CONVICTS or PIRATES?


The first half of 1851 was an unsettled time in the Port Phillip District. As the date for separation from New South Wales approached the newspapers carried stories about gold discoveries as well as many reports of highway robberies, forgeries, burglaries, and other crimes.

One episode of crime began in February 1851 at Hobart, Van Diemen's Land, when two men boarded the lighter "Helen" which had been chartered to go on a cruise south to the timber location of the D'Entrecasteaux Channel. The "Helen" was laden with provisions and stores intended for barter with the sawyers. When getting under weigh at Hobart, the two men came on board and took their passage to the coast, stipulating that they were to be landed at Three-hut Point. This was done about 7 February 1851. However, when lying off the Point, a boat with several armed men on board came alongside, and pretended they were constables in search of the two men who had taken their passage. They landed, and returned with the two men in custody, one being hand-cuffed. The whole number, were, however, confederate runaways, the pretended constables having stolen their boat, the "Thistle," from below Battery Point.

Once they were all back on board the "Helen" they persuaded the master to get under weigh for Hobart Town, under the pretence of taking the two prisoners there. When fairly standing out, clear of the channel, the runaways watched their opportunity; shut the crew below, and steered for Swan Island, off the north-east coast of V.D.L.

They arrived at Swan Island on the 15th instant and anchored, but in the wrong place. This aroused the suspicions of the light-house keeper, who immediately came on board. The men on deck said they were going for guano to one of the Islands in the Straits, there to leave part of their number. They had no papers to show. On his leaving the lighter, they weighed and got into the Straits, but two of the original crew managed to secrete themselves in the stern boat, which they cut adrift just as the "Helen" was standing out. Having landed, they informed the light-house keeper of the whole particulars of the taking of the vessel, and also of the runaways being armed, and their intention to make a piratical seizure of some larger vessel, and then sail for California. These particulars were furnished by the light-house keeper, Mr. Johnstone, to Captain Arthur Wright of the "Martha and Elizabeth," which vessel touched at Swan Island on the 16th instant en route from Hobart to Geelong.

The runaways made their next appearance at Sealer's Cove on the east coast of Wilsons Promontory, Port Phillip District. The "Martha and Elizabeth" arrived at Sealer's Cove on 5 May 1851, and on the following day a whale boat manned by six men came alongside. One of them came on deck and requested some pitch or tar, as he said their boat was leaky. This was given to him, after which he requested some provisions. Captain Wright replied that he could not give him any as he was very short of them, upon which the man, opening his trousers pocket quietly drew Captain Wright's attention to a seven barrel revolver reposing there, and as if to add weight to the appeal shewed him a similar instrument in his other pocket. There was no withstanding such an argument, more especially as the man informed the amazed skipper that his five companions were similarly armed. After helping themselves to sugar, tea, grog, and the Captain's watch, repeater, and other personal effects, they left, at the same time informing him that if he had any communication with the "Shamrock" steamer then entering the cove, they would cut his cables and compel him to take them to New Zealand. They remained all that night and the following morning took two men and compelled them to row them away. On Saturday the 10th, the two pressed men returned to the cove, in a boat, having landed the ruffians, who were armed to the teeth, near Cape Liptrap from whence they were thought likely to head for the Gipps Land Ranges.

Mounted Police soon began scouring the country in search of the marauders, and on Saturday, 17 May 1851, succeeded in apprehending five strong active men making their way to Melbourne on the Western Port road, about eighteen miles from Dandenong. They were all were well armed, having two brace of pistols, one carbine cut down as a pistol, and a single-barrelled gun all loaded, and capped, ready for use.

The following Monday these five desperate looking ruffians appeared in the Police Court in Melbourne before the Mayor, Alderman Augustus Frederick Adolphus Greeves, and Evelyn Pitfield Shirley Sturt, Esq., Inspector of Police, charged with being prisoners of the Crown illegally at large.

Private Alfred Redding, of the mounted police corps, stated that on the previous Saturday he and other troopers had apprehended the prisoners, Jeremiah Sullivan, William Jordan, and John Smith. Jordan had the carbine (now produced), and the other two were armed with a brace of pistols each (also produced). A powder flask was also taken from them. When apprehended they made no resistance, but said they came from the inlets on the coast. They had some Van Diemen's Land bank notes in their possession, loose silver, and some bedding was taken from Sullivan.

Samuel Lowery, another trooper attached to the mounted police, deposed that he and five other troopers had arrested the other two prisoners in the same district, about a mile and a half from the inlet. They were on the road to Melbourne and William Hillor had a gun in his hand which was capped and loaded, and a pair of pistols (gun and pistols produced) were taken from John Lackland, together with 17 bullets, some percussion caps, a £1 Van Diemen's Land note, a pouch containing shot, a powder flask, a silver watch with chain, together with some minor articles. The two prisoners made no resistance and were arrested as being runaways from Van Diemen's Land.

They were strongly suspected of committing several acts of piracy upon the coast, and other outrages in the Bush - a quantity of female clothing being found tied up with their bedding. Mr. Samuel Barrow, the superintendent of the Pentridge Stockade, fancied he recognised the features of one or two out of the gang - and their general appearance was fearfully against them; a greater set of cut-throat-looking fellows could scarcely be imagined.

The five men were each asked to give an account of themselves, which they did by telling various rigmarole stories. Jeremiah Sullivan said he arrived in the "Castor" man-of-war in the year 1838, and had been employed as a mariner ever since. Landed first in Twofold Bay, and when apprehended had only landed at the inlets in Western Port four days before from the schooner "Success," from Sydney, and bound for New Zealand. The reason he came ashore was through having a dispute with the captain on board. William Jordan said he came out to Sydney in the "Alexander," in 1832, as a transported offender, served seven years at Cockatoo Island, and became free. He came over to this colony via Port Albert. John Smith said he also came to Sydney in 1832, and arrived free, but had never been in Van Diemen's Land. He came overland from Sydney, obtaining employment on the road as best he could. He came out in the navy as a sailor.

John Lackland said he was formerly transported to Van Diemen's Land, had served his time, and since proceeded to Sydney, from whence he came overland to this place. William Hillor said he came from Sydney overland to Port Albert, and from thence to Port Phillip.

Mr. District Chief Constable Charles Brodie informed the Bench that Captain Wright had had notice of the examination but was not in attendance, though he had been sent for. He inquired if they intended to go into the charge of Piracy or merely to send the prisoners back to Van Diemen's Land as runaway convicts. As there was no doubt that they were the men who boarded and robbed the schooner "Martha and Elizabeth," in Sealer's Cove, and the same gang who "bailed up" the station of Messrs. Turnbull for stores, the Bench decided on remanding the prisoners for a week to allow further evidence to be procured.

On Monday, 26 May 1851, the five men were brought up for re-examination before the Mayor at the Police Court. Chief Constable Brodie informed the Bench that marks on the persons of the prisoners corresponded with the description of certain runaway convicts from Van Diemen's Land. The Superintendent of Police, Mr. Sturt, also informed the Bench that the Captain of the "Martha and Elizabeth" had seen the men, and had positively identified two of them as men who had boarded his vessel and robbed it of several articles. Certain items found on the men, including a silver watch, had been identified by the captain, in addition to which a number of the articles had been recognised as those taken from Spring Bay, from whence the men had absconded. He would now apply to the bench to have the men transferred to Van Diemen's Land, to be dealt with as escaped prisoners of the Crown. Under these circumstances it was resolved not to put the colony to the expense of their prosecution and maintenance. The Mayor remanded them accordingly, and ordered them to be removed in custody and returned to Van Diemen's Land by the first opportunity.

Contributed by Alexander Romanov-Hughes (PPPG Member No. 52)


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