06 July, 2013

Highway Robbery!

Whilst I'm on the subject of bushrangers - and in particular Owen Suffolk - his autobiography describes one other story of derring-do which falls within the broader auspices of this blog. Like the exploits of the previous post (BAIL UP!) this escapade involved horse-theft and robbery at gunpoint however if the author is to be believed, it also involved a police chase and a daring escape.
And that, at the moment, is the problem. I can find no mention of the affair - at least as described by Suffolk - in the local papers or indeed from any source other than Suffolk's autobiography (Owen Suffolk: days of crime and years of punishment).
The face of a bushranger: Owen Suffolk, 1829
The tale begins a short time before the Portland Mail Coach hold up when Suffolk and his two compatriots (Christie Farrell and Harry Dowling) were teaching themselves the "bushranger's trade". According to Suffolk, he and Dowling were both well educated and of a somewhat romantic bent, so the mystique of a bushranger's life appealed to them as much as the pecuniary potential.
Rather than paraphrase, I will give Suffolk's version of their first foray into highway robbery:

Before parting that night, Christy, Dowling and I had agreed to meet in three days, each armed with a pair of pistols, and properly mounted at a place called the Back Creek, distant some dozen miles from Geelong. I had sufficient money by me to purchase the pistols. Disguised as an old man, wearing false grey whiskers and large goggle-spectacles, I made a purchase at a gunsmith's shop in Geelong for "that dear boy of mine who would go to California."
The mayor of Geelong's stable furnished me with a saddle and bridle, and a grazing paddock near Bates' Ford provided me with a tolerable steed.
I was first at the rendezvous; but I had not long to wait, for very soon Harry and Christy, splendidly mounted, galloped up.
They had been more thoughtful than myself, and had brought with then a flask of brandy, a couple of cold fowls, &c. I left them to the brandy, but I appropriated a whole fowl by way of a set-off.
We were not long inactive, for shortly after we had finished the fowls and their concomitants, a gig, driven tandem fashion, taking an up-country direction, passed by us. We were soon in pursuit, the gig was quickly overtaken, our pistols were presented in the true Turpin style and with a courtesy worthy of Macaire the gentlemen were requested to resign their valuables into our safe keeping. They had the good sense to comply without giving trouble; but unfortunately they travelled with very little cash in their possession and their watches were silver and antiquated. Politely returning to them their cheque-books, and promising to keep their watches by way of memento, we permitted them to proceed upon their journey. After this valorous exploit we separated, agreeing to meet in Geelong the next day.
It so happened, however, that I was very far from being satisfied with such a poor commencement, and I formed the resolution of doing something singlehanded before returning to town. Towards the evening I stopped a horseman and obtained from him about thirty-three pounds in notes. I hadscarcely finished searching his clothes (for I had made him take off his outer garments) when up rode two mounted police. They were not more than one hundred yards distant when I first saw them, as a bend in the road had prevented me from seeing them before. I was in my saddle in a minute, galloping swiftly across the plains. The police followed, and the "swell" whom I had robbed joined in the pursuit. I looked back every now and then, but the horses seemed well-matched. If I could not leave my pursuers behind, neither did they seem to gain upon me. Once they fired at me with their carbines, but ineffectually. After about an hour's gallop I came full upon the Moorabool River. It was a perfect torrent; and the bridge had been swept away by the fury of the stream. My horse was beginning to flag; and I saw at a glance that if I attempted to follow the course of the river my pursuers would be able to cut me off. Cross the stream I must. The bank was quite precipitous, and about six feet above the level of the stream. My horse at this made a dead stop, and then, maddened by severe spurring, plunged with a bound into the seething waters. We were carried rapidly down the river, and before I had reached the middle of it, the police, too frightened to follow, were firing upon me. Night by this time had well set in, and it was the darkness tat proved my safety. With daylight they could not have missed me as often as they did, for as I was at least a quarter of an hour in reaching the opposite bank, they each fired several shots - the exact number I could not tell. As it was, both myself and my horse escaped unhurt. On reaching the opposite bank I waved my hat, gave a shout of defiance, and galloped off with the full assurance that they would not risk crossing the river. Before daylight I made my way into Geelong, and was snug in bed while the Geelong police were riding all over the country after me. I met my two brother knights the evening after this adventure, and for some time Harry Dowling and myself amused the public and tantalized the police by writing letters and verse to the papers, assuring the former that they would find us zealously industrious, and inviting the latter to catch us if they could.
Police officers on the Ballarat goldfields making an arrest
A grand tale indeed, but one which may owe more to Suffolk's oratory skills than to fact. Having read his version of events, I naturally went looking for corroborative evidence. I hit my first stumbling block when I could find no sign of a Back Creek within the general vicinity of Geelong. There is a creek of that name however, about 12 miles from Ballarat, near the town of Scotsburn on the Midland Highway. Maybe he got his towns muddled.
Next, I searched the newspapers of the day for any reports of highway robbery which fitted the description given by Suffolk. Nothing. Nor was there mention of the mayor (at that time, Dr Alexander Thomson, resident at Kardinia House on the south bank of the Barwon in Geelong) having lost a saddle and bridle or of a horse stolen from Batesford (quite a distance to carry that much equipment before acquiring a horse on which to place them!).
My third approach was to check for reports of a flood at about this time - the Moorabool was, he claimed, "a seething torrent" and the bridge had been "carried away by the fury of the stream". Which bridge? None that I could find were reported as flood-damaged. In fact the papers claimed that two periods of rain in early and mid-March had saved the district from a severe drought, there was certainly no discussion of a flood.
Russell's Bridge over the Moorabool River possibly during the 19th century,
a bridge at this point dates to the early 1850s.
As for a six foot leap into the Moorabool, well that was possible, the riverbanks are quite steep in places. Taking 15 minutes to cross the stream, coming out in one piece and still in control of his mount? That I'm not so sure about. Granted, the Moorabool had not at that time been dammed and may have flowed more strongly than today, but it is not a big river.
A little more rifling and I finally came across a report of robbery on a public highway leading from "Mr Yuille's property" (the vicinity of Lake Wendouree in Ballarat) and Buninyong on 28th March, 1851, in which Mr Michael Cavenagh was held up at gunpoint by two assailants and relieved of his horse, its tack and his other valuables. One of his assailants it later transpired, was Suffolk.
 I also found an article in the Geelong Advertiser published after his trial for the mail coach robbery which, in part, included a letter written by him (but not named as such) in which he boasted about robbing Cavenagh, much as he described in his book. The Advertiser it seems had not deemed the content worthy of publication until Suffolk's notoriety had been revealed.
So, was this robbery the basis of Suffolk's writings? It is the only likely event I can find on record but there is no mention of an escape from the law or a daring river-crossing. Dramatic licence? Perhaps. Or maybe the second hold up and subsequent chase didn't come to the attention of the press, however if it was anywhere near as dramatic as Suffolk describes then that seems unlikely.
Assuming for a moment that such a chase did take place after the robbery near Ballarat and that Suffolk as he claimed, galloped for an hour before coming upon the Moorabool, he must have been riding either south or south west towards Geelong (his eventual destination).
But where was the missing bridge? In 1851 there were significantly fewer bridges across the Moorabool than there are today. In fact within about 30 miles of Buninyong there were only one or two bridges which I can tentatively identify. One, described as a "hand bridge" over the Moorabool near Lal Lal Falls on the way to Corduroy Bridge (Clarendon) was reported as swept away in 1855. Another was Sharps Bridge on the road of the same name a few miles past Meredith.

The current version of Sharp's Bridge
Either way, this would still have left a relatively lengthy ride (25 miles or more) back to Geelong before dawn with a rather tired horse. Not impossible I guess.
Well at this point I have to admit defeat. I have tried everything I can think of but am still not convinced that the events described above occurred at least in some form. I will continue searching, but for now, this blog needs to be posted.
Either way you have to admit that the Convict Poet spins a darn good yarn!

No comments:

Post a Comment