The Bushranger’s Pistols – A Blackman Family Story

Introduction

In my earlier post Bushranger Myth Making I described some of the stories that have been told about the bushranger Thomas “Tom” Dillon. I also mentioned some connections between Dillon and the pioneering Blackman family of the Mudgee district.

This post attracted the attention of a Blackman descendant whose family have a brace of pistols reputed to have been surrendered by a bushranger. This informant thought that they might have been Dillon’s guns. This is her rendition of her family’s story:

“We always believed that the guns were handed over from the bushranger to Mr Blackman as the bushranger respected him and ran his horses on his place. Apparently when the bushranger was asked to surrender he said he wouldn’t surrender in the king’s name but he would to Mr Blackman and when he handed the pistols over he broke them on a tree stump one one way and one the other. (They are still broken).”

My informant is descended from James Blackman senior (Abt 1759 – 1842) and his wife Elizabeth Harley, via their son William (1799 – 1854) and his wife Sarah Cobcroft, and William and Sarah’s son Samuel Alfred Blackman, J. P. (1830 – 1896) and his wife Charlotte Smith. Samuel Alfred’s brother, William Richard Blackman is also relevant to the story. The brothers were both Justices of the Peace for the Mudgee district.

The Guns

The guns are a matched pair of flintlock duelling pistols by the English maker Wogdon. Their date of manufacture is prior to 1795, as in 1794 Wogdon entered a partnership with John Barton and thereafter their guns bore both names.

IMG_0814

The Blackman Duelling Pistols

A pistol is a small firearm designed to be held in one hand, or in modern terms a hand gun. Revolvers, six-guns, automatics, derringers etc. are all sub-types of pistols. Consequently, it is not necessarily inconsistent if a witness describes the same gun as a revolver in one context, and a pistol in another.

IMG_0899

The Wogdon Makers Mark

These duelling pistols would not have been a desirable gun for a bushranger in the 1860s, and would only have been used if nothing better was available. They were difficult to conceal, could fire only one shot before a protracted reloading was necessary, and the flintlock firing mechanism was susceptible to moisture ingress which damped the powder and rendered it ineffective. Similar pistols with shorter barrels shared the latter two drawbacks.

The preferred bushranger handgun of this period was the revolver, of which the English Tranter and American Colt models were esteemed. One gun allowed 5 or 6 shots in rapid succession.

Are these Thomas Dillon’s Guns?

There is one documented link between Dillon, a Blackman, and the giving up of guns. This refers to his arrest after his second escape from Mudgee gaol, on 28 May 1863, with 5 others. During the escape a prison warder’s gun was stolen.

There are 3 newspaper accounts of Dillon’s recapture by Sergeant Cleary near the Castlereagh River. The first of these, which was widely published was obviously informed by Cleary. It contains this statement:

“They shortly after captured their man; upon searching him they found a revolver, which was loaded and capped.”.

In the article, Cleary is also described as having spent the night preceding the arrest at Mr Blackman’s run (probably Nugal).  [1]

The 2nd account is a reminiscence by Sergeant Cleary in old age. In this account he says:

“I covered him with my revolver, but he was powerless to shoot. His revolver and cartridges had got wet when he crossed the Castlereagh.” [2]

The 3rd account is by John Thomas Blackman (1857 – 1936). In a letter to the Narromine News in 1932, he claimed to have been an eyewitness to the arrest at his father’s run when about 6 years old. No doubt the story was retold often when he was growing up and thereby reinforced in his recollection. In this account it is Dillon rather than Cleary who stays overnight at Thomas Harley Blackman’s run, but there is no mention of Dillon’s gun. [3] Both the 1st and 3rd accounts agree that after Dillon was recaptured the party had a meal at Nugal station before commencing the journey back to Mudgee.

It can be concluded from the above accounts that Dillon’s arrest by Sergeant Cleary occurred with Thomas Blackman nearby. Also, that Dillon was armed with a revolver of the “cap and ball” type where each cylinder of the revolver was separately loaded with the cap, powder and ball (bullet). This early type of revolver was still susceptible to wetting, unlike the newer revolvers that used cased (cartridge) ammunition.

Some newspaper reports of the Dillon gang’s holdups mention the guns used. On the evening of 17 September 1862 two people held up Bayly’s station, one being armed with a 6-barrelled revolver and a double barrelled pistol, and the other with a double-barrelled revolver (another report says two 6-barrelled revolvers).  Several hours later 3 people held up a Mr Marsh and his family. One of the offenders was armed with a revolver, the others with “firearms”. Whilst there’s no evidence that the duelling pistols were surrendered by Dillon to Samuel Alfred Blackman, it can’t be ruled out. They were neighbours, although with much different social standing, so it’s plausible that Dillon may have run horses on Blackman’s Cooyal station.

Are these Charley Johnson’s Guns?

There is a much better candidate to be the bushranger who surrendered the duelling pistols. This is Charles “Charley” Johnson who was arrested by William Richard Blackman, J. P. and Robert Woods in 1868.

Charles Johnson Prison Photo

Charley Johnson’s Prison Record – © State of New South Wales through the State Archives and Records Authority of NSW 2016.

On Saturday 4 April that year Johnson and another man escaped from the police lockup at Denison Town on the Talbragar. The following Tuesday Senior Constable Hugh Campbell went in search of Johnson but fell from his horse and died as a result. Campbell was the policeman who in 1862 had first arrested Tom Dillon for his series of robberies. [4]

Some time later, William Richard Blackman, J. P. and Robert Wood, a shepherd, set out to track down and capture Johnson. It’s unclear as to why they undertook this mission rather than leave the matter to the police. Then followed a lengthy pursuit which culminated on Sunday 3 May when Johnson surrendered to them near Cassilis.

Newspapers published a very detailed account of this pursuit, clearly informed by Blackman who stated that “I was armed with a Wilson’s breech-loader [rifle], and Woods with an old rifle, besides which we had revolvers and a pistol.” So Blackman knew his firearms. [5]

This is what Blackman had to say under oath when Johnson faced court, as recorded by a newspaper reporter:

“… prisoner was in bed when witness first saw him; he was camped out in the open air. I whistled to Robert Wood and then went towards him; prisoner jumped up holding a revolver in each hand; I called out “Charley, put down those pistols, and don’t attempt to use them; give yourself up to me;” prisoner did not answer; Robert Wood then spoke to him: prisoner said to Wood, “Who the — are you?” I said “Come now, give up, and don’t attempt to use those firearms;” he then fired the revolver in the air, and then smashed them against a tree, and then threw them on the ground; the prisoner did not attempt to fire at me or Wood; he did not present the revolvers at me or Wood; we both had rifles and the prisoner saw them…”. [6]

The revolvers were produced in court and identified by both Blackman and Wood as the revolvers in question. [7)

In his evidence Blackman refers to Johnson’s firearms successively as revolvers, pistols and firearms, however it is clear from the context that they were revolvers and not duelling pistols. This was consistent with evidence given by some of Johnson’s victims as to how he was armed when robbing them. [8]

An obituary of Blackman states that he was presented with Johnson’s revolver by the authorities, presumably after the trial. Where is it now?

Conclusion

Whilst the evidence isn’t sufficient to definitively rule out Dillon or Johnson as having had possession of the duelling pistols at some time, it doesn’t seem likely.

Another possibility is that two family stories – that of the pistols and that of Blackman’s capture of Johnson – have been conflated as memories faded over the years. It’s easy to see how this would occur, considering that the family story is based on an actual event that included Johnson dashing his guns against a tree and the fact that both duelling pistols are damaged.

A relevant factor is that the pistols are now in the possession of descendants of Samuel Alfred Blackman and not descendants of William Richard Blackman, the man who arrested Johnson.

There are other possibilities for how the pistols came to be in the possession of the Blackman descendants. Given their age, i.e., manufactured before 1795, it’s plausible that they came to Australia with James Blackman senior in 1801. James Blackman was a free settler in a penal colony. He was from a modestly wealthy family and came to Sydney with a letter of introduction to Governor King from the Duke of Portland. At the time of his marriage in 1785 he was working as an artilleryman in the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, so knew firearms. A free settler at that period would have been well advised to bring firearms for personal security.

James was employed on police work between 1813 and 1816 and later worked as District Constable and Pound Keeper from 1819 to 1822 and this service included pursuit of bushrangers. At least two of his sons also held appointments as Constables c. 1820. [9] This presents further possibilities for research into the origin of the pistols.

For the moment, however, I must leave story of the Blackman duelling pistols unfinished.

Acknowledgement: Photographs used courtesy of the Blackman descendant mentioned in paragraph 2.

Notes:

  1. The Courier (Brisbane), 11 July 1863, page 4
  2. Evening News (Sydney), 22 February 1912, page 10
  3. Narromine News and Trangie Advocate, 11 March 1932, page 1
  4. Sydney Stock and Station Journal, 7 February 1922, page 5
  5. Age (Melbourne), 13 May 1868, page 6
  6. Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 14 May 1868, page 4
  7. Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July 1868, page 2
  8. Toowoomba Chronicle and Queensland Advertiser, 22 April 1868, page 3
  9. https://knightsandsirs.blogspot.com/p/son-of-jamesblackman-and-jane-hearne.html

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