Tales of bushrangers and police have captivated Australians ever since Ned Kelly and his gang slipped iron helmets over their heads and took on the might of colonial law. Perhaps these common images and reports of better known bushrangers have prevented us from learning more about other wrongdoers from our past, whose exploits are just as tragic or maybe even contain a touch of humour.
A knowledge of our bush criminal past helps us understand how far we have come in relation to modern law and order. Even today, our bushranger history is constantly reinterpreted in a modern setting and these historical characters are being given new life.
The most recent commemoration took place in February at Boorowa in the central west of New South Wales. Australia Post unveiled a plaque in Boorowa Cemetery to Daniel Crotty, a mailman who was shot in a bungled hold up by three novice bushrangers who happened to all be French nationals. Mailmen were fair game for bushranger attack, but this young red-haired Irishman is believed to be the only mailman ever killed by bushrangers in Australia.
In August 1862, the three Frenchmen, from the Lambing Flat goldfields, made the decision to go on the roads and stick-up travellers. They were influenced by other, more successful bushrangers in the area. Their first victim was mailman Crotty on his run between Murringo and Boorowa. The fledgling bushrangers had no horses and Crotty had two. During the robbery a fatal shot was fired, and the three fled. Eventually one was hanged, one was gaoled, and one was exiled to New Caledonia.
CASH AND CO.
In Tasmania, meanwhile, a more successful trio of bushrangers were at large — Martin Cash, Lawrence Kavanagh and George Jones, known as Cash and Co. Martin Cash is an enigma. After a long criminal career, he related his life story to an author and retired to a peaceful life in suburban Hobart.
The crimes of the gang were evil and varied. They would terrorise homesteads and travellers, and even committed murder, but always worked to a strict code. According to Cash, they declined to personally insult or injure unarmed persons except in cases of resistance or where their liberty was endangered. They were often in undisputed possession of public houses but never gave way to excessive drinking. Cash claimed, “Nothing tends more toward destruction than liquor, as it would leave us completely at the mercy of our enemies.”
Cash ran his criminal career as if it were a military campaign. The gang had fortified camps, an organised structure and drilled with weapons. On each raid, Jones would search for valuables, Kavanagh would guard hostages, while Cash would oversee the whole operation and keep an eye on the outside.
Cash spent time in most colonial gaols, escaping from many including the ‘escape proof’ Port Arthur, which he described as a wretched receptacle of crime and depravity.
In all his prison time, though, he never once faced the lash. In fact, during his time on Norfolk Island he became a convict constable and married Mary Bennet.
The couple eventually settled in Hobart and Cash was put in charge of the government gardens. In 1855, a son, Martin junior, was born. The family lived on an idyllic rural block in the hills behind Glenorchy. Cash died peacefully in 1877.
OVER IN WA
In the colony of Western Australia, the first shipments of convicts arrived in 1850 and were set to work building their new home, Fremantle Prison. In 1853, Joseph Bolitho Johns arrived in the colony. He had been arrested in Wales for stealing food and was sentenced to 10 years.
Upon his release, he took up residence in the Moondyne Hills, north of Perth, where he trapped and sold stray cattle and horses. This eventually led to unlawful activity and he was soon back in gaol. He began a career of habitual gaol breaking and bushranging and became known as Moondyne Joe.
It would seem no gaol could hold him — he even got over the wall of the fortress of Fremantle Prison. His plan was to escape to the east, so he and his gang robbed a store of supplies and clothing, intending to follow the line of wells across the dry plains to the eastern colonies and bail up the survey party establishing the wells. At the Boodalin Soak well near Westonia, WA, the law caught up with the fugitives and Joe was back in Fremantle Prison.
To prevent further escapes his cell was reinforced with thick wooden planks and long iron nails and the tiny window was further reduced by bars and grills. Joe became ill, however, so he was allowed out into the yard to break down large rocks under constant personal guard.
Large rocks were constantly supplied but the resulting smaller rocks were not removed. As the pile of rocks grew higher, Joe became less visible to the guard. He soon started hammering the nearby gaol wall.
Once the hole in the limestone wall was big enough, Joe dressed his hammer handle with his clothes and hat and disappeared, leaving behind the ‘scarecrow’.
He was at large for two more years and the authorities began to lose interest so long as he stayed quiet. But he turned up in the cellar of Houghton’s Vineyard in February 1869 and was captured by the owner and police. He had managed to load two small wine barrels into a specially cut wheat sack positioned over his shoulders. When captured he asked for a glass of wine as he hadn’t had time to have one.
Joe was free by 1871. He then married and led a fruitful life, before being found in 1900 aimlessly wandering south Perth. He was placed in the Invalid hospital but escaped three times. He was then sent to Fremantle Prison for his own safety. Joe died in Fremantle Lunatic Asylum from senile dementia and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Later a stone covering was added, which says ‘RHYDDID’, which is Welsh for ‘freedom’.
THE TABLES TURN
Perhaps the most unusual ‘bushranging’ incident to come out of Queensland was conducted by a respected Police Gold Commissioner.
Colonial police officers fought to bring bushrangers to justice and many paid the ultimate sacrifice. In New South Wales, four special constables lost their lives at the hand of the Clarke Gang in a mass shooting south of Braidwood in 1867. In Victoria in 1878, the Kelly Gang murdered three policemen at Stringybark Creek and in Queensland, two brave constables were killed while on gold escort duty near Blackwater. The young policemen were murdered by someone they had previously trusted.
Gold Commissioner Thomas Griffin was generally respected around Rockhampton and Clermont. His dedicated troopers would escort gold from Clermont to Rockhampton and return with cash for the miners. However, thanks to corruption allegations, gambling debts and compensation to an ex-wife, Griffin’s reputation slipped.
In November 1867, following a successful escort to Rockhampton, Constables John Power and Patrick Cahill, who had been friends from boyhood, were surprised to hear Griffin would accompany them back to Clermont with the cash. As they set out, the troopers noticed Griffin was acting in a strange manner and were suspicious.
A few days into the trip, the trio camped near Bedford’s hotel beside the Mackenzie River. It’s likely Griffin poisoned the two troopers and shot them as they slept. He left the camp as it was and returned to Rockhampton with the bundle of cash.
When the murders were discovered, Griffin brazenly returned to the crime scene with the investigating party, but it wasn’t long before suspicion fell on Griffin. He was tried and hanged in June 1868 and the judge remarked that the crime was unparalleled in Australian history.
AGE DOESN’T ALWAYS BRING WISDOM
Although many bushrangers were young men barely out of their teens, others had a long career in crime. Such a villain was Harry Power, who roamed north-east Victoria and taught young Ned Kelly a thing or two.
Harry had been transported to Tasmania where he eventually escaped to the mainland and took up horse stealing. He was sent to Pentridge Prison where he escaped in 1869 and took to full-time bushranging.
He bailed up mail coaches, travellers and homesteads. Many of his victims reported a young man in the background during robberies. This young man learned a lot of bush skills from old Harry, which would later come in handy. Young Ned was arrested and charged with robbery under arms but never convicted.
Eventually a large reward led locals to take the police to the bushranger’s camp on the Quinn property in the King Valley near Whitfield. Harry accused Ned of being the informer, but Ned always denied it.
Wet weather prevented the Quinn’s peacock from sounding the danger signal and the police caught Harry asleep in his humpy. Harry served more time in Pentridge and was released in 1885 at the age of 66. He had spent nearly half of his life in various prisons. In 1891 he fell into the Murray River at Swan Hill and drowned. A recent movie called True History of the Kelly Gang features Russell Crowe as a very convincing bewhiskered Harry Power.
The more we delve into our bushranger history, the more unusual tales we discover, such as the little-known Lady Bushranger, Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, who was a renowned circus performer before turning cattle thief in the Upper Hunter of New South Wales, dying in 1936.
Or what about the ostrich riding bushranger of South Australia? This was reported to be tiny John Francis Peggotty, who often stripped to the waist and wore stolen jewellery while brandishing ornamental pistols and riding an ostrich. He was shot and disappeared into the Coorong in 1899. A statue of the saddled ostrich is on the foreshore at Meningie. The locals say that the story brings the tourists in — many towns benefit from having a bushranger in the closet!
TRACKING DOWN BUSHRANGERS
Daniel Crotty’s memorial plaque is in the unmarked graves section in Boorowa Cemetery. The probable site of the shooting is along Willawong Creek between the bridge and the cemetery at Murringo.
Martin Cash raided Somercotes near Ross which has a seasonal public cherry farm cafe. His grave is located in the Catholic A sector in the internal Brighton street in the Cornelian Bay Cemetery in Hobart.
Moondyne Joe is remembered on Fremantle Prison tours, Newcastle (Toodyay) Gaol tours, Moondyne Festival in Toodyay, Boodalin Soak near Westonia, Houghton Vineyard at Middle Swan, Moondyne Gallery cellar and Moondyne Cave at Karridale. His grave is located in Fremantle Cemetery, a short distance from the main Carrington Street entrance gate and diagonally opposite the dome of the Mausoleum.
Troopers Cahill and Power are remembered on a plaque and sign in the popular camping area at Bedford Weir north from Blackwater. Their impressive grave monument can be seen near the Prospect Street gate in South Rockhampton Cemetery.
Power’s Lookout is a must-see feature on the road between Mansfield and Whitfield. He was captured nearby. New signage tells the story at the updated lookouts.