Who were the Australian Bushrangers?
One was James Dalton

 

Researched, compiled & edited by Rodney G. Dalton

 

Also included in this article is the murder of Alexander Dalton.

 

Bushrangers, or bush rangers, were outlaws in the early years of the British settlement of Australia who had the survival skills necessary to use the Australian bush as a refuge to hide from the authorities.

 

They were roughly analogous to British "highwaymen" and American "Old West outlaws," and their crimes often included robbing small-town banks or coach services.

 

The term "bushranger" evolved to refer to those who abandoned social rights and privileges to take up "robbery under arms" as a way of life, using the bush as their base.

 

The use of the word "bushranger" was introduced in Australia in the early 19th Century. The first recorded use of the term was in February 1805, when the Sydney Gazette mentioned that a cart had been stopped by three men "whose appearance sanctioned the suspicion of their being bushrangers". From this time onwards, the term was used to denote criminals who attacked people on the roads or in the bush. John Bigge described bushranging in 1821 as "absconding in the woods and living upon plunder and the robbery of orchards." Charles Darwin likewise recorded in 1835 that a bushranger was "an open villain who subsists by highway robbery, and will sooner be killed than taken alive". In Tasmania, escaped convicts who became bushrangers were known as "bolters".

 

More than 2000 bushrangers are believed to have roamed the Australian countryside, beginning with the convict bolters and drawing to a close after Ned Kelly's last stand at Glenrowan.

 

Bushranger was originally used to describe predatory escaped convicts fleeing from the early Australian penal colonies. Most turned to stealing supplies from remote settlements and travellers and fencing the stolen goods to other free settlers.

 

The story of James Dalton:

 

The story starts with James Dalton, Thomas Jones, and John Liddell, stuck up Catherine Smith's house on December 6th, at Effingham Banks. They tied the servants and went into Mrs. Smith's bedroom. The lady requested them to go out while she dressed, and they complied. When Mrs. Smith got up the bushrangers ordered the servants to get them some supper, telling them that they need not be afraid, as nobody would hurt them. They made the servants sit down while they ate. After their meal they opened the drawers and took out clothes and other articles which suited them, and went away. On December nth they stuck up a hawker named John McCall. They drove his cart half a mile into the bush off the road, and tied McCall to a tree. Then they made a bundle of the articles they wanted in the cart, and went away. On December 30th Thomas Jones, " late with Messrs. Cash & Co.," with another man named Moore, dressed as sporting gentlemen, went to Mr. William Field's, and enquired if he was in? They were answered in the negative, and they then went to the men's hut and bailed up the two men there. As the others came in they were compelled to stand in a row against the wall. When Mr. Shanklin, the overseer, came in, Moore told him to kneel down and say his prayers, as he intended to shoot him. The men interceded for the overseer, saying that he always had treated them well. Moore asserted that Shanklin had " got him an extension of time," and he meant to have revenge. He was very violent in his language. Jones had been looking on very quietly, but he now said, " Oh, let the go, and let him beware how he behaves in future." Moore at first objected, but gave way, and Shanklin was made to stand up with the assigned servants. The robbers broke open Mr. Field's escritoire, and took ^50 out of it. They also took tea, sugar, flour, and other things from the store.

 

In the meantime the police had not been idle. They had had several brushes with the bushrangers, and had captured Kavanagh, Liddell, and Dalton. After this last robbery Jones and Moore were followed, and Jones was captured. They were all convicted and sentenced to death, but were told that probably their sentences would be commuted to penal servitude. On hearing this Liddell exclaimed, " I don't want mercy from you or any one else. I've been eleven years at Port Arthur and I don't want to go there again. I'd rather die than live." Judge Montagu said that this statement showed a deplorable frame of mind and exhorted Liddell to think of the future. Dalton complained that he had been knocked down by Thompson, the gaoler. Mr. Thompson said that the prisoner was a very desperate man. "But you'd no right to put irons on my neck," cried Dalton. The Judge said it was the duty of the gaoler to prevent escape. If he deemed it necessary he had a perfect right to put irons on the neck of a prisoner as well as on his hands and feet. He should report the behaviour of the prisoners in the proper quarter and he could not recommend either Liddell or Dalton to mercy. " I don't care a what you do," exclaimed Dalton. George Cumsden, who had also been associated with Jones in some of his robberies since the capture of Cash and Kavanagh, was also sentenced to death, " without the hope of mercy." He had threatened to " blow a hole through " any witness who appeared against him.

 

There was again a lull in bushranging in Van Diemen's Land, and again the papers asserted that the crime had been stamped out. The majority of those convicted had been sent to Norfolk Island, and this, it was said, would act as a deterrent to other evil doers. Norfolk Island was feared more than death.

 

James Dalton was born about 1819, at Browness, near Carlisle. He was already a hard case when he was transported for Larceny at Cumberland in 1834. He arrived to Van Diemen's Land on 6 March 1835 on a sentence of seven years, and only two weeks later received a further eighteen months for stealing a bible. It seems there was nothing the gaol could do to break his rebellious spirit as he was flogged repeatedly, loaded with irons, and also put into solitary confinement. Having committed everything from being repeatedly disobedient and insolent, stealing anything that wasn't bolted down, threatening to cut the overseer's throat, and making several attempts to escape, he was finally sent to Norfolk Island in 1846. But almost immediately he seized a boat and attempted to make a getaway. Three years later on 14 August 1849, he raped a young girl named Mary Willis and spent another two years in chains. When Norfolk Island started to close down and return its prisoners to Tasmania, he showed another side to his nature when he was involved in rescuing people during the 1852 floods at Ross. For this he received a four month reduction from his sentence of hard-labour.

 

On 28 December 1852, he and five other convicts escaped from Port Arthur. (Read more about this escape at the end of this article) Four of them drowned when trying to swim past Eaglehawk Neck, but Dalton and Andrew Kelly survived. After stealing some weapons the two began their bushranging career. They first robbed a Halfway House near Campbelltown and next day stuck up Simeon Lord's house, Bona Vista. There were some thirty people bailed up at Lord's, including two constables and a watch house keeper. During the robbery they shot and killed the watchhouse keeper and escaped on two fine horses from the stables. Over the following weeks Dalton and Kelly made a number of raids, one of them holding up a hut full of men. One of them, Constable Buckmaster, made a rush at Dalton who shot and killed him. The area around Esk was getting too hot for them so they determined to make a break for the mainland.

 

After first trying to commandeer the schooner 'Jane & Elizabeth' and failed, they seized a whaleboat belonging to a publican, and forced four miners to take them across Bass Strait. After landing at Westernport they made their separate ways to Melbourne, hoping to board a ship bound for England. But their notoriety had proceeded them and a 500 reward had been posted for their capture.

 

The capture of Dalton was almost too easy. He located a boatman who agreed to take him over to the "Northumberland" lying at anchor. It was late in the evening and they popped into a coffee shop to exchange some Tasmanian banknotes into gold, most likely to pay the passage. The owners did not have enough gold to cash the notes, but a fast thinking customer, said he was a gold broker and could make the exchange. Dalton who agreed, had just walked into a trap. The gold broker named Brice, happened to be an ex-cadet of the Melbourne police and was suspicious of Dalton. Brice asked him to accompany him to his office, and in the dark led Dalton through the yard at the back of the Police Court and into the clerk's room of the Swanston Street watch house. Fortunately, know one was in uniform and while Brice showed two of the plainclothes detectives the banknotes he challenged Dalton of having come about them wrongfully. Dalton coolly replied that the accusation was rubbish. As there was insufficient evidence, Dalton was about to leave when he was suddenly pounced on by Detective Williams, Murray and Eason, who had recognized his description. Dalton was carrying three pistols under his coat, but was unable to use them. He said: "You have got the reward of 500, my name is Dalton!"

 

 

Andrew Kelly was arrested the following day and they were both returned to
Tasmania to face the court. On 26 April 1853, they were hanged for the murder of Constable Buckmaster.

 

The escape from Port Arthur:

 

The settlement at Ballahoo Creek was not twelve months old when it received a visit from James Dalton and Andrew Kelly, survivors of a mass breakout from Port Arthur in 1852, which claimed the lives of four of the absconders as they attempted to swim past the dog chain at Eaglehawk Neck. Dalton and Kelly went on a rampage, in the process of raiding remote farms killing a police constable. Driven deeper into the bush, the fugitives arrived at Ballahoo Creek in January 1853. bursting into a hut as George Atkinson, his son George, and several others were having supper. With a double-barreled shotgun pointed at their heads, the captives were marched down to Zephaniah's store. Zephaniah had escaped into the bush but his store was ransacked, the bush­rangers tearing up silk handkerchiefs to bind the wrists of their prisoners before herding them aboard a boat moored in the creek. By now, the resistance of the younger Atkinson, then only 19, was too much for Dalton and Kelly so he was released, while his father was forced at gun point to navigate the small boat along the coast to the estuary of the Don, Failing to commandeer a whaleboat for crossing the Bass Straits to Port Phillip in Victoria, the fugitives together with their hostages pushed on further to the Forth estuary, where the schooner, Jane and Elizabeth was riding at anchor in the river. Its owner Captain John Williams and the local constable Torn Clarkson were on board. As the crowded rowboat inched closer to the schooner. Captain Williams rejected Dalton's shouted demand for him to surrender, and the constable took a shot at the bushrangers, forcing them to beach the boat. Dalton and Kelly then seized the master's wife and lining her up with the other hostages in front of her house on the riverbank. threatened to burn it down. At this point Captain Williams agreed to surrender his whaleboat. Atkinson senior and several other captives were released, but Dalton and Kelly held on to Mrs. Williams and the four strongest hostages to row them to the Australian mainland. Once clear of the river. Mrs. Williams was dropped off on a each, before the whaleboat pushed out into turbulent waters of Bass Straits and three days of hard rowing. Coming ashore his father was forced at gun point to navigate the small boat along the coast to the estuary of the Don, Failing to commandeer a whaleboat for crossing the Bass Straits to Port Phillip in Victoria, the fugitives together with their hostages pushed on further to the Forth estuary, where the schooner Jane and Elizabeth was riding at anchor in the river. Its owner Captain John Williams and the local constable Torn Clarkson were on board. As the crowded rowboat inched closer to the schooner. Captain Williams rejected Dalton's shouted demand for him to surrender, and the constable took a shot at the bushrangers, forcing them to beach the boat. Dalton and Kelly then seized the master's wife and lining her up with the other hostages in front of her house on the riverbank. threatened to burn it down. At this point Captain Williams agreed to surrender his whaleboat. Atkinson senior and several other captives were released, but Dolton and Kelly held on to Mrs. Williams and the four strongest hostages to row them to the Australian mainland. Once clear of the river. Mrs. Williams was dropped off on a beach, before the whaleboat pushed out into turbulent waters of Bass Straits and three days of hard rowing. Coming ashore near a cattle station, Dalton and Kelly set their remaining hostages free and headed for Melbourne where no sooner had they arrived than they were arrested, returned to Launceston and hanged three months later.

 

Other information about Dalton Bushrangers:

 

Dalton, James (1), member of the biggest gang ever 1805-14.

 

Dalton, James (2), member of Cash & Co. Following Cash's capture joined up with Thomas Jones and John Liddell. Sentenced to death.

 

Bushrangers escape from Sarah Island:

 

Situated in Macquarie Harbour, Sarah Island is directly in the path of the prevailing Roaring Forties which saturate the area in over 100 inches of rain each year. It is a cold, bleak, and hostile environment where grow some of the world's tallest trees, and it was Pearce's task, along with 100 or so other prisoners, to harvest this timber for the new settlement's boatbuilding industry.

 

Their daily grind was hard and unrelenting. Convicts were roused from their hammocks at 6am (except on Christmas Day and the King's birthday), dressed themselves in their distinctive prison garb, ate their bread and gruel and were divided up into work gangs of eight members.

 

While some were sent to mine coal, the majority were consigned to logging operations which involved felling, stripping and hauling huge Huon Pine trees across the harbour, ready to be collected and transported by sailing ship to the boat builders in Hobart Town.

 

For a good part of their day, even in the bleak, harsh winter, Pearce and his fellow internees were immersed up to their chests in the freezing, dark brown, tannin stained water, which surrounded the island.

 

Often forced to work in irons and shackles, anyone stepping out of line could be punished with up to 100 lashes with the vicious cat-o'-nine-tails.

 

Such isolation, strict penal regime, and hard unremitting toil, was designed to help these miscreants see the error of their ways and transform them into God-fearing, law-abiding citizens of the Crown.

 


The ruins of the prison on Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour

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The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station was an early penal settlement in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), Australia.

 

Such a mindset was entirely foreign to Pearce, who refused to accept the island's strict penal regime.

 

For him escape was the only goal, and on Friday, September 20, 1822, Pearce, accompanied by seven other prisoners (including ex-soldier, Alexander Dalton from Kilkenny), overpowered their guard, stole an axe, and made a bolt for freedom.

 

For the first seven days the escape of eight convicts from Tasmania's notorious penal settlement at Macquarie Harbour in south-west Tasmania was completely unremarkable. Then, as the forlorn band struggled through thickly forested and mountainous terrain that yielded so little sustenance it was shunned even by Tasmania's Aboriginal population, the cold, wet and starving men began talking about eating each other.

 

'I'm so hungry, I could eat a piece of a man,' William Kennerly muttered when the men bedded down for the night in the wind- and rain-swept vicinity of the 1443-metre mountain called the Frenchman's Cap, a bare thirty kilometres from the place they'd fled, on 28 September 1822. The escapees - Alexander Pearce, Alexander Dalton, Thomas Bodenham, Matthew Travers, William Brown, John Mather, Robert Greenhill and Kennerly - were finding out the hard way why the impenetrable, inhospitable and uninhabited forests were regarded as a more effective barrier to escape than any prison wall. Even today, few roads penetrate the region that extends 150 kilometres from the settled districts around Hobart across to the south-west coast. It remains a virtually trackless wilderness.

 

The subject of cannibalism was raised again the next morning, by Robert Greenhill. 'I've seen the like done before,' he said. 'It tastes very like pork.'

 

At least one of the men, John Mather, objected: 'It would be murder to do it. And then perhaps we won't be able to eat it.'

 

'I'll warrant you,' said Greenhill, 'I will eat the first part myself but you must all lend a hand that we may be equally guilty of the crime.'

 

The ethical debate (such as it was) ended there, but the consequences were to add a new and unsettling edge to the way we regard the often hostile Australian landscape. In the gloomy forests of south-west Tasmania, these men were about to become subject to one of the grim realities of survival in remote and isolated places, where the rule of law and the notion of justice cannot penetrate.

 

It didn't take the convicts long to select their victim. Greenhill's eye fell on Alexander Dalton, who he maintained had volunteered to flog his fellow prisoners. There's no evidence that this was so; however, when the forlorn band stopped that night, Dalton, Brown and Kennerly's suspicions about the others' intentions prompted them to camp by themselves.

 

It wasn't enough. At 3 a.m. Greenhill made his move. He took up an axe and crept towards his sleeping victim. Dalton never saw him coming. A single blow split his head, and he died without uttering a sound. Even if he had, it would have made no difference. There was no one outside the immediate circle of grim-faced men who was remotely within hearing, let alone able to act to save his life.

 

After they'd killed him, the men removed Dalton's clothes, disemboweled his body and decapitated him. Mather, Travers and Greenhill put his heart and liver on the fire, but were so hungry that they took them off before they were properly cooked. They offered some to the others, but none had the stomach for it. However, the next morning, the body was cut up and distributed among the party to carry as they continued their journey.

 

It was too much for Brown and Kennerly. Brown, in particular, could have felt that, in a macabre interpretation of 'survival of the fittest', he was the most vulnerable. He'd been lagging behind for some days, having been in bad shape even before he'd escaped, due to the floggings and poor food of the penal settlement. That morning he and Kennerly turned his slow progress into an opportunity to escape their companions. They vanished not 500 metres from the previous night's campsite.

 

The remaining five escapees - Pearce, Bodenham, Mather, Travers and Greenhill - coo-eed but got no answer. They debated searching for the two, who had a cooking pot and tomahawk between them. If Brown and Kennerly made it back to Macquarie Harbour, their story of cannibalism would hang them all. However, the chances of them making it back to the penal settlement were practically nil, and it was eventually decided not to bother.

 

As it happened, on 12 October, Brown and Kennerly did manage to stagger back to the Gordon River, near Macquarie Harbour, where they signaled a passing boat. The surgeon at Macquarie Harbour battled to save the pair from the ravages of extreme starvation and exposure but Brown died three days later and Kennerly died on the 19th, apparently taking the secret of what had happened to Dalton to their graves.

 

According to some accounts that Alexander Pearce later gave concerning his escape from Macquarie Harbour, Dalton had also escaped with Brown and Kennerly. In other accounts, Pearce described Dalton's death in great detail. If he did escape, Dalton didn't reach Macquarie Harbour, which prompted historian James Bonwick to imagine what his fate might have been. In 1856 he wrote in The Bushrangers:

 

His faltering steps were numbered; and, as the dreary wind howled his requiem, and the dim twilight rested upon his famine-stricken countenance, the sternest advocate of the penal code would have said that justice was satisfied. Lying upon the wet ground, forsaken by his comrades in sin, with the dew of evening mingling with the chilly damp of death upon his brow, had he no mother, wife, or child in the far distant land, who, with love for even his degraded soul, might have soothed his last hours, and received his last sigh in the kiss of forgiving affection?

 

The remaining felons pressed on through scrub so thick that one of them went ahead to break a trail for the others to follow. At times they had to burrow through the undergrowth on hands and knees, and, in pouring rain, ascend mountains of over 1000 metres. In some accounts the men forded two large rivers; in others, it was just one river, which they thought was the upper reaches of the Gordon. In fact, it was more likely to have been the Franklin, as they were endeavouring to reach the settlements to the east, using the sun and moon to guide them.

 

Around 9 October they crossed a river. The two non-swimmers, Travers and Bodenham, used narrow tree trunks laid between rocks to drag themselves across. It was the second month of spring in the southern hemisphere, and in the highlands of south-west Tasmania immersion in an icy stream must have put all the men in extreme danger of hypothermia. Maintaining their body temperature taxed their reserves of energy even further, and there was only one way to replace them. All too soon, the last pieces of Thomas Dalton were consumed.

 

The bedraggled band of convicts struggled on, until on 15 October they reached another broad stream. The remains of Dalton were long gone and they were again famished. For the second time, the talk turned to sacrificing another life. There was an effort to retain at least an illusion of civilization in justifying their actions, as an account attributed to the Reverend Robert Knopwood describes: '[They] began to intimate to each other that it would be much better for one to be sacrificed as food for the rest than the whole of them to perish for want.'

 

This time they cast lots to see who would die. The depths of the men's exhaustion was evident in the reaction of the man who lost the lottery of life and death, Thomas Bodenham. He didn't beg for his life, nor did he try to dissuade his companions; he only asked for a few minutes to pray and make peace with his God before he died.

 

Greenhill and Travers sent Pearce and Mather to gather firewood.

 

'Killing Bodenham might not be agreeable to you,' Greenhill told them, 'and I doubt you'd volunteer to be the executioner. As I've been placed by fortune in a similar situation before when I've acted as executioner, I've no objections to fulfilling the same office.'

 

Indeed, he'd had no qualms about killing the hapless Dalton, and again Greenhill took his axe and killed Bodenham with a single blow to the head. Then they began the bloody butchering of the still-warm corpse. When Pearce and Mather returned, a fire was kindled and they cooked pieces of the freshly killed Bodenham, 'which they soon devoured very greedily'. The four remaining men spent a day recuperating and gorging on the remains. The murder scene was undisturbed until ten years later, when the first 'explorer' to visit what are now known as the Loddon Plains, surveyor William Sharland, found human bones. He suspected he'd come across the probable site of Bodenham's demise.

 

 

The men who hunted the Bushrangers