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“I’ll fight but not surrender”: Bushranger ballads

By Paul Slade
 
 

“It is not surprising that, in a population that was largely illiterate, poems and ballads grew up round the exploits of the outlaws. […] These ballads may at times give a truer account of actual happenings than contemporary newspaper reports.” - Bill Scott, Bushranger Ballads (Lansdowne Press, 1976)

“Australian folklore has a great fondness for underdogs, larrikins and outlaws. The stories of these people who had so little overcoming their poverty, fighting a class system and overcoming it is woven into the mindset of modern-day Australia. That’s why Ned Kelly is such a hero.” - Australian songwriter Ilona Harker, talking to PlanetSlade in May 2018



We’re 98 minutes into Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight when Daisy Domergue picks up the guitar. The movie’s been a rather talky affair so far, but all that’s about to change.
Daisy’s trapped in a snowbound cabin with John Ruth, the bounty hunter who’s taking her to hang in a nearby town, and six other highly questionable characters - one of whom she’s just spotted poisoning the cabin’s coffee. Defiant as ever and cocky now about her chances of escape, she picks out the opening chords of Jim Jones at Botany Bay. Daisy’s chain rattles at her wrist as she starts to sing:

Listen for a moment, lads and hear me tell my tale,
O’er the seas from England’s shore, I was compelled to sail,
The jury found me guilty, sir, and says the judge, said he,
‘For life, Jim Jones, I sentence you across the stormy sea,

‘You’ll have no chance for mischief then, remember what I say,
They’ll flog the poaching out of you down there in Botany Bay’,
The waves were high upon the sea, the wind approaching gales,
I’d rather have drowned in misery than come to New South Wales.

Daisy’s got a crafty eye on Ruth now, watching as he crosses to the stove and pours himself a mug of coffee. She give a small, satisfied grin and continues:

And one dark night, when everything is silent in this town,
I’ll kill you bastards one by one, I’ll gun the floggers down,
I’ll give them all a little shock, remember what I say,
They’ll yet regret they sent Jim Jones in chains to Botany Bay.

Ruth takes his first sip of the poisoned coffee. A few minutes later, he’ll be dead.

Unlike most of the songs we’ll be looking at here, Jim Jones is not about a real individual. Instead, it uses the fictional Jones to represent all the convicts sent to Australia in the first 50 years of transportation – a period covering the years 1787 – 1837. We know Jones belongs to this period partly because of his ship’s destination. “It was really only the First Fleet [of 1787] that went to Botany Bay,” the Australian song collector Jason Roweth told me. “After that, they went into Port Jackson, so there’s a big clue there.” [1]
It’s fair to say, then, that Jim Jones represents the first wave of Australian bushrangers. These were convicts who chose to flee into the bush and take their chances there rather than endure the brutal conditions of their forced labour on settler farms or chain gangs. “Many of the convicts would actually be assigned as free labour to farmers,” says the Australian folklorist Keith McKenry. “So it wasn’t physically hard to escape. That’s the first generation of bushrangers: the bolters.” [2]

Very few got rich from their activities & many were shot or hanged before they reached 35.

These men survived in the bush by robbing passing travellers or raiding isolated farms, often netting no more than a change of clothes or a few basic supplies for their pains. Very few got rich from their activities and many were shot or hanged long before their 35th birthday. For many convicts, though, even this spartan life with all the risks it involved was better than the alternative. Here’s John Meredith, writing in his 1960 book The Wild Colonial Boy:

“The convicts assigned to the road gangs led a miserable existence, subjected to the cruel whims of bullying overseers and a food supply that was little better than slow starvation. Those fortunate enough to be assigned as government servants to the new settlers were only a little better off.
“Small wonder, then, that during these three years [1829-1831], more than 500 convicts turned to the happier, if somewhat more uncertain, life to be led in the surrounding bush and mountains.
“A third of the number were recaptured and hanged for their trouble. Of the remainder, some managed to secretly rehabilitate themselves in the township of Sydney; many, no doubt, died in the bush, but for them the bullet from a soldier’s carbine, an aboriginal spear in the back or even the slow death from starvation and thirst was to be preferred to the degradation of existence in convict barracks.” [3]


Most of the songs these men inspired were adventure stories, painting the bushrangers as romantic Robin Hood figures always on the side of the common man. Their great appeal was that they lived in defiance of the English colonial authorities, whose brutality and bullying laws were much resented by ordinary Australians. This gave the bushrangers a network of sympathisers throughout the bush, always ready to offer them a hot meal, a bed for the night or somewhere to hide from the soldiers chasing them.

“The vast majority of the population in Australia’s early colonial days were on the side of the downtrodden,” says Roweth. “And, of course, many of those first convicts, some of my ancestors among them, were sent out for what we might now call political crimes – even if it was written up as stealing a loaf of bread. Sympathies came out from the Luddites in England, from the Irish rebels and they just stayed.”
The Australian historian Brad Webb has calculated that, of the 150,000 convicts transported to eastern Australia between 1787 and 1852, around 50,000 were Irish – and that about 5,000 of these were what we might today call political prisoners. “The Crown viewed these dissidents as the worst kind of convict, transporting many to Australia without trial,” he writes. “Others were given the option of [either] rotting in prison or exile. Little wonder many Irish felt themselves a doubly colonised people. […] Oppressed with particular vigilance and dealt unusually hard punishments, these Irish formed the country’s first white minority.” [4]
You’ve only got to look at the names of the most famous bushrangers – Jack Donohoe, Ned Kelly, Dan Morgan – to see this Irish lineage show through. It’s also noticeable how many of the bushranger ballads are composed to fit old Irish tunes: and often old Irish rebel tunes at that. Jim Jones, for example, can be sung to the music of Skibbereen, which relates a poor Irish family’s doom at the hands of their greedy English landlord. Both Bold Jack Donohoe and The Wild Colonial Boy are written to fit the music of the Irish nationalist anthem The Wearing of the Green.
Small wonder, then, that the bushranger ballads took on a role as rebel songs in their own right. Defiance was baked in to every line of their lyrics, as witness these sample verses from the most famous bushranger ballad of all:

At the early age of sixteen years, he left his father’s home,
And through Australia’s sunny climes a bushranger did roam,
He robbed the wealthy squatters, their flocks he did destroy,
And a terror to Australia was the Wild Colonial Boy.


[…]

“Surrender now, Jack Doolin, you see there’s three to one,
Surrender in the Queen’s name, you plundering highwayman”,
Jack drew a pistol from his belt and flashed the little toy,
“I’ll fight but not surrender,” cried the Wild Colonial Boy. [5, 6]


“When that ballad first appeared, it became the convicts’ anthem to annoy and distract their soldier masters,” Ron Edwards writes in his 1972 Index to Australian Folk Song. “Eventually, the song and even the tune were considered treasonous and there are reports of men being lashed for whistling The Wild Colonial Boy.” There are also references in the literature to publicans losing their licence for allowing such songs to be sung on the premises, though McKenry cautions against assuming from this that the songs were ever targeted by statute. [7]

‘There are reports of men being lashed simply for whistling The Wild Colonial Boy.’

“I don’t doubt that the police, troopers and other authority figures may have taken action informally at a local level to sanction the singing of rebel songs, just as they would have for insulting police in myriad other ways,” he told me. “But if there is a single documented incidence where a specific law or even a judicial order was enacted in regard to the singing of rebel songs, I have not seen it.”
The men tasked with catching the bushrangers were Governor Brisbane’s mounted police, who began in 1825 as a team of just two officers and 13 troops. These soldiers were drawn from infantry regiments in Sydney and operated mostly in what’s now the city’s suburb of Parramatta. By 1839, the force had grown to 166 men, but remained unpopular among the surrounding settlers.
“They were apt to use violence when dealing with small Emancipist settlers, whom they routinely suspected of harbouring bushrangers out of criminal sympathy,” Robert Hughes says of these troops in his 1986 book The Fatal Shore. “In this way, the lower classes came to feel victimised by the bushranger laws and this created a wave of sympathy towards the bushrangers themselves.” [8, 9]
By the late 1820s, Hughes continues, this sympathy had started to inspire the country’s first home-grown bushranger ballads. One of the first to gain a hold on the popular imagination was Bold Jack Donohoe. The song’s subject was an Irish convict, transported to Australia in 1825 for “intent to commit a felony”. We don’t know what that felony was, but one Irish version of the song suggests he was a member of Wolfe Tone’s revolutionary movement The Society of United Irishmen:

For being a bold United boy,
I was forced to cross the main,
And for seven long years in New South Wales,
To wear the convict’s chain. [10]


Donohoe staged his first hold-up in 1827, working with a couple of other bushrangers called Kilroy and Smith. The three of them were quickly caught and sentenced to death, but Donohoe escaped on his journey from the courtroom back to jail. He became notorious for his escapades in the three years following that, winning a wide following for the way he repeatedly made fools of the troops pursuing him. It was Donohoe who set the template for bushrangers being determined to “die game” – that is, to die in a shoot-out with troops in the bush rather than be dragged to jail alive. He got his wish too, gunned down in a fight with troops in 1830 when he was just 24 years old. (11)

The earliest printed version of Donohoe’s ballad I’ve been able to find appears in a letter to Sydney’s Evening News on August 29, 1903. A Waterloo reader named Mick Fox contributes the verses, calling them “an old ballad I heard sung nearly 50 years ago”. Here’s an extract from Fox’s version, which has Donohoe urging his two companions to fight rather than flee:

He spoke unto his comrades: “My boys, I hope you’ll gain,
This day to fight for liberty and loud might sound your fame,
There is only three of them: our numbers just the same,
And if you will prove true to me, I will record your name.”
[12]

That reference to fame is a telling one. Even in Donohoe’s own lifetime, the spread of the ballads was already glamourising the bushrangers and making their notoriety something many young men longed to emulate. This point was picked up by Peter Cunningham in his 1827 book Two Years in New South Wales. “The vanity of being talked of, I verily believe, leads many foolish fellows to join in this kind of life – songs being made about their exploits by their sympathising brethren,” he writes. “It is the boast of many of them that their name will live in the remembrance of the colony long after their exit from among us to some penal settlement either in this world or the next.”
Hundreds upon hundreds of men – and a few women too – tried their hand at bushranging in Australia’s turbulent 1800s, but the ballads cluster round a just a handful of the most famous figures. Jack Donohoe and Ned Kelly have each had a host of ballads written about them, as have other bushranging “stars” like Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner and John Gilbert. We’ll meet all those gents properly when I come to tackle their individual songs, but suffice to say for now that their fame was very much the exception rather than the rule.

‘Donohoe was a figure of fantasy, a projection of their own lives into vengeful freedom.’

“I’ve got a book in front of me called The Book of 1,000 Bushrangers, which lists a thousand bushrangers and gives their biographies,” McKenry told me from his home in Central Victoria. “But most of them were so minor as to be forgotten almost immediately they got on the road. You’ve got this small number who were notorious, well-known and romanticised, but the overwhelming majority were just trying to put a meal on the table and clothes on their backs.”
For men like these, any notion of a bushrangers’ code ensuring they robbed only the rich oppressor classes was laughable. “If you’re on the breadline and you don’t know where your next meal’s coming from, then you’ll bail up anybody and get whatever you can,” McKenry points out. “Most of the bushrangers were short-term survivalists and didn’t survive all that successfully.” [13, 14]
What made characters like Donohoe stand out from the crowd was the fact they managed to extend their bushranging careers over a matter of years rather than mere weeks or months, generated plenty of amusing press coverage – generally at the expense of the authorities – and kept the violence they inflicted to a minimum.
“If Donohoe had been a sadist, a rapist or a baby-killer like Mark Jefferies in Van Diemen’s land, the outpouring of popular emotion that coalesced in the Donohoe ballads would not have occurred,” Hughes writes. “But Australians admired flashness; most of them disliked Governor Darling and took great glee in seeing his authority ridiculed by this elusive bushranger. They – or, at any rate, the emancipist and convict majority – felt that Donohoe posed no threat to them. He was a figure of fantasy: game as a spurred cock, a projection of that once-subjected, silent part of their own lives into vengeful freedom.” [15]
Roweth agrees. “Very few of the Australian bushrangers were actually murderers,” he says. “It’s notable how different the feeling is: Ben Hall was the golden boy and the hero. Johnny Gilbert was seen as a show-off who loved the excitement. Frank Gardiner, the businessman bushranger, was one of the very few to get rich and die of old age. Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne were eloquent in writing down their political agenda.
“But then, on the other side of the coin, you’ve got Mad Dan Morgan. The feeling for Dan Morgan in New South Wales to this day is that he was mad. The next words to come out of people’s mouths – generally they’re swearing. People just didn’t pick up his story to sing.”

Initially, it was the convicts themselves who spread ballads like Bold Jack Donohoe round the country, swapping songs from mouth to mouth as they found themselves shipped from one place to the next.
“Repeat offenders were being pushed up and down the scale of penal settlements,” says Roweth. “You’d have convicts arriving at Port Jackson, committing another offence and then - depending on the era we’re talking about - being pushed out to Norfolk Island or Van Diemen’s Land. Then, if you still haven’t lifted your game, you’d end up somewhere hellish like Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of Tasmania – all the while spreading the ballads.” [16]
Another crucial network in spreading the ballads around was the country’s 40,000 sheep shearers. Nineteenth century Australia was one huge wool factory and employed a huge portion of the male population in its shearing sheds. “If you were a dedicated shearer, you’d be walking as much as a couple of thousand miles over the course of a season, shearing in shed after shed after shed,” Roweth explains. “You’d start up north in Queensland and you’d follow the shearing season down to central Victoria. They might do 20 shearing sheds in the course of a season.
“When the shearers arrived in a little pub in the middle of nowhere, there was nothing else going on at all. When all you’ve got is ten people gathered in the front bar of a little shindy, singing songs is kind of par for the course. I’m sure they’d be singing the banned bushranger songs knowing that they were getting away with something they would not have got away with in the settled districts.
“That also feeds the other great folk process of variation. Someone picks up a song while they’re drinking rum in a pub all night and then they walk for three days. At the next shearing shed, they say ‘Oh, I heard this fantastic song’, but they’re having to make up half if it. People were rewriting all the time as well as remembering – to a point where the difference between the two is quite blurred, I think.”
Edwards makes a similar point when recalling his own song-collecting trips round the shearing sheds of the 1960s. Most nights, he’d find himself sat round the fire with the shearers themselves, trading songs and recitations to pass the time. One shearer gave him a sheet of ballad verses copied out in blunt pencil which, after some study, he concluded were based on a work by the great bush poet William Ogilvie.
“I realised that what I actually had was a poem of Ogilvie’s, but one altered almost to the point of being a new work,” he writes. “In the course of being copied and re-copied by the light of stockmen’s fires, all the unnecessary trimmings had been discarded [and] words had been altered. The end result told the same story in about a third of the space and probably told it just as well.” [17, 18]

‘The ballads gave these men their education, their sense of justice: of right and wrong.’

The 1830s saw growing opposition to transportation from Australia’s free settlers, who viewed convicts as both unfair competition in the labour market and a threat to the country’s moral welfare. Powerful men like the newspaper proprietor John Fairfax and the Catholic bishop Bernard Ullathorne joined this fight and, by 1840, transportation had all but halted. Ten years after that, the Australian gold rush started and that’s what sparked the second great wave of Australian bushranging. This time, it was not escaped convicts who took to the bush, but native-born Australians, who fancied their chances robbing the small-town banks and coach services the gold rush economy had brought. (19)
For men in this second generation of bushrangers, the old ballads were a blueprint, pointing them towards the option of a criminal career they might otherwise never have considered. “In the same way the Irish rebel songs had informed the convicts, so it went on down to the Hall gang and through to the Kellys,” Roweth says. “There’s a very clear line there. The ballads were their education, their sense of justice: of right and wrong. They grew up with those songs and stories of Jim Jones, of Bold Jack Donohoe, they sat around singing The Wild Colonial Boy and they just thought that was their inheritance – their birthright.
“There’s any amount of evidence of this next generation sitting around singing songs like Jim Jones, reciting the poetry of Frank the Poet, the convict bard, getting their inspiration from there. And then, of course, writing their own songs, having songs written about them. Then you have the Kelly Gang riding up and down the main street of Jerilderie in New South Wales, singing out ‘Here’s to the good old days of Dan Morgan and Ben Hall’. So, again, you see the old informing the new.”
By the time Ned Kelly arrived on the scene in the early 1870s, every tiny country town in Australia had its own newspaper and their coverage spread the bushranger ballads more widely than ever. “That’s how many of the bush verses became songs rather than just poems,” says McKenry. “From the 1870s, 1880s on, even small towns had their own newspapers and they were desperate for copy. So, if you wrote them a poem, there was a real chance that it would get in. That would have been the case with so many of the bush songs. Somebody would have written down the words and it would found its way into print. And the ones that were any good acquired tunes.”
One example of this process is the Ben Hall ballad, The Streets of Forbes, which relates how, in May 1865, Hall was ambushed by eight troopers, who emptied their guns into him as he attempted to flee. They then strapped his body to a horse and paraded it through the nearby town of Forbes to show off their trophy. It’s said the resulting ballad was written by Hall’s brother-in-law John Maguire, who witnessed the killing.
“The first example I know of that being in print was in a newspaper,” Roweth told me. “[Maguire] survived to write it, having witnessed the violence at the end of Ben’s life – and what was done to his body in particular. I imagine he must have been handing that piece around, or singing it or reciting it for his mates.”

The verses appeared in Sydney’s Truth newspaper on April 30, 1911. Here’s how they describe Hall’s death:

Then going to the billabong, which was his cruel downfall,
And riddled like a sieve was that hero, Ben Hall,
It was early in the morning, before the break of day,
The police they surrounded him as fast asleep he lay,


The tracker he was chosen to fire the fatal shot,
The rest then they rounded him to secure the prize they got,
They threw him on his horse and strapped him like a swag,
And led him through the streets of Forbes to show the prize they had.


Far better – and probably earlier – versions of this song have emerged since, but none of them saw print until well after 1911, which is what makes this one so notable. It didn’t officially acquire a tune until 1962, when the Australian poet John Manifold published it in a magazine called Australian Tradition. “Manifold claimed to have found someone who knew a tune to it,” McKenry says. But almost certainly he wrote the tune himself: it was Manifold’s style.”
It wasn’t only the balladeers who immortalised the bushrangers’ exploits, but playwrights, publishers and satirists too. For them, it was the Kelly Gang’s adventures which proved particularly irresistible. [20]

The Kellys were smart enough to keep the locals onside wherever they operated..’

“There was a weekly magazine called Melbourne Punch, modelled on the London Punch,” says McKenry. “For three or four years, while the Kelly Gang was at large, they would have these fictitious letters from Ned pouring shit on the coppers for not being able to find him. There were Kelly Gang ballads circulating when the Kellys were still around and even a play being put on about them in Melbourne. In Mansfield, they put out a little booklet of the songs while the Kellys were still at large.”
The Kellys were smart enough to keep the locals onside wherever they operated, ensuring a portion of their swag always made its way to the poor local farmers who kept them safe. Small wonder, then, that the entertainments about them took such a sympathetic line, siding always with the gang and their cheeky flouting of the law. Take this verse from The Ballad of the Kelly Gang - a song Ned may well have known himself – which can be traced back to an 1879 ballad sheet:

Oh Paddy dear and did you hear the news that’s going round?
On the head of bold Ned Kelly, they have placed two thousand pound,
On Steve Hart, Joe Byrne and Dan, a thousand each they’ll give,
But if the price were doubled, sure the Kelly boys would live. [21]


A few lines on, it has this equally defiant verse:

It’s hard to think such plucky hearts in crime should be employed,
But by police and persecution, they’ve all been much annoyed,
Revenge is sweet and in the bush they can defy the law,
Such sticking up and plundering, colonials never saw.


“These ballads were being sung while the Kellys were still at large and they’re pretty positive,” McKenry says. “There is an assertion made that Joe Byrne wrote some of these songs, he being Kelly’s deputy. The evidence for that is scant, but certainly they were being sung. The Kelly gang knew some of these songs. They were very cheerful and very positive because they were not written by the establishment – they were written by the people who supported the Kellys.”


Jane Wilson, writing in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, dates the bushranger era as beginning with the first British settlement of New South Wales in 1788 and ending with the execution of Jimmy Governor in 1901. Better policing, improved rail transportation and new technology such as the telegraph brought it all to an end. (22)

‘Bushrangers are a metaphor for any people willing to fight for change. That’s how I see it.’

All, that is, except the songs. In 1905, the bush poet Banjo Paterson published a book of lyrics called Old Bush Songs, which included the words to Bold Jack Donohoe, The Wild Colonial Boy and John Gilbert (Bushranger). “In his introduction to that book, he talks about these songs in the past tense,” McKenry says. “They’re songs that ‘used to be sung’. So even Paterson was saying that these songs had died out. […] John Manifold had enough trouble finding even eight songs for his 1953 book Bandicoot Ballads.”
It was a major effort from Australian songhunters of the 1950s and 1960s which turned the tide. “By the end of the sixties there were hundreds and hundreds of songs which had been found by the collectors,” McKenry points out. Many of the songs uncovered were bushranger ballads, which are now finding their way back into the sets of Australia’s folk and roots musicians.
Chloe and Jason Roweth have close to a hundred bushranger songs in their own repertoire, which they’ve been playing to festival, café and theatre audiences for over 20 years. “It would be a rare gig for Chloe and I where we don’t sing one of the bushranger songs,” Roweth told me. “Our gigs are many and varied, as you can imagine, These days, it’s more likely to be for a listening audience, but we’re still out on the back of a truck in the middle of nowhere, or playing folk and concert gigs at a little café in the middle of Sydney singing for the coffee set. We’re just everywhere, and bushranging songs would almost always be part of what we do.”

One of the things that’s kept these songs alive, he believes, is that they’ve continued to give downtrodden people a voice in every era of Australia’s history. “In Western Queensland at the time of the 1891 shearer strike, there’s evidence of them sitting around singing The Wild Colonial Boy and The Streets of Forbes as they fought for working class rights,” he says. “ In the anti-conscription debates around the time of the First World War, they were singing the Kelly ballads while fighting against conscription. You see that right down to the labour movement of the 1970s, when they were writing new songs to those tunes, but also singing the old ones to put a bit of iron in the backbone.
“Any number of what we might call progressive movements – including the Aboriginal people – have picked up on the bushrangers as a metaphor for people who are willing to fight for change. That’s how we see it now when we’re singing the bushranger songs.”
Ilona Harker is another Australian musician bringing the bushrangers’ tales to a modern audience. Daughters of the Run Rebellion, her latest show with bandmate Gleny Rae, relates the lives of four little-known female bushrangers. We’ll get to that show in a moment, but first I asked Harker how aware the duo’s audiences seem to be of the whole bushranger era.
“There’s a very strong [hipster] population in Australia now with young people,” she replied. “I think they’d definitely have heard of people like Jack Donohoe. They’d have heard of Ned Kelly, because a lot of the bikies use him as a bit of an anti-establishment hero. […] They’re very aware of the non-colonial history of Australia too, which is really important.
“Folk music has become very popular again here, so these stories are getting told - and it’s not just the stories of white men with long beards. There is a sense of connection to this idea that we were the underdogs and we fought against an oppressor. That’s a very strong theme throughout a lot of Australia’s early folk music.”

To hear recordings of all the bushranger ballads mentioned in this essay, visit my PlanetSlade Bushrangers playlist on Spotify. The artists featured there so far include Ronnie Drew, Norma Waterson and June Tabor.

Over the next year or so, I’ll be adding individual essays here on a dozen of my favourite bushranger ballads. Follow me on Twitter @PlanetSlade to get an announcement whenever new ones appear.

Sources
1) PlanetSlade telephone interview with Jason Roweth, April 2018.
2) PlanetSlade telephone interview with Keith McKenry, April 2018. McKenry is the author of More Than a Life: John Meredith & the Fight for Australian Tradition (Rosenberg, 2014).
3) The Wild Colonial Boy, by John Meredith (Wentworth Press, 1960).
4) Irish Convict Transportation to Australia, by Brad Webb. https://independentAustralia.net, October 26, 2010.
5) That song’s The Wild Colonial Boy, of course. I’ve taken this version of the lyrics from Warren Fahey’s book Australian Folk Songs & Bush Ballads (Harper Collins, 2010).
6) Squatters in this context means the illegal settlers who unilaterally claimed huge tracts of land in the bush knowing the colonial authorities were helpless to stop them. “They started out as adventurous pioneers, then became establishment,” McKenry told me. “By the time the gold rush hit in the 1850s, they had effectively carved up all the country on the map among themselves.”
7) Index to Australian Folk Song, by Ron Edwards (Ram’s Skull Press, 1972).
8)The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes (Pan, 1988).
9) An emancipist was a transportee convict who’d either been pardoned or served his full sentence. More loosely, the term was applied to free settlers who argued convicts like these should be given full civil rights.
10) This verse appears in Meredith’s book (above).
11) There are many variant spellings of Bold Jack’s surname in the literature – Donahoe, Donahue, Donohue - but I’ve stuck with Donohoe throughout here for the sake of consistency. Griffith’s Valuation, a land survey of Ireland conducted from1848 to 1864, confirms this was by far the nost common spelling of the surname at that time.
12) Fox’s letter is missing the final line of this verse, presumably because he’d forgotten how it went at some point in the intervening 50 years. I’ve replaced it here with the line from an almost identical verse of the song in Fahey’s book.
13) “Bail up” is an Australian term meaning “hold up”. It derives from the technique for holding a cow still while you’re milking it.
14) “Some bolters were brutal and vicious,” the Sydney Morning Herald reminded its readers on November 16, 1971. “Alexander Pierce, who escaped from Macquarie Harbour with six others, killed them one by one and ate them, sharing the meat with his companions – until their turn came. Mark Jefferies was also a cannibal who murdered at least four other men. He dashed a child’s brains out against a tree in front of the mother.”
15) Anyone who’s read PlanetSlade’s Stagger Lee essay will find similarities here. The Stagger Lee of the ballads gave oppressed black people in America a mythical hero who was so formidable even the bullying white police feared him. Ballads about Donohoe and the other bushrangers played the same role for the downtrodden working classes of Australia, providing a cathartic opportunity to mock the colonial authorities who kept them under.
16) Even on the transport ships, convicts sang ballads while they worked. One ship’s surgeon noted in his diary that some convicts on board rattled their chains in time to the tune’s rhythm as they sang.
17) Again, this is a familiar process. Many of the American murder songs I’ve written about elsewhere on PlanetSlade began life as long-winded British ballads and went through exactly this process of distillation when they reached the new world. And, just like the rewrite Edwards describes here, they emerged all the stronger for it.
18) Ballads which reached Australia from London were put through the same ruthless editing process. Often, any hints of the supernatural were the first thing to go. “If there was a ghost, it was likely to be got rid of,” Roweth told me. “That speaks to the Australian singer’s tendency to understate, to be dry. In the same way, our singers don’t decorate the melodies in the way that Irish singers do. It’s quite confronting when people first hear it, because it’s music with the hair still on it. It’s rough and it’s expressive.”
19) According to figures on Wikipedia, about 164,000 convicts were transported to Australia in all, 150,000 of whom had already arrived by 1840. The last transportation ship of all, the Hougoumont, arrived in Western Australia in January 1868. By that time, the country’s population had passed the 1.5m mark, meaning its settled areas no longer needed convict labour to survive.
20) In 1906, Biograph released a silent movie called The Story of the Kelly Gang, which ran for over an hour. It’s since been recognised by UNESCO as the world’s first full-length narrative feature film.
21) I’ve taken this version of the ballad from Fahey’s book (above). Note that it takes its first line verbatim from The Wearing of the Green.
22) The aborigine bushranger Jimmy Governor is best remembered today as the inspiration for Fred Schepisi’s 1978 film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

*****

Appendix: Four female bushrangers



Ilona Harker’s latest show with bandmate Gleny Rae is Daughters of the Rum Rebellion, which turns the spotlight on Australia’s little-known female bushrangers. The project began when the two women took their own trip out into the bush of New South Wales.
“There’s this town called Bourke, which is really the beginning of the outback,” Harker says. “I was working out there and Gleny said ‘I’ll come along’. We were driving along, having a chat about hitting the road and I said I’d never really heard of any female bushrangers. Gleny had read a book about Jessie Hickman and I said ‘Wow, were there any more?’ As soon as we got to a town, I Googled the subject and found there were a few more women.”
The four women they settled on to research were Jessie Hickman, Mary Ann Bugg, Molly Morgan and Mary Cockerill (also known as “Black Mary”). As Harker soon discovered, all these women led extraordinary lives. “There’s these incredible stories of survival and tenacity,” she says. “They had to lie and fib and steal, there was prostitution involved – so much had to happen for these women in order for them to survive. They could either stay down or be one of the few people who stood up. Their stories are just incredible.
“People know about some of our folk heroes, but not our folk heroines,” Harker adds of the bushranger research that preceded her own. “It’s very much all about the blokes and not so much about the women. I’d say about five people [of all those we’ve played to] have heard of Jessie Hickman and a few have heard of Mary Ann Bugg, but generally it’s just none.” Here’s a few basic facts about each of the four women Harker chose to start putting that right:

Mary Ann Bugg
Bugg met Frederick Ward in 1860, while he was on ticket-of-leave parole from his prison term on Cockatoo Island, and gave birth to his daughter a year later. Ward was returned to prison for violating his parole conditions, but was joined by Bugg again on his escape. Captain Thunderbolt – as Ward was now calling himself – went on to enjoy a long bushranging career with her at his side.
“Mary was interesting because she was a spy,” Harker says. “They’d rebrand the cattle that Thunderbolt had stolen and she’d go and sell them. Then she’d go and listen in the town for gossip. These women were considered nobodies, so they were in a great position to go under the radar.
“She would also capture a lot of cattle herself. She had a knife attached to a long pole and she would cut the Achilles tendon on the cow, then jump off her horse and wrestle it to the ground. She was very fit and agile.”

Mary Cockerill (aka Black Mary)
Cockerill took up with the bushranger Michael Howe at the age of 17 and Harker believes it was her native skills which kept him alive in the hostile bush. Far from being grateful, in 1817 Howe shot and injured her to prevent her slowing his escape from troops. Cockerill was so incensed by this betrayal that she helped them capture Howe’s gang a few months later.
“Howe and his gang all wore traditional indigenous clothing,” Harker says. “They wore kangaroo skins or possum skins, or ever wombat skins. I think that might have been the influence of Black Mary. It’s very hard to survive out in the bush and I think she would have taught them.”

Jessie Hickman
In 1898, when Hickman was just eight years old, her parents gave her to a travelling bush circus which taught her to become an expert trick rider. Years later, now with two prison terms for theft under her belt, she killed her abusive husband in self-defence and fled to the bush to avoid capture. There, she took up with a cattle rustler named Andy Black before striking out on her own in the same line of work.
“Jessie would invite indigenous people into her cave in the Nullo mountains,” Harker says. “She’d bring all the indigenous women in and feed them. She also fed the out of work. She would steal cattle, strip them and make jerky, then she would go and give this to the poor and to soldiers returning from war. She had a very strong sense of social justice.”

Molly Morgan
Morgan was first transported to Australia in 1789 after being caught stealing hemp from a linen factory and returned to England five years later. In 1803, she was transported again, this time on charges of burning down her family’s home.
With the help of a besotted army officer, she acquired some land and set about rebranding any nearby government cattle as her own. After a term in Newcastle Penal Colony for that, she went on to buy a string of Hunter Valley taverns, spurring on her convict labourers there with illegal free booze. “At one point, Molly built a basic hospital on her land to help the local people of Maitland,” Harker says. “If any of the prisoners were to be hung, she’d ride to Sydney to plead with the Governor for clemency.”

You can watch Harker & Rae’s full Daughters of the Rum Rebellion show on YouTube here.