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Captain Moonlite

Stories of Oz

Capture_of_moonlite Vic state library Capture of Moonlite: Victorian State Library

It was Saturday, November 15, 1879, and the McDonald family, at Wantabadgery Station, half way between Wagga Wagga and Gundagai, were settling down for the evening. A shepherd galloped in from further down the Murrumbidgee with the news.

“I seen a gang of horsemen coming up along the river,” he said breathlessly. “I swear it’s Captain Moonlite and his men.”

While family and employees alike took refuge inside the house, seven horsemen rode out of the night. A pounding on the door followed. Claude McDonald, the station owner, opened the door a crack, revealing Captain Moonlite himself, dressed in a dark cloak, as dashing as his reputation.

“Good evening,” the bushranger said in his cultured Irish accent. “My men and I are starving. Can we trouble you for bread and tea?”

“Ride off, and don’t come back,” came the answer. Furious, Moonlight stalked back…

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As Brave as a Bushranger


No one knew young Ada Foster when she arrived in the Forbes, New South Wales district in 1886. She was just twenty-three years old, but was attractive and hardworking, and had no trouble finding a position.

Working as a domestic at Cadow Station, she was soon showing off her talents as a horsewoman. An expert horse breaker and rough rider, she spent every spare minute at the yards, and few of the station workers could best her on a horse. A visiting stockman claimed to have seen her trick riding for a Wild West show in Sydney, and this led to questions about her past.

Ada moved on, taking on a position with the Prow family, then a butcher called Gunn. At one stage she even worked as a home helper with the town’s undertakers.

Despite whispers that she was hiding a secret, it wasn’t long before Ada was being pursued by a bunch of suitors, and she chose William ‘Bricky’ Foster, a blacksmith and horse trainer. The pair were married in November 1888, and things went well for a while.

Unwilling to be a genteel housewife, Ada spent her time breaking horses and riding. The first two children, Frederick and Gertrude, were born healthy, but three of their next four children died in infancy. It was the death of little Catherine in 1898 that sent Ada over the edge. She was diagnosed with ‘milk fever’, as post-natal-depression was called in those days, and things went bad. Bricky was away most of the time, blacksmithing or training horses in distant towns.

Ada found solace in the bottle, and the townspeople turned on her. A lost and tragic figure, she was hounded by rumours of her youth and memories of the destruction of her family.

Ada’s real name was Kate – Catherine Ada Kelly – the sister of Australia’s most infamous outlaw, Ned Kelly. It was she who had fought hardest to save Ned’s life, even going down on her knees to the Victorian Governor to plead that he be spared the rope.

After Ned’s death, Kate found it impossible to live, unmolested, under her real name. She took her middle name, Ada, then left home and travelled, looking for a new life. After a few months with Lance Skuthorpe’s travelling Wild West show, performing as a trick rider, Kate ended up in Forbes.

Now, the loss of three children, along with memories of her brother Dan’s burned body, and Joe Byrne’s corpse hanging from the door of the Benalla Lock-up, sent her to the edge. What happened next is folklore, not solid fact, but if there’s a grain of truth in this tale, Kate Kelly deserves far more adulation than that piled on her brother Ned.

Ravaged by alcohol and depression, one day Kate was walking by the Forbes Lagoon, opposite the racecourse, when she saw a local Aboriginal child out of his depth and in trouble. Despite being burdened by the heavy dresses of the day, she did not hesitate, charging through the water to save him.

After delivering the child safely to the bank, Kate was not seen alive again. Eight days later, they found her body floating face down in the water. Her brother Jim Kelly hitched up his wagon and drove all the way from Victoria to fetch Kate’s three children and take them home to live with their Grandmother, Ellen. Bricky wanted to raise them, but the Kellies insisted. And another page turned in the history of the troubled, wild, but undoubtedly talented Kelly family.

Written and researched by Greg Barron

Click here to view the sources page.

The JC

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In the late 1860s pastoralist and adventurer John Costello rode west from his holdings on Kyabra Creek, exploring the Channel Country out to the Diamantina. One night he camped beside a small creek, where he stripped back the bark of a bauhinia tree and carved his initials, JC.

That tree became a popular stopping place for travellers, and when an enterprising hotelier built a mud-brick pub on the site, he called it the JC Hotel. The government surveyor was sent in to lay out a town, but he refused to call the new town JC because it wasn’t proper. He named the place Canterbury instead, but to locals the name never changed.

In the mid-1880s the pub was being run by two men in partnership: Manners and Dalton. Not only did they spruce the place up, but apparently Mrs Dalton was a popular figure behind the bar. A visitor in 1885 reported that nearly thirty men sat down to eat breakfast at the hotel.

The owner of nearby Waverney Station, a man by the name of Gibbs, built a store next to the pub. It was apparently “fully stocked with all the requirements of a country store.” A post office was opened in 1891, and ran for a couple of years before being downgraded to a receiving office.

In 1893 the pub was being run by George and Elizabeth Geiger. Their son, also named George, was not quite two and a half, playing in the yard when he wandered off. One story goes that he had a pet lamb, and when it was taken by a dingo, he followed.

Every available adult, including some capable trackers, were enlisted to find young George, but the flock of goats kept by the family had obliterated his tracks, and the mulga scrub made it hard to see more than a few yards. They found him in the end, much too late, and the dingos had finished him off. His grave still stands in the small cemetery there.

The pub was the venue for regular dances, and an annual race meeting. Most importantly it gave travellers a friendly place to stop between Windorah and Bedourie. The beer flowed for another half century before the manager of Waverney bought it for a pittance and shut it down. He was sick of his stockmen spending their free time there and riding home drunk.

Story, research and photographs by Greg Barron.
More Australian history stories in the book available from:


The Capture of the Kenniff Brothers

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It was April the 2nd 1902 when Queensland policeman, Constable Doyle, closed in on Patrick and James Kenniff at a rugged mountain hideout called Lethbridge’s Pocket. With the manager of Carnarvon Station, Albert Dahlke, and a tracker called Sam Johnson for company, Doyle stealthily approached the camp.

Wanted for horse stealing, Jim and Patrick had been in trouble with the law before, and both had served time. Born and raised in New South Wales, they moved to Queensland one step ahead of the bailiffs. Then, from a base in the Upper Warrego area they raced horses, ran illegal books, and stole livestock at night. When police arranged for the lease on their land to be terminated, the brothers became outlaws, and rarely rode unarmed.

Dahlke and Constable Doyle got lucky at first. Patrick managed to slip away, but they chased Jim on horseback and rode him down. When tracker Sam Johnson was sent back to fetch handcuffs he heard five gunshots. Patrick had returned for his brother, with deadly result.

Sam was forced to ride for his life, but he returned later with a man called Burke. In two pack bags they found the charred remains of Dahlke and Doyle.

A huge manhunt followed, but the two brothers stayed on the loose for more than two months before they were tracked to a ridge just south of Mitchell called Bottle Tree Hill (pictured above). Four policemen; Constables Tasker, Scanlan, Meston and Cramb surrounded the camp, and waited until sunrise when they were able to surprise the sleeping men. Patrick and Jim both fled on foot.

Patrick had no time to locate a weapon, and was easily ridden down by Constable Cramb. Jim fled with both loaded rifles, but was captured on the road back towards Mitchell, near what is now called Arrest Creek.

The brothers were placed on trial on Brisbane, and found guilty of wilful murder. Public sympathy, however, was on the side of the Kenniff brothers, in part because of a groundswell of anti-establishment feeling at the time. Jim’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but Patrick was promised an appointment with the gallows.

Four thousand people marched outside Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol to protest the execution, but the government held firm. Patrick had his neck broken by the rope on the 12th of January, 1903, still protesting his innocence.

Below are the words to one of several ballads in circulation at the time. They are believed to have greatly boosted public sympathy for Patrick and his brother, who served only twelve years of his life sentence.

by John Creevey 1867-1912

With head erect he left his cell, he needed no man’s aid,
He walked upon the scaffold, and this is what he said:
“My name is Patrick Kenniff, I am condemned to die,
As witness of my innocence I call my God on high.
To my few friends I bid farewell, the last farewell I’ll say,
My time has come and soon I’ll be a lifeless lump of clay.
I wish to thank the warders, who have treated me so well,
And the Rev. Father O’Riley, who saved my soul from hell.”
Then forward came the noble priest, and shook poor Paddy’s hand,
“Paradise is yours,” he said, “when you quit this sinful land.”
The good priest then began to pray, he prayed ’till all was o’er,
The lever wrenched the scaffold sprung, poor Paddy was no more;
He may have died an innocent man, ’tis very hard to say,
There were other men in Killman’s Gap, upon that fatal day;
Then let’s not judge lest we be judged, by him who judges all,
And never despise your fellow man, if he should chance to fall.

Story researched and written by Greg Barron. Photo by Greg Barron.
Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History now available at





Territory Gold (Part One)


On January 18 1872, John Lewis, his brother James, Walter Soward, and a man called Petersen, set off from Adelaide, bound for the Coburg Peninsula, Northern Territory.

There may have been a sore head or two on that morning, for they’d enjoyed a loud farewell lunch the previous day at the Criterion Hotel on King William Street. The trip didn’t start well, for John had left their horse plant at a depot called Gum Creek with a “trustworthy” local.

On arriving at Gum Creek John found that his horse-minder had hidden all the horses and demanded a “reward” of £2 to “find” them. But John Lewis was not one to be crossed. As he later wrote:

“I gave him the reward, and something into the bargain.”

John was that rare type – hardworking, loyal and trustworthy – yet he expected the same qualities in others, and reacted strongly when disappointed.

Born in Brighton, South Australia, in 1844, he grew up roaming the sand hills and beaches. It was there that he first encountered Aborigines, the beginning of a life-long regard for Australia’s first people. In a minority amongst his contemporaries, he treated all he encountered with respect.

“One of my favourite pursuits was, when I got out of school, in very rough weather, to go and lie in the sand hummocks and listen to the breakers rolling in. Another thing I liked was to get into the blacks’ camp, and watch them making baskets and mats out of the rushes growing near the beach, and to see them cooking the fish which they secured, and eating what we call the native apple (mundo), which grew in a little bush along the sand hills. I was always very interested in watching what the aborigines did, because I thought they were such wonderful people.”

John ran away from home when he was fourteen, worked on farms for a while, then was an apprentice blacksmith. The bush called him, however, and most of his youth was spent working cattle and sheep. The summons to the Territory had caught him by surprise, when a friend arranged for him to be granted a parcel of land on the Coburg Peninsula.

It must have seemed like a tall order, to cross the forbidding interior for some land he had never seen, but John was an adventurous soul, and never shy of a challenge.

Finally, united with their horses at Gum Creek, the small group started north, at first over terrain they knew well, stopping at sheep and cattle stations for respite and company. Locust plagues, however, were roaming South Australia’s grasslands, denuding the land of every blade of grass. Stunned at the damage, John and his party skirted east of Lake Torrens and through Leigh Creek, into the Flinders Ranges.

Unlike so many earlier whites to travel through Central Australia, John Lewis’s party happened to strike one of the best seasons in years. They found good pasture for their horses almost everywhere. Waterholes were brimming full and alive with fish. Even the normally dry Finke River was flowing, and John described it as the best river north of Adelaide.

There were also people at regular intervals, bullockies carting poles for the Overland Telegraph Line, others droving sheep or cattle to feed the crews, and lone prospectors desperate to find that secret reef. John reported contact with numerous Aboriginal people, who he described as “friendly and harmless,” though pilfering of stores was apparently a problem.

They stopped at the newly built Alice Springs Telegraph Station, and spent time with some of the crews. A job offer from the Telegraph Company meant a chance to earn some cash and get to know the country.

At that time, with the line still incomplete, the telegraph line penetrated from Adelaide north as far as Tennant Creek, and from Darwin south as far as Daly Waters. In between was a three hundred mile gap. In order to get messages through, John was hired as a pony express, taking telegrams between the two terminus stations, to be re-transmitted at the other end. John’s employer, Mr Charles Todd (See “So who the Hell was Alice Anyway?”), apparently referred to the service as an “Estafette.”

During this time of running messages between the ends of the line, John and his men heard the first news of gold discoveries around Pine Creek. The idea of Territory Gold started to feature in John Lewis’s plans. With hundreds of hours of riding, or tramping beside a wagon to think, John put his mind to how much capital he might have at his disposal, and how it could best be deployed in the mining industry.

Finally, the last stage of the Telegraph Line was completed; a momentous occasion:

“I went with Patterson and Mitchell to a point a few miles east of Frew’s Ironstone Ponds, where the two ends of the wire were to be joined, connecting Adelaide with Port Darwin. We met with Harvey, who told us that the wires would not be joined until twelve o’clock; so we returned to the camp, then made for the last join, and arrived there at about twelve o’clock. At ten minutes past twelve on August 22, 1872, the wires were really joined. Twenty one shots were fired from our revolvers, and a bottle of supposed brandy was broken over the last post. (I think it was tea.) Among those present were Messrs Patterson, Rutt, Mitchell, Howley, Ricks, Hands, Bayfield, Hack, and myself. It had long been a desire of mine to see the wire connected between south and north, and I was glad I had seen this accomplished.”

The “Estafette” now redundant, John was free to head north towards the diggings.

Part Two next week.

This story in full, and many more, are available in the book “Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s history.” Available now from

Written and researched by Greg Barron
Photo of John Lewis from “Fought and Won” by John Lewis.

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History

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Learn how Galloping Jones got his name, why a little boy’s parents used to bury him up to the neck in desert sand, why Tom Coolon shot four men in cold blood, and find out about the woman who gave her name to Alice Springs. Read the adventures of the man who won and lost a fortune chasing gold in the Northern Territory. Read about station owners, pioneers, drovers, and Aboriginal resistance fighters. These are the people who made Australia, and most of them you won’t find in any text book. 34 stories, 70 plus old photographs. Easy to read with a nice clear font. Australia’s past brought to life.

$15.90 plus $3.90 postage and handling in Australia

Click HERE to view the bookstore link.

(Image credit: PH0429/0189 Ted Morey near the Fitzmaurice River looking for Nemarluk. Northern Territory Library)



Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History


Learn how Galloping Jones got his name, why a little boy’s parents used to bury him up to the neck in desert sand, why Tom Coolon shot four men in cold blood, and find out about the woman who gave her name to Alice Springs. Read the adventures of the man who won and lost a fortune chasing gold in the Northern Territory. Read about station owners, pioneers, drovers, and Aboriginal resistance fighters. These are the people who made Australia, and most of them you won’t find in any text book. 34 stories, 70 plus old photographs. Easy to read with a nice clear font. Australia’s past brought to life.


Mary Watson of Lizard Island


The ruins of a stone cottage, once the home of pioneer Mary Watson, lie crumbling up behind the beach at Watson’s Bay on Lizard Island, three hundred kilometres north of Cairns.

Mary was born in Cornwall, and her family settled in Maryborough, Queensland, when she was seventeen. Both educated and musical, Mary easily won a position in Brisbane as a governess.

Mary’s employer, Mr Bouel, decided that her talents were wasted teaching children. He took her to Cooktown to play piano in a hotel he owned there, and in that wild frontier town she grew up fast.

Belting out popular tunes on the piano at the bar, Mary couldn’t help but notice when a handsome, fit man called Robert Watson swaggered in one night. Mary learned that he, in partnership with his mate Percy Fuller, ran a beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) fishing operation on Lizard Island.

Seduced, perhaps, by tales of one of the world’s most beautiful islands, Mary married Bob a few weeks later, and packed for the journey north.

By 1880, still just twenty years old, Mary was running an island household and a small farm with the help of some Chinese labourers. She kept a record of the trials and triumphs of her life in a journal, which survives to this day.

Within a few months Mary was pregnant, and she returned to Cooktown where she gave birth to her son Thomas. Once she felt confident of her abilities in raising the child she headed back to Lizard Island and the love of her life.

Bob, Percy and another man headed off to a distant island on a fishing trip. They had not noticed a fleet of canoes crossing the thirty-five kilometre stretch of water from the mainland.

With most of the white men absent, the local Dingaal people, who had fished and hunted on the island for millennia, attacked. Ah Leong, one of the Chinese workers, was killed, and another seriously wounded.

Mary, her baby Thomas, and the wounded man, Ah Sam, put to sea in a cut-down iron water tank. They drifted in terrible heat for eight days before washing up on an uninhabited island in the Howick Group.

The final entry in Mary’s journal reads: “No water. Nearly dead with thirst.” Their bodies were found three months later, and transported to Cooktown for burial.

Taking their cue from an outraged public, the local constabulary inflicted a terrible revenge on the Dingaal people. A sad end to a heart-wrenching tale.

Written and researched by Greg Barron

Photograph by the author




Nemarluk was a fighting man of the Daly River people who would not be tamed. Born in 1911, by the 1930s he and a small band of young men were waging an effective guerrilla war against interlopers on his territory.

The Fitzmaurice and Daly River areas had never been fully settled. With the region’s jagged sandstone gorges and winding rivers, pastoral pursuits were difficult, and supply routes subject to ambush. Nemarluk grew up in a time of conflict and, according to oral tradition, swore to keep his land free of outsiders, their laws, and their guns.

Three Japanese shark fishermen sailed their lugger into the Daly River near Port Keats. Their names were Nagata, Yoshida and Owashi. They anchored in a backwater and made contact with Nemarluk and his community, who were camped on the river bank.

Nemarluk was aware that the lugger was packed with stores, along with highly-prized iron and tobacco. He was also mindful of his oath to rid his lands of foreigners. He formulated a plan to attack and kill the Japanese without risking his people to their deadly guns.

The first step was to make the Japanese trust them. They brought food aboard, served by the most attractive young women in the group. Nemarluk then suggested to Nagata, the captain, that he might go ashore to a lagoon and shoot as many ducks as he wanted.

Nagata took up the invitation, and was delighted to find that the lagoon really was alive with ducks. He shot a great number, walking further along the banks as he went. Waiting until the Japanese captain was thigh deep in water, Nemarluk gave the signal. They attacked and killed him.

Nemarluk took the geese back to the lugger, telling the other Japanese that Nagata was attempting to shoot some kangaroos. Once they were aboard the Aborigines produced hidden weapons and killed the rest of the crew.

A frenzy of looting followed: more tobacco than they had seen in their lives, iron implements that could be filed down into spear points, along with blankets and vessels of all types. They also found guns.

It was rumours of guns in the possession of the group that provoked a strong reaction from the NT Police. Two parties were soon on the trail of Nemarluk and his comrades. The most feared of these was the mounted policemen Pryor, Birt, and the tracker, Bulbul.

Despite seeking refuge in the rugged Fitzmaurice region, most of Nemarluk’s comrades were arrested for murder and faced the death sentence. Months later their leader was also captured.

Even then, Fannie Bay Jail could not hold this wild spirit. Nemarluk escaped by swimming across Darwin Harbour to the Cox Peninsula, a distance of at least eight kilometres.
Heading back into his homelands, Nemarluk continued to elude the police for years. This article from the Northern Standard newspaper gives an account of his capture.

“Nemarluk was captured after two and a half years of continuous searching by officers and black trackers, who covered 21,000 miles of country. The capture occurred when Constable Birt was stationed at Timber Creek, in the western part of the Territory. Black trackers who were in his charge found Nemarluk at Legune Station in March, 1934. Constable Birt later escorted Nemarluk to Darwin to face a three-year-old charge of having been concerned in the murder of three Japanese at Port Keats.

“Nemarluk had been arrested after the murder, but escaped from the Fanny Bay Gaol, and was at large until Constable Birt’s trackers found him. Bulbul, the leading tracker, was also responsible for the recapture of Minemara, another escaped native murderer who had been concerned in the killing of the Japanese, and who was captured in June last year.”

Nemarluk’s exploits became the subject of a popular book by author Ion Idriess, who met the outlaw several times, and was impressed by his physical strength and demeanour.

The dust jacket introduced the book with the romantic assertion: “Here now is Nemarluk’s life story – the tragic adventures of the young chief who was a living Tarzan of the wilds.”

I doubt Idriess himself made that one up.

Written and researched by Greg Barron

We’re just a week or two away from the release of a full paperback collection of Stories of Oz history posts, “Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History.” Thirty-four 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.

Elizabeth Woolcock

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Elizabeth Woolcock was the only woman ever to be executed in South Australia. Convicted of killing her husband by poisoning him with mercury, she was hanged by the neck until she was dead on the portable gallows at the old Adelaide Gaol.

A letter from Elizabeth addressed to a Reverend Bickford, who had been counselling her before her death, was handed to the Adelaide Observer after the hanging. They published it in full on January 3, 1874.


I was born in the Burra mine in the province of South Australia in the year 1847. My parents’ names were John and Elisabeth Oliver. They were Cornish. They came to this colony in 1842 but they went to Victoria in 1851. 1 was left without the care of a mother at the age of 4 years and I never saw her again until I was 18. My father died when I was 9 years old and I had to get my living until I was 18 and then I heard that my mother was alive and residing at Moonta Mine. She wrote me a letter asking me to come to her as she had been very unhappy about me and was very sorry for what she had done. I thought I should like to see my mother and have a home like other young girls so I gave up my situation and came to Adelaide.

My mother and my stepfather received me very kindly and I had a good home for two years. My mother and stepfather were members of the Wesleyan Church and I became a teacher in the Sunday School for two years. At the end of that time I first saw my late husband Thomas Woolcock.

I believe my stepfather was a good man but he was very passionate and determined. My late husband was a widower with two children. His wife had been dead about eight months when I went to keep house for him against Stepfather’s wishes. I kept house for him for six weeks when someone told my stepfather that I was keeping company with Thomas Woolcock. He asked me if it was true and I told him it was not but he would not believe me. He called me a liar and told me he would cripple me if I went with him any more.

I, being very self-willed, told him that I had not been with the man but I would go with him now if he asked me. This took place on the Thursday morning. I saw my husband in the evening and he asked me what was the matter and I told him what had taken place the following Sunday. He asked me to go with him for a walk instead of going to chapel.

I went and my stepfather missed me from the chapel and came to look for me and met us both together so I was afraid to go home for he had said he would break both of my legs. I was afraid he would keep his word as I never knew him to tell a wilful lie. So I went to a cousin of my husband’s and stopped, and my husband asked me if I would marry him and for my word’s sake I did we were married the next Sunday morning by licence after the acquaintance of seven weeks.

I was not married long, before I found out what sort of man I had got, and that my poor stepfather had advised me for my good. But was too late then so I had to make the best of it. I tried to do my duty to him and the children but the more I tried the worse he was. He was fond of drink but he did not like to part with his money for anything else and God only knows how he ill-treated me. I put up with it for three years, during that time my parents went to Melbourne and then he was worse than ever.

I thought I would rather die than live so I tried to put an end to myself in several different ways but thank the Lord I did not succeed in doing so.

So as he did not treat me any better and I could not live like that I thought I would leave him and get my own life. So I left him but he would not leave me alone. He came and fetched me home and then I stopped with him twelve months and I left him again with the intention of going to my mother. I only took six pounds with me.

I came down to Adelaide and I stopped with my sister. I was here in Adelaide six weeks when he came and fetched me back again. But he did not behave no better to me. I tried my best to please him but I could not. There is no foundation at all for the story about the young man called Bascoe. He was nothing to me nor did I give the poor dog any poison for I knew what power the poison had as I took it myself for some months.

I was so ill-treated that I was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour I yielded to the temptation. He was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarrelled with me and Satan tempted me and I gave him what I ought not, but I thought at the time that if I gave him time to prepare to meet his God I should not do any great crime to send him out of the world.

But I see my mistake now. I thank God he had time to make his peace with his maker and I hope I shall meet him in heaven for I feel that God has pardoned all my sins. He has forgiven me and washed me white in the precious blood of Jesus. I feel this evening that I can rejoice in a loving Saviour. I feel his presence here tonight. He sustains me and gives me comfort under this heavy trial such as the world can never give.

Dear friend if I may call you so, I am much obliged to you for your kindness to a poor guilty sinner, but great will be your reward in heaven. I hope I shall meet you there, and I hope that God will keep me faithful to the end so may be able to say that live is Christ but to Die will be gain. Bless the Lord he will not torn away any that come unto him for he says come onto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. I feel I have that rest. I hope to die singing victory through the blood of the lamb. I remain sir, ours truly a sinner saved by grace.

Elizabeth Woolcock