Mad and Bad: Bushrangers in Camden

Australia is famous for bushrangers, with the likes of Ned Kelly actively in the communal consciousness as either civil hero or vicious criminal. But Camden has many of its own tales of bushrangers.

Burragorang was a very popular area for bushrangers and cattle thieves to store their booty. “Among its gorges and ravines” we are told, “could be hidden whole herds of cattle, which could remain undiscovered for months” (Sidman, 1995). But bushrangers provided a great deal more peril than simply stealing cattle. There are many accounts of people being robbed along the road, and even houses, with the likes of ‘Denbigh’ erecting iron-bars across the windows to prevent bushrangers from entering the property (Sidman, 1995). The Great South Road (also known as Old Razorback Road) was a popular spot for bushranger ambushes, the difficult to traverse route leaving many travellers weary and vulnerable.

The site of much bushranger activity. Road over Razorback Range. Earlier called Great South Road.

The site of much bushranger activity. Road over Razorback Range. Earlier called Great South Road. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

A mail coach running from Wollongong to Campbelltown seemed immune, according to an 1866 Sydney Mail report, until it was struck twice in a fortnight that year (Whitaker, 2005). What is interesting about the report is not the mention of the hold up, but that the coach was unique in being unaffected by the activity until that time. Bushranger activity was a common occurrence and a regular concern of many people in the area.

Morgan the bushranger, by Samuel Calvert 1828-1913. [Melbourne? : s.n., 1864] 1 print : wood engraving ; 14.8 x 10.8 cm. National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9900666.

Morgan the bushranger, by Samuel Calvert 1828-1913. [Melbourne? : s.n., 1864] 1 print : wood engraving ; 14.8 x 10.8 cm. National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9900666.

Two of the most famous from the area were ‘Mad’ Dan Morgan and Jack Donahue. Morgan (born William John Owen) earned his moniker due to often violent mood swings (Bruce, 2003). Most likely the son of a prostitute and with little education, in addition to his thieving he committed numerous murders, his victims including magistrates and several police officers and volunteers of a posse sent to arrest him. After he was ambushed and killed by the posse he was propped up and photographed. Such was the extent of disgust he inspired in lawmen that police mutilated his body, removing his beard as a souvenir and cutting off his head for study in Melbourne, during this time when phrenology still held sway.

Donohoe [i.e. Donahoe] / [attributed to Sir Thomas Mitchell]. State Library of New South Wales, a928129.

Donohoe [i.e. Donahoe] / [attributed to Sir Thomas Mitchell]. State Library of New South Wales, a928129.

A more famous Bushranger in the area was Jack Donahue. An Irishman subjected to transportation, Donahue quickly escaped his jailers and began his life as a bushranger (Bruce, 2003). He was caught earlier on and sentenced to death, but once again escaped, leaving his two fellow convicts to be hanged. He was described as a snappy dresser and incredibly successful. He was, according to sources, regarded as something of a hero, standing up to corrupt officials, which has become a common trope in many bushranger narratives. However, he was not universally loved, with many people volunteering to search for Donahue when the government offered a reward of £100 (a large amount of money back then) for his capture. In 1830 a trooper shot and killed Donahue after authorities surrounded him in Bringelly. He gained considerable fame, with two ballads, “Bold Jack Donahue” and “The Wild Colonial Boy”, being composed in his honour.

The debate about bushrangers as hero or foe will likely continue for a very long time, but the impact they had on Australian society and communities such as Camden cannot be denied.

References:

Bruce, J., & Wade, J. (2003). Bushrangers: heroes, victims or villains. East Roseville, N.S.W. : Simon & Schuster : Kangaroo Press.

Sidman, G.V. (1995). The Town of Camden. Camden, N.S.W : Camden Public Library.

Whitaker, A.  (2005). Appin: The story of Macquarie Town. Alexandria, N.S.W. : Kingsclear Books.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for another interesting and informative article. It is great to have these stories told.

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