Bushrangers!

One of the most high-profile criminal cases of 1842 was that of the Plenty Valley bushrangers who were hanged on Judge Willis’ instructions in 1842.

The four Plenty Valley bushrangers embarked on a five-day spree on 26th April 1842 that entailed eighteen robberies and eventuated in a shootout where one of bushrangers was killed and the leader of the captors, Henry Fowler, was injured through a gunshot wound.[1] After robberies on 26th-28th April around the Oakleigh/Mulgrave area, they turned northwards towards the Plenty Valley.

Click here to see a map of their exploits in the Plenty Valley

In her study of convict bushrangers, Jennifer McKinnon draws a distinction between “footpads” the often- unarmed bandits in small groups staying close to the main centres of population, and “banditti” in large armed and mounted gangs who operated in the interior.[2] She cautions, however, that the distinction between “footpads” and “banditti” is not a hard and fast one. Certainly the Plenty Valley bushrangers combine elements of both: they ranged around familiar, relatively settled territory in what are now fringe suburbs within riding distance of central Melbourne, where they had been employed previously. But they operated on horseback, at first in pairs, but later in a larger group of four, and possibly five, armed men.

To a certain extent they fit the archetype of social bandits and draw on a time-worn trope of

…the bold Robin Hood of their morning songs, and … the unfortunate victim of legal oppression, the captured of the chase….His reckless daring would be the noblest chivalry; and the jovial freedom of his manners, the frankest generosity.  His immoral jests would be treasured for posterity, and the éclat of his life and death would stimulate the worthy ambition of sympathizing souls.[3]

Graham Seal, likewise, identifies Robin Hood as the beginning of a coherent and continuous tradition of British outlaw heroes portrayed as

“friends of the poor, usually driven to outlawry by some injustice.  They are however, brave, courteous to women, and use violence only when it is unavoidable or in justified revenge.  Generally, they die bravely and usually through treachery.”[4]

Thus, we see the Plenty Valley bushrangers avidly pocketing the £63 they stole from Capt Gwatkin from the trading vessel Scout in a hold-up on the road to Dandenong, while giving 5 shillings of the Captain’s money to fellow-victim Frederick Pitman so that he can pay for his bed at the Travellers Rest Inn at nearby No-Good-Damper.[5] Paula Byrne’s study notes the extravagant dress often adopted by bushrangers, and here we see one of the Plenty Valley bushrangers resplendent in the scarlet-lined Austrian Hussars costume stolen from an earlier victim, complete with dangling sword, in a subversive and swaggering challenge to uniformed authority.[6] Food, too, was important: Byrne comments that settlers often recalled the exact food taken or consumed by bushrangers.[7] Hence we have the goose killed and thrown to Capt. Harrison’s cook with instructions to have it ready for their dinner the next day, and the roast ducks and herrings appropriated for their own breakfast when the bushrangers burst in on five men at Campbell Hunter’s station, the site of the final shoot-out.  We have the bravado of bushranger Jepps, nonchalantly standing outside the door of the hut, lighting his pipe with bank notes and, as Constable Vinge recalled later, challenging his captors:

After considering for a time he opened his arms and walked towards us, and then stood still for a while and said, ‘Gentlemen, I have robbed most of you that I see, but I want to get away!’  I answered ‘No; you will not get away’.  He then said ‘Gentlemen, rather than be taken to Melbourne and made a public show of on the gallows, shoot me’. I walked up and handcuffed him.[8]

Although there may not have been outright support from settler sympathizers, there does seem to be a degree of ambivalence amongst some of their victims.  An early victim, James Bruce Donaldson, may have been robbed by them one or two days previously, but did not report the crime.[9] The bushrangers took another settler, George Rider, hostage and ordered him to guide them to the next victim’s house where he interceded with the two women present, shared a champagne with the bushrangers, and was released with his watch.  Rider returned home with no attempt to alert the authorities, and returned the next day to act as intermediary between the besieged bushrangers and their captors.[10] He later handed in a sum of money for the prisoners’ defence, but Willis disallowed the use of the proceeds of crime for this purpose.[11]

However, the Plenty Valley bushrangers differ from the convict bushrangers in several important ways. Chronologically they fell between the convict bolter period of the 1820s and 1830s and the “golden age” of bushrangers in the 1860s.  During this hiatus, there was a marked decline in social prestige for bushrangers. With the abolition of assignment in the early 1840s, they lost their raison d’etre as social bandits, and they had not yet taken on the mantle of exemplars of the social struggle over land of the 1860s.[12]

Moreover, and importantly, the Plenty Valley bushrangers were not perceived to be convict bushrangers at the time. Their leader, 27-year old John Williams was a Catholic bounty migrant, thought to be Irish but actually born in England.  Martin Fogarty was also described as an Irish bounty migrant.  Charles Ellis, aged 18 was English and appeared to have arrived as a free immigrant, and Daniel Jepps was a 27 year old American whaler, said to have “had the air of having once moved in a different sphere”.[13] Although Ellis was later described as “an old lag from Van Diemen’s Land” and Fogarty was said to have been forced to leave Ireland after turning Queens Evidence in a number of murder cases, the public perception, at least prior to the trial, was that they were not ex-convicts.[14] Hence Willis’ address to the jury focused on the need for attention to be paid during the selection process to the character of incoming immigrants- a variation on his more common warnings about the degradation of society occasioned by convict gangs employed on public works and expirees from Van Diemens Land.[15] In the mirror that Willis held up to the community in his courtroom addresses, Port Phillip was not a penal colony.  Indeed Willis prefaced his Latin-laden address to the jury hearing the Plenty Valley bushrangers’ trial by noting that it seems

“as if the contamina [sic] of similar enormities in the penal colonies had extended its baneful pestilence to this district- a district colonized by free emigrants, not peopled by convicts, and therefore reasonably expected to be the less polluted.”[16]

In a settlement that distinguished itself from the older penal colonies, this first incidence of bushranger activity elicited a strong public response.  No fewer than three police groups, headed by ex-Chief Constable ‘Tulip’ Wright; Crown Land Commissioner Powlett and Constable Vinge, and two groups of civilians converged on Lowland Flats for the final confrontation.  One of these volunteer groups was a contingent of five men from the Melbourne Club who were feted as “the gay and gallant ‘Five’, the heroes of the time, whose bravery was theme on every tongue” [17] Their earlier indiscretions of dueling, insolvency and altercations at the horse races were forgiven as the gentlemen of Melbourne drank their health at a public dinner and the Masonic Lodges awarded three of them with gold medallions.  The formation of a Yeomanry Corps amongst the “gentleman residents” of the District for the protection of the community was proposed by Police Magistrate F. B. St John, and the Plenty Valley settlers offered to form a volunteer corps among themselves- an offer endorsed by the “resident ladies” of Plenty Valley in a rare petition with only female signatures.[18] In the immediate aftermath of the capture, rumours circulated that other fugitives from the Goulburn River had conspired to meet with the Plenty Valley bushrangers on the Maribyrnong River where they would wait in hiding until an opportunity arose to steal a vessel to make their escape.[19] There was heightened agitation for surveillance of the sawyers and timber cutters along the rivers as anxiety rose about the need for social control of “skulkers of various descriptions” and expired convicts from the penal colonies, especially Van Diemens Land, flooding into the Port Phillip district.[20]

So, what happened when the captured bushrangers encountered Judge Willis in the courtroom?? Ah- for that you’ll have to wait for the completed thesis (from which this was cut- as if you can’t tell!) and the supporting documentary and soap opera.  Suffice to say, the three surviving bushrangers were hanged on 28th June 1842- three of the six executions carried out during 1842 under Willis’ sentencing.


[1] Mann, The Plenty Bushrangers of 1842: the first Europeans hanged in Victoria, pp. 1-33.;Finn, The chronicles of early Melbourne, 1835 to 1852 : historical, anecdotal and personal / by “Garryowen”, pp. 352-356.

 

[2] Jennifer A McKinnon, Convict Bushrangers in NSW 1824-1834, La Trobe University, 1979,  61-62.

[3] James Bonwick, The Bushrangers: illustrating the early days of Van Diemen’s Land (1856), Hobart, Fullers Bookshop, 1967, p. 89.

[4] Graham Seal, Ned Kelly in Popular Tradition, Melbourne, Hyland House, 1980, p. 31.

[5] Mann, The Plenty Bushrangers of 1842: the first Europeans hanged in Victoria, p. 5.

[6] Paula J Byrne, Criminal Law and Colonial Subject: New South Wales 1810-1830, Cambridge (Eng), Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 134.; Mann, The Plenty Bushrangers of 1842: the first Europeans hanged in Victoria, p. 15.

[7] Byrne, Criminal Law and Colonial Subject: New South Wales 1810-1830, p. 135.

[8] Constable George Vinge ‘Bushrangers in the Olden Times’ The Argus, Friday 6th August 1880.

[9] Mann, The Plenty Bushrangers of 1842: the first Europeans hanged in Victoria, p. 12.

[10] Ibid., p. 25.

[11] Port Phillip Patriot 12 May 1842.

[12] Michael Sturma, Vice in a Vicious Society: Crime and Convicts St Lucia Qld, University of Queensland Press, 1983, p. 101.

[13] Mann, The Plenty Bushrangers of 1842: the first Europeans hanged in Victoria, pp. 2-3.; Port Phillip Herald 20 May 1842.

[14] On Ellis as expired convict see Macfarlane, 1842 The Public Executions at Melbourne, p. 28. and Fogarty as exile Port Phillip Herald 20 May 1842.

[15] Port Phillip Herald 13 May 1842.  For his more-frequent commentary on the dangers of convicts and ex-convicts see Port Phillip Herald 28 May 1841; 17 August 1841; 14 January 1842.

[16] Port Phillip Herald 13 May 1842

[17] Finn, The chronicles of early Melbourne, 1835 to 1852 : historical, anecdotal and personal / by “Garryowen”, p. 408.

[18] St.John to La Trobe 30 April 1842, PROV 19, Unit 33, 42/1366; Campbell Hunter and men of the Plenty to La Trobe, 5 May 1842 PROV 16 Unit 3 42/592;  Ann Bear and ladies of the Plenty to La Trobe 5 May 1842 PROV 16 Unit 3 42/593.

[19] Mann, The Plenty Bushrangers of 1842: the first Europeans hanged in Victoria, pp. 29-30.

[20] La Trobe to E. D. Thomson 4 May 1842 PROV 16 Unit 12 42/571   This was not an unjustified fear.  Sturma notes that of 5000 convicts freed by servitude or holding conditional pardons recorded leaving Van Diemens Land between 1847 and 1849, over 3,800 departed for Port Phillip compared with less than 250 for Sydney.  Cited in Sturma, Vice in a Vicious Society: Crime and Convicts p. 54.

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2 responses to “Bushrangers!

  1. W00T!!!
    Damn fine read, looking forward to the completed thesis – as, no doubt, you yourself are, too lol.

  2. Pingback: ‘A Camera on Gallipoli & Recollections’ Hatch Gallery until 30 May 2015 | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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