Thursday, 16 October 2014

Summer 1887 - Walgett

Sir Watkin Wynne, c Indya 2014
It was a blistering hot evening at Walgett.  Walgett had just been proclaimed a town.  Far north in New South Wales, an inland town near the border with Queensland, it is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth with day time temperatures that drive a man mad. 

“Put out your pipe and come take your rest.”

“I will be there soon.  I have had news.  I want to sit out here and think for a bit.”

Out here there was a slight breeze from the Barwon River. The sunset was a brilliant red.

“What is it – news from Grafton?”

He tightened his grip on the paper in his hand.

“A man I once worked with.”

“I am sorry.  Do you want to tell me about it?”

He was silent.

“Talk to me, Wright.”

He did not know where to start.

She sat down next to him.  A young child in arms.  Quietly the other children appeared, on the veranda, restless and unable to sleep in the heat.

“I do not know his name.”

“But you…”

“I do not know his real name.”

“What do you mean?”

“He was called Sir Watkin Wynne.”

“The Welsh landlord?” Distaste in her mouth. There were plenty of ugly stories about the rich erratic member of the British aristocracy, despised in the colonies for his treatment of the poor.

“No.  The exact opposite.  He worked with me a while, when I had command at Fairfield.”

She was quiet.  It was an unspoken rule of their marriage that he would not talk about his work, the risks he took every day, the days and weeks he was away from home.

He relit his pipe.  The older children quietly made themselves comfortable on the veranda.

The first stars started to appear.

I think he was born on the banks of the Macquarie River.  He called it the Wambool.  That is what the Macquarie River used to be called, the meandering river.

He would have been born about the time the first surveyors came over the Great Dividing Range onto the Western Plains.

He was eight when Governor Brisbane declared martial law and all-out war broke out between the Wiradjuri Nation and Sydney.  A lot of white settlers and Wiradjuri died. It only ended when the young Wiradjuri leader Windradyne and Brisbane agreed on peace.  Windradyne crossed the mountains to Parramatta to meet with Brisbane and finished the matter.

The boy grew up in the camps. He learnt all the old lore and the secrets of the bush. As the old ways changed, he learnt languages of surrounding tribes, as well as English.  He learnt how to ride and worked as a stock man, travelling far.

The camps gradually faded from memory and groups moved into inaccessible places or gradually became part of the new order.  He was restless.  He moved around, learning, talking.

He was given the name “Sir Watkin Wynne” early – because he had a noble bearing, his people looked up to him and he looked at the land as though he owned it.  He liked the name.

I don’t know what the local police command at Bathurst originally thought of the  name but it was not long before they started to use it as well, with respect.  When he was involved in a matter, problems seemed to work themselves out. Children lost in the bush were returned to his parents. A murderous rampage by a shepherd ended when Sir Watkin Wynne found his body near a waterhole. Able to navigate through the fractured land with ease, his bush-skills could not be bettered.

At Fairfield I asked him about those days.  He just laughed.  Too long ago, he said.

One of the other Senior Sergeants from the Bathurst district told me that he was not just a member of the mounted police.  The tribes recognised him as kadaitcha.

On the veranda, one of the old children stifled a gasp.  His mother reached out to Wright with a question.  But he was lost in the past.

Before white settlement, the first people lived in separate nations with their own languages and legal systems. In desperate times, nations raised raiding parties to enter other lands and take food or captives. In happier times, some travel between nations was permitted for trade, celebration or feasting.  The old law set terms and agreed timing for these occasions.

The old law also permitted travel for limited legal reasons, allowing authorized hunters to track and recover or kill those running from justice. This task fell to kadaitcha.

Kadaitcha were specialist lore holders of all the nations – particularly skilled in survival skills. Some moved between the nations, teaching and hunting.  Kadaitcha were not simply herbalists or hunters.  They were part witch doctor, part assassin.  They dispensed justice – with spears, boomerangs and deadly magic. 

The kids had heard frightening stories about the kadaitcha but never from their father.  They had heard the kadaitcha become invisible when they put on their shoes made of kangaroo hide, with emu feathers glued together with blood.  They can will a person to death or turn a person into a rock. 

Wright paused and looked at the stars.  And coughed.  A long wracking cough.  He cleared his throat, looked apologetically at his wife, and continued. She gripped his arm.

I don’t know if he was kadaitcha.  But he was an aboriginal law man just the same.  A mounted policeman and an aboriginal law man, at the same time.  According to the story I was told, the two roles did not always mesh.  He rode with the police from the beginning of summer to the end of winter.  But in spring, he would leave, and go back to his country.

When the troubles started in the Goulburn District – and in Braidwood – the local police were quickly outclassed by the young bushrangers, Tommy Clarke, John Clarke and other members of the O’Connell family.  Later, when they were joined by the Long Tailor and Bill Scott, they became unstoppable.  Sub-Inspector Brennan from Yass posted the tracker George Emmott into the Braidwood area in 1864.

In short order, Emmott was joined by Sir Watkin Wynne and Tracker Thomas. Sir Watkin Wynne was older than the others - I think his status as law man allowed him to move and operate in Yuin country with great ease. 

The trackers gave the police an edge.  Anyone can see tracks on the ground – but these men were different. Their bush skill enabled them to go back to the point in time when the traces were left.  They saw the traces being made.

In 1865 a dead man was discovered in the Shoalhaven. A coronial inquest was held and Coroner Patterson held that the remains were of a male aboriginal and that he had been shot, but was unable to identify the man. Further investigation by Trooper O’Reilly ascertained that the man was Billy Noongang, an aboriginal employee at the Doncaster Hotel, who had gone missing after he had left to hunt ducks on the Shoalhaven. The Coroner reopened the enquiry and found those matters proved. A reward of 50 pounds was offered for the apprehension of the murderer.

A woman in custody for another robbery claimed that old Jack Clarke, father of the bushrangers, had seen Billy Noongang with a gun and had thought he was the Tracker George Emmott.  Trooper Duffy obtained a warrant for Jack Clarke for murder.  He was apprehended by police stationed at Ballalaba, and committed for trial to the Circuit Court. He died before the trial in prison in November 1866.

The death of Billy Noongang changed things for Sir Watkin Wynne. Aboriginal law is different from ours in one important respect.  There is a strong concept of group responsibility.  While we attach blame to and punish an individual, under aboriginal law, responsibility is attached to the entire group.  If one of your tribe unlawfully kills, then your entire tribe is held accountable. While he understood that, as a mounted policemen, old Jack Clarke was responsible, as an aboriginal lawman, he considered all the young bushrangers responsible: Tommy Clarke, John Clarke, The Long Tailor and Bill Scott and other members of the O’Connell family.  I do not think he would have had any compunction about exacting aboriginal justice on any of these men, with the blunt end of a hunting boomerang.

The trackers, particularly Sir Watkin Wynne, had great success in finding the Clarkes, when the police or the magistrates let him. 

Before I took command, he did something impossible, something bushmen on the Shoalhaven still talk about.

The Clarke gang ‘borrowed’ a herd of cattle running south of Braidwood, and drove them down an impossibly dangerous path to a small coastal down far to the south east.  The mountains here are no place for the faint hearted. The mountain peaks drop suddenly along an escarpment of hundreds of feet.  The goat tracks used by the bushrangers travelled across some of the most difficult country imaginable.

When they got down to the small coastal town, they attended the local horse race meeting and sold the cattle in the public market place for a decent profit.  While the purchaser was being entertained elsewhere, the gang restole the cattle to return them to their original paddocks. The perfect crime.

They would have got away with it, but Sir Watkin Wynne with two other mounted police went in pursuit. 

He paused, remembering the sheer rocky cliffs, the silven cascades of the mountain streams, the cool mountain air.  He remembered being there with Sir Watkin Wynne, retracing that escapade a couple of years later, the old man teaching him the names of the birds, the plants and the cascades.  He could still point to traces of the passage of the bushrangers, made years before.

They were almost a day behind the bushrangers.  But they started at 5pm on the Sunday, and Sir Watkin Wynne tracked them through the mountains, across dry rocky outcrops and soft marshes.  Through the night, for 24 hours he followed the tracks, sometimes on the ground leading his horse, his body close to the ground.  Other times, riding fast, urging the others to keep pace.

They caught up to the bushrangers at a camp fire just before they were able to return the herd back to the home paddocks to escape detection.  The bushrangers were just 12 miles from their destination.

The gang had stopped to rest their horses and were relaxing around a camp fire.  When they saw the police they fled on their horses bareback without weapons or packs.  By this stage the police horses were knocked up and unable to give chase.

This march is told and retold by the stockmen and the miners through the district.

Before I arrived at Fairfield, two of the bushrangers, the Long Tailor and Bill Scott, had been found dead.  Both had suffered death alone in the bush.  Both had been killed by a single blow to the head. The sort of blow that might have been inflicted by a fall from a horse striking the head sharply on rock or hardwood. Or from a blow from a hunting boomerang.  A coronial inquest in the Snowy Mountains found that the Long Tailor had died accidently by fall from his horse fleeing the bushrangers.  A coronial inquest at Manar returned a verdict of death, but the coroner (who inspected the body with a doctor present) did not accept police suggestions that the death was caused by a gun shot.

When I was posted to Fairfield, Sir Watkin Wynne was posted to work with me.  I was young – the Colonial Secretary had sent me there to get the Clarkes personally.  I heard later that the police chief opposed Parkes, and had only agreed in the face of dismissal. 

Sir Watkin Wynne and I understood each other from the start.  When an informer told us that the gang had moved down south, Sir Watkin Wynne and three other troopers set off on foot to intercept them at Jinden. 

It had been very wet that autumn.  Sir Watkin Wynne came across the tracks of two horses travelling towards Jinden.  The tracks were suspicious – they zig zagged over ranges and flats.  Towards the evening, the tracks descended onto the flats, where the bush was rotton and swampy.  We finally lost both the light and the tracks in a gully close to Jinden House, then occupied by Tom Berry and his family.

About an hour after sunset, it started to rain heavily and became pitch black.  We took shelter and, when the rain eased, came within 300 yards of the farm, which was built on a small rise, facing Jinden Creek. There was a fenced paddock between the house and the creek with a haystack in the field from the good harvest that year.

The dogs from the farm smelt us.  They started to bark fiercely.  Tom Berry came out of his house and shouted at the dogs “Lie down!  Lie down!”.

We crept to the haystack and took shelter until the moon rose and partially lit the scene. In the fenced paddock, near the house, were two horses.  We had found the outlaws. I stole towards the horses and moved them well away from the house towards the haystack.  After an hour, the horses started to move back towards the house, so I brought them back again and this time hobbled them.

Wright looked at his wife and wondered how much she knew. Her eyes were still wide open.  The children as well, with stars dancing in them.

If the outlaws wanted to get away, they would have to come to close to the haystack, so I split the troopers into three groups.  Sir Watkin Wynne and Trooper Lenihan were positioned at the haystack, near the horses.  I went to the side of the house.  Troopers Walsh and Egan went to the other side.

Just before dawn the front door creaked and, cautiously, the two outlaws came out of the farm house and washed themselves at a cask near the farm house. They went back inside and, a few minutes later, left the house with revolvers and saddles. Instead of walking to the horses they turned and walked towards the sliprails, some distance from the haystack.

The hobbled horses gave our position away.  John Clarke yelled “Look out! Look out! Tommy there are men behind the stack”.  They started to run.  The morning was shaken by a fusillade from the trooper’s rifles.  Sir Watkin Wynne’s revolver barked in fast time.  The outlaws kept heading for the sliprails.  Trooper Walsh stood his ground and took careful aim, firing at John Clarke with his rifle.  John Clarke turned, trunk bent and staggering, badly wounded. The two outlaws turned and retreated towards the farmhouse. 

Tom Clarke stood still long enough to take a fair sight on Trooper Walsh and brought the policeman to the ground with a single shot.  Sir Watkin Wynne stood up and started to run for the prone police officer. Tom Clarke fired at Sir Watkin Wynne, who was hit and thrown to the ground. 

Notwithstanding facing at least 30 shots, the outlaws managed to regain the safety of the farmhouse and for a moment silence fell on the scene. The farmhouse was made of hardwood slabs, impregnable to rifle or revolver fire.  It had one means of entry – the front door –two small windows and a port-hole at one end.

Trooper Walsh was lying on the ground. I dragged him to safety and took stock of our position.  Walsh clearly was out of the fight, but after the initial shock, could still ride and was not losing blood. I told Walsh, "They're crack shots. They got you in a second and I think they've hit Sir Watkin. There's only Lenihan, Egan and myself. It's not enough. If I patch you up d'you think you can ride for help?"  Walsh nodded.
The outlaws started to fire at us from the farm house.  Under cover of bush, I went looking for Sir Watkin Wynne.  He was sitting behind cover, watching the outlaws firing from inside the house.  He had suffered a terrible injury to his wrist, and was bleeding.  I ripped my shirt to make a bandage, staunching the flow of blood with the linen as best I could.

We caught one of the bushranger’s horses, made a makeshift bridle using a strap and some rope. Although wounded, Walsh set off for Ballalaba, more than 20 miles to the north, on bareback to get reinforcements.

It was a gallant ride.  He had only had a couple of hours sleep, in the rain, and now was wounded in the hip. The path to Ballalaba was treacherous, on a horse he was unfamiliar with and with the Shoalhaven River in flood.  Nevertheless, he rode across the flooded creeks and swamps.  Three hours later he arrived safely.  Sergeant Byrne, nine Troopers and Tracker Emmott started for Jinden while Walsh was bandaged and secured a new mount.

For six and a half hours I stayed with Sir Watkin Wynne, firing at the outlaws when it seemed safe to do so. During a lull in the fighting, the family ran from the farm house and took shelter out of danger. Tom Berry came and stayed with me until the reinforcements came.

The reinforcements rode to the farm house and took up positions around it.  Walsh also arrived, just minutes later. 

After exchanged shouts, the outlaws laid down their arms and emerged from the farm house. I went down to secure them and they held out their hands in greeting.  I shook their hands.  The Chief Justice later criticized me for it, but I would do it again. 

When Tommy Clarke was handcuffed, Sir Watkin Wynne went up to him and accused him: “Tommy, you shot me cowardly”. Clarke protested “No, I merely shot you in defence; you wanted to take my life.”

The troop then rode to Fairfield Station for dinner.

There they were met by Sub Inspector Stephenson, 8 Troopers and Tracker Thomas from Major’s Creek.

At 7pm they arrived at Mick O’Connell’s Inn – the Traveller’s Hotel – at Stoney Creek and the injured men were attended to by Doctor Patterson during the night.  The troop spent the night at the Hotel.  The outlaws were in high spirits, and entertained the police with stories of their escapades.

The troop left for Braidwood in the morning, arriving there in the afternoon.  Sir Watkin Wynne had lost a great deal of blood.  I expected he would be unconscious by the time we arrived in Braidwood, but he walked into the doctor’s surgery without any sign of pain.  His injury turned out badly – at Braidwood his arm was amputated, at the elbow. 

Subsequently I promoted Sir Watkin Wynne to Sergeant Major, and gave him a second stripe.  On the recommendation of Sub-Inspector Stephenson the reward money was split between all police officers present.  I received 300 pounds, Walsh 130 pounds and Sir Watkin Wynne received 120 pounds.  Egan and Lenihan received 110 pounds. 

Sir Watkin Wynne stayed with me at Fairfield and the mounted police until winter. In spring, he took his reward money, his wages and police pension and left.  He left one of the richest members of the mounted police I knew. 

He came saw me before he finally left.  He shook my hand. He quietly gave his greeting, “Nguurruunggal” – until the morning comes - as if he had done nothing unusual, and then he disappeared.

He went back to his country, but the bushmen told stories about him around the Shoalhaven for years to come.

We stayed in touch.  He would come out of retirement from time to time to sort out one problem or another.  Problems had a habit of sorting themselves out when he arrived places. I heard he worked with the Gold Commissioner’s office on the Turon.

He got in the local papers from time to time.

I kept this one.

He opened his clenched hand and smoothed out the paper he was holding.

Hill End, 4 May 1872: "Sir Watkin," the well-known one-armed black tracker, saw a blind man standing in front of Coyle's hotel, and inquired of him if he was quite blind, and, on being assured that he was, asked if he was hungry. This question being also replied to in the affirmative, the untutored blackfellow took the blind white by the sleeve, gently led him across the street to Mr. Luff's butcher's shop, paid for 3 lbs. of the best mutton chops, which he gave to his afflicted white brother, and then quietly walked away, as if he had done nothing unusual.

Walgett starts to fade in the heat haze. Time freezes and everything becomes insubstantial. 


December 1887:  The Braidwood Despatch:  "We notice the death at Forbes of Sir Watkin, a well-known black tracker in the police force. Many residents of this district will recollect him as being with Senior-constable Wright (now sub-inspector), then stationed at Fairfield. Sir Watkin was with the police party when the Clarkes were captured at Berry's hut at Jinden. He was on that occasion wounded severely in the arm by a bullet from one of the bushrangers, and the poor fellow afterwards had to submit to his arm being amputated, since which time he has been in the receipt of a pension from the Government.

Note: The Braidwood Despatch went on to inaccurately estimate his age at between 50 and 60 at the time of his death.  He was 71.


December 1888: Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertise:
Death of Mr. Sub-Inspector Wright

The friends of this gentleman will regret to hear of his decease, which took place near Walgett last week. The deceased officer was at one time stationed in Grafton, and was in the service for about 28 years. He leaves a widow and eight children. He would have been entitled to a pension after 30 years service; but we understand his widow will receive a substantial allowance. The late Sub Inspector was much respected as an officer and citizen.

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Peter Quinton
October 2014

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