Bushranger Myth Making

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.

Luke Jones_Cooyal.jpg
Luke Jones’ land at the head of Cooyal Creek

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)


Leaving Ardnamurchan – An Emigrant Family’s Voyage

Donald (c. 1791 – 1876) and Anne McPherson (c. 1789 – 1865) sailed from Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, on 28 October  1838, in the government-chartered immigrant ship British King.

The passenger list records that Donald, a shepherd, was then aged about 48, a native of Ardnamurchan, Argyleshire and son of Allan MacPherson, a farmer, of Morven. Wife Anne, a dairymaid, is recorded as aged 42, also a native of Ardnamurchan and daughter of Anne Henderson of the same place.  (Anne Henderson, born McColl, is the subject of an earlier post titled Ardnamurchan, Anne McColl and the Archaeologists)

Donald could read and write, whilst Anne’s literacy went unrecorded. The family were Presbyterian.

Donald McPherson_Immigration.jpg
Donald McPherson’s Immigration Record – 1839

Accompanying them were their 8 children, aged between 2 and 20 years. These included Janet and Flora, who in Australia were to marry brothers Alexander and John Cameron.

Only Flora and her brother Alexander, born in 1830 and 1832 seem to have christening records, probably because the church in Acharacle, where they were christened, opened only in 1829. Flora’s christening record says that the family were then living at Resipol, on the north side of Loch Sunart, and in the shadow of Ben Resipol.

Flora mcPherson_Christening.jpg
Flora McPherson’s Christening Record

There exist some contemporary and more recent accounts of the voyage of British King. In 1939 Gordon Dennes published a detailed account:

“The 8th government-chartered immigrant ship to sail from a Highland port in Scotland, was the barque British King. Her predecessors were the William Nicol, Midlothian, Brilliant, St George, Boyne, James Moran and Lady McNaughton. The British King’s registered tonnage was 673 tons and her burthen upwards of 1,000 tons.

She had a regular frigate deck from stem to stern of 124 feet with a ceiling of 8½ feet, width 28½ feet with double tier of berths for 256 passengers, besides children. In addition, the male and female hospitals each contained 9 berths and were situated immediately beneath the Surgeon’s cabin. The Surgeon thus had access at all hours to his patients from his own room by a hatchway, through which a wind sail could be put to the top of the poop, a matter of the greatest importance to the sick.

Each adult was provided with a clothes bag, a bed and blankets, a knife, fork and spoon. The dining tables were affixed amidships and no chest was allowed to be taken to the hold. There was a wide promenade round the whole of the ship, which was rendered airy and agreeable by the provision of air ports on each side. According to the standard of accommodation for ships of those days, that of the British King was comfortable.

The general outfitting was carried out probably at Greenock, under the supervision of Lieutenant Hermans, the Government Agent for the ship, whilst Mr. Andrew Crawford, joiner, fitted up in a superior manner the sleeping and dining accommodation. …”

To read or download the full account (PDF, 116Kb), visit the Isle of Tiree Genealogy webpage.

A less rosy account of part of the voyage was given by Archibald McEachern who was only 19 when he left Tobermory on the British King. He describes a near disaster towards the end of the voyage:

 “In company with my father, stepmother, and nine brothers and sisters, I embarked in the sailing ship British King from Tobermory, Argyleshire, on Sunday, 28th October, 1838, and on that date bade an eternal adieu to the bonnie shores of dear old Scotland. After an uneventful voyage of three months we first sighted land at the mouth of the Glenelg, near Nelson, where we experienced some slight trouble in the shape of head winds, which necessitated the ship being put about and during the supervening night the performance had to be repeated again somewhere between Julia Percy Island and the Laurence Rocks. We sailed past Portland early next morning, and towards the close of the following night narrowly averted a terrible catastrophe, this time in the form of a shipwreck.

Our skipper, Captain William Paton, as sober and attentive officer as ever commanded a ship, during the evening instructed Mitchell, the second mate, a very nice fellow, to call him at a certain hour of the night. But it came about on that particular day, as was customary on certain days of the voyage out, that a nobbler apiece of grog was served out to everyone on board, numbering all 350 souls, many of whom were total abstainers, and those that did not indulge, instead of getting outside of it themselves, transferred their dole to the mate, who was an exceedingly popular fellow with the passengers. The consequence was, in a marvellously short space of time, the mate got as drunk as a fool, and failed to carry out the commands of his superior officer, who, when he awoke, was horrified to behold the breakers in close proximity to the vessel, stretching away in front of him as far as the eye could reach. In fact the ship was drifting stem on to one immense boulder that would have smashed her to atoms had a collision occurred.

By judicious manipulation we got clear, much to the relief of all on board. Our providential escape was simply miraculous. A few years subsequently a large passenger ship bound for Hobson’s Bay, with 100 passengers on board, was wrecked at the self same spot, and with the exception of eight sailors, every man women and child that constituted this immense human freight were, in perhaps less time than it takes to record it, consigned to a watery grave.” (Traces of a Heritage (Notes to Chapter 7) (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/7661/Foot7b.html –accessed 27 December 2008 but no longer available)

On arrival in Sydney, the immigrants found that there was no demand for their labour, due to the economic conditions in the Sydney district. What happened next is described in the following extract from a Cameron family history:

“The newly arrived immigrants were not all destined to remain in Sydney. Local settlers were not particularly interested in hiring men with large families and Governor Gipps was persuaded to send, at Government expense, 48 families from the British King on to the Port Phillip district of N.S.W. which was in great need of free settlers, as labour was scarce. The John Barry was the second vessel to bring Government immigrants to the district. …”

“When they disembarked at Williamstown, no shelter was available and they had to spend their first night in the open. William Lonsdale found ‘a miserable hut’ to accommodate those who had fallen ill with typhus fever and dysentery. Lonsdale pleaded with the Sydney government to make proper arrangements for the reception of any future migrants. Gipps replied that a permanent establishment must not be set up. Once again all healthy migrants managed to find work in Port Phillip without difficulty.”

A document titled “ A Return of the Disposal of the Immigrants by the Ship ‘British King’ from Tobermory which arrived at Sydney on the 28th Feb 1839 under the Superintendence of Dr. Arbuckle”  records that the McPherson family was among those “in sick quarters at Port Philip“.

To read the full account of the voyage of the John Barry, visit the Victoria Before 1840 website.

I have found little information about the family’s situation as they settled into what was to become the town, and later city, of Melbourne, just 4  years after its foundation. However that they helped to build the town is evidenced by this newspaper article:

“Mrs Janet Cameron (nee M’Pherson) relict of Mr. Alexander Cameron, of Inverlochie Farm, Wollert (Vic.), who died at the age of 86 at Craigieburn recently, was a colonist of 72 years. She was a native of Argyleshire, and arrived in Melbourne with her parents, brothers and sisters in April, 1839. Their ship went first to Sydney, no vessel sailing direct to Melbourne at that time.

The family lived at the corner of Russell and Lonsdale streets, her father, Donald M’Pherson, being engaged in building several bush huts in that vicinity, and her brothers felled trees in those areas which are now Lonsdale and Elizabeth streets…” (The Daily News (Perth), 17 May 1911, page 3)

Lonsdale street is now one of the major streets of Melbourne.

(Donald and Anne McPherson were my wife’s 3rd great-grandparents, via Flora McPherson (1830 – 1900)

(Herrmann Family History)

Looking for Ellen O’Brien

Ellen O’Brien (c.1831 -1896) was my 2nd great-grandfather’s sister-in-law. I know nothing of her life before she married Hugh Curran at Bathurst, New South Wales in 1850 (NSW V18504018/162B/1850). Ellen had 4 children with Hugh before he died, still young, in 1860 at Orange (NSW 5076/1860). One of her children was also named Ellen.

On 9 June 1886, the following notice appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Ellen O'Brien_Notice

It seemed likely to me that this was Ellen’s daughter as she had a brother named Hugh. The obvious question was why had Ellen left Orange and remained out of contact with her brother for so long?  I left this question to gestate for a couple of years.

Recently, a distant family member asked if I’d made any progress in tracing the mother’s origins, so I resumed my research.

Ellen’s origins remain elusive, beyond a statement in her death registration that she was born in Limerick, Ireland. However it wasn’t too difficult to find out what happened to her after Hugh’s death, and a tragic and sordid story it is.

Ellen remarried, in 1863, to John Gallagher (NSW 2569/1863) . With John, Ellen had a further 7 children between 1863 and 1876.

Fast forward to 1896 and Ellen and John were living at Belarbigal – possibly the same place as the Belabagil mentioned in the newspaper notice above. The last few days of Ellen’s life are described in newspaper reports of her death and court proceedings against John Gallagher for her murder. In these reports the location is named as Coalbaggie, and her murder is referred to as “The Coalbaggie Case”. (1)

It seems that John and Ellen were employed by one Christopher Kearney, Ellen as a cook, and John as a general useful. Kearney’s evidence at the inquest was in part that “Gallagher got drink from him on Sunday. Witness had 2 gallons of whisky on Friday. It was all gone on the following Monday.”

Ellen’s son Daniel deposed that he found his mother dead in her hut on Monday the 13th of  January, 1896.

It appears that there had been a drinking bout at the property on that weekend, involving Ellen, Kearney, John Gallagher, Daniel Gallagher and others. It was stated that this was a regular occurrence. (2)

Evidence was given that John Gallagher was observed beating and kicking Ellen on the Saturday evening, and that quarreling was heard from the Gallagher’s hut on Sunday night.

The medical evidence was that death was due to syncope of the heart accelerated by excessive alcohol and heat. The body was too decomposed to say if there were any external marks of violence, but there were no skull or other fractures. (National Advocate, 25 January 1896, page 2)

Nevertheless, John Gallagher was charged with Ellen’s murder and was tried at Dubbo in April 1896. He was found not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter, and was sentenced to 3 years hard labour in Bathurst gaol. In passing sentence the judge remarked that:

“The prisoner chose to put himself in the state in which he was; he drank to excess, and committed an assault on his wife which he was sure no one could describe as other than brutal. The woman he knew himself to be suffering from heart disease.” (The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate, 15 April 1896, page 2)

Whilst I still don’t know why Ellen’s daughter left the family around 1880, there is the possibility that domestic violence on the part of her step-father was involved.There was an interesting observation at the inquest by Sub-Inspector Thomas Cameron that whilst interviewing Gallagher:

“A man named Duggin up, and looking at Gallagher, said, ‘He did it, right enough; I know you, Gallagher; you killed several Chinamen at Lambing Flat with a stick.’ “

What I do know is that Ellen married Bartlett King in 1895 and had a child, Thomas Bartlett King about 1896. I also know that she probably did resume contact with her brother Hugh, as her death notice refers to her as “the dearly beloved aunt” of Hugh’s children. (Sydney Morning Herald, 2 November 1931, page 8)


  1. Coalbaggie (now called Coolbaggie) is the name of a creek that ran near Belarbigal (now called Rawsonville).
  2. One of those who visited Kearney’s property that weekend was George Primmer, a farmer of Belarbigal, who gave evidence at the inquest that he visited the Gallagher’s hut on the Sunday. The following year, Primmer was convicted of criminally assaulting (i.e. raping) his 12-year old daughter and sentenced to death, the sentence later being commuted to life imprisonment and a whipping of 25 lashes. He had prior convictions for grievous bodily harm, larceny, horse stealing and sodomitic sexual assault of a woman. (http://www.unfitforpublication.org.au/trials/1800s/444-1877-george-primmer) . This gives some further indication of the milieu within which the Gallagher’s lived.

(Curran Family History)



Lying Ancestors

Family history research was hard graft before the Internet came along. To acquire a birth, marriage or death certificate it was necessary to write away to the registration authority, pay a large sum of money, and wait weeks for the document to arrive – if you were lucky! If not, one would receive a “no record found” notice.

As I gradually accumulated experience, I learned not to trust unconditionally the information in official documents, particularly when it came to death registrations. However I cannot say that I considered the possibility of deliberate falsification, until I had been served up a “wild goose chase” that delayed my research on one set of ancestors for, well, decades.

Early in my research I was presented with a birth registration for my great-grandmother, Pauline Mary Chard, one of twins born at Louisa Creek, New South Wales in 1857, to John Chard, gold digger, and Rebecca Davis.

The registration also showed that John and Rebecca were married in 1834 at Bathurst, New South Wales. As I now know, this was a lie, as they did not arrive in Australia until 1852. It was to be about two decades before I learned the truth.

The probable reason for the lie was to conceal the fact that they were not married, and that John, whose middle name was Muttlebury, had deserted his wife in England. The desertion was revealed by a chance notation “Husband left her” on his wife’s 1851 census record.

Mary Johnson_1851 census
1851 Census Record for John Muttlebury Chard’s Wife, Mary Johnson

I subsequently found another lie concerning John, although in this case perpetrated by others.

Good evidence says that John was born on 24 October 1814 and baptised on 22 January 1815 at Dalwood, Devon, England. In the baptism register for Dalwood his record sits between that of Daniel Board on 5 January 1815 and John Darke, baptised on the same day as John.

John Muttlebury Chard Baptism

In 1827 John’s father, a retired shipbuilder, was in straitened financial circumstances. He was seeking to enrol John at the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich, a charitable institution for the children of seamen or marines.  John’s birth date on the enrolment form is given as 24 October 1815, a year later than the correct date.

John Chard_Application.jpg
Extract from John Muttlebury Chard’s Application for Entry to the Royal Hospital School

There is a likely explanation for the falsification. If John’s correct birth date had been given, he would not have been eligible to enrol at the School as it was a condition of entry that applicants be between 11 and 12 years of age. With the falsification he scraped in by 4 days.

What is even more remarkable about this falsification is that it seems that the clerk of the Dalwood church was also party to it. Here is the certificate he provided to support the enrolment:

John Chard_Birth
Certificate Relating to John Chard’s Birth and Baptism

(John Muttlebury Chard was my 2nd great-grandfather)

(Curran Family History)


The Clearance of Swordlechorach – a Family Account

In an earlier post (Ardnamurchan, Anne McColl and the Archaeologists) I mentioned the eviction of Donald Henderson’s family during the 1853 clearance of Swordlechorach in Ardnamurchan, Scotland.

Another descendant of this family has drawn my attention to an account of the eviction from Mary Ann Henderson, a daughter of Donald Henderson and his wife Jane. This was published in ‘Herself’ : the life and photographs of M.E.M. Donaldson / presented by John Telfer Dunbar, Edinburgh : Blackwood, 1979. Donaldson lived in Ardnamurchan in the 1920s. Mary Ann would have been in her 6o’s then (born 14 October 1858). Here is her account – and note the enduring anger in the last sentence:

” Told by a friend that there was living in Portuairk a woman who still occupies the house built by her father when evicted from Swordle Chorrach. I called to see her. Mary Ann Henderson, now an old lady, though still with clear eyes of the brightest blue, received me with customary Highland courtesy, and knowing me for a friend, readily told me the tale of the sufferings of her father and mother. She herself was not born at the time of the eviction, but, naturally, she was familiar with the whole story.

Before relating this, I must ask readers to bear in mind that in those days the present roads were non-existent. When evicted, one of Mary Ann’s little brothers was suffering from measles, and her father had to carry him on his back all the way by the rough coast from Swordle to Achnosnich, where a compassionate crofter had given his barn to shelter them till the new house was built at Portuairk. As the result of exposure, however, the little boy died.

Whilst the father had to break off building from time to time in order to earn a little money to purchase necessary building materials, the mother was not without her tasks. She had first to walk to and from Swordle in one day – a ten hours’ journey – in order to fetch, as their only means of sustenance, all the potatoes she could carry from their old croft. Such a load only lasted a day or two, and then, whatever the weather, the hard journey had to be repeated. Then, in return for being allowed to gather the seaweed from the shore, the poor woman was obliged to carry sacks of sand half a mile inland from the bay – this to fertilise the landlord’s ground – and to cut peats in a marked portion of ground at Port na Cairidh for the use of his shepherd there.

The name of the factor who was the agent of these tyrannies and inhumanities was Ramage.”

You can feel the suppressed anger in the last sentence of Mary Ann’s account. The Ramage mentioned was probably John Ramage who, in the 1861 census, is shown as a farmer employing 3 labourers and 2 girls and resident, with his family, at Swordlemore. Ramage was an outsider born in Lanark. He may have been offered a lease of the Swordle lands by the Ardnamurchan estate’s trustees in bankruptcy that was conditional on him effecting removal of the prior tenants.

Mary Ann’s little brother who died during the journey was almost certainly Alexander, who was aged 2 years at the time of the 1851 census. Whilst there is an Alexander recorded in the census of 1861 he is too young by 4 years to be the same person. It is presumed that the later Alexander was named in remembrance of his dead brother, as was commonplace at the time.

There is a record of baptism that shows an intervening child born either during or shortly after the journey described above. This means that Jane was pregnant at the time she endured the privations described above.

This child, named Duncan, was born on 10 May 1853 and baptised on 9 June 1853. The church register shows that the father, Donald, was residing at Portuairk by the latter date.

Why wasn’t this child named Alexander if his brother had pre-deceased him? There is a hint in the identity of one of the witnesses – named as Duncan M’Dougald of Achosnich in the register. I like to think that he was the compassionate crofter of Achosnich, and that the child was named in appreciation.

The second witness to the birth was Anne Henderson, the baby’s widowed grandmother. She also endured the eviction and journey at the age of 87 years before dying 2 years later.

More information on this clearance can be found here.

(Herrmann Family History)

Tom Dillon, Bushranger

Thomas Dillon ( (1835 – 1887), is one of my wife’s second great-grandfathers. A late arriving convict from Ireland (Havering, 1849) he took to highway robbery around the Mudgee district of New South Wales in September 1862 in company with his wife’s half-brother John Price (aka John Snow), and possibly others.  This was about 3 months after the robbery of the gold escort coach at Eugowra by Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall and others.

Thomas Dillon 1

Thomas Dillon – Gaol Photograph

Tom’s story is well documented in a privately circulated biography by Mark Dillon, and in the contemporary newspapers, not to mention court and gaol records.

Tom does not feature in any of the standard histories of Australian bushranging. Perhaps this is because he wasn’t a very good bushranger – he made the mistake of working too close to home where he was easily identified, and his bushranging spree lasted only 2 weeks and some 5 robberies.

One man, however, had no doubt that Tom was “a daring highway robber.” In 1912, fifty years after the events, ex-Senior Sergeant Andrew Cleary recalled his recapture of Tom after one of his two escapes from Mudgee gaol.

Cleary’s testimony adds some new facts to the contemporary accounts – for example, that Tom was mounted on a racehorse called Butterfly. He also says that Tom’s revolver misfired because his cartridges had been wetted whilst fording the Castlereagh river. I think this was Tom’s lucky break – if he’d kept his powder dry the outcome may have been either death  at the hands of  Sergeant Cleary, or the hangman, if Tom had the better draw.

Here’s the full account, courtesy of the National Library of Australia’s Trove service:




In the attic room of a boarding-house in Pitt-street Redfern, lives ex-Senior Sergeant Andrew Cleary, one of the remaining few of the old police brigade who, back in the fifties, had exciting encounters with the bushrangers that infested the interior of the State….

Bushrangers Break Gaol

I remember them well. It was race day, and the gaoler went to the races, leaving the warders in charge. The bushrangers took advantage of his absence by rushing the warders, disarming them, and locking them in the cells. They then bolted taking the gaol revolvers with them. A notorious character, named Tom Dillon, was among them. He was a daring highway robber.

A little while later, I received word from Baradeen Creek that Dillon had been seen mounted on a fine racehorse named Butterfly, that had been stolen from a Mr. Lawson. The bushranger had coolly walked into Hall’s public house, (?) miles from Coonamble, and after a drink had made off in the direction of the Castlereagh River. I followed with a black man, and I found that he had swum across the river holding the revolver, which he had stolen from one of the warders, in his mouth. I gave my black man a stiff sip of whisky to give him extra pluck to swim the river.

We got across and that morning we ran him in a station where he had politely called on the pretence of buying sheep. When I rode up to the station I saw him leaning against the fence off guard. I covered him with my revolver, but he was powerless to shoot. His revolver and cartridges had got wet when he crossed the Castlereagh. I handcuffed him, and then he became wild. He smashed the handcuffs against the fence, but I said “Don’t be silly, my boy”.

For his behaviour I put another pair of iron bracelets round his wrists.  At Mudgee he got 14 years on the roads and public works of the colony.

The men we had to deal with in those days were wild enough for anything. ….

(Evening News, Thursday 22 February 1912, page 10 – question mark indicate unclear text in the Trove image)

A contemporary account of Tom’s capture  was published in The Courier (Brisbane), 11 July 1863, page 4. The article is available on the National Library of Australia’s Trove website.

Since this article was first posted, a second eyewitness account of Tom’s capture, by J. T. Blackman of “The Drip”, Cooyal, has come to light.

(Herrmann Family History)