ENDNOTES AND COLD MERCY: CRIME STORIES FROM COLONIAL NEWCASTLE
CASE 4. JACOB’S MOB
BY DAVID MURRAY
David Murray is a university medalist with a Creative Arts Phd from Newcastle Uni. He has published two books of poetry: “Swinging from a broken clock” and “Blue bottle” (Sultana Press), and contributed to Overland, The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture and the Mascara Poetry Journal.
Murray treats historical true crime creatively as a cultural marker of everyday life. It’s a process concentrating on ordinary lives while reflecting Luc Sante’s observation that ‘violence, misery, chicanery, and insanity exist in a continuum that spans history; they prove that there never was a golden age”.
By the 1820s Britannia replaced the ill-considered compassion of Macquarie’s emancipation project with a transportation regime of systematic oppression that would also supply the expanding colony with cheap/free labour. A by-product of this new regime was a rise in bushranging. In 1830 this resulted in the Bushranger Act – a set of reactive laws encouraging the citizen arrest of any person suspected of being either an escaped convict or carrying illegal firearms.
Prince George IV was fifty-seven years old when he inherited the throne from his father Mad King George in 1820. A foppish glutton addicted to laudanum, mistresses and personal debt, the ‘first gentleman of England’ knew enough to leave the running of empire to his sharper privy brothers and bankers; men skilled in exploiting the Empire’s nirvana of global business opportunities that included far off Australia and the Australian Agricultural Company. This potentially lucrative New South Wales agri-venture had been the talk of investor drawing rooms after publication of Views of Australia: a series of prints reframing the strange colonial wilderness into an Elysium of land grants and quit rents.
The company’s government issued holdings included fertile Hunter River Valley acres along with options for parts of the recently closed penal outstation of Newcastle, where an incorrigible and alcoholic forger-artist Joseph Lycett served time and sketched out many ‘Views Of Australia’ panoramas. The company’s formation by a Parliamentary act in 1824 coincided neatly with the end of two decades of strict martial law at the town. The transition from prison to free town saw the existing military garrison kept on to protect the township – ostensibly from foreign invasion – leaving a flimsy government police force of ex-cons and retired soldiers to enforce daily law in farm communities and settlements up river. A law and order vacuum occurred that convicts took advantage of by bolting from their employment and forming chaotically brief bushranging gangs such as the Patrick Riley led ‘Jacob’s Mob’.
In 1825 Riley was assigned as indentured labour to the Wallis Plains farm of Vicars Jacob, a retired soldier turned Sydney merchant. By August that same year he was charged with neglect of duty by a local magistrate when four sheep in his care went missing. After escaping custody during his overnight transfer to Newcastle for flogging, the capable Irishman stole farm horses and rode undetected back to Jacob’s farm where he convinced fellow bondsmen Lawrence Cleary, Aaron Price and Patrick Clinch (aka Lynch) to join him on the run.
The gang was soon raiding nearby farms for weapons, food and clothing, quickly gaining a reputation for mixing callous threats with theatrical high toby gestures such as sitting down to a meal and polite conversation when females were present. Stray farm convicts joined the gang for a quick nibble before giving themselves in, innocently claiming to have been enlisted at gunpoint. Local settlers organised an armed posse that tracked down a gang campsite, but a forewarned Jacob’s Mob – as they were now known – had already slipped deeper into the bush. Locals penned letters to Sydney newspapers pleading for help while deriding the almost non-existent local police and military response. The authors’ exasperation was punctuated by anger with certain unscrupulous settlers and convicts known to be trading in the stolen goods or providing the gang with information of police movements. For many living within Lycett’s acaridan wilderness, his smooth edges and rolling hills masked a more intractable, hidden reality.
Almost a month had passed before Sydney paid for a military posse supported by police constables and native trackers. After trooping heavy August storms for a week they closed in on an outlying Wallis Plains property. The gang had holed up in a disused hut there, but quickly found themselves trapped by floodwaters as persistent rain transformed the docile, surrounding creeks into raging, impassable torrents. Outnumbered, and with their pistol and musket works saturated and useless, they surrendered meekly and were escorted in chains to the barracks at Wallis Plains in the custody of five armed soldiers. The posse’s triumphal all night grog up turned into delirium tremors the following evening when a man belonging to Dr Moran’s farm succeeded in surprising the guarding soldiers, all of whom must have been sleeping instead of attending to their very important charge, and let the gang escape, taking with them the whole of the soldiers arms, ammunition, and provisions; they also broke into a house near the barracks, from whence they stole a musket; they likewise took several horses. (i)
Within a day or two of their farcical escape the gang obtained admittance into Mr Winder’s house about two in the morning by pretending that it was constables and a party of military who were at the door and who had secured some bushrangers. They compelled Mr Winder’s servants to make a fire and cook eggs and pork. They also regaled themselves with wine, and remained carousing very deliberately for three hours – they dressed themselves in Mr Winder’s clothes, took possession of some powder, a brace of pistols, two watches, and other articles. Before they left the premises they broke three muskets, but returned the watches because they belonged to the servants. They swore revenge against all concerned in apprehending them.(ii)
The escape from custody heightened the gang’s self-belief and inspired a more anarchic banditti approach that was mercilessly inflicted on James Reid, an agribusiness friend and neighbour of Vicars Jacob. After lying in wait for the work dispersal from Reid’s homestead, the gang methodically lit fires around the homestead and a nearby barn before scampering back to their viewing hideout. The smoke brought Reid, his family and their convict workers back to find the wheat filled barn completely incinerated. Frantic efforts managed to save some furniture, clothing and a few keepsakes before the homestead was reduced to smouldering, skeletal frames of charred uneven lines worthy of a drunken Lycett sketch. For some convicts in the area the fire was clearly payback against the part-time magistrate with a reputation for dealing out excessive punishments while pompously quoting the old testament, as James Reid had done when sentencing Patrick Riley to fifty lashes over four missing sheep.
The conflagration raised settler vigilance to paranoia and during a subsequent raid on Doctor Radford’s farm, where it seemed the Doctor had notice of their approach, the doctor fired, and wounded one man severely the moment he spotted the gang approaching. One of Dr Radford’s men also acted with great courage, and wounded another – this man deserves great credit for supporting his Master, as it seems not one prisoner in fifty in this district would have followed his example. The parties fired fourteen shots (iii) and a blood soaked, discarded waistcoat was later found in the surrounding bush.
The gang’s adamantine exploits saw The Australian newspaper send a reporter from Sydney to follow the story first-hand, though he preferred the safety of garrisoned Newcastle to treks into the renegade badlands. Drawing copy from official police reports and bridle-track gossip, he would quickly articulate a new narrative redefining the gang’s bravado into the nihilism of desperados living for whatever the next moment might bring. Rumour was now erring into legend and Jacob’s Mob was said to be scandalously abducting and misusing native girls, while talk of infighting and the fear of capture reduced them to gaunt, desperate and murderous shadows walking the bush in torn shoes.
The Australian’s reporter spent his spare time studying the decrepit state of the township after witnessing a storm-tossed, fully loaded schooner rip a massive mooring pole from the wharf like a rotten tooth. With a poetic nudge to the fashionable Byronic ruin he lamented the penal outstation’s closure which had left the Government buildings there in a ruinous state and it would seem that the persons whose duty it is to have them kept in repair hardly know which building first to begin upon. It is really melancholy to see the state to which that once pretty little town is reduced. (iv)
While the journalist indulged an imaginary Romanticist nostalgia for what never was, a determined town regiment commanded by Captain Allman was upriver investigating a whisper that the gang was heading to Newcastle to pirate a vessel. Guided by the local knowledge of native trackers Allman’s men were systematically scouting in and around Hexham, almost a day’s walk from the township. The men were split into search groups of three to five. After days of false alarms, shadows and startled kangaroos Sergeant Wilcox and Privates Wright and Coffee were searching in an area known as Black Creek when a smoke plume appeared above the tree line in the slow, still morning air. Expecting natives they nonetheless headed towards it. As the bush morphed into thicker scrub they began hearing fragments of exclamation and laughter cutting in and out of the air around them, seemingly without geography or origin, but definitely English. With their heartbeats tuned to their footsteps and muskets firm in their hands the three men moved warily in the direction of the noise’s likely source, which brought them to a cleared circle of land fronting an abandoned settler hut. The soldiers slinked carefully in the camouflaging perimeter wall of bush, until they could clearly determine two men standing side-by-side on the verandah with their cocks out, pissing in mock competition – more for height than distance it seemed. Wilcox silently gestured Wright and Coffee into a rudimentary crossfire phalanx before he yelled out fiercely for the two men to stand still and announce their names. In a mess of spraying urine and jerking arms the men turned and bolted inside the hut.
Wilcox called his two charges to hold fast and steady their barrel aim before repeating the order. The ensuing seconds stretched beyond a clock’s measure before Patrick Riley appeared at the door. Unlike the first Wallis Plains confrontation, his death wish and pistols were primed and ready. With erratic supporting fire from within the hut he stamped fearlessly off the verandah and fired in the direction of Wilcox’s voice before sheltering behind one of the ringbarked tree stumps still dotted in the clearing. British soldiers were trained to shoot four to five rounds a minute and Wilcox set up a sequential pattern to maintain a constant volley of shot covering the hut and the now isolated and vulnerable Riley. Having shakily reloaded behind his scant cover, Riley lifted a pistol and scanned the bush for tufts of residual musket smoke. Before he could fire the coolly accurate Coffee nailed a ball-shot through his left eye. Riley stood, dropped his pistol and squeezed his hands to his face before collapsing where he stood. Shooting stopped as both sides paused to listen in on the belligerent curses of the indestructible legend now fish-wriggling in smaller and slower gyrations until freezing and gargling to a deathly stop. In the clean sunlight blood leaked freely from Riley’s bullet wound before congealing on his face and through his thick brown hair; unlike the bright clear red of superficial wounds and cuts, death is purple-grey.
Riley’s final moments gave way to the fast approaching Allman and more troops. The Captain’s methodical planning ensured each search party remained in constant ear or gunshot to support each other. Cleary, Clinch and Thomas Moss made a final attempt to escape but were rounded up without incident, while Price slipped away to spend one more night on the run before being captured. Inside the hut was 200 weight of flour, 100 weight of pork, 12 pounds of tea, 40 pound of sugar, 11 pounds of tobacco, a blunderbuss, a powder-horn with a quantity of powder and shot, a silver watch, and sundry wearing apparel. (v) The final haul, stolen from the farm of Leslie Duguid Esquire, would have seen the gang through to Newcastle and see enough left over – if pirating was beyond them – to pull for the price of a stowaway passage.
The Sydney trial sentenced the four surviving bushrangers to death by hanging, but in the end Riley’s death would satisfy the state and the men found their sentences revised to long-term incarceration at the newly reopened Norfolk Island penal outstation. Aaron Price learned of his clemency hand tied on a gallows dropboard. Stunned and heart twisted by his melodramatic reprieve, he dropped speechlessly to his knees and sucked greedily on sweet, free air. Price would remain at Norfolk as a public works overseer when his sentence expired, and see the island fulfil its designers’ promise of a penal industrial hell built on humiliation, dehumanisation and abject terror.
When the hunt for Jacob’s mob seemed to be stalling, authorities sent for the services of a crack Hobart Town horse troop that had dealt with infamous renegades such as the cannibal Alexander Pearce and Michael Howe, the first Australian bushranger to be memorialised in print. Thanks to Allman and his men, the bushrangers were already on their way to Sydney when the Hobart patrol disembarked at Newcastle. Allman’s men could proudly claimed to be the patrol’s strutting equal as man-hunters, and know they had more generally regained locals’ respect for the military after the Wallis Plains fiasco.
In the months following, the burning of Reid’s farm would be used to question the powers of part-time gentleman-magistrates like Reid in regards their punishing of their neighbour’s – or their own – indentured convict labour. In just a few years after it was expediently enacted, the law was already being reconsidered as an anachronism in the contrary evolution from open prison to free colony.
(i) The Australian (Sydney, NSW: 1824 – 1848) Online (www.trove.nla.gov.au), 11 August 1825, page 3, accessed 2 Feb. 2012.
(ii) The Australian (Sydney, NSW: 1824 – 1848) Online (www.trove.nla.gov.au), 8 September 1825, page 4, accessed 2 Feb. 2012
(iii) The Australian (Sydney, NSW: 1824 – 1848) Online (www.trove.nla.gov.au), 22 September 1825, page3, accessed 2 Feb. 2012.
(iv) The Australian (Sydney, NSW: 1824 – 1848) Online (www.trove.nla.gov.au), 22 September 1825, page3, accessed 2 Feb. 2012.
(v) The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Online (www.trove.nla.gov.au), 10 October 1825, page3, accessed 8 September, 2014.