Remembering the Past Australia

The story of Michael Howe (1787-1818)

One of Tasmania's Early Bushrangers

As published in the Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser, 14 June 1873.



IT is better than half a century (from 1873) since that Macquarie Harbour, on the coast of Van Diemen’s Land, was selected by the English Government as a fit site for the establishment of a penal settlement, to which might be transported for safe custody and punishment such persons as were convicted of the more serious offences against the law. It is situated in latitude 42° 14′ South, and longitude 145° 10′ East. From the Heads an estuary extends for a distance of about 26 miles in a South Easterly direction, where it is terminated by the Gordon River, branching off, however, a short distance on the North towards Kelly’s Basin (named after the discoverer of the harbour), and on the South to Birch’s Inlet.

There were many things in favour of this locality. In the first place, it was so situated as almost entirely to preclude the escape of prisoners; secondly, it was densely wooded with the Huon pine (then, as now, of great value), the felling of which would afford the means of so employing them as to make them feel their punishment severely, and their labour would be instrumental to the repaying, to some extent, the cost of maintaining the establishment. It is, as it has been described, a lovely spot; and a visitor can scarcely fail to be impressed with the splendid scenery which meets his eye as he approaches it seawards. Before him is an extensive beach running out of sight on the left, on which the surf incessantly beats, causing by its spray a sparkling vapour or mist, through which may be seen, though dimly, the high green banks, with a background of distant cloud-capped mountains — the Eldon Ranges, Frenchman’s Cap, Mount Humboldt, &c. — all between 4000 feet and 5000 feet above the sea level. To the right of the beach is a pretty little island, forming, with a rocky point on the opposite shore, the entrance into Macquarie Harbour. These two rocks are known as “The Gates,” or “Hell’s Gates,” by the prisoners, many of whom, so says Backhouse, the Quaker missionary, recklessly asserted that all who entered them were doomed to perdition. What was fine scenery to men shut out from the world — restricted to but a limited quantity of provisions — always under surveillance of a military guard, compelled to labour of the most severe kind, such as felling timber and rolling it to the water’s edge, an operation necessitating their being constantly in a wet state, with a liability to flogging or solitary confinement for offences of the most trivial character.

To escape from this place, even though it was to be taken to Hobart Town to suffer the extreme penalty of the law, prisoners would not unfrequently commit murder. Out of 85 deaths which occurred on the settlement in 11 years, commencing with 1822, only 35 were from natural causes; of the remainder 27 were by drowning, eight by accidental causes chiefly by the falling of trees — three from being shot by the guard, and twelve individuals from being murdered by their comrades. Those who were not so hardened in crime as to resort to this awful alternative attempted to reach the settled parts of the colony, an undertaking so difficult and so hazardous that but very few ever succeeded in it. Out of 112 who absconded, 62 were supposed to have perished in the bush, and nine were murdered by their comrades on a journey for a supply of food. The remainder got away into the ” woods” — as the bush was then called — where they led a lawless life, constantly committing depredations on the industrious settlers, whom they intimidated by threats of immediate death if they resisted or gave any alarm; and not hesitating, where resistance was offered, to carry their threats into execution.

It must not be imagined that to the severities practised at the Macquarie Harbour settlement bushranging was entirely attributable. Those who escaped thence found others who, under the pernicious system of “assignment” established by Governor King in 1804, had, notwithstanding their previous offences, been cast amongst society as stockmen and shepherds, residing at a distance from and quite beyond the control of their masters, and who had shaken off their bonds and taken to “bushranging” as a means of livelihood. Many kept the colonists in a state of terror for years. As far back as 1808 Lemon and Brown, by their systematic robberies, had excited feelings of alarm. The former was surprised whilst asleep and decapitated at a place which has since borne his name, “Lemon’s Springs.” Towards the close of 1813, matters assumed a more serious aspect. Colonists were of two classes those who had been and still were convicts — and those who controlled. Hence it is no wonder that, by the first-named class, sympathy was entertained for those who outlawed themselves; that their plunder was received and disposed of; and that they were kept au courant with every plan designed for their capture.

At this time, the most daring of the bushrangers was one Michael Howe. He was born at Pontefract, in Yorkshire, in 1787. When old enough he was bound apprentice in a merchant vessel at Hull, but, after serving two years, he ran away and entered on board a man-of-war. In 1811 he was apprehended for robbing a miller on the highway, and tried at the York assizes following, but, owing to an informality in the indictment, the capital part of the charge was abandoned, and he received a sentence of seven years, arriving in Van Diemen’s Land in October, 1812. On the passage it is said that his habits were industrious, and, though mischievously inclined, with the exception of leaping overboard whilst the vessel was in port, and swimming a considerable distance before he was overtaken, he did not display any symptoms of that daring and wanton conduct which manifested itself in his subsequent career.

Howe, after only a few days of Government labour, was assigned as a Crown servant to one Mr. Ingle, a merchant and grazier; but the occupation which fell to his lot was by no means to his liking; he “had served the king,” he said, and “would be no man’s slave.” He therefore, after a service of very brief duration, eloped into the woods and joined a band of 28 fellows, who were at large committing depredations. So powerless was the Government to check this state of things by force, that Governor Macquarie, on the 14th May, 1815, with a view to induce these deluded creatures to return to their duty, was pleased to promise to extend the Royal clemency for all offences committed during their unlawful career — the crime of ” wilful murder” excepted — provided they returned to their respective occupations by the first day of December following, threatening to denounce as outlaws all who neglected to do so. The bushrangers were ‘cute enough to perceive that the proclamation, which was drawn out by His Majesty’s judge, not only offered pardon for past offences, but gave them a license to repeat them until the time named had expired; nor were they slow to avail themselves of it, and continued their depredations to the last. Having received the benefit of the amnesty, it is remarkable that no measures of a precautionary nature were taken to prevent the gang from returning to their evil courses of life. As for themselves, the reflection — if they ever did reflect — that their lives would have been forfeited to the laws but for the clemency extended to them did not induce them to amend their conduct in the future. Subjection was not for them; consequently but a short period elapsed before Howe and his whilom companion, Whitehead, were again in the woods with a new set of desperadoes, adding murder to robbery, the last-named being their leader. We will now narrate some of the most serious of their outrages.

They stripped nearly the whole of the settlers at New Norfolk of their portable property, together with all arms and ammunition, and thence proceeded to Pitt water, where they robbed a Mr. Fisk, who was a newcomer there. On the night of March 10, 1815, they set fire to the wheat stacks, barns, &c., of Mr. Humphreys, police magistrate, and of Mr. Riardon, district constable, at Pitt-water, within a few minutes of each other, destroying the produce of 100 acres which had recently been got in. A paper was found near the burnt stacks of Mr. Humphreys, on which was the drawing of a gun firing a ball at the head of a man, with words of threatening import. In this act of incendiarism Whitehead and a fellow named Garland were the chief actors.

On the 25th April the band — consisting of John Whitehead, Richard M’Guire, Hugh Burne, Richard Collier, Peter Septon, John Jones, James Geary, a deserter from the 73rd regiment, and Howe, accompanied by a native girl named Mary, with whom he cohabited — again appeared at New Norfolk, and robbed the house of a Mr. Carlisle, a settler there, who communicated the circumstance to his neighbour, Mr. M’Carthy. The latter, being apprehensive of the safety of his schooner, the Geordy, lying in the River Derwent near at hand laden with valuable property, determined to meet the robbers, and, accompanied by several persons on the spot who immediately volunteered, commenced a pursuit. McCarthy’s party — consisting of himself, Mr. Jemott, Mr. James O’Birne (master of the Geordy), Keith Hacking (the mate), Messrs. Carlisle, Murphy, Triffit, Brown, and Tooms — armed with fowling pieces and pistols, soon came up with the robbers and commanded them to surrender their arms. The gang immediately commenced firing, under cover of and through a hollow tree, and wounded five of the party, who had the disadvantage of being fully exposed to the fire of the former on every attempt to get a shot at them. Carlisle received a ball in the groin and three slugs in the breast, of which wounds he died within an hour. Jemott was badly wounded by a ball passing through the thick part of his thigh, in which part Triffit was also wounded, and Murphy in the abdomen. O’Birne received a ball in the cheek, which perforated the tongue, and lodged in the neck, causing his death in a few days. The banditti, availing themselves of the disabled state of M’Carthy’s party, in turn demanded him to lay down his arms, which was refused, and a slight firing continued until the wounded were removed, with the exception of Murphy, whose state obliged him to remain at the mercy of the gang, who were about to add corporal punishment to their victory, but were prevented, by their leader, Whitehead.

In consequence of these murders military parties were sent in all directions in search of the banditti. A party of the 23rd Regiment in a few days came so close up to them as to find the remains of their fires and the skin of a sheep recently killed. A party of the 46th was also in pursuit, and a number of the inhabitants of Hobart Town, well-armed, went in search of the murderers of Carlisle and O’Birne. Prior to this last outrage a proclamation had been issued, offering a reward of 50 guineas to anyone, free or bond, who would apprehend a bushranger and lodge him in safe custody; holding out also encouraging prospects to such of the offenders themselves — not personally implicated in any act of felony — as should procure the apprehension of any of their associates. Moreover, it having been represented that the bushrangers derived supplies from settlers and other fixed inhabitants, a further reward of 50 guineas was offered to any person giving information of such abettors; for without secret assistance the depredations, which had become so frequent and so daring, could not long have continued.

On the 10th of May, 1815, the robbers plundered, for the second time, the house of Mr. Humphreys, at Pittwater, after having secured his servants. Shortly afterwards they visited New Norfolk; and knowing Mr. M’Carthy was absent, and meditating revenge for the opposition they had met within their late encounter, they repaired to his premises by night and wantonly fired a volley in at the window, luckily wounding only a soldier who was therein. On this occasion they met with a reception rather warmer than they anticipated, for a party of the 46th Regiment, which had been stationed in the house, immediately commenced a brisk fire, which resulted in the death of Whitehead, the captain of the gang. The soldiers then rushed from the house for the purpose of cutting off the retreat of the banditti, but from the darkness of the night they were unable to effect this. When Whitehead received the fatal shot he ran a few yards towards Howe, crying “Take my watch, take my watch,” and then dropped. Howe immediately cut off his head, as well, perhaps, to prevent the body being recognised by their pursuers as in pursuance of a bond made between them, that upon any one of their number being killed, a survivor should do this, to prevent any person from benefiting by rewards for taking in their heads. The head of Whitehead was, a considerable time afterwards, found in the woods; his body was brought to Hobart Town, and gibbeted at Hunter’s Island, on which a portion of the wharves of the city now stand. From this period Howe Was looked upon as the leader of the gang.

Early in 1816 Lieutenant Governor Davey, in order to put an end to the frequent outrages which were committed, established martial law throughout the colony; but this was considered a stretch of authority by Governor Macquarie, and was repealed. Soon after a party in quest of the banditti, in the neighbourhood of Tea-tree Brush, descried their place of retreat by the ascending smoke from fires which they had made. Near the hut from which the smoke proceeded were M’Guire and Burne — the remainder being absent —and they immediately darted into the woods, and disappeared. In the hut were found a number of articles belonging to various individuals whom they had plundered at different periods, besides ammunition, musket balls, firearms, and several kangaroo dogs. The pair were soon afterwards taken, convicted of being two of the banditti who had murdered the unfortunate Carlisle, sentenced to death, and executed, their bodies being gibbeted on Hunter’s Island, near that of Whitehead, their leader at the time the murder was committed. The gang was now reduced to Howe, Septon, Jones, Geary, and Collier.

The awful examples just recorded had no effect in inducing the remainder of the party to abandon their vicious mode of living. In September of 1816 they committed many acts of plunder. They robbed the house of a Mr. Stanfield, at Green Point, of every moveable; they also rushed into the house of Stynes and Troy, settlers at the Coal River, and with horrid menaces commanded every person to remain quiet in the dwelling whilst they pillaged it. A tradesman who was at work on the premises narrowly escaped being shot, having been recognised as one of a party which, sometime before, had been in pursuit of them. For a time they retired to the woods, and were not heard of again until early in November, when they assailed the residence of Mr. David Rose, at Port Dalrymple, in the Northern part of the island, their conduct whilst engaged in plundering it being aggravated, as on other previous occasions, by every wanton atrocity.

Vandemonian bushrangers plundering and burning a homestead

Vandemonian Bushrangers Plundering and Burning a Homestead. Libraries Tasmania.

The commandant now repaired to the woods with a strong military and civil party, by which the interior of the country was searched for many days, but no trace of the gang could be discovered; indeed, in 11 days from the date of the last outrage they visited the farm of Mr. Hayes, at Bagdad, a distance of 100 miles, where they robbed the cart of a trader of property of considerable value.

Elated with the success which attended all their lawless exploits, they had the audacity to address a letter to Lieutenant Governor Davey, signed by each of the gang, as well as by six fellows who had recently absconded (by name Chapman, Coine, Parker, Keegan, Brown, and Currie), complaining that they were much harassed by the pursuing parties and the persevering efforts which were made to capture them. They also compelled a man whom they fell in with see [sic] an oath administered to each on the prayer-book to observe certain conditions contained in a letter, it was supposed, to the Lieutenant Governor. The same party was made the bearer of sundry threatening messages, one, in particular, to Mr. Humphreys (already mentioned as one of their victims), to the effect that, “reap what grain he liked, they would thresh more in one night than he could reap in a year.” They also said “they could set the whole country in a fire with one stick.”

In February, 1817, three of the party Parker, Chapman, and Elliott — were discovered lying in ambush at York Plains by a party of the 46th Regiment, by whom they were shot.

About this time the gang began to entertain suspicions of their leader, in consequence of his frequently absenting himself without their knowledge, or assigning any reason for his absence. The impression amongst them was that he intended to betray them. Howe soon discovered the nature of their suspicions, and no longer feeling secure amongst them, he suddenly eloped, taking the native girl, Mary, with him. He was, shortly after this, hotly pursued by a small party of soldiers, and in order to facilitate his own escape he deliberately fired at his poor companion, because, forsooth, she was unable to keep pace with him — such was the wanton cruelty of the wretch. Luckily she escaped with only slight injury, but Howe left his blunderbuss, knapsack, and dogs behind him. “Mary” was subsequently of great assistance to the military parties in leading them to some of the haunts of the banditti.

Colonel Sorell had by this time succeeded Colonel Davey as Lieutenant Governor of the colony, and Howe, cut off from all his associates, without arms or ammunition, determined upon carrying into execution a design which, according to the report of the native girl, he had for some time contemplated, viz., that of chancing an extension of mercy on surrender. He accordingly found means to get a letter conveyed to the Lieutenant Governor, in which he offered to give himself up to an officer, as well as to furnish important information relative to the friends and supporters of the old gang, and become the means of their final capture, upon his Honour’s assurance of present personal safety, and a favourable representation to His Excellency the Governor in Chief, with a request for pardon. The Lieutenant Governor at once despatched Captain Nairn, of the 46th Regiment, to a place named, with an assurance to that effect; and this officer, on the 29th April, conveyed Howe to Hobart Town and lodged him in gaol.

Parties of the military continued their searches for the robbers still at large, often undergoing great privations, on one occasion being so reduced from the want of provisions as to be compelled to eat the mocassins, made of kangaroo skins, which they wore on their feet. On the 19th of May the party stationed at Pittwater, commanded by Lieut. Nunn, received intelligence that the banditti were robbing the premises of Mr. Edward Lord, at Orielton-park. They hastened to the spot, and on their appearance several shots were fired at them by the gang, one slightly wounding Lieut. Nunn, but they retired upon seeing some soldiers approaching from another part of the settlement, leaving behind them some flour which they had stolen from Mr. Lord. About the latter part of June the Government longboat, together with several stands of arms, was taken, but the weather being tempestuous the design of the bushrangers to escape to the islands was frustrated, and they returned. Having burnt the boat and other articles they were compelled to take once more to the woods.

The gang now consisted of 20 persons, and the inhabitants of Hobart Town deemed it necessary for their protection to hold a meeting, with a view to facilitate the efforts of the Government by raising a sum of money to be applied in rewards for the apprehension of the bushrangers at large. Five hundred and twenty guineas were immediately subscribed, and a proclamation was at once issued by the Lieutenant Governor offering rewards for the apprehension of the members of the old gang as follows: — For Geary, 100 guineas; for Septon, Jones, and Collier, 80 guineas; for Browne and Coine, 50 guineas each.

Two days after the appearance of this proclamation, the banditti appeared at the Black Brush, and on the day following were tracked by a party, under the command of Sergeant M’Carty, to a settler’s house at the Tea-tree Brush. On perceiving the military they ran out and posted themselves behind trees where the timber on the ground was very thick. An attack commenced on both sides, and though the gang had certainly the advantage of position, Geary, the captain, by a well-directed fire, was wounded, fell, and died. Smith and Tull, runaways from Port Dalrymple, who had only joined the gang a few days previously, were also wounded and taken. This success would have been followed up but for the party labouring under great fatigue from the unceasing pursuit which they had maintained, and the heavy rain which fell preventing their muskets from going off.

A favourable reply having been received from the Governor-in-Chief to the request made by the Lieutenant-Governor on behalf of Howe, in pursuance of the terms of his surrender he was exempted from close confinement; and it being reported  that his health was much impaired, he was occasionally permitted to take exercise under the surveillance of a constable. His examinations by the magistrates were frequent, and his depositions voluminous and tedious, but notwithstanding his promise of a full disclosure of the supporters of the bushrangers, little information of worth or utility was elicited from him. Getting tired, after a time, of his mode of life and the restrictions necessarily placed upon him, and evidently preferring a life of crime to any other, he on 26th July eluded the vigilance of the constable to whose charge he was entrusted, and again escaped to “the woods,” much to the chagrin, no doubt, of the authorities.

He did not, however, join his old companions, for he had before him a well-founded apprehension of the consequences of his treachery, even from those stamped with crimes similar to his own, should he once more place himself in their power.

In October, Watts — Howe’s old associate — with Drewe, a shepherd in the vicinity of New Norfolk, arranged to take Howe, with whom the latter had occasionally corresponded. They met him at a place called Long Bottom, but he was wary enough to insist on their knocking the priming from their guns before he allowed them to approach. Whilst sitting before a fire they, however, managed to seize Howe and tie his hands. Breakfast was then partaken of, after which the two men started with their prisoner en route for Hobart Town — Watts with his gun walking before him, and Drewe behind. After proceeding about eight miles Howe contrived to disengage his hands, and in an instant stabbed Watts with a knife which he had secreted. The poor fellow fell and dropped his gun, which Howe quickly seized, and with it shot Drewe dead, threatening to do the same to Watts, who, however, managed to run for a couple of hundred yards, when he hid amongst some brushwood, faint and cold from loss of blood. Not being pursued, he contrived to crawl to a settler’s house, where he gave the alarm.

After this Howe concealed himself in remote and inaccessible parts of the woods, a very large reward being offered for his apprehension. Many attempts were made to take him by stratagem, but they were unsuccessful. Once a party came so close to his hiding-place that he bolted, leaving behind him his firearms, ammunition, dogs, and knapsack, in which last was found a journal of his dreams, written in kangaroo blood, in a little book made of the skin of that animal. It appeared that he frequently dreamt of being murdered by the natives, of seeing his old associates, of being nearly taken by a soldier, and, on one occasion, of his sister. He seemed, too, to have cherished an idea of settling in the bush, for his memorandum-book contained long lists of such seeds as he desired to possess of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. How a man whose hands were so imbrued with blood, and on whose head so high a price was set that he was hunted as a wild beast, could have seriously entertained an idea that his wishes could ever be realised is difficult to conjecture.

We now come to the closing scene. On 21st October, 1818, he was induced, by promise of ammunition, to meet a kangaroo hunter named Warburton in a hut near the Shannon River, two other men, named Pugh and Worrall, being at hand to assist in his capture. On these men showing themselves Howe retreated, but after a short run he was overtaken, and a severe encounter took place, but finally, from well-directed musket blows on his head, the notorious ruffian, who had so long been the terror of the colonies, fell and died. Howe was a man of athletic make. At the time of his death he wore a dress made of kangaroo skins, had an extraordinarily long beard, and presented, altogether, a terrific appearance. His body was interred on the spot where he fell, but his head was brought to Hobart Town to be seen by the people, to whom the end of this monster afforded an inconceivable degree of satisfaction. He was never known to perform a humane action.

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