Category: History Stories

The JC

The JC

In the late 1860s pastoralist and adventurer John Costello rode west from his holdings on Kyabra Creek, exploring the Channel Country out to the Diamantina. One night he camped beside a small creek, where he stripped back the bark of a bauhinia tree and carved his initials, JC.

That tree became a popular stopping place for travellers, and when an enterprising hotelier built a mud-brick pub on the site, he called it the JC Hotel. The government surveyor was sent in to lay out a town, but he refused to call the new town JC because it wasn’t proper. He named the place Canterbury instead, but to locals the name never changed.

In the mid-1880s the pub was being run by two men in partnership: Manners and Dalton. Not only did they spruce the place up, but apparently Mrs Dalton was a popular figure behind the bar. A visitor in 1885 reported that nearly thirty men sat down to eat breakfast at the hotel.

The owner of nearby Waverney Station, a man by the name of Gibbs, built a store next to the pub. It was apparently “fully stocked with all the requirements of a country store.” A post office was opened in 1891, and ran for a couple of years before being downgraded to a receiving office.

In 1893 the pub was being run by George and Elizabeth Geiger. Their son, also named George, was not quite two and a half, playing in the yard when he wandered off. One story goes that he had a pet lamb, and when it was taken by a dingo, he followed.

Every available adult, including some capable trackers, were enlisted to find young George, but the flock of goats kept by the family had obliterated his tracks, and the mulga scrub made it hard to see more than a few yards. They found him in the end, much too late, and the dingos had finished him off. His grave still stands in the small cemetery there.

The pub was the venue for regular dances, and an annual race meeting. Most importantly it gave travellers a friendly place to stop between Windorah and Bedourie. The beer flowed for another half century before the manager of Waverney bought it for a pittance and shut it down. He was sick of his stockmen spending their free time there and riding home drunk.

Story, research and photographs by Greg Barron.
More Australian history stories in the book available from:
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The Capture of the Kenniff Brothers

The Capture of the Kenniff Brothers

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It was April the 2nd 1902 when Queensland policeman, Constable Doyle, closed in on Patrick and James Kenniff at a rugged mountain hideout called Lethbridge’s Pocket. With the manager of Carnarvon Station, Albert Dahlke, and a tracker called Sam Johnson for company, Doyle stealthily approached the camp.

Wanted for horse stealing, Jim and Patrick had been in trouble with the law before, and both had served time. Born and raised in New South Wales, they moved to Queensland one step ahead of the bailiffs. Then, from a base in the Upper Warrego area they raced horses, ran illegal books, and stole livestock at night. When police arranged for the lease on their land to be terminated, the brothers became outlaws, and rarely rode unarmed.

Dahlke and Constable Doyle got lucky at first. Patrick managed to slip away, but they chased Jim on horseback and rode him down. When tracker Sam Johnson was sent back to fetch handcuffs he heard five gunshots. Patrick had returned for his brother, with deadly result.

Sam was forced to ride for his life, but he returned later with a man called Burke. In two pack bags they found the charred remains of Dahlke and Doyle.

A huge manhunt followed, but the two brothers stayed on the loose for more than two months before they were tracked to a ridge just south of Mitchell called Bottle Tree Hill (pictured above). Four policemen; Constables Tasker, Scanlan, Meston and Cramb surrounded the camp, and waited until sunrise when they were able to surprise the sleeping men. Patrick and Jim both fled on foot.

Patrick had no time to locate a weapon, and was easily ridden down by Constable Cramb. Jim fled with both loaded rifles, but was captured on the road back towards Mitchell, near what is now called Arrest Creek.

The brothers were placed on trial on Brisbane, and found guilty of wilful murder. Public sympathy, however, was on the side of the Kenniff brothers, in part because of a groundswell of anti-establishment feeling at the time. Jim’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but Patrick was promised an appointment with the gallows.

Four thousand people marched outside Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol to protest the execution, but the government held firm. Patrick had his neck broken by the rope on the 12th of January, 1903, still protesting his innocence.

Below are the words to one of several ballads in circulation at the time. They are believed to have greatly boosted public sympathy for Patrick and his brother, who served only twelve years of his life sentence.

THE EXECUTION OF PADDY KENNIFF
by John Creevey 1867-1912

With head erect he left his cell, he needed no man’s aid,
He walked upon the scaffold, and this is what he said:
“My name is Patrick Kenniff, I am condemned to die,
As witness of my innocence I call my God on high.
To my few friends I bid farewell, the last farewell I’ll say,
My time has come and soon I’ll be a lifeless lump of clay.
I wish to thank the warders, who have treated me so well,
And the Rev. Father O’Riley, who saved my soul from hell.”
Then forward came the noble priest, and shook poor Paddy’s hand,
“Paradise is yours,” he said, “when you quit this sinful land.”
The good priest then began to pray, he prayed ’till all was o’er,
The lever wrenched the scaffold sprung, poor Paddy was no more;
He may have died an innocent man, ’tis very hard to say,
There were other men in Killman’s Gap, upon that fatal day;
Then let’s not judge lest we be judged, by him who judges all,
And never despise your fellow man, if he should chance to fall.

 

Story researched and written by Greg Barron. Photo by Greg Barron.

Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History now available at ozbookstore.com
Click here to view Sources used in this article

Mary Watson of Lizard Island

Mary Watson of Lizard Island

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The ruins of a stone cottage, once the home of pioneer Mary Watson, lie crumbling up behind the beach at Watson’s Bay on Lizard Island, three hundred kilometres north of Cairns.

Mary was born in Cornwall, and her family settled in Maryborough, Queensland, when she was seventeen. Both educated and musical, Mary easily won a position in Brisbane as a governess.

Mary’s employer, Mr Bouel, decided that her talents were wasted teaching children. He took her to Cooktown to play piano in a hotel he owned there, and in that wild frontier town she grew up fast.

Belting out popular tunes on the piano at the bar, Mary couldn’t help but notice when a handsome, fit man called Robert Watson swaggered in one night. Mary learned that he, in partnership with his mate Percy Fuller, ran a beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) fishing operation on Lizard Island.

Seduced, perhaps, by tales of one of the world’s most beautiful islands, Mary married Bob a few weeks later, and packed for the journey north.

By 1880, still just twenty years old, Mary was running an island household and a small farm with the help of some Chinese labourers. She kept a record of the trials and triumphs of her life in a journal, which survives to this day.

Within a few months Mary was pregnant, and she returned to Cooktown where she gave birth to her son Thomas. Once she felt confident of her abilities in raising the child she headed back to Lizard Island and the love of her life.

Bob, Percy and another man headed off to a distant island on a fishing trip. They had not noticed a fleet of canoes crossing the thirty-five kilometre stretch of water from the mainland.

With most of the white men absent, the local Dingaal people, who had fished and hunted on the island for millennia, attacked. Ah Leong, one of the Chinese workers, was killed, and another seriously wounded.

Mary, her baby Thomas, and the wounded man, Ah Sam, put to sea in a cut-down iron water tank. They drifted in terrible heat for eight days before washing up on an uninhabited island in the Howick Group.

The final entry in Mary’s journal reads: “No water. Nearly dead with thirst.” Their bodies were found three months later, and transported to Cooktown for burial.

Taking their cue from an outraged public, the local constabulary inflicted a terrible revenge on the Dingaal people. A sad end to a heart-wrenching tale.

 

Story and Pictures by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at ozbookstore.com

Click here to view the sources for this story.

 

 

Nemarluk

Nemarluk

Idriess

Nemarluk was a fighting man of the Daly River people who would not be tamed. Born in 1911, by the 1930s he and a small band of young men were waging an effective guerrilla war against interlopers on his territory.

The Fitzmaurice and Daly River areas had never been fully settled. With the region’s jagged sandstone gorges and winding rivers, pastoral pursuits were difficult, and supply routes subject to ambush. Nemarluk grew up in a time of conflict and, according to oral tradition, swore to keep his land free of outsiders, their laws, and their guns.

Three Japanese shark fishermen sailed their lugger into the Daly River near Port Keats. Their names were Nagata, Yoshida and Owashi. They anchored in a backwater and made contact with Nemarluk and his community, who were camped on the river bank.

Nemarluk was aware that the lugger was packed with stores, along with highly-prized iron and tobacco. He was also mindful of his oath to rid his lands of foreigners. He formulated a plan to attack and kill the Japanese without risking his people to their deadly guns.

The first step was to make the Japanese trust them. They brought food aboard, served by the most attractive young women in the group. Nemarluk then suggested to Nagata, the captain, that he might go ashore to a lagoon and shoot as many ducks as he wanted.

Nagata took up the invitation, and was delighted to find that the lagoon really was alive with ducks. He shot a great number, walking further along the banks as he went. Waiting until the Japanese captain was thigh deep in water, Nemarluk gave the signal. They attacked and killed him.

Nemarluk took the geese back to the lugger, telling the other Japanese that Nagata was attempting to shoot some kangaroos. Once they were aboard the Aborigines produced hidden weapons and killed the rest of the crew.

A frenzy of looting followed: more tobacco than they had seen in their lives, iron implements that could be filed down into spear points, along with blankets and vessels of all types. They also found guns.

It was rumours of guns in the possession of the group that provoked a strong reaction from the NT Police. Two parties were soon on the trail of Nemarluk and his comrades. The most feared of these was the mounted policemen Pryor, Birt, and the tracker, Bulbul.

Despite seeking refuge in the rugged Fitzmaurice region, most of Nemarluk’s comrades were arrested for murder and faced the death sentence. Months later their leader was also captured.

Even then, Fannie Bay Jail could not hold this wild spirit. Nemarluk escaped by swimming across Darwin Harbour to the Cox Peninsula, a distance of at least eight kilometres.
Heading back into his homelands, Nemarluk continued to elude the police for years. This article from the Northern Standard newspaper gives an account of his capture.

“Nemarluk was captured after two and a half years of continuous searching by officers and black trackers, who covered 21,000 miles of country. The capture occurred when Constable Birt was stationed at Timber Creek, in the western part of the Territory. Black trackers who were in his charge found Nemarluk at Legune Station in March, 1934. Constable Birt later escorted Nemarluk to Darwin to face a three-year-old charge of having been concerned in the murder of three Japanese at Port Keats.

“Nemarluk had been arrested after the murder, but escaped from the Fanny Bay Gaol, and was at large until Constable Birt’s trackers found him. Bulbul, the leading tracker, was also responsible for the recapture of Minemara, another escaped native murderer who had been concerned in the killing of the Japanese, and who was captured in June last year.”

Nemarluk’s exploits became the subject of a popular book by author Ion Idriess, who met the outlaw several times, and was impressed by his physical strength and demeanour.

The dust jacket introduced the book with the romantic assertion: “Here now is Nemarluk’s life story – the tragic adventures of the young chief who was a living Tarzan of the wilds.”

I doubt Idriess himself made that one up.

Story and Pictures by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at ozbookstore.com
Click here to view the sources for this story.

Elizabeth Woolcock

Elizabeth Woolcock

Elizabeth Woolcock.jpg

Elizabeth Woolcock was the only woman ever to be executed in South Australia. Convicted of killing her husband by poisoning him with mercury, she was hanged by the neck until she was dead on the portable gallows at the old Adelaide Gaol.

A letter from Elizabeth addressed to a Reverend Bickford, who had been counselling her before her death, was handed to the Adelaide Observer after the hanging. They published it in full on January 3, 1874.

THE LAST STATEMENT AND CONFESSION OF ELISABETH WOOLCOCK.

I was born in the Burra mine in the province of South Australia in the year 1847. My parents’ names were John and Elisabeth Oliver. They were Cornish. They came to this colony in 1842 but they went to Victoria in 1851. 1 was left without the care of a mother at the age of 4 years and I never saw her again until I was 18. My father died when I was 9 years old and I had to get my living until I was 18 and then I heard that my mother was alive and residing at Moonta Mine. She wrote me a letter asking me to come to her as she had been very unhappy about me and was very sorry for what she had done. I thought I should like to see my mother and have a home like other young girls so I gave up my situation and came to Adelaide.

My mother and my stepfather received me very kindly and I had a good home for two years. My mother and stepfather were members of the Wesleyan Church and I became a teacher in the Sunday School for two years. At the end of that time I first saw my late husband Thomas Woolcock.

I believe my stepfather was a good man but he was very passionate and determined. My late husband was a widower with two children. His wife had been dead about eight months when I went to keep house for him against Stepfather’s wishes. I kept house for him for six weeks when someone told my stepfather that I was keeping company with Thomas Woolcock. He asked me if it was true and I told him it was not but he would not believe me. He called me a liar and told me he would cripple me if I went with him any more.

I, being very self-willed, told him that I had not been with the man but I would go with him now if he asked me. This took place on the Thursday morning. I saw my husband in the evening and he asked me what was the matter and I told him what had taken place the following Sunday. He asked me to go with him for a walk instead of going to chapel.

I went and my stepfather missed me from the chapel and came to look for me and met us both together so I was afraid to go home for he had said he would break both of my legs. I was afraid he would keep his word as I never knew him to tell a wilful lie. So I went to a cousin of my husband’s and stopped, and my husband asked me if I would marry him and for my word’s sake I did we were married the next Sunday morning by licence after the acquaintance of seven weeks.

I was not married long, before I found out what sort of man I had got, and that my poor stepfather had advised me for my good. But was too late then so I had to make the best of it. I tried to do my duty to him and the children but the more I tried the worse he was. He was fond of drink but he did not like to part with his money for anything else and God only knows how he ill-treated me. I put up with it for three years, during that time my parents went to Melbourne and then he was worse than ever.

I thought I would rather die than live so I tried to put an end to myself in several different ways but thank the Lord I did not succeed in doing so.

So as he did not treat me any better and I could not live like that I thought I would leave him and get my own life. So I left him but he would not leave me alone. He came and fetched me home and then I stopped with him twelve months and I left him again with the intention of going to my mother. I only took six pounds with me.

I came down to Adelaide and I stopped with my sister. I was here in Adelaide six weeks when he came and fetched me back again. But he did not behave no better to me. I tried my best to please him but I could not. There is no foundation at all for the story about the young man called Bascoe. He was nothing to me nor did I give the poor dog any poison for I knew what power the poison had as I took it myself for some months.

I was so ill-treated that I was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour I yielded to the temptation. He was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarrelled with me and Satan tempted me and I gave him what I ought not, but I thought at the time that if I gave him time to prepare to meet his God I should not do any great crime to send him out of the world.

But I see my mistake now. I thank God he had time to make his peace with his maker and I hope I shall meet him in heaven for I feel that God has pardoned all my sins. He has forgiven me and washed me white in the precious blood of Jesus. I feel this evening that I can rejoice in a loving Saviour. I feel his presence here tonight. He sustains me and gives me comfort under this heavy trial such as the world can never give.

Dear friend if I may call you so, I am much obliged to you for your kindness to a poor guilty sinner, but great will be your reward in heaven. I hope I shall meet you there, and I hope that God will keep me faithful to the end so may be able to say that live is Christ but to Die will be gain. Bless the Lord he will not torn away any that come unto him for he says come onto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. I feel I have that rest. I hope to die singing victory through the blood of the lamb. I remain sir, ours truly a sinner saved by grace.

Elizabeth Woolcock

 

Steele Rudd

Steele Rudd

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“It’s twenty years ago now since we settled on the Creek. Twenty years! I remember well the day we came from Stanthorpe, on Jerome’s dray – eight of us, and all the things – beds, tubs, a bucket, the two cedar chairs with the pine bottoms and backs that Dad put in them, some pint-pots and old Crib. It was a scorching hot day, too – talk about thirst! At every creek we came to we drank till it stopped running.”

So begins the first-ever published story by Arthur Davis, better known as Steele Rudd.

Born in 1868, Arthur Davis was six years old when he and his brothers and sisters, walking beside a cart piled high with furniture and farm equipment, arrived at “Shingle Hut” on the Darling Downs, there to make their fortune. “Dad” had arrived a few weeks earlier and knocked up a rough slab hut. Before long, through drought, flood and very occasional plenty the family had swelled to thirteen children.

The young Arthur, was, according to a much later recollection by his son Eric; “six feet tall—active and athletic—his carriage was erect—also his seat on horseback. He had a ruddy complexion with twinkling brown eyes—keenly alert and observant, with wrinkles at his temples which lent a humorous outlook. Kindness was one of his virtues, and he was generous to the extreme.”

At the local school, Emu Creek, Arthur was quiet and hard working. There was one little girl who liked to sit with him in the playground, and talk about horses, dogs and books. Her name was Christina Brodie, always called “Tean” for short.

By the age of twelve Arthur had finished school and was earning a living ‘picking up’ at the woolshed on nearby Pilton Station, and honing his skills as a jockey at the local picnic races. After a stint as a drover “out west” his mother arranged for him to apply for the civil service. His application was successful and he soon found himself in the foreign world of turn-of-the-century Brisbane.

His first job was with the office of the Curator of Intestate Estates, and a later book called “The Miserable Clerk” gives a clue to what he thought of this particular job. A flatmate, however, got him into reading Charles Dickens, and his interest in rowing led to him writing a series of articles under the pen name “Steele Rudder,” later changed to “Steele Rudd.”

After a few years in the city he missed the bush life so much that he began to read everything he could about the outback. Eventually, he had a go at writing his own stories. His first sketch of life growing up in his boisterous family, “Starting the Selection,” was published in the Bulletin Magazine in 1895, championed by J.F. Archibald, the force behind so much great Australian literature.

That same year, Arthur headed back home and asked his childhood sweetheart, Christina, to marry him. She was full of fun and good sense, and had a keen editing pen. It was “Tean” who first read and helped hone Arthur’s early stories.

“On Our Selection” was published in full by the Bulletin Magazine in 1899, followed by “Our New Selection” in 1903. Both won popular and critical acclaim. Two of the main characters, Dad and Dave, became part of Australian folklore.

Partly because his bosses were jealous of his success, Arthur was retrenched from his public service job, and responded by moving to Sydney and starting his own magazine. Nothing could keep him down. As his son Eric later said of him: “He was always a man’s man, tough, testy, a good friend.”

All was not well with Tean. The lack of a steady family income tested her disposition. The magazine slowly dropped in sales, then was forced to close, making her state of mind worse. Believing that a big change might help, Arthur took the family back home to the Darling Downs, settling on a property called “The Firs,” where he bred polo ponies and entered local politics, becoming head of the Cambooya Shire Council.

During World War One their son Gower was badly injured at the Somme, and Tean’s “frailty” became full blown mental illness. The family were forced to sell up and move to Brisbane where she could receive special care. She was hospitalised permanently in 1919, remaining there until her death more than twenty years later.

“Steele Rudd” never stopped writing until his death in 1935, but made little money in his later years. A grateful nation endowed him with a “literary pension” to the tune of twenty-five shillings per week, for which he was apparently grateful.

Arthur published many other books and stories over his lifetime, including his ill-fated magazine, and but nothing ever approached the freshness and honesty of his first two works, On our Selection, and Our new Selection. They are true classics, and an insight into how life was, “back then.”

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.
Click here to view the sources for this story.


You can get this beautiful new edition including On our Selection and Our new Selection by Steele Rudd here: http://ozbookstore.com

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The McGree Brothers of Taylors Arm

The McGree Brothers of Taylors Arm

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John, Michael and Patrick McGree were raised on their parents’ farm on the Mid-north coast of NSW. All three answered the call to arms in 1915. The ANZAC battalions were forming up, and the brothers were determined to have their chance at glory.

Their mother, Bridget Sullivan, had married Irishman James McGree in St Augustine’s Church, Longford, Tasmania in 1874. The young couple moved north and took up a selection on Hickey’s Creek near Kempsey. Life was tough, but like most good Catholics they welcomed children, bringing twelve boys and girls into the world over a twenty-five-year period.

Patrick, the oldest of the three McGree boys who served, was a born adventurer. He headed off to New Zealand at an early age, living in Waiapo and Gisborne. He kept in touch with his Australian family via mail and occasional visits.

In 1914, when war broke out, Patrick was 31 years old, yet he signed on with the Wellington Infantry, New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Michael crossed the Tasman Sea to join his brother, but was waylaid by an unscheduled love affair. He married his Kiwi girl, Nellie, just before heading off for intensive training in Egypt.

John, still at home on the farm outside Taylors Arm, was 22 when he joined up in 1915. He was a small, wiry man, weighing just 58 kg, and of average height. In fact, none of the McGree boys were tall, but were all as tough as nails, with brilliant blue eyes and Irish charm. The doctor examining Michael for his enlistment described him as having a “grand constitution.”

Patrick and Michael, though assigned to different units, both took their place amongst the bloody heroes of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. Both survived the early days of suicide charges on the well-entrenched Turks, but natural attrition took its toll. Patrick was killed on August 8, 1915, in the defence of a hill called Chunuk Bair.

Michael was wounded in the last days of the Gallipoli campaign, and was evacuated to the Fulham Military Hospital in England. His recuperation was slow, and he endured hospitalisation for almost six months before being returned to his unit, judged as fit to serve in the hellish trenches of France.

On the 28th of July 1916 that “tough little bastard” John McGree was one of thousands sent in human waves against the German trenches at the Battle of the River Somme. He was shot in the chest and back. He was still alive when he reached the field hospital, but died within twenty-four-hours. He was buried at the nearby Warloy-Baillon Military Cemetery.

James and Bridget received the usual telegram from Base Records in Melbourne informing them of John’s death: a message just fourteen words long. Losing one son was hard enough. The loss of a second must have been hard to bear.

Bridget penned a desperate letter back to Base Records.

Dear Sir

Please could you give me any information about the death of my son Pte John A McGree No. 3888, who died of wounds in France …  I would like to know the name of the hospital where he died, also if he was seriously wounded or what caused his death. What were his last words and where is he buried? Please send reply as soon as possible

B. McGree,

Taylor’s Arm, via Macksville

Five months passed before she received any additional information: a kind letter informing her of the nature of John’s wounds and the name of the hospital and cemetery. John’s personal effects also arrived in the mail: one religious medallion, three handkerchiefs, two brushes, a cap comforter, one photograph and a notebook.

By July 1918, the surviving brother, Michael McGree, was a veteran of three years of the most terrible warfare mankind had ever known. On the morning of July 18, 1918, just months before the end of the war, his company were ordered to attack a fortified German trench at Gommecourt Wood, France. Running into a hail of lead, Michael was killed in action, just a few kilometres away from the site of his brother John’s death, two years earlier.

Their father, James McGree died at the age of 86, in 1928. Bridget lived on until she was 87, a highly respected local pioneer, and a matriarch of the Laverty, Brock, and McGree families. She died in 1940 and was buried in Macksville cemetery.

The strength she must have had to shoulder the grief of three lost sons is a testament to the spirit of not just the Anzacs, but their families.

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at ozbookstore.com
Click here to view the sources for this story.

Galloping Jones

Galloping Jones

 

Queensland has produced a character or two over the years, but John Dacey “Galloping” Jones takes some beating. Apart from being one of the most talented rough riders of his generation, and one hell of a bare-knuckle fighter, he was famously light-fingered.

Galloping Jones got his nickname from a horse race where he and his mates prepared a ring-in. Apart from boot polish cunningly applied to a white blaze on the nose, part of the trick was to make the substitute’s tail longer. Unfortunately the glue they used to fix the tail extensions started melting half way through the race. The crowd noticed pretty quickly. Jones and his mount reached the finish line ahead of the pack, but rather than face the stewards he just kept on galloping, through the gates and into the bush.

One night Jones complained that when he walked into a pub everyone left.

Riding an outlaw: The Queenslander Magazine

“I don’t leave,” said a voice. Jones turned to see a big bloke called Treacle MacFarlane walking towards him.

“And why don’t you leave, Treacle?”

“Because I can fight just as well as you can.”

Legend has it that they fought for two hours before the bout was declared a draw.

No one could best Jones on a horse, and his freakish ability to stay in the saddle saw him recruited to Lance Skuthorpe’s famous travelling show. Jones’s fame at riding buckjumpers was such that he would ride into town and dare locals to bring out their worst horses just so he could tame them. More than once, if he liked the horse, he lived up to his name and just kept on galloping.

According to the ‘’Queenslander’’ newspaper:

“Galloping” Jones has established the fact that he is a master horseman, and he is recognised as such today. As a horseman and stockman he is recognised as one of the central figures of the Gulf districts. He could be relied on to tame any horse that any other man had failed with, and while he may not quieten him sufficient for any ordinary rider he would never be thrown himself.

Jones joined up in World War One and came back with even less regard for authority than when he left. Police gazettes list charges against him for assault, creating a disturbance and using obscene language. He robbed at least one bank and was shot in the shoulder for resisting arrest. He was known to steal, sell, and then re-steal the same cattle on the same day.

Another time, arrested for horse theft, he asked his captors for permission to head behind a bush for a “call of nature.” When they went looking for him Jones had run off, but recapturing him wasn’t hard. The police found him at the nearest pub.

Even past his prime, Jones was not afraid to stick his neck out. In 1926 the Northern Herald Newspaper carried a challenge from Jones to a boxer called Bob Smith to take him on for a prize of £25. The paper noted that, “Promoter Bob Ditton said that when he presented the agreements to Smith last night the latter seemed unwilling to meet Jones.”

One year later Jones appeared before the police magistrate in Rockhampton, charged with “using obscene language in a public place, assaulting Constable WH Langhorne whilst in execution of his duty, and resisting arrest.”

There’s a sad side to all this. Jones married in 1913 and had three children. The relationship didn’t work out, and he was often in trouble for failing to provide maintenance payments. He was a free spirit, and couldn’t stick to anything for long. That must have been hard on his family.

As an old man, in a nursing home in Charters Towers, Galloping Jones continued to cause trouble – fighting, getting drunk and wandering off to the pub. He died in 1960.

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at ozbookstore.com
Click here to view the sources for this story.

The Eulo Queen

The Eulo Queen

More than a century ago, when the town of Eulo was a thriving centre on the Western Queensland opal fields, one of Australia’s most interesting women set out to make her mark. She was a short but striking redhead, spoke English, French and German, wore tight-fitting dresses over a voluptuous body, and had a fully-stocked bar in her bedroom.

Isobel Robinson, or the Eulo Queen, as she became known, was soon a legend from Quilpie to Lightning Ridge. Reputed to own the world’s finest collection of opals, she was also one of country Queensland’s biggest hoteliers, and boasted thousands of admirers. Every night she would hold court over the bar of the Royal Mail Hotel, carrying on with her delighted customers. Behind the fashionable gowns and diamond earrings, however, was a shrewd business brain.

Right from the beginning, Isobel had attitude. She was a crack rifle and pistol shot, a brilliant billiards player and apparently a shrewd card cheat. She also liked men, marrying three times. Her first husband died only a few weeks after the wedding. The second was a station manager called William Robinson who invited her out to the Paroo, and they leased their first hotel together in around 1886.

By 1902, when William died, they owned five pubs, a store and a butcher’s shop, but trouble was on the way. The Licensing Commission decided that Isobel was not a fit person to hold a liquor licence. She countered this by bribing travellers camped along the river to act as proxies, but when they decided that this entitled them to free beer, the writing was on the wall.

Both the town of Eulo and its queen were in decline. Isobel enjoyed several “round the world” trips with rich squatters, then married again, to a man twenty-four years younger than her. The Eulo Queen’s bad luck with husbands continued. He was killed in action during World War One.

Alfred Bourke, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1951, remembered meeting the Eulo Queen in his youth.

In 1921, I, a smooth-faced stripling, rode into Eulo with other drovers and met this still remarkable woman. Her ‘domain’ was then only a ramshackle store down by the banks of the Paroo. No trace of her beauty then remained, but her keen business instincts and feminine wiles were still much in evidence.

Isobel died in a mental home in 1929, leaving an estate worth just thirty pounds.

Story and Pictures by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

 

Nat Buchanan

Nat Buchanan

Portrait of Nathaniel Buchanan

 

The greatest drover the world has ever known was an unassuming Irish-born Australian with an even temper, incredible organisational skills and an unerring sense of direction. Nat ‘Bluey’ Buchanan was a bushman par excellence with a passion for new horizons. He single-handedly opened up more country than some of our most famous explorers.

In 1861, for example, Nat Buchanan and his business partner Edward Cornish were out exploring in Western Queensland. Having taken up land to create Bowen Downs Station, they decided to poke around much further to the west. Penetrating all the way to the Diamantina River they discovered the tracks of a camel train. The tracks were, it turned out, made by one of the most expensive expeditions in the history of white exploration: Burke and Wills on their way from the Cooper Creek Depot to the Gulf of Carpentaria. That Buchanan and Cornish came upon those famous men and their entourage, while ‘poking around’ out west, with just one tracker and some packhorses, is a good illustration of the difference between independent bushmen and government sponsored explorers.

Nat’s family originally settled in New England, New South Wales, south of Armidale, but after an abortive trip to the Californian goldfields with his brothers, he headed for Queensland and the vast frontier. His first real foray into the wilderness was from Rockhampton with William Landsborough in 1860. Within a year they had formed Bowen Downs station on the Thomson River, and Nat was installed as manager.

Nat met the attractive brunette Catherine Gordon when by chance he rode into her family’s campsite near Rockhampton. The young couple were married soon after, and Nat took his bride out to Bowen Downs in a buggy.

Married or not, Buchanan had no intention of living a settled life. After checking out much of Western Queensland he started exploring the Gulf around Burketown, looking for suitable pastoral country for his partners in Bowen Downs. By 1867 he had struck out on his own again, heading south for a year or two on a Bellingen River (NSW) selection. Catherine must have thought he’d grown roots, but his adventurous years were barely getting started.

Moving Catherine and their son Gordon north again, he managed Craven Station for a while, then took on his first big droving contracts. He was the first white man to cross the Barkly Tablelands in 1877, sparking an explosion of land speculation. Most lease contracts, moreover, stipulated that the run had be stocked within two years. The owners were crying out for cattle and men to drove them.

Now in his fifties, Nat led the largest cattle drive in history – 20 000 head from St George in Queensland to Glencoe in the Northern Territory. He made the record books again a few years later, delivering the first cattle to the East Kimberley. One of his most harrowing achievements was the blazing of the bleak Murranji Track, from near Daly Waters to Victoria River Downs.

Charlie Gaunt, (the subject of my new book, Whistler’s Bones) later wrote that Nat Buchanan had four characteristics that made him great: bushmanship, organisation, observation, and initiative. Yet it was his sense of direction that impressed Charlie and his contemporaries the most.

Charlie relates a story from when he and Nat travelled from Eva Downs Station to Powell Creek in the Northern Territory.

On the open downs with not a tree or bush in sight we got off our horses to have a short spell and a smoke. It was between Bundara and Monmona Creeks. After a smoke we got on our horses and resumed our journey. After a time I discovered I had left my knife (a splendid cattle knife) when we got off for a spell. I mentioned it to Nat. “That will be alright,” he said, “We’ll get it on our return journey.” I thought to myself “A forlorn hope.”

On our return trip back to! Eva Downs, although we did not follow our tracks, and just rode aimlessly along, when we reached the spot, Buchanan pulled up his horse and pointing to the ground said, “There is your knife.”

Charlie never forgot it.

Nat’s great grandson, Bobbie Buchanan, described him as a “confident, strong-willed and uniquely self-sufficient man of great integrity.”  His organisational skills were legendary, and his ability to keep tough men on track and working together no less impressive.

Nat Buchanan’s rules on cattle drives were inviolate:

1)   Travel at speed. This was a technique he referred to as, “giving the cattle the gooseberry,” or just “the old gooseberry.”

2)   No alcohol in camp. In 1883 when he took over a drive to the Kimberley for W.H. Osmand and JA Panton, his first act was to tip out the demijohns of rum he found hidden in the drays. He was a teetotaller himself, and knew well the effect of grog in cattle camps.

3)   Never let wild Aborigines into a camp, male or female.

4)   No man should be left in camp alone.

On a drive through the Gulf in 1878, Nat was forced to head back to Normanton for provisions. He was away for some weeks, and the man he left in charge, Charles Bridson, relaxed these last two rules. Some very insistent Aborigines who knew a few words of pidgin talked their way into the camp. This error was compounded when Bridson rode off and left another man, Travers, alone in the camp.

Travers was making damper, dusted to the elbows in flour, when a steel hatchet that had been lying around the camp cleaved deep into the back of his skull. The event set off days of drama and revenge killings. Buchanan, on his return, was understandably incensed.

Nat’s plan now was to bring the family together on one of the largest cattle runs in history – Wave Hill Station – one of several leases Nat took up in partnership with his brother. Unfortunately the skills that made him a great drover and adventurer did not extend to management. Distance to markets and attacks on stock by the local Gurindji people were major problems.

Nat, by the way, was known for a generally conciliatory approach to Aboriginal people, and was spoken of fondly by Aboriginal workers in oral histories from the region. Cattle, fences and men were not welcomed by traditional owners, and conflict was a fact of the frontier, but Buchanan was never party to the “shoot on sight” mentality of some frontiersman.

Even at the age of seventy Nat was out exploring again, searching for a stock route from the Barkly Tableland to Western Australia. His health was poor by then, and in 1899 he retired to a small property near Walcha, New South Wales, with his beloved Catherine. He died two years later and his gravestone still stands in the Walcha cemetery, along with a plaque commemorating his life.


Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

This post appears in the book ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ by Greg Barron. You can get it at all good bookshops or at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

Catherine Coleman – Pioneer

Catherine Coleman – Pioneer

Catherine Cecilia Coleman wasn’t famous, but was typical of a generation of Australian settlers. She was born in Maitland, NSW in 1856, eldest of ten children. She married in 1871, at the age of 15, and had the first of her own children a couple of years later.

Her husband, John Douglas Coleman, was determined to make his mark in business, and in 1887 the young family packed up and moved north. Their new home would be the land of opportunity, Western Queensland, a wilderness only just then being opened up to cattle and sheep.

Arriving at Whittown (Isisford), near Longreach, the Barcoo River had broken its banks and was in full flood. Catherine’s quick-thinking brother Dan placed the young Catherine and her children in a large draper’s packing case and towed them across on a rope.

John moved them further west to the fledgling town of Forest Grove (Arrilalah), a natural stop for drovers and teamsters making their way up the Thomson River.

At Forest Grove John and Catherine built the mud-brick Club Hotel and a store, operating both for many years with the help of the resourceful Dan. The babies kept coming, and Catherine gave birth to ten children overall while mobs of cattle and sheep came up along the river bed, and dusty men in felt hats rode in to slake their thirst. Picnic races, held every few months, brought a colourful crowd of riders, punters and revellers in from stations and nearby towns.

Then, in September 1888, the dream ended. John fell ill, and did not recover. He died on the 26th of September, and was buried up behind the pub.

Catherine sold up and moved to Isisford, where she lived for 66 years. Her brother Dan also remained in the district. Even in her eighties Catherine was still slim and active, and could apparently read without glasses.

Catherine died in August 1944 at the age of 88. Only four of her ten children outlived her. At the time of her death she was survived by 30 grandchildren, 29 great grandchildren, and 12 great-great grandchildren. Most still lived in the Isisford district at that stage.

There is nothing left of the once thriving town of Arrilalah now but ruins, some signage placed by the Longreach Historical Society, and one gravestone.

 

Written and researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

 

The Town on the Flood Plain

The Town on the Flood Plain

Gundagia

Gundagai Flood 1900: National Library of Australia

 

Australia’s worst flood drowned one third of the population of Gundagai in 1852. The town was originally built on low-lying areas around a natural river crossing and Morley’s Creek. The inhabitants were used to being cut off by floodwaters, taking refuge in their lofts when the water rose.

Yet on June 24 1852, the rain kept falling and the river kept rising. By late that night, two metres of water had inundated or swept away many of the houses and huge floating trees were pummelling what was left.

When the sun rose the next day, eighty-nine people were dead, and dozens more were left clinging to trees and rooftops. Rowboats were useless in the swift water.

Yarri, Long Jimmy and Jacky Jacky, local Aboriginal men who had been warning Gundagai residents for years that their town would be washed away, launched their bark canoes in a desperate rescue attempt. Over the next two days, with the river now one mile across where the town used to be, at least forty, perhaps sixty more people were saved by the efforts of these Indigenous boatmen. Long Jimmy died from exposure after his efforts on the flooded river. Yarri and Jacky Jacky were rewarded with bronze medallions.

The town was eventually rebuilt on higher ground, but it still suffers from the occasional inundation, with water entering the main street in 2012, thankfully without loss of life.

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

The Girder that Wouldn’t Fit

The Girder that Wouldn’t Fit

 

cooper

Things were tough in the NSW North Coast forests in 1907. All the cedar had been cut years earlier, prices for hardwoods had slumped, and the best way to make money was by shaping girders and sleepers.

Tamban Forest woodcutter Bob Cooper was lucky enough to snag an order for a huge 86 foot (26 m) girder from a Sydney construction company. Bob selected a giant ironbark tree, and skilfully felled it along the hill contour.

After trimming off the branches Bob used a string line blackened with charcoal as a straight-edge, and over days of back-breaking labour with a broad axe, finally squared the girder into the required 16 inch (400mm) square dimensions.

Promising a party for his friends and helpers on the basis of a forthcoming big cheque, Bob followed the girder as a bullock team dragged it down to Clybucca Creek, from which point it was punted up the Macleay River to Frederickton Wharf.

Moored at the wharf was the graceful three masted top-sail schooner, Alma Doepel, of one hundred and thirty one tons displacement. One look at the boat was enough to tell that the girder was far too big for the hold.

“No worries,” the captain said cheerfully, “we’ll get it aboard somehow.”

Bob had some business in Kempsey to attend to, but returned a couple of hours later to see that the Alma Doepel was still at the wharf, with no sign of the big girder.

“You got it in the hold?” Bob exclaimed. “How the hell did you do that?”

“Easy,” the captain told him. “We just cut it in half. Then it fitted nicely.”

History doesn’t record how Bob took that news. But apparently the party planned in celebration of a big cheque was cancelled.

(Interestingly, the Alma Doepel, originally built in Bellingen, survives today as a sail training ship, and is berthed at No 2 Victoria Dock Melbourne undergoing a refit.)

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

Bennelong

Bennelong

Bennelong

Image from the journals of James Grant

 

It’s hard to think of a born and bred Australian who inspired more place names than Bennelong, or Beneelon, of Sydney.

His name lives on at Bennelong Point, where the Opera House now stands; the electorate of Bennelong; and Bennelong Park at Kissing Point. A genus of shrimp, Bennelongia, was also named after him. Some suburbs, streets and locations similar to Bennelong’s other traditional name, Woollarawarre, may also owe their origins to this immensely interesting man. The development at Barangaroo is named after his first wife, herself a powerful figure amongst the Cammeraygal people.

Bennelong was a member of the Wangal clan, whose country stretched from Parramatta to Darling Harbour, and included highly productive estuarine hunting grounds. He was abducted from his people on the orders of Governor Arthur Phillip, apparently in an effort to better understand local Indigenous groups. At that time Bennelong was around twenty-five years old, described by a Captain Watkin Tench as being: “of good statue, and stoutly made, with a bold intrepid countenance, which bespoke defiance and revenge.”

The young Bennelong lived in Governor Phillip’s home and soon had a working grasp of the English language as well as a taste for food and liquor. He could, apparently, eat a week’s rations in a day. Despite this largesse, the bush life called to him and he escaped after a few months. He turned up later at Manly in a confrontation between armed parties that resulted in Phillip being wounded by a spear. Bennelong was so worried about his former host that he took to hanging around the settlement again. By 1791 he lived in a brick hut built for him at Bennelong Point.

Barangaroo gave birth to a daughter called Dilboong, but the young mother died soon after. Her body was wrapped in an English blanket, and burned along with a basket of her fishing gear. The service was accompanied by a traditional shower of thrown spears.

Dilboong also died while still an infant, and Bennelong begged Phillip to let him bury her in his garden. He produced only one other confirmed descendant, a boy called Thomas Coke, most likely the son of his second wife. Thomas was raised by a clergyman and died at the age of just twenty.

When Governor Phillip returned to England in late 1792, Bennelong went with him.

According to an account by Royal Navy Lieutenant James Grant:

“Benelong (sic) visited England with Governor Philips, and returned to New South Wales with Governor Hunter; and I am sorry to add, far from being improved by the voyage. He has unfortunately acquired a fondness for strong liquors, and is apt to take them to a great excess, at which time he proves very disorderly and ungovernable. He still retains the highest respect for Governor Philips (sic), and discovers a grateful sense of the favours received at his hands.”

On his return, Bennelong found that his second wife had left him, and he spent the rest of his life caught between two worlds. He was an adviser to Governor Hunter, but also an elder of his people, participating fully in ceremonies and payback fights. His two favourite activities, it was said, were “love and war.”

Bennelong died in January 1813 at Kissing Point, and was buried in an orchard belonging to his friend and early brewer, James Squire. The grave site has recently been located, now under a front yard in the suburb of Putney.

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, “Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History” at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones

Click here to view the sources for this story.

Paddy Cahill

Paddy Cahill

Cahill

Paddy Cahill: State Library of South Australia

 

Originally from the Darling Downs, Paddy Cahill made his name in the Northern Territory as a bushman, stockman and buffalo hunter.

Paddy and his two brothers, Tom and Matt, all cut their teeth with the famous Nat Buchanan on one of Australia’s biggest cattle drives, from St George in Queensland to Glencoe Station in the Northern Territory. All three stayed on in the frontier country, Paddy forming Oenpelli Station on the East Alligator River, where he produced beef and even milk from a small dairy herd.

Within a few years, with a burgeoning market for hides, Paddy started buffalo hunting. This was a risky undertaking, pursued in wetlands frequented by huge crocs. The ground was treacherous for horses, and therefore the key to the business was a good supply of surefooted mounts, and a skilful team. Paddy’s horse St Lawrence was a legend in the north, and one of the reasons for his success.

The team had to work with precision. Generally Paddy and another man were mounted during the ‘run’, both armed with Martini Enfield carbines. The early models were chambered in .450 calibre, then later the new .303 military cartridge. The men on horseback would ride in close and shoot at point blank range, while a steady foot shooter could take out running animals. Once the buffalo were down they would be finished off while the skinners stropped their knives and started work.

Injuries and deaths amongst the men were common, often from being thrown and occasionally from being attacked by a wounded or enraged buffalo. Horses were often gored. It was bloody and dangerous work; not for the fainthearted. Most of the skinners and foot shooters were Aboriginal, who were fearless, and used to the harsh conditions in the tropical Top End.

At the beginning of the season agents in Darwin would offer contracts for whatever number of hides the buffalo hunters thought they could manage, and the product, salted down and tied into bales, would be collected from bush jetties on the East Alligator River, and the King or Liverpool Rivers for the shooters working further east. Paddy Cahill and his team produced at least 1600 hides each year.

Paddy Cahill sold up in 1913, and died of influenza in Sydney ten years later. Next time you throw a lure in at Cahill’s Crossing, spare a thought for the man it’s named after.

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, “Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History” at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones

Click here to view the sources for this story.

 

 

The Capture of the Kenniff Brothers

The Capture of the Kenniff Brothers

Kenniff2 (1)_edited

It was April the 2nd 1902 when Queensland policeman, Constable Doyle, closed in on Patrick and James Kenniff at a rugged mountain hideout called Lethbridge’s Pocket. With the manager of Carnarvon Station, Albert Dahlke, and a tracker called Sam Johnson for company, Doyle stealthily approached the camp.

Wanted for horse stealing, Jim and Patrick had been in trouble with the law before, and both had served time. Born and raised in New South Wales, they moved to Queensland one step ahead of the bailiffs. Then, from a base in the Upper Warrego area they raced horses, ran illegal books, and stole livestock at night. When police arranged for the lease on their land to be terminated, the brothers became outlaws, and rarely rode unarmed.

Dahlke and Constable Doyle got lucky at first. Patrick managed to slip away, but they chased Jim on horseback and rode him down. When tracker Sam Johnson was sent back to fetch handcuffs he heard five gunshots. Patrick had returned for his brother, with deadly result.

Sam was forced to ride for his life, but he returned later with a man called Burke. In two pack bags they found the charred remains of Dahlke and Doyle.

A huge manhunt followed, but the two brothers stayed on the loose for more than two months before they were tracked to a ridge just south of Mitchell called Bottle Tree Hill (pictured above). Four policemen; Constables Tasker, Scanlan, Meston and Cramb surrounded the camp, and waited until sunrise when they were able to surprise the sleeping men. Patrick and Jim both fled on foot.

Patrick had no time to locate a weapon, and was easily ridden down by Constable Cramb. Jim fled with both loaded rifles, but was captured on the road back towards Mitchell, near what is now called Arrest Creek.

The brothers were placed on trial on Brisbane, and found guilty of wilful murder. Public sympathy, however, was on the side of the Kenniff brothers, in part because of a groundswell of anti-establishment feeling at the time. Jim’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but Patrick was promised an appointment with the gallows.

Four thousand people marched outside Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol to protest the execution, but the government held firm. Patrick had his neck broken by the rope on the 12th of January, 1903, still protesting his innocence.

Below are the words to one of several ballads in circulation at the time. They are believed to have greatly boosted public sympathy for Patrick and his brother, who served only twelve years of his life sentence.

THE EXECUTION OF PADDY KENNIFF
by John Creevey 1867-1912

With head erect he left his cell, he needed no man’s aid,
He walked upon the scaffold, and this is what he said:
“My name is Patrick Kenniff, I am condemned to die,
As witness of my innocence I call my God on high.
To my few friends I bid farewell, the last farewell I’ll say,
My time has come and soon I’ll be a lifeless lump of clay.
I wish to thank the warders, who have treated me so well,
And the Rev. Father O’Riley, who saved my soul from hell.”
Then forward came the noble priest, and shook poor Paddy’s hand,
“Paradise is yours,” he said, “when you quit this sinful land.”
The good priest then began to pray, he prayed ’till all was o’er,
The lever wrenched the scaffold sprung, poor Paddy was no more;
He may have died an innocent man, ’tis very hard to say,
There were other men in Killman’s Gap, upon that fatal day;
Then let’s not judge lest we be judged, by him who judges all,
And never despise your fellow man, if he should chance to fall.

 

Story researched and written by Greg Barron. Photo by Greg Barron.

Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History now available at ozbookstore.com
Click here to view Sources used in this article

The JC

The JC

In the late 1860s pastoralist and adventurer John Costello rode west from his holdings on Kyabra Creek, exploring the Channel Country out to the Diamantina. One night he camped beside a small creek, where he stripped back the bark of a bauhinia tree and carved his initials, JC.

That tree became a popular stopping place for travellers, and when an enterprising hotelier built a mud-brick pub on the site, he called it the JC Hotel. The government surveyor was sent in to lay out a town, but he refused to call the new town JC because it wasn’t proper. He named the place Canterbury instead, but to locals the name never changed.

In the mid-1880s the pub was being run by two men in partnership: Manners and Dalton. Not only did they spruce the place up, but apparently Mrs Dalton was a popular figure behind the bar. A visitor in 1885 reported that nearly thirty men sat down to eat breakfast at the hotel.

The owner of nearby Waverney Station, a man by the name of Gibbs, built a store next to the pub. It was apparently “fully stocked with all the requirements of a country store.” A post office was opened in 1891, and ran for a couple of years before being downgraded to a receiving office.

In 1893 the pub was being run by George and Elizabeth Geiger. Their son, also named George, was not quite two and a half, playing in the yard when he wandered off. One story goes that he had a pet lamb, and when it was taken by a dingo, he followed.

Every available adult, including some capable trackers, were enlisted to find young George, but the flock of goats kept by the family had obliterated his tracks, and the mulga scrub made it hard to see more than a few yards. They found him in the end, much too late, and the dingos had finished him off. His grave still stands in the small cemetery there.

The pub was the venue for regular dances, and an annual race meeting. Most importantly it gave travellers a friendly place to stop between Windorah and Bedourie. The beer flowed for another half century before the manager of Waverney bought it for a pittance and shut it down. He was sick of his stockmen spending their free time there and riding home drunk.

Story, research and photographs by Greg Barron.
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Collateral Damage

Collateral Damage

Glenrowan
The Glenrowan Inn. Credit: Victorian State Library

Following on from last week’s post about Kate Kelly, spare a thought for the Jones family, who owned the Glenrowan Hotel when the Kelly Gang decided to use it as the venue for a battle with police.

Ann Jones was the owner and publican. In the battle her pride and joy was burned to the ground. Her son John was shot and killed in the crossfire. Her daughter Jane also caught a stray bullet, but lingered on for two years before dying from her wounds.

Documents found at the Supreme Court stated, in Ann’s own words:

“Brave police! They lay in the gullies, and behind the trees, and shot bullets at the house, knowing that it was full of people. My poor innocent little children suffered most. When my dead little boy was hit he stood up, looked around, and then fell down. ‘Oh God,’ he cried, in such a piteous voice. ‘Mother, dear mother, I’m shot!’”

After the siege, the distraught Ann screamed abuse at the police, and was arrested for being a Kelly sympathiser.

“The police have said things about my character,” she said later. “Most of them never had any.”

 

Written and researched by Greg Barron

Click here to view the sources for this article.

 

 

Captain Moonlite

Captain Moonlite

Capture_of_moonlite Vic state library
Capture of Moonlite: Victorian State Library

It was Saturday, November 15, 1879, and the McDonald family, at Wantabadgery Station, half way between Wagga Wagga and Gundagai, were settling down for the evening. A shepherd galloped in from further down the Murrumbidgee with the news.

“I seen a gang of horsemen coming up along the river,” he said breathlessly. “I swear it’s Captain Moonlite and his men.”

While family and employees alike took refuge inside the house, seven horsemen rode out of the night. A pounding on the door followed. Claude McDonald, the station owner, opened the door a crack, revealing Captain Moonlite himself, dressed in a dark cloak, as dashing as his reputation.

“Good evening,” the bushranger said in his cultured Irish accent. “My men and I are starving. Can we trouble you for bread and tea?”

“Ride off, and don’t come back,” came the answer. Furious, Moonlight stalked back to his men and horses. The gang members loaded their revolvers and Snider rifles. Gunfire was exchanged, and within a few minutes, Moonlite had taken control of the homestead. The gang rounded up the neighbours, twenty-five in all, and raided the Australian Arms Hotel, a mile or two down the Gundagai Road, taking all the liquor they could carry.

Moonlite and his men ate and drank into the night. To entertain themselves they forced young women to play the piano or sing, and held a mock trial of a man who tried to escape. One brave stockman attempted to charge the guns, but was knocked down and restrained.

Four troopers, arriving on the scene, had little chance of taking down the well-armed gang, who fired at them through the windows. Riding off for reinforcements, however, the troopers were soon back with five more men from Wagga Wagga. The policemen surrounded the homestead, and the Moonlite gang, seeing the odds against them, slipped out by a side door.

Fighting a rear-guard action, firing from outbuildings and neighbouring farms, Moonlite and his men finally found themselves penned in to an outdoor kitchen. Gus Wreneckie, just fifteen years old and by far the youngest member of the gang, was shot and killed. There was no turning back now. A bullet from Moonlite struck home, killing Constable Edward Webb-Bowen.

Captain Moonlite’s right-hand-man, James Nesbitt fell also, shot dead, and this was a bitter moment for Moonlite. He fell to his knees, cradling his dying mate in his arms. Constable McGlede saw his opportunity, charging the kitchen, disarming the leader and scattering the gang. It was all over.

Only Moonlite himself, and a man called Tom Rogan, felt the hangman’s noose, the other three survivors were given long prison sentences. The legend that grew up around Moonlite’s life kept the public interested for years, and the facts slowly faded from memory.

Captain Moonlite, whose real name was Andrew George Scott, was surely Australia’s strangest bushranger. The Irish-born engineer, soldier and lay-preacher, though violent at times, was more of a talker than a fighter, and had an inflated opinion of his own worth. He had a history of swindling friends and opportunistic robbery. The cape was just part of his penchant for dressing up.

His first major heist involved robbing gold bullion from one of his best friends, then leaving a note claiming the robbery in the name of ‘Captain Moonlite.’ He later caused a mass break out at Ballarat gaol by tunnelling through a wall and into neighbouring cells. After years of trouble with the law, and a second stint in prison, he formed a gang with six other slum dwellers and ex-cons and headed for the bush.

The police and public took Moonlite seriously, but other bushrangers and the hard men of Australia’s countryside did not. Legend has it that when operating in Northern Victoria, Moonlite sent a message to Ned Kelly and his gang, suggesting that they join forces. The answer apparently came back from Ned that if Moonlite or his men came anywhere near him he’d shoot them down like dogs.

Much has been made of Scott’s relationship with Nesbitt. There’s no doubt that they were unusually close. Was Captain Moonlite, with his love of the theatrical, and deep feelings for his friend Nesbitt, Australia’s only gay bushranger? We’ll never know for sure, but we do know that Nesbitt’s death broke his heart.

“My dying wish is to be buried beside my beloved James Nesbitt,” Scott wrote before his hanging, “… the man with whom I was united by every tie which could bind human friendship. We were one in hopes, in heart and soul and this unity lasted until he died in my arms.”

 

Note: A plaque commemorating the Siege of Wantabadgery hangs on the wall of Gundagai’s Criterion Hotel.

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

 

The Battle of the Margaret River

The Battle of the Margaret River

 

In 1880, Australia’s borders were open, with no quarantine restrictions, and few immigration controls. Chinese miners had been flooding into the Territory goldfields for years. The Margaret River goldfields, north of Pine Creek, were worked by two rival Chinese factions, one from Hong Kong and the other, Macao. When they weren’t attacking each other with muzzle-loaders and shovels, they united against the Australian miners.

In late August, 1880, a young digger by the name of Fred Stone asked a storekeeper called Ah See to look after a bag of his wash-dirt overnight to save him carrying it back to his claim. For some reason the request enraged the Chinese man, who responded by pushing the Australian out onto the track.

Punches were thrown, and the furious storekeeper shouted for help from his countrymen, who came running from all directions. Picking up stones, they pelted Fred from all sides until he broke and ran. His Australian comrades, up at the camp, were greeted with the sight of their mate running flat out towards them, pursued by a mob of two hundred rock-throwing Chinese.

What choice did the white diggers have? Filling their own pockets with rocks they rushed to their mate’s defence, pouring a highly accurate barrage of missiles down on the Chinese. Meanwhile, the only policeman within cooee, Constable Lucanus, ran back and forth trying to quell the riot. He eventually succeeded, but not before he too had been peppered with rocks in the body and legs.

An eyewitness to the fight, a reporter from the Northern Territory Times and Gazette wrote:

“Some of the incidents of the battle were amusing. One powerful young European came to the front and intended to throw stones in return, but he became a splendid object for the enemy; and instead of throwing, he found himself sufficiently occupied in avoiding the missiles. He admitted himself (that) it was a most unsatisfactory method of fighting.”

The smallest white man there was apparently the best rock chucker, being described as a human Gatling Gun, causing carnage amongst the “enemy.” Not every man was armed with rocks: two diggers with rifles, and a local Aboriginal man called Billy Muck with his tomahawk, stood by, watching in case things got out of hand.

In the end, five of the most violent of the Chinese were arrested, taken to the “shackle” and tried for affray. Within a few years the area was mainly worked out and abandoned. Interestingly, a portion of the Margaret River goldfields has recently been designated as a public fossicking area.

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

James “Shearblade” Martin

James “Shearblade” Martin

James Martin - Queensland Police Museum

James Martin was working as a boundary rider when he first got his hands on a copy of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.  He was thunderstruck by the possibilities. He carried the book everywhere while he absorbed every word. He then moved on to other socialist writers such as Bellamy and Nordeau.

A dream was born, to make Australia a worker’s republic, owned by the people.

In 1891, while shearing shed after shearing shed was burned to the ground by rampaging shearers, Martin hurried from town to town, enlisting recruits and trying to convince strike breakers to change sides. In Barcaldine he addressed a crowd where he announced that it was time to move against the Queen, who he referred to as “Old Mother Brown.”

“What we want is a revolution and a republic,” he said. “If the amalgamated miners are prepared to back us, we are prepared to take the colony. I have a petition in my swag for electoral reform, but the only petition I believe in is 10,000 resolute bushmen behind 10,000 shear blades.” His numbers were not inflated. 8000 strikers were living in at least forty camps across Queensland, and thousands more were living independently or at home.

Almost as furious about Martin’s disrespect to the Queen as his threat to conquer Queensland, a team of policemen were soon on the trail of the man now known as James “Shearblade” Martin. On the day of his arrest he was carrying a revolver and seventy cartridges. This fact did not impress the judge. He was sentenced to two years in prison for sedition, and taken to the dreaded St Helena Island, off the mouth of the Brisbane River. Known variously as “the hell hole of the Pacific” and “Queensland’s Inferno,” Martin served two years in that gaol, suffering mercilessly under the lash and terrible conditions.

Released at the end of his sentence, Martin turned up in Charleville, taking control of the Australian Workers Union there, just in time for the next round of the Shearer’s Wars in 1894. He marched a small army to Winton, where the strike action was centred. Terrorising and converting scab labour was the number one activity, and Martin was involved in the burning of at least three woolsheds.

This was harsh, but bear in mind that the pastoralists had again banded together to set shearers’ pay below what was considered a living wage. These men were fighting for the right of their families to eat.

For the burning of the Ayrshire Downs woolshed Martin was ultimately charged with arson and sentenced to fifteen years at hard labour. They transported him on a steamer, padlocked to his bunk, to Townsville’s Stewart Creek Gaol, where he was placed in solitary confinement, in tropical heat, for three months. Later that year he was taken back to Brisbane’s Boggo Road, and ultimately to his old prison at Saint Helena Island, where he worked, for a time, as librarian, bootmaker, and cook.

Petitioned for early release, by members of the original jury, and 1500 members of the public, Martin and his co-accused served only four and a half years.

That was the end of James Martin’s dreams of a workers’ state in Australia. After his release he went to join the revolution in Paraguay, where his side had much better success than they did in Australia.

 

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about the book: Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

The Man with a Mission

The Man with a Mission

Australian Inland Mission Southern Patrol car with Reverend John Flynn leaning against the back tray

The year was 1882, and the sheets were wet with blood and sweat as the young woman fought to deliver her third child. The baby was born sickly and weak. Even worse, the midwife could not stop the new mother from bleeding. It was soon obvious that she was dying.

A two-year-old boy was brought into the room, so his dying mother could see him one last time. He must have been deeply affected, although seemingly too young to understand. Who could have guessed that one day this child’s achievements would see his image gracing Australia’s $20 note!

The boy’s schoolteacher father was unable to cope after the loss of his wife, and the boy was sent to be raised by his aunt in Sydney until he was five. At that age he returned to his father in Snake Gully, near Ballarat.

“Good to have you home John,” said his father, ruffling his hair. “Us Flynns have to stick together.”

After leaving school, John followed in his father’s footsteps, enrolling as a pupil-teacher, but also studying theology through the Presbyterian Church. His first appointment as a pastor was to Dunesk Mission in the Northern Flinders Ranges, and his affinity for the bush led to the Church commissioning him to visit the Northern Territory and assess the needs of the people who lived there.

The result of that report was that Flynn was given responsibility for the newly formed Australian Inland Mission. He organised “patrols” of ministers on horseback, based in Oodnadatta, Port Hedland, Broome and Cloncurry. He set up nursing hostels in Port Hedland, Hall’s Creek, Maranboy (near Katherine) and Alice Springs.

John was desperate to help solve the “tyranny of distance.” A badly injured drover at Wave Hill, for example, faced a journey that might stretch to weeks to reach medical help in Katherine, by which time they were often dead or suffering from gangrene.

Two relatively new inventions were rattling around the back of John’s mind. One was the aeroplane, and the other was the two-way radio. After a long testing phase, and years of gathering support from various state governments and the church itself, the Australian Aerial Medical Service was born.

Busy to the point of obsession, John also found time for the good things in life. He was a passionate photographer, and though he had no time for romance in his early years, he married his secretary, Jean Baird, at the age of fifty-one.

The effect of the Flying Doctor on inland Australia can’t be overestimated. Thousands of lives have been saved, many of them the children of remote families. Even today, the Royal Flying Doctor Service operates sixty-eight aircraft, and assists a quarter of a million people each year through clinics, telehealth services, and emergency visits.

John Flynn died of cancer, in 1951. Speaking at the funeral his former senior padre, Kingsley Partridge, said, “Across the lonely places of the land he planted kindness, and from the hearts of those who call those places home, he gathered love.” Not a bad epitaph for a man who saw his mother die in childbirth and pursued a dream, believing that medical help could reach every Australian, no matter where they lived.

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

Lost

Lost

FREDERICK MCCUBBIN LOST
Lost, by Frederick McCubbin.

It was May 1885, and twelve-year-old Clara Crosby was boarding with a local family at Yellingbo, Victoria, when she decided to visit her mother, who lived some two kilometres away.

Setting off across paddocks and bushland, Clara was seen by several locals, including the publican, as she left town. She failed to reach her destination.

By nightfall the police had been alerted. Troopers, blacktrackers and local bushmen combined to comb the area, but heavy rain obliterated any tracks. After days of intensive searching the party dispersed, and it was assumed that Clara had died in the heavy scrub that surrounded the town.

Days of grieving passed by, and slowly the little town began to recover from what seemed like a senseless tragedy. Then, three full weeks after Clara had first wandered off, two road workers were looking for a horse in thick scrub far from the town, when they heard a human-like cry.

In the hollow trunk of a dead tree they found a starving, naked girl, streaked with lacerations and so weak she could not stand. Clara sobbed with relief as they wrapped her in their jackets and took her back to their camp for food and warmth. By nightfall she was recovering at the Woori Yallock Hotel, with her mother in attendance. Within days she was being hailed across the country as a miracle.

Clara had taken a wrong turn and walked blindly into the scrub. She had lost her clothes trying to cross the near-freezing waters of Cockatoo Creek, and kept herself alive on water and leaves, hanging her petticoat over the opening of her hollow tree to keep the warmth in.

Later, a Melbourne waxworks induced Clara to recount her story for a fee, and over time, some 150 000 people paid money to hear her story. Later she was married, unfortunately into an abusive relationship.

Well known painter, Frederick McCubbin heard the story in 1886. He was, at the time, in one of his “bush camps” in company with other artists like Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder at a farm near Box Hill. His painting Lost (main image) was based on Clara’s experiences, and was followed a few years later by a companion piece, called Found.

 

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

Where the Dead Men Lie

Where the Dead Men Lie

Barcroft Boake
Barcroft Boake in 1892. State Library of Victoria

There have always been two schools of thought on the Australian bush: epitomised in the romantic writings of Banjo Patterson, and the harder, more brutal outback of Henry Lawson.

The poet who presented the bush in the harshest light of all was stockman and poet Barcroft Boake. That doesn’t, of course, mean that he loved it any less. Born in Balmain, in 1866, Barcroft was the son of a very early professional photographer. Having lost three of his siblings in their infancy, he was prone to bouts of melancholy, even as a child, but he loved sport and outdoor activities. He dreamed of living and working in the outback.

At the age of seventeen Barcroft applied for training as a surveyor. He spent years in the back blocks of New South Wales, connecting with the Western landscape. Before long he had quit the Survey Department and was off droving in Queensland. At the same time he devoured the poetry of Adam Lindsay Gordon, and developed the urge to express the tough love he felt for the bush. He started writing, and by 1890 his poems were appearing regularly in the Bulletin magazine.

His career as a poet was short-lived. When he was just twenty-four years of age he was called back to Sydney where his family was facing bankruptcy. Barcroft helped with what he could, but fruitlessly searched for work, battling depression and anxiety. His body was found under a tree on the shores of Sydney Harbour in May 1892, hanging from his own stockwhip.

 

Where the Dead Men Lie
By Barcroft Boake


Out on the wastes of the Never Never -
That's where the dead men lie!
There where the heat-waves dance forever -
That's where the dead men lie!
That's where the Earth's loved sons are keeping
Endless tryst: not the west wind sweeping
Feverish pinions can wake their sleeping -
Out where the dead men lie!

Where brown Summer and Death have mated -
That's where the dead men lie!
Loving with fiery lust unsated -
That's where the dead men lie!
Out where the grinning skulls bleach whitely
Under the saltbush sparkling brightly;
Out where the wild dogs chorus nightly -
That's where the dead men lie!

Deep in the yellow, flowing river -
That's where the dead men lie!
Under the banks where the shadows quiver -
That's where the dead men he!
Where the platypus twists and doubles,
Leaving a train of tiny bubbles.
Rid at last of their earthly troubles -
That's where the dead men lie!

East and backward pale faces turning -
That's how the dead men lie!
Gaunt arms stretched with a voiceless yearning -
That's how the dead men lie!
Oft in the fragrant hush of nooning
Hearing again their mother's crooning,
Wrapt for aye in a dreamful swooning -
That's how the dead men lie!

Only the hand of Night can free them -
That's when the dead men fly!
Only the frightened cattle see them -
See the dead men go by!
Cloven hoofs beating out one measure,
Bidding the stockmen know no leisure -
That's when the dead men take their pleasure!
That's when the dead men fly!

Ask, too, the never-sleeping drover:
He sees the dead pass by;
Hearing them call to their friends - the plover,
Hearing the dead men cry;
Seeing their faces stealing, stealing,
Hearing their laughter, pealing, pealing,
Watching their grey forms wheeling, wheeling
Round where the cattle lie!

Strangled by thirst and fierce privation -
That's how the dead men die!
Out on Moneygrub's farthest station -
That's how the dead men die!
Hard-faced greybeards, youngsters callow;
Some mounds cared for, some left fallow;
Some deep down, yet others shallow.
Some having but the sky.

Moneygrub, as he sips his claret,
Looks with complacent eye
Down at his watch-chain, eighteen carat -
There, in his club, hard by:
Recks not that every link is stamped with
Names of the men whose limbs are cramped with
Too long lying in grave-mould, cramped with
Death where the dead men lie.

 

RIP Barcroft Boake

 

Harry Readford Part One

Harry Readford Part One

Harry Readford leaving NSW by John Morrison
“Harry Readford Leaving New South Wales for the new Frontier” by John Morrison

Some men are born bad, some become outlaws through persecution and desperation. Some, like Harry Readford, are opportunists, who commit their crimes through a sense of fun and love of a challenge.

Even as a young man, Harry was an unusually tall and impressive figure, face shaded by his hat and protected by a thick, curling beard. He smoked cigars and never seemed to run short of these luxuries. He never said a word without thinking it through first, and was generous and chivalrous to a fault.

Born in Mudgee in 1842, youngest of seven children, Harry knew plenty about living rough. He also had a rare understanding of horses, and took to cattle work like he was born to it. In Western Queensland he found his calling, working on Bowen Downs Station, a property that stretched for well over a hundred miles along the Thomson River.

It was there one day, in a remote stock camp with his mates George and Bill that Harry first started musing about ‘all those unsupervised cattle.’ Bowen Downs carried some 60 000 head at the time.

“I believe,” Harry said, “that these damn cattle aren’t hardly seen from one year to the next. Why a man could ride off with a bunch of them in September and they might not be missed until June. Perhaps not even then.”

The idea firmed into a plan over the coming weeks. The three men quit their jobs and rode away, returning at night to remote hill country where they built a set of yards and set about secretly mustering Bowen Downs cattle. They were careful to take only cleanskins and to leave behind any stock that might be recognised.

Unfortunately as they finally set off with 1000 head of cattle, a distinctive white bull, a prized possession of the Mt Cornish Outstation, joined up with the mob. Harry and his mates argued over what to do with him, while they escorted their stolen cattle down Coopers Creek, en route to South Australia.

“Best to shoot that bastard and leave him in a ditch,” Harry said.

But the others disagreed. The bull was worth five hundred pounds and they convinced Harry that they could easily sell him to a station owner along the way without the risk of trying to yard him in Adelaide. Harry gave in and they sold the bull to a storekeeper on the remote Strzelecki Creek.

The drive itself was one of the great achievements of Australia’s early pastoral history, and this was not lost on the people of Adelaide. Harry, George and Bill found themselves being hailed as trailblazers, leading to some uncomfortable questions about the source of the cattle. When news of the white bull trickled through to Adelaide, trouble was on the way.

Harry was enjoying the proceeds of the sales, staying in private rooms at one of the city’s best hotels, when a clerk from the saleyards knocked on the door and asked him for a moment of his time.

“I’m only telling you this because you’re such a gentleman and always done right by me. The police are coming for you. Get out of town fast if you can.”

Go to Part Two

 

 

Harry Readford Part 2

Harry Readford Part 2

readford,Henry

 

Riding like the born horseman he was, across South Australia, through Victoria and into New South Wales, Harry decided that the best way to throw the police off was to lose himself in some nondescript country town. He was smart enough not to ride openly into his birth place of Mudgee, but found the ideal retreat just a little further north.

The town of Gulgong, in 1871, was rapidly changing from a sleepy hamlet to a set of bare hills swarming with diggers. The rush had started when a man called Tom Saunders found fourteen ounces of gold, and the news went out on the wires and bush telegraph to every corner of the colony. Over the next ten years the Gulgong fields would produce some fifteen tonnes of the precious metal.

With 20 000 hopefuls arriving with their shovels and pans, Gulgong was the perfect place for Harry to hide while the police searched fruitlessly elsewhere. He changed his name and used some of the proceeds from the big cattle theft to buy a hotel.

Soon one of the top businessman in town, Harry began to ride to Mudgee, always after dark, to visit with an old family connection. Her name was Elizabeth Jane Skuthorpe, now a thirty-two-year-old widow.

The fling soon became a fully-fledged love affair. Harry galloping south every second night, sleeping in Elizabeth’s arms, then leaving before the break of day. Finally, he selected a diamond studded ring and proposed to Elizabeth on his knees. Unable to risk a public wedding, they married in private, at the Mudgee home of Elizabeth’s sister.

Living in the hotel in Gulgong, life was good for the newlyweds. Their daughter Jemima came along in 1872. Harry enjoyed life as a popular hotelier, father and husband. His years as a stockman seemed like a lifetime ago, but the bush has a habit of calling back to its own.

Things didn’t stay well for long …

Harry had an employee at the hotel, an itinerant boy who performed odd jobs around the place. He collected glasses, cleaned rooms, hosed down the pavement and slept in the stables.

After money and valuables started disappearing from around the hotel, Harry was watching the boy carefully. One evening, when the cash box was found to be missing, the boy and a horse were also gone. It was a grave mistake to try to outdo Harry Readford on a horse.

With a couple of hours Harry had caught up with the boy on the Sydney road, still with the cash box. After a short chase the older man knocked the boy from his mount and dragged him back to Gulgong.

The boy went on trial in the courthouse. It was an open and shut case, and Harry was there to see that justice was done. Unfortunately, it just so happened that a Queensland detective was in the courtroom that day. Worse still, he had earlier been assigned to the case of the stolen Bowen Downs cattle.

The detective recognised Readford straight away. He sidled out of the courthouse, heading for the adjacent police station for backup. Within minutes one of the local policemen was whispering in Harry’s ear.

‘They’re coming for you. Get out of here.’

Another timely warning, but this time Harry had a wife and child to consider.

 

Go to Part Three

 

Harry Readford Part 3

Harry Readford Part 3

DSC_0346_edited
Brunette Downs today: Photo by Catriona Martin

 

The story of Harry Readford has more twists and turns than an outback trail. The police nabbed him on the road to Sydney, and he was handed, with great fanfare, over to the Queensland authorities.

But by then Harry was a folk hero. Every Australian loved the story of a man bold enough to steal 1000 head of cattle and drove them down a desert track no one had dared to attempt. On trial in Roma, the jury found him not guilty and set him free. He was carried on the shoulders of his mates out of the courtroom.

The judge was furious, and the Queensland justice department so annoyed by Harry’s acquittal that Roma’s courthouse was shut down for two years!

Yet Harry was a marked man, and couldn’t keep himself out of trouble. In the next few years he famously pioneered the use of acid to dissolve any previous brand from a cow’s hide, but it was his love of fine horses that brought him undone. He was charged with stealing a horse from Eton Vale, and served fifteen months in Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol.

From the time of his release Harry lived and worked almost entirely in the bush. He started off droving cattle from the Atherton Tablelands to Dubbo, and then did hundreds of trips across North Queensland and beyond.

Apart from the Bowen Downs cattle theft, however, Harry Readford will be best remembered as the man who first took up Brunette Downs cattle station, on the Barkly Tableland, on behalf of Macdonald, Smith and Company. He arrived from Queensland with 3000 cattle, finding one of Australia’s most productive grasslands, horizon to horizon of waving Mitchell grass.

Harry spent much of the rest of his life on Brunette Downs and close by. There was even a waterhole on Corella Creek named after him. After a hard day in the saddle he liked to go there and read bush poetry. Harry managed Macarthur River Station for a time, but in his last couple of years he wandered from station to station, described by a man who knew him as  “a very old, unwanted and forgotten man.”

It’s unlikely that Harry had much contact with his wife and daughter, who were living in Sydney by then, many weeks away on horseback. Elizabeth died peacefully in 1925, at Macquarie Park at the ripe old age of 85. Harry was not so fortunate.

There are conflicting reports of his death. One story is that in March 1901, he attempted to swim his horse across the flooded Corella Creek, was hit by a floating tree trunk and drowned. The other is that one of his favourite horses got tangled in her hobbles in the same creek, and he lost his life trying to untangle her.

Either way, his body was found by a young Aboriginal woman, who wrapped him in his swag and buried him. A sheet of corrugated iron, set in the earth, marked his grave until at least the 1940s. A stone marker with iron barriers was eventually erected.

Harry is remembered as an expert horseman and cattleman, for his mischievous nature and as a true friend to his mates. He became the inspiration for the main character in Rolf Boldrewood’s book, “Robbery Under Arms,” and each year hundreds of Australians gather for the “Harry Redford Cattle Drive” near Aramac in Queensland.

 

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

 

Tom Turner – Pine Creek Cop

Tom Turner – Pine Creek Cop

Constable Tom Turner in front of Pine Creek Police Station Photo Pine Creek Museum.
Constable Tom Turner in front of the Pine Creek Police Station (Photo courtesy Pine Creek Museum)

Tom Turner was just nineteen years old when he quit his trade as an iron and wire worker, and joined the South Australian Police Force. Posted to the mining town of Kapunda in 1907, a local girl soon caught his eye. Her name was Pauline Alma Rohde.

Tom started courting the young trainee nurse, but she was no pushover. Tom might have been tall and fit, with a curious outlook and strong character, but Alma (as she was usually known) wanted security.

‘We’ll wait,’ she said, ‘until you’re settled somewhere.’

Back then the Northern Territory was governed by South Australia, and in 1910 Tom was posted to the remote town of Pine Creek. This was a rough mining town with characters as hard as the country around it, and big problems with grog and opium consumption.

Tom and Alma agreed to become informally engaged as he headed off for the first leg of the journey north. He reached Oodnadatta by train, then travelled by camel train through the Centre. Tom soon found that he loved the outback with a passion, and that he had a talent for remote police work. He roamed far and wide on camel and horse patrols, and kept law and order in “his” town with a keen eye and iron hand.

He also found time to compete in both cycling and foot races, winning more than a few pounds in prize money. Most of this extra cash, no doubt, went towards his savings for an upcoming honeymoon. He also loved to grow pawpaws, vegetables and mangoes in a plot behind the police station.

Preparations for a wedding were well underway when World War One broke out, throwing their plans into disarray. Alma wrote her betrothed a tearful letter, explaining that she felt she had to play her part in the war effort, and that he would have to wait.

The young nurse sailed off to war on the Canberra, serving in India, the Persian Gulf, and in a hospital ship off the coast of France. Her wartime duties must have taken an emotional toll, and Tom would have found it hard to understand how she had changed, despite their constant letters to and from the front lines.

The long engagement stretched on until 1926, when the couple finally married in Adelaide. After nearly twenty years of courtship Alma headed north to share the Pine Creek Police Station with the love of her life. The trip took twenty-five days by motor car.

In 1932 the Great Depression was beginning to bite all across Australia. An army of desperate, unemployed men hit the road. When the Northern Territory government offered a weekly wage of one pound for all comers, in return for a day’s work, men started to arrive in their thousands.

But the Government, realising that they’d opened the floodgates for more trouble than they wanted, changed their mind so that only official residents could apply. The result was a surge of anger.

Pine Creek erupted into nothing short of a battleground. The hotel, owned by the Young family, was banned by the mob for cutting off their credit. They then assaulted anyone who tried to drink there. Blood apparently, had to be hosed from the floorboards.

When police reinforcements arrived from Darwin, forty or more unemployed men barricaded themselves in the abandoned hospital and were only ejected by police firing live rounds, ducking bullets from the opposition. After police arrested one of the mob and took him away, the station itself came under attack.

Tom Turner was badly beaten with fists, boots and clubs, and that night an explosive charge was placed under the courthouse. The explosion rocked Tom and Alma’s bedroom, and Tom was badly injured, almost losing an eye and spending five weeks in Darwin hospital.

Tom’s last Territory posting was to Daly River, where he and Alma cemented themselves as a formidable pair. With Alma’s nursing skills, and Tom’s penchant for law and order, they took a humanitarian approach, helping preserve the health, pride and welfare of some 3000 local Indigenous people. They stayed on after Darwin was bombed, and did not leave the Territory until 1944 when the crisis was over, and the military took over the police station.

A creek in the Daly River area, Tom Turner’s Creek, was named after Tom, and retains that name to this day.

Alma died in 1960, and, broken hearted, Tom also died just six weeks later. As I delved into this story, I couldn’t help thinking that Tom and Alma were really special Australians.

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE BOOK: Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

Augusta Marion Gaunt

Augusta Marion Gaunt

Capture

 

Long before Charlie Gaunt rode the plains of Western Queensland and the Gulf Track across to the Kimberleys with the Duracks, his mother was a passenger on an immigrant ship, plying the seas from England to a new life in Australia.

The family sailed on the Royal Mail Steamship Africa, in late 1852, and for five months nine-year-old Augusta Marion Fuller made her family’s thinly partitioned space on the steerage deck her home. 450 immigrants were sandwiched into this converted cargo hold at the stern, with enough head space only for children to stand. The sun barely penetrated, and the air stank of close-packed, unwashed humanity.

Hundreds of people used two overflowing privies with queues all day and night, talking or arguing in Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and every dialect of England. All were desperate poor. The dangers and possibilities ahead were the main topics of conversation.

Augusta’s father, Adam Fuller, was a sick man. He needed a warm place to live. He was also a bankrupt. Augusta didn’t really know what it meant except that it had happened to him twice and that they had no money. She understood that Australia was their last chance for happiness.

All the time, day in, day out, the side-paddle churned and the Africa faced the big green ocean swells. Augusta sang nursery rhymes to the rhythms of the steam engines.

Augusta’s mother, Anna Maria, held the tiny hands of her daughters. ‘The Mate told me that we’ll reach Melbourne in just one more day,’ she said. ‘Your uncle George will be there to meet us. He’ll help us. Da will get well then. God won’t let him die.’

From then on they counted the hours and the miles, while Adam held on, falling lower and lower. He was still breathing, however, when the ship passed through Port Phillip heads and the Africa came alongside the Town Pier in Hobson’s Bay.

Augusta looked out from the rail, to another long pier that jutted into the bay to the north. There were building frames visible behind the beach near the Customs House. Further on was the vast slum of Canvas Town, a city of tents, the home of thousands of hopefuls on their way to and from the Goldfields.

Augusta had never seen her Uncle George but she scanned the crowd as they waited out on the concourse with their bags. Slowly the arrivals wandered off to their relatives or prepared to cross the sandy track to the settlement of Melbourne on the Yarra, on foot or by one of the many horse drawn vehicles for hire.

The unloading of the ships’ cargo started. Corpses were carried out first. One in twenty of those who had set out from Liverpool had already been buried at sea along the way.

Augusta and her family were spared the tragedy of death by only one day. The following afternoon, Adam Fuller died, and they had no choice but to move into the Houseless Immigrants home.

Anna Maria sent a desperate message to her brother George, who was supposed to have met them when they arrived. The following advertisement appeared in the Melbourne Argus on Saturday April 23, 1853.

GEORGE JOHNSON – Your sister MRS MARIA FULLER is very desirous of seeing you. Apply to Mr Barry, Storekeeper Flinders Lane, West.

That night when the destitute little family returned to their room, a big, sunburned man in his mid-twenties was waiting for them. Augusta watched as her mother ran into his arms. He was rugged looking and a little scary.

The man finally left Anna’s embrace, and looked down at the girls.

‘Hullo,’ he said. ‘I’m your Uncle George.’

He smelled of whisky. Augusta hid behind Amelia’s legs.


George was living in Ballarat, where the gold boom was in full cry. Augusta’s mother Anna was nothing if not resilient, and after a few years of living on the charity of her brother, she fell in love again. Henry William Cooper was the son of a coach builder from Dublin and owner of the Burrumbeet Hotel, on the shores of Lake Burrumbeet, near Ballarat.

Anna lied about her age to the celebrant, and most likely to her new husband as well. She was forty three years old by then, but the marriage certificate lists her age as just thirty-five. Partly, perhaps, for the vanity of her husband, who was thirty-seven at the time.

Augusta was twelve years old by then, almost certainly a flower girl. The ceremony took place on the north shore of Lake Burrumbeet, perhaps on one of those perfect spring days that Ballarat can produce when it feels like showing off.

George was there to give Anna away, and no doubt he did his best to drink the hotel dry at the reception afterwards. (The newspapers of the day were sprinkled with George’s minor run-ins with the law, mainly for drunk and disorderly behaviour and the odd fight.)

The wedding was a triumph, certainly much better than Anna’s taste in men deserved.

Within twelve months, however, Henry William Cooper was insolvent, and the Burrumbeet Hotel was sold for less than half of what he paid for it. In fact, a meeting of creditors was informed that Henry had paid three times the true value of the hotel in the first place.

Augusta and her sisters were again forced onto the charity of their family.

Continued next week.


Whistler’s Bones: A Novel of the Australian Frontier by Greg Barron is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

The Parapitcheri

The Parapitcheri

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This is the Parapitcheri waterhole, on the Georgina River west of Boulia. Charlie and the rest of the Durack party camped here with 7000 head of cattle for at least three months, waiting for rain to bring the drought-parched plains back to life so they could continue. It was a beautiful spot, though there was something eerie about the place; the lack of large trees for a start, but more than that. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but when we finally drove away over the low dunes and bulldust, I was happy to leave it behind.

Whistler’s Bones: A Novel of the Australian Frontier by Greg Barron is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

John Urquhart’s Grave

John Urquhart’s Grave

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If you ever find yourself in Roper Bar, Northern Territory, drive down the caravan park, climb over the fence at the far end and walk into the bush a hundred metres or so. There you’ll find the grave of John Urquhart. I took this photo in July, when I was researching the new book.

John was a stockman from the Diamantina River and a self-taught veterinarian who saved countless cattle on the Durack drive and was a good mate of Charlie Gaunt. Mary Durack wrote in Kings in Grass Castles that John shot himself while delirious with fever but I haven’t found any other source to back that up.

In writing Whistler’s Bones I decided to leave the exact cause of his death up to the reader, though malaria and strong spirits undoubtedly played their part. You’ll find the story of John’s death in Chapter Twenty-three, as Charlie and the rest of the crew are marooned by floodwaters at McMinns Bluff, near Roper Bar.


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Whistler’s Bones: A Novel of the Australian Frontier by Greg Barron is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

 

The McGree Brothers of Taylor’s Arm

The McGree Brothers of Taylor’s Arm

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John, Michael and Patrick McGree were raised on their parents’ farm on the Mid-north coast of NSW. All three answered the call to arms in 1915. The ANZAC battalions were forming up, and the brothers were determined to have their chance at glory.

Their mother, Bridget Sullivan, had married Irishman James McGree in St Augustine’s Church, Longford, Tasmania in 1874. The young couple moved north and took up a selection on Hickey’s Creek near Kempsey. Life was tough, but like most good Catholics they welcomed children, bringing twelve boys and girls into the world over a twenty-five-year period.

Patrick, the oldest of the three McGree boys who served, was a born adventurer. He headed off to New Zealand at an early age, living in Waiapo and Gisborne. He kept in touch with his Australian family via mail and occasional visits.

In 1914, when war broke out, Patrick was 31 years old, yet he signed on with the Wellington Infantry, New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Michael crossed the Tasman Sea to join his brother, but was waylaid by an unscheduled love affair. He married his Kiwi girl, Nellie, just before heading off for intensive training in Egypt.

John, still at home on the farm outside Taylors Arm, was 22 when he joined up in 1915. He was a small, wiry man, weighing just 58 kg, and of average height. In fact, none of the McGree boys were tall, but were all as tough as nails, with brilliant blue eyes and Irish charm. The doctor examining Michael for his enlistment described him as having a “grand constitution.”

Patrick and Michael, though assigned to different units, both took their place amongst the bloody heroes of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. Both survived the early days of suicide charges on the well-entrenched Turks, but natural attrition took its toll. Patrick was killed on August 8, 1915, in the defence of a hill called Chunuk Bair.

Nambucca and Bellinger New Fri Nov 26 1915

Michael was wounded in the last days of the Gallipoli campaign, and was evacuated to the Fulham Military Hospital in England. His recuperation was slow, and he endured hospitalisation for almost six months before being returned to his unit, judged as fit to serve in the hellish trenches of France.

On the 28th of July 1916 that “tough little bastard” John McGree was one of thousands sent in human waves against the German trenches at the Battle of the River Somme. He was shot in the chest and back. He was still alive when he reached the field hospital, but died within twenty-four-hours. He was buried at the nearby Warloy-Baillon Military Cemetery.

McGree death

James and Bridget received the usual telegram from Base Records in Melbourne informing them of John’s death: a message just fourteen words long. Losing one son was hard enough. The loss of a second must have been hard to bear.

Bridget penned a desperate letter back to Base Records.

McGree Bridget's Letter

Dear Sir

Please could you give me any information about the death of my son Pte John A McGree No. 3888, who died of wounds in France …  I would like to know the name of the hospital where he died, also if he was seriously wounded or what caused his death. What were his last words and where is he buried? Please send reply as soon as possible

B. McGree,

Taylor’s Arm, via Macksville

Five months passed before she received any additional information: a kind letter informing her of the nature of John’s wounds and the name of the hospital and cemetery. John’s personal effects also arrived in the mail: one religious medallion, three handkerchiefs, two brushes, a cap comforter, one photograph and a notebook.

McGree

By July 1918, the surviving brother, Michael McGree, was a veteran of three years of the most terrible warfare mankind had ever known. On the morning of July 18, 1918, just months before the end of the war, his company were ordered to attack a fortified German trench at Gommecourt Wood, France. Running into a hail of lead, Michael was killed in action, just a few kilometres away from the site of his brother John’s death, two years earlier.

Their father, James McGree died at the age of 86, in 1928. Bridget lived on until she was 87, a highly respected local pioneer, and a matriarch of the Laverty, Brock, and McGree families. She died in 1940 and was buried in Macksville cemetery.

The strength she must have had to shoulder the grief of three lost sons is a testament to the spirit of not just the Anzacs, but their families.


Written and Researched by Greg Barron

This post appears in the book ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ by Greg Barron. You can get it at all good bookshops or at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

John Moore Gaunt and the St Kilda Years

John Moore Gaunt and the St Kilda Years

This Marker is all that remains of John Moore Gaunt's Grave
This broken brass marker is all that’s left of John Moore Gaunt’s grave in the old Bendigo Cemetery. NB: The number is not a date, it’s a marker number, often the only way of finding old graves.

Continuing on the series of background articles to Whistler’s Bones, this one covers the arrival of Charlie’s father in Australia, the meeting of his parents, and Charlie’s early years.

This is a long post, but if you’ve read Whistler’s Bones, or intend to, it will give you some extra background.


Charlie Gaunt’s father was called John Moore Gaunt, the son of a Leeds barrister and alderman. John arrived on the Tippoo Saib in 1852, twenty one years old, and full of ambition and charm. He was part of the first wave of goldfields immigrants, fired-up by stories of men picking nuggets off the surface at Mount Alexander and Ballarat.

By the time John reached the fields the plum claims were already pegged, but there were millions of tonnes of alluvial gravel still to be panned. He must have had some success with the sluice box, for in 1853 he purchased 40 acres of land at Yarram Yarram, near Mornington, in partnership with his brother. This he disposed of in the next few years, but then, in 1857, he took up a parcel of seventy acres. John, it seems, never set eyes on the block, but the land was leased out, with an annual rent of £20.

By 1856 John was living in Park Street, St Kilda, working for the Victorian government. Four years later, his big break came. He was appointed to the post of acting Gold Receiver in the town of Inglewood.

Life in Inglewood suited John, and he made a life-long friend, a young doctor, around his own age, called Henry Hayton Radcliffe. Together they joined the Aurora Lodge of the Freemasons, a fraternity of Anglican businessmen organised into lodges: the members of which advance through a series of guilds. The lodges offered networking opportunities similar to modern day Lions and Rotary Clubs.

Augusta Fuller and her sister Charlotte were by then eligible young women, living in the area. Augusta was in her late teens, Charlotte her early twenties.

John Gaunt was playing cricket for the Inglewood XI one fine Saturday, making a sensible thirty-six runs before tea. At the break mutual friends presented him to Augusta.

‘I enjoyed watching you bat,’ she said.

‘If I’d known such a presentable lady was watching I would have bashed out a century.’

After tea John returned to the crease and was clean bowled first ball!

John Gaunt was fifteen years older than Augusta, and must have made her heart skip a few beats. After all, in 1862 he had been added to the roll of Magistrates for the State of Victoria. He appeared to offer stability and financial well-being, qualities that must have been irresistible to Augusta.

The wedding followed three months later, on the second of December 1863. The Reverend William Chalmers conducted the ceremony. Anna Maria gave her daughter away and John’s mate and brother-in-law Henry was best man.

The future seemed bright. John and Augusta were essentially compatible. Both from strong Church of England families, with intelligent, professional forbears, they were committed to their family and looked forward to raising children together.

John and Augusta’s eldest son, William, was born in Inglewood, near Bendigo, yet the rising star of John’s career was faltering. He formally resigned from the roll of magistrates in the Colony of Victoria. No reason was recorded, and he was soon being shunted between lesser roles.

The family moved to Melbourne, and were living in Argyle Street, St Kilda, on December the 6th, 1865, when the couple gave birth to a second male child. They named him Charles Edward Gaunt.

John Gaunt had a dry and cutting Yorkshireman’s sense of humour, and had always been keen on a drink or two. Increasing overindulgence meant that cracks soon appeared in his life, both personally and professionally. He was posted to Bairnsdale, Gippsland, first as an acting Lands Officer, then as Clerk of Courts, but his fondness for whisky made it difficult for him to carry out his duties to the satisfaction of his superiors. It was also tough on his family, for he was a hard man, prone to bouts of violence.

John and Augusta’s first daughter, Harriet, died after just four weeks and four days of life. The cause was listed on her birth certificate as ‘Debility from Birth.’ Watching her waste away must have taken a heavy emotional toll.

Tired of the constant shifts, the family soon elected to stay put while John went off for yet another relieving or short term position. These years were spent in rented houses in St Kilda and Prahran, Melbourne – Fitzroy Street, Robe Street, Octavia Street, and Punt Road, Prahan.

St Kilda was still in the second phase of its development. The rough port town, and the seaside coffee shop suburb were still in the future.

As historian John Butler Cooper noted of the city at in the 1860s and 70s:

“St Kilda was a conservative, homely and very English place … the prevailing sentiment was English, for most of the fathers, and mothers had been emigrants. They formed the backbone of the community of St Kilda, and gave the place its character.”

Family events became shared milestones. When Charlie was six years old the house next door to theirs in Octavia Street caught fire in the early hours of the morning, burning to the ground while the boys, their father and the fire brigade worked tirelessly to prevent the blaze spreading. All the Gaunt family’s outbuildings were lost, including presumably, the outside dunny, but the rented house was saved.

In those days Prahran was mainly open paddock, and wandering cows were the cause of many an argument. The Gaunt family kept at least some livestock, for in August 1868, John Moore Gaunt was fined five shillings for having an ‘errant’ goat.

Every Sunday, the family dressed up and walked to the All Saints Church in Chapel Street, East St Kilda. Faced with Tasmanian bluestone, it was the largest parish church south of the equator, able to squeeze in 1400 worshippers. Weekly services were run by the founding father, Reverend John Herbert Gregory, who had given up a career in law to take Holy Orders.

The children attended the schoolhouse attached to the church, and for secondary schooling a Grammar School opened in 1871 on the corner of Chapel Street and Dandenong Road. Fees were high – up to three guineas per term for day students, but the family managed.

Two more girls were born. Marion arrived in 1871 and Ellen in 1874. Both were baptised at St Kilda by the Reverend Gregory. The church was a constant, steadying influence, as was a large extended family. John’s brother, James Richardson Gaunt, who had immigrated a few years after John, visited often. He had a much more adventurous spirit than John, and even played a small part in the Eureka Rebellion on the Ballarat goldfields.

Augusta’s mother Maria was living in Mair St, Ballarat, and would also have been a regular house guest. George remained a loveable ruffian, in and out of trouble in the same area.

The Gaunt family’s closest friendship was still, however, with Augusta’s sister Charlotte, and her husband, Henry Radcliffe. Their years in Inglewood together had made them close, sharing the excitements of childbirths, and the sadness of Charlotte losing her daughter Ella at just nine months, while the men chased success in their fledgling careers.

Change was coming, however, very little of it for the better.

John’s drinking went through cycles of wild excess followed by sober periods that might last for months or even years.

Just one dram, Aggie. That’s all I’ll have …

James Richardson Gaunt moved to Queensland, setting himself up as a businessman in partnership with a man called Henry Britcher, in Adavale, west of Charleville. Henry Britcher’s brother George would later feature tragically in one of Charlie’s adventures.

John publicly forswore booze, and declared himself a teetotaller in 1877. There were reports that he had joined the Good Templar Crusaders.  This ‘new leaf’ brought results, and John’s final government appointment was to Sandhurst, as Bendigo was then known, to perform the duties of Paymaster and Receiver.

The family settled into a house rented from the All Saints Parish, on Rowan Street, within walking distance of the Government offices where John worked, and also the Masonic Hall. The children thrived in the new town. William and Charlie attended the Church of England school run by the fiery Reverend Croxton next to their parish church, named All Saints just like the one at home in St Kilda.

All Saints Sandhurst was a gothic edifice of yellow sandstone blocks, squat and sacred-looking. It had narrow arched windows fitted with stained glass images of the saints in dull colours.

On Sundays John, Augusta, William and Charlie sat together in the hard pews of the church, while the girls scampered off to Sunday school. John was a bloated and increasingly tragic figure, now suffering from dropsy, his puffy limbs and neck the subject of laughter and jokes behind his back.

Twelve months later, in 1879, his dropsy worsening, and entering the final stages of alcoholism, John Gaunt was dismissed from government service for ‘gross neglect of duty.’  At around the same time, John’s father back in Yorkshire died, and he expected a large inheritance.

The Bendigo Advertiser reported in May 1879 that J.M. Gaunt was the recipient of a considerable sum of money from his father’s will and that he had announced his intention, should his health permit, to travel by sea to England at the first opportunity. John was, according to this report, suffering from ‘colonial fever’ and needed a sea voyage to clear it from his system.

John died a year later, at the age of fifty, principally from cirrhosis of the liver. He was buried in the old Bendigo cemetery, and no trace of a headstone remains. It seems certain that by then his old employers had turned their back on him, and there was no government funeral.

With two pounds and five shillings of rent overdue, and John’s money tied up until the will could be probated, the church wardens of All Saints Parish acted quickly. With full legal backing, they ejected the family from the Rowan Street house, forcing a fire sale of furniture and effects; everything the family had collected over the years.

Augusta and her four children found themselves out on the street. Marion was nine years old, Ellen only six.

Charlotte and Henry (also the executor of John’s will) came to the rescue, and the broken family planned a move to Ballarat, at least until some money from John’s will became available to them.

The family was not destitute. John’s estate included ownership of the seventy-acre block at Mornington he had bought with his brother, (which would later cause a serious feud and numerous court cases). He also had fifty-one pounds to his credit in his account at the Commercial Bank when he died, presumably the remains of his inheritance. Yet, he had racked up a number of debts. Crabbe and Kirby, solicitors, executors of the will, placed a notice in the Bendigo Advertiser calling for particulars of all claims against the estate of John Gaunt to be made by August, 1880.  These small debts totalled some seventy-two pounds.

The real salvation was a life insurance policy valued at three hundred and fifty pounds; John’s gift to the family he had let down so badly. Overall, Augusta and the children received just under four hundred, enough to buy a cheap house, but not enough to invest at interest and survive on.

But that money was a long time coming. Augusta tried desperately to hold the family together. The boys, however – William and Charlie – had other ideas.

William, like his grandfather on his mother’s side, planned for a career in medicine. With a favourable response to an application to study at Edinburgh University, Scotland, he booked his passage to the United Kingdom.

Charlie, barely fifteen years old, spent his share of his father’s money on a horse and saddle. He taught himself to ride on barren goldfields hills and over long hours in the saddle he discovered that he liked horses and they liked him.

And that, pretty much, is where Whistler’s Bones starts off.


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Whistler’s Bones: A Novel of the Australian Frontier by Greg Barron is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

 

Broadmere

Broadmere

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Broadmere Waterhole

As an old man Charlie Gaunt wrote in the Northern Standard Newspaper (May 29 1934):

“The head of (Edward) Lenehan we wrapped in a saddlecloth and carried into Broadmere. At the foot of one of those giant paper bark trees it now rests and with the help of a carpenter’s chisel, stripping the bark, we chiselled, ‘Here lies the head of E. Lenehan, murdered by blacks. Only part recovered.’ Below we cut the date.”

Visiting the area in July this year my wife and I searched the paperbarks that line Broadmere Waterhole, on the Parsons River, for the inscription Charlie described, but that tree must be long gone. These events described took place in the 1880s. By now the tree might have fallen into the waterhole, or rotted away.

The place does have a strange feeling to it. Charlie had never felt comfortable there. He wrote:

“The impression it gives one on first viewing it is, its uncanny stillness. Not a bird is to be seen. It strikes one that beneath that beautiful surface there is something deadly about the spot, and gives a weird uncanny feeling.”

I know what he meant.


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Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

 

Lake Nash: A harrowing tale of drought and disaster

Lake Nash: A harrowing tale of drought and disaster

View of Lake Nash Northern Territory in better times ca. 1925 SLQ
View of Lake Nash in better times, circa 1925. (Photo: John Oxley Library)

In 1889 Charlie Gaunt was working on Lake Nash Station, near the NT/Queensland border first breaking horses and then as a stockman.

Lake Nash Station was, at the time Charlie arrived there, under the ownership of John Costello. John’s pride and joy, Valley of Springs Station had, by this stage, been abandoned.

John Costello’s son Martin was managing Lake Nash. Back in Goulburn in his teens Martin had felt himself called to Holy Orders, but quit after a few months. Life on a cattle station must have appealed, and his father had plans for Martin to eventually take over as owner. He was, according to Charlie:

About twenty-five years of age, a splendid type of an Irish Australian, a chip off the old block; only lacking experience; a thoroughbred and a perfect gentleman.

When the horse-breaking was done Charlie signed on as stockman, but things on the station were dire. The 1889 wet season had been light, and in 1890 the rain didn’t come at all. This was Charlie’s story of a mad dash to a big waterhole in the Rankin River, attempting to save the remaining cattle.

In Charlie’s own words:

The drought hung like a great funeral shroud over a vast extent of country. Roxburgh and Carrandotta, having the only permanent water, held out. Headingly Station, adjoining Lake Nash, lost eighteen thousand head in four days. Lake Nash assumed the spectacle of a huge burying ground for stock, a mass of liquid mud with hundreds of cattle packing that oozy slime, bogged, dead and dying, with others roaming around the banks bellowing and maddened by thirst.

Costello decided that they had to try something – gathering up the strongest cattle and trying for the nearest permanent water – the Big Hole on the Rankin River, eighty miles away. They sent a dray and horses on ahead, and mustered every animal they could find and set off.

The heat at that time, January, was unbearable, and the dry storms made it worse with the hot winds. We had great difficulty getting the mob away from that charnel house and lake of liquid mud, but once they got going they strung up the river almost without any urging. The day wore on and night came and still those perishing cattle moved slowly along.

After a day and a night of travelling, they reached Austral Downs station, which had been abandoned to the drought. With just twenty miles to go now Charlie rode across to check the station tanks and found enough water to keep the horses going.

At least the horses had drunk their fill as they followed the thirst-maddened cattle down the left branch of the Rankin River. The sun was getting higher, however, and the heat intensifying.

The big body of the cattle kept following that spirit “Further Still.” The only sound they made was a low moaning. As evening came I rode up on the side to see how the lead was getting along, accompanied by Mick Scanlon. We rode a full six miles before we reached it. All along the line we noticed cattle dropping and dying but yet that line piled up the empty spaces. Great strong bullocks formed the lead and you dared not go near them. They were thoroughly thirst-maddened.

It was now dark and we rode close to the lead, when a demented bullock charged my horse, knocking it down and throwing me out of the saddle. We were amongst the infuriated animals and didn’t know it, the night being inky black.

I jumped up and shinnied up a tree close by and yelled to Mick to save himself, telling him I was alright, and that I’d stay in the tree fork till daylight. Mick soon got out of that maddened line of cattle and I saw him no more that night. All night long those thirst crazed cattle passed under that tree and I, sitting in the fork, hardly able to keep awake, waited for the dawn.

When, at last, daylight came, I got out of the tree and walked over to my horse. He was lying dead with a great wound behind the shoulder having bled to death. Removing the saddle and bridle I threw them on my back and started to walk up the river. After walking about four miles, dodging cattle, at last I struck the Big Hole and the camp. I was, like those stricken cattle – perishing for a drink. I had had no water since the day before at midday.

What a tragic scene was being enacted around that waterhole! Maddened cattle, some blind with thirst, moaning and walking through the water, being too far gone to drink. Up the bank they went and wandered out on the downs. After the drought broke we found that some of them had wandered six miles out from the river before dying.

The tail-enders drifted in and these represented the last of the living. Our men were now all in camp and we gladly sat down to a hot breakfast. Camped on a high bank overlooking the water we were in full view of that theatre. Only about five hundred head were left out of four thousand and were the remnant of a herd of fifteen thousand. The Big Hole where the cattle were, was on Avon Downs country, and John Affleck, manager of Avon, charged young Costello £100 per month for the right to use the water and surrounding country. It was a most unneighbourly and cowardly action to a now ruined brother stockman, but John Affleck was, a hard, hungry and mean Scotsman and he well knew that Costello had to accede to his terms. It was especially mean on account of the country being idle and not used by the Avon Downs people.

We, spectators of that terrible drama of crazed cattle wandering around the banks of that waterhole, piling into it, and gorging themselves. In some cases animals staggering out on the banks and lying down to die overgorged, the water flowing out of their nostrils as they drew their last breath.

On the bank nearest the camp some horses were standing and amongst them was a magnificent chestnut horse young Costello had brought from Goulburn. This animal was the young fellow’s pride. A maddened bullock, staggering along the creek saw the horse, made a desperate charge at it and tipped the entrails out of him. Martin Costello said, “Oh, my God, my horse.”

And the tears slowly coursed down his face. The long pent up agony that the young fellow had gone and was going through was at last broken by this incident. Fate had dealt him a cruel blow. He got up, walked behind the dray, sat down, and with his head resting on his arms and knees he had the dejected attitude of a heartbroken man. Every man around the breakfast table felt the position keenly and there was a lump in everyone’s throat. I know there was one in mine.

In the beginning of March; the arch fiend “Drought” was killed by one of the heaviest wet seasons known for years and we collected the remnants (five hundred head of cattle) of the Lake Nash herd and went back to reform the station.


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Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

Catherine Coleman – Pioneer

Catherine Coleman – Pioneer

I’m curious whether anyone who read this story when it was originally posted, and who has also read Whistler’s Bones, noticed the reference on page 75 to Catherine Coleman. Charlie Gaunt and Catherine must surely have met when the Durack droving teams passed through Forest Grove in 1883.


Club Hotel
Forest Grove 1880s (John Oxley Library)

Catherine Cecilia Coleman wasn’t famous, but was typical of a generation of Australian settlers. She was born in Maitland, NSW in 1856, eldest of ten children. She married in 1871, at the age of 15, and had the first of her own children a couple of years later.

Her husband, John Douglas Coleman, was determined to make his mark in business, and in 1887 the young family packed up and moved north. Their new home would be the land of opportunity, Western Queensland, a wilderness only just then being opened up to cattle and sheep.

Arriving at Whittown (Isisford), near Longreach, the Barcoo River had broken its banks and was in full flood. Catherine’s quick-thinking brother Dan placed the young Catherine and her children in a large draper’s packing case and towed them across on a rope.

John moved them further west to the fledgling town of Forest Grove (Arrilalah), a natural stop for drovers and teamsters making their way up the Thomson River.

At Forest Grove John and Catherine built the mud-brick Club Hotel and a store, operating both for many years with the help of the resourceful Dan. The babies kept coming, and Catherine gave birth to ten children overall while mobs of cattle and sheep came up along the river bed, and dusty men in felt hats rode in to slake their thirst. Picnic races, held every few months, brought a colourful crowd of riders, punters and revellers in from stations and nearby towns.

Billiard Saloon and chemist agency at Arrilalah in the Longreach district
Billiard Saloon and chemist agency at Forest Grove (John Oxley Library)

Then, in September 1888, the dream ended. John fell ill, and did not recover. He died on the 26th of September, and was buried up behind the pub.

Catherine sold up and moved to Isisford, where she lived for 66 years. Her brother Dan also remained in the district. Even in her eighties Catherine was still slim and active, and could apparently read without glasses.

Catherine died in August 1944 at the age of 88. Only four of her ten children outlived her. At the time of her death she was survived by 30 grandchildren, 29 great grandchildren, and 12 great-great grandchildren. Most still lived in the Isisford district at that stage.

There is nothing left of the once thriving town of Arrilalah now but ruins, some signage placed by the Longreach Historical Society, and one gravestone.

ccoleman
The Longreach Leader 26 August 1944

 

This story also appears in the book: Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History. Read more about it here.

The Slave Ship

The Slave Ship

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The Mersey under sail. Photo courtesy State Library of South Australia

Charlie Gaunt was in his late thirties, veteran of the Northern Territory cattle trails, and a hard-fought Boer War, when he began several decades of international wandering. His willingness to work as a seaman took him wherever he wanted to go.

Since Whistler’s Bones is essentially a novel about Charlie’s Australian experiences, there was no room for these stories, but they’re fascinating nonetheless, and it’s great to be able to post them here.

The Slave Ship by Charlie Gaunt appeared in the Northern Territory Standard newspaper on the 6. 10, and 13th of November, 1931.


Broke, in the Sailors Home Calcutta, sitting on a bench amongst a lot of old seasoned shellbacks; men who had sailed seven seas; schooner men, whale sealers from the Pribilof Islands, men who had been in the blackbirding trade in ‘the southern seas,’ young lads who had only done their first or second trip at sea.

Old and rugged were some, with hands knotted and gnarled, impregnated with Stockholm tar that would not wash off, and the grip of an Orang Outang. Faces seamed and scarred with the gales of the Arctic and howling typhoons of the China Seas. But, age counts nothing, the shipowner wants your work, not your body, and a “Bucko Mate” is there to get it out of you and he gets it, or you’ll wish yourself in hell for signing on for job you cannot fulfil. Officers and crew have no time for an inexperienced man or a slacker.

What tales those old seamen could tell, a couple of nobblers of rum and a plug of tobacco would draw them out of their shell. And I with my limited experience of the sea, only on luggers, pearling, felt very small amongst that seasoned brigade. But I was desperate. I’d have shipped aboard a Nova Scotia blood ship. Too long had I stood the famine and I was getting fed up and longed for the feast. All the crowd at the Home was dead broke. You could not squeeze a rupee out of the lot and every man eager to get ship and the coveted advance note (a month’s pay in advance before going aboard after signing articles) and having a night’s outing amongst the girls and the rum, before embarking on perhaps a floating hell.

We all sat on those benches in that big room in a listless manner, scheming how we could raise the wind for a bit of tobacco or a bottle of rum. Presently, while we were moralising over our past sins, the Runner of the Home came in and in a loud voice said, “Who wants a ship for the West Indies?” We all jumped to our feet. He continued, “Ship Mersey loading twelve hundred and fifty coolies at Kidderpore Barracoons, sailing day after tomorrow’s tide. AB’s (able seaman) is fifty four rupees per month, ordinary seamen thirty rupees. The run is one hundred and twenty five days, more or less, destination Port of Spain, Island of Trinidad. Now boys, who’s going to ship? I want a double crew, thirty two men (Indian coolie ships were compelled to carry double crews).

Every man in the room in one voice said, “Aye.” Twenty eight of us, and headed by the Runner we marched to the Shipping Office. When we entered the office the Captain was there, and the Shipping Clerk sat with the articles before him on the desk. We all lined up and Captain Douglas, of the Mersey sized us up. He looked us up from the feet to the chin. Muscle and thew he wanted, brains didn’t count. Signing the A.B.s first who were handed the articles and conditions of food, to read. If satisfactory they signed their name and received the Advance Note with the remark from the Captain, “Be aboard before midnight tomorrow.”

I was fifth in the line and when I read the articles, “Three years or any Port in the United Kingdom.” I handed the paper back to the clerk with the remark, “Cut me out, I’ll not sign those articles.”

“Why?” asked the Captain. “They are in order.”

“In order,” I said, “but when you land those Coolies in Port of Spain, where do you go from there?”

The Captain said, “We load sugar at Barbados for New York, thence to Pensacola and load hard pine for England, and then you get your discharge.”

“I’ll sign for Port of Spain,” I said, “and no farther. Give me my discharge in Trinidad and I’ll sign.”

The skipper sized me up and seeing I was a likely looking A.B. said, “All right. I’ll sign you off in Port of Spain.” (It took, as I afterwards found out, nearly three years for the “Mersey” to reach Great Britain). I then signed the Articles and after the Runner got the rest of the men and they all signed on we got our Advance Notes went out, cashed them and then hit the high places. The following evening I, with part of the crew, went down to Kidderpore docks, found the Mersey and went aboard.

The Mersey was a full rigged steel ship, about three thousand nine hundred tons, hailing from Liverpool, England, and with her sister ships the Elbe, Lena, and Rhone she was engaged in the coolie trade of the West Indies. Stragglers came to the Mersey all through the night, some drunk and muddled and threw themselves into the bunks of the forecastle to sleep off the effects of the liquor. About midday the tide being in full flood and the crew all on board the tug boat Hugli took hold of us pulled us out into stream and like a toy terrier pulling a huge mastiff, towed us out of the river to the sea.

Before continuing this article a word regarding the West India coolie trade. Babus (recruiting agents get into the farming districts in Province of Bengal. With a promise of big wages and a glowing account of the land he is going to, only, says the Babu, distant about one day from Calcutta, he gathers the unsuspecting coolies in mobs, takes them men, women and children, to Kidderpore Barracoons three miles below Calcutta (Barracoon being a big walled in compound) and once the Babu gets them in, the massive gates are shut and coolies carefully handled and are kept until the number required is got together, and then put aboard. The coolie for the plantation of the West Indies is indentured for three years at a wage of eighteen pounds per year and food and housing. When the coolies find they have been deceived regarding one day’s sail from Calcutta and for days see only the open sea they try to jump over the side and drown, which many succeed in doing, as a Bengali loses caste when he crosses the sea.

Now the white doctor in charge of the coolies looking after health and welfare gets a guinea a head on safe delivery in Port of Spain, the Captain ten shillings, the mate seven and six pence, second mate five shillings and third mate half a crown, and the crew nothing, only work.
On the way down the river the mate mustered all the crew at the break of the poop to divide us into watches, he taking one watch, the second mate the other. Thirty-two of us lined up, the mate leaning over the rail closely inspecting us as a pig judge would inspect a pen of prize pigs. Amongst the crowd was big burly Swede, pipe stuck in his mouth. The Mate noticing it left the poop rail, walked down the ladder, strode up to the Swede and dealt him a smashing blow in the face, laying him flat on the deck, remarking: “Smoking is not allowed aft on this hooker.”

I said to myself, “A twenty-four carat Bucko Mate alright” and later on I found it out. The mate and the second mate then picked their watches, the mate taking port watch, second taking starboard watch. Sixteen men on each watch, and it fell to me to be one of the Mate’s watch. After the watches were picked the Mate climbed the ladder and leaned over the poop rail and as we started to walk away he called us all back. “Now men,” he said, “any man who has shipped aboard this ship as an able seaman under false pretences and he cannot hold his end up, I’ll make him wish he had never been born. You’ll find me a hard mate, but we’ve got twelve hundred and fifty lives on this ship and we want seamen, not farmers. Do your work and keep a civil tongue in your heads and when and addressing an officer, say, “Sir,” and you’ll find me a just man.

Captain Douglas knew his mate, a hard mate but one of the finest seamen who ever trod the deck of a ship. Armstrong was his name, a Bluenose (Nova Scotian) about thirty five years of age, tall and wiry, weighed about twelve stone, as agile and active as a cat, knew no fear and could hit like a sledge hammer. Truly a Bucko Mate.

After this address of the mate’s I got a nasty taste in my mouth as if I had taken a big dose of quinine. Here was I who had never been on a square rigged ship in my life, only a schooner man, and had never been aloft. Certainly I could do my trick at the wheel, was a good steersman, but didn’t know a rope on a square rigger. But, I had the consolation of knowing that two of the crew that signed on as able seamen were Howra railway firemen and had never had a deck of a ship under their feet. (The Howra is a railroad that runs from Calcutta to Bombay).

“God,” I thought, “How will they fare with this Bucko Mate,” but soon I was destined to find out When the tug let go of us well out from the Sunderbunds at the mouth of the Hoogli we went aloft and unfurled our sails. We sped across the Bay of Bengal eight hundred miles with a freshening breeze on the port quarter. She was now blowing a stiff breeze. Seas were getting up, great big green fellows, white-capped and the vessel with all the sail she could carry was forging rapidly ahead, driven through the head seas with the force of canvas behind her, going straight in to them instead of riding over them, shipping tons of water over the forecastle head, feet of water rushing aft along the main deck. When she cleared a big mountainous sea the ship would shake herself like some huge water dog and meet the oncoming sea again. The mate was pacing the poop. I was engaged cleaning bright work close to the binnacle when who should come up on the poop but one of the Howra firemen to relieve the man at the wheel. When the fireman took the wheel from the other, wheelsman, he the relieved man, gave the course. Nor-east half by east. The fireman took the wheel but did not answer. Now when relieving a man at a wheel you must always repeat the course given by the relieved seaman, so that you have the course right. No answer was a dead giveaway showing that the fireman had never done a trick at the wheel in his life.

The Mate, nothing missing him, noticed it and, strode up to the wheel and said to the fireman “Did you sign the articles as an Able Seaman?”
“Yes sir,” he answered. By this time the ship was off her course. Instead of heading and easing her up to the big seas she had fallen off and the needle of the compass was chasing itself round the compass like a cat at play. The Mate dealt the fireman a blow that would have felled an ox and he fell an inert mass on the poop deck. I instantly jumped and grabbed the wheel and threw the vessel up meeting a mountainous sea, just in the nick of time. If that big sea had hit her when she was wallowing in the trough, it would have struck her on the beam and nothing could have saved the Mersey. She would have turned turtle and ship, all hands, and coolies also, would have been at the bottom of the Bay of Bengal.

Stooping over the now insensible fireman the mate picked him up as a cat would a mouse and threw him down the poop ladder on to the main deck and calling a couple of hands to carry the injured man to the forecastle. Walking over to me he said, “What’s your name, I’ve forgotten it.”

“Gaunt, sir,” I answered.

“Well Gaunt,” he said, “You did well. I’ll not forget it. Ease her up a little,” he continued, as a big monstrous sea was coming straight at us. I eased her and she took it beautifully, the mate and I watching it with bated breaths, and he continued to pace the poop as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

After this incident the crew in the forecastle became unsettled and muttered threats were often heard to do the mate in. One day the Mate’s watch was aloft putting new gaskets on the upper top sail yardarm. I was amongst them. We all had marlinspikes with a loop of marlin through the eye of the spike and suspended around our necks. (A marlinspike is of steel thick at one end and tapering off to a needle point, about ten inches long; with an eye in the thick end to pass the marlinspike’s twine-through, so if it fell out of our hands it would be suspended from the neck and would not fall on deck). It was about eighty five feet from the deck to the top sail yard. The Mate was standing on the deck directly underneath when suddenly a marlin spike dropped from the yardarm, and whizzing through the air buried itself about an inch and a half in the deck right at the Mate’s feet. He never moved or batted an eye.
Calling all hands from aloft he waited till we reached the deck and examined us. Tommy Payne, an A.B. had no spike and a broken marlin. “You dropped that spike,” he asked. “Yes,” said Payne, “The marlin broke.” The mate examined the two broken ends of the line. Sure enough they were frayed. “Go aloft and resume work,” said the Mate and the incident was closed. Payne had deliberately cut the marlin, frayed both ends and waiting a favourable opportunity dropped the spike aiming for the Mate’s head. The shot missed but it nearly got him. If it had hit him in the head it would have gone clean through him. It missed him by a very narrow margin.

Some time later we struck the East African coast at Cape Agulhas and ran into a terrific gale, with head winds and mountainous seas. For ten days we battled with the elements and could not pass the Cape. At daylight every morning we were on a lee shore, beat out and back again. Decks awash and forecastle flooded, nearly all the time, the two watchers on deck, and when at last we left the Cape behind the good ship Mersey had a worn out and exhausted crew. Through that gale the Mersey proved what a splendid ship she was. Like a living thing she battled with those seas. They used to pound her; they came, over the top of her with mighty blows: they used to throw her over almost on her beam ends; but she returned to the fight scarred but unbeaten although stripped of boats and deck fittings, iron stanchions broken and bent, cook’s galley gone that noble ship took her medicine and shook herself free every time, toiling and striving to free herself of the grasp of that terrific gale.

For ten days she fought wind, rain and seas and came out of it battered, bruised, but triumphant. That’s when I saw the seamanship of our Mate. Tireless, always leading in dangerous jobs, working like an able seaman, he did the work of three men and with the help of Captain Douglas, himself a splendid seaman, the ship answered every call they made, like a well-trained sheep dog obeys the call of its master. But this is not a tale of a Bucko Mate, it’s a narrative of the voyage of the good ship Mersey. At last we rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and set a course for the island of St. Helena, the last home of the Emperor Napoleon.

The weather now being good the coolies used to be brought on deck in batches and had to be watched carefully as odd ones, if they got a chance, would hop on to the bulwarks and take a header into the sea. Our grub was bad-hard tack biscuits that the maggots and weevils had left, salt pork and beef that had been killed when Adam was a boy, condemned navy stores, burnt peas for coffee, and four quarts of water per man per day. Soft bread once a week, and a plum duff on Sunday. Arriving, at St. Helena we took on sheep, fowls and geese for the consumption of the captain and officers only. Leaving, there we set a course for the South American coast.

“Everything spick and span,” was his motto and he kept us to it. About eight o’clock one morning the lookout sang out, “Land on the starboard bow,” and Cape Verde hove in sight. The weather was now unsettled; mare’s tails were scudding across the horizon; the wind coming off the land began to freshen; dark ominous-looking clouds began to gather and there was every indication of a coming storm. Coolies were sent below and hatches battered down. With the two watches on deck we were soon aloft stripping the kites off her and none too soon. The dreaded pampanero, or South American tornado, was upon us. When the pampanero struck us the ship heeled over forty five, degrees, , righted herself, shuddered from stem to stern, and then raced before that, terrible gale like a fox with a full cry pack of hounds after him. The terrific force of the wind lifted the sea and hung it at us like thrown sand off a shovel; the air was full of spume, like goose feathers; you could hardly see the length of the ship.

Then the rain started, light at first, hitting the deck like the pattering of children’s feet, increasing to a terrific downpour, it seemed the bottom had fallen out of the heavens. Leaning on the poop rail was Captain Douglas roaring out his orders to the Mate who was using all his skill and seamanship to guide the Mersey on her mad race. At times the wind would lull, stop almost, and then come back at us with redoubled force, lifting the ship almost out of the water.

The day grew dark, with a, leaden sky and with the goose feathers in the air it was almost as black as night. Towards evening the gale had spent itself leaving in its wake tremendous sea, but with a light head sail that noble ship rode her seas like a gull.
As soon as the seas abated and the weather got settled, up aloft we went and soon the Mersey had every stitch of canvas, stem sails and all, on her sticks. The Old Man drove his ship as his Mate did his crew. Up the coast we ran passing Georgetown and Demerara, leaving Barbados on our port bow. A few days later we sighted the high mountains of the Island of Trinidad. Swinging around the point at La Brae we came to anchor in the roads opposite Port of Spain, after a trip of one hundred and twenty nine days.

The boats came off to the ship and the twelve hundred and fifty coolies were soon landed and on their way to the different sugar plantations to which they were assigned. Next day (after bidding farewell to all my shipmates and officers) the Mate, gave me a hearty grip and squeezed three golden sovereigns into my palm saying, “Rum is only twopence a bottle over there in the Port and the Creole girls are good. Take care of yourself and good luck.”
I went ashore with the Captain and signed off, a free man once more with a good pay note. As I write these lines, an old age pensioner, existing on a mere pittance far away from Port of Spain, a picture like a cinema picture passes before my eyes. I see the Mersey as I saw her on a bright moonlit night lying at the break of the poop with the watch in easy call of the Mate’s whistle.

Lying on my back I gaze aloft: Lofty spars, sails all full and drawing, stemsails well out on port and starboard sides, like great wings, as with a fair wind she glides through the water like a beautiful white swan. I marvel at man’s handiwork. Today she lies in a haven of rest. She now lies in Southampton Water, England, a training ship for the White Star Line, turning out officers and cadets for steam.

Another scene passes. I see Captain John Douglas, of seventy odd summers, big moulded, a keen grey eye, leaning over the poop rail in his oilskins and sou’ wester, roaring his orders like a bull; truly a great seaman and mariner. No doubt old John has by now “crossed the bar.”

Again I see Abel Armstrong, our blue nose Nova Scotia mate who loved the good ship Mersey as an ardent lover loved his beautiful week old bride. The ship was his bride and he didn’t forget to let his crew know it. We were her chamber maids to wash her face very clean every morning and keep her dressed faultlessly. The crew hated, feared, and respected him but a deep water man is a poor hater. He soon forgets on reaching his port of discharge. Where is that Bucko Mate now? Is he still sailing the seven seas? Not on a coffee pot I’ll bet. He hated steam. Perhaps he’s on one of those Nova Scotia schooners trading to the West Indies, a master now, or perhaps owner.

Again the picture changes. I see my old shipmates of the forecastle. I fancy I hear them singing the old shanty, “Rolling Home to Merrie England,” as they beat it up the English Channel. Again I see them and the Mersey fast at the East London docks, their, long voyage finished, and the crowd in their shore going togs making for the shipping office to sign off and draw their three years pay. And then seven men from all the world, back to port again.

Rolling down the Ratcliffe Road, drunk and raising Cain,
Give the girls another drink, before, we sign away,
We that took the “Bolivar,” out across the bay. (With apologies to Rudyard Kipling).

Again I see them sitting in the Sailors Home in London as we sat in the Home in Calcutta, broke and down and out and the runner comes in and says, “Who wants to ship on an outward bound ship?” and it’s the old, old story. Up they go to the shipping office, sign on, receive their advance note, go aboard, and in no time are beating down the English Channel and as the articles call for “Three years or any port in the United Kingdom'” is the sentence! A good ship it may be or perhaps a floating hell – with a Bucko Mate.’


Lo Res Cover

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

 

Ben Hall the Bushranger

Ben Hall the Bushranger

Ben_Hall_Bushranger

“Bushranger” is a uniquely Australian term for the lawless characters who roamed the fringes of civilised districts seeking out easy money through robbery and violence. The word was first used in the Sydney Gazette in 1805, referring to a wild assortment of escaped convicts, deserters from the military and disillusioned free immigrants; full-bearded, dirty, and afraid of nothing.

The gold rushes of the 1850s saw the heyday of these bushrangers, but they had pretty much disappeared by the late 1880s as better police tactics, technology and burgeoning population made it harder for them to hide out in the bush for the long periods necessary.

The most famous bushranger was certainly Ned Kelly, but Captain Thunderbolt, John Gilbert, and Frank Gardiner are still well-known. Most interesting of them all, perhaps, was Ben Hall, who became a bushranger for reasons of passion, not lust for wealth or an easy life.

Ben was working as a stockman just out of Forbes, New South Wales. He was strong, reliable and honest. He had no time for bushrangers or lawlessness of any sort, and soon saved enough money to buy a small place of his own.

He married a local girl called Bridget in 1856, but she proved not to return Ben’s steadfast love and loyalty. Falling in love with a flash young stockman, she took hers and Ben’s child to be with her lover. Ben was heartbroken, but that wasn’t the end of it. When she was seduced and bedded by a policeman Ben swore vengeance on that “trap” and all his kind. Ben Hall took to the bush he knew so well, the remote Wedden Mountains, and became one of the most feared men of his generation.

Despite this reputation, he robbed only from the rich, mainly mail coaches with their rich burden of gold. According to folklore Ben Hall never killed a man, right up to that fateful day in 1865, when police found him alone at his campsite at Billabong Creek.

According to the testimony of one of the policemen in the party that killed Ben Hall, Sub-inspector James Henry Davidson:

I levelled a double-barrelled gun and fired one shot. I believe I hit him, for he halted and looked back. Sergeant Condell and Billy then fired. I think they both hit him; we fired pretty close together.

Condell and Billy were running a little in my rear, about fifteen yards to my left; Hall ran about sixty yards to a few saplings, and caught hold of one. I think he was then mortally wounded. The four constables and tracker then came across. I think Hall saw them coming, for he changed his course; they fired; I was then within thirty yards, when Hipkiss fired his revolving rifle.

I noticed Hall’s revolver belt fall to the ground. Hall, still holding to the sapling, gradually fell back; altogether, thirty shots were fired. Several were fired after Hipkiss fired; I fancy he was shot in the head after that. He spoke afterwards. He said, “I’m wounded, shoot me dead.

When they carried Ben Hall’s corpse into Forbes he had nine bullet wounds, four of which might have been fatal.


 

Researched and written by Greg Barron. Click here to view the sources for this story.

“Captain” Joe Bradshaw

“Captain” Joe Bradshaw

Bradshaw's Tomb
Bradshaw’s Tomb on the Victoria River Photo: Lewis Collection

“Captain” Joe Bradshaw was one of the most adventurous of the early Northern Australian pastoralists.

He was born in Melbourne in 1855 with cattle and farming in his blood. His father owned several properties in Victoria, including Bolwarra and Bacchus Marsh Stations.

An explorer by nature, by his early twenties, “Captain” Joe Bradshaw was plying the waters of Northern Australia in a schooner named Twins. He was particularly interested in the Kimberley district, finding excellent pastoral lands along the Prince Regent River, where he took up a score of 50 000 acre blocks. Naming the station Marigui, he set out to build the property into a pastoral showpiece.

Trips “back south” to raise money for his enterprises were interspersed with problems, such as the WA government hiking fees to such a level as to make new cattle enterprises uneconomic, and his first choice of stock – sheep – proving to be unsuited to the conditions. He also once returned to the then bustling town of Wyndham to find that it had been ravaged by a cyclone.

Joe’s cousin, Aeneus Gunn, was one of a number of friends and family who arrived to manage stations and businesses on Joe’s behalf. The future wife of Aeneus, Jeannie Gunn, much later wrote the Australian classic, We of the Never Never.

Joe’s love affair with the Victoria River district began with a trip up that mighty river in a steamer called Red Gauntlet. The trip was ostensibly to drop a Government exploration party upriver, but Joe was impressed with the beauty of the mountains with their sheer cliffs, and the Mitchell grass plains. In partnership with his older brother Fred, Joe took up 20 000 square miles encompassing almost all the land between the Victoria and Fitzmaurice Rivers, and all the way west to the sea.

On a trip “down south” Joe fell in love with a young woman called Mary Guy, and married her on a trip to Melbourne in 1891. During 1893 Mary delivered two children, William Guy and Jas, both dying in infancy.

More disaster followed when Joe’s brother and business partner Fred was travelling from the Victoria River to Port Darwin in his oil-powered launch, the Bolwarra, with two friends and a Russian engineer. They called in at Port Keats near the mouth of the Daly where their Aboriginal “boys” deserted. A new crew were persuaded to join them, but that night, while the white men slept, anchored off Point Cook, they were bashed to death with clubs.

An expedition led by a policeman called Kelly found the launch drifting, damaged and bloody, and most of the bodies on the shore nearby. They were buried on a sandy beach, but for Joe Bradshaw this wasn’t a fitting resting place for the older brother he loved.

Joe had a number of coffins made, and travelled by lugger to the site. Bodies of the other members of the party were presumably repatriated to Darwin, but Joe had special plans for Fred. He carried his brother’s body back to the big river. The cliff top Joe chose was too solid to dig a hole, so Fred was laid to rest under a cairn on a high cliff, now known as Bradshaw’s Tomb, overlooking one of Australia’s most beautiful river valleys.

Bradshaw's Tomb 2
Fred’s coffin being prepared for burial on “Bradshaw’s Tomb.” Photo credit National Library of Australia

Even then, despite a diagnosis of diabetes, and Mary returning “South” to supervise their son’s education, Joe did not slow down. He was pivotal in the formation of a company called the Eastern and African Cold Storage Supply Company.

This company managed, through lobbying and powerful friends, to obtain leases and other arrangements to use the eastern half of Arnhem Land as their private domain. Before long, the area was running up to 17 000 head of cattle in the face of determined resistance from local Traditional Owners. Like previous attempts to use this area for pastoral purposes, Arafura Station was ultimately a failure. (See the Jack and Kate story here for more on this)

In 1916 Joe sustained a wound in his foot, which soon turned septic. Lying incapacitated in Darwin Hospital, Joe’s last wish was that he be buried next to his brother, under a cairn of stone on the hill called Bradshaw’s Tomb on the Victoria River.

According to an obituary:

“There are many worse men in the world than the late “Captain” Joe Bradshaw. Whilst he had his faults and weaknesses, he was a kindly and courteous gentleman at heart, absolutely “straight” in all his dealings with hls fellow men.”

Joe Bradshaw was a one-of-a-kind. Coming from a background of wealth, he had the funds to treat Northern Australia as a playground, notwithstanding the isolation and hardship he must have endured at times. He was a long-time member of the Royal Geographical Society of London and is credited with being the first white man to view the Gwion Gwion style of indigenous art, which was named after him for many years. Yet, for all that, brutal deeds were done in his name, and at heart Joe Bradshaw was ultimately concerned with making money and empire building.

Joe’s wish to be buried beside his brother on that Victoria River cliff top remains unfulfilled. His grave can be found at the Darwin Pioneer cemetery at Palmerston, south of Darwin. Mary outlived her husband by 26 years, passing away in 1942 at Kew, Victoria. Bradshaw Station is now a Royal Australian Air Force Testing Range.


Written and Researched by Greg Barron. His first book of true Australian stories is available in all good bookstores and online from ozbookstore.com

Jack and Kate

Jack and Kate

Arafura Swamp
Arafura Swamp (Photo: Territory Library)

John Warrington Rogers was the eldest son of a politician and QC from Tasmania and Victoria. Young “Jack” as he was called, was sent “home” to England to attend an expensive private school, but he wanted no truck with balls and banquets. As soon as he returned to Australia, he saddled a horse and rode off for the outback, setting in train a fifty-year story of bush life, cattle station management, a real-life love affair, and a series of tragedies.

In Queensland Jack soon proved himself as a top cattleman. Not surprisingly, as he was a strongly built man – six feet tall, and was taught to ride not long after he could walk. He loved horses, wide open spaces and adventure in equal measure, cutting his teeth in tough Western Queensland stock camps.

Meanwhile, his younger brothers followed carefully planned careers in law and the military. Jack’s brother Cyril was a Lance Corporal in the Imperial Light Infantry, fighting in the Boer War. He was killed in action at the Battle of Spion Kop at just twenty-one years of age.

War, however, seemed a long way off when Jack was stringing cattle along the Georgina River. There he met Catherine Matilda McCaw, the eldest daughter of James McCaw, of Urandangi, Queensland. Nineteen years younger than Jack, Catherine was known universally as Kate, blue eyed and full of life.

Jack invited her to a dance in Boulia. Kate replied that she’d rather just get on with it, and why didn’t he just ask her to marry him straight off?

Kate proudly took her father’s arm as he led her down the aisle in Camooweal. It was 1901, the year Australia became a nation. The few members of the Rogers family who made the trek lent a fashionable air to the proceedings, with their dark suits and the latest dresses.

When Jack headed to the Territory, and up into Arnhem Land, to manage Joe Bradshaw’s newly formed Arafura Station, he couldn’t have had a better woman beside him. Kate Rodgers had grown up in the bush. She was a born horsewoman, great with a rifle, and an expert at managing stockmen of all personalities and backgrounds.

The Northern Territory Times and Gazette reported, on their arrival, that Kate was “generally regarded as a better cattle manager than Jack.” And Jack made no secret of his plan to appoint her as head stockman.

Glenville Pike, in his book, Frontier Territory, described Kate as:

An expert in the stock camp or on horseback, she was also a crack shot with rifle or revolver. Old timers have told of Kate Rogers’s everyday life — dashing through the timber and long grass on a galloping horse, skirts flying and with stock whip thundering, horse and rider moving as one, as she wheeled a mob of wild long horned cattle.

Arafura Station was no picnic, operating on a scarcely believable ten thousand square miles of what is now East Arnhem Land. Wetland cattle management was difficult in the Dry Season, impossible in the Wet. The station homestead was located on the Glyde River, not far from the present day settlement of Ramingining. Mosquitoes, cattle-spearing locals, humidity, heat, crocodiles, and rain all counted against the station’s success.

The homestead came under determined attack several times. On one occasion two of the Chinese gardeners were speared, and Kate was forced to barricade herself inside, armed with her ‘73 Winchester. She was supported by the station cook, firing an ancient blunderbuss, holding out until Jack and the men came home.

Their son John (also nicknamed Jack) was born in 1902, but Kate didn’t let him slow her down – she’d carry him in a sling around her neck while she got on with station duties.

Like Florida Station, operating on pretty much the same area some twenty years earlier, Arafura Station was ultimately abandoned, and the remaining cattle transferred to another Bradshaw property. The country was just too harsh and too remote, and the Traditional Owners, justifiably, fought hard to keep the whites and their cattle out.

Paddy's Lagoon Territory Storieshttphdl.handle.net1007039462
Paddy’s Lagoon (Photo: Territory Library)

The first chapter of their lives was closed. But the impact of this remarkable couple on the Northern Territory pastoral industry was only just beginning. Undeterred, Jack reformed Paddy’s Lagoon Station, bordered by the Roper and Wilton Rivers. This was drier, more forgiving country, with some excellent pasture. While they were there Kate gave birth to a daughter, but unfortunately she passed away on the same day. The small grave did not remain alone for long: Jack’s brother Harry, who came to stay with them after the collapse of his business interests, died of typhoid fever there in 1909.

Jack was a talented cattleman and sharp businessman, always with an eye for opportunities. He reformed Paddy’s Lagoon into Urapunga Station, then set up Maryfield in partnership with a man named Farrar.

Kate continued to run the station cattle yards, horse paddocks and drove “fats” to market. On at least one occasion, while Jack was busy running the station, Kate left her infant with a nanny, and, with a plant of horses and half a dozen men, drove a mob of bullocks to Camooweal.

For many years she was assisted by a capable Aboriginal woman known as Princess Polly. Kate’s son John could ride before he learned to read or write.

Kate was not only as capable as any man in the yards, but she was also a sympathetic woman who formed a genuine love for the Aboriginal people of the north.

Kate and workers
Kate with staff in 1917 (Photo: Sydney Mail)

While living with Jack at Hodgson Downs Station, which he was managing, she worked with Archbishop Gilbert White on the formation of the Roper River Mission. This was not merely a paternalistic gesture. The Indigenous people of the region were shattered and cowed from years of violent confrontation: leprosy was common, with a weekly truck shipping sufferers up to a colony at Channel Island. Addiction to opium, imported and sold by the Chinese, was also a problem, more usually back near the railway line and mining areas. The mission was an attempt to protect and consolidate the people of the Roper Valley before it was too late.

Possibly under the influence of Jack’s father, young John was eventually sent off to private school in Melbourne. And with only five mail deliveries on the station each year, contact with their son was rare. In 1914, at the height of the wet season, Jack was away when Kate received a telegram from “down south” stating that their son was seriously ill, and asking for his parents’ permission for the doctors to operate.

Knowing full well that every creek and river between home and Katherine, including the mighty Roper, was in flood, Kate was determined to reach the telegraph station there. With a couple of loyal horsemen, and fully-laden packhorses for the journey, Kate set out on a journey to save her son.

That trip to Katherine must have been a nightmare: fighting humid heat and mosquitoes, fording swollen rivers and driving the packhorses through driving rain and bogs. Two weeks of travel later, they swam their horses across the flooded Katherine River at the Springvale Crossing (now known as the Low Level). By then, almost a month had passed since the original message was sent.

Waiting for Kate at the post office, however, was a new telegram telling her that the doctors had operated regardless and that young John had fully recovered. It was a wasted trip, but Kate’s smile must have been a mile wide as she took the opportunity to buy stores and meet old friends.

Before long, John’s schooling was over, and there was no question of a fancy career for him. It was the station life he wanted, and the small family were soon together again.

As the new decade, the 1920s arrived, Jack sold Maryfield Station and, flush with cash, announced a family holiday. Jack, Kate and John steamed south on SS Bambra. What was meant to be a pleasant interlude, however, turned into a tragedy.

While in Victoria, Kate grew sick with pneumonia. Jack was at her side to the end, praying for her not to die, wondering how the hell he could possibly live without her.

The incredible Kate Rogers, who had faced down charging bulls, uncountable lonely nights on the track, and wild Top End cyclones, fell to a microscopic bug in her lungs. She died in Brighton, Victoria at the age of 45, and is buried in the cemetery there.

Kate’s obituary in Darwin’s Northern Standard newspaper read:

(Kate Rogers) was a woman of exceptional ability, and she will be remembered in the outback parts of the Territory for her skill and courage in everything pertaining to the management of the station, and for her generosity and great kindness of heart.

Heartbroken, Jack returned to the north with his son, operating Roper Valley Station and Urapunga before selling the latter station. For a while his heart went out of it, but he had to think of his son’s future.

Lonely Grave on Roper Valley
Typical of bush graves, this one stands on Roper Valley Station (NT Library)

In 1925 Jack and John were among the first NT pastoralists to ship live bullocks to Indonesia and the Philippines. Jack was also, by nature of his importance to the Roper area, appointed as a Justice of the Peace by the Government Resident.

As he neared seventy years of age Jack was still a fearless horseman and consummate bushman. In 1927, he was droving one hundred head of fat bullocks, single handed, to the butcher supplying crews laying the railway line from Katherine to Daly Waters.

Jack’s horse tripped and fell, trapping him underneath and breaking bones in his leg, thigh and hip. The cattle wandered off, leaving him alone, an old man, with crippling injuries. Yet, Jack’s unerring sense of direction told him the nearest place of safety: the Presbyterian Inland Mission at Maranboy.

For five days he crawled towards his destination, fighting off the dingoes and kite hawks that waited for him to fall. Somehow, through determination and strength of mind, he got there, and a Dr Kirklands was dispatched by train to treat him. Unfortunately the injuries left him partially crippled, but he was still vital and thirsting for life.

Official obituaries don’t mention this fact. But Jack found love again, from a local Roper woman. In around 1930, well advanced in years, Jack became a father for the third time. His girl child was healthy and vital, and must have been a comfort in his sunset years.

In 1931 Jack purchased Urapunga Station for the second time, a brave move for a seventy-four year old. His holdings were then around three thousand square miles on both sides of the Roper River. But the Great Depression was sucking the life out of every enterprise, in every nation. Cattle prices dropped to uneconomic levels.

Close to bankruptcy, in 1934, Jack sold Roper Valley Station to the Royallison Pastoral Company for a fraction of its value. He was finished, riding away with just a horse and the clothes on his back. How that must have hurt after being the boss man for so long! He farewelled young John, who had his pick of job offers on other stations, and went to the Mataranka Hotel to drown his sorrows.

In 1935, at the age of 78, still at Mataranka, Jack borrowed a rifle, and shot himself in the head. The wound was not immediately fatal, and that tough old man took sixteen hours to die. Dr Clyde Fenton, the Territory’s first flying doctor, arrived in time to issue the death certificate.

Jack’s obituary in the Northern Standard Newspaper stated:

The passing of John Warrington Rogers at Mataranka on Tuesday morning last at the age of 74 (sic) removes from the ranks of the northern pastoralists one of nature’s gentlemen with a history of fine achievements in the development of the Northern Territory.

Sadly, this tragedy of Jack and Kate had one more act to play.

Their son John was mustering on Victoria River Downs Station in 1943 when his horse fell and rolled on him, leaving him with severe head injuries. He died three days later.

Jack’s daughter, who I won’t name for cultural reasons, became an elder of her people, living at a Roper community. She died in 2008 and is survived by her many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.


Written and Researched by Greg Barron, this story features in the book, Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History. You can buy it here or in good bookstores.

 

The Wanderer

The Wanderer

One of the most touching stories from Charlie Gaunt’s later years came from a time when he’d left the Australian outback far behind and wandered the Western States of America as a hobo. This is one of many periods of his life there just wasn’t room for in the book.

“From Colorado I hopped fast passenger and freights, today in one state tomorrow in another, and at last my few dollars played out and I was then thrown on my wits and resources. I was now a bum, pure and simple – not really simple, for I took to it like a babe to its mother’s milk. All and sundry I hit up, rich and poor. Shrimps gave good feed as well as the whale. Certainly I chopped wood or did an odd job for the poor lone woman with a yardful of brats, but I avoided doing anything for the wealthy.”

On winter days with no food or shelter Charlie would sometimes knock on a respectable door to ask for help – cadging meals in return for stories, and it’s likely that this was when he refined his yarns, helping remember the detail for that far off day when he decided to write them down.


hobos
Source: Getty Images

Before I could say any more a beautiful girl about seventeen came out of a room into the hall and said, “Who is it, Chloe?”

The maid answered, “Oh, Miss Agnes, only a bum. He wants a drink of coffee.”

The young girl now came to the door and said, “What can we do for you?” and “Shut the door,” she said to the coloured girl.

I spun the tale to the young lady and she caught hold of my hand. “My goodness,” she said with alarm, “Your hand is almost frozen off. Come,” and forthwith I followed her, cap in hand. She led me into a beautiful well-lighted room. Leisurely seated in comfortable chairs were an aristocratic looking old gentleman, hair as long and as white as the driven snow, an old lady; white like the old gentleman, with refined features showing signs of great beauty in her younger days, two lovely young girls and a lad of about eighteen.

They were the most refined and aristocratic family I had ever met or seen. “Dad,” said the young girl, “Here’s a hobo nearly frozen. Today’s my birthday. Can’t we be charitable and let him know that tonight somebody cares for him?”

The old gentleman got up, took my hand, shook it, and all the others did likewise. “Sit down,” he said, and reaching for a decanter of whisky poured me out a stiff peg. “Drink this,” he said and I drank it. It put new life into me.

They had just finished their dinner and the viands had not been cleared away. What a repast! Every time I felt hungry afterwards the vision of that well stocked table used to come before me. “We’ve just finished dinner,” said the old gentleman. “Sit down,” and calling to the maid, gave her orders for a fresh supply to be brought in.

T’was a feast for the gods. Boiled turkey with cream sauce, vegetables of all sorts, a splendid dessert with coffee and last but not least a splendid cigar to top off with. After I had had a sumptuous dinner, which I certainly did justice to, they began to question me. I told them part of my life and adventures – all truth, solid truth.

I couldn’t lie to those people, their courtesy and kindness forbade it. I could not act the part of a hobo. I had to act the part of a man. Like Old Hayseed and his family, these aristocrats were immensely interested in my tales. They told me they were from the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, originally were tobacco planters, and came to live in Pueblo for a suitable climate for the old lady. After a pleasant evening had passed, the old gentleman got up went out of the room, returning in a short time he put an envelope into my hand saying, “A small token for the interesting evening you have given myself, wife, and family.”

I bid them all good night and thanked them sincerely. The young lady whom I had met first escorted me to the door. “Wait a moment,” she said. Running up the stairs she soon came back with a parcel in her hand. Handing it to me she said, “There’s a combination suit of underclothes. You and I are about the same height,” and with a sweet smile she said, “You don’t mind, do you?” and thanking her I said good night and went to look for a bed.

I soon found a rooming house at twenty five cents a room. Lighting the candle I sat on the edge of the bed, took out the envelope, opened it and drew out six crisp and clean five dollar notes – thirty dollars in all (English pounds, six). I then opened the parcel and there was a beautiful suit of lamb’s wool combination underclothes.


Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

Edward Dickens

Edward Dickens

Ed Dickens

Not many people know that the youngest son of one of the great English novelists, Charles Dickens, lies at rest in the cemetery of an Australian outback town.

Edward Dickens was encouraged by his father to migrate to Australia, where he took to farm and station life as if he was born to it. He became manager of Momba Station near Wilcannia and married a local girl. In and out of financial trouble for much of his life, he had an interest in several “runs”, and became an alderman on the Bourke Shire Council, a booming region in the day.

Stints as a land and rabbit inspector led to a long period of ill-health and unemployment. He died in Moree in 1902, aged just fifty. His gravestone still stands in the cemetery there.


Written and researched by Greg Barron

 

 

 

The Marion Sleigh

The Marion Sleigh

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The Marion Sleigh bringing supplies to remote Gulf communities. (Photo: Mataranka Museum)

A ship like this steaming up Gulf rivers would raise a few eyebrows these days, but in the early 1900s the Marion Sleigh was a regular sight carrying supplies as far up as the Roper River Bar, and Borroloola on the Macarthur. The Marion Sleigh was of 506 tons burden, had a number of cabins for passengers, and often carried Darwinites who wanted a taste of adventure.

On one trip in 1926, a troupe of young ladies on a pleasure trip were forced to endure ten days stuck on a Macarthur River sandbar, followed by serious engine trouble, and finally a storm near Groote Eylandt that saw the Marion Sleigh almost founder several times.

The Marion Sleigh was sold in 1932, her engines converted to diesel, and she spent her final years in New Zealand waters.


Written and researched by Greg Barron

Charles Fisher – Cattle King

Charles Fisher – Cattle King

Glencoe SLSA
Glencoe Station Homestead (Photo: State Library of South Australia)

Most Australians know the names of our biggest cattle kings, Sidney Kidman and John Cox. Charles Brown Fisher was in the same league, building an empire of land, men, cattle and sheep when things were much tougher.

Charles was born in 1818, in London. Feeling restricted by city life, as a young man he moved to Northamptonshire to work on his uncle’s farm, loving country life. When his parents and eight siblings decided to emigrate to Australia, the young Charles couldn’t get on the ship quick enough.

Settling with the family in Adelaide, Charles and his three brothers joined their father as stock agents and carriers, but that was never going to be enough for Charles. He was soon running sheep and cattle along the Little Para River, then stocked a large tract from what is now Parafield Airport to the meatworks at Gepps Cross.

After taking control of a swathe of properties, in 1856 the Fisher Brothers partnership sheared 115 000 sheep, and sent an unknown number of cattle to the slaughterhouse.

Charles’s mother, Elizabeth, died in 1857, and just two years later his brothers George and Hurtle were transporting three racehorses on a coastal steamer, Admella, when it struck rocks off Port Macdonnell. Hurtle and George paddled together in the water, clinging to debris, waiting for a rescue ship that came too late. George slipped beneath the cold waters while his brother watched helplessly on.

By then Charles was living mainly in St Kilda, Melbourne. He was a regular at Flemington Racecourse, his own horses winning regularly on the track. Around this time he wooed and married Agnes Louisa Peckham. They had just one child, also named Charles.

Meanwhile, Fisher was forging one of Australia’s biggest land empires.

He soon owned huge tracts of land across South Australia and Victoria, including some of the country’s most valuable racehorse studs. He had leases on sixteen Queensland Stations, and with new partner JC Lyon pressed on into the Northern Territory. Glencoe Station was the Territory’s first big cattle run, and Charles engaged the best in the business, Nat Buchanan, to drove 1200 cattle across from Aramac in Queensland. Later Nat would, on Charles’s orders, undertake the biggest cattle drive in world history, 20 000 head from St George in Southern Queensland to Glencoe. (NB: Charlie Gaunt was also on that drive)

Fisher’s ambition had no limits, and together with Lyon he obtained a lease on a huge area of land that became Victoria River Downs, at various times the biggest cattle station in the world. This was the jewel in the crown of Fisher’s holdings, then covering more than 40 000 square kilometres.

At the peak of his expansion Charles Fisher controlled more country than most European kings.

In the 1890s the empire fell apart. With beef sales in decline and general recession, the complicated financial structure Charles had built began to unravel. By 1895 he was declared bankrupt, though he was able to retain a residence and enough income to live on.

Charles’s beloved Agnes died aged 60, in November 1906. Charles lived on for another 18 months, passing away in his home on Albert Terrace, Glenelg. His grave still stands at the West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide.


Written and researched by Greg Barron (Sources available here)

Greg Barron’s first book of true Australian stories, Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History, is available in all good bookstores and online from ozbookstore.com

 

Pearling on the Mona

Pearling on the Mona

Pearling lugger in the Torres Strait
Pearling Lugger in the Torres Strait (Photo: NLA)

One of the parts of Charlie Gaunt’s life that I would have liked to explore more in Whistler’s Bones, but it didn’t fit into the story, was his years skippering a pearl lugger out of Broome in the 1890s.

Charlie was able to throw in with a partner, a local businessman called Stanley Piggott, to commission a lugger. The keel was laid by the firm of Chamberlain, down in Fremantle.

Charlie engaged a Japanese diver, a tender (a man to row out with the diver), and a four-man-crew. After provisioning the lugger, now named Mona, Charlie sailed her north to Cygnet Bay, Kings Sound.

In Charlie’s words:

Cygnet Bay in those days was known as the Diver’s Graveyard, it had strong currents, deep water and a foul bottom. The shell also was of poor quality – big old shell very rarely carrying good pearls; all Baroque (misshapen pearls worth about twelve pounds per ounce, used by the Chinese to grind into an eye powder).

My diver by the name of Muchisuki was a splendid man but had one fault, being too reckless. He seemed to enjoy gambling with death and at times took great chances. We worked amongst the fleet of luggers, all on good shell. For a neap tide or two nothing unusual happened, until one day a flag was hoisted half-mast on one of Captain Redell’s luggers. An accident had happened. Several luggers raced to the scene, to render aid.

My lugger being the first to get to the lugger, my diver called out, “What’s the trouble?”

The tender of the other lugger replied, “My diver is fouled and I can’t get him up.” Getting helmet and face glass on quickly, Muchisuki descended in haste to assist the unfortunate diver. In about five minutes he came up and as soon as we got him on deck he sang out to the tender, “Heave up your anchor and you’ll get your man.”

The crew rushed to the winch, hove up their anchor and found the diver entangled around the flukes. The goose neck had been broken off the helmet, the diver’s skull was smashed in, and he was dead as a door nail. The flukes of the anchor, swinging to and fro had crushed the helmet into a shapeless mass, and then fouled the life line and pipe. The cause of the accident was this: when a diver worked below the vessel drifted after him, the anchor, lowered over, acted as a brake. The more chain paid out the lower the anchor and slower the progress of the lugger. When the anchor was heaved in the faster the lugger would drift. Now, this diver had been working close to the anchor: which was about a fathom from the bottom and his lines, getting foul of the anchor, through the action of the strong current, he was wound round and round the chain, the flukes swinging backwards and forwards dealing him smashing blows on the head.

One day, Charlie’s diver, Muchisuki, stayed below for too long, and he stopped responding to signal tugs on the lifeline.

Myself and the tender heaved on the lifeline and could feel dead weight. Pulling him to the ladder his both hands hanging uselessly down, we knew he was paralysed or dead.

Muchisuki had been diving in water twenty three fathoms deep – more than forty metres. Apart from the tragedy of losing a man Charlie respected, the death put financial pressure on the enterprise.

With no cash to employ another diver Charlie took on the role himself, and the man who once roamed the savannah and open woodland of Australia’s north, now worked the bottom of the sea. Up to three miles a day he wandered, collecting shell, and admiring the sea floor.

The submarine scenery in places is almost indescribable. Walking the bottom prospecting for shell the diver will often cover a distance of two or three miles, beds of silver sands, now coming to great fields of waving sea exactly the same as fields of wheat waving with the tide as if a gentle breeze was fanning it. Through those fields and on to beds of beautiful white coral; over them and onto beds of beautiful flowers of many different hues. (When these flowers are brought to the surface and exposed to the air they turn black and have a rank smell).

On over big ironstone ridges, dark caverns, black and forbidding looking, then through a forest of coral cups from the size of a cabbage up to forty feet high, stems two feet through, like champagne glasses. The great feeding ground of fish of all species and the home of some of the best actors of the deep. In some places myriads of fish, red and silver schnapper, white fish and others will swarm around the diver, looking curiously in his face glass.

Charlie had run-ins with eighteen foot-long sharks and huge diamond fish that became entangled in the lines and dragged a helpless driver behind in their panic to be free. Despite the dangerous work, he soon proved that he could do the job profitably.

The first month I brought up about half a ton of pearl shell, and beautiful shell it was. I also got a few pearls.

For three and a half years Charlie carried on his dual roles as skipper and diver, but theft of decent pearls by employees was a constant problem, and pearl shell prices were tumbling. Besides, Charlie as always, had itchy feet. It was time to move on.


Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

James “Jimmy” Darcy

James “Jimmy” Darcy

Fred Burnett
Fred Tuckett, the Halls Creek Postmaster (Photo courtesy National Library of Australia)

The year was 1917, and it had been a long day in the saddle for Walter and Thomas Darcy. They drew first turn at the night watch, keeping the cattle contained on the river flats, while the rest of the crew slept.

A rider came in from Wyndham with terrible news. Walter and Thomas’s brother Jimmy, also a stockman, had fallen from his horse on Ruby Plains Station and had been taken to Hall’s Creek on a cart with severe internal injuries. 

The brothers wasted no time in going to Jimmy’s aid. Making sure the cattle were in safe hands they mounted fresh horses and rode for 140 miles before stopping at Turkey Creek for remounts. By the time they reached Hall’s Creek they had covered 250 miles without rest. The last 110 miles they smashed in just 15 hours. 

Finally, arriving at Hall’s Creek, they found that, with no hospital in the town, Jimmy was in the care of the Postmaster, Fred Tuckett. After a visit with their brother the boys were troubled. Jimmy’s lower abdomen was swollen and red, and he was barely conscious. There was no doctor for a thousand miles and the situation seemed hopeless. 

‘He looks like he’s dying Mister,’ they pleaded with the postmaster, ‘you have to save him …’ 

‘I’ve sent a telegram to Perth. They’ll send someone on the steamer.’ 

The brothers groaned. ‘That’ll be weeks. Jimmy could die by then. He needs surgery.’ 

Another telegram was sent to Perth. This time to a man who had instructed Fred in first aid a few years earlier. Was it possible that a surgeon in Perth could help with the patient via telegram? This novel idea bore fruit, and a back-and-forth diagnosis of a ruptured bladder, complicated by infection, was made. The pressure had to be released, and only Fred could do the job! 

While the brothers waited anxiously outside, the postmaster made an incision with a razor blade, then painstakingly stitched the wound back up, with a drain in place. The rudimentary operation helped at first, but over the following days there was little improvement. The Perth surgeon decided, via telegram, that a major operation was needed. 

By this time major newspapers across the country were reporting the story, and Dr Holland was making his way up the vast Western Australian coast by boat, still much too far away for the operation to wait. 

Again Mr Tuckett sterilised his razor, and with the wires running hot, completed a difficult operation that was basically successful. Australians all across the country, welcoming the respite from war news, breathed a sigh of relief. 

It would have been nice if Jimmy made a full recovery, but unfortunately his condition was complicated by the malaria he had been suffering from for months. Again he deteriorated until his life hung by a thread. 

Yet Dr Holland had by then arrived in Derby, and a team of experienced bushmen were standing by with a Model T Ford to carry him to Halls Creek. 

model t
The Model T Ford that carried Dr Holland (Photo courtesy National Library of Australia)

Walter and Thomas Darcy urged their desperately ill brother to hold on, that help was on the way. But the wild Kimberley landscape was not kind to motor vehicles. The Model T limped closer, plagued by engine trouble and flat tyres. 

Jimmy Darcy died the day before Dr Holland arrived. His grieving brothers laid him to rest in the Hall’s Creek cemetery. 

The events of those weeks affected Holland so deeply that he became a founding member of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which would go on to save thousands of lives, many with similar injuries to Jimmy Darcy. 


Written and researched by Greg Barron. Sources here.

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

Tom Kilfoyle

Tom Kilfoyle

Tom Kilfoyle
Tom Kilfoyle (Photo: Durack Homestead Museum)

Tom Kilfoyle, a cousin of the pioneering Durack family, was Charlie Gaunt’s boss for much of the 1883-6 overland drive from the Channel Country in Queensland to Rosewood Station in the Kimberleys. Tom was born in County Clare, Ireland in 1842 but became a highly skilled bushman. Interestingly, he later married Catherine Byrne, a close relative of Joe Byrne from Ned Kelly’s gang.

Charlie Gaunt described Tom Kilfoyle as:

“a splendid bushman, stockman and of strict integrity: almost puritanically so; bluff, quick of temper but with the heart and simplicity of a child.”

Tom died in Port Darwin in 1908, leaving behind Catherine and his son Jack, who successfully ran Rosewood Station, becoming an important figure in Western Australian pastoral history.


Written and researched by Greg Barron

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

Charlie Flannigan and the Auvergne Station Murder

Charlie Flannigan and the Auvergne Station Murder

Flannigan
Sketch by Charlie Flannigan (Photo courtesy South Australian Museum)

 

September 1892. The game was cribbage for a stick of tobacco each hand. Four men whiling away a long night by the light of a slush lamp on Auvergne Station, near the NT/WA border. Even today, Auvergne is an isolated and dramatic locale; rugged mountains cut through by the Bullo, Baines and Victoria Rivers.

Among the men playing cards in a lean-to behind the kitchen that night was Sam Croker, the acting manager. Croker was an experienced stockman, having arrived in the Territory droving a mob of breeders from Queensland to Wave Hill Station for Nat Buchanan. A stockman called McPhee and a Chinese cook, Joe Ah Wah, were also at the table.

Another man playing cards that day was an Aboriginal stockman called Charlie Flannigan, also called McManus. Charlie had been raised by his white father in the Richmond Downs area in Queensland, and had also learned his trade with Nat Buchanan. He had arrived at Auvergne one week earlier, with just a horse, saddle, perhaps a few of the sketches of bush life he loved to draw, and a rifle.

Before the game started Joe Ah Wah told Flannigan that he didn’t feel like a game that night.

‘Best you play now,’ said Flannigan bluntly. ‘For you can’t play cards when you are dead.’ Joe agreed to play a couple of hands, and when they cut the cards to choose partners, Ah Wah and Flannigan teamed up.

Some reports of what followed cited an argument over the card game, but Joe Ah Wah’s testimony did not mention it. According to Joe, part way through the evening, Flannigan took a drink of water from a cask, then went out to the shed in which the men slept, a crude structure of poles with branches piled over the top. He came back carrying his rifle.

Taking up position at a tree near the lean-to, Flannigan raised the rifle to his shoulder and aimed it at Croker. The men at the table were oblivious to what was about to happen.

This, it has to be said, was not the first or last time violence had boiled over at Auvergne. The station had a chequered history in those days. As Charlie Gaunt later wrote:

In recording sketches of the olden days I cannot pass Auvergne Station on the Baines River, where more tragedies have been enacted than any station in the North.

I was stock-keeping on that station when Jack Skene was managing it. The manager before Skene, Hardy by name, was speared to death at the old station, down the Baines on the opposite side of the river from where the present station now stands. For years after you could see the stone spear head sticking inches in the door post where it passed through Hardy as he rushed through the door for his rifle.

But men weren’t the only hazards on Auvergne, according to Charlie.

Alligators … came up through the garden, tearing up pumpkin vines and into the beef house, once taking a quarter of beef off a hook.

Charlie went on to list a litany of tragedies, including more spearings, fatal riding accidents and murder. Most bloody of all was the day Charlie Flannigan took aim at his boss part way through a game of cards.

Flannigan fired once, and Croker slid to the floor, mortally struck in the chest.  According to the eyewitness report of Barney, a black stockman who was in the shed at the time, Croker called out ‘I am dead,’ after being shot the first time.

Flannigan walked up and finished Croker off with a second round to the head.

Joe ah Wah ran off into the bush, while McPhee helped Charlie wrap his victim in a blanket. Thirty-six tense hours with Flannigan in control of the station followed. Fearing reprisal he searched for and confiscated any firearms. He also forced the others to help bury Croker’s body.

So how did a normally inoffensive stockman come to commit murder? He was a good worker, generally popular, and loved to draw pictures.

Gordon Buchanan, who worked with Flannigan on cattle drives as well as on Wave Hill Station, described him as “… a fair horseman and stockman, and an expert in the drafting yards and branding pen. Illiterate, but fairly well spoken, he seldom swore.”

The key might be in something Flannigan said to Joe just after the shooting. “I have let him run long enough, six months now.”

Also, the next day, viewing the bloody, blanket wrapped body, Flannigan appeared to address the dead man directly.  “Well, old fellow, I’ve had the pleasure of sewing you up instead of you sewing me up”‘

So if this killing was just a disagreement over a card game, why did Flannigan later tell Joe Ah Wah that he had waited six months to kill Croker. Was this the result of a long-running vendetta? On the other hand, if there was an open grudge between the two men, why would Croker have allowed Flannigan onto the station. Let alone given him a job. The answer, it seems, is lost to history.

In any case, within two days of the murder, Flannigan extorted a cheque for his “wages” from McPhee and rode hard for the Western Australian border.

Flannigan2
Sketch by Charlie Flannigan (Photo courtesy South Australian Museum)

Friends at Ord River Station, however, convinced Charlie to give himself up in Hall’s Creek. Burdened by manacles that weighed close to ten kilograms, he was taken on horseback to Wyndham, then on the steamer, Rob Roy, to Palmerston.

In prison, Charlie had the time and the materials to pursue his love of drawing. He sketched sad images of the bush, the things he had seen. Even though he was illiterate, Flannigan copied words and letters, and some of his pictures seem to spell out words. He drew stockmen and steamers, homesteads and bush scenes. The full collection of these sketches is now held by the South Australian museum.

A newspaper article described how white man’s justice was served on Flannigan, the first man to be hanged in the Northern Territory

The execution of Charlie Flanagan … took place at the Fannie Bay Labour Prison at 9 o’clock to-day. Since his conviction the prisoner had maintained a cool demeanour throughout. His chief expressed desire was that he should not show the white feather. Although admitting the crime for which he was sentenced, he showed no contrition or desire to avoid the death penalty. He slept well last night, and breakfasted and smoked this morning, and mounted the scaffold alone. The whole arrangements for the execution were carried through successfully, and death was instantaneous.


Written and researched by Greg Barron. Sources here.

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

 

Jim Roxburgh and his Stand against Racism.

Jim Roxburgh and his Stand against Racism.

I was lucky enough to know one of the main players in this little story from Australia’s recent history. Everyone knew that one of our English teachers at high school had played rugby for the Wallabies. We’d also heard that he’d done something special. It wasn’t until later in life, however, that I found out more about what he had done.

Jim Roxburgh was a big, shaggy man, wide across the shoulders and heavily bearded. Years earlier, in the late sixties, when Jim was playing for Australia, South Africa was a divided country. A minority white government, led by the National Party, was determined to keep the black majority and white minority separate. Also segregated was a third group labelled as “coloured.” This was an ugly system with an ugly name: Apartheid. 

In 1969, Australia’s Wallabies toured South Africa. Young Jim Roxburgh wore the Australian jersey with pride. He played prop, a relative lightweight against the hulking 130 kg Springbok forwards, yet playing with the determination and bravery he was famous for. 

But things happened on that tour that would change him forever. Rugby audiences were generally all-white, but on this tour, in an attempt to display racial unity, black crowds were rounded up and forced to watch and cheer. In Pretoria, one of the flimsy, temporary stands that were used to hold them collapsed, and the Aussie players helped carry the maimed and injured to ambulances while many of the white South Africans merely watched. 

During one game, the black crowd started cheering for the Australian team in a show of protest against the system under which they lived. South African police responded quickly. They used dogs, batons and sjamboks—hippo hide whips—to subdue the crowd, battering them into silence, while the Aussie players watched helplessly from the field. 

I still remember the English lesson when Jim told us this story. We were a bunch of rowdy country boys, but you could have heard a pin drop while he talked, choking up then, well over a decade after the event, trying to tell us something important in that slow, careful way of his. He told us of something that should offend all humanity. Something that never should have happened. 

Two years later, in 1971, the Springboks crossed the Indian Ocean to tour Australia. Jim joined six of his team mates in a stand that will go down in history. Seven national Rugby Union players: Jim Roxburgh, Tony Abrahams, Jim Boyce, Paul Darveniza, Terry Forman, Barry McDonald and Bruce Taafe, refused to take the field for the Wallabies against the visitors. Rugby’s “Magnificent Seven” as they have been called, would not play the representatives of a regime that not only didn’t consider non-whites for selection in any sport, but treated their own people with brutality and contempt. 

Our Prime Minister at the time, Billy McMahon, condemned Jim and his comrades as a “disgrace to their country.” They suffered abuse and catcalls from die-hard fans. They were blacklisted from playing Rugby, and only one of the seven was ever selected to play for Australia again. Their careers were over. Yet they folded their arms and explained that they saw playing against the Springboks as tantamount to condoning the apartheid regime. The “Magnificent Seven” stood firm. 

As I said, Jim was an English teacher, and a good one. But the main thing he did for me was much deeper than grammar. He inspired me, especially as the years passed and I learned more about what he did and how powerful a symbol it was at the time: almost certainly helping the Australian government towards a decision to officially sever all sporting ties with the South African regime in 1972. 

Every boy needs a hero, and moral courage is the greatest of human attributes.  

Greg Barron

Greg’s latest novel, Whistler’s Bones, is available now from Stories of Oz Publishing. 

The Siege of Dagworth

The Siege of Dagworth

Troopers at Dagworth Station 1894: John Oxley Library

The shearers’ strikes of the 1890s flared dangerously close to open warfare. It was a bitter struggle, with no sympathies between the conflicting sides. As one old timer recalled:

The wonder is that the strike and its attendant disturbances did not end in civil war. Since the Eureka Stockade, Australia has never experienced such a period of industrial upheaval, with the shearers in thousands armed with rifles, and military and police parading the districts of the central-west with an armament that included Gatling guns. There were many clashes and sensational incidents. Wool sheds were burnt on some stations, and considerable damage to property ensued before the struggle ended.

The reasons for the strikes were many, but were mainly related to pay and conditions. Shearers were paid just fifteen to seventeen shillings for every hundred sheep they shore, and were often expected to live rough while at the shed. Shearers also objected to being forced to shear wet fleeces.

Armed police preparing to break a strike near Hughenden, 1891: John Oxley Library

In 1894, a heavily fortified woolshed near Kyuna, Queensland, was bristling with guns, manned by special constables and station employees. It came under attack from a dozen determined shearers. Bullets flew in both directions, but the defenders kept themselves hidden behind stout log barricades.

One of the shearers crept forward with a kerosene bottle and used it as a crude Molotov cocktail to set fire to the shed. The defenders were forced to withdraw, but the arsonist hadn’t reckoned on the presence of 140 sheep in the yards. All were burned away to a terrible death. So ended the Battle of Dagworth.

The next day the squatter and the special constables who had been in the siege rode down to a nearby waterhole, where they found the body of Sam Hoffmeister, the man who started the fire. Racked with guilt he had shot himself during the night.

Interestingly, Banjo Patterson, then a lawyer hired to bring the warring parties together, visited Dagworth in the aftermath of the siege. Soon afterwards he made that historic visit to Combo waterhole, near Winton, with the station manager MacPherson, where they surprised an old swagman killing and dressing a station sheep.

It’s almost certain that the suicide death of Hoffmeister made its way into the lyrics of Waltzing Matilda, a story of independent spirit and resistance to authority.

 

Written and researched by Greg Barron

This story appears in the book Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

Dunwich Benevolent Asylum

Dunwich Benevolent Asylum

Photo credit: Dunwich Museum

If you’ve read Whistler’s Bones you’ll know that Charlie Gaunt died at the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum on January 29, 1938 of myocarditis and a rodent ulcer. His was just one of ten or more thousand, mainly unmarked, graves that lie beneath the sands of North Stradbroke Island.

The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum first opened in 1865 and operated until 1946. It usually held from a few hundred to a thousand inmates, mostly alcoholics, sick people with no family, and the unwanted elderly.

Inmates were housed in a number of dormitories, each for a different category. One housed women, another Asiatics, another was for drunks and another for Indigenous people. There was a tent village for the more independently minded men, a laundry, bakery and kitchen, and even a farm. Only a lucky few ever left the island alive.

Photo credit: Dunwich Museum

Charlie was not the only drover on that island, bushmen had a habit of losing track of their families and had nowhere to go in old age. Almost all professions, however, were represented, with former lawyers, timber cutters and schoolteachers all lining up together at the dining hall.

Photo credit: Dunwich museum

Interestingly, details about the asylum, including admission forms, can only be accessed by expensive Freedom of Information requests, and these are rarely granted. These records have been “frozen’ by the Queensland Department of Health until 2038.

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron

 

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron can be ordered from the following outlets.

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Carrie Creaghe

Carrie Creaghe

Emily “Carrie” Creaghe

Women in the Victorian era were often sheltered and protected; dominated by strict male figures and lacking experience in the real world. Yet, not all women were like that. There were female outlaws, ship’s captains, drovers, and even the odd well-bred adventurer like Carrie Creagh, probably the first European female to cross the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Emily Caroline Creaghe, usually known as Carrie, was born in 1860 on a boat in the Bay of Bengal, India. Her father was a major in the Royal Artillery, and her relatives included a Marquis and State Governors. Moving to Australia with her family at a young age, at 21 she married station manager Harry Creaghe, who was jealous of his friend Ernest Favenc’s explorations across Northern Australia.

“Feel like going on one of Ernest’s trips into the wilderness?” Harry asked her.

“When do we start?” she said, and preparations began.

Over six months in the saddle, in the wild upper Macarthur River area and beyond, Carrie learned to love the bush. A swag shared with her husband each night was her home. The two fell deeper in love over time, though Carrie clashed repeatedly with Favenc, who she called “Grumpy.” It was a harsh trip, with conditions that killed at least one of the white males on the trip. It also earned Carrie the tag of “Australia’s first white female explorer.”

Returning to outback Queensland, Carrie gave birth to her first two children, Gerald and Harry Junior. Sadly, however, her husband died in a tragic accident. Not a woman to sit around grieving, Carrie found and married a new man, Joseph Barnett.

In 1899 she was on her way to New Zealand with her children, now five in number. The ship, called the Perthshire, broke a propeller shaft and drifted the seas for seven weeks. With the ship’s supplies of food and water soon exhausted, Carrie kept her brood alive until they were finally rescued.

Carrie bred half a dozen strong and adventurous children. Two sons served in France in the first World War. Only one returned.

Carrie died, matriarch of a loving family, in 1944.

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron. View the sources for this story here.

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron can be ordered from the following outlets.

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Alma McGee

Alma McGee

 

 

Back in the 1920s, mental illness was seen as shameful. Sufferers were locked away, and subjected to “treatments” based on barely tested theories. The story of Alma McGee is a case in point.

Alma’s mother, Frances, came from a Protestant family – landed gentry in Cork, Ireland.  Frances fell in love with the Catholic stable boy, Bartholomew Murphy. Disgraced and disowned, Frances was 6 months pregnant when the young couple boarded the SS Whampoa, bound for Sydney. Their first child, Bartholomew was born as they settled into their new country. More followed.

Thirteen years later, Alma was born in James Street, Newtown. Tragedy seemed to dog her life right from the start. When she was 10 her older sister Florence died of a heart infection. One year later her father, the stable boy turned hansom cab driver, also died, at the age of 48. His death certificate stated that he died of stomach cancer and dementia, but a Murphy family story tells that he simply fell off his cab one day, drunk.

Just 12 years old, Alma left school to work as a fabric machinist, and eventually married boot-maker Robert McGee. By the end of the First World War, however, Alma was troubled by nerves, exhaustion and stomach complaints. The death of her nephew Maxwell, aged 8 months, didn’t help her state of mind.

Alma’s first two daughters, Ivy and Maude, were born during this time, but then, five days before the birth of her third child, Joyce, her husband Robert McGee was taken by the influenza plague that was raking the country. For the next twelve months Alma battled the same flu that had killed her husband, along with “shock” and “nervous turns” while her mother, Frances, helped care for the girls.

At times, however, she was capable of lending a hand in her brother’s produce store, particularly putting her sewing-machine skills to work, making aprons and shopping bags. She also served at the counter when needed.

Despite a succession of tragedies, including her brother dying from pueripheral neuritis, in Rockwood Asylum, Alma was again, in 1923, engaged to be married. Yet, on the cusp of her wedding it was revealed that her husband-to-be was already married. The union could not proceed.

This must have seemed like a last straw. Alma, now the recipient of an invalid pension, was bedridden with ulcers, eating disorders, and anxiety.

At the age of 35 Alma was admitted to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, then Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic, and Gladesville Mental Hospital. She was an inmate of these institutions, on and off, for years. The diagnosis given was “Hysteria”, “Melancholia Delusiona”, and later as “Manic Depressive Psychosis”.

Well-meaning but brutal treatments were the order of the day. Under the teachings of an American psychiatrist, Dr Cotton, teeth were seen as a source of bacteria and thus a cause of insanity. All of Alma’s teeth were removed and she was fed via a nasal tube while the stumps healed.

Alma was not allowed to see her children, at first, adding to the “hysteria” that she was being treated for. Frances visited her daughter regularly for a few years and then in 1928/29 only twice each year. Later, both Ivy and Maud visited their mother in Gladesville from 1926 to 1933.

The three girls lived with their grandmother, Frances, until she passed away in 1930, then with their Uncle William until he too died, in 1932. Ivy, the eldest of the three teenage girls, now took over as head of the family, supporting her two younger sisters both financially and emotionally. They lived in a tiny but spotless house in Canterbury, Sydney.

After six years in mental institutions, Alma was allowed to return home to live with her daughters. Ivy was by then a capable young woman of 20 years. But still Alma was periodically forced to return to the asylums where she had spent so much of her adult life, despite Ivy’s pleas to keep her at home.

The final chapter in Alma’s life was both happy and tragic. At the age of 49 she married Jim Parks, at St George’s Church, Earlwood. They moved into a flat at the back of a family home in the same suburb.

Unfortunately, some 15 months later, Alma suffered a serious bout of flu. A doctor was called but he could not come. She died the next day in an ambulance on her way to the hospital. She was 50 years old.

*******

Postscript: Alma was my great-grandmother. My mother, Faye, oldest child of Alma’s youngest daughter Joyce, remembered her as kind and loving. She also had fond memories of “Poppa Jim”, Alma’s husband for those few short months.

Greg Barron

 

Making Fools of the Law

Making Fools of the Law

There’s a long tradition of laughing at authority in Australia. Holding the constabulary up to ridicule was often the response to oppressive police tactics.

Australian bushrangers loved nothing better than making fools of the “traps.” Some entered stolen racehorses in bush races and won, or even impersonated the police commanders who were hunting them. Many were such supreme bushmen, that they were able to evade their pursuers for years.

 

Photo Courtesy State Library of Queensland

 

Escaping from custody was a great lark …

Bushranger Captain Thunderbolt escaped the infamous Cockatoo Island by swimming across a dangerous stretch of water to shore. He remained at large for six years, and showed his contempt for the police by carrying an empty pistol.

Galloping Jones was known for running off from his police escort just for fun, then allowing himself to be recaptured; once he’d had a drink and a feed.

This account from the diary of early Territory policeman, Augustus Lucanus (who was once a soldier in the German army), had a similar theme:

Being transferred to Pine Creek and put in charge of the station, I had plenty of riding and bush work to do. My patrol extended to the Katherine River. One day I had to take a white prisoner and hand him on to the next station, to be forwarded to Palmerston. A heavy storm came up.

The rain and lightning were terrible. There was one fearful clap of thunder, worse than the rest, after which pieces of timber went flying all ways. A dry tree close by us had been struck. The horses bolted, and by the time I had managed to pull up my frightened mount I could see nothing of my prisoner. I searched and tried to find some tracks, but with no success. The rain had washed them completely out, so I rode on to camp at the Union. Arriving at the hotel I found my prisoner waiting for me in the bar. He was having a whisky. I was very pleased at this.

Lucanus went on to say that he wouldn’t have been so worried if the prisoner was Chinese, for the practice at the time was to simply grab another one, regardless of his innocence.

With attitudes like this it’s no wonder the ordinary people of Australia, whatever their race, enjoyed a good laugh at a policeman’s expense!

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.  

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron can be ordered from the following outlets.

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Also available: Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History

Buckley’s Chance

William Buckley was an English bricklayer, and ex-soldier, transported to Australia in 1803 for being caught in possession of stolen goods. He was a huge man, standing six foot six in his socks. Resuming his trade at Port Phillip, he laid the first brick of the town that would eventually become Melbourne.

Escaping with five mates from a work party, one man was shot dead and another recaptured. Two others elected to return to Port Phillip after a week of starving in the bush. Only William Buckley stayed in the wilderness, eating anything he could find to sustain him. Finding a spear protruding from an Indigenous grave site, he put it to good use, much to the amazement of local Aborigines who figured he had to be the reincarnation of the man who had once owned it.

For thirty-two years Buckley lived with the Port Phillip tribes, and when he finally wandered back into the settlement, he’d forgotten how to speak English. Pardoned, but forced to live and work with the whites, he was sickened by their treatment of his Indigenous “families” and he eventually moved to Hobart. Crowds gathered to get a look at the “Wild White Man.”

Buckley married at age sixty, and died ten years later after a wagon accident.

The Australian slang term “Buckley’s Chance” came about when he first escaped into the bush as a young man, because no one expected him to survive.

It seems likely that the later addition to this saying, “Buckley’s and None,” came about after the department store, Buckley and Nunn, opened its doors in Melbourne in 1851.

 

©2018 Greg Barron

 

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, amazon, ibookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from amazon, ibookstore and ozbookstore.com

   

Sixty Ships and One Thousand Men.

The extent of the Macassar penetration into Northern Australia was greater than is generally acknowledged: much more than a few scattered trepang-seeking proas. In fact, as this excerpt from Voyage to Terra Australia by Matthew Flinders, shows, Macassar incursions featured large numbers of boats and men; heavily armed and organised on military lines. The following meeting took place on the coast of Eastern Arnhem Land, not far from the modern town of Nhulunbuy.

Thursday, February 17, 1803:

On approaching I sent Lieutenant Flinders in an armed boat to learn who they were, and soon afterwards we came to an anchor in twelve fathoms, within musket-shot, having a spring on the cable and all hands at quarters. On the return of Lieutenant Flinders we learned that they were proas from Macassar, and the six Malay commanders shortly afterwards came on board in a canoe. It happened fortunately that my cook was a Malay, and through this means I was able to communicate with them. The chief of the six proas was a short elderly man, named Pobassoo. He said that they were upon the coast in different divisions sixty proas, and that Salloo was the commander-in-chief.

According to Pobassoo, from whom my information was principally obtained, sixty proas, belonging to the Rajah of Boni, and carrying one thousand men, had left Macassar with the north-west monsoon two months before, upon an expedition to this coast, and the fleet was then lying in different places to the westward — five or six together — Pobassoo’s division being the foremost. These proas seemed to be about twenty-five tons, and to have twenty or twenty-five men in each. That of Pobassoo carried two small brass guns obtained from the Dutch, but the others had only muskets, besides which every Malay wears a dagger, either secretly or openly.

The image that accompanies this post depicts a Macassar Trepanging Camp at Raffles Bay, Coburg Peninsula NT. It was painted between 27 March and 6 April 1839. The painter was Louis Le Breton, the official artist on a voyage of exploration under the command of French captain, Dumont D’Urville. Courtesy: NT Library

The Big Australian

When boundary rider Charles Rasp stumbled on an interesting hill in far western NSW, with a fractured body of ore running right through it, he wasn’t sure if he’d found something of value or not. He consulted his battered copy of ‘The Prospector’s Guide’ to be certain. Within a few weeks he and six others had formed a company called the Barrier Ranges Mining Association, and pegged out six claims.

The partnership included two dam-builders; David James and James Poole, station owner George McCullogh, head stockman George Urquhart, bookkeeper George Lind, and jackaroo Philip Charlie.

Rasp and the others thought they’d found a reasonable prospect for tin mining, but things didn’t go well at first. The ore samples they mined and sent away for analysis showed only traces of tin. Conditions were harsh and necessities like water difficult to obtain.

“At the start it was very bad,’ George Rasp later told the Melbourne Argus. ‘There was no accommodation, water and provisions were scarce and the weather was very trying … for 12 months it was really doubtful whether we would make anything out of it.’

Lind sold his share for next to nothing. James Poole SWAPPED his share with Sir Sidney Kidman, for TEN COWS. George Urquhart sold his share back to George Rasp for £20.

We can only imagine how much Lind, Urquhart and Poole regretted their rash disposal of the shares, for new reports from the ore samples came back from Adelaide with exciting news. Silver! Some of the richest ore ever seen. All of a sudden the partnership of seven was one of the most talked about companies in the country. It was time for a name change: The Broken Hill Proprietary Company floated on the stock exchange in 1885.

George Rasp’s hill would go on to be the richest find of silver, lead, and zinc in the history of the world. The share George Urquhart sold for £20 in 1884 was worth 1 000 000 pounds just six years later. In today’s terms a one seventh share of BHP Billiton would be worth a staggering twenty billion dollars.

As for George Rasp, he married a waitress, and moved to Adelaide. He didn’t have too much time to enjoy his wealth, as he died relatively young, at the age of sixty.

Still, few people have made such a contribution to the development of Australia as did George Rasp.

© 2018 Greg Barron

 

Donegan and the Divorce

Donegan and the Divorce

Roper Bar Police Station. William Henry Lillicrapp Collection. NT Library

Mounted Constable Michael Donegan woke up in his cot at the Leichhardt’s Crossing Police Station, with a hangover so bad he’d been dreaming that he was back home in Derry, Ireland, where a huge shirtless man was hitting the side of his head with a ten-pound hammer.

His sleeping mind had wandered back to a dark little factory terrace, with Da putting on his boots before leaving for work, while oat porridge bubbled on the stove. The man with the hammer was Da’s supervisor in the foundry where he worked. Michael had always been frightened of him.

But the walls, revealed in the light of dawn, were not the whitewashed bricks of home, but split raw timbers. The air was hot and humid, and the pillow damp from sweat. Michael Donegan realised that the terrace house, and the man with the hammer, were ten thousand miles away, and that the blows were coming from inside his own head, heavy from the whisky he had drunk the night before. He and some blow-ins: brumby runners, ringers, prospectors and a couple of Malay sailors from a schooner at anchor below the bar, had been playing poker, with a dram all round each time the cards were dealt.

As the local officer of the law, Donegan presided over a huge part of the Gulf, an area larger than all the counties of his native Ireland put together. This was no easy task. The Gulf was a refuge for the lawless, the adventurous, and the uncivilised. Many of the inhabitants had outstanding warrants. Others were hurrying to goldfields near Pine Creek and the Kimberley, some to dig for gold, others for the opportunities that gold might bring them.

For a while he lay in bed, letting his aches subside a little, going over the day to come. It was a Sunday, and thus he was perfectly entitled to spend it as he pleased. With luck, no lawless ruffians would ride into town. No one would be speared or shot. No one would be taken by a ‘gator, steal, or fight.

Donegan hoped for a quiet day. The afternoon, he decided, might be passed reading the bible on the riverbank, fulfilling the promise he had made to his Ma to keep the faith of his forefathers. It was also a good way to avoid the heat of the day, just far enough from the water to be safe from ‘gators.

He had managed to get out of bed, pull on a pair of trousers, collect the bowl of shaving water placed for him by one of the Ngalakgan girls who tended the house, and was half way through shaving when he heard a couple of horses ridden hard, coming into the station.

Donegan paused, razor in hand. Please God, he prayed silently, let them ride on, for pity’s sake.

Unfortunately, whoever it was reined in on the road outside. Two riders, at least. Next came raised voices, followed by a pounding on the door. Donegan lay still, scarcely breathing, hoping the sound would stop. Instead it came again, louder than before.

‘Ye can just bally well wait,’ he muttered to himself. This was a thankless job, he decided, being liable to be called upon at just about any hour of the day or night for anything from a murder, a complaint of violence against or by any of three or four local Aboriginal nations, or simply to help get a message south. Today, having planned a day of rest and peace, he was in no mood to be hurried.

The knocking resumed, harder than before, along with a few curses in a woman’s voice. The choice of words was not lady-like.

Wondering what in the name of the Saviour had turned up on his door Michael Donegan wiped his face clean with a towel, buttoned on a shirt and walked towards the door. His head thumped in time with each footstep.

A woman stood in the doorway, wild with unkempt hair, dirt and anger. At her waist was strapped a revolver seemingly too big for her to carry, yet she managed it somehow.

‘It’s about bleedin’ time,’ she said, ‘I’ve a ridden two hundred mile to get here, and it aren’t nice to be kept waiting at the door.’

Peering past her, Donegan perceived a man: a thin, shifty, nervous looking type who would not have looked out of place as a Derry pickpocket.

‘So what is troubling ye enough to ride two hundred miles?’ Donegan asked.

‘Let us in,’ said the woman, ‘yer slow-witted Irishman, and you’ll learn our business soon enough.’

‘Well I might. Just tell me what ye want first.’

‘Me and this old cock – me husband Tommy here – want a divorce.’

Donegan had been approached for all kinds of assistance in his months at Roper Bar, but this was a first. ‘Jaysus woman, on what grounds?’

The woman grinned slyly. ‘See here, Tommy can no longer do his job as a man.’ With those words she marched past a surprised Donegan and inside.

Her husband stopped beside the policeman. ‘What me wife just said aren’t true. She’s happened to find another feller on the Barkly, better lookin’ and richer than me, and he’s even gonna pay me for her. That’s why we need a divorce, so they can get hitched straight up.’

Donegan glared at her. ‘T’at’s irregular, I warn ye both …’

The woman pushed her face close to his, missing teeth and bad breath and all. ‘Listen you. Tommy’s in a hurry for his cash, and I’m in a hurry for me new man. So jus’ divorce the pair of us an’ we’ll be outta your way.’

‘Bless you, woman, but will you let me put a word in? I can’t divorce ye.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I don’t have t’power. I’m a mounted constable, not a magistrate. Besides, ye have to engage yerselves a solicitor, that’s how t’e law works.’

The woman pulled the revolver from her belt and pointed it at the terrified husband, eyes still on the policeman. ‘Hark now to me you daft little bastard. Divorce us now or I’ll shoot poor Tommy right here on yer floor.’

Donegan placed a hand on either side of his aching skull, then looked upwards, as if praying, but all he could see was the python that had recently taken up residence in the rafters. ‘Put t’at damned gun away before I confiscate it for good and all.’ He reached out to grab her, but she skipped out of reach.

The woman climbed atop a chair and sighted her weapon at the terrified Tommy, who dropped down behind a desk.

Donegan walked towards the woman, crooning softly in his brogue. ‘Now, now, put the gun away, and let’s talk about this.’

Eyes wild, the woman fired the revolver in the general direction of her husband, leaving a slug embedded deep in the slab wall.

‘That’s it,’ shouted Donegan, ears ringing. ‘I’m going to arrest ye. Madwoman!’

Jumping down from her perch, with a wild cry, the woman took to her heels, running out the back door and into a stout little outhouse behind the main building. Behind it were the three separate cell blocks – solid, windowless sheds made of split timber.

Donegan and Tommy, along with a station dog – a dingo crossed with a kangaroo dog called Kip – all hurried out after her.

‘Divorce me and Tommy right now,’ the voice screeched from behind the door of the outhouse, ‘or I’ll kill myself. I swear I will.’ Then followed the sound of the inner lock being slipped home.

‘I told ye already,’ Donegan spluttered. ‘I cannot divorce ye. I’ll swear on the bible to t’at effect. It just cannot be done. Not by me. Not here.’

The woman began to cry, high pitched wails followed by deep throaty grunts as she searched for air. ‘I just want me new bloke, ah fer Chrissake, can’t you see? Tommy’s a useless damn wretch, and never done me a moment’s good in his life. I’ll kill meself, I swear it. Just divorce us, even if it aren’t proper. I’m gonna count to ten …’

Donegan walked to the side of the stricken husband. ‘Do you reckon she’ll do it?’

‘There aren’t no tellin’ what she’ll do when she gets like this.’

Donegan walked to the door and rattled it. ‘Unlatch t’at door right now. T’is exact second.’

More sobbing then ‘… Four, five …’

Head feeling as if it was about to explode, Donegan walked to the woodheap where the axe was stuck blade-first in a stump. At first it resisted his efforts to pull it out. He kicked it with his foot, and out it came. He hefted it by the handle. He pushed past Tommy, who was ineffectually trying to open the outhouse door, then took a mighty swing at the upper hinge.

‘ … Nine, ten …’

A terrific scream as Donegan struck the other hinge and the door fell inwards.

‘Yerve killed me you stupid Irish bastard, I’ll get meself a lawyer alright …’ she cried. ‘An’ I’ll see you hung like a dog.’

Dropping the axe and throwing the door aside, Donegan marched in. He grabbed the woman by the arm, and removed the revolver with his free hand.

In an instant, her demeanour changed. She went limp, and leaned back against him, fluttered her eyelids and looking up at him admiringly. ‘Oh, you’re very strong,’ she said.

The change totally disarmed him. ‘Why, t’ank you.’

She pressed a little closer to him. ‘Mister Policeman, I declare that you never even asked me my name. What kind of policeman doesn’t ask names?’

Donegan shrugged. ‘What’s ye name then, lass?’

‘Esther, it is. Now is that a pretty name or is it not?’

‘Well I don’t know. To me it’s just a name as-like any other.’

The woman curled her hand around his bicep. ‘Now, would you please get on and divorce me and Tommy, and I’ll give you a gift you won’t forget in a hurry.’

‘What gift?’

The woman poked out a furred tongue, and lolled it around her lips.

Donegan was horrified. ‘T’at’s it,’ he cried. ‘I’ll divorce ye. But only if you promise never t’a come near to me again as long as I live.’

‘And you’ll give me back my revolver?’

‘I suppose so, yes.’

Marching the unhappy couple back inside, followed by the dog, Michael lined them up in the office, then fetched two trackers from their hut to witness the transaction. Opening a copy of the ‘Laws of the Colony of South Australia’ he found the section on divorce, and read out the Act from start to finish.

About one-third of the way through, Esther yelled out, ‘Do yer really have to read all that guff?’

Donegan took a perverse pleasure in making her wait. ‘I do, now be silent or it will only take longer.’ When he had finished reading he decided that he needed some kind of pronouncement. ‘I declare, ye Esther, an’ Tommy, divorced, an’ t’erefore free of any encumbrance. Now get t’ hell out of my police station an’ never come back.’

But Esther was too smart for that. ‘Put it in writing, copper. I’m not going ‘til you do.’

He stared at her, close to exploding, ‘I have no right t’ divorce you. Let alone write it down. Can you even read lass?’

‘I can’t read a word, and neither can Tommy, but me new ‘usband can. He wants to see evidence of me divorce.’

‘Very well t’en,’ Michael scowled, sitting down behind the desk and taking up a sheet of stationery. On the top, the coat of arms of South Australia was embossed in gold. With quill and ink he wrote the words carefully, pressing hard on his quill as was his habit, despite the attempts of many a nun to cure him of doing so. When he was done with the note he signed it with a flourish. Esther snatched the paper off the desk.

‘At last,’ she said, ‘now give me back my gun.’

Donegan gave her the weapon. ‘Please be careful wit’ it.’

The woman grinned with a mouthful of brown teeth at him, and was out the door like a shot. Tommy smiled, and shook Donegan’s hand. ‘Good luck sir. An’ I can’t believe I’m free of her at last.’

Donegan grinned, ‘I can’t believe that I’m free of her either.’

When they were both gone, Donegan shouted to the cook for a cup of tea and sat down at his desk. He was feeling more than a little pleased with himself. When he looked down at his notepad he could still see the impression of the note he had written for Esther.

This is to certify that any man who marries this woman is insane and will regret his folly every day, for the rest of his life.

Signed

M.C. Michael Donegan

 

Authors Note: I'm indebted to Judy Robinson for the seeds of this yarn. I also have an inkling as to the identity of the lady in question, but don't have any evidence at this stage.
The Ballad of Tom Coolon

The Ballad of Tom Coolon

Thomas Cuthbert Coolon was born in Richmond, New South Wales, on the tenth of April 1859. His mother, Sarah Douglass, died when he was seven years old. His father remarried and moved out west of the Darling River where Tom was abducted by a group of Aborigines.

For the next decade Tom was raised by wild blacks, learning and honing bush skills that would become legendary. He also learned harsh laws of retribution and payback that would lead, later in life, to a shocking tragedy.

As squatters and their stock pushed further out into the scrub Tom found himself once more part of white society. With his lean frame and general toughness he quickly fell into station work. Some cattle stealing on the side saw a policeman ride out with an arrest warrant in Tom’s name.

Tom, however, had the “trap” in his sights long before he arrived, and shot the horse out from under him.

This, it seemed to Tom, was a good time to take a change of scenery up in Queensland where he worked as a ringer, dog-baiter, and roo-shooter. In his spare time he developed an interest in prospecting.

Tom was a striking looking man; tall with blue eyes and a blazing red beard. In 1890 he married Catherine Mongovan. The couple had two daughters and a son, living in the Clermont district, Queensland.

The turn of the century saw Tom droving with Ted Drewer up to the Territory, taking a mob of brood mares to one of the vast Fisher and Lyons properties. When the mares had been delivered he headed for Darwin, intending to take a ship home to Queensland. The wet season had struck early, rivers were flooded and impassable all the way down the Top End and across the Gulf country. Riding home would have been impossible.

News hit Darwin of a droving camp near Newcastle Waters facing starvation and fever, cut off from the world. A desperate call went out for a volunteer to ride five hundred miles south with supplies for the stricken men.

Tom Coolon stepped forward, and with three riding horses and two packs he set out on a mission few men would have attempted.

Swimming the horses across flooded rivers he managed to cover an astonishing fifty miles each day. Sadly that perilous rescue mission came too late, for the last of the drovers died on the day Tom arrived.

Tom was now a legend in the Territory, but back in Queensland things went bad. First, the Coolons’ twelve-year-old daughter Mary died. Then Tom took up a partnership on a station called Prairie Run, near Clermont, but the business arrangement degenerated into a bitter feud that included the odd gunfight.

Tom and Catherine took up the adjoining property, Spoonbill Farm, but Tom’s former partners, the Kirkups, were out to get him, framing him for the possession of stolen livestock, a “crime” that saw him imprisoned for two years at hard labour.

After his release Tom Coolon was a changed man.

 

It was race day in Clermont when Tom came up against the law again. He was drinking at the pub when a stranger tried to pick a fight. The two men were shaping up when a huge policeman called Ormes banged their heads together and threw them against a wall.

Legend has it that Tom Coolon slowly stood up, then fixed his eyes on Constable Ormes. “I won’t forget this. It will be evened up.”

When, a few months later, the policeman’s corpse was found at a place called Camp Oven Hole on the Charters Towers Road, Tom was naturally a suspect.

From a recollection in the Townsville Bulletin:

It was in that country later that Constable Ormes was shot at the 33 Mile, better known as Camp Oven Waterhole, on the Clermont-Charters Towers Road. The head of Ormes’s horse was still hanging on a limb of a tree when I was along that road in 1938. It seems whoever did it, shot the horse behind the shoulder and then killed poor Ormes with either a stick or a rifle barrel.

Australian folklore has had Coolon pinned as the murderer ever since, but an eyewitness report by an old man called “T.C.W.” fifty years later clears his name.

Coolon (was) an outstanding bushman and a deadly rifle shot; he could hit anything as far as he could see. I knew Coolon very well, and he could be a good friend. I also knew Mrs Coolon, a fine Irishwoman, their eldest daughter Violet, and son Hector, the latter only a baby then. Regarding Constable Ormes’s death on the Charters Towers-Clermont road, there was no foul play; he was not murdered nor was his horse shot.

I was coming into Clermont from the Suttor River about 1903, when, at the 60 Mile on the Charters Towers road, I found a dead man, perished from thirst, about three miles on the Clermont side of Lanark Station on Mistake Creek, then deserted. I pushed on to the Black Ridge Hotel. It was a gold mining place that was in full swing at the time, twelve miles from Clermont.

I reported finding the dead man to the police. Constable Ormes was sent out to bury the dead man. It was about three days to Christmas and very hot weather. So he rode out and stayed at the hotel that night and left next morning for the 60 Mile to bury the man. He said he could do it and be back that night, a round trip of 96 miles, no water anywhere, and only one horse to do the journey. He reached and buried the man and was no doubt trying to make the journey back in the night, was very thirsty and his horse galloped off the road and ran into a fallen tree. This killed the horse, and the policeman was found dead some distance away from the horse; the limbs of the tree were responsible for his death also.

Either way, Tom Coolon went about his business, kangaroo shooting in the Belyando River country, prospecting and working as a stockman. As one of his old comrades wrote:

(Tom) was also a marvellous bushman, and as a buckjump rider he was above average, although not in the Lance Skuthorpe class. Coolon was never guilty of riding a poor or weak horse, and if a buckjumper ran loose he would ride him, but not in a yard. He was one of the cleverest scrub riders that ever steered a horse through the mulga.

Though he loved horses, Tom had a mortal fear of dogs, and would not suffer them anywhere near him. He would never refuse a bet, one night riding seven miles with no moon to locate a tomahawk he had left in the scrub, winning twenty pounds in the process. He also spent much more time away from his wife and children than near them. This last fact must have occurred to him, and he decided that it was time to settle.

One day, working around Yaccamunda Station, Tom came across a recently-pegged gold mine. The owner was nowhere to be seen. A few washes with the pan, however, told Tom that it was a rich claim, and he decided then and there that he wanted it.

The gold mine that Tom Coolon found on Yaccamunda Station was in a remote area, far from other diggings. With his knowledge of prospecting Tom suspected that it would be the start of something big. He cunningly learned everything he could about the man who had pegged the claim.

The words on a claim notice fixed to a stake meant nothing to the illiterate Tom. He instead used his tracking skills to learn of the claimant’s movements. Footprints led to a nearby campsite, a small waterhole, and finally, horse tracks heading north towards Charters Towers.

Tom must have grinned to himself when he realised that the claimant was heading in the wrong direction. Mineral rights in this area, he knew, were under the jurisdiction of the mining warden in Clermont, to the south. Without wasting any time Tom saddled up and galloped off to find the warden, registering the claim in his own name. He was in full, legal possession of the claim when the man who originally pegged it, Luke Reynolds, arrived.

Reynolds had ridden all the way to Charters Towers, only to be told that he needed to go to Clermont, and was calling in to check on his claim on the way through. Tom was ready and waiting, his trusty lever-action Winchester close at hand.

‘Who the bloody hell are you?’ Reynolds asked.

‘I’m the legal owner of this claim,’ Tom replied. ‘So if you value your life you’ll turn around and keep riding.’

Reynolds was too smart to take Coolon head on, instead talking him into a partnership. This arrangement lasted only a few weeks before it fell apart. Reynolds decided that discretion was the better part of valour and pegged a new claim just along the ridge.

By this time Tom had built a sturdy hut and brought Catherine out to live with him. His mine had a thick seam of gold-bearing quartz, and hundreds of diggers flocked to the area, now named Mount Coolon. Within months the first stamper mill was on site, crushing piles of rich ore for the miners.

Finally, in his fifties, things seemed to have come together for Tom Coolon. He lived at home with Catherine. They had a garden and a flock of goats. The mine was making good money without too much hard work.

Yet, with no employees, Tom was obliged to travel away at times for supplies. Greedy eyes were watching when he rode off to Clermont with Catherine in late October, 1918. Under the law at the time a claim became void if it was left unattended by the owners.

Mount Coolon in 1932. John Oxley Library

A mining entrepreneur called Bernard Thompson waited until Coolon had been away for a few days then went to the local mining warden, filing for forfeiture of the mine because of Tom’s absence. The warden backed him up, and Thompson now had title to the mine, obtained in a similar tricky way to how Tom had stolen the mine in the first place.

Thompson took on three partners to help work the claim: Harold Smith, Robert Wells and William Brown. When Tom returned from Clermont he found four armed strangers in legal possession of his mine. He flew into a terrible rage, demanding that the men leave immediately. They stood their ground. Thompson had decided to take Tom on in full knowledge of his reputation. He too was a hard man, and not easily cowed. Tom filed an appeal against the warden’s decision but the District Court confirmed the forfeiture.

Tom was forced to watch from his hut as Thompson and Company brought gold ore up from the depths of a mine he had dug with his own hands.

On the morning of Wednesday November 13, 1918, Tom walked to the camp of a man called Charles Woodland, a JP, and asked him to take down his last will and testament. Once this was done, signed and witnessed, Tom walked back to his hut, fetching his Winchester and horse.

Riding up to his old claim he saw Bernard Thompson working up top. ‘You’ve got five minutes to get off my claim,’ Tom said.

Thompson shook his head. ‘I’m not going.’

Tom raised the butt of his rifle to his shoulder and fired into the ground between them. Thompson went for the revolver on his belt. He fired but missed, and Tom’s second shot took him under the arm, the third ploughed into his chest, killing him.

People had heard the shots, and news of Tom Coolon taking vengeance with a rifle spread like a grass fire. Men dived down mineshafts and hid. One of Tom’s targets, Robert Wells, reckoned he owed his survival to sheer laziness, for he was having a smoke down the mine and couldn’t be bothered going up when he heard someone yelling for him at the top.

The Native Bear Mine: John Oxley Library

Tom stopped at the Native Bear mine where he found an employee of Thompson’s called William Bloom, who turned and ran. But to the old roo hunter a running man was easy prey. He brought him down with one shot.

Another man that Tom had intended to kill – Alexander Smith – fell to his knees and declared that he was Tom’s friend, and that they had no quarrel. They shook hands and Tom declared that his plan was to kill a few more men and then “do himself in.”

Tom rode fast, ahead of the rumours, to the stamp mill two miles away. There he found two more of Thompson’s associates: Harold Smith and William Brown. He shot them both dead.

Finally, having killed four men all up, Tom rode off into the bush, leaving Catherine at home in the hut. Police from all over the district, led by an Inspector Quinn, scrambled to collect bodies and come to terms with what had happened.

A manhunt of epic proportions followed, but Tom, with his bush skills, had no trouble evading the police. Every man who had ever had reason to argue with Tom Coolon now believed himself a possible target. There was a sudden exodus from Mt Coolon and also Clermont of men who believed themselves to be on his hit list. On horseback and motor vehicle they fled, vowing to stay away until the murderer was caught.

Three days after the murders, however, Tom slipped through the police cordon and rode home to the hut he shared with Catherine. He kissed her for the last time, then turned the gun on himself. They found him there, in a pool of blood, with his wife of almost thirty years crying over him.

 

Greg Barron 2019

Elizabeth Woolcock

By Greg Barron

The Old Adelaide Gaol stands on the south bank of the River Torrens, massive and silent. The thick stone walls, guard towers and block-like cells leave visitors in no doubt that from 1841 to 1988, this was a prison designed to dehumanise and isolate its inhabitants; those that the justice system had decided, for their crimes, to remove from society.

It was here, in the year 1873, that Elizabeth Lillian Woolcock was given just twenty-six days to live. Twenty-six days to ponder her sins. Twenty-six days to imagine how the rope would feel around her neck, and to reflect on the life and eventual crime that had made her a household name – the talk of every household in the state.

Elizabeth was born in Burra, South Australia, in April, 1848, to Cornish parents, John and Elizabeth Oliver. Like many of his countrymen, John had mining in his blood, and the family enjoyed the camaraderie of a strong community, tapping rich copper reefs in the dry hills around the town.

Like many others, the Olivers lived in a home burrowed into the banks of Kooringa Creek. In June 1851, a major flood swept down the waterway, sending a churning wave of destructive water through these underground abodes. At least one man was drowned trying to retrieve his belongings, and it’s likely that the Oliver family lost everything they owned. These were tough times, and neither of Elizabeth’s younger siblings, John and Catherine, survived early childhood.

When Elizabeth was five years old, her mother left home. John, living at least temporarily at Tynte Street, North Adelaide, placed the following advertisement in the South Australian Register: This is to certify that my wife, Elizabeth Oliver, has left her home without any just cause or provocation. I will not be accountable for any debts she may incur or contract after this date.

Unable to stay away from the mining way of life for long, John followed thousands of other gold seekers across the border to Ballarat, hunting the yellow metal while trying to care for his little girl. He staked a claim at Creswick Creek, and Elizabeth was often left in the tent alone when he went out to work, though she was likely to have attended the local school after it opened in 1854.

It was a difficult time. Elizabeth was still a child when the Eureka Rebellion swept through the area. John Oliver played at least a minor role. It seems likely that his daughter was a witness to at least some of the violence that erupted between the diggers and police.

When Elizabeth was seven, she was alone in the tent when an itinerant by the name of George Shawshaw came to the flap and asked for a smoke. Elizabeth gave him her father’s pipe, and when he had finished smoking he seized her by the throat, half suffocating her. He then raped her, a crime so vicious that the judge called it “one of the most atrocious cases” he had ever presided over.  Shawshaw was sentenced to death by hanging, though this was commuted to a long jail term.  

Elizabeth’s injuries were so severe they left her unable to bear children. A local doctor gave her opium for the pain, the beginning of a lifelong addiction, and more changes were on the way. While still a girl she was engaged as a servant to a Mr Lees, a Creswick chemist. Through her early teens Elizabeth had a steady supply of the drug she craved. At fifteen she left her employment and moved to Ballarat, living in a boarding house that may have doubled as a brothel. She was using opium and supplying it to prostitutes, a trade in which she may have been employed herself.

Elizabeth’s mother, during this period, had remarried. A few years later, despite facing bankruptcy in 1862, the elder Elizabeth started looking for the daughter she had abandoned so many years earlier.

After receiving a message from a travelling minister, in 1864 Elizabeth moved in with her mother and stepfather at another Cornish mining stronghold in South Australia, Moonta. At this point, for a while at least, the young woman had something of a normal life. Her mother and stepfather were active in the Wesleyan Church, and Elizabeth became a Sunday school teacher. She also took up employment as a servant to a local widower, Thomas Woolcock.

When Elizabeth’s stepfather heard rumours that Woolcock was enjoying sexual favours from her, he threatened to break her legs. Undeterred by the threat, she married her employer, despite warnings from her stepfather that he was a bad type of man. During this time her drug addiction continued, using morphine obtained legally from local chemists.

Woolcock, however, was strict, violent and unpredictable. He found fault with her housekeeping, and accused her of having an affair with a boarder called Tom Pascoe. Then, when his dog died suddenly, he suspected that Pascoe might have poisoned the animal. The canine’s rotting body was later exhumed and tested, with high levels of mercury found in its internal organs.

Pascoe was certainly Elizabeth’s co-conspirator in obtaining opium, along with a powder that was most likely precipitate of mercury. He sometimes acted as her representative, using handwritten notes in false names. Her stepson, Thomas John, was also enlisted for this purpose.

As Elizabeth later wrote: “I was not married long, before I found out what sort of man I had got, and that my poor stepfather had advised me for my good. But was too late then so I had to make the best of it. I tried to do my duty to him and the children but the more I tried the worse he was. He was fond of drink but he did not like to part with his money for anything else and God only knows how he ill-treated me. I put up with it for three years, during that time my parents went to Melbourne and then he was worse than ever.”

Periodic attempts to leave home and run for Adelaide did not help, for Woolcock tracked her down and dragged her back. Addicted to opium, and trapped in an abusive marriage, Elizabeth tried to hang herself. The plan would have succeeded but for the weakness of the beam she tied her rope to – it broke when she kicked away her chair.

When Woolcock fell ill, Elizabeth consulted a series of doctors, giving at least the appearance of trying to save her husband. Nothing seemed to work.  Thomas slid towards death, and on the 4th of September 1873 the undertaker called to collect his body.

The local rumour mill went into overdrive. After all, Elizabeth’s desperate need for opiates was well known, and rumours of an affair with Tom Pascoe had kept tongues wagging for months. An inquest was convened and the finger was pointed at Elizabeth. She was charged with murdering her husband by mixing toxic mercury powder into his food, and sent to trial.

The jury had no trouble finding her guilty, and she was sentenced to be hung by the neck until she was dead. It is ironic that Elizabeth’s rapist was granted clemency, and spared the rope, but she herself was not, despite a recommendation for leniency from the jury. 

Most death sentences were carried out after twenty-one days, but Elizabeth had twenty-six because they did not want to hang her on Christmas Day. On December the 30th, Elizabeth was led from her cell in the company of her last confidant, Reverend Bickford. The hangman placed a noose around her neck, allowing the regulation amount of slack, then finally released the trigger that caused the trap door to fall away. After hanging for the prescribed period of one hour, she was pronounced as deceased, then buried between the inner and outer gaol walls.

Over the years, some researchers and historians have argued that Elizabeth was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence. A petition was circulated to have her conviction posthumously quashed. The suggestion received short thrift from the attorney general, but some doubt does remain.

The physical evidence that Thomas Woolcock (and his dog) died from mercury poisoning was not conclusive by modern standards. The cause of death was initially given as “pure exhaustion from excessive and prolonged vomiting and purging.” Mercury was found, however, in dangerous levels in his organs, particularly his stomach, much more than could be attributed to the small amount in some of the medicines he was prescribed.

A letter from Elizabeth, addressed to Reverend Bickford, was handed to the Adelaide Observer after the hanging. The newspaper published it in full, with this damning confession only adding to the public’s interest in the case: “I was so ill-treated that I was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour I yielded to the temptation. He was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarrelled with me and Satan tempted me and I gave him what I ought not.” Believers in her innocence assert that she only made the confession to impress her penitence on Reverend Bickford, who had been the minister at Moonta and whom she admired.

Whatever happened, Elizabeth was a tragic figure: the victim of careless parenthood, a savage crime and a violent marriage. Years of substance abuse may have been her way of coping with the demons of the past. She remains the only woman to be executed by the South Australian government, and a figure of mystery, sadness, and intrigue.

©2020 Greg Barron

The Palmer River Gold Rush

by Greg Barron

If you wanted to cook up a wild adventure story, start with a Queensland river blessed with rich alluvial gold. Throw in a bunch of self-reliant prospectors, an uncontrolled stream of Chinese diggers, Martini-Henry rifles, spirited horses, and a tough indigenous nation that resented and fought the intrusion. Throw it all in a pressure-cooker of Cape York heat, and you’ve got the Palmer River Gold Rush.

In 1872, two brothers from Victoria, William and Frank Hann, along with a botanist, a geologist and others travelled north on a Queensland Government sponsored expedition to investigate the country “North to the 14th Parallel”. Rugged country even now, in those days Cape York was an area even the toughest settlers and adventurers avoided.

Hann located a river beginning in the hills west of Port Douglas, flowing westwards for six-hundred-kilometres before it emptied into the Mitchell River, ultimately reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria. He named this waterway the Palmer River after the Chief Secretary of Queensland, Arthur Palmer. Hann and his comrades were the first to pan gold from the river in 1872. The amounts were not significant, but enough to excite some interest back in civilization.

The lure of a brand-new find attracted James Mulligan, a tough Irishman scraping a living on the Etheridge fields, but dreaming of better things. Staking everything on the venture, he outfitted an expedition with five solid mates and rode north into the wilderness.

They returned to Georgetown, on the Etheridge fields, after weeks of panning the Palmer River gravels. It was September 1873, when the Mine Warden posted a notice on the walls of his hut: “JV Mulligan reports the discovery of payable gold on the Palmer River. Those interested may inspect at this office the 102 ounces he has brought back.”

Within a few days, just about every miner in the worked-out Etheridge field had started on the five-hundred-kilometre trek north. Prospectors knew that getting in early on a rush was the key. Some rode horses or perched on a wagon box. Others walked. Many pushed barrows loaded with all their tools and possessions.

Word went out by ship, telegram, word-of-mouth and mail. News reached Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, then Shanghai and San Francisco. The rush was on.

With the wet season not far away, authorities warned of fever, flooded rivers and trouble. Even Mulligan himself wrote to the Queenslander newspaper: “I do wish to stop this before it grows any more. Already exaggerated accounts and too much excitement exist here. If people rush the place without rations they must perish.”

Yet nothing dimmed the excitement, and when the Government opened a landing on the Endeavour River the gold-seekers poured in by boat as well.

From beginning to end, the Palmer River yielded a fantastic amount of gold. One hundred tons was the official count, but much more was taken away by the Chinese (gold prices were better in China) or carried home by diggers. It was a genuine El Dorado, but harsh beyond belief, and wild by any standards.

The local Merkin people were not nomadic by nature, rather in villages of bark-lined huts on the ridges near good hunting and fishing grounds. They went from living in a relatively unspoiled domain, to a hell-hole of shafts, camps, mullock heaps and fires. Trees fell to the axe, waterholes were muddied, and white men and their guns were everywhere. Some shot blacks on sight, and the strong, able spearmen retaliated.

A letter dated October 5, 1873 from an early arrival stated: “At present the blacks are very bad. It is war to the knife between the whites and them.”

Unsuccessful diggers, handy with their weapons, hired themselves out as bodyguards, standing sentry with their Martini-Henry or Snider rifles, watching for Merkin raiders. Two such characters were “Sam the Tracker” and Jack Martin, better known as “The Orphan.” Bored of earning a pittance standing guard for a party of Chinese diggers, the pair instead murdered and robbed the Chinese gold courier headed for Cooktown on his weekly run. With the law on their trail, the pair doubled back and stole seven of the pursuing police horses.

“The Orphan” was later noted for causing trouble, including cattle stealing, in the Gulf, but was never arrested for the Palmer River crimes. In Borroloola, during a drunken fight, he accidentally shot off his own thumb and forefinger.

The town of Palmerville slowly took shape with two stores. Stock was at a premium in the early days, however, and commodities like flour and beef sold out almost as soon as it arrived. The first pubs were basic affairs, little more than bark sheds, filled to capacity with brawling miners and echoing with arguments over territory, for there was no mine warden in the early days. The miners were prospecting for themselves in a free-for-all, centred mainly on the river itself. Gold lying in shallow depressions in the rapids could often be collected by hand. Exclusive territory came only through the use of fists, knives, and revolvers.

As the mining frenzy moved upstream, a new administrative and service centre was formed. This prosperous little settlement was called Maytown. The numbers of Chinese on the fields also exploded. In 1877 the population of the more important settlements was reported by Warden Selheim as follows:

Maytown, 900 Europeans and 800 Chinese.

Palmerville, 12 Europeans and 600 Chinese.

Jessop’s, 6 Europeans and 1000 Chinese.

Stony Creek, 16 Europeans and 1200 Chinese.

Byerstown, 16 Europeans and 800 Chinese.

The large numbers of Chinese compared to Europeans was a feature of the fields. They kept to themselves, to a large degree, often re-working areas that the whites had already picked over. They built their own little Chinatowns, with joss houses and opium dens in narrow alleys amid mullock heaps.

The Chinese presence on the fields was not all incense and opium, however. At one stage, the Pekinese and Cantonese elements turned on each other in a frenzied battle that lasted for several days. It culminated in the building of a fort by miners from Macao, who moved in on disputed ground while the others were busy fighting.

With the fort under siege by up to 2000 Chinese miners, hundreds were wounded or killed, and only a determined troop of police stopped the fighting. Thirty ringleaders were arrested and charged, while the fight, known as the Battle of Lukinville, was largely ignored by the Australian public and later historians.

Despite the relatively small number of white miners remaining on the fields as the rush went on, the area continued to produce brash, larger than life characters.

The Palmer River was the birthplace of “Australia’s Annie Oakley,” Claudie Lakeland. Claudie’s father Billy was a goldfields character famous for battling both black and white, and prospecting deep into the wilds of Cape York where few other gold-seekers dared to go. Claudie grew up on horseback, and with a gun in her hand.

Her fame as a dead-shot grew, and as a young teen she was challenged to, and won, a shooting contest against the policeman from Coen, Roly Garraway. One of her tricks was shooting, with a rifle, pennies thrown into the air.

The notorious “Maori” Jack Reid and his wife Henrietta operated a store on the fields. Reid had crewed on a notorious blackbirder, the brigantine Carl in the South Pacific waters. This murderous career culminated with the slaughter of sixty captives when the crew saw a British destroyer approaching. The Carl’s officers, first mate and some other seamen were charged, though all had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. “Maori” Reid escaped these unpleasant consequences and enjoyed life in the wilder parts of Australia for many years, before dying alone in a hut near Pine Creek, NT, in the 1930s.

While reflecting on the adventurous characters who answered the call of gold, the saddest aspect of this gold rush was how it tore both a river system and the Merkin people apart. For the survivors and the landscape itself, nothing would ever be the same.

Gold was a terrible lure, and in reality, only a few diggers got rich in a life-changing way. For many, prospecting became a way of life, listening for the next whispered talk of a “find” in some distant and remote location; time to pack the saddle bags and head off, always in the hope of that elusive fortune.

2020 Greg Barron

The Paddle Steamer Providence

( Twin fireboxes, once attached to the Providence’s boiler, still lie on the banks of the Darling near Kinchega Station. )

The year was 1872, and for twelve months the 78-foot-long wooden paddle steamer Providence, under the leadership of Captain John Davis, sat on a waterhole north of Menindee waiting for the Darling River to rise. Drought had tightened its grip across western NSW and dried the river to a series of pools. Not even a rowboat could get through.

Finally, rain fell upriver, far away on the Balonne, the Macintyre, the Gwydir and the Namoi. As the river rose the Providence and her crew ambled downstream again, stopping at Menindee to load 200 wool bales and for a much-needed night on the town. The journey was paused for a night of riotous drinking and celebration at Maiden’s Hotel.

The next morning, the crew, much the worse for wear, stoked up the firebox again, but neglected to check that the boiler had water. Around ten miles downstream, on a bend near Kinchega Station, the pressure reached catastrophic levels.

To say that the boiler exploded is an understatement. It tore the ship apart in a storm of flying metal fragments. The captain, engineer and stoker were all killed. The cook was blown into a treetop, and survived long enough to be rescued before dying of his injuries. Another young man had both legs broken and though Menindee’s Dr Cotter tried desperately to save him, he also died. Henry Trevorah, a miner from Adelaide who had joined the boat at Menindee, was one of the few survivors.

A first-hand account, posted by a crew member of another paddle steamer from Kinchega Station in the days after the tragedy, gave the following account:

“We had been wooding last night between 6 and 7 o’clock, and had just got under steam again when the captain called my attention to the large quantities of painted boards that were floating down, remarking that he supposed a collision had taken place between two of the boats. The Ariel was just ahead of us, and the Providence was expected down. We picked up a cabin window, a door, and a large quantity of boards, also a swag containing some clothing, a little money, and a pin. We. steamed on for about a couple of hours, and when we arrived at (Kinchega Station), were at once greeted with the shocking intelligence that the boiler of the Providence had burst and blown the vessel to pieces.

“Four of the hands on board were missing, while four others were saved — one, however, with a splintered leg and a gash in his arm, from which, the doctor is doubtful whether he will recover. This morning after breakfast we walked up to the scene of the disaster, about a mile from the station. The scene you must imagine, for I cannot describe. The banks were strewn with boards and debris of all kinds; while high up in the neighbouring trees were lodged pieces of timber, bedding and rugs, firewood, etc. A bag of flour was thrown over the tops of trees, and landed about 70 yards from the bank of the river, while a sledge hammer and several heavy pieces of casting were carried to an incredible distance. The wreck is lying in the middle of the river with her stern down stream. The appearance she presents is of being broken in two, the after part lying on top of the bow, one portion of the fore part being visible.”

Greg Barron 2020

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