05 July, 2013


Last year I posted about an escape from the Old Geelong Gaol (Jail Break!) by career criminals Christie Farrell and Josh Clarke in 1889. I also made passing reference to an incident much earlier in Christie's career: the robbery under arms of the Portland Mail.
This sensational hold up had everything. It featured a dashing but disguised bushranger with a criminal record and a flair for poetry, wielding handguns whilst shouting phrases such as "Bail Up!" and threatening to blow peoples' brains out. It also took place not too far from Bruce's Creek.
The following is my interpretation of events, taken mostly from the newspapers of the day (The Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer and The Argus) and from Owen Suffolk's autobiography written during his final stint in an Australian jail in 1866.
The fateful event took place on the 19th May, 1851. The mail coach, its passengers and driver had stopped at the Leigh (now Shelford) to collect the mail and presumably to change horses. From there it followed its usual route towards Bruce's Creek (Bannockburn) and was travelling slowly, about a mile past the creek on the road to Geelong when Suffolk and his two accomplices struck.
The current (Pilloud's) Bridge across Bruce's Creek at Bannockburn

Whilst Farrell remained hidden, Suffolk and the third member of their little gang - Harry Dowling - intercepted the coach. Suffolk leapt to take the horses' heads, ordering the driver to "stand" and threatening to kill him if he did not. He also threatened to "shoot the first man who moved a finger" whilst Dowling ordered the passengers to raise their hands and get down from the coach. It was Suffolk who then bound their hands with their own kerchiefs (and in the case of the driver, with a belt taken from the driver of the Melbourne coach during an earlier hold up, to whom it was suggested he return it) before ordering them to re-embark and himself driving the coach about half a mile into the bush. The passengers were once again offloaded then tied to trees, at which point Dowling unhitched the horses and saddled one using a passenger's saddle and tack whilst Suffolk proceeded to rifle through the mailbags looking for cash, cheques and other valuables. That done, he also ordered the passengers to empty out their pockets.
Farrell it seems remained out of sight during the whole affair whilst Suffolk and Dowling were heavily disguised. By his own account, Suffolk was attired thus:
I had on three loosely fitting blue shirts or jumpers over a complete suit of clothes...my legs were encased in a pair of large gaiters which reached up to my hips. My head was placed inside the network of a rainbow comforter, which was secured against falling off by being fastened with a ribbon round my neck - one end of it hanging far down my back like a Chinaman's tail. A large sou'wester on my head, and a pair of light blucher boots, the soles of which were ornamented with as sort of scroll done with copper tacks, completed my costume.
This description which was not dissimilar to that later given by the witnesses in court is however somewhat at odds with a later illustration of the event by GD Bruny. Suffolk himself was somewhat bemused by media reports at the time which described him and "Farrell" variously as:
"a tall raw-boned Irishman [he was English] ill-becoming a suit of black" and "as two beardless boys of gentlemanly appearance, whom no one would have suspected of such crimes."
An account of the affair published some 48 years later by George E Boxall in his book "History of the Australian Bushranger" makes interesting reading when compared to Suffolk's own account and the reports from the media of the day.*

Depiction of Suffolk and "Farrell" waiting to bail up a coach, although from
the evidence of the witnesses and Suffolk's own description they were neither
mounted nor dressed in such fashion at the time of the hold up near Bruce's
Creek whilst Harry Dowling rather than Christie Farrell assisted Suffolk
to rob the coach.
All of this served to highlight Suffolk's own contention that witnesses could easily be misled by casual similarities and a few preconceived ideas. He argued that the bulkiness of his clothing and the concealment of both his and his accomplice's faces during the hold up meant that the witnesses could not have made an accurate identification of their assailants.

This fact later had serious consequences for Farrell, despite his remaining unseen throughout. In any case, the job was complete and the trio returned to Geelong, Farrell on foot and the other two riding the horses taken from the mail coach, which they then turned loose outside of town.
The following evening, in true dashing style, Suffolk decided to attend a performance at the Theatre Royal. However, having muddied his own boots en route, rather than return home to change, he elected to purchase another pair from an establishment he called "the famous Yellow Slipper". [My research shows that this was actually the Red Boot shoe shop in Moorabool Street, located opposite the Market Square.]
View of Geelong in 1861, taken from the corner of Kardinia and Malop Streets
looking south west. Malop Street crosses the bottom of the picture, Moorabool
Street runs to the left with the corner of the Market Square before it. The
Red Boot shoe shop, still in business some ten years later is the second store
from the left on Moorabool Street
At the store, he was surprised to be served by a former compatriot from Cockatoo Island. Knowing his history, this now reformed character was immediately suspicious of Suffolk's apparent affluence. Without letting on their previous acquaintance, the shopman (George Percy Simmons), along with his boss and the mailman from the hold up who recognised Suffolk's distinctive boots, informed the police and headed for the theatre. Suffolk saw them and quickly slipped out but Simmons also recognised Farrell as an associate of Suffolk and assuming he was the other assailant from the hold up, the three tried unsuccessfully to corner him before giving up and leaving it for the police.
The following day, Farrell and Dowling decided to distance themselves from the scene of the crime by taking the steamer to Melbourne. Suffolk advised against this as he claimed it would be watched by the authorities and chose to remain at the lodging house where they had been staying.
In the event, he was proven correct and Farrell, having been identified by Simmons, was arrested at the dock as he attempted to leave for Melbourne. Dowling, who of course was unknown to the storeman and happened to be carrying Farrell's share of the spoils remained undetected and made his escape.
Corio Bay, 1850 from Western Beach showing a steamer moored at the Steam
Packet Wharf
Suffolk's downfall came soon after as when questioned, Farrell gave the address at which he had been staying and so it was a simple matter to corner Suffolk at Guise's Lodging House (in James Street) the following morning and make the arrest.
Seeing the officers approaching through a window and hoping to hide evidence, Suffolk placed a watch stolen from the mailman under a pillow in Farrell's room after which he was duly arrested.
Until their case came to court a few days later, Suffolk and Farrell were lodged in what was then the Geelong Gaol, known to history as the South Geelong Gaol and located back from the banks of the Barwon at the corner of Balliang and Yarra Streets. Their first appearance to face the charges saw them brought before none other than police magistrate Captain Foster Fyans along with C N Thorne JP and Leiut Addis.
Then, on 21st June they faced a jury and the resident judge of the Geelong Circuit Court. In a noble attempt, in keeping with the theme of dashing gallantry, Suffolk quickly admitted his own guilt and made an eloquent argument in defence of Farrell's innocence . He admitted to hiding the watch and brought the young daughter of the house to the stand where she gave evidence that she had moved the handguns used by Suffolk to the drawer of Farrell's room as there was no available drawer in Suffolk's. When cross-questioning the storeman Simmons, Suffolk made a fair attempt to discredit the witness by quizzing him as to the length of their acquaintance and to their joint tenure on Cockatoo Island.
His efforts however, were all to no avail as the jury found both men guilty, sentencing them to ten years "on the roads", the first three to be served in irons. And so, despite having remained hidden and taken no active part in the holdup itself (assuming we can trust Suffolk's assertion that he was assisted by Dowling not Farrell), Farrell was convicted whilst Dowling escaped justice.
No doubt further confirming Suffolk's opinions as to witness veracity, one of the passengers indicated that he recognised "Farrell" by his voice.
A mail coach which I am guessing would have been similar to that travelling
the Portland to Geelong Route

*Below is an extract from George E Boxall's History of the Australian Bushrangers, 1899.

On June 23rd the mail coach was bailed up at Bruce's Creek, between Portland and Geelong. The coach, with three passengers on board, was going down hill to the crossing-place, when two men stepped from behind gum trees, presented their pistols, and cried "Bail up." The driver, William Freere, instead of complying, began to flog his horses, but before they could respond thir heads were seized by one of the bushrangers, while the other put his pistol to Freere's head; and threatened to blow his brains out. The coach was taken some distance off the road, and its occupants were tied to trees. The robbers went very leisurely through te letters, and when all that was of value had been abstracted one of the bushrangers took a saddle and bridle belonging to one of the passengers (Mr. Thomas Gibson) and set it aside with the remark, "Ah, this is just what I wanted." This bushranger was dressed "in a black suit of fashionable cut, and wore black kid gloves." He was afterwards identified as Owen Suffolk, while his companion was Christopher Farrell. Suffolk took one of the coach-horses, put the saddle and bridle on, and mounted. Farrell jumped on the other horse barebacked. The tied men begged hard to be let loose, offering to swear that they would not give information to the police, or move from the spot until their captors were away, but their supplications were only laughed at. The road was at that time but little frequented, and the next mail, which might possibly be the first vehicle to pass, would not come for a week. Moreover, they were out of sight of the road. The struggle to get free was therefore a struggle for life, and it was a severe one. Mr. Gibson was the first to get one hand loose. After this the rest was comparatively easy. In less than an hour they were all free, and they walked straight to the township at Bruce's Creek to tell the police. The robbers were caught in Geelong a day or two later. Suffolk was strolling along the beach near the wharf, and Farrell was found in a boardinghouse not far away. They were sentenced to ten years' penal servitude, the first three in irons.
It is easy to see how legends arise and misconceptions develop over the years. In his own version of events, Suffolk explicitly states that:
After securing all that seemed worth securing, I untied the mailman, and then, having released him from the tree, I fastened his hands behind him in a peculiar fashion, telling him that as soon as I knew we were out of sight he could set to work to undo one of the others, a task which I knew would take him some little time to perform with his own hands tied as they were. 
Hardly the life and death struggle described by Boxall, however it does not precisely tally with the version of events given by the mailman who made no mention of Suffolk telling him he could free himself once the robbers were out of sight.
In true Robin Hood style however, Suffolk also claimed to have returned via mail a sum of £5 to one of the passengers from whom he had taken two sovereigns. The man had pleaded poverty and a gravely ill wife when confronted by Suffolk who, on making later inquiries, discovered this to be the case. It probably would not do to dwell on how the extra £3 were obtained, but perhaps not surprisingly, according to Suffolk, this witness refused to testify at his subsequent trial.

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