Old Tales of a Young Country

The Rule of the Bushranger

Marcus Clarke

IN THE year 1820, a writer in the Quarterly, speaking of a book given him to review, says—“It is the greatest literary curiosity that has come before us—the first child of the press of a State only fifteen years old. It would of course be reprinted here, but our copy, pene-nos, is a genuine Caxton. This little book would assuredly be the Reynarde Foxe of Australian bibliomaniacs.”

A copy of this wonderful work is now lying before me. It is a ragged and dirty little pamphlet of 36 pages. The paper is old and yellow, the letter-press in some places illegible, and several leaves are missing. It is printed in the year 1818, by Mr. Bent, and is called Michael Howe, the Last and Worst of the Bushrangers. The popularity of the volume is unquestionable. It is quoted by Mr. West in his History of Tasmania , and is extracted bodily into a History of Van Diemen’s Land by one Syme, who was a settler there in 1846. Mr. Bonwick, writing in 1856, calls Syme the “historian of Howe,” Syme however merely reprinted Bent’s pamphlet as an appendix to his own book. The Sydney Gazettes quoted by Wentworth and West, Commissioner Bigge’s Reports, and a pleasant collection of stories called The Military Sketch-book, written by an “Officer of the Line,” and published by Colburn in 1827, also contain particulars concerning the bushranger, and have been used by me to supplement the curiosity of the Quarterly Reviewer.

From the year 1813—the year in which Colonel Davey arrived as Lieutenant-Governor—to 1825, the colony of Van Diemen’s Land was overrun with bushrangers. The severe punishments of lash and chain urged the convicts to escape, the paucity of the military force assisted them in their attempts, and the mountainous nature of the country aided to baffle efforts at recapture. In those days the “settler” would till his fields with pistols in his belt, and smoke his evening pipe with rifle placed ready to his hand. Bands of escaped convicts ranged the mountains, descending from their rocky fastnesses to plunder, murder, and ravish. They rode about in gangs, they held councils of war, they posted sentries, and took oaths of secrecy. They attacked the gaol, and liberated their companions; they even issued proclamations, and dictated terms to the Governor himself. Indeed, the condition of affairs in Hobart Town was not encouraging to the settler. The convict element was uppermost. Felons were to freemen in the proportion of ten to one. Concubinage with convict women was customary. The very ships that brought a mingled herd of male and female criminals were the scenes of unbridled license. Each sailor or soldier was permitted to ally himself to a female, and the connection often terminated in a marriage which manumitted the convict. “The madams on board,” says Macarthur, “occupy the few days which elapse before landing in preparing the most dazzling effect in their descent upon the Australian shore. With rich dresses, bonnets á la mode, ear pendants, brooches, long gorgeous shawls and splendid veils, silk stockings, kid gloves, and parasols in hand, dispensing sweet odours from their profusely perfumed forms, they are assigned as servants. The settler expected a servant, but receives a princess.” The children of these rakings of the London bagnios were not unworthy of their race. Their paramours vied with each other in villainy and distinction. Blunt Davey himself was not too curious as to the morals of his domestics, and gentlemen in Hobart Town witnessed some curious scenes. “Society, as it then existed,” says Mr. West, “nourished every species of crime. Tattered promissory notes, of small amount and doubtful parentage, fluttered about the colony. . . . Plate, stolen by bushrangers and burglars, was melted down and disposed of. . . . They burnt the implements of husbandry for the iron, they robbed the gibbet of the chains, they even wrenched the plate from the coffin of an opulent merchant, and stripped him of his shroud.” In addition to the cheerful condition of affairs at home, armed bandits, mounted on stolen horses, rode abroad, and defied all attempts of capture. Of these gentry the most noted was Michael Howe.

In the year 1812, the convict ship “Indefatigable,” Captain Cross, arrived at Hobart Town; and among the many poor devils whom she carried was one Michael Howe, a native of Pontefract, transported for seven years, for robbing a miller on the king’s highway. The robber seemed tractable and good-natured, though cursed with a most pernicious love of liberty. He attempted to escape before the vessel left the docks, jumping overboard, and swimming some distance before he was retaken. On arrival in Van Diemen’s Land he was assigned to a Mr. Ingle, a store-keeper, but the life did not appear to suit him. He had been a sailor, had served on board a man-of-war, and owned (according to Mr. West) a small collier. A man of determined character and somewhat romantic notions, he resolved to escape and take to the bush. At that time, a scoundrel named Whitehead, with a band of twenty-seven desperadoes, ranged the country; to these worthies Howe made his way, and was received with acclamations by the troop.

The first exploit of the gang was to attack New Norfolk—then a small but flourishing township—and to plunder the inhabitants of all their portable property. From New Norfolk they proceeded to Pittwater, and burnt the wheat-stacks, barns, and out-houses of Mr. Humphrey, the police magistrate, affixing to the gate of the ruined barn a paper, on which was drawn—in the same spirit as the coffin and cross-bones of the Irish rent-receipts—a gun firing a gigantic bullet at the head of a man. Mr. Humphrey appears to have taken his loss quietly, but on the ruflians plundering the house of a Mr. Carlisle, the settlers thought it time to bestir themselves. A neighbour of Carlisle’s, a Mr. M’Carthy, who owned a schooner, the “Geordy,” then lying in the river, determined to make a push for a general capture of the gang.

Howe, when a servant at Ingle’s, had gained the affections of a native girl, and had induced her to accompany him to the bush. This young woman was only seventeen years of age, and is described as being of some considerable personal attractions. She was accustomed to wait upon her lover, and to assist him in his escapes from justice. On the night when Whitehead fired Mr. Humphrey’s house, Black Mary and Howe were encamped with some of the gang on heights above the plain. According to the girl’s statement, the bushranger in high glee filled a “goblet” (probably a pannikin), and as the twilight closed, cried to his comrade Collier, “Collier, we want light! Here’s success to the hand that will give it us!” Practical Mary, eager to please her lord, rose to get a firestick from the embers; but Howe laughed loudly, and seizing her by the arm exclaimed, “Sit down, girl! Whitehead’s lighting a match for us!” Presently “a tremendous flame arose from two different points below, which threw a glare over all the plain.” “There,” cried Howe; “these fires have cost a pretty penny. Here’s success to the bushman’s tinder-box, and a blazing fire to his enemies!” Mary relates that Howe was kind to her—after the manner of his sex—whenever “things went right with him;” but that if anything “crossed his temper, he was like a tiger.” He was very jealous of her, she says; and when Edwards, one of his gang, gave her a shawl which he had stolen from Captain Tonnson, Howe pistolled him on the spot.

M’Carthy organised a party, consisting of some eleven men, among whom were Carlisle, O’Birne, the master of the schooner, and an old convict of sixty years of age, named Worral. This old man had been one of the mutineers of the Nore, and though he vows in his narrative (given in the Military Sketch-Book ) that the only part he took in the proceedings was the writing “in a fair hand” several papers for the mutineers, he was transported for life to Van Diemen’s Land. This party, armed to the teeth, and guided by a native, set out upon the track of the bushrangers. By-and-by they heard the report of a musket-shot, and creeping stealthily up behind a huge hollowed log, came upon the bandits pleasantly encamped. The scene as described by Worral must have been a picturesque one. “Some were cooking pieces of mutton; others lolling on the grass, smoking and drinking; and a pretty, interesting-looking native girl sat playing with the long and bushy black ringlets of a stout, wicked-looking man seated by her. He had pistols in his belt, wore a fustian jacket, a kangaroo-skin cap and waistcoat, with leather gaiters and dirty velveteen breeches.” This was Michael Howe. Whitehead, the leader—“a tall, ill-looking villain”—was asleep on the grass. M’Carthy directed his men to cock their pieces, and called upon the bushrangers to surrender. Instantly the gang were on their feet. But before a shot was fired, Whitehead called a parley. “We don’t want to shed blood,” said he; “go home.” M’Carthy still held firm, and was further expostulating, when Howe roared, “Slap at the beggars!” and a tearing volley from guns and pistols rattled among the branches. Five of the attacking party fell, and, “keeping up a brisk hedgefiring,” they were forced to retreat, leaving one of their number—a man named Murphy—dead on the grass. Mr. Carlisle and O’Birne were mortally wounded: Carlisle died on the road home; O’Birne, who was shot through the jaws, lingered for four days in extreme agony.

M’Carthy knew that his unsuccessful attempt would bring upon him speedy vengeance, and applied for military protection. A detachment of the 73rd Regiment were sent out to scour the country, and M’Carthy’s homestead was garrisoned by a party of the 46th. The bushrangers, unwitting of the ambush, attacked the farm, and a sort of siege commenced. The soldiers, however, gained the day, and a shot from Worral mortally wounded Whitehead. The dying man ran back towards his comrades, crying to Howe, “Take my watch—the villains have shot me.” The soldiers ran round the house to take their assailants in the rear, and Worral, reloading his piece, observed Howe bend over the corpse of his captain as if to comply with his request. He ran towards him, but when he reached the spot the miscreant had disappeared, and there lay on the ground the mutilated trunk of Whitehead. In pursuance of an agreement made between them, Howe had hacked off his comrade’s head with his clasp-knife, to prevent any person claiming the reward that was offered for it. The gang got clear away to the mountains. The body of Whitehead was gibbeted on Hunter’s Island, and Howe became the leader of the troop.

The atrocity and daring of the scoundrel now almost surpasses belief. His head-quarters were about fifteen miles west of Oatlands, in a place yet known as “Michael Howe’s Marsh.” He instituted there a sort of rude court of justice, and would subject such of his band as displeased him to punishment. Says Mr. West—“The tone assumed by this robber was that of an independent chief, and in the management of his men he attempted the discipline of war. He professed the piety of the quarter-deck, and read to them the Scriptures.” His style and title was “Governor of the Ranges,” and he addressed the King’s representative as “Governor of the Town.” He punished his men with blows and hard labour if they disobeyed him; and when one day a man named Bowles fired a blank shot over his head in jest, the chief tied him hand and foot, and blew his brains out. He compelled his adherents to take an oath of fidelity upon a (stolen) Bible, and sent insolent messages to the authorities. In a journal called the Bengal Hurkaru occurs the following:—“John Yorke, being duly sworn, states—About five o’clock in the evening of November 27th (1816), I fell in with a party of bushrangers—about fourteen men and two women. Michael Howe and Geary were the only two of the gang I knew personally. I met them on Scantling’s Plains. I was on horseback. They desired me to stop, which I accordingly did on the high road; it was Geary that stopped me; he said he wanted to see every man sworn to abide by the contents of a letter. I observed a thick man writing, as I suppose, to the Lieutenant-Governor. Geary was the man who administered the oath on a prayer-book, calling each man for the purpose regularly. They did not inform me of the contents of the letter. Michael Howe and Geary directed me to state when I came home the whole I had seen; and to inform Mr. Humphrey, the magistrate, and Mr. Wade, the chief constable, to take care of themselves, as they were resolved to have their lives, and to prevent them keeping stock or grain, unless something was done for them; that Mr. Humphrey might rear what grain he liked, but they would thrash more in one night than he could reap in a year. They said they would set the whole country on fire with one stick. I was detained about three-quarters of an hour, during which time they charged me to be strict in making known what they said to me and what I had seen. On my return from Port Dalrymple, I called at a hut, occupied by Joseph Wright, at Scantling’s Plains. William Williams and a youth were there, who told me the bushrangers had been there a few days before, and forced them to a place called Murderer’s Plains, which the bushrangers called the Tallow-chandler’s Shop, where they made them remain three days for the purpose of rendering down a large quantity of beef-fat, which Williams understood was taken from cattle belonging to Stynes and Troy.”

The poorer settlers were in league with the daring robbers, and were wont to supply them with information. Howe affected to be a sort of Robin Hood—indeed it is probable that the marauder of Sherwood Forest was just such another greasy ruffian. In another hundred years the “light that never was on land or sea, the consecration and the Poet’s dream”—the consecration of that lecherous butcher, Henry the Eighth— the poet’s dream of that beer-swelling termagant, Virgin Elizabeth—the light that gilds the shameless robberies of the glorious Reformation—may shine upon Michael Howe in the character of a romantic outlaw. The people certainly admired him; and though a reward of 100 guineas and a free passage to England was set upon his head, he was accustomed to visit Hobart Town in perfect security.

Worral—who had set his heart upon seeing England again, and was always on the watch to capture the bandit—came very near taking him on one occasion. The old sailor was buying some powder and shot in the store of one Stevens, when a man “dressed like a gentleman” entered. The moment Worral heard him speak, he recognised the voice of the “fellow who had cut off the head of Whitehead,” and grappled with him. A furious struggle took place, and just as poor Worral thought his 100 guineas and free passage were safe, he received a violent blow on the back of his head, and fell senseless. When he recovered, Stevens the storekeeper was holding a pannikin of rum to his lips, and Howe had gone. Stevens swore that “a strange man had rushed into the store, and knocked Worral down with a bludgeon.” The bethumped old fellow had his suspicions, but like a wise man said nothing, until one day Stevens was detected in “receiving” plunder, and previous to swinging on the Hunter Island gibbet, confessed that he himself had struck the blow—“I wish I’d killed him,” he added.

A regular campaign was now commenced against the free-booters, and one day a party of the 46th, among whom as a volunteer was the indefatigable Worral, stumbled upon a hut on the banks of the Shannon. The bushrangers had chosen their camping-ground with an eye to the picturesque. “It was a flat piece of green land, covered with wild flowers, and over-looking the most beautiful country that can be imagined: a precipice in our front, from which we hurled a stone that rolled over half-a-mile of steep hill down to river, all studded with islands and ornamented by the most delightfully displayed foliage on its banks; plain over plain, and wood over wood, was to be seen for twenty miles distance, and the blue mountains far away gave one the idea of an earthly paradise, yet no human being ever claimed it—none ever trod over this fair country but a few lawless brigands.” Remaining in ambush for some time at the spot, they at last perceived four men approaching, of whom one was Howe. The native girl before mentioned was with him, clad in a dress of skins, feathers, and white calico. The instinct of the savage detected the trap: she pointed, gesticulated, seized Howe’s arm, and ran back. The soldiers dashed out, and allowing the less valuable prey to escape, followed Howe. The bushranger, closely followed by the girl, gained the summit of a hill, turned round and fired, but missed, and ran on. For more than a mile the chase continued, the bushranger gaining on his pursuers at every stride, when the girl’s strength began to fail her, and she lagged behind. Howe pressed and urged her to further exertion. The pursuers set up a great shout at this, and redoubled their efforts. The girl fell, and Howe in vain commanded her to rise. The soldiers were within five hundred yards of him, and gnashing his teeth with rage, the monster drew his remaining pistol, and, taking deliberate aim at the exhausted girl, fired. He then turned, and plunged into a ravine, “where pursuit was hopeless.”

Howe doubtless hoped that his bullet had taken fatal effect, and that Mary would be unable to speak concerning him. He was doubly deceived. The girl was but slightly wounded, and justly incensed at the brutality of her lover. She volunteered to aid her rescuers to track him to his hiding-place. After a march of three hours, the party arrived at some huts on the Shannon bank. These were deserted, but on the opposite side of the river stood Geary—the lieutenant of the gang—with levelled musket. He fired, missed, and made off. The girl now led them to another place, and as they “arrived at a high rock which overhung the waters of the creek,” a shot was heard; a wild figure burst out of the bush, and darted past them. The cliff was steep, but two soldiers, dropping down its hinder side, ran round and cut off the outlaw’s retreat.

It was Hillier, the most brutal of the band. He turned and faced them for an instant, and then, seeing their numbers, flung away his empty gun with an oath, and sprang head-first from the rock into the river. The drop was a hundred feet, and all thought him a dead man. He rose to the surface, however, and swam for the opposite bank. The two soldiers quickly ran to a narrow ravine formed by the over-hanging rocks, and, daringly leaping it, met him as he landed. He took to the water again, but on reaching the middle of the creek, and seeing musket-muzzles menacing him on all sides, cried out that he would surrender, and, if they would spare his life, turn approver. The sergeant who commanded the party would make no terms, vowing to shoot him unless he surrendered instantly. So he came ashore and was bound.

Now a very horrible discovery was made. Guided by the native girl, they reached a hut, in which lay a body with the head nearly severed from the trunk. “Ay,” says Hillier; “that’s poor Peter Septon; he often said he’d cut his own throat, and now he’s done it completely.” “No man ever cut his throat in that manner,” cries Worral. “You did it, you villain!” Hillier protested innocence, but a few paces further the party came upon another bleeding wretch, with his hand shattered by a bullet, and his throat partially severed. This was Collier, another bandit. “Villain!” cries he to Hillier, “you would have murdered me as you murdered Septon.” The black girl at this moment, seeing that the murderer was inevitably doomed, says—“Hillier, you killed my sister too!” Hillier, finding it useless to dissemble, confessed. The soldiers brought their prisoners to New Norfolk, making Hillier carry Septon’s head tied round his neck. The two men who had escaped with Howe were soon afterwards retaken at Kangaroo Point, and the four were gibbetted together on Hunter’s Island, beside the whistling bones of Whitehead.

Howe was now reduced to despair. The capture of the huts had deprived him of his ammunition and his dogs—the two sources of life in the bush. He resolved to surrender himself, offering, if his life was spared, to assist the Government in capturing the remnant of his own band. Such was the state of the country, and the terror his deeds had inspired, that Governor Sorrell, who had succeeded Davey, accepted the offer made him, and despatched Captain Nairns, of the 46th, as an ambassador to the bushranger. Howe was brought to Hobart Town, and lodged in gaol, from which he was soon rashly released, and permitted to walk about the city attended only by a single constable.

In the meantime the robbers received reinforcements of several escaped convicts, for whom large rewards were offered by the Crown; and notwithstanding that Geary was shot in an affray in the Tea-tree Bush, the plundering and burning continued. Twenty men were thought to be at large. They seized the boat which carried provisions between George Town and Launceston, they sent messages of defiance to the government, and openly offered an asylum to all escaped convicts. Encouraged by these successes, or perhaps weary of civilisation, Howe eluded his guardian constable, and having received arms and provisions, made for his old haunts. This was too much for human patience. The Governor made a personal appeal to the settlers, and troops of volunteers were despatched in all directions. Convicts and freemen took part in these excursions, and such exertions were made that of the twenty only three remained at large, Howe, Watts, and Browne. For these miscreants the following rewards were offered:—For Howe, one hundred guineas and a free pardon; for Watts, eighty guineas and a free pardon; for Browne, fifty guineas and a free pardon. Browne, surrendered, but Howe was not to be taken.

A convict named Drewe, otherwise called Slambow, was shepherding for a Mr. Williams, and determined to make a push for the reward. This Drewe had, it appears, with the majority of the convict storekeepers, often assisted Howe in his escapes from justice. Falling in with Watts, he pointed out the advantages of freedom, and suggested that the two together might easily overcome the brigand. Watts assented, and proposed to Howe that they should send a message to Hobart Town through Slambow. Howe agreed, and the three met at dawn, at a place called Longbottom, on the banks of the Derwent. Howe ordered Watts to shake the priming from his gun, and did the same himself. Drewe had been advised to leave his gun, and was unarmed. The bushranger then lighted a fire, and busied himself in preparing a breakfast for his guest. Watts seized a favourable moment, and, leaping upon him, secured him. Howe witnessed the treacherous scoundrels eat their breakfast in silence, busying himself the while with straining at his bonds. After breakfast the captors started in high glee for Hobart Town, Watts going first with the loaded gun, the bound bushranger in the middle, and Drewe bringing up the rear. They had gone about eight miles, and Drewe, eager for the reward, had refused assistance from his master, when Howe, watching a favourable moment, slipped his hands from the loosened cords, drew a concealed knife, and stabbed Watts in the back. Drewe was clambering up a bank, and saw nothing; but, when he reached the top, Howe coolly presented Watts’ gun, and shot him dead. Watts cried, “Have you shot Slambow?” “Yes,” says Howe, “and will shoot you as soon as I can load the piece.” Upon this, Watts, though bleeding from the wound in his back, made shift to get upon his feet, and ran some two hundred yards. Howe, doubtless fearing an alarm from the shot, did not wait to complete his work, but made off into the bush. Watts got to a settler’s house, and, being sent to Sydney, three days after his arrival, died of his wounds. Villain as Howe was, one cannot but admit that his cowardly assailants met with their deserts.

The double murder, however, caused a proclamation from Government, offering, in addition to the reward and pardon, a free passage to England for any one who should bring in the dreaded bushranger dead or alive. Our old friend Worral determined to make a final effort. Alone in the wilderness, Howe seems to have lived for some time the victim of a despairing conscience. His nature was never without a touch of rude romance, and the recollection of his crimes went far to turn his brain. In his solitary wanderings among the mountains he saw visions. Spirits appeared to him and promised him happiness. The ghosts of his victims arose, and threatened despair. He kept a journal of his dreams—a journal written with blood, on kangaroo skin. It is possible that, in a land of fruits and game, he might have lived a hermit, and died a penitent. But the barren beauty of the bush afforded no sustenance. He was compelled to descend from his hut—an eyrie built on the brink of a cataract, and surrounded by some of the sublimest scenery of the Tasmanian mountains—to plunder the farms for food and ammunition. Armed bands, incited by the hope of the reward, lay in wait for him at every turn. Mr. Bonwick describes the condition of the man in the following picturesque passage:—“Clad in kangaroo skins, and with a long, shaggy, black beard, he had a very Orson-like aspect. Badgered on all sides, he chose a retreat among the mountain fastnesses of the Upper Shannon—a dreary solitude of cloudland—the rocky home of hermit eagles. On this elevated plateau, contiguous to the almost bottomless lakes from whose crater-formed recesses in ancient days torrents of liquid fire poured forth upon the plains of Tasmania, or rose uplifted basaltic masses, like frowning Wellington, within sight of lofty hills of snow, having the peak of Teneriffe to the south, Frenchman’s Cap and Byron to the west, Miller’s Bluff to the east, and the serrated crest of the Western tier to the north; entrenched in dense woods, with surrounding forests of dead poles, through whose leafless passages the wind harshly whistled in a storm—thus situated, amidst some of the sublimest scenes of nature, away from suffering and degraded humanity, the lonely bushranger was confronted with his God and his own conscience.”

To capture this hunted outlaw was the task and the fortune of Worral. He allied himself with a man named Warburton, a kangaroo-hunter and confidant of Howe’s, and one Pugh, a soldier of the 48th. The three proceeded to Warburton’s hut, situated in a lonely spot on the Shannon Bank; and Worral and Pugh sat down with their guns across their knees, while Warburton went out to seek Howe. At last, the sun striking a tier of the opposite hills showed two figures approaching the hut. An hour passed, and Worral in despair crept cautiously out. The bushranger was standing within a hundred yards of him, talking to the traitor. He drew back, and presently Howe slowly entered the hut, with his gun presented and cocked. He saw the trap at once. “Is that your game?” he cried, and fired. Pugh knocked up the gun, and, says Worral with almost poetic imagery, “Howe ran off like a wolf.” I give the story of the capture in the sailor’s own words:—“I fired, but missed; Pugh then halted and took aim at him, but also missed. I immediately flung away the gun, and ran after Howe; Pugh also pursued; Warburton was a considerable distance away. I ran very fast; so did Howe, and if he had not fallen down an unexpected bank I should not have been fleet enough for him. This fall, however, brought me up with him. He was on his legs, and preparing to climb a broken bank, which would have given him a free run into a wood, when I presented my pistol at him and desired him to stand. He drew forth another, but did not level it at me. We were about fifteen yards from each other, the bank he fell from between us. He stared at me with astonishment, and to tell you the truth I was a little astonished at him, for he was covered with patches of kangaroo-skins, and wore a long black beard, a haversack and powder-horn slung across his shoulders. I wore my beard also—as I do now—and a curious pair we looked like. After a moment’s pause he cried out, ‘Blackbeard against Grey-beard for a million!’ and fired. I slapped at him, and I believe hit him, for he staggered, but rallied again, and was clearing the bank between him and me when Pugh ran up, and with the butt end of his firelock knocked him down again, jumped after him, and battered his brains out, just as he was opening a clasp-knife to defend himself.”

Such was the end of Michael Howe. His captors cut off his head and brought it to Hobart Town, terrifying poor Dr. Ross, who, proceeding up-country a newly-arrived immigrant, met the ghastly procession. The reward was divided amongst them; the settlers subscribed nearly double the amount, and old Worral was “sent home free, with the thanks of the Governor and the public.”

Old Tales of a Young Country - Contents

Back    |    Words Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback