slambo, and thus Howe for once was taken.

Having secured their prisoner, they next searched him for any weapons that he might have about him, but found only some ammunition and two knives, which they took from him. Slambo then returned to his master’s premises, which were some way off, carrying Howe’s gun along with him, and leaving the prisoner in charge of Watts. Whether any conversation passed between these latter has not been recorded; but doubtless the time that these two men, formerly associates, but now foes, passed by themselves, was not of a pleasurable nature to either.

When Slambo reached the homestead, he found his master much alarmed at his protracted absence, four hours. The former told Williams of the adventure of the morning, and of their intention of taking Howe to Hobart Town. Williams then offered his services to aid in removing the bushranger to gaol, but, luckily for him perhaps, they were declined, and he passed the rest of the day in the not very lively occupation of shearing sheep by himself.

Slambo then ran off, and in due course reached the scene of the capture of the vanquished bushranger, and they now went to breakfast in earnest, of which they invited the prisoner to partake, but he, being in no humour to accept any of their civilities, indignantly refused to eat with them.

They next took the road for Hobart Town, then a mere bush track, Watts being armed with his own gun, and his companion with the musket (as it is described) that they took from Howe, and which must have remained unprimed; and they jogged onwards for Hobart Town as fast as Howe chose to walk, Watts marching a little in advance of the prisoner, and the other guarding him behind, both of them doubtlessly speculating on the hero-like reception they would have on reaching town with their too well-known captive. But the adventures of the day were not half over yet; for Howe never gave up a game as lost, until it was lost beyond hope; and as he walked on sullenly between his captors, he was revolving in his mind his possible chances of escape, and of mastering both of them, which he had no doubt of being able to do, armed as they both were with guns and himself without, if his hands were only once more free.

The road from New Norfolk to Hobart Town was not the same at the time I am writing of as the present one. It was much shorter and more hilly, being directed over the inferior slopes of the Black Snake and Mount Fawkner ranges, instead of near the Derwent River, as it is now.

When they had got over about eight miles of their journey, and were pretty nearly abreast of, but not near to, Austin’s, and at a place then called Miller’s Brush, Slambo, who was still marching behind, saw with horror that the un-capturable Howe had somehow managed to disengage his hands from the cord that bound them, and stood between them ready for instant action. On seeing this, Slambo screamed out so loudly, that he might have been heard half a mile off. Watts started at the cry, and turned round to learn what was the matter just in time to see Howe dashing savagely at him at his best speed, and before he had time to level his piece for defence, Howe was upon him, and with the rapidity of thought, sent the broken blade of a pair of sheep sheers*, that he carried concealed in his coat-sleeve unknown to his captors, far into his stomach, and he fell with a piercing cry to die a lingering death. The gun he carried dropped from his hands of course, which Howe picked up in a moment, and said “he would settle Slambo’s business for him,” and turning on him with unerring aim, shot him dead on the spot, for he never spoke or moved a muscle afterwards; “The ball” says the surgeon, Dr. Hood, of the 46th Regt.,) who examined him after death “passing through the thorax by entering the back, a little below the right shoulder, and shattering the breast-bone in its passage,” so that Slambo must have turned round, probably to fly, when Howe shot him through-and-through.

Watts then enquired of Howe, if Slambo were dead? “Yes” shouted Howe, scowling on him with the look of a tiger, “and I’ll shoot you too as soon as I can load this piece.” But it took time to reload, as he had to get ammunition, which he probably did from the dead body of Slambo, and while this was going on, Watts knowing that Howe would keep his word, rose up with great difficulty and staggered on for about two hundred yards, and then lay down or fell into a thicket, exhausted through cold, pain, and loss of blood, and the furious freebooter failed to find him. But he knew he was done for; and time being just now more precious than abridging the brief remainder of Watts’ days, he sped from the spot – Heaven only knows where.

Watts rose again presently, and by great efforts succeeded in crawling to the cottage of a person named Burne, who, assisted by his wife, tended him till a cart could be obtained to convey him to town, which was not however till next day.

The body of Slambo was found soon afterwards, and was also brought to town, where an inquest was held on it on the 13th, and a verdict given that “William Drew was murdered by Michael Howe.” (Gazette, 17th October, 1817.)

Watts was soon afterwards sent up to Sydney, from which place he was an absconder, but not to be rewarded for his action against Howe, but to stand his trial for his own offences. Strangely enough it was reported to Sorell, that the mortal thrust of Howe had only wounded him slightly. But it was far otherwise, and he died three days after landing; and in this way ended for the present, the most terrible event in Howe’s life of guilt.

Colonel Sorell went nearly as mad as Davey, when the news of these desperate murders reached him. He wrote by the earliest opportunity to his chief in Sydney, reporting the deplorable calamity. He had before this entreated him to rescind the promise he had made in Howe’s favour, i.e., soon after his escape from gaol, saying he had “forfeited all claim to consideration; and will, if taken, afford a most proper example to this colony of Capital Punishment.” (Despatch, 13th Sept., 1817.) So he could do no more now than use his best efforts to bring him to justice as soon as possible, but notwithstanding this, the wary Howe eluded successful pursuit for another twelvemonth.

It is not quite easy to understand the reason of this sudden change of sentiment which took place several weeks before these murders were effected toward even such an offender as Howe was. If he were at all worthy of pardon for the past, as Sorell believed him to be, assuredly the circumstance of his absconding was not a sufficient reason for now considering him unfit for anything but capital punishment. But errors like other matters, seem to repeat themselves, or at least to multiply. It was certainly one to negotiate with Howe as he did for his surrender; it was undoubtedly another to promise such an offender pardon for the past; and this denunciation of him, before he had done any thing more to deserve death than running away, seems very like a third instance of hastiness, which is quite inconsistent with the general tenor of Sorell’s useful life.

With the view of securing Howe, Sorell fulminated a Proclamation, adding to the money reward for his capture, an offer of a free pardon and passage home, to any convict who should bring this great criminal to justice.

After the commission of these tragedies, Howe was more often heard of than seen, except at remote stock huts, and reports of his attacks on these exposed places, reached the authorities from many quarters of the Hamilton and New Norfolk districts, which he still continued to haunt, but he managed to keep out of danger, though the pursuit after him now by the military, and also by the wild native tribes, was hotter than ever.

Amongst others whose stockmen suffered by him at this time, were those of the late G. W. Evans, then Deputy Surveyor General of the colony, at whose establishment at Blinkworth’s Hunting Ground he suddenly presented himself, some time in June of 1818, from which he not only helped himself to as much provisions as he chose to carry off, but also made prize of two noble kangaroo dogs. It seems to have been believed at this time, that he was destitute of all means of defence, and the Gazette of the time speaking of this affair says, “What is astonishing, he had plenty of ammunition, and was well armed. His beard is of great length; and his appearance, connected with the idea of his horrid crimes, is altogether terrific” But this seems something like painting the devil blacker than he really was; for I am told that Howe was a passable looking man.

The rewards now offered for Howe, of money, freedom, and a passage to the dear old country of Englishmen, stimulated others besides the military, to “try a fall” with Howe. But like Balfour of Burley, he was “a desperate fighting fellow,” full of expedients, and never to be rashly handled; and one who as Sorell says, few would care to try a hand-to-hand encounter with. But the love of liberty is one of the strongest sentiments of the human heart, and the formidable character of the man, did not deter others from volunteering to do their best to pursue, take or kill this arch-offender.

There was at this time in the service of the Government, as guide to the military, a man named James McGill, who from his stature and strength, passed by the enviable nom de guerre of “Big McGill.” He had once been a bushranger himself, but now followed the more captivating occupation of pursuing them instead.

He was a rough fighting fellow, fearing neither man or devil, and was always ready for a stand-up with anybody or everybody, whenever they liked to come on; and however hungry “a customer” might be at setting-to, he always went home with a belly-full, when Mr. McGill had done with him.

This pleasant follow, was either selected or volunteered to bring Howe in; and he started off jollily on the exciting service. He wanted no assistant, being quite confident in his own powers to bring Howe to reason any day single-handed. Still it was thought best to give him a companion, in case of matters not going on quite so smoothly as he expected; and an active man of one of the native tribes of New South Wales, called Mosquito, an old enemy of the bushrangers, accompanied him as tracker, and to give such assistance as he could, which was not exactly nothing, for Mosquito was not deficient in daring, as he often proved in after times when leading the East Coast tribes of natives against our own people. The black soon got on Howe’s tracks, and the two followed him, and came up with him somewhere on the Clyde, then called the Fat Doe River, and there was warm work between them when this took place.

Howe had been often heard to say he never would be taken alive; and in the struggle that took place, this determination appears to have work with its full force. He was overmatched it is true, but this did not shake his resolution in any degree. He was now in the very best years of his life, about thirty-one, when the powers of endurance are greatest, and he used them to the uttermost. He fought like a fiend for life, hitting out right and left as hard as he could, till his opponents closed in upon him for the death struggle, but even then he shewed them he was not half done for, and they could not throw him down, do as they would, for he continued to kick and fight as vigorously as ever, and in a manner that astonished even the resolute McGill, who was himself almost a match for a wild beast. At length, making an effort of his strength more violent than any he had yet put forth, he tore himself from the vice-like grasp of his gigantic opponent, and dashed away with such speed that it was useless to pursue him.

I had most of these particulars from an old companion of Howe’s, at whose hut I stayed for several weeks whilst surveying the shores of the Great Lake in 1847. The Gazette notice of Howe’s escape from his powerful antagonists merely mentions the affray in a slight and incidental manner, too usual with newspaper reports fifty or sixty years ago, saying only that Howe was pursued, after robbing a hut, and that he lost “his dogs, knapsack, and all that he had,” it then says, “from a paper found in his knapsack, it appears that he has been much harrassed by the natives, and has been very nearly cut off by them several times.” (Gazette, September 19th, 1818.)

From this place Howe must have gone to the neighbourhood of York Plains, where he committed what was probably his last robbery, as I gather from a letter of Colonel Sorell’s, addressed to the Commandant of Launceston, dated 17th of October, 1818, in which he says, “It is stated that a soldier from York Plains, was at Captain Blyth’s at the Rope Walk, about seven miles from there, a few days ago, when Michael Howe, the bushranger, came down and robbed the house… It appears that Howe succeeded in robbing the house and getting off, though three men besides the soldier were there.”

[To be continued.]

*Watts, in his evidence touching this event, said Howe’s weapon was a knife.

EARLY TROUBLES OF THE COLONISTS by J. E. Calder (Pt. 3)

Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Friday 21 November 1873, page 2


TASMANIAN HISTORY.

EARLY TROUBLES OF THE COLONISTS.

Illustrated by a Sketch of the Career of Michael Howe, “The last and worst of the Bushrangers.”

Written by J. E. Calder.

[Continued.]

The news of this disaster reached head-quarters with the sloth-like tardiness of the times I am writing of; and the inert Governor of the day, Colonel Davey, seems to have wakened up on receiving the intelligence of this new misfortune, and he did as he ought on the occasion, that is, he despatched several parties of military into the district that the bushrangers commanded for the moment.

There were some capital men amongst the military, as good as ever carried a musket; and it will not be out of place here to say a few words about them generally, more especially as they had in the end nearly the undivided honour of ridding the country of the banditti who formerly infested it, keeping it in a state of unceasing alarm for many years.

The soldiers were the only men in the country, at that time at least, who were a match for the bushrangers, as they proved over and over in many a light. They never flinched, with a solitary exception, where a few very young soldiers, fresh from the awkward squad, were employed against a party led by the cautious veteran Geary; and it was to parties furnished by the detachments stationed here at different times, of the 73rd, 48th, and 46th regiments, that the colony owed its comparatively long period of repose, more than five and a half years, that intervened between the death of Howe in October, 1818, and the escape of Brady and others from Macquarie Harbour in June, 1824. With the single exception above referred to, all did their duty. But there is one name amongst the soldiers of this period that is continually turning up in the annals of bush fighting, that I ought not to be forgotten. This man was a lance-serjeant of the 46th, of the name of McCarthy, the same who led the parties that shot Geary and other troublesome fellows, and at different times took several others. This man, unlike his namesake, the publican and merchant, spoken of a little above, was gifted with plenty of discretion as well as personal bravery, and his perseverance in pursuit seems to have been something wonderful. Wherever the bushrangers were — and he chased them from district to district like hunted wolves — he was sure to be at their heels; and as he never followed them without having some black trackers with him, there was no escape from him. I shall however have very little more to say about this meritorious soldier, as this narrative will soon relate chiefly to Howe, with whom he never came to blows. The majority of these fine fellows went unrewarded, except what they got of complimentary notices from the Government, and hard knocks from the bushrangers. The officers, who were no less active than the men, did indeed receive a more tangible reward, but when I relate what it was, I fear than even the most prosaic reader may laugh a little. They were specially commended to the Governor-in-Chief for some distinguishing mark of approbation, (I copy exactly from a Despatch of Governor Sorell’s,) who trusts “it may meet with Your Excellency’s approval on this occasion (that is when their bush campaigns were about over) “in issuing to each Officer an allowance of Spirits, free of duty, as a mark of General approbation and remuneration for their own privations,” Good service was certainly cheap then.

Several parties of the 73rd and 46th Regiments, now marched on New Norfolk, and quickly disturbed the bushrangers in their pleasant quarters; and soon afterwards some of the men of the 73rd, came on them so unexpectedly, that they had to run for their lives, saving nothing but their arms, and hardly those; but they were soon lost in the intricacies of the bush. A large party of civilians from Hobart Town, also armed themselves, and went in pursuit of the murderers of Carlisle and O’Birne, but I believe they wasted neither ammunition or energy in forwarding the cause in hand.

New Norfolk was now too hot for them to live in, at any rate until some of their old enemies the soldiers were removed; and they set out for Pittwater again, intending by this movement to cause the withdrawal of the military if possible, who they felt sure would follow them wherever they went, and then to return again as soon as the military, or at any rate the most of them were gone.

But quite apart from this little piece of strategy, they had another reason for paying a flying visit to Pittwater. The Chief of Police, Mr. Humphey, had always been, as they considered, officiously active against them, but had been doubly so over since Whitehead and Garland had burned him out some time before; and he had moreover in his official capacity, blamed the whole of them for what was really the work of two only. Their dislike of him, which was at all times strong enough, was much increased after this; and they now went thither, bent on destroying everything he possessed there, which would not only be a proper punishment, according to their ideas of propriety, for the injustice done them, but would be a sure way of attracting such attention to Pittwater, as would almost certainly cause the removal of the soldiers from their own proper district, as they considered New Norfolk to be, and to which they meant to return as soon as they could, to have a settlement with Mr. McCarthy for his recent officiousness, now that they know who it was who planned the late attack on them.

The inhabitants of Pittwater had by this time pretty well recovered from the alarm Whitehead’s late visit had caused them; and were fast relapsing into their old slow-going habits again, when an unpleasant rumour spread through the district, that the enemy was amongst them again, and which they were not long in learning was true.

Just as the sun was setting on the 10th May, 1815, as rough-looking a set of fellows as could be seen, suddenly presented themselves at the door of the men’s hut of Mr. Humphrey’s establishment. They were all armed, which made it clear to those within that they were no friends of theirs, and they closed the door against them at once. The strangers demanded instant admittance, but, receiving no response, soon performed this little service for themselves, and smashed in the door without more ceremony, and rushing up tumultuously, quickly over-powered and bound the inmates; and next, placing a couple of sentries over their chop-fallen prisoners, proceeded to Humphrey’s own residence, which they entered by the same process as the hut.

Here they found everything they wanted, and having first helped themselves to what they thought fit, they proceeded to demolish the rest, smashing up or destroying in some way or other, everything they could lay their hands on. As the work of destruction went on, they unhappily lighted on certain articles, which are a very abomination in the sight of bushrangers at all times, namely half-a-dozen pairs of fetters – curious things to find in a gentleman’s house – which gave a new whet to their hatred of the owner, and to their own determination to leave nothing undestroyed, which they fulfilled to their heart’s content.

At this time there was no such thing as regular mail service in the colony; and it was not until Sorell came here that postal communication of any kind was established; and even then, there were only weekly messengers between head quarters and the outlying districts; so unless news reached Hobart Town by a chance traveller nothing was known of what was going on outside of the town, for two or three days at least. But as the interests of the principal magistrate of the colony were damaged by this last outrage, it is possible that a special messenger was sent in with the unpleasant intelligence that, as far as chattel property was concerned, the bushrangers had not left him the worth of a sixpence in Pittwater.

Old Colonel Davey — who seems to have been much such another man as one of Irving’s Governors of New York, in its early days, William Testy, pranced about the place like a thing demented, and for a day or two had not a civil word for any one. But he cooled down at last of course, and then sent all the troops he could spare to Pittwater, to catch the bushrangers while they were still there. But this took time, which this excellent old officer, did not always think of, and day after day passed away, before the soldiers made their appearance there.

It is well known that by means of secret confederates, the bushrangers were mostly much better informed of what was going on, than any others were; and they heard without much surprise, that several of the parties were withdrawn from New Norfolk, and that they were moving on the disturbed district. When quite assured that they were on the march, they drew out of danger at once; and while the troops were coming down on Pittwater by one road, they retreated from it by another; and the next thing that the Governor heard of these ubiquitous fellows was, that they had not only eluded his grasp, but were once more back in New Norfolk.

The good old marine, as I was once told by the late Captain Ferguson, stamped and swore like a bargeman, when he heard that all his clever plans for the capture of those slippery fellows, were thus untimely frustrated; and he called them all the vile names he could think of, damming them all round in terms that are as well not repeated.

[To be continued.]

EARLY TROUBLES OF THE COLONISTS by J. E. Calder (Pt. 2)

Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Thursday 20 November 1873, page 3


TASMANIAN HISTORY.

EARLY TROUBLES OF THE COLONISTS,

Illustrated by a Sketch of the Career of Michael Howe, “The last and worst of the Bushrangers.”

Written by J. E. Calder.

[Continued.]

When Howe had grown well into boyhood, he was placed on board a merchant ship of Hull, to commence life on his own account; and he actually served two years of his apprenticeship without bolting; a thing so unusual in the life of this scapegrace and habitual runaway, that it must on no account be passed over without notice. He then deserted.

From this service he passed by an almost natural transition, into that of his King and country, that is to say he entered on board a man-of-war, but whether voluntarily or through the agency of the Press-gang, I have no information; nor do I know how long he remained in it, or whether he took any part in the stirring events of the time. But to a man so impatient of restraint as he, it is easy to understand, that the severe, and even cruel discipline of the Royal Navy in the beginning of this century, must have been quite unbearable, and not at all in accord with the free-and-easy notions of such a man as Howe; and the next thing we hear of him is, that he quitted it in the same way that he left the mercantile marine, that is he deserted again.

I have received from a private source, an incident of Howe’s early life, that I have not met with in any book; but of which there can be no doubt, namely that he was once a soldier. This was when he was eighteen years old. This information is derived from a very old hand, still in life, who knew Howe, and he received the account from himself. Howe occassionally came to the place he lived at, and used when in the humour, to recount the adventures of his past life; but of which my informant after a lapse of fifty-five years or more, remembered nothing but this. From this service he also deserted.

It is of course impossible to keep up a continuous narrative of the life of any one, where the thread of it is so often broken, as in Howe’s case, beyond the power of uniting it again; and after some one of his desertions there occurs a blank in it, that I am unable to fill up. Where he next betook himself to, or by what means he henceforward eked out a living, I cannot say; but as time passed on, he returned to Pontefract or its neighbourhood again, and commenced a new career, a desperate and dangerous one indeed, as a robber on the Highways, which in those days was one of the shortest of outs to the gallows. But I think it may be presumed that he never acquired such notoriety in England as he did in Tasmania, and that he had no great success in his new business, for he was soon convicted of robbing a traveller on the road, a Yorkshire miller. For this offence he was tried at York Assizes on the 31st July, 1811, and received a seven-years sentence of transportation. He was kept in the gaol or the hulks some months after this, when he was put on board the “Indefatigable” convict ship, which reached Hobart Town in November of 1812. At this time he was about twenty-five years of age.

Whether he made any attempt to escape from gaol or not, I cannot say; but as he was probably confined in the strong castle of York, he most likely never had a chance; but he was scarcely on the deck of the prison ship, before he tried his luck, and his attempt, which was within an ace of being successful, was as dangerous as well could be.

He had a good part of a mile to swim before he could land. But watching his opportunity, off went his clothes, and over he leaped into the sea. The splash was heard – the alarm given of a convict overboard and escaping, and a shot or two were fired after him by the sentries at the gangways, while the boats were lowered with the lightning-like quickness of English sailors in an emergency, and the chase began. Howe being a strong swimmer, struck out for land like a frog, whilst the men in the boats strained every muscle to come up with him before he could reach the shore. The race was a good one. Howe having a good start, kept his lead well, and struck out manfully for his liberty; but the others were equally determined that he should either lose it or his life. Poor wretch, it had been better for him, and far better for Tasmania, if he had gone to the bottom. But the ship’s boats overhauled and headed him at last; and though he dived and doubled like a hunted duck, they got hold of him and took him back to the ship, and kept a watchful eye on him until the ship put to sea, when all chance of a second venture of this kind, was impossible.

Arrived in Tasmania, Howe, with the rest of the ” Indefatigibles,” as his precious shipmates were called, was handed over to the care of one of the superintendents of convicts, Mr. Paterson, and before long was assigned to the service of Mr. John Ingle, a gentleman who I believe, had formerly been an assistant under Mr. Paterson; but who had some time before quitted the captivating service of the Crown, and opened a store in Hobart Town, and getting on well in the world, soon possessed himself of considerable property both in town and country which I hear his descendants continue to hold, he having died very recently in England, where, at one time at least, he accumulated vast wealth on change. He has been described to me as an irascible person, and therefore not likely to keep so restless a man as Howe, long in his service, one who could never take a wrong word, they soon fell out, and he took to the bush, joining himself with a party of twenty eight other vagabonds, which was only one of many gangs then in the woods, and thus he took to the highways again, that is, he became a bushranger. This was in the early part of 1813, and thus commenced his six year career of guilt in Tasmania, a period which he himself described as one of such painful anxiety and unutterable misery, as to have once extorted the statement that he “believed the life of the damned was nothing to it.” To comprehend such a state of being is impossible, but it must have been worse than that of a wild beast.

It is recorded by the Commissioner Bigge, that at no time in the history of this colony was bushranging carried on so methodically, successfully, or on so great a scale, as it was in the fist year of Colonel Davey’s Government in 1813, just after the rule, or rather misrule of the three commandants, Captain Murray, Colonel Geils, and Lieutenant Lord, who had administered the Government here, during the time that intervened between the death of Colonel Collins on the 24th March, 1810, and the arrival of Colonel Davey here, 4th of Februaiy, 1811.

The Commissioner, speaking of the state of the country dining this year (page 108 of his first report on New South Wales and this colony), says: “The excesses of the bushrangers in the neighbourhood of Port Dalrymple, and likewise near Hobart Town, had attained their utmost height, and most sanguinary character, it the latter end of the year, 1813” * * * and, he continues, “so great was the intimidation produced, that the inhabitants of several districts, abandoned then dwellings, and removed for safety to the towns.” Such was the insecure condition of the country when Howe’s six year career commenced.

Throughout this long period, Howe seems to have had a particular fondness for the district of New Norfolk, and in so far as the imperfect records of these old times enable us to judge, it was here that he began to disturb the peace of the community, though of this I am not quite sure He indeed committed many robberies in other quarters, but his chief place of resort was round the country of New Norfolk, and what Sherwood Forest was to Robin Hood, the woods of this place were to Michael Howe, that is a home and precarious refuge

At the time of his disappearance from Mr Ingle’s service, there were, as was said above, numerous bushrangers in the field and he joined with twenty eight others, who acted under the leadership of a man named John Whitehead. These fellows are all advertised in the very first numbers of the “Van Diemen’s Land Gazette, and General Advertiser,” June 1814. Whitehead is there called Edward, but this is a mistake. Howe’s name is amongst the number, and also that of a scamp named Edward Beagent, (of whom I shall hay o to say a little by-and-bye), which figures with Howe’s in this terrible list. This old bushranger Beagent, was afterwards the first, of one of the first land lords of one of the principal hotels in this city. Such are the vicissitudes of fortune.

The depredations of these men, were doubtlessly numerous enough, but as they have not attracted any very serious notice from the writers of the time, they were perhaps not very remarkable That they were not accompanied by murder, is certain; for when the Governor in Chief, Macquarie, published his ill advised Proclamation, offering pardon to the many outlaws then in the bush, not guilty of murder, the whole of this gang were able to avail themselves of the amnesty, and surrendered themselves before the 1st day of December of that year, to which time the amnesty extended

Several very grave mistakes were made by some of the Governors of these colonies, in the early years of the present century in their dealings with this class of men, whom they were often powerless to put down and this proclamation was one of them. Its intention was to recall these men from the bush, and a life of rapine; but its real effect was to authorise bushranging, during the whole of the time that it continued in force, namely six months and a half; and it was so viewed and acted on – and with legal impunity – by all the robbers then in the woods. The “Commissioner of Inquiry,” thus describes its results, (page 109) :-

“The effect of this proclamation was the reverse of that which was intended. It increased the crimes and audacity of the bushrangers, during the interval of six months that it allowed them for return; they profited by the pardon, by making a temporary surrender, and then resumed their habits of plunder,” &c. This was just the case with both Howe and Whitehead; they accepted pardon for past delinquencies, and took to the woods again soon afterwards.

How the members of this party were disposed of after their surrender, is not explained; but as I find Beagent afterwards in the service of the Judge Advocate, I presume they were sent into private service, or placed on the Government works. But whether or not, their condition seems to have satisfied neither Whitehead nor Howe, who soon threw the Governors pardon to the winds, and took to the bush and then old courses again. Whether any of their old companions followed their example or not, I do not know but if they did, none of them rejoined Whitehead or Howe.

The notoriety of these two men, soon attracted others to them, and shortly afterwards they were at the head of a party, less numerous indeed than they were used to, but far more daring than any known before. Their robberies were now nearly every day occurrences, and it is recorded of them, that scarcely a settler in the New Norfolk district escaped their visitations. It was their invariable custom so to clear out the settlers houses, that nothing was left behind that they could remove. Of these troublesome fellows, Whitehead was the leader.

Having made prize of nearly every thing they could lay hands on in New Norfolk, sheer necessity or restlessness drove them out of their favourite district at last, which they quitted about as reluctantly us the sloth does the tree he feeds on, when its last green leaf is devoured. Casting their eyes about them, like the wandering Israelites of old, thev decided on entering into the fertile and untouched lands of the Canaanites of Pittwater, where they made their undesired appearance about March 1815

This delightful district of the South East, was pretty well settled over even at this time. It was nevertheless about as dull and animated a place, as the Castle of Indolence or Sleepy Hollow ever were, the listless inhabitants dreaming away their lives in contented torpor and indifference about the things of this world or the next, till the intrusive Whitehead and his company put a little life into them They worked when they could not help it, and frittered away the rest of their time in happy idleness, and unconcern of the future. But this state of things was too pleasant to last for ever, and their now friends soon freshened them up a little, and before long, there was such bustle in the place, as was never known m Pittwater before.

No sooner had they taken possession of the promised land, than they set to work with customary activity, and speedily ransacked half the establishments in the place.

But there were two gentlemen who held property in this district, who in their official capacities, had continued to make themselves obnoxious to some of the gang, and on whom, they determined to take a full and deep revenge for past delinquencies, as they thought them. Their victims were the Police Magistrate of the territory, Mr Humphrey, and Mr. Reardon, the District Constable of Pittwater, both of whom had valuable estates there. Vengeance only, and not plunder, incited them to visit the homesteads of these settlers, which were pretty close together. The men who took part in the outrage that followed, where Whitehead and Garland only, the rest either refusing, or not caring to join them in their detestable adventure. So at least says Bent. But I believe that a man named Watts devised this mischief.

The night of the 10th March was fixed on for the execution of this malicious act. Proceeding as noiselessly as possible to the premises in the dark, they reached the rick-yards unperceived, where the harvest of the season was stacked. To strike a light and apply it to the ricks of both was the work of a minute only, and the long pent up vengeance of the incendiaries was appeased. They then decamped.

Howe and the rest of the party were long credited with having taken part in this malevolent enterprise, but they were guiltless of any thing more than knowing of it, and, perhaps, were not even guilty of that. By their absence from the scene, they may have discountenanced it, or rather, perhaps, thought it was no part of their business to address the injuries of others, whether fancied or real.

This transaction was probably the cause of their stay at Pittwater being brought to a close a little sooner than they intended; and as it now became necessary to sound the retreat, they fell back for a brief space on the already half-devastated district of New Norfolk, where their most unexpected re-appearance was about as unwelcome as snow in summer time. But there was no help for it, as after the recent outrage at Pittwater, the place was too dangerous for them, at any rate until the storm they had raised there had blown over, when they might renew their acquaintance with their new friends; and as there were still a few in New Norfolk who had suffered nothing at their hands yet, they decided on giving them a benefit before returning to Pittwater.

It was in April that the smoke of the bivouacs of these brigands, was once more seen in the glens of the New Norfolk ranges, and was viewed with general alarm, as the certain omen of the return of evil days.

The gang now consisted of eight, besides two camp followers, if they may be so styled, namely, two native girls, who were their constant attendants for a long time. One of these unfortunate creatures was known by the name of Black Mary, and lived for two or three years in a state of concubinage with Howe.

This companion remained with him till April of 1817, when they were separated in a sharp pursuit after them by soldiers, at Jericho, into whose hands she there fell. Henceforth she acted as bush guide to the military, and ultimately died in the hospital at Hobart Town, on the 29th June, 1819. Of this woman, I shall have a few words to say at the end of this paper.

The bushrangers now counted amongst themselves some of the most resolute men who ever took the bush. Their leader Whitehead, and James Geary, a deserter from a detachment of the 73rd regiment that was stationed here, were men whose audacity, Howe himself never surpassed; and if they were inferior to him in any thing, it was only in personal strength and activity, of which he had an uncommon share. To master him single handed in a struggle, or to run him down fairly, were things not to be done, or at least never were. But Geary was quite his equal in determination, and he has been described to me by the late Mr. Beamont (this gentleman was formerly Provost Marshal here), and several others, as a very fiend. The whole of this party and others also, who were drilled by Whitehead and Howe, possessed other qualities besides daring, that fitted them eminently for the dangerous calling they followed. Sorell writing of them says, “their perfect knowledge of the country, and habits of fatigue, temperance and caution, render them a difficult adversary,” and few knew them better than he, or wrote so much about them in official despatches. Such men as these, were not therefore to be easily beaten, unless when surprised or betrayed. Their habits of caution it is true, prompted them never to run unnecessary risks, or to fight for fighting’s sake only. But they were soon to give proof of what they could do in this line, when forced into it.

On the 25th of April, 1815, they robbed Mr. Carlisle, a settler of New Norfolk.

The free inhabitants of New Norfolk, many of whom were half ruined by the never ending pillagings of those bushrangers, and whom they hoped they had got rid of for ever when they quitted this district for Pittwater, were greatly excited when they learned that they had returned to it again, and had set up their tents amongst them once more; and as it was scarcely possible for things to be worse with them than they were, several of the most daring of them resolved to try the effects of hard blows on the hard heads of the robbers; in other words, to drive them out of the place by force. The task was a doubtful one, but something must be done to get rid of these obnoxious intruders, who kept the district in constant turmoil and disorder.

In a community like New Norfolk, where so many were already half ruined by the exactions of those fellows, some fightable men will always be found, ready to assail the common enemy; and this district was not at all deficient of the fighting element that was just now wanted to drive out, disperse, or destroy these freebooters. There was Mr. Dennis McCarthy, a most active and pugnacious poison. This gentleman was a merchant, a publican, and shipowner, and the brig Sophia and some smaller craft belonged to him, one of which latter was just now moored in the river at New Norfolk, too near to the bushrangers haunts to be either safe or pleasant, and as they had been known to say they would some day seize her, he, of course, had his misgivings about her safety. Mr. Jemott, too (the same I believe who was afterwards chief of police at Clarence), was luckily there at the moment, and he might be safely trusted to do his share in any fight, and was, of course, a ready volunteer. The master and mate of McCarthy’s schooner, the Geordie, Messieurs O’Birne and Hacking, to whom the loss of the vessel would have been as disastrous as to McCarthy, were also ready for a brush with the bushrangers; then there were five others, all of whom had a long account to settle with Whitehead’s people, whenever the day of reckoning came round. These were Messieurs Triffitt, Brown, Murphy, Toombs, and Carlisle. Mr. McCarthy took the command of the assailing party, and if he had only shown as much prudence as pluck, the encounter might not have ended as it did with him, that is in disaster only. But he was hot-headed, and had no other idea of fighting, but of coming to blows at once, not even using any accidental advantages of position, such as the cover of trees and the like.

But the tactics of the enemy whom he was now about to try his hand on, were just the reverse of all this. They threw no chances away when forced to stand up against any one. There were also old soldiers amongst them, who had seen a world of hard service against Napoleon’s soldiers in Spain, Calabria and elsewhere. Geary was one, and Septon too (who had been in the Rifles,) had carried a musket against the French. Howe was also a soldier and a man-of-warsman, and all these had gone through severe training in early life, which was most serviceable to them on an occasion like the present; so that any assailants who were led by so impulsive a person as McCarthy, stood only a sorry chance of coming out of such a fray as took place, with anything except hard blows and discomfiture for their pains.

Mayday morning of 1815, was one of unusual bustle and excitement in the districts near New Norfolk. The robbers, who had camped the night before on a small water-run, called a little too magniloquently the Back river, about three miles above Elizabeth Town, i.e. the present township of New Norfolk, were early at their mischievous work of plundering the various homesteads of the little settlement, long indeed before the sun had risen above the hills that enclose it; and there was some fighting between them and such of the settlers who did not choose to see their homes desolated without resistance, but I believe that nothing very damaging to either side took place. Tidings of those outrages reached McCarthy before nine o’clock of this morning, who at once put his own premises in a state of defence, for he was not one whom it was too safe to trifle with. But the march of the robbers was not in his direction, and on learning this, he at once beat up for volunteers to pursue the enemy, and the persons whom I have named above, joined him in the adventure, with whom he set off to drive them out of place. The pursuing party first called at the house of Mr. Robert Hays, which was amongst the first that had suffered this day, but the banditti had already quitted it, taking the direction of Mr. James Triffitt’s farm-house, which they also despoiled. From this place they struck off for the Macquarie Plains, and had proceeded about a mile on their way, when McCarthy’s party brought them to bay.

The bushrangers were generally very well informed of all that was passing around them, of which many instances are recorded. But of the expedition now coming against them, they had no intelligence. It was, as we have seen, a hurried affair, got up and executed so suddenly, as to be quite unexpected; and had the assailing party been cautiously led, the others might have been surprised. But on came McCarthy, without disguise, or even too much silence, and the cracking of dead sticks under the feet of the rapidly advancing force, warned the others of their approach, and they turned just in time to hear McCarthy challenge them to surrender themselves his prisoners. But Whitehead and his men did not understand this, and instead of heeding it, instantly placed themselves in cover of some hollow trees that stood near. A sharp firing now began on both sides, but the bullets of the assailants were of course only thrown away on men so well protected as the others, and as they stood themselves quite exposed like targets to the damaging fire of their opponents, (they having no experiences of bush fighting), five of their number were sent down in a very few minutes. The affair ended, in the complete discomfiture of the settlers, and the unwounded four were forced to retreat, but they gallantly carried four of the wounded well out of the fire, where for the present they left them. The bushrangers did not pursue the retreating party, or they might have shot them all. Poor Murphy remained in their hands, some one of whom it is said proposed to ill-treat the disabled man, but this their leaders would not hear of. The robbers then retired themselves; and as soon as possible after McCarthy reached his home, he sent out a conveyance and brought in all his disabled companions.

The wounds of Carlisle and O’Birne were mortal. The first named died very soon after the fight, in about an hour only it is reported. The other, who had received a charge of slugs in the face, lingered on to the 20th, when he also succumbed.

[To be continued.]

TASMANIAN HISTORY – A SKETCH OF OLD TIMES; EMBODYING THE BUSH CAREER OF MATTHEW BRADY by J. E. Calder (Pt. 4)

Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Wednesday 20 August 1873, page 3


TASMANIAN HISTORY.

THE FIRST TROUBLES OF GOVERNOR ARTHUR

A SKETCH OF OLD TIMES; EMBODYING THE BUSH CAREER OF MATTHEW BRADY.

Written by J. E. Calder.

[Continued.]

To return to Brady; very shortly before the recent attack on Mr. Meredith, his party was reinforced by several men, and the names of those of whom it now consisted, were Bird, Brown, Bryan, Cody, Dunne, McKenny, Murphy, and the leader.

From Grindstone Bay they made their way once more to Hobart Town, which they entered despite the active but ill-managed pursuit that was maintained to destroy them. All the disposable troops, and the entire police force of the South, assisted by more than four hundred civilians, were after them. Yet in face of all this force, they got into Hobart Town unobserved, though it was guarded by a thousand armed men and more, who lay within a cannon shot of the town boundaries.

On their way they passed through what is still the most insignificant of Tasmanian villages, which in defiance of good taste and propriety has been invested with the historic name of Jerusalem. Here they robbed a farmer named Clitherow, a most plucky fellow, who fought them so bravely, and in his own person resisted them so manfully, that it was with the last difficulty Brady restrained his enraged followers from shooting him. But in place of sacrificing him, he accepted his pledge to raise no alarm before next day, which Clitherow, who was as honourable as brave, observed.

From here they struck over to the Derwent river, halting at Stanfield’s house so, which is on land called Green Point, and nearly close to the shore. It is hardly necessary to say that they robbed it of property and cash, valued at two hundred pounds. The wearied men lay at Green Point till near midnight, and then sallied forth to complete their journey to the capital.

It was either at Stanfields or a neighbouring farm, that they seized a boat and got across the river, which is here very wide. With audacity almost amounting to temerity, they landed at the south western terminus of what was then, and for many years afterwards, the principal ferry in Tasmania, namely Austin’s, and then marched straight for Hobart Town, which they entered unseen long before the night ended, as their march was only nine miles. They settled themselves in the house of an accomplice, who lived somewhere in Campbell-street, I believe.

Directly it was known that they had crossed the river, the whole of the male portion of the inhabitants of the town and suburbs, capable of bearing arms, turned out to oppose, and if possible to destroy them; military, police, and civilians, uniting heart and hand to rid the country of a banditti, which Hydra-like seemed always to revive, however freely it was cut to pieces.

The country all around the seat of Government was astir with armed men. Numerous patrols perambulated every road by which the town could be approached, and every point that the bushrangers were likely to pass, was thoroughly guarded. The force was moreover so disposed as to form a sort of cordon, within which it was hoped to entrap these fellows, but who, unknown to the authorities, were already in the citadel.

That they had got over the Derwent was indicated by several circumstances, one of which was curious enough. After landing at Austin’s they next tried to sink their boat, a whaleboat, by first scuttling, and then half filling her with stones, and shoving her off into deep water to sink. But in their hurry to get into town, and in the darkness of night, the work was done imperfectly. Thus the scuttle hole was cut too far aft, and the stones were put in too far forward; hence, from the peculiar build of a whaleboat, the hole was soon out of water altogether, and she did not sink at all. She was picked up at daylight as she drifted about, and then it was that some one well acquainted with the neighbourhood chanced to look at these stones, and at once pronounced them to be of a kind found only on the Hobart Town bank of the Derwent, an unmistakeable proof that they had crossed over (Gazette, 22nd October, 1825).

The fact of their having got within Hobart Town is given on the authority of the official Gazette of the 26th November.

What could have prompted them to make this visit it is now vain to enquire. But the frequent successes of Brady, notwithstanding a few mishaps, seem at this time to have kindled within him a little too much of that over-daring known as foolhardiness, to which he sacrificed himself in the end; and several of his adventures at this period were so daring and successful, as, I suppose, justified to his own mind the belief that himself and followers were equal to any enterprise, however hazardous.

As precedingly stated every precaution was used to prevent the escape of the robbers, now believed to be in the snares of the Government.

But to make quite sure of this, it was necessary to guard the Derwent, so that they should not retreat in this direction. All private boats that could be found were therefore removed from it, and several vessels and guard boats, under the command of Captains Welsh, Hobbs, Frank Pitt and others, watched the river day and night to intercept them, if, contrary to expectation, they made any attempt to get back.

While all those preparations were proceeding and the expectation of the surrender of the fugitives was growing stronger and stronger every hour, the robbers, confident in their means of escape, still lay in Hobart Town, doubtlessly laughing at all the fuss and bustle that was going on around them for their capture. But matters began to get serious, and it was time to think of retreating, and the night of Sunday, the 28th October, was fixed on for the enterprise. About an hour after dark they stole over to Providence Valley, near Shoobridge’s, within the present boundaries of the city, hiding in the bed of a small creek, in what was then called the Naval officer’s Paddock, that is where King and Queen-streets now are.

Wishing, however, that their escape should be known to the Governor, and that they had once more given him the slip, two of them suddenly appeared, says the Gazette of the 5th November, “as William Gormley, one of the night patrol on the New Town road was on the look out by the creek at the further end of the Naval officer’s paddock.” Being challenged by the watchman, they answered they were soldiers. The other six being close behind, the patrol was seized, and hurried off the road to be the eye witness of their escape from the presence of the very formidable force by which the town was begirt.

The nameless little rill, in the bed of which they lay concealed just before seizing Gormley, passes under the New Town road, about sixty paces above the inn called the Dallas Arms.

They hurried forward at their best speed with their prisoner to the Prince of Wales’ Bay on the Derwent, about four miles north-westerly of Hobart Town. “They divided themselves,” says the Gazette, “into two parties, four going before, and the others marching him along with them, * * * till they were nearly opposite to Mr. Salmon’s farm” (now Mr. W. J. T. Clarke’s, of Victoria), “and on arriving at a projecting point beyond the farm, four of them went down to the beach, and the others remained sitting with Gormley on a bank. After a few minutes, a loud whistle was heard, and they ran off to join the others, saying he might now return and report what had occurred as soon as he pleased. During the walk, they made no secret of who they were, and were very inquisitive to know what treatment McCabe had met with since his apprehension.” * * * (This was a week before he was tried.) “They fired off Gormley’s gun and returned it to him,” then jumping into a boat kept purposely concealed for them by its owner, they dashed across the river.

Colonel Arthur would not believe Gormley’s report of their flight, so sure was he that they were still within his lines, and, indeed, stopped as they seemed to be by a broad river on one side, and a line of fire, so to speak, on the other their fortunes looked desperate enough. But the bushrangers had an accomplice, and this accomplice had a boat in concealment, which he lent them on receiving three watches and as many sovereigns, (Gazette, 26th November, 1825.)

It was not till the 18th November, just three weeks after the flight of the robbers, that certain tidings reached the Governor, of the fish having got out of the net, and were now robbing away again as actively as over sixty miles off. Then it was that a traveller from the East Coast named Denne,* who had just escaped from Brady after a forcible detention of six days, reached Hobart Town with the news that the outlaws, so far from being within the lines, were following their old practices, and were just then at Grindstone Bay again.

The amazement of Colonel Arthur is not to be described, but his chagrin was so great at having been once more outwitted by Brady, that he seems to have been ashamed to declare the fact at first. At any rate the official organ of the Government, the Gazette, that came out the day after Denne’s arrival with the startling but rather ludicrous news, was not informed of it, for it still speaks with the most perfect certainty of the brigands being within the living enclosure. It says: “We are sorry to say the bushrangers are still in the woods, though so hemmed in by the loyal and unwearied exertions of all” (I copy the words exactly) “as to render them comparatively harmless, and their speedy apprehension inevitable. The cheerfulness with which every individual lends his aid for this purpose, and submits to personal inconvenience, must soon have this desired and certain reward.” But, notwithstanding this editorial flourish, the game was gone.

But in spite of the Governor’s silence the truth leaked out at last, and a day or two afterwards, the troops and volunteers were all ingloriously returned to their homes after their really wearisome watch. But it was observed of the retiring heroes, that there was not much similarity in the deportment of the several classes of which the retreating force consisted. The demeanour of the official portion of the host was sour enough, and they got off home as fast as they could, to escape the notice of the critical and curious, who on this occasion of general disappointment, were more disposed to be censorious than civil. Of the unofficial part, the older ones did indeed deport themselves with becoming gravity, which though a little suspicious in a few instances, was pretty well maintained by most of them; but as for the younger ones, who formed the great majority of the muster, I grieve to say it, that to a man they behaved with the most indecorous levity, evincing in fact, much more amusement than regret, at the clever manner in which they had all been done.

Brief as Denne’s captivity amongst them was, it was long enough for him to see them commit several robberies, and take many prisoners. At one time, he was himself locked up for a whole night, along with fifteen others, “in a hut so small, that they were nearly smothered,” the bushrangers pitching a tent outside for themselves. At length, Brady ordered them to be released, but only two or three at a time, and at long intervals, for fear of a rush. During his six days’ detention, he observed that they burned nothing but charcoal at their camp, of which there is every where plenty in the bush, that their concealment could not be traced by the smoke of their bivouacs, and many other curious precautions were used by them to prevent surprise.

It was just before Brady’s escape through the lines, that Colonel Arthur was within a hairs breadth of falling to the rifle of Josiah Bird, one of this gang, said to be as true a marksman as ever levelled a piece. This man had stolen out of Hobart Town in disguise, for the chance of a shot at him, and at one moment actually had him under cover of his rifle. But as it is said of the devil’s children, that they have the devil’s luck, he escaped by the merest accident from death, as certain as that which eventually overtook his intended assassin.

Bird was taken at last, and lodged in gaol, was visited by the Governor, who then learned for the first time, how narrowly death had missed him. Colonel Arthur was riding out, unattended by any one except an Orderly servant, who rode at a little distance behind him. Bird was so concealed as to be seen by neither of them. But the Orderly’s horse must have winded him, for it took fright at the instant, and galloped off, nor could its rider pull it in, till he came close up to the Colonel, thus interposing itself and the Orderly between the bushranger and his mark. The Governor; remembered the circumstance. “It was at that moment, Sir” said Bird “that my piece was levelled at your head; and from the certainty of my aim, I had no reason to doubt that your life was in my hand, when the unexpected intervention of the Orderly man between us, defeated my object, until you were out of my reach. I had for some days meditated your life, which now seemed awarded to me almost beyond the doubt of failure, when the unlooked for occurrence frustrated my design, and but for which I assure you, Sir, you would have been a dead man.” Such is the account of this transaction, as told by Colonel Arthur himself, to the late G. W. Walker, in whose published Life it will be found, pages 51, 52.

It is difficult to place all Brady’s adventures in their proper order, and I do not know to what period the incident of his meeting the Provost Marshal, Beamont, belongs; but I will introduce it here.

The Marshal was returning from a wearying journey through the Hamilton district; and halting for a minute for a drink, his horse broke from him, while he was still many miles from home; and as if infected with the spirit of these bushranging times, bolted and took the bush also, galloping off with the Marshal’s saddle-bags, pistols, and everything, leaving the rider to finish his journey home a-foot. Not being dressed for a long bush walk, he soon fell so lame and foot-sore, that his pace was quickly reduced to a very slow walk, and he moved forward with great difficulty.

As he was hobbling along through the then sparsely peopled bush, he suddenly came on the camping ground of some strangers, who had chosen a most secluded spot for their hiding place. From their little fire, which was of charcoal only, there issued no smoke, and nothing indicated that the place was occupied by anyone, until it was reached. The spot chosen was so retired, that Beamont was actually standing in front of the little tent before he discovered it. It was in charge of one man only, who was sleeping so heavily, that it seemed evident he was much in the condition of his visitor, that is to say pretty well knocked up. His gun, which Beamont did not observe at first, leant against a tree two or three yards off, and Beamont stood between it and his owner. Believing that he had got unexpectedly into bad company, he was just about stealing off, but was stopped by the man suddenly starting to his feet. His first exclamation, on seeing a stranger standing between him and his arms, showed him to belong to the bushranging class, of whom there were then so many in the woods :— “Grabbed at last, by God,” said he, with a look of something like resignation. “Not by me at any rate,” said Beamont, who could hardly move himself, and though a plucky fellow, was just now in no condition for a fight, nor in his present unarmed state, any match for the other. Suspecting that his new acquaintance was either the notorious Brady or someone of his people, he naturally thought that this unseasonable rencontre was not likely to end too pleasantly for him, charged as he was with the final disposal of all such follows as the one who stood before him, and that his life was not worth five minutes’ purchase. Brady had seen the Marshal before, and at once recognised him, and perhaps was the most surprised of the two at finding him at his camp ; and though he never doubted of some day making his acquaintance — that is in his official capacity — he did not dream of his ever visiting him in his own lair. Each looked steadily at the other for some seconds, when Brady, seeming to divine that the rencontre was an undesigned one, thus broke silence: “So it’s you Mr. Beamont is it? What is the Provost Marshal doing alone in the bush in bushranging times like these, when no man is safe for a minute? If you have come for me,” edging up to his gun and seizing it, “you may find you have come a little too soon.” Beamont looked at him like a cat when stuck up by a dog, with no chance of getting away, which Brady observed, and then continued, “Pray do you know whose company you are in?” “Not exactly,” said the traveller. “Well then I am Brady the bushranger; you know me now I suppose.” “Oh yes,” rejoined Beamont, trying to look pleasant, “I think I have heard that name before.” “Most likely you have,” was the dry reply.

Beamont’s situation was not a pleasant one by any means from the first, and was still less so, after the other had secured his piece, which he put on full cock directly, as if preparing for mischief. “Now,” said Brady, “let me know at once what brings you to my camp.” “I came on it accidentally,” said Beamont, “of which you may be sure, as I am unarmed and quite alone. I first lost my horse and then my way, and that’s how I came here. I am dead lame, and must stop with you come what will of it, for I can go no farther.” Brady smiled at his distresses, and at the joke of having his future executioner for his guest, and then went on :– “Well, if you are knocked up, and have lost your horse, I suppose I must lend you mine, as soon as you are ready to start, for you cannot remain here, as I will not answer for your life after my fellows come back, which will not be long first.” Beamont cheered up wonderfully at his altered prospects, and accepted the offer. “But how am I to return your horse to you?” “Oh,” said Brady, “I’ll go with you, as will be best; for if you should meet any of our people, they may be troublesome, and perhaps put a bullet into you.” Beamont mounted the stolen horse, the efficious Brady giving him “a leg up,” and off they went together; and in this way did those two men, who held such very antipodal positions in the country, jog on in company, chatting away as merrily as if they were old friends, Brady going several miles to accommodate his future executioner, and never quitting his side, until they hove in view of the New Norfolk watchhouse, the sight of which seemed to admonish Brady that he had gone far enough. He now requested Beamont to dismount, and return him his horse, as “it was not quite convenient,” so he mildly phrased it, “to accompany him any farther, at least in that direction,” (taking a comprehensive view of the lock-up as he spoke.) So wishing the Marshal good afternoon, he went off at his usual galloping pace to his solitary bivouac.

[To be continued].

*This gentleman resided until recently on Bruny, Island. He died not long ago.

The most grisly bushranger stories

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

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

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

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

Michael Howe

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

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

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

Illustration of Pearce after death by Thomas Bock

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

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Post-mortem sketches of cannibal convict, Alexander Pearce.

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

Jefferies by Thomas Bock

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

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

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

Dan Morgan’s death mask

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

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The infamous murder of Sgt. McGinnity by Dan Morgan.

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

Jimmy Governor after his capture.

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

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The murders committed by Jimmy Governor prompted one of the biggest manhunts in New South Wales history.

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

The Murder of William Drew

In October 1817, the bushranger Michael Howe was finally captured. He had been on the run with a string of raids, murders and arson attacks in his wake attributed to his former gang, said to have been 24 members strong at one point. A former accomplice and an associate had conspired to catch him and succeeded but their success was doomed to be very short-lived.

Proclamation of the reward for Howe and his associates

William Drew, also known as Slambow, was a shepherd in the employ of a grazier named Mr. W. Williams and had been one of Howe’s harbourers. Unlike most later bushrangers who had scores of sympathisers who were willing to assist, Howe relied on intermediaries who had no emotional attachment to the task, but rather were in it simply for what they may get in return for their involvement – this included the potential payout if they brought Howe in to the authorities. Drew had received one of Howe’s letters intended to be sent to the Governor, possibly in relation to his recent absconding from custody. Drew had no particular fondness for Howe but knew enough of his fearsome reputation not to deny him. A few weeks later George Watts inquired about if Drew had seen Howe about. Watts was a runaway from Newcastle who had arrived in Australia via the Pilot and had only a month previously been declared as a wanted man and a bushranger in his own right, known to be one of Howe’s associates and a man that Howe himself deeply mistrusted. The pair subsequently agreed to attempt to capture Howe when he returned on the following Friday. Drew sent word to Howe to meet him at a place called Long Bottom in the Tasmanian midlands.

When the time came, the pair headed towards New Norfolk to meet Howe. Watts arrived first and took a small boat belonging to a man named Triffit and rowed across the river Derwent, where he hid out of direct view along a path to wait for Drew. Drew had borrowed a musket and hunting dog from his employer but was convinced by Watts to leave the gun hidden at the camp for fear that Howe would get spooked if he saw it. Watts, however, kept his gun ready and primed. They camped out until sunrise then headed to the meeting place and called out to Howe three times. He replied from across the creek. Watts convinced Howe to knock the priming out of his gun and did the same as a goodwill gesture.

The trio travelled about 40 yards and set up camp, lighting a small fire. While Howe was off-guard Watts grabbed Howe by the collar and threw him down where Drew bound the bushranger’s hands, likely with no small amount of protest. Drew removed two knives from Howe’s pockets. The pair intended to take him in alive for the bounty on his head.

The next morning Drew and Watts prepared breakfast but Howe refused to eat. No doubt Howe was scheming while he watched the other two stuff their faces with self-satisfaction at how easily they had taken Van Diemen’s Land’s most wanted. After breakfast they began the long walk to Hobart, where Howe was certain to be hanged. Drew suggested he should take his boss’ dog and musket back before they get to town. He returned to the farm where Williams had been searching for him and explained that George Watts had stopped Michael Howe and showed Williams the knives he had taken. Williams suggested he could come along to help, but Drew refused, stating that it was under control and Howe was secured, the pair having taken possession of his gun.

Hobart Town Drawn by C Jeffreys 1817 [Source: Libraries Tasmania]

When he returned the trio began walking, Drew in the rear holding Howe’s unprimed musket and Watts in front, leading with his gun loaded and primed. When the group had walked about 8 miles Hell broke loose. The whole time Howe had been working the ropes away from his hands and had drawn a dagger that had obviously been missed by his captors when they searched him. Drew screamed and roused Watts. Watts was taken by surprise and Howe stabbed him in the stomach, then seized his musket. Watts ran for the bushes and hid behind a wattle tree.

“I’ll settle your business!” Howe growled as he drew the musket and shot Drew in the back. The ball struck by the right shoulder blade and pushed straight through the thorax and out of the breast bone. As Drew lay dead, Howe moved to where Watts was attempting to conceal himself. Watts asked Howe if Drew was dead. “Yes, and I’ll serve you the same as soon as I can load my piece.”

Watts, in extreme pain from his stomach wound, ran about 200 yards before collapsing from loss of blood and exhaustion. He could not see Howe approaching and as soon as he was able he took off again, heading for a hut half a mile from where Drew lay dead. The hut was the residence of a Mr. James Burne. Watts was put to bed and he asked Mrs. Burne to fetch Constable Waddle to take him into town. When the constable arrived Watts was barely able to speak and only managed to give his name and, the following day, the detail that Drew had been shot.

A search in the surrounding area resulted in the retrieval of Drew’s body. An inquest was held and it was deemed that Michael Howe was guilty of the murder of William Drew. Watts was taken to the general hospital in Hobart along with the corpse of Drew. He died three days later.

Such was the desperation of the government to put a stop to Howe that the previous reward of 100 guineas was increased to include a pardon and free passage back to England for any convicts who helped the authorities capture Howe. Despite the reputation for bloodthirstiness that was later thrust upon Howe by authors, this act of fury and desperation was the only outright murder that could be directly attributed to him. During his life Howe typically avoided bloodshed, but over time fact became obscured by tall tales and half-remembered anecdotes until he became known as one of the most dangerous, heartless and monstrous bushrangers in history.


Selected Sources:
i: “Proclamation,” The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter (Tas. : 1816 – 1821) 6 September 1817: 1.

ii: “CORONER’S INQUEST” The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter (Tas. : 1816 – 1821) 18 October 1817: 2.

iii: “HOBART TOWN; SATURDAY, OCTOBER 11, 1817.” The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter (Tas. : 1816 – 1821) 11 October 1817: 1.

iv: Michael Howe : the last and worst of the bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land : narrative of the chief atrocities committed by this great murderer and his associates during a period of six years in Van Diemen’s Land, from authentic sources of information. Wells, T. E. (Thomas E.). Hobart Town : Printed by Andrew Bent, [1818]