In an earlier post, I provided some information on the lacklustre bushranging careers of Tom (Thomas) Dillon (1835 – 1887) and his brother-in-law John Price (aka John Snow) (1836 – 1909).
I’m aware of two stories that have been collected in recent times that purport to tell Tom’s story; both have a mythic quality to them.
Dillon’s Cave at Cooyal and the Blackmans
The first of these was published on a now defunct website called “The Drip” Mudgee, and is said to have been provided by a descendant of the Blackman family mentioned therein:
“During the goldrush era of the 1870’s this cave became a hideout for bushrangers. John Dillon and his gang found that the gold coaches traveling down the road going through the Munghorn Gap could yield rich pickings. The younger son of Samuel Blackman, the major landowner of this part of the world at that time knew of this cave on the family property; the perfect hideout from which to launch their raids. Young Blackman teamed up with Dillon, offering the use of this cave, living a double life as both a trooper and a bushranger.
Eventually the whole arrangement came unstuck. A couple of members of Dillon’s gang were shot and killed fleeing from the cave; Dillon himself was captured and hung on Cockatoo Island. Young Blackman got away with a slap on the wrist and was immortalized in a poem by Henry Lawson, with Dillon’s taken by a character somewhat oddly called “M’Durmer”.” (http://thedripmudgee.com/dillons-cave-walk.html – accessed via the Internet Archive 19 December 2015)
Although this story refers to a John, rather than Thomas, Dillon, there isn’t much doubt that it’s inspired by the latter. Tom was misnamed as John in at least one contemporary report. But Tom was active in 1862, not the 1870s. He robbed no coaches of their gold, and the Munghorn Gap wasn’t on the road to any of the contemporary gold fields. None of his gang were shot and killed and Tom wasn’t hanged.
The reference to the involvement of a member of the Blackman family is interesting, and plausible, although I’m not aware of any hard evidence for it. Samuel Blackman’s youngest son in 1862 was aged only 5 years or less – a little too young for bushranging. However there are other Blackman possibilities as this large family was then into its 4th generation in the Mudgee district.
There were statements by some of Dillon and Snow’s victims that there were more than two perpetrators. Their robberies were centred on Cooyal, where they were subsequently arrested . Members of the Blackman family also owned property at, and lived at Cooyal, and had their own brushes with the law.
Some Blackman family members were aware of Tom and his exploits, and possibly sympathised with him. After his second escape from Mudgee Gaol, Tom was recaptured after being given shelter on the property of Samuel Blackman on the Castlereagh River, an event witnessed as a boy by Samuel’s son, John Thomas Blackman. Blackman junior recounted the events in a letter to the Narromine News and Trangie Advocate in 1932. He addressed his letter from “The Drip”, Cooyal, the property which is the location of the supposed Dillon cave.
The “legend of Dillon’s Cave” can be traced back to at least 1900, when these words were penned in the aftermath of the murders by Jimmy Governor and Jacky Underwood at Breelong:
“Driving through what is known as the Cooyal country, I recollected that it was at Mrs. Blackman’s run (afterwards Mrs. Garbutt) that the notorious Ward, alias Thunderbolt, put in the earlier years of his life, and was noted for his intrepid manipulation of the wild and vigorous buckjumper …Here, too, in this very locality is situate Dillon’s Cave, the reference to which brings back to my mind memories of the past.
Dillon led a gang of bushrangers, some of whom were never captured, but the ringleader was taken in a lonely valley, in which is a large, open cave, his captor being the late Mr. S. A. Blackman, whose name on the colonial turf should be evergreen.” (Edwin Richards, MLA, Evening News 31 July 1900)
The reference to S. A. Blackman as the captor of Dillon suggests that the Blackmans of “The Drip” had “appropriated” the Dillon legend by this time. However he was not Dillon’s captor, as discussed below. (There is a possibility of confusion here with William R. Blackman of Bleak House, Mudgee, who was involved in the capture of the bushranger Charlie Johnson in 1868 – an event during which Senior Constable Hugh Campbell was accidentally killed – see below.)
Another early reference to Dillon’s Cave or “Get-away” was published in an article in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 14 February 1902:
“The cave is close to what is known as Dillon’s Cave, or ‘Get-away’. Many years ago Snow and Dillon were bushranging in the district. The police sighted Dillon on one occasion. On pursuing him he made for a wall of sandstone rock, making his way up a cleft in the wall 5 feet wide, with the walls of the passage standing at an angle of 45 degrees. The police could not get their horses to face the pass, so they had to go a mile before they could find a passage. Of course the bird had flown.”
It is common in Australia for any decent-sized cave or overhang to be attributed to some bushranger or other as their “haunt” or “lair” or, in this case, “get-away”. This article uses an additional archetype – that of the narrow defile by which the desperado makes his escape because the less-able police can’t follow. (The article doesn’t say whether Dillon is supposed to have escaped on foot or by horse – if the latter, then it’s a feat worthy of the man from Snowy River!)
The contemporary accounts of the capture of Dillon and Snow make it quite clear that this took place at their hut “at the head of Cooyal Creek”, a location known to the police beforehand, and not at a cave.
I haven’t been able to determine the exact location of this hut. Tom’s brother-in-law Luke Jones later owned land in the vicinity, as shown in the parish map extract below. This land is close to the head of Cooyal Creek, and is possibly the site of the hut.
Did Henry Lawson Write About Dillon the Bushranger?
The association of Henry Lawson’s poem “Trooper Campbell” with these events is interesting, and warrants further research. Lawson wrote the poem in 1891. A point of correspondence with the truth is that the policeman who arrested Dillon and Snow in October 1862 was Senior Constable Hugh Campbell of Mudgee police.
The term “Trooper” was associated with the NSW Mounted Police, founded in 1825. Some contemporary reports say that Campbell was “not at home in the saddle” and that he was not of the mounted police. Nevertheless, he was was to die chasing bushrangers, on the 7th of April 1868, through the fall of his horse.
Campbell was also the recipient of a testimonial, accompanied by a cheque for 20 pounds, from the citizens of Mudgee, for his capture of Dillon and Snow. Ironically, this was presented two days after Dillon had made good his escape from Mudgee gaol. Campbell’s part in Dillon’s capture was well publicised in the press throughout New South Wales.
The significant lines in the poem are these:
“When Blackman met the trooper
Beyond the homestead gate.
And if the hand of trouble
Can leave a lasting trace,
The lines of care had come to stay
On poor old Blackman’s face.
‘Not good day, Trooper Campbell,
It’s a bad, bad day for me —
You are of all the men on earth
The one I wished to see.
The great black clouds of trouble
Above our homestead hang;
That wild and reckless boy of mine
Has joined M’Durmer’s gang.”
The name “M’Durmer” that Lawson uses for his bushranger doesn’t match any historical bushranger. It was a name he used in two other poems and a short story written around the same time and in different contexts (“The God-Forgotten Election”, “The Grog-An’-Grumble Steeplechase” and “New Year’s Night”). This makes it unlikely that there is any particular significance in its use here.
Vance Palmer also used a variant some 15 years later in his short story “At McDurmer’s Mercy” for the leader of another gang of bushrangers.
If Lawson did base his poem on Tom Dillon, the obvious question is why he didn’t name him, given that the names Blackman and Campbell can be associated with real people. Perhaps he didn’t know the name, or chose to obscure the identity of the villain of the piece.
What can be said with confidence is that in his youth (1873 – 1883) Lawson lived only about 16 kilometres from Cooyal so is likely to have heard any local bushranger yarns, as well as the story of the death of Constable Campbell.
There is also a possibility that Henry knew of Tom Dillon through either his mother, Louisa Albury, or grandfather, Henry Albury. Louisa was born at Edwin Rouse’s Guntawang property in 1848, the year before Tom arrived there as a ticket-of-leave convict assigned to Rouse. Albury was employed as a station hand and although he is believed to have moved on to other pursuits around 1849, he remained in the Mudgee area and had a continuing association with Guntawang. (Source: The Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), Tuesday 26 September 1922, page 2 – quoting Henry’s sister Gertrude)
Tom Dillon and John Snow as Murderers?
The second story was provided in a personal communication by a resident of Cooyal to Mark Dillon in July 1991 and is referenced in Mark’s privately circulated biography of Thomas Dillon:
“Apparently Dillon and Snow were partners. They murdered a girl by throwing her over a cliff… They were caught and transported to Cockatoo Island penal colony in Sydney. Snow escaped by swimming to the mainland, and eventually came back to Cooyal.
Dillon was killed in jail when a wooden beam fell on him, while he tried to escape, and broke his back. Snow came back to his wife’s house, to find her living with another man! Snow went to rest in Dillon’s Cave. Next day the wife went to Mudgee, in the pretence, to buy new clothes for Snow, but instead told the troopers. They surrounded the cave and arrested Snow!”
This story is correct in associating Dillon and John Snow, and in respect of their imprisonment on Cockatoo Island. But the references to murdering a girl, escaping by swimming and Dillon’s death in jail are fanciful.
There are, however, elements of truth in the reference to Snow returning to find his wife living with another man, and this is also the case with Dillon.
A further elaboration of the murder story was provided to me in 2012 by Michael Creighton, then a co-owner of “The Drip” at Cooyal:
“Apparently the girl was a young Aboriginal girl with whom “Snow” had been having an affair . His white wife found out. The cliff where he killed the girl is behind “the Drip” and quite spectacular.”
Violence associated with relationships between white men and aboriginal women was endemic in the area at the time – for example, in 1861 Constable Hugh Campbell gave evidence at an inquest into the alleged murder by Thomas Black of an aboriginal man called John Dundar during a confrontation which commenced with Dundar saying, “what you interfere with my little girl.” Black was committed to stand trial at Bathurst for manslaughter.
However I’m unaware of any factual evidence of a murder by Dillon or Snow, who were convicted of highway robbery, not murder.
The escape by swimming from Cockatoo Island is an echo of the famous escape by Fred Ward, later known as the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, in September 1863. It is likely that Tom Dillon and Fred Ward knew each other as they were both living in the same milieu in the Cooyal area in 1860 and 1861, and their time on Cockatoo Island overlapped by 2 months or so. Master and apprentice? If so, the apprentice soon outshone the master, for Ward’s career was to extend over almost 7 years.
Both stories are interesting insofar as they demonstrate how fact and fiction become intermingled when stories are transmitted orally down the generations.
(Herrmann Family History)