Overlanders #4: 'Government-men' / 'Bush-rangers'


Government-men / Bush-rangers

For the overlanders operating in the early colonial period for Victoria and South Australia, there was little choice concerning labour. It was 'Government-men' from New South Wales or 'Government-men' from Van Diemen's Land. That is, their potential drovers, stockmen, or shepherds, had to be selected from the existing pool of convicts, ticket of leave men, and ex-convicts. A common description of those employed at the time was 'old lags' -- from the official acronym for Licence of Assigned Government Servants -- a term which covered the range from manacled prisoners to those who had completed their sentences, and all the bureaucratic stages in between.

In their favour was the fact that this 'workforce' was cheap to employ and readily available. In the negative was the fact that they were former criminals and had been many years in the penal system with other criminals. In reality, however, the first overlanders had to take what they could get; because there were not a lot of 'free settlers' who were keen to accompany them and their stock into unknown wilderness, (particularly when there was a risk of encountering 'murderous savages').

1. 'Hunter & Watson' - Overlanders 1839

1.1 Edward Bell 
Bride & Sayers, [1898] 1983, Letters from Victorian Pioneers, pp. 283-4
"We left Sydney, I think, on the 3rd of October [1839]...we went on to Lake George, on the other side of which a property had been purchased for the sole purposes of procuring some assigned servants, of whom we had twenty in the expedition...In this neighbourhood I bought about 300 head of cattle...We had, also, about 400 head of cattle bought from a Mrs Barton, at Berrima, with which we fortunately got a stockman 'given in', named 'Little Sam', which, considering our intense 'greenness', and the uselessness of most of the convict servants, who were just 'turned out of Government', was of great consequence...My position at the Tumut, with my twenty 'Government men', about 1,200 cattle, and about 30 horses, in a country with which I was totally unacquainted, may, perhaps, be conceived, but is difficult to describe. I was very much afraid of losing my cattle, and therefore tried to keep them within sight, counting them regularly every day..."

2. 'Hepburn & Coghill' - Overlanders 1838

2.1 Captain Hepburn
Bride & Sayers, [1898] 1983, Letters from Victorian Pioneers, p. 67
"We crossed the Murray at the point [the explorers] Hume and Hovell had crossed many years before. Mr Bowman had about 5,000 sheep, Mr Coghill 2,000, making, with my lot, in all near 9,000...we crossed the whole of the sheep in 2 and a 1/2 hours without the loss of a single sheep; we followed the track of those before us, which was not difficult and in a short distance came onto the Major's line, which was easily recognised at this time. My men, ['10 men (all prisoners of the Crown)'] who had the lead of the party, refused to keep the advance, thinking their labours were more than the others; but they were soon taught a lesson which they never forgot, and they behaved well for the remainder of the journey." [Hepburn was a former ship's captain and evidently treated his convicts on land as he had treated his crew at sea - asserting his authority, and when resisted, backing up his words with his fists. However he could not be 'standing over' them all the time.]

2.2 Captain Hepburn
Bride & Sayers, pp.71-74
"It will perhaps be necessary to relate what took place with myself...although much blame might be attached to my men, who paid smartly for their impudence. One lot of sheep was left at the Campaspe and another at the Loddon [because these ewes were lambing]; three men having been left at each place, well armed for defence...I was very much troubled in my mind about the men -- one of them being a very bad character; all I thought of was that the two [might have] murdered the man in charge, and made off with the cart and horse...I thought Williams or Traynor [might have] murdered Lee...It appeared [however, that] when the three men had arranged to remove from the first camp...the sheep started, and after travelling a short distance, the two men with the sheep were attacked [by 'the Blacks'] and fled to the cart for their arms; but they soon found the cart was captured, and poor Lee dreadfully wounded...I got the wounds on Lee's body and head (which was worst) dressed; he kept in good spirits after my arrival; he thought I was murdered which troubled him much. In the night they all kept up, and kept firing their muskets at the wind."
[The attack by the natives on these men was not unprovoked. It had to do with another man in their company, an 'absconder', who had encouraged them to 'fraternise' with the local Aboriginal women.]
"There was a man of the name of Knight, who was one of Bowman's party, a veteran; he had at this time been several days amongst the natives -- perhaps weeks; he pretended he had lost himself...I am now drawing to a period which will perhaps throw some light on this mysterious fellow, Knight. He kept in camp all night with my men, but after starting the party in marching order, this man disappeared, and took with him a young dog, which was given to him to carry. All the men got so alarmed that I was compelled to threaten to shoot the first man who flinched from the position given him. I closed the order of marching, so that I had all within my own view. I made a search for Knight, but I could not see either him or any of the natives. I learnt many months afterwards from a black boy that Knight was killed that very night by the blacks...I have no doubt of the truth of the murder, as the boy's story of the dog showed that the boy knew something of the matter...I have no doubt in my own mind that this man [Knight] was at the bottom of all the mischief..."

2.3 Captain Hepburn
Bride & Sayers, p. 80
"Before closing, I should state the result of my experience amongst prisoners of the Crown under the old system, more particularly those under my own charge in this part of the country. I brought from Sydney, Frances Smith, Isaac Howe, William Butson, George Lee, George Carmichael, George Cook -- all six men, well-behaved and useful; these men were paid 30 Pounds per annum while in my service; they were the assigned servants of [my overlanding partner and squatting neighbour] John Coghill. They are all in existence, and have done well. Edward Trayner and Bartholomew Williams were both bad men and petty thieves; Dennis Walker and Joseph Woodford, two boys, turned out middling, but were troublesome in my service." 
[Hepburn's long letter to Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe, written in 1853, is a measured assessment of the '10 men (all prisoners of the Crown)' that he took charge of in 1838 -- six proved good employees and decent citizens, two were, and remained, 'bad men', and 'two boys', who were difficult when young, did not turn out 'bad men' in the end. This is a credible and persuasive report by Hepburn. Among the convicts there was a hardened criminal element, but these were in the minority, and their corrosive influence over others  gradually diminished outside the prison system. However, in the early days of their 'service' at least, the risk posed by the 'malignant influence' of 'absconders' on the convict and ex-convict workforce remained very real.]

3. 'Ebden & Bonney' - Overlanders 1837

3.1 Charles Bonney 
The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 23 June 1906, p. 8
"On the journey [from Sydney to Charles Ebden's station on the Murray in July 1836], we had a good deal of talk about the settlement of Port Phillip...Mr. Ebden expressed a desire to send sheep overland to the new settlement...In the month of March [1837] started with ten thousand sheep for the Port Phillip district. These were the first sheep taken across to the new settlement...The day before my intended departure [from their camp on the Goulburn River] I received intelligence that there was a party with cattle about a day's journey behind me, under the leadership of...George Hamilton...and that there were two bush-rangers ['absconders' from Howey's station near Yass] hovering about the party who would probably attempt to rob either that party or mine. In company with one of Hamilton's overseers, I spent the afternoon in searching the country round about us in the endeavour to find the bushrangers, but not succeeding...On my return from the settlement [with drayloads of fresh supplies] the first news that greeted me was that the bushrangers, accompanied by one of Mr. Hamilton's men [a third 'absconder'], had visited my camp, and induced six of my men to abscond with them [now nine 'absconders']..."

3.2 Charles Bonney
Sydney Morning Herald, p. 8
"I heard nothing of the absconders for some weeks, when one day, returning to my camp in the evening after being all day out on the run, I learned that two of the absconders, named Dignum and Commerford, had visited the camp in my absence, and taken away with them as much provisions as they could carry...Whilst the bushrangers were robbing the camp the hutkeepers asked them what had become of the other seven men who went away with them, to which they replied, in an evasive manner that they did not know. After the robbery they proceeded [back] along the overland track towards the Murray, and the next thing heard of them was that, on arriving at the Murray, Commerford gave himself up to the police then stationed there, and confessed that he and Dignum had murdered their seven companions in the district of Portland Bay, to which they had gone after absconding, and burnt their bodies."

3.3 Charles Bonney
Sydney Morning Herald, p. 8
"Dignum was an old hand, and, according to his own account, had been guilty of all sorts of crimes, and had served sentences in all the penal establishments. Commerford was a good-looking young fellow, and passed himself of as a native of the colony, but in reality he was an escapee...What the motive of these men was in murdering their companions was never satisfactorily explained. Their own account of it was that the other men, being Englishmen, intended to murder the two, who were Irish, and the latter thought that they would be beforehand with them and attack them whilst they were asleep...It is still more difficult to account for Commerford's conduct in giving himself up to the police in the first instance, and then committing the crime which led to his execution. He seems to have been a creature of impulse, and this was exemplified by his borrowing a brace of pistols from me on one occasion to protect himself, as he said, from the blacks, and having, within a day or two of his absconding, returned the pistols to me without my having asked for them."

4. 'Comerford and Dignum' - Absconders 1837-1838

4.1 Court Reporter
The Sydney Herald, Thursday 31 May 1838. p. 2, 'Execution of Comerford the Murderer'
"Yesterday, pursuant to his sentence, George Comerford, who pleaded guilty to the charge of murdering Constable Thompkins, was executed at the usual hour and place. Being a Roman Catholic he was attended by the Rev. Mr. McEnroe, and although he was very firm appeared to pay particular attention to the exhortations of the reverend gentleman. He did not utter a word, except the responses in the religious duties he went through, from the time he arrived in the yard until the drop fell. After he had been suspended about an hour, his body was placed in a coffin filled with lime and buried within the walls of the gaol."

4.2 Comerford's (self-serving) Confession
Sydney Herald, p. 2
"In May 1837 he left Mr Ebden's station in company with two assigned servants named Dignum and Smith, and joined three of Mr Howey's servants, and three men assigned to Mr Ebden who were then at large. The party, which then consisted of nine men, went towards Portland Bay, and on their road, one of Mr Howey's servants, called the shoemaker, told Dignum and Comerford that the other six men intended to murder them three, in consequence of which they resolved to murder the others. In the night they got up and Dignum killed four of the men by striking them as they lay asleep with a tomahawk; the fifth man awoke, and was instantly shot by Dignum, while the shoemaker shot the sixth man. They then made a fire and burned the bodies and the bloody blankets, and the next morning broke up the bones that were left and made up the fire anew, leaving the bones burning. A night or two afterwards Comerford woke and saw Dignum murder the shoemaker as he was lying asleep, but he told Comerford that he need not be afraid, as he did not intend to hurt him...As they were in the bush one day, Comerford heard a pistol click, and upon looking round was informed by Dignum that it was well there was no priming, as he was the only man he was afraid of. Upon this Comerford ran away, gave himself up, and made a confession embodying the above facts..."

4.3 Court Reporter
Sydney Herald, p. 2
"...Dignum having been apprehended, they were both forwarded to Sydney. The Attorney-General examined Comerford very closely, and finding that his story was probable, sent him to Port Phillip, that he might point out the spot where the murders were committed, in order to obtain corroborative evidence against Dignum. The party sent with Comerford consisted of a serjeant of the 80th regiment and Constables Partington and Thompkins. Comerford took them to the place where the six men were massacred, and by the bones and other things that were lying about there is no doubt the murders were committed. On the way to the spot where the shoemaker was murdered, Comerford managed to obtain a musket, with which he shot Thomkins and made off, but was shortly afterwards apprehended."

4.4 Charles Bonney
Sydney Morning Herald, p. 8
"Commerford escaped pursuit, and the next heard of him was that he was making his way across to my station to attack me; but calling at a hut on the way, the men at the hut knowing who he was, and hoping to gain some reward for themselves, seized him, chained him to a dray, and took him to Port Phillip. He was then taken to Sydney, and tried, and hanged for the murder of the constable. His companion, Dignum, remained in gaol, but, as the only witness to the crime was now dead, he could not be tried for the murder[s], but a charge of horse stealing was preferred against him, and, on being convicted of this crime, he was transported to Norfolk Island for life."


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