Back to the Index Page
 
 
 

Three Celebrities by John Lang

 

"Fox, Pitt, and Burke were," said my informant (an old lady who had been the wife of a Government official in New South Wales), "low London thieves, who were transported under the names of the three most celebrated orators and statesmen of their time. Their offence was picking pockets at a fair, and their sentences fourteen years. Charles James Fox was assigned to my husband, and we employed him in household duties. He was a slight young man of about twenty-four years of age, and far from ill-looking, when he first came into our service. For a few months he conducted himself remarkably well; but subsequently he became idle, negligent, and addicted to speaking the most flagrant untruths; so much so, that the major on several occasions had him flogged. On the last occasion he never returned to us. He watched his opportunity, and made his escape from the constable who had him in charge. He was, of course, gazetted as a runaway, and a reward of ten pounds offered for his apprehension. A few days afterwards the Gazette contained the names of William Pitt and Edmund Burke. They, too (most probably at the instigation of Charles James Fox), had ran away from their respective masters. It was rather droll to see those three great names placarded in all directions, and the persons who then bore them in the colony minutely describil Pitt's master was a Doctor Wylde, whom we knew very intimately. He described Pitt to us as a short, and rather determined character. Edmund Burke, having been originally a compositor, was employed in the Government printing-office, which was then superintended by George Howe, who was afterwards permitted to publish a newspaper in Sydney, subject to the censorship of the Colonial Secretary. Burke, according to Mr. Howe's account, was a man of good natural ability, but of violent and, when excited, ferocious disposition.

"The career of these men, who took to the bush (considering that it extended over a period of eight years), was a very remarkable one. There was not a road in the colony, not even a cross-road or bush-road, upon which they had not stopped and robbed travellers. And it is a mistake to suppose that the police was an inefficient body in those days. It was more efficient than they are likely to be again. Some of the police had been highwaymen, poachers, gamekeepers; men who bad been pardoned for capturing bushrangers guilty of great crimes, and who had received their appointments in consequence of the proofs they had given that confidence might be placed in them. Their pay was small, and the rewards for the apprehension of desperate characters were large. The pay of the great George Lewis, the most renowned of all Australian thief-takers and bushrangers, was only four dollars (one pound currency) per week, and as he kept two horses, and maize was commonly two dollars a bushel, you may readily imagine that he had to look to the walls, and not to his pay, for a livelihood."

"What do you mean by looking to the walls, my dear madam?" I said.

"All runaway convicts and bushrangers," she replied, "were placarded on the walls and gate-posts, as well as advertised in the Government Gazette. I have seen the walls of the police-office in Sydney literally covered with these handbills, headed £10 Reward! £25 Reward! £50 Reward! £100 Reward! The great thief-takers, men of George Lewis's stamp--and they were all men of prowess, courage, and sagacity--never hunted in couples. They always went forth alone. They were not only too greedy for the gain, but too jealous of each other to admit of their combining to effect the capture. They depended upon strategy and individual valour, rather than upon numbers, to accomplish the ends they had in view. It was a curious sight to see a group of these thief-takers (bloodhounds they were called) coolly spelling a fresh placard on the walls of the police-office, and then observe the speculation which was stamped upon their various countenances. My husband, of course, knew all these men, and so did I, for that matter; and when Charles James Fox became such a very distinguished man in his way, all of them, not in a body, but separately, came to make certain inquiries touching his habits and peculiarities. The major was from home when Mr. George Lewis called, and I received him in the breakfast parlour, and answered aU the questions he put to me, 'Did Charles James Fox drink? Could he read and write? Was he a talkative or silent sort of a man?' I answered that Charles James Fox did not drink; he could not read or write, and that he was a silent sort of a person. 'Burke can read,' said Mr. Lewis, 'but he is not much of a hand at writing; and as for Billy Pitt, he doesn't know a pothook from a hanger.' He then went on to say that he had had great hopes of taking, or bringing in dead, two out of the three lately, but that such hopes had been blighted; that he had hired a horse and cart, and had gone up the Paramatta Road, dressed as a farmer, in an old White top-coat, leather leggings, and a round hat; that on the first occasion, he went and returned unmolested; but that, on the second occasion, he was stopped by two men armed with fowling--pieces, near the Iron Cove Creek, Ashfield; that they demanded his money or his life; that he said they should have it; that dropping the reins, and putting his hands into the hind pockets of the old top-coat, he discharged, through the pockets, a brace of loaded pistols, within a yard of each man's breast, and brought them both down as dead as hammers; that, what with the five pounds ten shillings ready money that he paid for the top-coat, the hire of the horse and cart at one pound a day, the bother and trouble of bringing the corpses to Sydney, and the loss of time, the job did not pay him, for they had only been at large three weeks, and the reward for them was a paltry ten pounds a head; that he felt quite sure at the time that they were two of the three he was angling after; and that he never felt so disgusted in the whole course of his life as when he had them looked at, at Hyde Park Barracks, and found out his mistake. Mr. Lewis spoke so very feelingly on the subject, that, horrible as was the theme, I could not help pitying him, albeit I was constrained to smile--especially when he remarked, quietly and seriously, 'It was a thousand pities that I shot them, mum; for in six or seven months from this time they would have been really worth having.'

"One beautiful afternoon, in the month of October, I was on my way to the factory at Paramatta to select a female (convict) servant. I had a friend, a Mrs. Stellman, with me in the phaeton; and on the box was a groom as well as the coachman. My friend and myself were chatting away very cozily, and were approaching Homebush--an estate some ten or twelve miles from Sydney--when three voices called out 'Stop;' and presently from the thick brush-wood that skirted the road there emerged three men, one of whom I immediately recognized as our late servant, Charles James Fox, who, at the same moment, recognized my features. The three men were all armed, and Pitt and Burke had their fowling-pieces levelled at the men on the box. At first Fox was startled, and I fancied I saw the man blush; but, speedily recovering himself, he hoped I was quite well, and that the major and the children also had their health. Had I been alone, I should certainly have read Mr. Fox a lecture, and have advised him to throw down his gun, and to give himself up to me. But as Mrs. Stellman was a good deal alarmed, I deemed it prudent to get away from the trio as quickly as possible. Touching his straw hat in the most respectful manner imaginable, Mr. Fox said, 'I didn't know this turn-out, mum. It is new since I left, or I should never have thought of stopping you, mum. Be so good, mum, as to assure the major that he has nothing to fear from me and my companions here.' This speech was very pleasing to my ears; and with a slight inclination of my head towards Mr. Fox, I ordered the coachman to proceed. Fox had then been a bushranger for upwards of twelve months. As soon as I arrived at Paramatta, I reported to Mr. Kherwin, the chief constable, all that had taken place, and he at once took horse, accompanied by several of his myrmidons, and went in pursuit of Fox, Pitt, and Burke. But to no purpose. They had such secure hiding-places in the various localities they frequented, that they baffled every effort to discover them. And they were so cunning in their movements, that even the aborigines--the blacks--could not track them down. These strangely-gifted people--so far as sight is concerned--discovered several of their dens; but the birds had always flown. After a while, by the way, the blacks declined to track bushrangers; and if pressed to do so, would put the police on the wrong scent. The tribes in the vicinity of Sydney, Paramatta, and the other infant towns, had been intimidated, and several of their number shot by those lawless men.

"As you appeared to take some interest in my friend Mr. Barrington, I may mention that I met that illustrious personage on that afternoon at the factory in Paramatta, where he then held the situation of under--superintendent of convicts. He seemed very much amused when I recounted my adventure on the road, and observed, with his wonted humour and quaintness, 'Well, madam, it was an act of gallantry and of generosity--considering how often the major had caused him to be flogged--which could scarcely have been expected at the hands of a plebeian thief--a contemptible London pickpocket.' Mr. Barrington did not even smile when he said this; but assumed an air of extreme seriousness--emphasizing the words plebeian and contemptible with marvellous dexterity, so as to convey to me that he did not, at that moment, intend to allude to the eminent and aristocratic position which he had formerly held in his profession. Unintentionally, I wounded his feelings; or else his look was a consummate piece of acting, when, in answer to the question I put to him, 'Why do you not consult your ingenuity, and capture these three men?' he replied, 'Ah! madam, in my leisure hours I pursue literature, not bushrangers. I am, at this present time, writing a play--a comedy in five acts, and founded on an incident in my own life.'

"I could not help saying, 'I beg your pardon, Mr. Barrington,' and then expressed a hope that I should have an opportunity of seeing his piece performed.

"'It is for the London boards,' he replied; 'but I shall be proud to submit it to your judgment, previously to transmitting it to the committee at Drury Lane.'"

"Did he keep his promise?" I inquired.

"Yes," said the old lady, "and a clever play it was. In some scenes it was very pathetic, in others comical in the extreme. There was not, however, a single coarse word in it, nor an allusion that could offend the most fastidious prude in Christendom. The title of the piece was, 'All the World's a Swindle.'"

"And the plot?"

"Of that I have only an indistinct recollection, but the story is something of this kind. On the Doncaster racecourse, the great pickpocket, as Mr. Shenstone, meets a nobleman in the betting-ring, and loses to him a hundred guineas, which he pays in gold. Mr. Shenstone's manners and his dress are those of a gentleman, and his equipage that of a man of fashion and of fortune. The nobleman is charmed with Mr. Shenstone, and the next day, when he meets him on the course, he greets him with a polite bow, which is returned by one equally polite. They speak; they make another bet for another hundred guineas; Mr. Shenstone loses, and with very great good-humour, pays his money to the nobleman, partly in gold and partly in bank-notes. That evening he calls at the hotel where the nobleman is staying, with his wife and daughter, a very handsome girl of eighteen years of age, and represents that a man from whom he had won a bet--a farmer-looking person, but evidently a sharper--had paid him in forged bank-notes, and as he had parted with some of these notes before he was aware of the fraud that had been committed, he was anxious to discover into whose possession they had come, in order that he might receive them back, and give good notes or gold in return. The nobleman and Mr. Shenstore carefully examine the notes which the former received; but amongst them no forgeries are found; they are all genuine. This examination lasts for some time, and, during its continuance, the lady and her daughter enter the sitting-room. Mr. Shenstone rises from his chair, and is thereupon introduced to the ladies, who become as much fascinated by the polished manners and discourse of the stranger as my lord is himself. Mr. Shenstone is invited to stay tea, which is about to be served. He accepts. And thus (what the great pickpocket desires) an acquaintance is established--an acquaintance which is renewed in London, some weeks afterwards, at the theatre, much to the great pickpocket's advantage, for he contrives to despoil his friend's friends of jewels worth five times the amount he lost on the race-course. When informed of this, he observes, with great truth, 'That thief Barrington! Who else?' My lord gambles very deeply, falls into serious difficulties, secretly purloins his wife's diamond bracelets, has a paste set made to resemble them, and sells the real brilliants to a jeweller, who disposes of them to an old duchess, from whose person the great pickpocket steals them, and at once proceeds to the box of the lady, who is sitting decked out in her paste'. He informs her that Barrington is in the house, and advises her to place her jewels in her pocket. She does so. He then abstracts the paste gems, places the real diamonds in their stead, revisits the old duchess, who, intent on the play, has not yet discovered her loss, and around her aged wrists clasps the mockeries! Partly love for the young girl, and partly respect for her mother, form the motives for this action."

"Was the piece ever played?"

"The captain of the vessel to whom Barrington had intrusted it lost it on the voyage to England. But let me continue my story of Fox, Pitt, and Burke. I was on another occasion doomed to see their faces. The major and myself were returning from the farm at George's River. We had been on a visit to old Baron Wald, and had driven out in the gig. It was a beautiful moonlight night, and when we neared a place called the Iron Bark Forest, some thirteen miles from Sydney, we were commanded to stop by three men, two of whom presented their fowling-pieces at us, whilst the third said--

"'Now, then, what have you got?'

"'Is that you, sir?' said my husband, who recognized the man's voice, for it was Fox who spoke.

"'God bless me, major!' was the response. 'I beg you many pardons.'

"'Rob him!' cried out one of the others. 'If he had been my master, and had flogged me, I'd shoot him!'

"'No! No!' said Fox. 'It was agreed that old masters were to go free, and when we wanted to rob old Howe, the other day, being very badly off for money, you reminded me of our agreement, and I now wish you to be reminded of it.'

"The major parleyed with them for at least a quarter of an hour, and reproved them for shooting a constable a few weeks back. They replied, that the constable had insisted on capturing them, and that they had acted only in self-defence. Their capture, eventually, was curiously effected.

"During the fifth year they had been at large they suddenly disappeared from the roads. They had not been seen or heard of for so long that it was imagined they had either made their escape from the colony, by some extraordinary means, or that they had, like some other bushrangers whose remains were found, been lost in the bush, and perished of hunger. Such, however, was not the case. They had penetrated the interior to a distance of fifty miles from Sydney, and had located themselves at a place not very far distant from a lofty mountain called Razorback, in consequence of its peculiar shape. Here they established themselves, built a log-house, enclosed several acres of land, which they cropped, and made a rather extensive garden for the growth of vegetables. They also built stock-yards and out-buildings for the cattle and the horses of which they possessed themselves. The luxuries of convict life--such as tea, sugar, tobacco, spirits, &c.--they had, previous to their retirement from business, stored up in very large quantities. They had, moreover, taken with them to their farm three convict women, whom they had (nothing loth) carried away from the services, respectively, of the persons to whom they paid marauding visits.

"They had taken away with them, from the house of a settler whom they had plundered, a large black Newfoundland dog. Three years and seven months after the dog was stolen, he, one morning, to the astonishment of his Master, returned, jumped about, and barked in an ecstasy of delight. The master of the dog (a Mr. Sutter) was afraid that the bushrangers, Fox, Pitt, and Burke, were about to pay him a second visit; and, summoning his servants, and arming them, he lay in wait and in ambush for their approach, determined to take them under any circumstances, dead or alive. But the bushrangers came not. From an examination of the dog's neck, it was quite evident that he had been kept continually on the chain, and that he must have broken his collar, and made his escape. Mr. Sutter, who lived within five or six miles of Paramatta in the branch road to Liverpool, mounted his horse, and had an interview with Mr. Kherwin, the chief constable.

"There could be no question that the dog had broken loose, and found his old master; but, then, by what road had he come back? There was then no regular road beyond Liverpool. Those who had settled further in the interior had only their own bush tracks, as they were called. If the dog, they thought, could be put upon this track by his master, no doubt he could be coaxed to show the way to the abode of the bushrangers. It suddenly occurred to Mr. Kherwin that the blacks, having no idea of the end in view, would have no scruples in pointing out the direction whence the dog had come, and tracking him for five or six miles. This was determined upon; and taking with him a strong force, well armed, Mr. Kherwin returned with Mr. Sutter to his farm, and early on the following morning the expedition set out. The blacks were not long in finding the foot-prints of the dog, at some distance from the house and began to run down the track at the rate of three or four miles an hour. Mr. Sutter and the dog accompanied the expedition. At noon there was a halt for refreshment, and then the pursuit was continued till evening, when the camp was formed, fires lighted, and the arms piled in readiness for any attack--not that there was any danger of such a thing in that lonely and untravelled region of the new world. The dog, strange to say, appeared to be very sulky, and showed no disposition to render the slightest assistance. On the following afternoon the blacks came upon the imprint of a man's boot. They now began to suspect the truth, but they had gone too far. It was now a matter of compulsion, and not of choice. Towards evening one of the blacks from a considerable eminence pointed to some smoke which was issuing from a valley in the distance--a valley which was completely shut in on three sides by small mountains, and bounded on the fourth side by a clear and broad stream of water. An enchanting nook, as Mr. Kherwin described it to me. After proceeding a few hundred yards in the direction of the smoke, the barking of dogs was audible, and the lowing of cattle; and, ere long, a house and out-buildings became visible. Mr. Kherwin and Mr. Sutter then deliberated as to whether they should descend and commence the attack at once; or whether they should defer the operation until after nightfall, when they would most probably have retired to rest; or whether the attack should be delayed until the following morning just before daybreak. It was resolved, eventually, that while the daylight remained they should creep down to the edge of the valley, and there conceal themselves until ten or eleven o'clock, when they would march upon the abode, surround it, and call to the inmates to come out and surrender.

"This resolution was acted upon; but the bushrangers' dogs had kept up such a loud and incessant barking during the advance of the invaders, that the trio had arisen from their heels, lighted a candle, armed themselves, and come outside the door. Fox, Pitt, and Burke could be seen by the light of the candle in the house; but they could not see their enemy, for the night was dark. Nothing could have been easier than for Mr. Kherwin and his party to have fired a volley and shot them as they stood; but the chief constable could not make up his mind to this, nor would Mr. Sutter have seconded such a proposal. At length Mr. Kherwin, when within only twenty yards of them, called out, in a very loud voice, 'We are twelve in number: lay down your arms this instant, or you are dead men. Our pieces are levelled at you.' They threw down their arms, retired within the house, and barred the door. Fortunately for Mr. Kherwin's party, they had no lantern or candle with them; for, had they shown a light, some of the party would have fallen to a certainty. What was now to be done?

"The besiegers approached the door of the house, and desired the bushrangers to come out; but they returned no answer. To break in upon them was impossible, for there were no crowbars, pickaxes, or other such weapons at hand; while the numerous dogs on the premises became so vehement and desperate, it was necessary to shoot and bayonet several of them. Matters remained thus until the morning, when the besiegers withdrew to a distance of about sixty yards from the house, and there took up a position in a stock-yard. The besieged, however, opened fire from loop-holes, and in less than a quarter of a minute twelve rounds of ball--cartridge were discharged from as many firelocks. Fortunately, none of the shots took effect. It was therefore deemed prudent to withdraw for the present to a distance of one hundred yards, and stand behind a clump of large gum-trees. Nevertheless, the besieged, whenever they saw a head or a hand, or a foot, had a shot at it. From the number of shots with which they were simultaneously greeted, Mr. Kherwin believed that there were at least nine bushrangers in the house; and he was unprepared for an encounter of this character--each of his party having only twenty rounds of ammunition--he was compelled to reserve his fire. The house, thickly coated as it was with mud, was bullet-proof. Mr. Sutter, therefore, at Mr. Kherwin's instigation, rode into Paramatta for reinforcements, taking with him several of the blacks as guides. The commandant at Paramatta sent a sergeant and ten private soldiers to Mr. Kherwin's aid.

"It was not until the third day, however, that they arrived at the scene of action; for they had to take with them two light field-pieces, six-pounders, and a variety of implements for effecting an entrance in case the mud--casing to the house should resist the cannon-shot for any length of time. The news soon arrived in Sydney, and numbers of officers and gentlemen, many of whom had been robbed on the road by Fox, Pitt, and Burke, hastened to the spot.

"On the morning of the second day after the arrival of the military, one of the shots from a field-piece happened to strike the door of the stronghold, and shivered it to atoms; whereupon a woman, with her hair streaming down her back, and holding in her hand a large white rag at the end of a stick, came out of the house, and approaching the besiegers, cried out, 'We surrender!' The firing ceased, and the woman was permitted to return and communicate to the bushrangers that only ten minutes would be allowed them to come out, unarmed, and give themselves up. This they did, and were forthwith ironed and handcuffed.

"The women, it seems, had aided them in firing at the authorities, Fox, Pitt, and Burke having trained them to the use of fire-arms, and made them expert markswomen. In the house were found no less than thirty fowling--pieces, twelve pairs of pistols, powder and shot in large quantities, lead for casting bullets, and several swords and cutlasses. The abode itself had been cleanly kept. Everything was in the neatest order; while the land, considering that the bushrangers were but amateur agriculturists, was very well tilled. In the dairy were found both butter and cheese of their own making; in the store-house salted beef and pickled pork of their own curing. In short, there were very few farms in the colony better stocked. They had abundance of poultry and pigeons.

"Fox, Pitt, and Burke were hanged in the Paramatta jail. The women pleaded that they had been taken away by force; and as the plea was accepted, they were placed in the factory. These were all under sentence of transportation for life; but a few years afterwards they obtained tickets of leave, became the wives of expirees, and led tolerably respectable lives.

"Several officers made applications to the Governor to have the bush--rangers' farm granted to them, and one of them had the good fortune to obtain it."

End.

 
 
 
Back to the Index Page