The first indication that anything was wrong was when Lewis Pedrana, overseer of Government works at Melbourne, discovered four convicts missing on the morning of Monday, 5 February 1838. They were William Trigg (sawyer), William Lavender (bullock driver), William Hitchcock (or Hiscock) (bullock driver), and George West (a cook who had been assigned to work for Captain William Lonsdale). About the same time two further convicts disappeared. They were James Luff (who worked for a survey party) and William Bamfield (who had been assigned to work for George Langhorne). In those early days of settlement it was not uncommon for convicts to abscond. Many were recaptured or gave themselves up when they found life in the bush too difficult and dangerous.
Three of these convicts had been transported to from England to Australia on the same ship. Lavender, Luff and West arrived in Sydney, New South Wales in 1836 on the "Moffatt." Hitchcock had arrived at Sydney in 1829 on the "Victoria," Bamfield arrived in 1835 on the "Marquis of Huntley," and Trigg arrived on the "John" in 1837. From Sydney they were sent on the Melbourne to act as forced labour to help develop the new settlement.
The six escapees stayed in the Melbourne area for a number of weeks, committing several daring robberies. They made an armed raid on the station of John Wood, taking flour, meat and a small double-barrelled pistol. They also robbed the hut of Thomas Glass of a double-barrelled gun, a brace of pistols, a double shot bag, a powder flask as well as some flour, sugar, etc.
On Wednesday night, 14 March 1838 several of them entered the dwelling house of James Simpson, Esq., J. P. and, having secured the men, remained there till morning. Fortunately Simpson was away from his station at the time as the escapees felt they had a score to settle with him, he having sat on the Bench when one of them was sentenced to fifty lashes. Their main object however, was to take possession of the "Childe Harold," a decked cutter of ten tons, due to arrive at the Exe (now Werribee) River that night. They also knew that her master, Captain George Tobin was due to visit Simpson's place when he had anchored his ship.
On Thursday morning, after capturing Captain Tobin and getting him drunk, they took possession of his cutter, and obliged his man and some of Simpson's men to assist in loading the boat with goods. They took a dray load of stores from Simpson's station, besides a large sum of money and fire-arms, breaking the stocks of the remaining arms. They also took and detained for some time Mr. Richard Wedge and Mr. John Charles Darke, taking a watch from Mr. Wedge, which they afterwards returned, and from Mr. Darke a pocket pistol. During the time that they were at Mr. Simpson's, an unidentified man came up to the house and Hitchcock, who was on sentry duty, made him give up his watch. While Hitchcock was examining the watch the man from whom he had taken it fired and shot him in the hand. This reduced their number to five effective men, but the rest succeeded in loading the boat with provisions, stores, and water and proceeded down the River Exe, but they could not cross the bar at the entrance before 9 pm.
Meanwhile, Mr. J. C. Darke had alerted William Lonsdale, Esq., Police Magistrate, who without delay, and assisted by Mr. Robert Saunders Webb, the Collector of Customs at Melbourne, caused the Revenue Cutter "Ranger" (Capt. John Mansel Scott) to sail for the River Exe by 10.30 pm., it then being about 12 miles from the River Exe, and only one and a half hours after the bushrangers could enter the bay.
On Friday, 16th March the "Childe Harold" was seen about six miles off Geelong. Foster Fyans, Mr. Wentworth, two constables and two volunteer convicts set sail in the small schooner "Lapwing" in an attempt to capture her. However darkness set in and they became grounded for several hours on a sandbank. Once free they set out for the Heads.
The following day, the "Domain" on entering the Heads, saw the "Ranger" lying there, and the "Childe Harold" making towards the Heads but keeping close to the shore, there being a strong wind blowing into the Bay. When the "Childe Harold" saw the "Ranger" they put about and landed on Indented Head. The convicts then headed into the bush. The "Ranger," not being in a position to send a party ashore to follow the convicts, collected the abandoned "Childe Harold" and took her to Geelong, meeting up with the "Lapwing" en route.
Sgt. Denis Leary was sent from Melbourne with a detachment of Mounted Police. At Geelong he heard that the escapees had gone ashore. With the help of two constables as guides he proceeded to Indented Head where, on 20 March he found West and Trigg lying under a log. At first they refused to come out of their hiding place. Knowing they were armed he fired on them, after which they came out and were secured. He then located the wounded Hitchcock who, though armed with a pistol, surrendered. About 8 miles away he came across Luff, Bamfield and Lavender.They also were well armed, but when called upon to give themselves up, did so. The convicts, being out of provisions, had been about to kill a calf on Mr. David Fisher's cattle station.
The recaptured convicts were put on the "Ranger" and taken to Williamstown where Capt. Lonsdale, Police Magistrate went on board to examine them. The people who were with the "Childe Harold" when it was hijacked were also there to identify the robbers. Some soldiers also went aboard to guard the prisoners who were forwarded direct to headquarters in Sydney on the "Ranger."
In preparation for the trial of the convicts the "Prince George" was sent to Port Phillip to collect the master and crew of the "Childe Harold" and take them to Sydney to appear as witnesses.
The trial was held on 4 June 1838 in the Supreme Court of New South Wales before Mr. Justice Willis and a military jury. In the matter of "R. v. Hitchcock and others," the six escapees were "indicted for stealing one gun and one pistol from the dwelling-house of James Simpson, at Melbourne, Port Phillip, on the 11th March, one Richard Plummer therein put in bodily fear." William Bamfield was the only prisoner to make any defence. He said that the only object they had was to obtain their liberty; the arms they took to protect themselves from the natives, and had no intention of injuring their fellow-subjects; they all acknowledged they had broken the laws of their country, and threw themselves upon the mercy of the Court. The jury, without retiring from the box, returned a verdict of guilty. A sentence of death was recorded but does not appear to have been carried out.
The story of this incident was recorded in government documents, many of which appear in "Historical Records of Victoria" (vol. 3). However the residents at the time had to rely on newspaper accounts of the events. There was only one newspaper in Melbourne, the "Melbourne Advertiser" run by John Pascoe Fawkner. It had by then just progressed from being hand-written to appearing in print, but was still lacking a licence from Sydney. It is interesting to read the comments of the Sydney newspapers regarding this new venture:
The "Sydney Monitor" said: "We have received two numbers of the "Melbourne Advertiser", of dates the 19th and 26th March respectively. It is printed every Monday, on a sheet of pot paper. The typographical department is in a primeval state; but everything must have a beginning. As the establishment of the Press at this new and interesting settlement is an era in its history, every topic under editorial discussion deserves to gain publicity, we therefore present our readers with the "leading article" contained in the paper of the 26th March."
The "Sydney Herald" stated: "The paper consists of four pages of quarto demy; and exclusive of a few advertisements of the ordinary description, is chiefly made up of brief extracts from English and Colonial journals. The profession of the editor is modest; he says, "We aim to lead, not drive."" (and) "But the editor is not without a grievance to start with. In apologising for the somewhat blurred appearance of his pages, he complains that "the honest printer from whom the type was bought, swept up all his waste letter (sic) and called it type;" and, still further groans our youthful contemporary, "we have not as much as pearlash to clean the dirty type." Who would not excuse and pity a luckless wight of an editor, so hampered!" (and) "The foregoing is a correct account of this outrage, as far as we could track it out amidst the jumble of misplaced and misused moods, tenses, and personal and impersonal pronouns. The very first thing the proprietor of the "Melbourne Advertiser" ought to do is, to obtain the services of some person who can write intelligibly - no other qualification being necessary, at present."
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