This Month in Port Phillip: May 1842 (Pt.1)

In May 1842 the talk of the town was BUSHRANGERS!  There had been reports filtering into the newspapers from late April about a spate of holdups and invasions and by early May it was clear that the same gang was involved. They were dubbed the Plenty Valley Bushrangers.  I wrote about them at length here, (complete with map!) so follow the link and read about their spree and capture before coming back here to follow up with the trial.

Reenactment of a bushranger robbing some travellers on a country road

Re-enactment of a bushranger robbing some travellers on a country road. Photograph taken by J.W. Lindt 1845-1926, State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/290418

Are you back?  On 3rd May an inquest into Williams’ death was held and the three surviving bushrangers were committed to trial.  Willis scheduled a special sitting on 11 May (even though the usual criminal session would be held on 16th anyway).

Rather controversially, Willis wrote to La Trobe immediately following the committal hearing but prior to the bushrangers’ trial, noting that should the death sentence be passed, “it would have a much more effectual example were that sentence carried into execution within a very short period instead of delaying it until the proceedings could be sent to Sydney and returned”. He suggested that La Trobe request permission from Governor Gipps to make the arrangements at the local level, and that Willis would announce the time and place from the Bench.[1] Governor Gipps in Sydney, however, would have nothing of it.  A terse letter reiterated the necessity, under the Queen’s instructions to the Governor, to bring every sentence of death before the Executive Council.[2]

The courtroom trial itself was unremarkable, beyond Willis’ alacrity in scheduling the  unnecessary special sitting on May 11.  His opening comments congratulating the captors for their services to the community do not seem to have attracted attention or criticism at the time. [3]  The three surviving prisoners faced twenty-four counts, all related to the shooting and wounding of Henry Fowler, the leader of the “gay and gallant Five”. There were other charges that could have been laid from the five-day outbreak of violence but only the charge of shooting with intent to maim, disfigure or disable carried the death penalty.  Given that the wounding occurred during a shoot-out, there was a heavy reliance on forensic evidence and crime reconstruction to prove that it was the bushrangers, and not the captors, who had fired at close range and at particular angle to cause the injuries sustained by Henry Fowler.  The prominence given to scientific evidence is striking, given the usual reliance on character evidence and eyewitness reports that was usually tendered to the courts. [4] The jury retired for an hour and returned with the guilty verdict.

Willis then held sentencing over for two days until the following Friday, perhaps in the expectation that a reply to his request to announce the date and time for execution might arrive.  The audience for the sentencing was more than sufficient: the crowd rushed into the courthouse as soon as it was opened and “both ingress and egress were forcibly prevented”. In the tumult a window was broken, and Willis threatened to clear the court if a “more discreet and distinct silence were not maintained.” [5] He ordered the three bushrangers to remain in jail “until such day as His Excellency the Governor shall appoint for your execution”.

This, however, was not the end of Judge Willis’ involvement with the bushrangers. The Port Phillip Herald of 24 May carried a startling report that Ellis, Fogarty and the now-deceased Williams had planned to murder Judge Willis as he crossed the creek on the way into Melbourne, but had been dissuaded from the plan by their colleague Jepps.  News of this reached Judge Willis, possibly through petitions that were forwarded to him by three settler victims of the bushranger, each mentioning Jepps by name as instrumental in restraining his partners in crime.  No doubt relieved at his reprieve from the fate of being a kidnap hostage, Willis wrote to La Trobe, enclosing the petitions of the settlers and submitting them “for your serious consideration, and that of His Excellency the Governor.” [6]

But too late, too late – the report had gone up to Sydney and now everyone just had to wait until June when the bushranger story met its sorry end.

oldtreasury

You can see an exhibition about Victoria’s Bushrangers, including the Plenty Valley Bushrangers at the Old Treasury Building Museum in Spring Street in the city.  It’s called Wild Colonial Boys:Bushrangers in Victoria and it’s on until August. It’s closed on Saturdays, but it’s open every other day of the week between 10.00 and 4.00 and entry is free.  While you’re there, check out the terrific ‘Melbourne Foundations of a City’ exhibition and the Melbourne Panorama- a display to spend hours looking at.

 

 

Notes

[1]Willis to La Trobe 3 May 1842, PROV 19 Unit 31 Encl to 42/1163

[2] E. D. Thomson to La Trobe 16 May 1842 PROV 16 Unit 31 42/1163

[3] Port Phillip Herald 13 May 1842

[4] Especially the evidence of Dr Charles Sandford, Judge’s notes enclosed in Willis to La Trobe 3 May 1842 PROV 19 Unit 31  42/1163

[5] Port Phillip Herald 17 May 1842.

[6] Willis to La Trobe 25th May 1842 PROV 19 Unit 31 42/966 enclosure to 42/1163.

 

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One response to “This Month in Port Phillip: May 1842 (Pt.1)

  1. Wow! Really interesting, thanks. And I’ll do my best to stop by the exhibition too.

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