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Bushranging in Australia has its origins with the arrival of the First Fleet. Convict bolters such as John 'Black' Caesar vanished into the bush around the Sydney settlement.
For more than a century bushrangers struck fear and fascination into the Austalian population.
The peak of bushranging came during the the gold rushes. Gold escorts and diggers returning from the goldfields were vulnerable to attack. Outlawed bushrangers could be shot on sight; a notorious example is the Kelly Gang and the stand-off at Glenrowan in 1880.
The popularity of bushrangers and their ethos of 'fight before surrender' was commemorated in bush songs and folklore. The Gresford region witnessed bushrangers at close range. Frederick Ward, (known as Captain Thunderbolt) and the Governor Brothers all travelled through the area.
Frederick Ward was the last of the professional bushrangers in New South Wales and one of the most successful. The Governor Brothers, Joe and Jimmy, were the last proclaimed outlaws in New South Wales and were responsible for the largest manhunt in Australian history. Their story is a tragic one of race, discrimination and violence on the eve of Australian Federation.
Frederick Ward generated much support and sympathy due to his gentlemanly behaviour and his tendency to avoid violence in his bushranging escapades. A highly skilled horseman, his strong self-reliance and physical endurance meant he could survive in the bush for long stretches of time.
As a young man, Frederick Ward worked as a horsebreaker and drover on the Tocal Run on the lower Paterson River and acquired extensive knowledge of horses. He was first arrested in April 1856 for attempting to drove forty-five stolen horses to the Windsor sale yards. Found guilty, he served four years imprisonment at Cockatoo Island before being released on a ticket-of-leave. In 1860 he met Mary Ann Bugg who became pregnant with his child. Ward settled her in the Dungog area, however he was soon in trouble with the authorities for breaking his ticket-of-leave parole and for horse stealing. He was imprisoned again at Cockatoo Island.
On 11 September 1863 Ward absconded from Cockatoo Island with another prisoner, Fred Britten, by swimming to the mainland, presumably to the northern peninsula of Woolwich, and then headed north out of Sydney. Travelling toward New England and then Maitland, Ward began committing a series of robberies. Enduring bushranger mythology claims the name Captain Thunderbolt was established when Ward entered the tollbar house on the road between Rutherford and Maitland and startled the customs officer from his sleep by banging loudly on the door. The startled officer, Delaney, is purported to remark, 'By God, I though it must have been a thunderbolt'.
Roaming across a vast area of NSW from the Hunter Valley to the Queensland border, Ward was sometimes accompanied by Mary Ann and their children. A spree in Dungog, Stroud and Singleton during November 1863 to January 1864 involved the entire bushranging family. They were pursued in the rugged hill country near Dungog by police and volunteers, however Ward, Mary Ann and the children escaped. Thunderbolt fled from his pursuers (on horseback) by leaping down a cliff face above the Allyn River. Fortunately for the horse, they landed in a sand bed.
Ward was eventually shot by Captain Walker (an off-duty policeman) in 1870 after a dramatic showdown when Walker shot Thunderbolt’s horse out from under him in swamp land near Uralla.
Ward's body was taken to Uralla courthouse where photographer, Mr Cunningham of Armidale took a portrait. The photograph sold for one shilling a copy. The body was also placed on public display and hundreds came to observe the famous bushranger in death.
The Governor Brothers
The Governor family lived in the Gresford, Paterson and Vacy areas but were moved onto the reserve system along with other Aboriginal families in the early 1890s. Tommy Governor and his sons, Joe and Jimmy worked on several stations along the Paterson River and Allynbrook, including that belonging to the Boydell family. The Governors worked as cattlemen and as horse-breakers.
In 1896, Jimmy enlisted as a tracker with the New South Wales mounted police. He was stationed at Cassilis Police station for a year before he left, apparently frustrated by the lack of advancement and dissatisfaction with his colleagues.
In December 1898, he married 16 year old Ethel Page at a time when marriage between an Aboriginal man and a white woman was seen as very controversial. The couple moved to Breelong in the Gilgandra region and Jimmy worked as a fencing contractor for John Mawbey. Ethel worked as a house maid for the Mawbey family, however she was never paid for this work. Instead, they relied on rations from the Mawbeys. Dissatisfaction regarding rations, payments and slurs on their interracial marriage created tensions which came to a head on the night of 20 July, 1900.
Jimmy decided to face John Mawbey and try to settle his grievances, taking along his wife Ethel, his brother Joe and friend Jack Underwood. Negotiation with John Mawbey over rations was resolved peacefully, however Jimmy then decided to confront Mrs Mawbey and the family’s teacher, Ellen Kerz over their treatment of Ethel. Jimmy’s evidence given at his trial regarding that night stated that the women had insulted him, saying, 'You want shooting for marrying a white woman…With that I hit her with my hand in the jaw and knocked her down. Then I got annoyed and I did not know nothing after that.'
Mrs Mawbey was struck violently, dying three days later. While son Percy was also struck down, the teacher, Ellen, along with girls Grace and Hilda escaped out of a window. They were not fast enough and Jimmy caught up to them and fatally assaulted them with a weapon described as a nullah or boondi.
The Breelong massacre, as the event came to be known, was swift and violent, five people were killed and one seriously wounded.
A number of stories and ballads were composed about the event, which reflect some of the social attitudes held at the time about Aboriginal people.
The news of the murder of the Mawbey family spread quickly through the region and the hunt was on to capture the Governor brothers and Underwood. Ethel fled to Dubbo with her baby as parties of armed civilians gathered for the search. Underwood was captured quickly, however the Governor brothers remained on the run for three months. This became the largest manhunt in Australia’s history, ranging across 3000 kilometres of northern New South Wales and involved around 2000 civilians and police in tracking the brothers.
Jimmy Governor set about taking revenge on his enemies and travelled along the Goulburn River in the area of Wollar to settle old scores, mainly with men he had worked for who he believed had treated him badly. Most of these people had been warned of Jimmy’s intentions and had abandoned their houses.
Over the next two months, the brothers managed to keep one step in front of the police, relying on Jimmy's tracking skills and knowledge of police tactics. Jimmy challenged the police by keeping fairly visible, wanting them to look incompetent.
Settlers in the region deserted their homesteads and schools in the region were closed. Business was at a standstill and no one travelled through the region.
The Governor brothers committed over 80 crimes in a short period, including the rape of a 15 year old girl at a farm at Cobark Creek. In early October, 1900, the NSW legislature declared them outlaws and increased the reward for capture from two hundred pounds to one thousand pounds.
With Jimmy severely wounded and now alone, capture was inevitable...
The community around Gresford were on guard, watching for the bushranger brothers and arming themselves for a possible confrontation. The Governors raided properties in the Paterson Valley and camped along the Paterson River. They moved east through Allynbrook and also robbed huts in the Gresford district.
Moving north up to the Forbes River, a shoot-out occurred and Jimmy was shot in the mouth. The brothers yet again escaped and the search intensified as Jimmy was losing blood, which the trackers followed.
With the pursuers closing in, the brothers were separated as they were crossing a river. With Jimmy severely wounded and now alone, capture was inevitable. At dawn on Saturday 27 October, Jimmy was surrounded by armed locals, including three generations of the Moore family from the Allyn district, including 73 year old Thomas Moore senior. After a chase that lasted around three minutes, Jimmy was captured. Given food and tea, he was then handcuffed and announced he was glad he hadn’t been captured by the police stating, 'they couldn’t run down a bloody poddy calf!'
Joe Governor survived until the morning of the 31 October. Asleep at his camp hidden away in a deep gorge at Glen Rock near St Clair, Fallbrook Creek, a local grazier, John Wilkinson and his brother noticed smoke from a camp fire and investigated. They came upon a sleeping Joe Governor. Guns were fired, Joe tried to escape, but was too slow and was shot in the head at close range.
Jimmy Governor's trial
Jimmy was transferred to Sydney and on the 19 November, 1900 he was arraigned before Justice Owen at the Central Criminal Court on the charge of 'feloniously and maliciously murdering Ellen Josephine Kertz' (the teacher employed by the Mawbey family).
A detailed account of the trial and the evidence of witnesses, including Ethel Governor and thirteen-year-old George Mawbey (the only witness to the Mawbey murders at Breelong) were widely reported in the newspapers.
Jimmy provided an extended statement and told many details of his story of what happened at Breelong and during his three months on the run.
Found guilty, he was sentenced to hang, however the execution date was delayed by almost two months due to planned festivities to celebrate Australian Federation. Jimmy Governor was finally hanged at Darlinghurst gaol on 18 January 1901.