Home » History » Bushrangers in Colonial Queensland: The Short Career of Peter Fagan and Gang (Rockhampton District, May-June 1864)

Bushrangers in Colonial Queensland: The Short Career of Peter Fagan and Gang (Rockhampton District, May-June 1864)

Native_Police

Native Mounted Police Contingent, Rockhampton 1864

Shortly after the arrest of Frank Gardiner and his associates in Rockhampton at the start of 1864, the provincial frontier town was plagued with a new criminal activity – forged cheques (Bird, 1904, p.255). Such a crime was of great concern to the public of Rockhampton where promissory notes were crucial to the young economy. Forgery of cheques was a threat to the livelihood of businessmen and raised the ire of a number of high profile and well-to-do members of the community. Such disaffection was sure to bring the attention of the infant police force of the new colony.

So much business was transacted by cheques that so long as a well-known person’s name was used, there was little difficulty in passing cheques. Numerous complaints were made by tradesmen in Rockhampton who had been victimised in this way but police were unable to find the culprits. (Bird, 1904, p.255)

The most celebrated incident at the time concerned the “uttering of false cheques in the name of Mr Peter Macintosh of Rio station (Grabs, 1983, p72).

At this time, Rockhampton was thick with loose groups of acquaintances held together by a common desire to frequent the public houses and billiard rooms of the town.Drinking heavily, and being “loose with their money”, these men shared a certain “flash style” and had a tendency to stray onto the wrong side of the law in the search for easy cash (Bird, 1904, p.255).  One of these “rogues” was Peter Fagan. Fagan would become the central figure in the formation of Queensland first home-grown gang of bushrangers. The gang would be rather short-lived and unsuccessful when compared to the likes of Frank Gardiner and his compatriots.

In April 1864, Fagan was arrested after making two purchases with forged cheques at the clothes store of Mr L Sandel, on the corner of Fitzroy and East Streets. These cheques used the name of Peter macintosh and immediately raised the suspicions of the storekeeper. Fagan, and a distinctively red-haired associate Daniel Webster, after a brief chase found themselves charged with uttering on the evidence of Sandel and the manager of the Australia Joint Stocks Bank, Mr Lanarch. Both were placed in the new Rockhampton lockup and were held awaiting trial. The Rockhampton gaol became the first Queensland gaol outside of the Brisbane area.

This prison was officially proclaimed open on 29 March 1864, making Rockhampton the second town in Queensland (after Brisbane) to have such a facility. Prior to the building opening as a prison (on a triangular piece of land bounded by South and Murray streets) it was used to house victims of severe floods in the area. Unlike the one at Petrie Terrace, this prison was based on the discredited ‘associated system’, whereby inmates were housed in large communal wards instead of separate cells. (Dawson, 2013)

In the smalltown lockup, Fagan and Webster became friendly with, accused horse thief, John Wright and, another man charged with uttering, Thomas Howson (also known as Hill).

Soon the four became good mates and all agreed that the lockup was not the place for them. Various plans for escape were discussed and then, by stroke of good luck, certain unexpected events made circumstances play into their hands (Grabs, 1983, p72).

As no gaoler had yet been appointed to the new Rockhampton lockup, two local men, French and Lee, had been placed in charge of the security of the rpisoners. During the afternoon of May 6, 1864, French took ill and Lee departed “into town to get him some medicine, leaving only an old man, McWilliam, available for duty” (Bird, 1904, p.257).

The prisoners were exercising in the yard when someone rushed out and said there was a snake in the big cell. The prisoners ran into the room and Fagan, or one of his confederate, closed the door and bolted the men in. Fagan and his accomplices threatened to murder McWilliam if he resisted them. They then proceded to the room where French was sick in bed to get firearms (Bird, 1904, p.257).

French weakened as he was by illness struggled to apprehend the group but was knocked to the ground. Fagan, Webster, Howson and Wright took from the room two rifles and a “fowling piece” (Bird, 1904, p.257). French was locked into Fagan’s cell and “poor old McWilliam, who was trembling in fear, was locked in the condemned cell” (Bird, 1904, p.257). Using a ladder, the four escapees then scaled the outer wall of the gaol and dropped to the ground on the other side.

rocky 1868 sm

Floor plan of Rockhampton gaol c.1868.

Meanwhile a prisoner named Dittman, who was not among those in the cell and had been threatened with death if he did anything, let out Mr French from the cell and all expedition was made in reporting the matter to the town (Bird, 1904, p.257).

Within thirty minutes of the escape, a posse made up of Chief Constable Jerimiah Foran, inspector of Excise McMahon, several constables and a small group of civilians were in pursuit of Fagan, Webster, Howson and Wright.

Within days of the escape, the escapees had “stuck up” local businessmen, the Ball Brothers near Canoona Station and had stolen “two saddle horses and a revolver. This gave each of them a firearm and mounted two” (Bird, 1904, p.257). The escapees were evidently under fagan’s leadership in the raid and stated their intention of sticking up the Woodville Hotel along the Peak Downs Road.

This threat was carried out the same day… Before reaching the hotel however they overtook Mr Robert Pacey’s drays and took two saddle horses from the drivers. At “Flash Charley’s” Woodville Hotel, they told the landlord he was stuck up with government rifles, and demanded stores and whatever they required, which were given to them under threats (Bird, 1904, p.257).

 

The group were now a formidable party and took to the roads travelling as far as Marlborough, Westwood, Walloon and Banana. Successful raids in this isolated area came at their price however. Misfortune and widespread pursuit were by-products of their initial success as bushrangers. Fagan lost his one serviceable revolver in Hardy’s Hotel, Westwood. “Fagan had another weapon that misfired every time her tried it and rode off without his lost weapon”  (Bird, 1904, p.257) after being shot at by a Westwood man named Kelly. In Banana, the group were hotly pursued by three white police, three indigenous Native Mounted Police and one white Mounted Police officer. Near Walloon, the theft of horses led to a posse of squatters forming and joining the manhunt.

On the road to Rawbelle [now the shire of Gayndah], the bushrangers were suddenly come on by their pursuers whilst cleaning their weapons. They instantly dashed for their horses and fled. Fagan, Webster and Wright each secured a horse by Howson was not so fortunate and had to go off on foot. This broke the party up. Howson went off in the direction of Gladstone and was finally captured in an outside hut on Riverstone Station suffering from fever and ague. He was unarmed (Bird, 1904, p.258).

Howson was taken first to Gladstone lockup then was transferred back to Rockhampton where he was committed for trial.

Some days after the Rawbelle incident, Fagan, Webster and Wright made their way back to Westwood seemingly to retrieve Fagan’s lost revolver. Waking a man at Hardy’s farm, “a few hundred yards from the hotel”, the whereabouts of their antagonist Kelly was revealed to the gang after the sleepy man was threatened with “being shot”(Bird, 1904, p.258). They then went off to confront Kelly and to retrieve Fagan’s missing revolver. At Kelly’s residence,

Fagan went in and woke up Kelly by placing his revolver against his head. Fagan told the startled bushman that he had come for his revolver which Kelly gave him. Fagan then upbraided kelly for shotting at him as he had never done him any harm (Bird, 1904, p.258).

It’s been claimed that, at this point, Wright encouraged his leader to “blow Kelly’s brains out” but Fagan refused to do so and, after shaking hands with Kelly, the group departed (Bird, 1904, p.258). The continued to range across the central west inland of Rockhampton. It was at this time that some mythologising of the exploits of the gang began.

By June 8, 1864, the talk of Rockhampton was that the Cornish Mount Hotel, then located at the corner of Ross Street and Gladstone Road, had been held up by the gang. Supposedly staying at the hotel through the night, rumours spread that the group would be attending the Rockhampton Tradesmens’ Ball on the night of June 9. Grabs states that “Fagan remembered hearing stories of other bushrangers who had daringly attended local dances and race-meetings without being recognised” at least by the police (Grabs, 1983, p84). there is substantial doubt however that all the members of the gang visited Rockhampton at that time at all – certainly the rumours of the Cornish Mount Hotel hold-up were false. While Webster may certainly was in the area of Rockhampton at the time, it appears that Fagan and Wright were not at Rockhampton at all in June 1864. Rumours and stories were the stuff of entertainment on the frontier. The gang’s exploits at this time seem clouded by such rumours. Nonetheless,  the police were eager to follow up on any information that came to hand.

At about midday on June 9, 186, police in plain clothes converged on the Cornish mount Hotel and, after a brief spell of shooting, a wounded Daniel Webster was captured. There was no sign of either Fagan or Wright. It seems that Webster was there alone.

The hotel was full of men and the police were ordered to surround the place as well as they could. The red-headed Webster was seen to come onto the verandah and then run back again, and out the rear. He dodged about among the outhouses and then crossed a paddock, a few shots being fired after him. Webster’s revolver would not go off and it was found afterwards to have been jammed by a protruding cartridge. Mr Jardine (the Police Magistrate), getting Sergeant meldrum’s revolver, steadied it on the fence, and firing at the retreating bushranger, shot him in the knee. Webster fell to the ground and threw up his arms in token of surrender… It was said he left the others at Yaamba and came to Rockhampton in a boat (Bird, 1904, p.258-9).

A strong police party was immediately dispatched north from Rockhampton to the Yaamba district on the Fitzroy River. After a brief exchange of shots, however, Fagan and Wright escaped into the bush again after crossing the river and getting from their pursuers (Bird, 1904, p.258-9).

By June 25, 1864, numerous robberies on the road to the Peak Downs goldfields had been attributed to Fagan and Wright. Mail and horses were stolen in the area and by the time the police presence had increased in the region, Fagan and Wright had moved across the Mackenzie and Isaac Rivers and had “stuck-up” the station of a Mr Caldwell near the Rocky Water Holes outside Peak Downs on June 29. (Witnesses describe the events in the Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser (Qld. : 1861 – 1871) of July 30 1864). Caldwell, incensed at the theft of a gold watch and £40 immediately gathered a posse of station hands to pursue the two bushrangers. It was Caldwell’s group that would put an end of the bushranger Fagan’s career.

They camped that night a few miles north of Mount Stuart… At the break of day, they were up, and one of the party recognised a horse feeding nearby as the one that Fagan had ridden the previous day. They took the horse and hid it in the scrub close by, and also hid themselves. Soon after they saw Fagan tracking his horse in the direction of the scrub. The party then filed oout with their swags on ther backs as if they were a party of diggers on the way to Peak Downs. Fagan came boldly forward and asked if they had seen a horse of a certain decription. Whilst he was talking the men surrounded him and quickly presented half a dozen revolvers to his head telling him to hold up his hands (Bird, 1904, p.260).

Fagan was quickly searched. Two revolvers (and the missing £40 which had so incensed Caldwell) were  found in his pockeets. The gold watch wasn’t recovered. Fagan protested his innocence but was taken prisoner and escorted back to the station.

Fagan was taken back to Caldwell’s station, Wright having apparently disappeared. By and bye, Sergeant mcMahon and his party came to the station and the sergeant at once recognised Fagan who had meanwhile convinced some of the men that he was really not the bushranger they thought he was. The police returned in triumph to Rockhampton with the captain of the gang who joined his confederates in gaol once more (Bird, 1904, p.260).

in a little over five weeks all but one of Queensland’s first bushranging gang had been captured and returned to Rockhampton gaol.

Bibliography:

  1. Bird, J.T.S. (1904), The Early History of Rockhampton, The Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton.
  2. Boxall, G. (1899), The Story of the Australian Bushrangers, Swan Sonnenschein and Co, Paternoster Square.
  3. Dawson, C (2013), Old Queensland Prisons #5: The First Rockhampton Gaol (1864-84), Life & Death in the Sunshine State, Available at: http://boggoroad.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/know-your-colonial-gaol-history-5-first.html, Accessed: 29 December 2015.
  4. Grabs, C (1983), Queensland Desperadoes, Angus and Roberston, Sydney.

 

 

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