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Jack and Kate (Conclusion)

PL Station 1917

The incredible Kate Rogers, who had faced down charging bulls, uncountable lonely nights on the track, and wild Top End cyclones, fell to a microscopic bug in her lungs. She died in Brighton, Victoria at the age of 45, and is buried in the cemetery there.

Kate’s obituary in Darwin’s Northern Standard newspaper read:
(Kate) was a woman of exceptional ability, and she will be remembered in the outback parts of the Territory for her skill and courage in everything pertaining to the management of the station, and for her generosity and great kindness of heart.

Heartbroken, Jack returned to the north with his son, operating Roper Valley Station and Urapunga before selling the latter station. For a while his heart went out of it, but he had to think of his son’s future.

In 1925 Jack and John were among the first NT pastoralists to ship live bullocks to Indonesia and the Philippines. Jack was also, by nature of his importance to the Roper area, appointed as a Justice of the Peace by the Government Resident.

As he neared seventy years of age Jack was still a fearless horseman and consummate bushman. In 1927, he was droving one hundred head of fat bullocks, single handed, to the butcher supplying crews who were laying the railway line from Katherine to Daly Waters.

Jack’s horse tripped and fell, trapping him underneath and breaking bones in his leg, thigh and hip. The cattle wandered off, leaving him alone, an old man, with crippling injuries. Yet, Jack’s unerring sense of direction told him the nearest place of safety: the Presbyterian Inland Mission at Maranboy.

For five days he crawled towards his destination, fighting off dingoes and kite hawks that waited for him to fall. Somehow, through determination and strength of mind, he got there, and a Dr Kirklands was dispatched by train to treat him. Unfortunately the injuries left him partially crippled, but he was still vital and thirsting for life.

Official obituaries don’t mention this fact. But Jack found love again, from a local Roper woman. In around 1930, well advanced in years, Jack became a father for the third time. This girl child was healthy and vital, and must have been a comfort in his sunset years.

In 1931 Jack purchased Urapunga Station for the second time, a brave move for a seventy-four year old. His holdings were then around three thousand square miles on both sides of the Roper River. But the Great Depression was sucking the life out of every enterprise, in every nation. Cattle prices dropped to uneconomic levels.

Close to bankruptcy, in 1934, Jack sold Roper Valley Station to the Royallison Pastoral Company for a fraction of its value. He was finished, riding away with just a horse and the clothes on his back. How that must have hurt after being the boss man for so long! He farewelled young John, who had his pick of job offers on other stations, and went to the Mataranka Hotel to drown his sorrows.

In 1935, at the age of 78, still at Mataranka, Jack borrowed a rifle, and shot himself in the head. The wound was not immediately fatal, and that tough old man took sixteen hours to die. Dr Clyde Fenton, the Territory’s first flying doctor, arrived in time to issue the death certificate.

Jack’s obituary in the Northern Standard Newspaper stated:
The passing of John Warrington Rogers at Mataranka on Tuesday morning last at the age of 74 (sic) removes from the ranks of the northern pastoralists one of nature’s gentlemen with a history of fine achievements in the development of the Northern Territory.

Sadly, this tragedy of Jack and Kate had one more act to play out.

Their son John was mustering on Victoria River Downs Station in 1943 when his horse fell and rolled on him, leaving him with severe head injuries. He died three days later.

Jack’s daughter, who I won’t name for cultural reasons, became an elder of her people, living at a Roper community. She died just nine years ago, in 2008 and I was lucky enough to meet her in the 1990s. She is survived by her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Written and researched by Greg Barron. Image of Paddy’s Lagoon Station in 1917 courtesy Sydney Mail May 16 1917. Sources: gregbarron.com/resources/sources

We’re putting the final touches to a full paperback collection of Stories of Oz history posts, “Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History.” All the stories are included, with a swag of extra photos and information plus many more stories you haven’t seen yet. Add your email to the list below if you’d like us to let you know when the books are back from the printers.
https://gregbarron.com/24991-2/

Jack and Kate Part Two

Paddy's Lagoon Territory Storieshttphdl.handle.net1007039462

Undeterred by the closure of Arafura Station, Jack formed his own run: Paddy’s Lagoon Station, on the Strangways River southeast of Mataranka. This was drier, more forgiving country, with some excellent pasture. While they were there Kate gave birth to a daughter, but unfortunately the little girl passed away on the same day. The small grave did not remain alone for long: Jack’s brother Harry, who came to stay with them after the collapse of his business interests, died of typhoid fever there in 1909.

Jack became known for forming and stocking new or run-down stations, then on-selling them at a profit. After Paddy’s Lagoon he set up Maryfield, then later, Urapunga Station on the Roper. He was a talented cattleman and sharp businessman, always with an eye for opportunities.

Kate continued to run the station cattle yards, horse paddocks and drove “fats” to market. For many years she was assisted by a capable Aboriginal woman known as Princess Polly, and as he grew, her son John, who could ride before he learned to read or write.

Kate was not only as capable as any man in the yards, but she was also a sympathetic woman who formed a genuine love for the Aboriginal people of the north. While living with Jack at a new acquisition, Hodgson Downs Station, she worked with Archbishop Gilbert White on the formation of the Roper River Mission. This was not merely a paternalistic gesture. The Indigenous people of the region were shattered and cowed from years of violent confrontation: leprosy was common, with a weekly truck shipping sufferers up to a colony at Channel Island. Addiction to opium, imported and sold by the Chinese, was also a problem, more usually back near the railway line and mining areas. The mission was an attempt to protect and consolidate the people of the Roper Valley before it was too late.

Possibly under the influence of Jack’s father, young John was eventually sent off to private school in Melbourne. And with only five mail deliveries on the station each year, contact with their son was rare. In 1914, at the height of the wet season, Jack was away when Kate received a telegram from ‘down south’ stating that their son was seriously ill, and asking for his parents’ permission for the doctors to operate.

Knowing full well that every creek and river between home and Katherine, including the mighty Roper, was in flood, Kate was determined to reach the telegraph station there. With a couple of loyal horsemen, and fully-laden packhorses for the journey, Kate set out on a journey to save her son.

That trip to Katherine must have been a nightmare: fighting humid heat and mosquitoes, fording swollen rivers and driving the packhorses through driving rain and bogs. It was two weeks before they swam the horses across the flooded Katherine River. By then more than a month had passed since the original message was sent.

Waiting for Kate at the post office, however, was a new telegram telling her that the doctors had operated regardless and that young John had fully recovered. It was a wasted trip, but Kate’s smile must have been a mile wide as she took the opportunity to buy stores and meet old friends.

Before long, John’s schooling was over, and there was no question of a fancy career for him. It was the station life he wanted, and the small family were soon together again.

As the new decade, the 1920s arrived, Jack sold Maryfield Station and, flush with cash, announced a family holiday. Jack, Kate and John steamed south on SS Bambra. What was meant to be a pleasant interlude, however, turned into a tragedy.

While in Victoria, Kate grew sick with pneumonia. Jack remained at her side, praying for her not to die, wondering how the hell he could possibly live without her.

Part 3 next week, or you can download the full story with more pictures now for free at http://ozbookstore.com/categories/featured

References: gregbarron.com/sources/resources

Jack and Kate (Part 1 of 3)

Urandangi Store 1890
John Warrington Rogers was the eldest son of a politician and QC from Tasmania and Victoria. Young “Jack” as he was called, was sent “home” to England to attend an expensive private school, but he wanted no truck with balls and banquets.

As soon as he returned to Australia, he saddled a horse and rode off for the outback, setting in train a fifty-year story of bush life, cattle station management, a real-life love affair, and a series of tragedies.

In Queensland Jack soon proved himself as a top cattleman. Not surprisingly, as he was a strongly built man – six feet tall, and was taught to ride not long after he could walk. He loved horses, wide open spaces and adventure in equal measure, cutting his teeth in tough Western Queensland stock camps.

Meanwhile his younger brothers followed carefully planned careers in law and the military. Jack’s brother Cyril was a Lance Corporal in the Imperial Light Infantry, fighting in the Boer War. He was killed in action at the Battle of Spion Kop at just twenty-one years of age.

War, however, seemed a long way off when Jack was stringing cattle along the Georgina River. There he met Catherine Matilda McCaw, the eldest daughter of James McCaw, station owner, of Urandangi, Queensland. Nineteen years younger than Jack, Catherine was known universally as Kate, blue eyed and full of life.

Jack invited her to a dance in Boulia. Kate replied that she’d rather just get on with it, and why didn’t he just ask her to marry him straight off?

Kate proudly took her father’s arm as he led her down the aisle in Camooweal. It was 1901, the year Australia became a nation. The few members of the Rogers family who made the trek lent a fashionable air to the proceedings, with their dark suits and the latest dresses.

Arafura Swamp


When Jack headed to the Territory, and up into Arnhem Land, to manage Joe Bradshaw’s newly formed Arafura Station, he couldn’t have had a better woman beside him. Kate Rodgers had grown up on the land. She was a born horsewoman, great with a rifle, and an expert at managing stockmen of all personalities and backgrounds.

The Northern Territory Times and Gazette reported, on their arrival, that Kate was “generally regarded as a better cattle manager than Jack.” And Jack made no secret of his plan to appoint her as head stockman.

Glenville Pike, in his book, Frontier Territory, described Kate as:
“An expert in the stock camp or on horseback, she was also a crack shot with rifle or revolver. Old timers have told of Kate Rogers’s everyday life — dashing through the timber and long grass on a galloping horse, skirts flying and with stock whip thundering, horse and rider moving as one, as she wheeled a mob of wild long horned cattle.”

Arafura Station was no picnic, operating on a scarcely believable ten thousand square miles of what is now East Arnhem Land. Wetland cattle management was difficult in the Dry Season, impossible in the Wet. The station homestead was located on the Glyde River, not far from the present day settlement of Ramingining. Mosquitoes, cattle-spearing locals, humidity, heat, crocodiles, and rain all counted against the station’s success.

The homestead came under determined attack several times. On one occasion two of the Chinese gardeners were speared, and Kate was forced to barricade herself inside, armed with her ‘73 Winchester. She was supported by the station cook, who sported an ancient blunderbuss, holding out until Jack and the men came home.

Their son John (also nicknamed Jack) was born in 1902, but Kate didn’t let him slow her down – she’d carry him in a sling around her neck while she got on with station duties. Later, while Jack was busy running the station Kate would leave her infant with a nanny, and, with a plant of horses and half a dozen men, drove a mob of bullocks to Camooweal.

Like Florida Station, operating on pretty much the same area some twenty years earlier, Arafura Station was ultimately abandoned, and the remaining cattle transferred to another Bradshaw property. The country was just too harsh and too remote, and the Traditional Owners, justifiably, fought too hard to keep the whites and their cattle out.

The first chapter of their lives was closed. But the impact of this remarkable couple on the Northern Territory pastoral industry was only just beginning.

Part 2 next week, or you can download the full story with more pictures now for free at http://ozbookstore.com/categories/featured

Researched and written by Greg Barron. Image of Urandangi Store, Hume Collection UQP. Stockmen at Arafura Swamp, Public Domain courtesy Territory Stories References:gregbarron.com/sources/resources

 

 

 

 

 

 

The McGree Brothers of Taylors Arm

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John, Michael and Patrick McGree were raised on their parents’ farm on the Mid-north coast of NSW. All three answered the call to arms in 1915. The ANZAC battalions were forming up, and the brothers were determined to have their chance at glory.

Their mother, Bridget Sullivan, had married Irishman James McGree in St Augustine’s Church, Longford, Tasmania in 1874. The young couple moved north and took up a selection on Hickey’s Creek near Kempsey. Life was tough, but like most good Catholics they welcomed children, bringing twelve boys and girls into the world over a twenty-five-year period.

Patrick, the oldest of the three McGree boys who served, was a born adventurer. He headed off to New Zealand at an early age, living in Waiapo and Gisborne. He kept in touch with his Australian family via mail and occasional visits.

In 1914, when war broke out, Patrick was 31 years old, yet he signed on with the Wellington Infantry, New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Michael crossed the Tasman Sea to join his brother, but was waylaid by an unscheduled love affair. He married his Kiwi girl, Nellie, just before heading off for intensive training in Egypt.

John, still at home on the farm outside Taylors Arm, was 22 when he joined up in 1915. He was a small, wiry man, weighing just 58 kg, and of average height. In fact, none of the McGree boys were tall, but were all as tough as nails, with brilliant blue eyes and Irish charm. The doctor examining Michael for his enlistment described him as having a “grand constitution.”

Patrick and Michael, though assigned to different units, both took their place amongst the bloody heroes of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. Both survived the early days of suicide charges on the well-entrenched Turks, but natural attrition took its toll. Patrick was killed on August 8, 1915, in the defence of a hill called Chunuk Bair.

Michael was wounded in the last days of the Gallipoli campaign, and was evacuated to the Fulham Military Hospital in England. His recuperation was slow, and he endured hospitalisation for almost six months before being returned to his unit, judged as fit to serve in the hellish trenches of France.

On the 28th of July 1916 that “tough little bastard” John McGree was one of thousands sent in human waves against the German trenches at the Battle of the River Somme. He was shot in the chest and back. He was still alive when he reached the field hospital, but died within twenty-four-hours. He was buried at the nearby Warloy-Baillon Military Cemetery.

James and Bridget received the usual telegram from Base Records in Melbourne informing them of John’s death: a message just fourteen words long. Losing one son was hard enough. The loss of a second must have been hard to bear.

Bridget penned a desperate letter back to Base Records.

Dear Sir

Please could you give me any information about the death of my son Pte John A McGree No. 3888, who died of wounds in France …  I would like to know the name of the hospital where he died, also if he was seriously wounded or what caused his death. What were his last words and where is he buried? Please send reply as soon as possible

B. McGree,

Taylor’s Arm, via Macksville

Five months passed before she received any additional information: a kind letter informing her of the nature of John’s wounds and the name of the hospital and cemetery. John’s personal effects also arrived in the mail: one religious medallion, three handkerchiefs, two brushes, a cap comforter, one photograph and a notebook.

By July 1918, the surviving brother, Michael McGree, was a veteran of three years of the most terrible warfare mankind had ever known. On the morning of July 18, 1918, just months before the end of the war, his company were ordered to attack a fortified German trench at Gommecourt Wood, France. Running into a hail of lead, Michael was killed in action, just a few kilometres away from the site of his brother John’s death, two years earlier.

Their father, James McGree died at the age of 86, in 1928. Bridget lived on until she was 87, a highly respected local pioneer, and a matriarch of the Laverty, Brock, and McGree families. She died in 1940 and was buried in Macksville cemetery.

The strength she must have had to shoulder the grief of three lost sons is a testament to the spirit of not just the Anzacs, but their families.

Written and Researched by Greg Barron

A printable pdf of this story, including some original documents, can be downloaded for free at ozbookstore.com/categories/featured

Sources: gregbarron.com/resources/sources

The Battle of Long Tan

Written and Researched by Greg Barron, photography by Steve Johns

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The Battle of Long Tan is remembered for the bravery and sacrifice of D Company, 6 RAR, and the effective implementation of Australian weapons and tactics.

In 1966, 1 ATF (the First Australian Task Force) took responsibility for a large and tactically important slice of Vietnam. It was a tough gig: Phuoc Tuy Province had a long frontage to the South China Sea, including the strategic port Vung Tau near the mouth of the Saigon River. The geography included coastal mangrove swamps, flat lowlands, hills, and mountainous country in the far north east. The Viet Cong had supply routes and bases across the province.

Brigadier David Jackson, commander of the Task Force, chose to site the Australian base at a rubber plantation called Nui Dat. It was a provocative move, right on a Viet Cong supply route, and holding a commanding position over the central part of the province.

Villages within mortar range of the proposed base, were cleared and relocated, and work began on the base in May and June 1966. Viet Cong resistance was fierce and numerous small-scale battles were fought in the establishment phase.  Jackson insisted on strong fixed defences to negate fears of a full-scale Viet Cong attack on the base.

Early in the morning of the 17th of August, 1966, personnel on the base were looking forward to a concert by visiting performers Col Joye and Little Pattie, when the first mortar round dropped in from VC baseplate positions to the East. For twenty-two minutes the bombardment continued. One man was killed and twenty-four wounded.

The next morning B Company, 6RAR, were ordered out through the wire to find the perpetrators. They had little trouble locating the Vietcong fire positions, but the enemy had withdrawn, and none were encountered.

On the morning of the 18th, it was D Company’s turn. They patrolled out past B Company’s position, intent on following the tracks left by the enemy. Splitting into their four platoons, they followed two cart tracks leading off to the east into a thick rubber plantation.

It was a dull and frightening environment in which to operate, with evenly spaced rubber trees in all directions – good visibility along the rows, but only a few metres at certain angles. Even so, at this stage the 108 men of D Company still believed that they were facing a band of local VC, who had most likely left the area.

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At 1540 that afternoon, 11 Platoon came under fire through the rubber from a six-man enemy patrol. Fire was exchanged, and, as they returned to the route, more contacts followed. Before long, the Australians were heavily engaged. 11 Platoon found themselves all but surrounded by uniformed troops firing AK47 rifles.

The rest of the company hurried forward to assist, but they had underestimated the enemy. The company was being encircled by a battalion strength force that included the Viet Cong’s 275 Regiment, and elements of the North Vietnamese Army. To make matters worse, heavy monsoon rain began to fall.

11 Platoon’s commander was an early casualty, and with one third of the men down, the tattered remnants withdrew to join their comrades. The company commander, Major Smith, brought his beleaguered men together and formed a strong defensive perimeter.

There, deep in the rubber trees, as darkness fell and the rain poured down, less than a hundred men, many of them wounded, withstood wave after wave of attacks from an enemy armed with automatic weapons. But the Aussies chose their targets well, and their SLRs were reliable and built to perform in any conditions. Again and again those Lithgow-made rifles barked, and the bolts slid forwards and backwards sending their deadly load into the seemingly limitless attackers. Using field radios the Australians called brutally precise artillery fire down on the Viet Cong positions. The use of artillery in this battle was the decisive factor.

By 1700 the men, lying or kneeling shoulder to shoulder in the mud, fighting for their living, dead and dying mates as much as themselves, were running low on ammunition. A desperate call went out and two RAAF Hueys were loaded up with boxes of 7.62mm cartridges and grenades. Despite ground fire from below, the daring pilots dropped their loads with pinpoint accuracy.

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The Company Sergeant Major, Big Jack Kirby, supervised the distribution of ammunition, and with full magazines, morale improved. Even better was news of a relief column on the way, including Armoured Personnel Carriers, but the creeks were rising quickly, and some doubted they would get through.

Finally, however, at around 1900, the relief force reached the battle zone, engaging the enemy and driving them off. D Company had suffered high casualties: 18 dead and 24 wounded, the largest Australian loss of life of any single engagement in the Vietnam War. Yet, when mopping-up operations resumed the next morning, the bodies of at least 245 Viet Cong and NVA soldiers were found around the company perimeter.

The Battle of Long Tan was a costly but decisive victory that may have prevented a major attack on the Nui Dat base. It had lasting implications for peace in Phuoc Tuy Province.

 

Written and researched by Greg Barron

Images of the Long Tan Memorial and artefacts from the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City were supplied by Steve Johns after a recent trip to Vietnam.

You can download a pdf version of this article with more pictures at http://ozbookstore.com/categories/featured

Sources: gregbarron.com/resources/sources

 

 

 

 

Bennelong

Bennelong
Following on from last week’s post on the naming of Alice Springs, it’s hard to think of a born and bred Australian who inspired more place names than Bennelong, or Beneelon, of Sydney.
His name lives on at Bennelong Point, where the Opera House now stands; the electorate of Bennelong; and Bennelong Park at Kissing Point. A genus of shrimp, Bennelongia was also named after him. Some suburbs, streets and locations similar to Bennelong’s other traditional name, Woollarawarre, may also owe their origins to this immensely interesting man. The development at Barangaroo is named after his first wife, herself a powerful figure amongst the Cammeraygal people.
Bennelong was a member of the Wangal clan, whose country stretched from Parramatta to Darling Harbour, and included highly productive estuarine hunting grounds. He was abducted from his people on the orders of Governor Arthur Phillip, apparently in an effort to better understand local Indigenous groups. At that time Bennelong was around twenty-five years old, described by a Captain Watkin Tench as being: “of good statue, and stoutly made, with a bold intrepid countenance, which bespoke defiance and revenge.”
The young Bennelong lived in Governor Phillip’s home and soon had a working grasp of the English language as well as a taste for food and liquor. He could, apparently, eat a week’s rations in a day. Despite this largesse, the bush life called to him and he escaped after a few months. He turned up later at Manly in a confrontation between armed parties that resulted in Phillip being wounded by a spear. Bennelong was so worried about his former host that he took to hanging around the settlement again. By 1791 he lived in a brick hut built for him at Bennelong Point.
Barangaroo gave birth to a daughter called Dilboong, but the young mother died soon after. Her body was wrapped in an English blanket, and burned along with a basket of her fishing gear. The service was accompanied by a traditional shower of thrown spears.
Dilboong also died while still an infant, and Bennelong begged Phillip to let him bury her in his garden. He produced only one other confirmed descendant, a boy called Thomas Coke, most likely the son of his second wife. Thomas was raised by a clergyman and died at the age of just twenty.
When Governor Phillip returned to England in late 1792, Bennelong went with him.
According to an account by Royal Navy Lieutenant James Grant: “Benelong (sic) visited England with Governor Philips, and returned to New South Wales with Governor Hunter; and I am sorry to add, far from being improved by the voyage. He has unfortunately acquired a fondness for strong liquors, and is apt to take them to a great excess, at which time he proves very disorderly and ungovernable. He still retains the highest respect for Governor Philips (sic), and discovers a grateful sense of the favours received at his hands.”
On his return, Bennelong found that his second wife had left him, and he spent the rest of his life caught between two worlds. He was an adviser to Governor Hunter, but also an elder of his people, participating fully in ceremonies and payback fights. His two favourite activities, it was said, were ‘love and war.’
Bennelong died in January 1813 at Kissing Point, and was buried in an orchard belonging to his friend and early brewer, James Squire.
Researched and Written by Greg Barron
This article is available for download as a free pdf to print or view on-screen at http://ozbookstore.com
Image credit: The plate depicting Bennelong appeared in The Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery, by James Grant, lieutenant in the Royal Navy.

So who the hell was Alice anyway?

Alice

William Whitfield Mills, Overseer of Section C of the Overland Telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin, was heading north with men and heavy equipment, on the way to the starting point for his section of the line.
He wrote in a report to his boss, Charles Todd, Superintendent of Telegraphs:
“On the 7th (March 1871) I started again for the Ranges, the drays in the meantime following the Hugh (River). On March 11th I again arrived at the MacDonnell Ranges and was successful in finding a pass, about 30 miles east of Stuart’s track, with numerous waterholes and springs, the principal of which is the Alice Spring which I had the honour of naming after Mrs Todd.”
Lady Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs, inspired not only the name of the town, Alice Springs, but also the Todd River. Who was she, and why did she deserve such adoration?
Alice Gillam Bell was born in 1836 in Cambridgeshire, England. When she was twelve years old a young man, Charles Heavitree Todd, assistant Astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, came to call on her mother. Alice was lying on a bear skin rug in front of the fire, watching the visitor, impressed by his serious ways and dark good looks.
“If no one else will have you, then I will marry you, Mr Todd,” she told him.
Unlikely as it must have seemed at the time, the pair exchanged vows a few years later and Charles whisked her away to Adelaide, Australia. After many years at Greenwich working on electrical apparatus for the transmission of time signals he had been appointed as the Superintendent of Electric Telegraph by the South Australian Government.
Over the years, away from home setting up a link between Adelaide and Melbourne, then the Overland Telegraph to Darwin, Charles wrote to his wife daily. Each letter started out with, “My Dearest Alice.” He talked of his life in remote places, and his troubles with getting the telegraph lines across some of the most rugged and isolated terrain on earth.
From the Roper River, near a particularly difficult part of the construction, he wrote, ‘I wish you could see it, especially at sunset, when the tints and reflections on the water are most beautiful.’
The strength of Charles and Alice’s relationship shows through in those letters, feelings growing stronger from the foundations laid all those years earlier in that little home in Cambridgeshire. All who knew Alice loved her, and as her daughter Lorna later wrote:
“No one could look into my mother’s blue eyes, which always had a twinkle of fun in them, without being sure of her enjoyment of life.”
The couple had two sons and four daughters, and were regular churchgoers as well as members of Adelaide society in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Alice died in 1898 at the age of just 62, when the town she gave her name to was well on its way to becoming a vibrant outback community. Her husband’s middle name was used to name Heavitree Gap, the location of Alice Spring, and site of the original Telegraph Station. Charles died at Semaphore, Adelaide, of gangrene, in 1910.
“I will marry you, Mr Todd,” Alice said as a twelve year old. But she could surely not have imagined that with those simple words her name would live on as the title of arguably Australia’s most iconic outback city.
Please like the Stories of Oz page for weekly posts on Australian history.
(Researched and Written by Greg Barron/Photo of Alice credit State Library of South Australia/Sources: gregbarron.com/resources/sources)

The True Story of Tom Coolon (Conclusion)

Native Bear Mine in Mt. Coolon Queensland. Coolon Queensland John Oxley Library

The freshly-pegged gold mine that Tom Coolon found on Yacamunda Station was in a remote area, far from other diggings. With his knowledge of prospecting Tom suspected that it would be the start of something big. He cunningly learned everything he could about the man who had pegged the claim.

The words on a claim notice fixed to a stake meant nothing to the illiterate Tom. He instead used his tracking skills to learn of the claimant’s movements. Footprints led to a nearby campsite, a small waterhole, and finally, horse tracks heading north towards Charters Towers.

Tom must have grinned to himself when he realised that the claimant was heading in the wrong direction. Mineral rights in this area, he knew, were under the jurisdiction of the mining warden in Clermont, to the south. Without wasting any time Tom saddled up and galloped off to find the warden, registering the claim in his own name. He was in full, legal possession of the claim when the man who originally pegged it, Luke Reynolds, arrived.

Reynolds had ridden all the way to Charters Towers, only to be told that he needed to go to Clermont, and was calling in to check on his claim on the way through. Tom was ready and waiting, his trusty lever-action Winchester close at hand.

‘Who the bloody hell are you?’ Reynolds asked.

‘I’m the legal owner of this claim,’ Tom replied. ‘So if you value your life you’ll turn around and keep riding.’

Reynolds was too smart to take Coolon head on, instead talking him into a partnership. This arrangement lasted only a few weeks before it fell apart. Reynolds decided that discretion was the better part of valour and pegged a new claim just along the ridge.

By this time Tom had built a sturdy hut and brought Catherine out to live with him. His mine had a thick seam of gold-bearing quartz, and hundreds of diggers flocked to the area, now named Mount Coolon. Within months the first stamper mill was on site, crushing piles of rich ore for the miners.

Finally, in his fifties, things seemed to have come together for Tom Coolon. He lived at home with Catherine. They had a garden and a flock of goats. The mine was making good money without too much hard work.

Yet, with no employees, Tom was obliged to travel away at times for supplies. Greedy eyes were watching when he rode off to Clermont with Catherine in late October, 1918. Under the law at the time a claim became void if it was left unattended by the owners.

A mining entrepreneur called Bernard Thompson waited until Coolon had been away for a few days then went to the local mining warden, filing for forfeiture of the mine because of Tom’s absence. The warden backed him up, and Thompson now had title to the mine, obtained in a similar tricky way to how Tom had stolen the mine in the first place.

Thompson took on three partners to help work the claim: Harold Smith, Robert Wells and William Brown. When Tom returned from Clermont he found four armed strangers in legal possession of his mine. He flew into a terrible rage, demanding that the men leave immediately. They stood their ground. Thompson had decided to take Tom on in full knowledge of his reputation. He too was a hard man, and not easily cowed.

Tom filed an appeal against the warden’s decision but the District Court confirmed the forfeiture. Tom was forced to watch from his hut as Thompson and Company brought gold ore up from the depths of a mine he had dug with his own hands.

On the morning of Wednesday November 13, 1918, Tom walked to the camp of a man called Charles Woodland, a JP, and asked him to take down his last will and testament. Once this was done, signed and witnessed, Tom walked back to his hut, fetching his Winchester and horse.

Riding up to his old claim he saw Bernard Thompson working up top. ‘You’ve got five minutes to get off my claim,’ Tom said.

Thompson shook his head. ‘I’m not going.’

Tom raised the butt of his rifle to his shoulder and fired into the ground between them. Thompson went for the revolver on his belt. He fired but missed, and Tom’s second shot took him under the arm, the third ploughed into his chest, killing him.

People had heard the shots, and news of Tom Coolon taking vengeance with a rifle spread like a grass fire. Men dived down mineshafts and hid. One of Tom’s targets, Robert Wells, reckoned he owed his survival to sheer laziness, for he was having a smoke down the mine and couldn’t be bothered going up when he heard someone yelling for him at the top.

Tom stopped at the Native Bear mine where he found an employee of Thompson’s called William Bloom, who turned and ran. But to the old roo hunter a running man was easy prey. He brought him down with one shot.

Another man that Tom had intended to kill – Alexander Smith – fell to his knees and declared that he was Tom’s friend, and that they had no quarrel. They shook hands and Tom declared that his plan was to kill a few more men and then “do himself in.”

Tom rode fast, ahead of the rumours, to the stamp mill two miles away. There he found two more of Thompson’s associates: Harold Smith and William Brown. He shot them both dead.

Finally, having killed four men all up, Tom rode off into the bush, leaving Catherine at home in the hut. Police from all over the district, led by an Inspector Quinn, scrambled to collect bodies and come to terms with what had happened.

A manhunt of epic proportions followed, but Tom, with his bush skills, had no trouble evading the police. Every man who had ever had reason to argue with Tom Coolon now believed himself a possible target. There was a sudden exodus from Mt Coolon and also Clermont of men who believed themselves to be on his hit list. On horseback and motor vehicle they fled, vowing to stay away until the murderer was caught.

Three days after the murders, however, Tom slipped through the police cordon and rode home to the hut he shared with Catherine. He kissed her for the last time, then turned the gun on himself. They found him there, in a pool of blood, with his wife of almost thirty years crying over him.

(Researched and written by Greg Barron/Image of Native Bear Mine, Mt Coolon courtesy of John Oxley Library/Sources: gregbarron.com/resources/sources)

 

The True Story of Tom Coolon (Part Two)

Tom Coolon

It was race day in Clermont when Tom came up against the law again. He was drinking at the pub when a stranger tried to pick a fight. The two men were shaping up when a huge policeman called Ormes banged their heads together and threw them against a wall.

Legend has it that Tom Coolon slowly stood up, then fixed his eyes on Constable Ormes. “I won’t forget this. It will be evened up.”

When, a few months later, the policeman’s corpse was found at a place called Camp Oven Hole on the Charters Towers Road, Tom was naturally a suspect.

From a recollection in the Townsville Bulletin:
“It was in that country later that Constable Ormes was shot at the 33 Mile, better known as Camp Oven Waterhole, on the Clermont-Charters Towers Road. The head of Ormes’s horse was still hanging on a limb of a tree when I was along that road in 1938. It seems whoever did it, shot the horse behind the shoulder and then killed poor Ormes with either a stick or a rifle barrel.”

Australian folklore has had Coolon pinned as the murderer ever since, but an eyewitness report by an old man called “T.C.W.” fifty years later clears his name.

“Coolon (was) an outstanding bushman and a deadly rifle shot; he could hit anything as far as he could see. I knew Coolon very well, and he could be a good friend. I also knew Mrs Coolon, a fine Irishwoman, and, their eldest daughter Violet, and son Hector, the latter only a baby then. Regarding Constable Ormes’s death on the Charters Towers-Clermont road, there was no foul play; he was not murdered nor was his horse shot.

“I was coming into Clermont from the Suttor River about 1903, when, at the 60 Mile on the Charters Towers road, I found a dead man, perished from thirst, about three miles on the Clermont side of Lanark Station on Mistake Creek, then deserted. I pushed on to the Black Ridge Hotel, which was owned by the late Eugene McCarthy. It was a gold mining place that was in full swing at the time, twelve miles from Clermont.

“I reported finding the dead man to the police. Constable Ormes was sent out to bury the dead man. It was about three days to Christmas and very hot weather. So he rode out and stayed at the hotel that night and left next morning for the 60 Mile to bury the man. He said he could do it and be back that night, a round trip of 96 miles, no water anywhere, and only one horse to do the journey. He reached and buried the man and was no doubt trying to make the journey back in the night, was very thirsty and his horse galloped off the road and ran into a fallen tree. This killed the horse, and the policeman was found dead some distance away from the horse; the limbs of the tree were responsible for his death also.”

Either way, Tom Coolon went about his business, kangaroo shooting in the Belyando River country, prospecting and working as a stockman. As one of his old comrades wrote:

“(Tom) was also a marvelous bushman, and as a buckjump rider he was above average, although not in the Lance Skuthorpe class. Coolon was never guilty of riding a poor or weak horse, and if a buckjumper ran loose he would ride him, but not in a yard. He was one of the cleverest scrub riders that ever steered a horse through the mulga.”

Though he loved horses, Tom had a mortal fear of dogs, and would not suffer them anywhere near him. He would never refuse a bet, one night riding seven miles with no moon to locate a tomahawk he had left in the scrub, winning twenty pounds in the process. He also spent much more time away from his wife and children than near them. This last fact must have occurred to him, and he decided that it was time to settle.

One day, working around Yacamunda Station, Tom came across a recently-pegged gold mine. The owner, it seemed, had ridden to Charters Towers to register it. A few washes with the pan, however, told Tom that it was a rich claim, and he decided then and there that he wanted it.

TO BE CONTINUED

(Researched and written by Greg Barron/Image credit: Brisbane Truth/Sources: gregbarron.com/resources/sources)

THE TRUE STORY OF TOM COOLON (Part One)

Thomas Cuthbert Coolon was born in Richmond, NSW on the tenth of April 1859. His mother, Sarah Douglass, died when he was seven years old. His father remarried and moved out west of the Darling River where Tom was abducted by a group of Aborigines.

For the next decade Tom was raised by wild blacks, learning and honing bush skills that would become legendary. He also learned harsh laws of retribution and payback that would later in life lead to a shocking tragedy.

As stations pushed out into the scrub Tom found himself once more part of white society. With his lean frame and general toughness he quickly fell into station work. Some cattle stealing on the side saw a policeman ride out with an arrest warrant in Tom’s name.

Tom, however, had the “trap” in his sights long before he arrived, and shot the horse out from under him.

This, it seemed to Tom, was a good time to take a change of scenery up in Queensland where he worked as a ringer, dog-baiter, and roo-shooter. In his spare time he developed an interest in prospecting.

Tom was a striking looking man; tall with blue eyes and a blazing red beard. In 1890 he married Catherine Mongovan. The couple had two daughters and a son, living in the Clermont district, Queensland.

The turn of the century saw Tom droving with Ted Drewer in the Territory, taking a mob of brood mares to one of the vast Fisher and Lyons properties. When the mares had been delivered he headed for Darwin, intending to take a ship home to Queensland. The wet season had struck early, rivers were flooded and impassable all the way down the Top End and across the Gulf country. Riding home would have been impossible.

News hit Darwin of a droving camp near Newcastle Waters facing starvation and fever, cut off from the world. A desperate call went out for a volunteer to ride five hundred miles south with supplies for the stricken men.

Tom Coolon stepped forward, and with three riding horses and two packs he set out on a mission few men would have attempted.

Swimming the horses across flooded rivers he managed to cover an astonishing fifty miles each day.

Sadly that perilous rescue mission came too late, for the last of the drovers died on the day Tom arrived.

Tom was now a legend in the Territory, but back in Queensland things went bad. First, the Coolon’s twelve-year-old daughter Mary died. Then Tom took up a partnership on a station called Prairie Run, near Clermont, but the business arrangement degenerated into a bitter feud that included the odd gunfight.

Tom and Catherine took up the adjoining property, Spoonbill Farm, but Tom’s former partners, the Kirkups, were out to get him, framing him for the possession of stolen livestock, a ‘crime’ that saw him imprisoned for two years at hard labour.

When he was released Tom Coolon was a changed man.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
(Researched and written by Greg Barron/Image credit: Brisbane Truth/Sources: gregbarron.com/resources/sources)