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An Overview of Bushranging in Colonial Queensland

StateLibQld_2_124486_Bushranger_James_MacPherson,_1866

Queensland Bushranger James Alpin McPherson

The term “bushranging” is perhaps best defined by the 1830 Bushranging Act of New South Wales. It is this piece of colonial legislation that defines the “bushranger” as a person “who shall be found on the roads or in other parts of the colony, with firearms or other instruments of a violent nature in his possession, under circumstances affording reasonable ground for suspecting that such a person may be or intend to be a robber”. (White, 1900, p143-4)

This is a broad legal definition which allowed the authorities much scope for prosecution. It also allowed members of the public to use the term very loosely indeed. As such it comfortably fits with notions of the concept of “bushranger” that have been been popularly adopted in the imagination of Australians. A bushranger in the Australian imagination is similar to English conceptualisations, folklore and mythology around “the highwayman” (such as Dick Turpin) or perhaps to similar mythologies growing around American “outlaws” (such as Jesse James). the mythology and folk-ish hero worship that has grown up around Australian bushranging can trace its anti-authoritarian origins back, via the rebellious history of working class British and republican Irish, as far as characters such as Robin Hood.

The broad definition of bushranger is particularly useful in studying the Queensland colonial experience of bushranging. Bushranging, as it was experienced in other Australian colonies during the 1800s, was not a common occurrence in Queensland. Given the context of law enforcement at the time, this is perhaps surprising. It’s worth noting that George Bowall’s 1899 classic, The Story of the Australian Bushrangers, identified only one Queensland bushranger (Boxall, 1899, p.340) stating that “Queensland was not troubled by bushranging to the extent that it occurred in the south” during firstly the 1830s and then during the New South Welsh and Victorian Gold Rushes. While other sources are generally supportive of Boxall’s conclusions, some identify a distinct number of Queensland bushrangers. Most notable among these was James Alpin McPherson – “the Wild Scotchman”- but in 1865 alone, five “bushrangers were recorded as being captured in Queensland (Johnston, 1992, p54).

Perhaps Boxall’s conclusion is a result of a differing conceptualisation of the “bushranger” archetype. The style of bushranging in colonial Queensland was somewhat distinct from that experienced in other colonies of Australia. Only McPherspon seems to have followed in the mold of his more illustrious southern contemporaries (such as Ben Hall). Many of Queensland’s bushrangers were less dramatic, less likely to capture public imagination, less “folklore worthy”. For example, men such as Peter Fagan, Daniel Webster, Thomas Howson and John Wright were all active in criminal circle sin and near Rockhampton in 1864 and revelled in the notoriety of being considered by locals to be bushrangers but they were far from the imagery of the highwayman of folklore. None of these criminals really matched the legends of Ben Hall, Ned Kelly, Thunderbolt, or the fictitious Captain Starlight. Queensland appears as a footnote to the story of Frank Gardiner, and is a very real part of Australian bushranging history for this reason but it is, alas, a footnote to a story growing into the rural mythology of NSW and Victoria. Sydney and Melbourne’s publishing houses were far from the vast expanses of Queensland’s frontier. The escapades of the Queensland bushrangers were therefore often unheralded and unreported.

The Queensland crimes of Henry Readford, Thomas Griffin, George Palmer (and associates), and the Kenniff brothers, too, are part of the stroy of Queensland bushranging but they do not fit with the popularised imaginings of the bushranger archetype emerging from Sydney and Melbourne. Most of Queensland’s bushrangers only loosely fit with Boxall’s conceptualisation of the term and are far from the imagining of the wider populace.

To gain a true understanding of the scope and nature of bushranging in colonial Queensland, it’s best to survey the careers of those most commonly identified as the most notorious bushrangers. Frank Gardiner, James Alpin mcPherson, the Fagan gang (who haunted the surrounds of Rockhampton) are perhaps the best examples of these.

Also of note are “bushrangers” Edward (The Snob) Hartigan, Henry (Harry) Readford, and the Kenniff brothers – all examples of horse thieves and cattle-duffers. This is a crime is a significant variation on the bushranging theme that makes the Queensland cohort distinct from their southern couterparts.

Finally, of note is the Clermont Gold Escort Robbery and murder of Patrick Halligan. These events give a clear insight into the nature of bushranging in Queensland prior to 1901.

Bibliography:

  1. Boxall, G. (1899), The Story of the Australian Bushrangers, Swan Sonnenschein and Co, Paternoster Square.
  2. Johnstone, W.R. (1992), The Long Blue Line: A History of the Queensland Police, Boolarong, Brisbane.
  3. White, C (1900), History of Australian Bushranging: Volume 1: The Early Days to 1862, Angus and Robertson, Sydney.
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