Category: Larrikins and Characters

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
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
Click here to view the sources for this story.


Paddy Cahill

Paddy 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

Click here to view the sources for this story.



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



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

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.


The Slave Ship

The Slave Ship

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.


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.


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.
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