[There are some references within this text to pages and maps.Those references will not be relevant in this format. The abbreviation OCD refers to Old Convict Days, Dedicoat’s memoirs.]
While I have attempted to acknowledge every piece of information I have acquired for this story either within the text or in footnotes, my most serious thanks must go to Garry Tipping for the immense amount of research he has done into the details of Dedicoat’s memoirs, tracking down anomalies as well as the correct names of many people referred to by Dedicoat which are either incorrectly remembered or simply misspelt. I am also indebted to my second cousin Ken Taylor, also descended from Julia (Dedicoat) McLean – Ken’s grandfather Daniel and my grandmother Lilian were brother and sister. Ken has followed this story since I began my journey in about 1985 and has added many interesting details which I have included in this version of Dedicoat’s life.
Where I have used unacknowledged material I apologise to those I have failed to acknowledge and would be happy to hear from such people.
William Dedicoat, William Jones, William Day, William Derecourt.
William Dedicoat is the most complex of all my ancestors that I know of. His story is the stuff of legend, tall tales and the picaresque. My aim here is to retrieve the man behind the legend, using his memoirs in conjunction with the numerous independent historical records available. I have lived with his story for thirty years and cannot claim to be unbiased; nor am I willing to dismiss his many boastful tales as untrue for almost every episode he records can be independently corroborated. The fact that he makes himself the centre of most of these episodes is what makes his story so entertaining, so gripping.
This account is as up-to-date as I have been able to make it. Some questions, however, remain unanswered: the time and place of his wife’s death, the story of his youngest child and only son, Richard, and William’s involvement in a Chancery case in England some time between 1870 and 1880.
William Dedicoat: Convict, Bushranger, Jack-of-all-Trades, and much more. William Dedicoat, William Jones, William Day, William Derecourt – he was known at various times in his life by each of these names. To the list we could add Derrincourt and Derricot..I have chosen to call him Dedicoat for most of this account, referring to him as Day where it is clearer to do so.
William Dedicoat was my great great-grandfather. The task of establishing the identity of this man, this elusive, fascinating, ambiguous character, has been a long one which began in 1972 with a name, William Dedicoat, given to me by his great granddaughter, my aunt, Julia Butler. Over the next decade my aunt had begun to believe, thanks to an episode of the sophisticated TV quiz show Mastermind in which the contestant was an expert on convict and bushranger William Day, that the stories about Day and those told by her grandmother Julia, one of Dedicoat’s daughters, about her father, were too similar to be coincidental. After my aunt died in 1982, I took up the task of proving that Dedicoat and Day were the same person. It was not a simple task.
This account comes after thirty years of research and reflection. Most of what is contained in this third version (1985, 1998, 2015) is very reliably based, though some of the details are subject to disagreement and further research. There are thousands of Dedicoats in England; the variations in spelling and the details of their births, christenings, marriages and deaths are countless. This makes research difficult and results controversial.
The Name Dedicoat
I began researching my complete family history in 1984 after the deaths of my maternal grandmother (1979), my aunt (1982) and my mother (1983). Dedicoat’s story was by far the most difficult to establish with any certainty. I obtained a death certificate for great great-grandfather Dedicoat in July 1985 and it took six months to verify to my satisfaction that William Dedicoat was the convict and bushranger William Day.
His death certificate was clear: “William Dedicoat, 20 April 1897, 78 years, born Birmingham, England, 10 years in Tasmania, 48 years in NSW, married 30 years Mary Ann Kirwan [sic, but I will use the Kirwin spelling – which differs on various certificates], children: Mary Ann 43, Julia 40, Matilda 39, Richard 30 – living, none dead.”
Enter the convict. My aunt had spoken about a book of the memoirs of a certain William Day whom she believed to be her great-grandfather William Dedicoat. Thirty years ago this was far from certain; today this man’s story is well known.
I then purchased the birth, death and marriage certificates of those mentioned on Dedicoat’s death certificate, and began a search for a copy of his supposed memoirs. The book was called Old Convict Days and in 1985 I found in the Mitchell Library Sydney the original account serialised in the Sydney Evening News. The series was entitled “Old Convict Times to Gold Digging Days. Complete History of Australian Life for Fifty Years”. It ran from Saturday 11 July 1891 till 5 September 1891. At the bottom of the first instalment was the following note: “The history of William Derricourt, or Day, once of Darlaston, England, now of Sofala, NSW.” The story was published as a hardback book in 1899, edited by Louis Becke; this was reprinted as a paperback in Penguin Colonial Facsimiles Edition 1975. My family gave me a copy of the original 1899 edition edited by Louis Becke for my 70th birthday.
I found and borrowed a 1975 Penguin Colonial Facsimiles edition of the 1899 book version of the story in the Maroubra Public Library, 17 July 1985. (Today the book is available free online.)
I was so excited that I began reading it as I walked home, hoping to find the names of Dedicoat’s wife and children – wife Mary Kirwin, and children: Mary Ann, Julia, Matilda and Richard. Alas, not one name was mentioned.
To add to the puzzle, the man’s real name was uncertain. The 1975 edition named Louis Becke as the editor of original book version of 1899. In his Preface, Becke refers to “William Derricourt or Day” as the author. However, on the very first page of the 1975 Facsimile edition we find: “William Derrincourt, alias William Day”.
To add even more confusion, three of his daughters were married as Derecourt. The son Richard married as Day – if the certificate I have is for the same Richard Day, which I am not certain is so.
Now I had to prove that Derricourt, Day and Dedicoat were one and the same person. What made the search even more difficult was the discovery that the author of Old Convict Days changed his name to Jones when he underwent the arrest which led to his transportation: William Jones – the third of that name on the convict ship that transported him to Australia. On p. 25 of the 1899 edition of Old Convict Days, the author says: “I, upon being asked my name replied ‘William Jones’, dropping my proper name, William Derricourt.”
There is no doubt – now – that our man was christened as William Dedicoat and was buried as William Dedicoat. There is also no doubt now that he was transported to Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), as William Jones, and that he was married to Mary Kirwin as William Day. The records are clear on these matters. However, there remained the question of how the names Dedicoat and Derricourt-Derecourt-Derrincourt came to be connected.
In my early researches I recalled the Birmingham accent of a friend and realised how close Dedicoat and Derrecourt might be in local pronunciation: court and coat are close enough, and between dedi and derri there is only a slight change in the position of the tongue. It takes little imagination to hear the two words Derricourt and Dedicoat as one and the same. My guess was that the two names might sound much the same in the Midlands.
However, some thorough research by Robin Derricourt (private correspondence 9 November 2010) offers the following reflections: “My great-great-great grandfather John’s surname was written Dearicutt in his 1791 marriage registration in Tamworth Staffordshire, but he was buried as Derrycut and his widow as Dericote; his children were recorded as Dearicutt, Deraycut, Derracot, Deracut, Deraycut, Derracut, Derecut, Derrycutt, and on later occasions his family was Derricote (as in the 1841 census) or Derricot. In the 1851 census the record only for our family was formalised as Derricourt, which suggests a change of pronunciation with the lengthening of the last syllable. A modern Derricott has traced his ancestry in and around Wrockwardine, Shropshire suggesting the development of his surname from Dallicott/Dallicote with this in turn derived from the name Dedycote (also spelled Dadycote, Daddecote Doddicott, Dodicott, Dodicote, Dodycote, Dedicote, Dallicott and Dallicote). The name Dedicote (various spellings) can be traced in different parts of Britain; it was known in Shropshire and was also known in Staffordshire, and Dallicott was a Shropshire name. This change of consonant from DDCT to DLCT or to DRCT does seem possible: it was a deliberate change made by the transported criminal William Dedicoat.”
That illustrates the difficulty the researcher faces.
It is not clear why his daughters, the “Day” girls, as I refer to them in their own story, were christened as Day (At her christening, the third daughter, my great grandmother Julia’s name was recorded as “Dee”, which added more confusion) and came to be married as Derecourt. One might assume that over the years between leaving the orphanage and their marriage, they discovered the truth about their father and tried to distance themselves from his original name with this slight change. Or it may be that he himself admitted his story and told them his version of his surname. We will never know. I can only assume that the Derrincourt version found in the Colonial Facsimiles edition is an error or a misguided correction.
William Dedicoat’s Ancestry and Immediate Family
After the death of her mother, Lily (McLean) Butler, my father’s sister, Julia Butler, chose to live with her grandparents, Malcolm McLean and his wife Julia Dedicoat. Julia was the third daughter of William Dedicoat.
Here is a simplified account of William Dedicoat’s ancestry, as far as I can trace it.
William Dedicoat was born in Kings Norton, now a suburb 10 km SW of Birmingham, England, 5 June 1819 and christened 26 October 1823. He was, to the best of my knowledge, the eldest of seven children. His siblings were Richard christened 17 October 1824, Leonard 12 November 1826, Samuel 22 February 1829, Matilda 17 April 1831, Ann 16 February 1834, and John 23 May 1836.
William’s father was also William Dedicoat, born 31 December 1796, christened 31 December 1797 in Wythall, married to Mary Humphries 29 October 1821, and buried 18 December 1847 in Kings Norton. He was variously employed as nailer, labourer and wood turner. He worked and/or lived in Kingswood, Wythall and Grimes Hill. Mary Ann Humphries was born about 1793 in Beoley. In 1851 she was noted as employed as “woman of all work”, residing in Grimes Hill.
William senior’s parents were Richard Dedicoat, born about 1763, and Sarah James. Sarah James was born in 1764, and christened 13 April 1764 in Kings Norton. She was the second of the four children of Joseph James and Mary Underhill who were married 27 September 1759 at St Alphege, Solihull. Sarah was buried 6 November 1831 in Kings Norton. Richard and Sarah were married 9 June 1787 in Kings Norton. They had five children: Sarah, born in 1788, christened 3 February 1788 in Wythall; Richard, born in 1792, christened 8 January 1792 in Wythall; Nancy, born in 1795, christened 31 May 1795 in Wythall; William (the father of our subject) , born in 1796, died in 1847; and John, born in 1799, died in 1841.
Richard Dedicoat (spouse of Sarah James) was the last of six children born to Samual [sic] Dedicoat and Ann Hands, married 29 November 1756. Those six children were: Anne, christened 25 September 1757; John, christened 8 July 1759; Samual, christened 16 November 1760, died 5 March 1832; Susanna christened 11 April 1762; Rebecca 10 September 1763; and Richard, born about 1764.
Samual Dedicoat’s parents were Samual Dedicoat, born Kings Norton c. 1700, died after 1737, and Sarah White, born Kings Norton 1712, died 1766. His wife Ann’s parents were Roger Hands, born Kings Norton 1702, died 1766, and Katherine Cotterill, born 1702. During my time in England in 1987-8 I visited, 20 September 1988, Christopher and Dorothy Dedicoat in Reddich Road Kings Norton. They took me to see the Wythall church where I saw the graves of a Samuel and Charles Dedicoat. The date engraved on Samuel’s tombstone was 20 May but the year was obscured. There are many Dedicoats in the area.
That is as far as I can trace the Dedicoat ancestors. I acknowledge that this information may be subject to further research and correction.
William Dedicoat and his Siblings
It took me some time to work out the correct birth date of William Dedicoat and the names and dates of birth of his siblings. In the years between the original research (1984-5) and the present revision, the task of determining such details has been made much easier thanks to the internet and the ongoing researches of other family members. For the record I now give a brief account of my early researches and conclusions concerning birth date and names.
My early researches came up with several possibilities ranging from 1819 to 1823. While My Heritage gives William’s birth date as 5 June 1823, I choose to stay with his own account as he stated in Old Convict Days, 5 June 1819, even though some later records strongly suggest an 1822 or 1823 date. His age of 78 recorded on his death certificate could simply have been extrapolated from his memoirs. I have addressed this issue at the end of this text.
His father was William Dedicoat, occupations given as nailer (St Nicolas’s Church records) and tanner (our William’s death certificate), born 31 December 1796. (Brian Dedicoat ancestry.com and according to his age given in the 1841 Census.) His mother was Mary Humphries. They were married 29 October 1821. In 1985 I concluded that our William was the oldest of six brothers and sisters. His next sibling, Leonard, was christened 12 November 1826 according to the Christening Records of St Nicolas’s Church, King’s Norton; and he died, aged eighteen, 23 June 1845. In the 1841 Census his age was given as twelve, which would make him born in 1829. According to that same Census, Samuel was born in 1831, Matilda in 1832, Ann in 1834 and John in 1837.
There is a question about the number of children. For William senior My Heritage lists as his children William, Leonard, Samuel, Matilda, Ann and John – six children. However, My Heritage notes a Richard Dedicoat as the second child of William Dedicoat and Mary Humphries and his siblings as William, Leonard, Samuel, Matilda, Ann and John – i.e., seven children. According the latter, William’s younger siblings were Richard christened 17 October 1824, Leonard christened 12 November 1826, Samuel christened 22 February 1829, Matilda christened 17 April 1831, Ann christened 16 February 1834, and John christened 23 May 1836. To complicate matters, in his memoirs, on p.1 of his memoirs Dedicoat claims to be “one of a family of four brothers and two sisters” (OCD p.1.) This could mean that he had four brothers and two sisters rather than that he was one of six brothers and sisters. However, on p.217 of his memoirs he says: “I sent to each of my six brothers and sisters about 3 oz. of gold.”
William’s brother Richard Dedicoat was born in 1824 in Hollywood, Wythall, Worcestershire. (This information is synthesised from the Wythall Index.) He was christened 17 October 1824 in Wythall and married Elizabeth Spencer, 16 October 1852, in Kings Norton. He was employed as a farm labourer, and lived variously in Weatheroak Hill, Grimes Hill and Wythall. (See Philip’s Motorist’s Atlas 2004 Britain, Map 35 H6.) Elizabeth Spencer was born in 1829 in Kings Norton. They had the following children: Matilda Dedicoat born 1856; Sarah Ann Dedicoat born in July 1857 in Wythall, christened 20 September 1857 in Wythall, died in 1857 in Wythall and was buried 23 October 1857 in Kings Norton; William Dedicoat born in 1858 in Alvechurch, christened 27 February 1859 in Wythall – he was employed as button turner 1881 and as a farm labourer in 1891; Richard Dedicoat born in 1862 in Weatheroak Hill, Kings Norton and christened 11 May 1862 in Wythall – he was employed as a groom 1881 by John Boulton in Radford Road, Alvechurch; Thomas Dedicoat born in 1864 in Kings Norton and christened 17 April 1864 in Wythall; John Dedicoat born in 1866 in Kings Norton and christened 24 June 1866 in Wythall – he was employed as a farm labourer in 1881; the last child, Ann, was born in 1869 in Weatheroak and christened 14 March 1869 in Wythall – she was employed as general domestic service in 1891. In 1871 all of these nieces and nephews of our William were all residing in Weatheroak Hill.
I have no information for the other siblings Leonard, Samuel, Matilda or Ann. William’s youngest brother John Dedicoat married Mary Anna. Their offspring were: John Thomas born 10 May 1868; Richard William born 3 July 1870; and Kate Louisa born 17 September 1871. Brian Dedicoat’s very reliable account of the Dedicoat family can be found in ancestry.com.
William claims to have been born “at a house between the Maypole and Pack Horse Inns, in King’s Norton, Worcestershire, England.” (OCD p.1) There is no reason to question that.
A more challenging issue in the early days of research was to prove beyond reasonable doubt that William Dedicoat, my great great-grandfather, and William Derecourt (Day and Jones), the author of Old Convict Days, were one and the same person.
Establishing William Dedicoat’s Identity
We have seen that the man was known by several names.
The editor’s note in the 1975 Colonial Facsimiles Edition of Old Convict Days refers to him as Derrincourt, the 1899 introduction by Louis Becke refers to “William Derricourt or Day”, and in chapter VII the writer says: “I, upon being asked my name, replied ‘William Jones’, dropping my proper name, William Derricourt.”
It must be noted that, according to his transportation records, Dedicoat was not able to write and he probably never learnt to write, though he may have learnt to sign his name: his name appears, as Dericott, on a document from Sofala many years later, but it may not be his handwriting. There is some doubt as to whether he could read – see OCD p.311where he says “… I could not read”. However, his official Penal Records say “Can read only”. There is little doubt that he dictated his memoirs rather than wrote them, but for simplicity’s sake I will call Dedicoat the author. It is reasonable to assume that he was illiterate during his lifetime – illiterate but canny! This may also help explain the complication of his name.
His three daughters, Mary Ann, Matilda and Julia, were married as Derecourt, though the third daughter Julia’s death certificate records her father’s name as Dedicoat. He was transported as William Jones (one of three men of that name on his transport ship Asia) and married as William Day. His correct name is in fact Dedicoat, which is what appears on his death certificate.
There is also the question of his correct age. In his memoirs he claims to have been born 5 June 1819. (OCD p.1) That same information is found in his records from the convict settlement at Port Arthur, Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land), 1840-1848. No age is given on his marriage certificate, 6 April 1852. His children’s birth certificates give no age for him. The details from his incarceration on Cockatoo Island in 1859 record his age as 35 (thus born 1824). On his death certificate his age is given as 78, making his birth about 1819. Given all the information available, I have settled on 5 June 1819.
While there was a great deal of information available about William Day in the form of articles, certificates and books, none of them alone made it clear that Day was Dedicoat. In 1985 I needed to build up more evidence.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence derived from the names of his children.
In 1985, in the first stages of my researches, I made the following reflections.
“From Dedicoat’s 1879 death certificate it appears there were four children: Mary Anne aged 43, Julia 40, Matilda 39 and Richard 30. This would put their births at approximately 1854, 1857, 1858 and 1867. In the microfiche records there is reference to a Mary Ann Day born 1853 but no sign of other children, (though there is a Betsy Day recorded for 1857 and a Richard for 1859 – these are unlikely to be relevant).” Betsy and Richard, in fact, proved to be the key to the puzzle.
In 1985 I found microfiche records of the marriage of three Day girls: Matilda to James Cross in 1874, Julia to Malcolm McLean in 1874, and Mary Ann to John Seach (Seech), all under the name Derecourt. I wrote at the time: “We believe that the children were in and out of a Catholic orphanage, because their father was away frequently (on Cockatoo Island?), and their mother either abandoned them or was incapable of looking after them.” This was the gist of a family story told me by my aunt Julia Butler who was brought up by her grandmother, Dedicoat’s daughter Julia McLean (née Dedicoat).
At that time I was not sure how many children there were, though one family photo showed Mary Ann and Julia. I wrote: “Richard’s birth in 1867 may have been the result of a temporary truce between William and Mary after his return from Cockatoo Island – if this William were the convict.”
While the death certificate named four children and gave their ages, Dedicoat’s memoirs were far less forthcoming. They refer to “the two children” (OCD p.189) before 1859 [the first two girls were born in April 1853 and August 1854; the third girl was born January 1856, so it is reasonable to assume that the time referred to in the memoirs is 1855], and about 1866 there is a reference to a daughter living at Braidwood, NSW. No names are given in the memoirs – not even that of his wife, Mary Kirwin.
For all its information, Dedicoat’s death certificate created a false trail for me. From it I deduced that the children were born in approximately 1854, 1857, 1858 and 1867. As it also stated: “None dead”, I concluded: “The gap between Matilda’s birth (1858) and Richard’s birth (1867) may be accounted for by Derricourt’s stay on Cockatoo Island, if indeed Derricourt was Dedicoat.”
The key to the puzzle came with my reading of the account of Dedicoat’s trial for robbery in The Bathurst Free Press, 24 September 1859. It stated that Day was a “married man with four children” – so far, that accorded with Dedicoat’s death certificate – and that “the prisoner said he had a wife and four children and his wife [present in court] was again near her confinement”.
We were now looking for five children. I ordered certificates from the Registrar General’s Office. All my proof that Dedicoat, my great great-grandfather, and Derecourt, the author of the memoirs, were the same man, even though I had much evidence to suggest they were, seemed to depend on what the new-born child’s birth certificate showed.
Richard’s birth certificate revealed that not only was he born in November 1859, that his father was William Day, 40 years of age, from England, “confine(d) at Cockatoo”, his mother was Mary Kirwin, aged 24 from Dublin, Ireland, but also that he had not three but four sisters: Mary Ann 6, Matilda 5, Julia 4 and also Elizabeth 2 (the “Betsy” from the microfiche records whom I had dismissed along with Richard as “irrelevant” in my notes of 30 July 1985).
For me, this was a Eureka moment. Here was the most striking proof I was likely to get that Dedicoat and Day were the same man: they both married Mary Kirwin and they both had children named Mary Ann, Matilda, Julia, Elizabeth and Richard.
Now I can clarify the details of the children’s births. By August 1985 I had birth certificates for Mary Ann, Matilda and Richard; Betsy’s certificate arrived in September 1985. But I had no record of Julia’s birth or christening. It was not until about 2010 that I received a transcript of the record of Julia’s birth and baptism – as Julia Dee, daughter of William Dee and Mary Kirwin. Mystery solved, thanks to the eagle eye of second cousin Ken Taylor, whose grandfather Daniel and my grandmother Lily McLean were brother and sister, children of William Dedicoat’s third daughter, Julia. I also had wedding certificates for Mary Anne, Matilda and Julia by August 1985. By 2010 I had a marriage certificate for a Richard Day who married Bridget Ryan in 1892. However, I still have no proof that this is our Richard.
The first daughter, Mary Ann, was born 10 April 1853 and christened 1 May 1853 by William J.K. Piddington, a Wesleyan minister on the Bathurst Circuit. William’s profession is given as tinsmith.
The second daughter, Matilda or Mathilde (according to different certificates) was born 4 August 1854. She was christened Roman Catholic by Father [Francis] Kums in the parish of Sofala. (Records – Catholic Church, Kandos, NSW) Her father’s occupation was given as digger.
Julia, my great-grandmother, was born at Sofala 24 November 1855 and at her baptism, 24 January 1856, her name was recorded as Julia Dee.
Elizabeth, Eliza or Betsy, was born 3rd December 1857 at Ironbarks. “William Day, 40, gunsmith, of Birmingham, and Mary Curwin, 34, of Dublin. Previous issue: 4 children. Informant: William Day, father, Ironbarks” (where Dedicoat was working at the time). This certificate well illustrates the unreliability of the certificates associated with Day. In 1857 he was 38, Mary was 22, and there were only three other children: he seems to have included Betsy among the “previous issue”. Betsy almost certainly died at the Parramatta Catholic Orphanage for Girls, 2 December 1862, her name noted as Eliza Day. [Bonney Djuric, email 27 September 2008.]
Mary was delivered of her fifth child and first boy, Richard, 4 November 1859. “Father: William Day, confine(d) at Cockatoo, 40 England. Mother: Mary Kirwin, 24, Dublin, Ireland. now of Ranken Street, Bathurst. Married April 1851, Sydney NSW, four children, Mary Ann 6, Matilda 5, Julia 4, Elizabeth 2, none dead”. Although Mary could sign only with x her mark, she seems to have been a more careful informant than her husband.
There were several other details which helped me prove that Dedicoat and Day were the same man. While the question simply does not arise today, it was a real question for me in the 1980s when, as far as I am aware, no one in the family had researched William Dedicoat. Even my aunt was not aware of the many details uncovered in the past 30 years.
The first is the length of time the man had been in “the colonies”. The Dedicoat death certificate records: “10 years in Tasmania [it is closer to nine years] and 48 years in NSW”. In fact he lived on the mainland from 1848 to 1897: this included three years in South Australia – a separate state from NSW since 1834 – before he arrived in Sydney about August 1851. From the Dedicoat memoirs and supporting documents the following details emerge: he was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1839; he served nine years as prisoner and later as an assigned prisoner; he shipped to Adelaide in 1848; he worked as a mailman on the Mount Gambier run for some time; he travelled through Victoria to Melbourne and took a ship to Sydney in 1851. From there he moved to Sofala where he lived till his death – apart from five years on Cockatoo Island. There is no serious conflict between his death certificate and Old Convict Days.
The second question concerns his marriage. The certificate of marriage between William Day and Mary Kirwin records the date as 6 April 1852 and the place as St Philip’s Church of England Sydney. William Dedicoat’s memoirs note that a month after he arrived in Sydney, he returned from Sofala to marry the Irish serving girl he met on arrival at the Crispin Arms in Clarence Street. She was a Catholic and the priest at St Mary’s Cathedral would not give permission for the wedding since “we don’t marry in Lent” (OCD p.173). Dedicoat made enquiries of Dean Cowper, the “gentle” Church of England dean of Sydney, who directed him to the “church on Church Hill” (St Philip’s) where he, now aged 32 and she, Catholic, unnamed and aged “fifteen or sixteen”, (OCD p.174) were married. I questioned at the time of my first researches: “Was he married as William Jones?” The certificate clarifies that he was married as William Day.
In June 1859, Dedicoat, or Day, as he now was known, was involved in a robbery on the western road up to Mount Victoria, NSW. As a result he spent the next six years on Cockatoo Island as a prisoner of Her Majesty. He was released in 1865. From this time till his death at Bathurst Hospital in 1897, William Dedicoat seems to have led a profitable existence in Sofala – not a peaceful life, for he always seemed to be pursuing some issue or other.
His death certificate recorded him as William Dedicoat: “20 April 1897, Hospital, Bathurst, William Dedicoat, miner, 78 years, Morbus Cordis.” Plus, as we have seen, the names and incorrect ages of four children, “None dead” – poor Betsy, dead in the Parramatta Orphanage, 2 December 1862, six days short of her fifth birthday. Poor Betsy – Elizabeth or Eliza – indeed.
Her name is recorded, as Eliza Day, on a Memorial Quilt along with the names of the other 128 children who died in the Parramatta Orphanage. The quilt was on display on Children’s Day Sunday 9 March 2014 at the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Memory Project, coordinated by Bonney Djuric, in the presence of the NSW Governor Marie Bashir. I had the privilege of attending this day, of speaking about the Day Girls and of assisting the Governor plant a memorial tree. I believe the day was an occasion to set to rest the souls of these four girls and their mother Mary. Eliza’s name appears second from left in the row above Governor Bashir’s head.
All of this proved for me beyond any doubt that William Derricourt (Derrincourt), William Day, William Jones and William Dedicoat were indeed one and the same man – a conclusion taken for granted today; but not so in 1985.
We move now to William Dedicoat’s rich and colourful life in England, Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales, a life, the stuff of legend, which spanned most of the Nineteenth Century – 1819 to 1897.
William was born in Kings Norton, 5 June 1819. Today, Kings Norton still retains something of its old village atmosphere, especially around the parish church of St Nicolas [sic], even though it is part of the greater Birmingham conurbation.
Kings Norton [cf. William Dargue “Kings Norton – History of Birmingham Places & Placenames A to Y.” 29.03.09/01.08.2010] was one of the Domesday manors of Birmingham, first recorded in the Domesday Book 1086, later Northtone Regis 1286 and Kynges Norton 1288. Kings Norton is a classic village with its church, timber framed manor house and pub focussed around a green. The village developed here during the Middle Ages, possibly on the site of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, with open strip fields surrounding the village. Nortune, from the Old English nord tun, “north farm” or village, was the northernmost of the berewicks, or outlying manors, of Bromsgrove in Worcestershire. This royal manor was known as Kings Norton from the 13th century, presumably to distinguish it from at least three other villages so named in Worcestershire.
St Nicolas is the name of the ancient parish church of Kings Norton. The Norman church here was originally established as a chapel of Bromsgrove and it was only in 1846 that the parish of Kings Norton was formally created. Set in the north wall of the chancel are two of the original Norman windows which are over nine hundred years old. The small 11th century church, which stood on the site of the present chancel, was rebuilt in late 13th and again in the 14th century of local sandstone. The tower with its embattled parapet and fine octagonal crocketed spire, the south porch and doorway are 15th century.
John Leland, Henry VIII’s antiquary, in 1538 rode from Alvechurch to Kings Norton, through Birmingham and on to Lichfield. He wrote: Northeton is a praty uplandyshe towne in Warwike-shire, [now the West Midlands] and there be some faire howsys in it of staplears, that use to by wolle.[ ie, “merchants that buy wool”]. There is a faire churche and a goodly piramis of stone over the bell frame. There rennithe a litle brooke [the River Rea] at the est end of the towne. Good plenty of wood and pasture and meatly good corne betwixt Alchirch and Northton. And lykewise betwixt Northton and Bremischam [Birmingham] that be distaunt from othar 5miles.
The Old Grammar School still stands in the churchyard. The early 15th century timber-framed upper storey is the older than the ground floor, which was built in brick in 1947. The oldest part of the building is an unusual gothic window with wooden tracery at the east end.
The school may have been built as the priest’s house, or a church meeting room, a guild hall or a chantry chapel. In 1344 Edward III agreed to William Paas’s request to support a chantry of the Virgin Mary at Kings Norton church. The Grammar School was closed in 1875, the inspectors concerned about the suitability of the church burial ground as the children’s playground. The building was restored in 2008.
Birth to Transportation
Dedicoat begins his memoirs: “I was born on June 5 1819 at a house between the Maypole and Pack Horse Inns, in King’s Norton, Worcestershire, England. I was one of a family of four brothers and two sisters.” (OCD p.1)
He wastes no time getting on with his story. “In due course of time I was sent to school, where, if I did not shine at my books, I certainly showed the same turn for mischief and adventure which distinguished my future life, though I can truly say that even in those early days I had a good heart, and was ready to stand up for the weak and oppressed.”
This is Dedicoat’s first reflection on his upright and noble character. He never shies away from his criminal deeds, but having lived with his story for thirty years I’m inclined to believe in his essential decency. A boaster, always at the centre of any adventure, always the hero, certainly, but I do not believe he was malicious or mean spirited. I believe his early assessment is a true assessment: a man with “a good heart, ready to stand up for the weak and oppressed.” (OCD p.1)
He records a humorous episode in which, having been crowned with the dunce’s cap and locked in an empty room, he looked about “as I had to do many times afterward” for a means of escape “from what I considered undeserved tyranny”. He tried to escape via the chimney but only succeeded in climbing up the flue “after much straining and squeezing”. He succeeded in “unshipping the usual chimney-pot” which crashed into a bed of onions, “a hobby of my good schoolmistress.” The episode served, fifty years later to identify him when he returned to England in pursuit of a Chancery suit. I have not been able to find any details of his return. The matter occurs later in this account with some reflections.
Various Adventures and Escapes
Soon afterwards he was apprenticed to Toby Duffell, a gunlock filer and publican living on the Leas, near the Ranters’ Chapel, in Darlaston. Curiously, when it comes to his marriage he claims to be a “sort of Ranter” (see p.42). His accounts of his “extra-curricular” activities involving bullbaiting on Monday and cock-fighting on Tuesday are detailed and reveal something vicious in the treatment of animals – still occurring today. He runs away, but after a spell on the canal barges, tending the towing horses, he has had enough of the hard work so while the barge is moving through a tunnel, he decides to “jump ship”. After what “seemed to me hours of crawling through the slime and ooze by groping with my hands against the damp and dripping wall I came to a flight of steps, up which I proceeded for some time. I at last saw a light ahead, but on reaching it found the stairway blocked by a heavy iron grating, which was locked. I shouted and screeched the remainder of the afternoon,” but worn out, he fell asleep. Next morning he began shouting again, “endeavouring to draw the attention of some chance passer-by or inmate of the place, which I afterward found to be one of the underground entrances to Dudley Castle.” A woman belonging to the castle, “hearing my clamour, brought the blacksmith, who, after calling a constable, cut the lock from the grating, and so far released me. But this was merely out of the frying-pan into the fire; for on being questioned, and my account of myself not being satisfactory, I was marched off to the lock-up, and, upon inquiry being made, I was discovered to be a runaway apprentice from Darlaston, and forthwith handed over to my former employer of bulldog-keeping fame. After being taken to him at Darlaston I was removed to Bilton, tried for my desertion, and sentenced to one month in Stafford Gaol, with a flogging at the beginning and the end of the term. After my last flogging and discharge I was so overcome with the fear of further punishment that I hastened back to the place of my apprenticeship.” (OCD pp.6-7)
This is recorded in the “Register of Indictable Offences” for the County of Worcester 1836: William Dedicoat, aged 14, tried on two counts of larceny and sentenced to one month’s gaol for each offence (17 October 1836). Aged 14 in 1836 – this information is just one example of the difficulty of determining the year of his birth. Neither this experience nor “the fear of further punishment” deters him in the future, at least until he finally settles down in Sofala NSW after his six-year incarceration on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour.
There are other adventures such as meeting a ballad-monger who drops down dead at his feet with cholera and attending a wife-selling by public auction. Back in Darlaston he is turned over with his indentures to Tom Butler, another gunsmith and publican. Butler, according to the directories of the time, was a Darlaston gunsmith from 1834 to 1856. This information helps to date Dedicoat’s apprenticeship to the late 1830s. The larceny charge in 1836 also helps date his apprenticeship years.
With Tom Butler, things were much the same as they had been with Duffell: Mondays for bullbaiting, Tuesday for dog-fighting, “and the cocks had their outing on Wednesdays”. His descriptions of the bull-baiting make for cruel reading, but at the same time the treatment of human beings was not much better.
Dedicoat is soon on the run again: Butler’s son is arrested for killing a lad in a boxing match, so Dedicoat, his second, heads south, never to see Darlaston again for fifty years. The kind lad stops to help a young girl of fifteen who is carrying her infant son and has been turned away from home by angry parents. His memoirs recount several such acts of kindness – all with a similar ring to them, which may arouse our suspicions of their complete veracity.
He falls in with a “pedlar” [sic]. When the pedlar died, young William decides to pass himself off as his son in the hope of inheriting “a large amount of cash, a valuable stock in trade and three grand dogs of a breed rare at the time”. (OCD p.16) Unfortunately for him, his scheme is revealed at the inquest and he is charged, found guilty and sentenced to be flogged “at the cart’s tail, from the Butter Bench (the watch house) to the end of the street”. His escape after only three lashes is the stuff of comedy. In Part I Chapter V of his memoirs he wrote: “Being still in dread of my old acquaintance, the constable, following me up, I said farewell to my mother, and then turned my face towards Warwick and Leamington.”
It would appear that the course of Dedicoat’s life is well set by now. We might ask what his parents thought of their son at this stage of his life. About 17 or 18 years of age and well able to look after himself, he had probably left the family home some years before. By now there are six younger siblings, the youngest, John, born in 1836. Did they ever know their eldest brother; what did they think of him; did they admire him, envy him, frown upon him?
He comes to the rescue of several people drowning, including “a student of Worcester College” (Oxford University) who afterwards treated him very liberally. He is then witness to a murder and is nearly shot himself. His adventures are so varied and bold that we might take the liberty of taking some of the details, perhaps the events themselves, with a grain of salt. Suffice it to say that he is always the noble hero, escaping by his wits and the skin of his teeth. And yet, a comparison of the events he records and the official records of Port Arthur and Cockatoo Island are remarkably close, sufficiently so to allow us to trust the authenticity of most of his tales – their occurrence, if not his centrality to their success.
On one occasion he witnesses a murder and is to stand as a witness in the ensuing trial. “I, as an important witness, was sent to an inn to be looked after and provided for until the case came on. One morning, soon before the assizes were to begin, I was waked by a man who told me to get up quickly, dress myself in a new suit of clothes which he had brought, and come along with him. He said he was going to take me to Ireland, showed me a handful of sovereigns, gave me several, said I should have plenty more, that I should never want for anything, and that he would be my friend. Dazzled by the gold, I agreed; and, following him outside the house, found that he had a horse waiting for him, and that there was a pony for me. We rode to Banbury, where we were to stay that night. But my new friend soon proved to be the wrong sort of man to have been entrusted with the smuggling off of a witness. He picked up some loose company, hung about drinking with them for two or three days, and then, giving me a further supply of money, asked me whether I could find my way to Ireland by myself. I told him that with plenty of money and a good horse I could find my way anywhere. I then started off, passing through Warwick, meaning to visit my home and tell my parents all my adventures. When I arrived the whole family was thunder-struck. I gave each of my brothers and sisters a sovereign, and much more to my mother and father. I went to bed leaving all the rest of the money in my pocket. When I awoke every coin had disappeared. My father told me in a most serious manner that there were such things as fairies, and I was simple enough to believe that there might be something in what he said.” (OCD p.22)
He later attends the trial incognito, hears his name called three times but does not respond. The accused was ultimately found guilty but on the day of the execution the sentence was commuted and the prisoner sent to the hulks.
At this point we arrive at the episode that sets Dedicoat on the path to arrest, trial and sentencing to transportation beyond the seas.
“Chapter VII – I am unjustly charged”.
So begins the long journey to the antipodes. With the sovereign given him by his mother (it is difficult to imagine the parents’ attitude to their adventuresome son) nearly gone, he went down to the canal, and by, “as I thought at the time, good luck”, got employment from the captain of a light flyboat. The boat ran from Oxford to the Potteries, near Hanley, just north of Stoke-on-Trent, passing through Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Brood [Brewood] , and within a mile of Darlaston, where, “I trembled to think, lived my old acquaintance, the constable.” The tow-horse cast a shoe and was taken to a forge where Dedicoat met a lad who “told me that he had a beautiful long-sleeved plush waistcoat that his mother had given him. He arranged that when we got to Wolverhampton I was to take the waistcoat and try and sell it, so that with the money we might go to the play together at Birmingham. I was told to say that the waistcoat was my own, and was quite unaware that it had been stolen when I was waiting with the horse at Pancridge [ie, Penkridge, a market town in Staffordshire]. I went on my errand, and, near the court-house, I saw a man whom I thought looked a likely purchaser. I asked him if he would like to buy a waistcoat, assuring him that it was my own property. He said, ‘Oh, yes, come in and let me have a look at it.’ I went with him, when I found to my horror that I was offering a stolen waistcoat to the constable of the place. He told me that he was looking for someone of my sort, as the coach from Pancridge had brought notice of the robbery. Thus was I, though innocent, again laid by the heels in Wolverhampton.” He was brought before the magistrate where he told his story but the evidence against him was “strong enough to commit me to Stafford Gaol. Fearing that the full report of the case might reach the old constable at Darlaston, I, upon being asked my name, replied, ‘William Jones,’ dropping my proper name, ‘William Derricourt’.” His use of “Derricourt” is not easy to explain.
Surely many other convicts changed their names in such circumstances. According to the Founders-Storylines website, there were three men of the name William Jones on the Asia, which eventually took our man to Van Diemen’s Land.
The County of Stafford records, which I found June 1988, are clear. William Savage, Thomas Croydon and Joseph Plimer take their oath before John Clare, Clerk, in the County of Stafford, 7 May 1839. William Savage, labourer, who resides “in a cottage at Drayton in the Parish of Penkridge,” claims that “on Wednesday afternoon last I heard that my house had been robbed. I went home and discovered that I had lost a Waistcoat, Two Handkerchiefs and other articles from the house. This Waistcoat and Handkerchiefs now produced are mine. There was tobacco in the Waistcoat pocket when it was stolen and there is some in it now.” He signs with his mark. Thomas Croydon, a farmer, resided about three hundred yards from the cottage that was robbed, and declared that “on Wednesday afternoon about two o’clock the prisoner came begging to my House and I ordered him from the premises.” The Police Officer, Joseph Plimer, claimed to have seen “the prisoner in Wolverhampton offering this Waistcoat for sale. I went to him and asked him where he had got it from; he replied from Bridgenorth, and that he gave seven shillings and sixpence for it. I took him into custody. This handkerchief I took from his neck.”
The times were violent. Derecourt lived in the midst of murder and chicanery, of false pretences and deceit. While his crime was not of the worst kind, I believe his life so far was leading to worse things, as his time in the Colonies will indicate. No wonder he gave himself the name of William Jones when he was apprehended and removed to Stafford to await trial at the next Quarter Sessions.
While he was awaiting trial he encountered the captain of “the very boat upon which I and the actual stealer of the waistcoat had served”. (OCD p.26) The captain, accused of murder, tried to comfort him telling him that, “as a young and active fellow not afraid of work, I ought to be glad of a chance of being sent to one of the new colonies, where by patience, submission and industry I might one day become a respectable member of society, and even a man of ample means. This kind of talk rather reconciled me to my fate, and on my trial before the judge I made no great effort to get off, but was content to tell again the same story that I had told before the magistrate at Wolverhampton, and with no better success and the result was that I was sentenced to ‘ten years’ transportation beyond the seas.’” A harsh punishment for the theft of a waistcoat and handkerchief, and hardly the deterrent that such punishments were meant to be. He was 20 years of age, probably of hardened aspect by now. Great-great grandfather William Dedicoat did make a lot of money, though he was buried as a pauper [Mudgee Guardian 26 January 1900], and he certainly achieved recognition and reputation if not respectability. At this remove, he seems more foolish than bad.
After sentence was passed, “Jones”, as he was now known, and prior to being sent to the hulks, was condemned to the treadmill in Stafford Gaol. He tells us: “There being no corn to grind and no opposing friction to the weight of the steppers on the wheel, if ever mortal boy walked on the wind, I did then. The turns were so rapid that should anyone have missed his footing a broken leg might have been the consequence.”
His use of the word “boy” once again raises the question of his age at this time. A man of 20 can hardly be called a “boy”.
Some time afterwards he was transferred to the hulks at Woolwich, specifically the Justitia. He was assigned quarters aboard the Justitia. The convicts were stripped to the skin and scrubbed with a hard scrubbing brush with “plenty of soft soap” so that they looked like “boiled lobsters”, while “the hair was clipped from our heads as close as scissors could go.” The prisoners were supplied with “magpie suits”, one side black the other side yellow. They were marched to the blacksmith, who riveted on their ankles “rings of iron connected by eight links to a ring in the centre, to which was fastened an up and down strap or cord reaching to the waist-belt. This last supported the links, and kept them from dragging on the ground. Then we had what were called knee garters. A strap passing from them to the basils and buckled in front and behind caused the weight of the irons to traverse on the calf of the leg. In this rig-out we were transferred to the hulk, where we received our numbers, for no names were used. My number was 5418 – called ‘five four eighteen’. I was placed in the boys ward, top deck No. 24”. (OCD p.28) They had various employments – repairing the butts, [“a large mound of earth against which the guns were practised.” OCD p.28], emptying barges, in the arsenal cleaning shot and knocking rust scales from shells, filling them with scrap iron, moving gun carriages or weeding the long lanes between the mounted guns. “Though our work was constant, we did not fare badly as regards victuals. Our midday meal often consisted of broth, beef and potatoes, sometimes of bread or biscuit and cheese and half a pint of ale. They were also paid one penny per week which any man, on recovering his freedom, could claim by proving to the proper authorities who he was; but it is hardly necessary to say that, for personal reasons, very few cared to go to this trouble”, he adds laconically.
Being bigger and stronger than the others – as seems to be the case throughout his life – he became boss of the boys ward and had to see to general cleanliness, lashing and stowing hammocks, and the victualling department. “In all my time on this hulk my conduct was very good, and on only one occasion did I get into the slightest trouble. One of the boys, on my reproving him for neglect and carelessness in regard to his hammock, became obstinate and cheeky, and from words we came to blows. Instead of reporting him, I, then and there, lathered him, was complained of to the captain, and ordered to be flogged.” However, because of his generally good conduct, he was let off. This behaviour pattern is repeated on Cockatoo Island.
While at work one day, he was “seized with a paralytic stroke, entirely disabling one side, and making me almost speechless. After three days in hospital I nearly recovered the use of my side, as also of my voice; but I was kept on board a short time longer, engaged in light duties among the patients.” He remained in hospital one week and was then returned to the Justitia where, “because of my having suffered from paralysis, and my general good conduct, one of my irons was struck off. The feeling of having one leg fettered and the other free was very curious.” Again, he records a similar incident on Cockatoo Island.
Two reflections: his use of the word “boy” prompts a question about his age; and the repetition of similar incidents in two different places prompts a question about the accuracy of some of his recollections.
He is careful to mention “the Christian treatment of prisoners in England in the hulks as compared with the misery and hardships they had to endure in the colonial depots. We were frequently visited by a Church of England clergyman. This good man, before the sailing of any convict ship, would address the various drafts in a way so full of feeling that he often drew tears from his listeners. To the young he would tell of the many opportunities they would have of securing for themselves the full rights of free citizenship in the land of their forced adoption, and the chance of their becoming independent by integrity, frugality, industry and perseverance.”
Dedicoat recounts an incident which can only arouse our curiosity. “Shortly before my turn came to be removed to the transport ship, our kind captain of the Justitia told me that as I had declared my innocence of the crime laid to my charge he had made all inquiries as to the magistrate who had committed me, and as to the captain of the flyboat upon which I had served with the boy who really stole the waistcoat. He had, of course, discovered that the magistrate was, as I have already stated, dead, [he committed suicide because of money troubles. OCD pp.26-7] and that the flyboat man had been executed for the canal murder. The captain of the hulk could therefore find out nothing to help me but with the greatest kindness he told me he would manage to let me have the choice between Bermuda, Botany Bay, and Hobart Town, in Van Diemen’s Land. He said that though, if I chose Bermuda, I might get a remission of half my sentence, the climate was deadly, and he would advise me to go to Van Diemen’s Land, and he would endeavour to make arrangements for me to be kept in Hobart Town.”
He concludes this section of his memoirs thus: “I have now arrived in my story at the year 1839, when I was about to say good-bye to the old country, with no knowledge when or how I might again set foot in it. On the arrival of our ship, the Asia 5th, so called from the voyage on which she was starting being her fifth one to the colonies, we were ranged on the quarter-deck of the bulk, and two smiths freed us from our irons, now endured for nine months. Our irons being off we were taken by boats in batches to the Asia, there to be guarded by a detachment of the 96th Regiment. Previous to our removal, the doctor of the Asia came on board the hulk, when the captain, following up his former acts of kindness, pointed me out to him, said that my conduct had been very good, and that he believed there was in me the making of a good man. This was the means of making my life on the long, weary voyage somewhat more comfortable than it otherwise might have been.” (OCD p.33)
Details of Discharge from Woolwich Hulks
Prisoner’s Name: Willm Jones
Age: 16 [Yet another question about his age. Is he 20 or is he 16? His age is given as 16 in these records though Dedicoat’s memoirs indicate he was born in 1819.]
Convicted where: Stafford
When: 2 July 1839
Sentence: 10 years
Gaoler’s Report: Not known disorderly
How disposed of: [signature] 17 April 1840
William Jones (3rd) [The official records from Port Arthur name him as William Jones 3rd. He calls himself “William Jones number two”, OCD p.38] was described in the official Penal Records thus: “Trade–Boatman; Height–5’8’’; Age–18; Complexion–Fresh; Head–Oval; Hair–Dark Brown; Eyes–Blue; Protestant; Can read only.” A scant description of a multi-faceted young man who has, in his short span of years, shown himself to be the “compleat” adventurer – well, perhaps not “compleat”, for he has another 56 years to hone his adventures to a very fine point.
“On being put on board the Asia there were served to each man his cooking, eating, and drinking utensils, with a small keg for water. We were then told off to the bunks, which held four each. I was given a hammock at the bottom of the hatchway, and soon appointed to a billet. Some time after, having made friends with the steward’s assistant, he managed to put a bag of biscuits close to a partition, so that, by putting my arm through a chain hole, I could just reach it.” Thus he got extra bread for the voyage – always fell on his feet, our William.
The Journal of Surgeon Superintendent James Wingate Johnston (cf. Garry Tipping) gives the details of the ship’s journey to Hobart in Van Diemen’s Land.
At Deptford on 15 April 1840
Embarked the guard: one commissioned officer of the 50th and 1 bugler & 38 rank and file of 51st Regt of Light Infantry.
At Woolwich on 17 April 1840
Received on board 160 male prisoners, 80 from the Warrior and 80 from the Justicia hulks. Prisoners embarked from both depots apparently healthy.
At Sheerness on 21 April 1840 [“After arriving at Portsmouth” OCD p.34. Tipping correctly says Sheerness]
116 male prisoners, many with scurvy.
Total: 276 male prisoners and 2 died on voyage.
On the 4th August anchored in the River Derwent after a voyage of 95 days from Sheerness.”
And so ends William Dedicoat’s life in England and begins his life in Australia as William Jones – well, for some years anyway.
Van Diemen’s Land – Convict and Assigned Servant
We turn now to Dedicoat’s time in Van Diemen’s Land as recounted in his memoirs: Part II, “The Land of the Lash”, and Part III, “An Assigned Servant”. Dedicoat arrived in Van Diemen’s Land as a prisoner 6 August 1840 and was granted his Ticket of Leave 23 May 1848. The story of his time in Van Diemen’s Land is told in two sections: his time as a prisoner from 6 August 1840 till December 1846, first in Hobart Town, later in Port Arthur and finally back to Hobart Town; then as an Assigned Servant in various parts of the island from January 1847 till he received his Ticket of Leave, 23 May 1848.
I make use of Old Convict Days, the official Convict Records from Port Arthur, and some reflections by Garry Tipping. I am indebted to novelist Christopher Koch for his transcription of the official records, an invaluable aid to establishing the accuracy of Dedicoat’s memoirs.
The Records begin thus:
JONES, William (3rd), tried at Stafford Quarter Sessions, 2 July 1839, and sentenced for ten years for housebreaking (stated this offence). Gaol report: not known (to be) disorderly.
Hulk report: good. Surgeon’s report: general conduct–indifferent.
Protestant. Can read only. Trade: boatman.
Height: 5ft 8 ins. Age: 18. Complexion: fresh. Head: oval. Hair: dark brown. Whiskers: none. Visage: oval. Forehead: medium. Eyebrows: dark brown. Eyes: blue. Nose, chin, mouth: medium.
Native place: Redditch, Worcestershire.
Remarks: M.A.E.L.I.E.V. [meaning unknown] Glass and pipes on left arm. Moon cross anchor tree and large scar on left hand. Ring and stars on fingers. Tree, moon and stars on breast. [These tattoos help identify him in a later incident – see p.36]
Sandy Bay – Hobart Town
Tipping provides a context for Dedicoat’s time in Van Diemen’s Land. With the end of transportation to Botany Bay in 1840, Dedicoat accepts the “then reasonable” offer to go to Hobart Town as part of the new probation system. He arrived 6 August 1840 on the Asia with three other probation ships – Hindostan, Canton and Mandarin. Tipping explains that the new system was part of “what would now be called a modified truth in sentencing scheme whereby the newly arrived convicts were sentenced to twelve months’ hard labour in the mines at Port Arthur. This was the punishment for their crimes no matter how trivial.” Then the reformed convicts were given six months’ probation on light duties such as forestry work to allow them “to recover their sense of civic duty”. Finally they were sent as “assigned servants” to rich settlers as poorly paid workers.
Governor Franklin, Tipping says, had misgivings about the new system, as did his “sudden replacement”, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, who was also “soon disposed of” by the English authorities. Dedicoat, as “William Jones number two”, [OCD p. 38. In fact William Jones 3rd] went through such a system; however, it was over a much longer period.
Dedicoat wrote: “On first landing from the ship at Hobart Town we were all ranged up around the yard called the Hobart Town Tench under the supervision of Superintendent Ronald Campbell Gunn (six foot five inches high, with only one arm!)”. According to the Convict Records, he is on 15 months’ probation till 12 November 1841.
Dedicoat is sent to join a gang working in a quarry near the Signal Station and was soon up to his old tricks. He describes his adventure, a “pretend” escape, having arranged a break with a corrupt constable who wanted to get back to Hobart. This episode landed him before magistrate John Price, “that noted tyrant afterwards murdered at the hulks in Melbourne”. He claims he was sentenced to twelve months in irons at the Newtown Hulks. (OCD p.38) The official records say two months.
In January 1841, (Convict Records: 5 January 1841) while he was still at Sandy Bay, he stole a pair of braces from one W. Hulme and consequently had his sentence of hard labour in chains extended by six months. He gives no account of this in his memoirs. He does tell of his absconding from the Newtown Hulks, of being apprehended and after two days’ close confinement being brought before Mr Price again, but “Too miserable and desperate to pay too much heed to him I received an additional sentence in irons without uttering a word.” (OCD p.40) Nonetheless, the following day he sees what he believes is another opportunity to escape, and with the aid of a sharpened mess-spoon loosens a stone and makes his way up into the prison church. He forced the church door and made his way into the street opposite the Old Commodore pub, “a free man again, except that I still had on my fetters” – which were rather a give-away. Apprehended once again, he is brought before “the terrible John Price” and given a sentence of two years in chains at Port Arthur. Not one to take it lying down, he broke out of solitary confinement, to be tried yet again. He is taken before Superintendent Gunn and given 30 days’ solitary. He is 19 or 21 years of age. He is in the full flush of his youth. He is desperate or foolhardy. He is also hungry. Somehow he forces his jailer to give him extra bread – which his jailer does not report, so it is not in the official records. Dedicoat’s plight must be so similar to that of many other prisoners of the time and place.
Reading this account of his many adventures within such a short time of his arrival in Van Diemen’s Land, we might question whether they all actually took place and whether they occurred in such dramatic detail as he gives. No doubt the general drift of them is correct.
Dedicoat’s (Jones) Convict Records note: “19 January Hulks Chain Gang: Misconduct in attempting to abscond from his cell. Existing sentence extended by 4 months. For assaulting a constable while under sentence of solitary Confinement, existing sentence of 12 months recommended to be served at Port Arthur. 28 January 1841 Misconduct – disorderly – existing sentence extended by 6 months. To be removed to Port Arthur.”
And so our man comes to Port Arthur, “the abode of horror” (his chapter heading for Part II Chapter III) and one must ask what drove him to behave in such a way that he knew would land him in the dreaded place.
By any standards, the treatment of these convicts is less than human. Even allowing for Dedicoat’s understandably unreliable memory and a certain amount of exaggeration, we must be horrified at the official implementation of policies which allowed human beings to be treated as less than human.
When the cutter usually employed to carry prisoners to different stations arrived, Dedicoat, along with other convicts – some with irons like himself, others without – were put into the hold and fettered to a long cable. The convicts broke into raucous singing and, after being warned, they were subjected to the tightening of the cable which caused them to be held upside down. (OCD p.44)
On arrival at Port Arthur they were thoroughly washed and supplied each with a new magpie suit, pannikin, dish, spoon, bed, blanket and two shirts. The suit of slops [sailors’ gear: wide, baggy trousers with a knee band] was supposed to last six months. The custom was for two men to go into partnership and save a pair of trousers each when new gear was given out. Of course, this led to the black-market arrangements at which our man seemed so adept.
He was soon employed in carrying materials for the building of the vessel Lady Franklin. Their treatment was harsh. “New hands at the work of course suffered most, and, through my irons being rusty and not traversing as quickly as the others, I was generally among the ‘crawlers’, or men particularly bullied by the overseer, who would threaten to leave all laggards at ‘the green door’ – that is, the commandant’s quarters.” (OCD p.46)
Then there was the Sunday church service at the chapel to which they were marched on Sunday mornings. “On arriving at the door the word was given, ‘Halt – Roman Catholics fall out.’ The unfortunate Catholics were then obliged to stand in rank, were it sunshine or rain, until the end of the service. At this time there was no priest stationed at Port Arthur, but one used subsequently to visit. At this place we were never allowed to see a friend, and no letters could be written or received by prisoners.” (OCD p.46)
I visited Port Arthur in January 1996 and wrote a poem in response to my visit. On 28 April 1996 Port Arthur witnessed the terrible massacre of 35 people. I added two more lines.
Port Arthur 1996
The peace and tranquillity of the place
Belie the horror you must have felt
At landing here, Great-great-grandfather William Jones the Third,
The cries you must have uttered
At your flogging
After you tried – more than once –
When you were forced to listen
To the parson’s Sunday sermons
Did you remember
Your Dedicoat brothers and sisters at home
In King’s Norton?
Now into that fragile peace
Violence has come again.
No wonder he makes his decision. “Crushed down, worked like a beast of burden, and oppressed more than human nature could endure, I made up my mind to ‘bush it’ again.” (OCD p.46) At Tunketyboo he gives his keepers the slip and makes for “The Peninsula near the Cascades towards the Sounds.” In spite of the horror of the reality, it is an entertaining account and inevitably he is recaptured and brought before the Commandant, Captain O’Hara Booth.
The entry for Booth in the Australian Dictionary Biography (vol. 1, 1966) throws some light on the conditions of the time. “Charles O’Hara Booth (1800-1851) was appointed, March 1833, commandant of the Port Arthur convict settlement, with jurisdiction over all stations on Tasman Peninsula. This was restricted to Port Arthur and to the juvenile establishment at Point Puer in 1840. Under his command the township of Port Arthur was laid out on an extensive scale, harbour construction carried out and reclamation undertaken, a government farm established at Safety Cove, and the semaphore telegraph system brought to a high degree of efficiency for helping to arrest escapers. His administration of the convict system was extremely efficient, his rule was impartial, never capriciously tyrannical, and, though by present standards justice then seemed merciless, he was as prompt to reward as to punish; he had patient attention for the most trivial cases and used the lash as a last resort with great reluctance. Both his personal qualities and his administration received high praise from his contemporaries. This juvenile reformatory was hailed as ‘an oasis in the desert of penal government’. The boys were separated from the adult prisoners, meals were adequate, habits of devotion and cleanliness were taught, morning and Sunday schools were established, with industrial training a special feature of the reformative process. Booth planned disciplined routines and made daily inspections to see that his directions were followed.”
Dedicoat settles down for a while but is hauled before the authorities again for the possession of some tobacco. Soon afterwards Commandant Booth sends for him and tells him he is going to give him a chance to reform, sending him to a new settlement at Salt Water River. (OCD pp.51-52)
However, that was not to last for long. “One day Captain Foster, the Comptroller-General, suddenly decided on an exchange of prisoners at the coal mines. All the old hands were withdrawn [from Salt Water Creek], and replaced by probationers. The old hands were sent back to Port Arthur. On my arrival at the coal mines I had my irons split – that is, the centre ring was removed, so that I could fasten the loose chain of links to either leg, thus having a great deal more freedom to move.” (OCD p.53)
The Convict Records give a different account. Dedicoat is at Port Arthur during 1841 and is recorded as being on probation at the coal mines 26 November 1841. He receives 36 lashes “on the breech” for stealing biscuit, and seven days’ solitary confinement for being in the garden of the Medical Officer. There is no record of an attempted escape at Salt Water River. Nor is there any account of Foster sending the probationers to the mines.
There is, no doubt, much truth in his account of his work in the coal mines Part II Chapter IV, “The Coal Mines”, and they make for interesting reading as to the conditions of such workers at the time.
In Chapter V, “A Final Bolt”, he tells of another escape attempt – for which there is no account in the official records. “One day, while carrying rations from the jetty, I had espied a boat belonging to the island, with a lantern in it. I resolved to seize the boat and make for the mainland, which I was told by some of the men was straight across the water, and at no great distance. I then quietly unmoored the boat, let the painter drop into the water and dragged her along the sand to the jetty. Accustomed as I had been as a lad to canal boats I had not much difficulty in managing the one that I had taken, and when once started I pulled with might and main. I kept the Salt Water River astern, Impression Bay, Cascades, the Sounds and Rabbit Island on my right and the fatal Peninsula on my left. I kept on pulling all night, with only short rests, and in the morning spied land and made for shore, thinking it to be the mainland. [He destroys the boat, gets a fitful night’s sleep and wakes next morning to] a great noise as of a bell ringing. I was fearfully frightened, and could not form the least idea where I was. I could see the dreaded Peninsula a long way off, and hoped I was on the mainland. I fled in another direction, but, going round the island, for such I soon found it to be, I met a whole tribe of grey jackets, headed by an overseer. The leader soon spied me, and said, ‘Why, you’re the bolter from the mines. We saw 39 all round on [O’Hara Booth’s] semaphores and knew someone was out.’ Next morning I was had up before Captain Bartley, and with slight form of trial sentenced to receive 100 lashes.” There is no mention of an attempted escape in the official records.
He reminisces about his acquaintances during his years in Van Diemen’s Land. This bold, confident man, the consummate story teller, probably had lots of acquaintances he regarded as friends. “Superintendent Cook I recognised, in 1850, I think, [this seems to be correct] when I was employed as a mailman between Adelaide and the outside settlements. He undertook not to mention my past.” Then there was “The man who used to run the coal from the screen to the jetty I encountered again during the good times on the Turon goldfield when he was called Wigan Jack. He died in the Sydney Benevolent Asylum in 1878.”
Even though there was no “100 lashes” as he described on page 63, he certainly did receive several lots of lashes: “25 stripes on back” for refusing to work, 27 May 1842, and “36 lashes for being absent from hut without leave”, 7 July 1842. (Convict Records) So, it may have been “E.” who tended his back after he was flogged, “the same who had helped me tackle the signalman on the Sandy Bay Road.” (OCD p.64) “E.” later went to Port Philip during the gold fever and joined “the Black Forest gang of bushrangers which stuck up and robbed the gold escort on its way to Melbourne, lives being lost in the fray. In this gang were brothers, one of whom, when they were captured with the rest, turned informer, and swore that my old mate was a leader of the band. In consequence of this information a charge of highway robbery and murder was brought, but during the trial the informer hanged himself to the bars of his cell, and his brother, turning informer too, gave evidence directly contrary to that first tendered, the result being that E. was acquitted, and the others hanged in Melbourne. E., a few years afterwards, snatched a bag containing 200 ounces of gold from a gold buyer in Sofala, fired on Sergeant Gaynor, who tried to arrest him, and vanished. I never saw him again till I visited England, about a claim to some money in Chancery of which I had been advised by an advertisement shown to me by Sergeant Casey, of Braidwood. This was at the time that the Tichborne claimant was ‘starring’ it in England. I found E. working like a labourer at his brother’s brickworks in Birmingham.” (OCD pp.64-65)
Then there was Courtney, “a brutal and vicious fellow, and, like myself, he was driven desperate by want of boots. After a day’s work he could no longer endure the torture, and determined to bolt; but he was not, as I had been, provided with anything to eat.” Courtney and another prisoner escaped, but when, without food, “they were completely starved and wearied out, Courtney turned to his companion and said ‘I mean to kill you. I will give you a choice. I will either gouge out one of your eyes, which is certain death to you, or I will cut your throat.” It is a bloodthirsty story as Dedicoat tells it. Courtney hacked at the man’s throat and left him for dead. When captured he led the soldiers back to his erstwhile companion who was “lying almost dead, but not quite. His wounds were staunched and he recovered.” Courtney was sent back to the mines where he was tried as a bolter and sentenced to 100 lashes. But he was found “to have hacked his throat about with the same iron spoon with which he had so nearly succeeded in committing murder. The wounds were stitched up, and the wretch was brought out in the square to the triangles.” Superintendent Cook was not a compassionate man, the flogging went ahead, and “as the blows fell the blood actually bubbled and frothed from the wounded throat.” Courtney was hospitalised, “whence he was never able to return to the mines, only crawling about doing light work.” (OCD pp.66-67)
It is no surprise that these men were anti-monarchical, anti-authority, anti-everything. Dedicoat tells the following story no doubt with some pleasure. “About this time the Governor with his suite paid us one of his customary visits, arriving on the Queen’s birthday. He made one of his usual speeches, took his usual snuff, and, at the finish, stood hat in hand and called for ‘Three cheers for our Gracious Lady the Queen.’ Scarcely had the last sound of cheering ceased when someone called out, ‘God – the Queen.’” No one admitted the blasphemy. Punishment was predictable: every tenth man was to be flogged. Trials, solitary confinements and floggings followed; the men were brought in mobs to the office, crammed into the docks, tried and sentenced in a bunch. Amazingly, William escaped! Having stooped to tie a broken shoelace, he was overlooked, his “name was not called over and I escaped without sentence. After all this sentencing and flogging the real culprit was never discovered.” (OCD p.68)
Dedicoat’s “last mate on the hauling team was one whom I will call B., who remained with me without once getting into disgrace till I had finished my sentence of four years in irons. I afterwards met him on the Turon Goldfield, where he married respectably, reared a large family, and is now dead.”
He recalls an episode involving tobacco. It is too complicated to retell here. However, the Convict Records note “31 May 1842. Misconduct in breaking into Commissariat Store or Conniving at same – term extended 12 months” and “3 June 1842. Having tobacco and being abusive – existing sentence extended 3 months.” Dedicoat’s account tells the episode in his usual detail. (OCD p.69)
He goes on: “I had now been three years and nine months in irons in the coal mines, when the superintendent, in accordance with his promise, removed me from the pits and sent me to help in sinking a new shaft, and here began a quite different system of treatment, milder and more human. At the shaft on which I was engaged, an engine was erected, to work by steam power, and there was no more slaving at the cranks. Another improvement was, too, introduced into our work – the use of blasting-powder. Before that all rock had to be removed by sheer hard toil – pick, sledge, and iron wedges being the only means allowed.”
We may doubt some of the details of Dedicoat’s memoirs, but he often reveals a compassionate side. “My mate in shaft-sinking was one Rough Robin, a champion Lancashire up and down prize fighter. When we were about to fire a charge only one man was left below to make all ready. One day this duty fell to Robin, when the charge exploded prematurely before he could give the signal to be drawn to the surface, and, when we did get him up, he was a mangled mass and quite sightless. He was taken to the hospital, where he lingered for some time in fearful agony, and with no hopes of recovery. On one visit I made him, the doctor, knowing all was nearly over, ordered him to be carried out of doors. As it was my off shift I waited by the poor fellow’s side. The minute he felt the fresh air he passed away from mines and fellow-workers and all his earthly troubles.” (OCD pp.71-72)
As Dedicoat came towards the end of his four years in irons, there were some welcome concessions. First of all “Our tyrannical superintendent, Mr Cook, was now recalled to Hobart. He was replaced by Mr Purcelaw, whose first act was to divide the men into three classes, according to conduct.” Then there arrived a batch of free overseers and Cornish miners which allowed the prisoners to be removed and free men substituted. “Instead of having to rush for our loads, ironed as we were, we were now allowed to walk along in twos as quietly as at a funeral.” There were further concessions. “One morning the new superintendent mustered all hands, and notified them of a thing they could scarcely believe, that any man wishing to communicate with friends outside would be allowed to do so at stated times, and supplied with pen, ink and paper. Another reform was that trade departments were organised, and each man, as nearly as possible, set to his own trade. Shoemakers were set to remedy the miners’ great grievance of worn-out boots.” Then a major concession: as well as the Church of England clergyman, a Catholic priest was allowed to pay regular visits to “his own people”.
Having finished his time in irons, he was taken away from the mines, his garb changed from magpie to grey, and he was promoted by being sent into the bush with two men under him to burn charcoal for the mines. “Here I was quite contented, leading a steady, quiet life, and progressing toward further advancement.” He showed some of his by now familiar ingenuity, felling timber, building kilns, digging kangaroo traps and doing a tidy trade in kangaroo and possum pelts. He was soon up to some of his old tricks and running close to the law, but as usual he talks his way out of any potential mess.
Their “humane superintendent “continued his kindness by lightening the men’s shackles, removing the chain links connecting the basils [leg rings] and for this leniency he suffered. For this slight fault the superintendent was recalled. Some time after I happened to meet him in Launceston. He said, ‘Well, I got broke at the mines for relieving you men of your chains. But tyranny in this colony will die away by degrees as yonder gibbet post is decaying.’” The new superintendent named Kerr [perhaps Carr], “seemed to be just as humane as his predecessor.” (OCD p.75)
Dedicoat recalls an episode where he is approached by a “bolter” – an escaped prisoner – who asks for his help. Dedicoat’s stories are always so complicated that the reader might reasonably doubt some details. This story involves potatoes, tobacco, informing the guards in such a way that everyone comes out of the episode with reputations intact and good will preserved. “The man, having no intention of resisting, quietly surrendered, was handcuffed, and marched off to Mount Stuart. While at the soldiers’ hut, the man whom I had guided to make the capture quietly slipped out from his comrades and handed me a four-pound piece of pork.” (OCD p.78) And so our hero benefits once again from his magnanimity and sense of decency.
Dedicoat frequently reflects on the civility of some of those in charge of the prisoners, especially the chaplains. We saw it in Part I Chapter VIII p.31, and we see it again here: “About this time our superintendent was recalled, and was replaced by a Mr Smith. Whilst Mr Smith was at the mines we also had a clergyman, a truly Christian man, who was very kind to the prisoners, and who, when he was subsequently appointed to Norfolk Island, then ruled by John Price with a rod of iron, did much to bring about the breaking up of that atrocious penal settlement.” (Ibid.)
He is on the verge of release from prison to become an assigned servant, so it is to his advantage to behave himself. Somehow or other he manages to do that as well as being true to his rebellious nature in one more adventure. “One morning, every object distant only a few yards being hidden by a dense fog, an idea of revenge came over me as I was passing the triangles, and I thought my opportunity good. I called one of my barrow men and placed the triangles on his barrow, giving him a fig of tobacco to wheel them away to the kiln. At the kiln we burned the horrid machine, which was the last of its kind in those parts, as after the new system introduced by the latest superintendents the use of such things was abolished.” (Ibid.)
The Convict Records record his release from his first stage of probation, 10 November 1844.
Return to Hobart Town
He writes in his memoirs that a day or two later [after he had disposed of the “horrid machine”], his term of “six months for improvement of character having expired”, he was sent to headquarters at Hobart Town. But he is soon up to his old pranks, falling in with a con-man, “a thorough Birmingham sharper” – no higher praise, indeed. His account is amusing, as usual, but for his pains the Convict Records note: “8 July 1845 – at Jerusalem (Colebrook) misconduct in having stolen wearing apparel: 9 months in chains and reduced to First Class of Probation again”; and 2 September 1846 – Prisoners’ Barracks, Hobart: misconduct in gambling, 10 days’ solitary; 2 October 1846 – misconduct, obscene language, 7 days’ solitary; 13 November 1846 – misconduct, disorderly, reprimanded. He simply records that “Having finished my three months in Hobart, I was sent to Hambledon [ie, Hamilton, 73 kilometres north-west of Hobart], going through New Norfolk on the Woolpack Road as an assignable servant.” (OCD p.82)
At this point, Dedicoat is freed from life in a prison and commences his time as an assigned servant. According to the official records, he is reprimanded for disorderly conduct in the Prisoners’ Barracks, Hobart, 13 November 1846, and the next entry is for 21 January 1847 when he is assigned to his first employer, one J. Ware.
Dedicoat’s first master, J. Ware at Shannon, according to the official records, “turned out to be a downright tyrant, continually growling and fault-finding.” That did not stop Dedicoat from being Dedicoat. “Some time before dinner on Christmas Day I smelled a delicious odour of cooking. I armed myself with the iron tooth of a harrow, with which I loosened the stonework from the oven, and very soon spied a dainty I had known well as a lad, a Yorkshire pudding, bubbling under a smoking and nearly cooked bullock’s heart.” He and his mates “soon put out of sight the best meal we had had few years.” Strange to relate, the master raged: “I’ll find the thief. I’ll make an example of him. I’ve no doubt it’s that Will Jones.”
The upshot of this episode was that the master went into Hamilton to fetch the constable who, seeing the condition of the workmen, declared “This man is in a fearful state. You have servants assigned to you, and it is your duty to see that they are reasonably looked after and properly fed.” “Will Jones” was returned to Hamilton to be reassigned. “No more servants were assigned to Mr Ware. (OCD pp.83-86)
Tipping writes that “working as an assigned servant on the large estates of the rich settlers was the final stage of the probation system before becoming eligible for a Ticket of Leave.” He points out that the new system worked in favour of the convict, unlike the former system which allowed the convicts to be treated as “white slave labour” during the previous Governor’s “harsh regime”. Tipping concludes from Dedicoat’s memoirs that “Will Jones found the system suited him admirably and when he disliked one employer he just feigned sickness till he was returned to the depot ready for re-assignment.”
Will now moves on to employment with a butcher near “Oaklands and the Salt Pan Plains.” He found, as he usually did, that his assigned rations were not enough to keep body and soul together but by now he was accustomed to managing with various ploys – as a butcher’s employee, he found “a chance of getting hold of stray bits of meat and some of the offal.” And while he was out erecting a boundary fence he put his well-honed ingenuity to work and with “two hanks of twine I made snares for kangaroos, opossums, tiger cats and devils. The devils were anything but pleasant or safe to come near after they were snared.” There were plenty of eels and “any quantity of the eggs of the black swan.”
Dedicoat was not a man to cross. He charged one of his workmates with theft and took the opportunity of the man’s unfortunate accident “while he got his hand jammed and could not get it out. I told him that if he did not say where he had planted my skins, I would not help him, but would leave him where he was. His hand was a sorry sight, having been severely crushed by the closing of the log, and the blood being forced from the finger-tips and from under the nails.” Having been freed by Dedicoat, he set off for the station, “not even staying to eat his breakfast.”
A man named Cant, “afterward a livery stable-keeper in Adelaide”, was sent out to Dedicoat and proved “a first-rate worker, upright and obliging.” Dedicoat is soon in more trouble over a stolen pig. It was a complicated story involving his master’s wife, “a government woman, that is to say, a woman from the factory married to a free man”. He is tried, exonerated of the pig-stealing charge (thanks to a clever ruse he describes) but charged with wasting his master’s time by trapping kangaroos, etcetera, for their skins.
This story (OCD pp.88-9) is recounted years later in Ghosts of the Goldfields – Pioneer Diggers and settlers on the Turon. A Book of Reminiscences by Henry H Neary, 1940, p 164-5. Neary sets the story in Sofala: the story of the theft of some pigs was “an incident that caused so much talk in the little village of Sofala at the time.” (See p.107 of this history.)
After this episode he feigns illness and eventually makes his way to “Hambledon” to await a new employer, “a Captain Langham [William Langdon, according to Tipping], who owned a station between Hambledon and Bothwell.”
He now turns his hand to bullock-droving, with his usual escapades and narrow escapes. Captain Langham sends him to an out-station in the New Country. “On a very steep hill I happened, when flicking my whip, to touch the pet bullock, and he instantly turned to charge me. As I had been warned of his tricks, I was in a measure ready to meet him with the sharpened end of the whip handle, but he rolled me over, whip and all. After that, I was careful never to touch him.” (OCD p.94)
There were other difficulties with the rough terrain and the waterways to be crossed. He recounts his travails to another stockman only to find that found “the bridge I had traversed was only for horsemen, and that I should have taken the road over the fells.”
Troubles and battalions, as they say – “When I camped in the evening I found an immense hollow tree and drew up the dray alongside. When I woke in the morning I found it had been snowing all night, and the drift kept me where I was for three days. I had to obtain food by tunnelling through to the dray. It partially thawed the third day and I went in search of my bullocks”. They were safe, “in a hollow surrounded by a drift nearly shoulder high, and with only their heads uncovered.” Wrapped in his “opossum cloak” he continues on his journey and eventually arrived at his destination, mostly guided by “Bloomer”, his leading bullock.
Soon after his safe arrival back at his station there was a football match between “Hambledon and Bothwell”. There is a feast to follow, but as Dedicoat’s luck would have it, on his return from Bothwell with a barrel of ale, he had to pass by a shoemaker’s house. “While some of the party kept me yarning, the shoemaker, assisted by others, tapped my barrel with his awl and drew off a quantity of ale in a bucket. My master afterward met the shoemaker and others drunk, and as he thought I was an accomplice, this was the cause of my being sent into Hambledon to be again assigned.” (OCD p.97)
He was assigned to a place between Lovely Banks and Green Ponds to a Mr B., “reported to be a regular Tartar.” Soon afterwards “we got notice that a gang of bushrangers were camped nearby in a gully leading to Jerusalem, and that they were coming to pay us a visit, to get square with our master for his harshness and tyranny to some of them when they were in his service. All hands were soon armed” and battle ensued. Dedicoat takes the opportunity to leave this master. Next day he was in bed – “from hard running and the excitement of the previous day I had an attack of palpitation of the heart” – and explains to his master that he was “very subject to that complaint and sometimes, when I was much put about, was laid up for months. The master told me that when I got well I should have a pass to go in. I pretended not to wish to leave, and that the place was to my liking, but he told the overseer to have a pass ready for me when I was able to go.” For such a strong man Dedicoat is subject to a surprising number of such episodes. His Cockatoo Island incarceration was also a period of several hospitalisations.
A New Master – Edward Bisdee
After two days in Hambledon he was assigned to Mr Edward Bisdee [Tipping], or Bisbey, as Dedicoat calls him, of Lovely Banks near Hatton Park. The Australian Dictionary of Biography (Volume I, 1966) has an account of Bisdee. “Edward Bisdee (1802-1870), farmer and politician, was born on 16 August 1802 at Oldmixon near Hutton, Somerset, England, the brother of John Bisdee. He arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on 29 April 1827. At first he managed his brother John’s property, Hutton Park, at White Hills near Jericho [an 1816 town, some 70 k. north of Hobart]. By 1829 he had established at White Hills one of the largest hop gardens in the island. In 1839 he bought Lovely Banks, Spring Hill, and went to live there. In that year and in 1840 he topped the London market with his highest grade merino lambs’ wool. On 23 October 1844 at Bothwell he married Rose, third daughter of Thomas Axford of Bothwell; they had no children. Like the rest of his family he was a member of the Church of England, and was a conscientious and upright citizen.”
Dedicoat’s recollections echo these remarks: “Mr Bisbey was a bachelor with no overseer. If a servant did not suit him he turned him back at once, and had never been known to get a man into trouble. There were no short rations on this station, but full and plenty for all. This employer was one of the largest sheep owners in the colony, shearing yearly 100,000 sheep, and, through keeping no overseer, never having any trouble with his men, always treating them with consideration and kindness, but with justice and firmness. There were three other brothers in the family. One was at Hatton Park, one near Bothwell, and another at Jericho. They were all like my master in their kindly treatment of the assigned servants.” Dedicoat readily gives praise where he sees it is due.
While employed by Bisdee, Dedicoat takes a fancy to “a very pretty nursemaid. My hut being close to the garden gate, where she used to come with the children, I soon found a chance of speaking to her, and in a short time we became on quite friendly terms. Knowing the feeling my master had about any of his men interfering with members of his household, I contrived a plan whereby we might have private meetings.” He spins one of his yarns and convinces her that he has great prospects. “In a spirit of boast I told her that my master kept no overseer, that I was his right-hand man, that, in fact, he could not get on without me. I added that I had a good bit of money in my master’s hands, and other savings, besides some sheep, cattle and horses on the Shannon. I really believed myself earnestly attached to this girl, but what I had invented about my property was rather a weight on my mind, and with good reason. A few days after our unfortunate garden meeting my sweetheart came up to me and said, ‘You don’t know what I’ve got in my pocket for you.’” She brought out the Gazette, a local newspaper, and he read that he had been listed for a Ticket of Leave.
He has a way with the women. The same kind of thing happened to him in Launceston (see p.30 of this history) and in Sydney his approach is much the same, as we will see.
Needless to say, his little amour comes to nothing, as he tells in his usual imaginative way. He takes advantage of the occasion to leave Bisdee and Lovely Banks and find himself another “very good master”, named Weir. Soon afterwards he gains his Ticket of Leave and “having now obtained my freedom, I gave my mistress notice to leave, though a better master and mistress could not be desired.” (OCD p.111)
He is so close to being granted his Ticket of Leave, and still he cannot stay out of trouble. The official Convict Records note “28 February 1848 – Woolpack; 18 March, 6 May, 20 May – Master: Cleland of Back River; 20 May, disobedience and neglect of duty – 6 days’ solitary confinement, New Norfolk Jail.” [New Norfolk is 35 k. NW of Hobart.] Dedicoat gives no account of these incidents.
He is granted his Ticket of Leave 23 May 1848.
And so his time of servitude comes to an end, leaving him free to pursue his life as he will. As if his life so far had not been full of adventures, there are many more to come. It seems that his time of incarceration has taught him nothing of how to keep out of trouble. Perhaps what he has learnt is to work the system. He was not an evil man; I do not believe he was a bad man. He was high spirited; he was certainly rebellious – he seems to have enjoyed getting the better of the authorities. We run the risk of romanticising him to call him what Australians today would classify as a larrikin, but there is a certain aptness to the word.
The most criminal of his behaviour to date is to have stolen a waistcoat and a handkerchief. His punishment for that offence more than matched the crime, and he put up a strong resistance to his incarceration. There is no doubt that he always liked to best those in authority, as so many men do. However, the worst, however, is yet to come, and there is no excusing him for that – not simply for the crime itself, but for its disastrous effects on his family.
A Free Bushman – From Adelaide to Sydney
The reader will not find it hard to believe that no sooner had received his Ticket of Leave and “tramped to Launceston”, than he found himself in yet another Keystone Cops escapade, and as usual he comes out on top. “I took up my abode at a boarding-house, and soon got acquainted with the daughter of the owners and was often in her company.” Her parents did not like it, but one evening he took her to Ashton’s Circus (who will appear again – on his wedding night) and arranged to meet her in her room later. Inevitably he ends up in the wrong room – the girl’s parents’ room – and, too late, he realises. The parents go to their room; he hears them coming and hides under the bed; they enter, prepare for bed, say their prayers and then discuss “how to prevent me meeting their daughter.” He lies “in an agony of fear, sweating at every pore.” Seized with a violent fit of hiccough, he rushes from his hiding place, is tackled by the father – and the mother – and the three tumble down the stairs. He frees himself, rushes for the back door opening into the yard, makes for a convenient hole in the wall, but alas “I found a big dog chained to his kennel. I jumped on the kennel and laid hold of the top of the wall just as the dog laid hold of the seat of my breeches. I got away by a desperate wrench, but only to fall right into the arms of a passing constable, who marched me off, barefooted as I was. Rounding a corner I gave him the leg in the true Lancashire style, and left him rolling in the gutter.” (OCD pp.112-114)
However much we might doubt the complete truth of these stories, they make great reading.
He makes his way to Port Sorrell and eventually takes a ship to Adelaide. Tipping has found that a William Jones arrived on board the 94 ton schooner, the Scout from Hobart Town, 18 August 1848. Dedicoat says he travelled from Port Sorrell, which is on the north coast of Tasmania. There were further adventures which include coming to the gallant assistance of a young lad, a “bolter” from Hobart – who just happens to be a girl in disguise. (OCD pp.115-116) The story is strongly reminiscent of his adventures in England as he roamed the Midlands. (See OCD pp.12-14) One wonders whether he recycles them in different guises throughout his memoirs.
Arrived at Port Adelaide, he rode up to Adelaide town and took up his abode “with a man named Bill Monks, in Light Square, near the Billy Barlow”. He meets a young girl, and decides to take her for a drive in the country. At near 39 he must be hankering to settle down with a wife. He hired a trap, a “wretched ramshackle affair with a worn-out horse.” He complains to the owner who turns out to be an old pal from Van Diemen’s Land. So of course he is treated to a better conveyance and “was able to drive in style along the Mount Barker Road as far as Handsdorf or Germantown.” On his return, “the livery-stable keeper reminded me of the days when we had worked together at fencing at Kemp’s Lakes, and how he had shared the sucking-pig with me, and helped me to pass off a bandicoot for a pig upon our master. (See OCD pp 88-89. This pig appears in Sofala later, courtesy of Neary’s account of Bold Bill Day.) He told me that by hard work he had risen from groom and stable-help to his present position, and had a good business with post carts, omnibuses, funeral turnouts, and landed property besides.” The prospect of rising in society by hard work is a constant theme of Dedicoat’s, and while he had every opportunity to do so, he seems to have squandered them, as his time on the gold fields of Sofala amply illustrate. He certainly made a lot of money both as a successful digger and as a jack-of-all-trades, and he owned several properties, though he died a pauper.
The Mount Gambier Mailman – Encounters with Aboriginals
Old convicts stick together: his erstwhile companion got him a job with a friend as mailman with a Mr Chambers and so he became the Adelaide to Mount Gambier mailman. More adventures followed, of course. At M’Graths Flat [today – McGrath Flat], “we tethered out the horses and went to the mia-mia (resting-place) of the mailman, formed in true aboriginal fashion of poles, bushes, and long grass. Here we were received by the mailman’s cook, a black gin who had ready a quantity of fish cooked in a primitive style on the coals and laid out on a plate of reeds and sedges spread on the ground.” Later he went among the mia-mias with his companion and “was saluted now and then with the question, ‘You wantee lubra?’”
The treatment of the aboriginals draws our attention. “I had a lot of tobacco in my swag, and was cutting the figs into quarter length pieces, and giving them away, when my mate said, ‘Don’t you be foolish, give me a fig and I’ll show you how to deal with them.’ He took a fig and began cutting thin slices, and handing a very small bit to each as they came up. Having collected all the tobacco they could, they handed it to the chief and seemed rather discontented. My mate then told me that they would give me whatever money they could scrape together, and ask me to purchase trifles at Mount Gambier. He said that he had had as much as five shillings at a time from them and had satisfied them with a few Jews harps or twopenny bead necklaces. Sometimes he had brought them a pannikin full of flour and sugar, but never a large quantity, as were they to get a bag of flour or a chest of tea they would still want more.”
The issue of alcohol was as contentious then as now. “On my asking what it was they wanted that there was so much secrecy about, the mailman told me that it was grog; that he had brought them a bottle now and again, and by so doing had got into trouble with their husbands; and that now he had to make all kinds of excuses to avoid doing their errands. He advised me not to fetch them any on any consideration, saying that the blacks sometimes got hold of it and became so furiously excited that they might be the means of my losing my life.” (OCD p.121)
They reached Mount Gambier, “delivered the mails, and took up quarters at the inn, where other mailmen from Portland Bay and Glenelg lodged. Without much delay, the next day I prepared for my return to Wellington, being now in charge of the mails. During the night my mate had given me some hints as to the treatment of the blacks should any of them molest me. I was to be armed with a carbine and he told me that if I saw a black fellow with spears I must keep my eye upon him, always driving him on before me, and holding him at a distance of fully a hundred yards. Should he turn rusty [sic] and show fight, the best thing was to shoot him down at once, and, on arrival in a town, report the matter without loss of time to the police.”
On the return journey Dedicoat fell in with the aboriginals once again, and this time he learnt from them how to throw a spear. This was a significant experience for him and became part of his story many years later. (See OCD p.272; this text p.73) At Reedy Creek he “met the same two women already spoken of on the look-out for me. On my refusing to bring them grog they showered all manner of abuse on me.” However, he found “lots of blacks, all friendly. When my horses were attended to I took a stroll among them, examining their weapons, among which was a light reed spear that they could throw with wonderful precision to a distance of eighty or even a hundred yards. For this purpose they used a woomera [sic], or throwing stick, a sort of notched handle fitting on to the end of the spear nearest the hand. I continued practising with this till bedtime. At Salt Creek I went with the blacks spearing fish, and, after many failures, succeeded in spearing one myself. After this I got so interested in spears that I lost no opportunity of improving myself.”
On his next trip from Mount Gambier, he took the opportunity to observe a battle between two aboriginal tribes, the M’Graths and the Tatiaras. “The main bodies on each side would charge with the fury of demons, and coming to close quarters would lay on, the men with their nullah-nullahs and the women with their yam sticks. The men carried for defence wooden shields about six inches wide and sharpened at each end. They were so dexterous with these that they could ward off spears thrown from a distance. While the nullah-nullah fighting was in full swing, spear-throwers stationed somewhat in the rear were hurling their spears with, in many cases, fatal effect. Some blacks lay dying and some were running about with their bodies transfixed. There seemed to be about 200 engaged in the fight, which lasted some hours, and ended in the defeat of the Tatiara tribe and the capture of as many of their young gins as possible; while the old crones were driven off with the rest of the fugitives, leaving the dead and wounded on the ground.” Wars everywhere follow the same pattern.
Later he observed the roasting of a human body and believed it to be in preparation for a cannibal feast. Nor was he greatly relieved to discover that “the roasting was intended to preserve his remains when he should be buried.” He “went to bed supperless” that night. “In the morning when I started on my way I found that the body, now sufficiently cooled and smoked for the purpose, had been fastened up in a tree. This is the blacks’ manner of disposing of their dead. When the flesh has completely disappeared from the bones, and the latter are sufficiently bleached and dried, the nearest relatives of the deceased remove them, but keep the skull, which when it has been cleaned and dried they use as a drinking vessel. Often and often have I had a drink from the mucka-mucka, as it is termed, never thinking of what it had once been.” (OCD p. 124)
He describes the aboriginals’ management of what he somewhat disdainfully calls “the miserable apologies they had for boats, or rather canoes.” These were “simply flat strips of bark rounded up at the stem and stern and tightly laced. On a thing of this sort a fisherman would stand upright, balancing himself with ease, and propelling his craft by means of a round pole held in both hands, and worked first on one side, then on the other. In smooth water these primitive canoes would go at a smartish pace.”
Needless to say there are other exciting adventures, including the arrest of a murderer and joining his old friends the M’Grath tribe in one of their regular battles with the Tatiaras. “In the onslaught I must have disabled a score of the enemy, when I felt a tremendous thud on the back of my neck, and tumbled over like a ninepin.” He wakes to find that “the lubra [which the chief] had given us as an attendant on the mailman had disappeared.” The Tatiaras had captured her, so the chief offers him another. “I went round among the mia-mias, and found several new ones, fresh and young, prisoners of war. Among them was a half-caste. I went up to her, and said, ‘Me man him you [I take you]. You come along me.’” He takes her to the chief but she is unwilling to be “thus disposed of”, so the chief, “barbarian fashion, knocked her off her pins by a not too gentle tap on her ‘cobra’.” (OCD p.129) The aftermath of this encounter? There may be a couple of distant relatives I have not accounted for.
Heading for Melbourne
In one of the rare references he makes to a year, he places a trial in about 1850. It is soon after this that he decides to head for Melbourne and the Port Phillip district. He crossed the Murray and travelled up the river to the end of the border line, near the junction of the Darling and the Murray. From there he went on to the Tatiara, through the great desert. What a journey – consider walking it today or taking a horse!
“I started off in a broiling hot sun, and for the want of water both myself and the horse suffered fearfully. On the third day, without a drop, I came to the first camping- place, a ti-tree scrub, with a few large trees here and there, and the long-looked-for hole or well. With eager haste I made for the spot, and to my horror found it nearly filled up with sand, and not the slightest sign of water. Nothing daunted, I tethered my jaded horse, and taking off all unnecessary clothing, got into the hole, and with hands and boots began shovelling out the sand as quickly as possible, my poor horse whinnying and pawing the ground all the while. Near the edge of the hole stood a large tree, a good portion of it withered and dead. Being tired with my labour I halted for a space, and lay down, unable to eat a morsel, my mouth and throat being so parched. After a time I again tried hard to get some water, but all my efforts were in vain. I could not find even the sign of dampness.”
A Lucky Escape
Worse was to come. “The night was very dark. I lay till about midnight, when I awoke from my state of half stupor, and looking back towards the track I had ridden over during that day I saw a glare over the scrub, and shortly after a great flame of fire shoot upwards to the sky. I at once knew that the bush was on fire. The flames rapidly approached my camping-ground. Being entirely ignorant of the extent of the scrub by which I was surrounded, I became fearful of being burnt alive. I led my horse to the edge of the hole with the intention of killing him and skinning the carcass to cover myself over in the dried-up well with the hide. I first bled him as he stood by the hole, saving as much of the blood as I could. At length he fell, and I turned to skin him as quickly as possible, for I knew I would not have much time to spare before my dreaded foe would be upon me. Having finished the skinning, with the exception of the head, I went into the hole, drawing the hide over it. I had knocked off one of the horse shoes with a piece of a rock, and with it commenced tunnelling in the side and throwing the sand out with my hands, forcing myself under the bank. By this time the flames, sweeping all before them, had reached the body of the horse, and from my place of shelter I could hear the flesh crackling and frizzling in the scorching heat, and could see the melted oil and fat trickling down the side, and quickly flowing towards me, while I squeezed myself into as small a bulk as I could to escape from it.”
Given the details he describes, we can sympathise with his cry: “Was ever man in a more miserable plight?” His account is worth reading in its entirety. (OCD pp.133-136)
He pushes on till he encounters a group of aboriginals, one of whom, fortunately, recognises him. “One of them shouted, ‘Were lum barqee?’, that is, ‘Where are you from?’ I answered at the top of my voice, though not very loud under my present condition, ‘Borak me menaree’ – ‘I don’t know where.’ They then surrounded me, staring with all their eyes at a white man dressed in Nature’s garb. After a while one of the gins advanced, looked earnestly at me, eyeing me all over, and seeing my breast covered with tattoo marks, [See Convict Records, p.18 of this history, for details of various tattoos] exclaimed, ‘Me menaree you.” (I know you.) ‘You quambee (stop) along M’Grath’s Flat.’
Some water, something to eat, a warm, soft possum cloak and he “lay down and was soon sound asleep”. They point him towards Border Town; he finds a dairy farm and a suit of clothes. He returns his cloak “to my dusky guide, who at once decamped, carrying with her a goodly swag of tucker.” (OCD pp.139-140)
Dedicoat had lost everything in the fire and even if half of his account is true he is in a bad way. However, he has been there any number of times before and always come out on top. Such will be the case now. He explains his situation to the Scottish family he has fallen in with. Very kindly they tell one of their sons to go in search of whatever might remain at the scene of the miraculous escape – for Dedicoat, if not for his faithful horse. The son returned with the trousers, the remains of the shirt and “the little bag you had in your pocket”. “I emptied the bag on the table and displayed 31 sovereigns and 11 shillings in silver.” The girls mended his shirt and he left a couple of days later, “dressed up in my new rig. I surveyed myself in the glass, and came to the conclusion that I looked a regular Methodist parson in my black cloth coat, something swallow-tail fashion and a white handkerchief (from one of the girls) tied round my throat. Such I was actually taken for on a future occasion. In addition, I now donned a black silk hat, which I had picked up in the cow-house, it having served many purposes, among them that of a hatching-box for some one of the fowls. However, after a good deal of scraping, brushing, and other titivations, I got it to assume a somewhat decent appearance, which suited admirably the rest of my rig-out.” (OCD p.141. Several times throughout his memoirs he describes his “smart togs”.)
His journey from Adelaide to Melbourne is fantastic, however the reader understands that word. If it is not entirely true, it is certainly entertaining and imaginative.
He spends the following weeks or months in various jobs, none of them without their own adventures (OCD pp.141-154). These need not detain us – we must let him get to Sydney.
From Geelong to Sydney
So begins Dedicoat’s journey to Sydney, Sofala, gold digging and marriage. The time is July 1851; Dedicoat is now about 32 years of age. Apart from six years incarcerated on Cockatoo Island for his part in the hold-up and robbery of a coach on Mount Victoria in 1859 and a possible – as yet undocumented – visit to England somewhere between 1870 and 1880, he is to spend the rest of his life in and around Sofala where he fathers five children.
“At peep of day I made a start for Geelong, pushed on all day, buying some little provision at a small store on the road, and reached Geelong without further adventure that afternoon, when I found there were steamers running almost constantly between that place and Melbourne.” (OCD p.155) He travelled to Williamstown, “getting rid of all my paper money, which was of no use to me out of the Geelong district. The place was all alive, a perfect mass of calico tents belonging to men bound for the diggings in New South Wales.”
He boards the schooner Favourite, under Captain Starkey, and that night set sail for Sydney, probably in August 1851) . He acquires “a splendid sailor’s suit, cap and all, of fine blue cloth, and just my fit, which I bought at a decided bargain”. And inevitably he makes another of his lucky chance encounters. “One day a young man came up to me inquiring if I had ever been in Sydney before. I answered, of course, that I had not. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I ran away from home in Sydney, of which place I’m a native, my mother and stepfather having quarrelled, and I’m ashamed to go back. I want you so to arrange that mother shall come and fetch me home, and if you do so I’ll stand “Sam” [pay for drinks etc. Partridge, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English] when we get there. My mother keeps the Crispin Arms in Clarence Street.” This chance meeting is to determine the future for great-great grandfather Dedicoat and indeed his descendants.
Dedicoat is very impressed with his first sight of Sydney Harbour – not the first and not the last to be so impressed. It “filled me with surprise, particularly when I noticed the many villas and seats dotting the shores, so much superior and entirely different from anything I had hitherto seen in Australia or Van Diemen’s Land.” He made his way from the landing at the Flour Mills Wharf up to the Crispin Arms in Clarence Street. “Flour Mills Wharf” may have been Girard’s Wharf, Cockle Bay (ie, Darling Harbour), a 10 minute walk to Clarence Street. He regarded the place as “seemingly a house of call for sailors and soldiers, and from first appearances rather a rough shop, although the landlady seemed a jovial, hearty woman.” He asked for a glass of ale, and then began his performance. Dedicoat seems to have been the consummate showman – every encounter is high drama, as the story so far suggests. You’ve got to admire his creative energy. “Missus”, he says to Mrs Mahony [the proprietress of the tavern, Mrs Ann Mahony, or Mahoney, whom Dedicoat calls Mrs Marley], “give me your hand. I belong to the gipsies in the old country.” She extended her hand, “like a small shoulder of mutton, but every finger loaded with rings”, which he pretended to examine “with great minuteness”. After a suitable pause he said, “Missus, you have had a great deal of trouble of a domestic nature, chiefly about a son. I can see him coming. He is not far off.”
Hard-headed and all as this lady must have been, she could not fail to respond – “What would I not give to see my son Henry again.” She follows Dedicoat to the boat where Henry waits expectantly. On the way they encounter “a crowd of women in charge of the police. They seemed to be of all classes and grades, some in tatters, some very respectably dressed, but all bearing the evident outward marks of dissipation, and followed by a motley crowd of urchins and larrikins of both sexes.” They were on their way from the watch house to the police-court to be tried on various charges. Dedicoat “had seen many similar scenes in Old Brummagem [Birmingham], but none to equal this.”
They board “the schooner, where the son met us, and thinking my presence was not needed, I walked aside, leaving them in their joyful embrace, the mother shedding tears of gladness and overwhelming her son with the most endearing caresses. At length we made for their home, I, on the way, trying to get a word in here and there, but vainly, so wrapt up were they in each other. As soon as we entered orders were given to supply Henry and myself with breakfast in the best parlour. The mother soon joined us at table, a good-looking servant girl laying before us a most tempting spread of eggs, ham, butter, coffee, and many other dainties, to which I did ample justice.” He is to do less than ample justice to the “a good-looking servant girl” – who, within eight months, is to become his wife.
According to his memoirs, he is determined to have the young lady – who is about 16 years of age. The date of her birth or her christening is not known, and he never names her in his memoirs. She is, of course, Mary Kirwin. “During the meal I had been eying the girl with some attention, and I afterwards said to Henry, ‘That girl shall be my wife some day soon. You keep an eye on her, as I start for the diggings to-morrow morning, and this day month I shall be down again and marry her.’ This I said without once having spoken to the girl” – which can hardly surprise us now we have come to know him.
Next day he sets forth for the gold fields. We may reasonably assume that this was some time in late August or early September 1851, as Sofala was officially established as a township 14 August 1851 and Dedicoat was appointed as undertaker in January 1852. (Tipping: from Higgins, Matthew – Gold and Water – a History of Sofala and the Towns of the Goldfields 1990.) The first notice of the discovery of gold in the area appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1851; by 6 June there were 1700 diggers camped at Ophir; and in July 704 licences were issued. The gold rush had begun and everyone wanted a share in the fortune to be made. Dedicoat went to the booking-office and paid his fare to Penrith. “Talk of overcrowding vehicles! Both this coach and the opposition were so loaded I do not believe a cat could have been squeezed in between us.” (OCD p.159)
He remembers every detail of his journey, which is helpful to the researcher in establishing the authenticity of his tale. He stays overnight at Kendall’s public-house in Penrith, intending to travel by coach next day to Hartley. Discovering the fare from Penrith to Hartley to be £1 and the distance to be only forty-five miles, he decided to save the fare and walk. This gave him a good opportunity to visit local watering holes as well as encounter other hopefuls – not to say several “disappointeds”. He crossed the Nepean in the punt to Emu Plains and proceeded up Lapstone Hill. He had always been a good walker “and enduring to boot”. He says “The road was lined with travellers of all grades, from the wheelbarrow trundler with goods and chattels, to the common pedestrian with pick and shovel, tin dish, and blanket swag on back, and here and there a man and wife loaded to the utmost with necessaries for the venture, some of the children, and in many cases dogs, bearing their share of the burden.” On top of Lapstone he “pulled up at Vascoe’s for a glass of ale, and trudged on.” At Blackheath he dined on biscuit and cheese, passed through Hartley, “a long, scattered place of no interest then.” The “then” is telling, as we will see. Hartley has a very stylish Court House designed by the Colonial Architect, Mortimer Lewis and built in 1837. It has fine Doric columns and the entrance to the Court Room is surrounded with sloping architraves and key pattern – in imitation of a Greek temple. (Taylor: Paridaens, Iris. Historic Hartley, 1972) Dedicoat came to know the inside of this building, better than he might have desired, some years later.
He reached Bowenfels, where he “indulged in another glass of ale at Mrs Malachi Ryan’s”. He turned from the Bathurst Road onto the Mudgee line, crossing Middle River, and made “Mother Mackay’s, where I resolved to put up for the night, having, in my opinion, made a good day’s work, and feeling somewhat wearied” – one might regard that as an understatement, the distance covered being, “as near as I could say, about sixty miles”. He reflects: “This to some may seem a long day’s tramp, but it is a well-known fact that in after years, on more occasions than one, I have started from Sofala, on the Turon, in the morning, reached Hartley at night, and next night landed in Sydney, the whole journey accomplished on foot.”
At Mother Mackay’s he realises that he had carried his “Sunday toggery” all that way for nothing: he would be returning “in a month”, to be married. It is more like seven or eight months, in fact, but no matter. Mother Mackay agrees to take his gear in charge and he moves on with “half a dozen eggs boiled hard, and a rasher or two of bacon cooked, with some bread, to carry me on to the diggings, as I would not stop on the road”.
He passed through Ben Bullen, “a wild country”, thence to Keenan’s Crown Ridge, “where some twenty diggers had assembled, holding high festival.” He heads for “the Turon”, taking the main road by the Running Stream, as “there was less chance of being lost, although it was the longer by miles.” He turned left at Cherry Tree onto the Razorback Road which he follows till he meets the road into Sofala near Pennyweight Flat Creek. (See map) He easily out-strode “a line of weary toilers footsore and overburdened” and soon encountered a cart “completely overturned, the load underneath, a woman sitting on the side of the road, and a man unharnessing the horse.” The hopes for making a fortune out of gold were not easily fulfilled.
He stayed the night at Arthur’s sheep station. “Being too tired, I did not go down among the men by the river, whose tents I could see clustered up and down, but enjoyed a hearty supper of mutton chops, prepared by the woman of the hut, who made me a bed on the sofa. After breakfast I asked her as to the cost. ‘Oh, nothing; we never make a charge.’” He promised her a nugget “should I be successful”. Seven miles down the river he came to “the township (Sofala)”, having encountered at Pennyweight Flat a man “wishing to dispose of his mining kit – picks, shovels, dish and cradles, and all other requirements. He said he was off to Sydney, as the diggings were worked out [1851, the first year of their existence!]. He wanted £2, but I offered him a sovereign”. He tied his things together and thus equipped he “shouldered the lot and made my way up Ration Hill, across Big Oaky Creek, and saw the banks of the river lined with diggers, as thick as they could comfortably work.” (OCD p.161)
He had arrived and gets to work immediately. The diggings were far from “worked out”!
He found an abandoned hole and having made the place suitable, “as I thought”, he settled in to the routine of the place. About midnight he “was aroused by a rush of water entering on all sides, dripping through the oak branch covering, and making everything around wringing wet.” Next morning he found a foot of water in his dwelling-place. Little Oaky Creek, a couple of kilometres east of the infant settlement of Sofala, as with the rest of the creeks in the area, proves to be subject to frequent flooding.
At this point, I wish to refer the problem of dating Dedicoat’s memoirs with complete accuracy. He rarely gives a date in his memoirs and it is understandable that his memory does recall months and years accurately. However, there is a great deal of independent material which helps us with specific dates for much of his life – more than we might reasonably expect for a relatively insignificant citizen. For example, we read above that he told the serving girl at the Crispin Arms that he would return “at the end of the month” to marry her. If we accept that he left for the goldfields in August or September 1851 – and the evidence points to that – and we know that he married Mary Kirwin 6 April 1852, we have to account for some seven or eight months. Two events help us with the dates: the flooding of Little Oaky Creek and Dedicoat’s appointment as undertaker in Sofala.
While the flooding of Oaky Creek must have been a reasonably common occurrence, it may be possible to date this particular flood. Matthew Higgins’ 1990 History of Sofala and the Towns of the Goldfields notes that on 18 December 1851 a Henry Robinson was drowned by sudden rising of Oaky Creek. Tipping notes that there is another flood in the first week of February. Tipping also notes: “January – Dr Bell asks Dedicoat to become the undertaker in place of Rogers. January 8  – Dedicoat and Job buried Thomas – aged about 50 years. January 12 – Dedicoat buried John Smith (32 yrs)”. This material does not occur till Part V, Chapter IX in Old Convict Days (“Goldfields’ Undertaker), well after Dedicoat had married. However, Tipping derives the details, including the dates, from the death certificates for these men. This information tends to corroborate the understanding that Dedicoat did not return to Sydney to marry Mary Kirwin for at least seven or eight months, the marriage certainly taking place 6 April 1852.
Let us return to his story.
Settling in at Sofala 1852
He looked around and twenty or thirty men perched up in the branches of the oak trees, shouting at the top of their voices to those on the banks. “They had been camped on an island, the river here having a channel on each side. In the sudden flood they had been surrounded, the water now rushing over the whole, and had sought safety in the tree tops.” (OCD pp.163-164) “Being of no service to them, I strolled towards Little Oaky Creek, and had a look about, when I found everything moveable had been carried off and the workings in and by the creek completely submerged.” Later he went to see “how they got the gold by means of a dish in the absence of the cradles which had been carried away” and began panning. He commenced scraping all round and soon had some three ounces of gold.
Inevitably he finds himself at the centre of some altercation, but as usual he comes out of it on top and “quietly walked off to my work in the recovered hole.” Fortuitously he also finds “about 2dwt [ie, pennyweight – the common weight used in the valuation and measurement of precious metals] of gold, also a pick, shovel, and dish, all of which I took.”
He then learns how to use the cradle, a rocking mechanism for recovering gold, requiring two people to work it. Trust great-great grandfather: he rigs up a system which allows him to work alone. “During the remainder of the day I got through more than twenty times the quantity I had done on the first day.”
However, he runs into another problem: they take the Sabbath seriously in Sofala – after all there are several churches in the town. On Sunday 5 October 1851 Dr John Dunmore Lang had held an open-air service at Sofala. The Roman Catholics built the first church in Sofala and by early November 1851, the Church of England’s Christ Church was built in less than a week. (Tipping: Higgins, op. cit.) “Being now quite at ease and feeling the real stuff in my pocket, I enjoyed my supper, and retired for the night. At peep-of-day I was at it again, cradling as usual, when, looking about, I could see no one astir. This I could not make out, as it was so different from ordinary. A man passing by, I asked if it was a holiday. ‘It does not look like a holiday with you,’ he said; ‘aren’t you satisfied to work six days in the week without breaking the Sabbath.’”
He ceases his work and at ten o’clock, “when the crowd began to muster on the flat at the foot of the creek, a preacher took up his position on a stump, and in earnest terms addressed the diggers, numbering some thousands; while on the outskirts of the throng some were busy at ‘three up’, ‘heading them’, and ‘prick in the garter’, or some other gambling transaction, carried on with much wrangling and scuffling, ending in a regular stand-up fight near the butcher’s shop.” A very Australian scene, though admittedly reminiscent of Dedicoat’s adventures back home in his youth.
He continues experimenting with new methods of cradling alone, observing others at work with “the rude expedients in vogue at the onset of the rush on the Turon.”
He has been working in the Little Oaky Creek area, about 2km east of Sofala, since his arrival and now decides to have a look at the township of Sofala. He sets up there, on Church Hill, next door to “the man from whom I had got the idea of the dipper, Charlie Wilson, thinking I might pick up some further wrinkles. On the other side of us lived a man named Heath.” Having settled in, he “went up Spring Creek fossicking, as the public-houses and shanties had no attraction for me”. His relationship with the drink is interesting: he loves his pint but also seems to realise the dangers into which overindulgence could lead him.
Always confident and personable, the now-named Day finds himself a “girl mate”, Rose Hinton, later Mrs Presswick, “a young, tall and slender girl working by herself”, the daughter of Dr Henry Hinton, surgeon of Bowen street. (Tipping) He becomes her gallant protector: “One day an individual of the larrikin type began insulting her at work, and on my interfering he became bounceable, ‘talking fight’. But I very soon had him in trouble, to the amusement of some of the other diggers.” (OCD p.171)
The next eight years are prosperous for Dedicoat. While he was known as Bill Day from this time till about 1870 (the exact time is not it clear) when he reverted to some form of Dedicoat, I will generally refer to him as Dedicoat.
This period involves his marriage to Mary Kirwin and his many activities in Sofala up until the time when he decides to engage in a mail coach robbery on Mount Victoria, a choice which saw his incarceration on Cockatoo Island for some six years and the destruction of his family. It is here that the exciting story turns tragic and what might have been our admiration for the hero takes on another aspect.
I referred earlier on to the matter of dating the various episodes in Dedicoat’s life. The only dates I had originally been sure of were those of his wedding, 6 April 1852, and the stage coach robbery, 24 June 1859. For all other dates, such as those of his activities as undertaker and Governor Fitzroy’s visit to Sofala, I am dependent on Tipping’s notes from Matthew Higgins’ 1990 History of Sofala. Certain other dates are derived from reasonable conjecture.
It is at this time, in my view, that Dedicoat moves from the larger than life teller of picaresque tales of which he is always the hero, to a flesh and blood husband and father whose personality and behaviour come to have a profound and tragic impact on the lives of five females and one male – his wife Mary Kirwin, his daughters Mary Ann, Matilda, Julia and Elizabeth (Eliza or Betsey), and his son Richard. Their story has its own chapter – The Day Girls. The Story of Four sisters from Sofala to the Roman Catholic Orphan School Parramatta – and it is their story that has reshaped my understanding of William Dedicoat.
In the following section of his story I hope to be able to blend his own memoirs with the known facts about his wife and children, of which he tells precious little in his personal account.
To take up his story again.
Marriage to Mary Kirwin
Soon his thoughts turn to Mary Kirwin and marriage. He must make good his promise of marriage to the innocent – not to say ignorant – Mary, setting her on a long path to tragedy. He told Rose Hinton he was off to the “Big Smoke” and he made for the Sydney Road from Mudgee at Capertee. He walked that day from the Turon to Mother Mackay’s, where he had left his suit, and “showed the landlady my bag of gold, containing many ounces and a quantity of nuggets of various weights, at which she was surprised, saying I had done better in the month than many others who had been there for a much longer time.” Next day he reached Penrith – there is no reason to doubt this prodigious feat – and left for Sydney by the coach the following morning.
It comes as no surprise that on the coach he became acquainted with a young man connected with “Peter Hanslow, of the Dog and Duck, (which stood opposite what is now Christ Church St Lawrence in George Street near Central Railway Station) in the Haymarket, Sydney, where I stayed till night, being the last night of my promised month. I then proceeded up Brickfield Hill, and on to King Street, and seeing a large confectioner’s shop, I entered and inquired if they had any wedding cakes.” They offer to make him one for £3 and he heads up to Clarence Street to the Crispin Arms, “to my intended, to whom be it remembered I had not as yet spoken a dozen words. Avoiding the bar, I went along a passage towards the kitchen, and overheard a few words which at once drew my attention. ‘Today is the day he was to be here’, I heard. ‘The month’s up tonight.’ To their surprise I made my entrance, saying, ‘I’m here’, and then and there entered into business. In the presence of the girl’s mistress I said, ‘Are you quite ready?’ Without further hum or hah, she said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Get ready quick then,’ I said.” (OCD p.172. His version of the conversation is probably a dramatic recreation, and one month is closer to eight or nine, as we have seen.)
He is anxious lest he lose his claim in Sofala, so he does not want to waste time on unimportant matters like marriage! “‘I want to go tomorrow morning to the priest or parson and get it over. Make up your mind, so that there will be no shuffling out of it.’ She answered she was content and agreeable to what I wished, but she wished to know about my religion, as she was a Catholic. I said, ‘You can be married in any church you like. I’m a sort of a Protestant, or, in truth, a Ranter, but I’m not particular, and if we get married, and have any family, the boys shall be Protestants, and you can bring the girls up in your own persuasion.’
Next morning they went to St Mary’s Cathedral and “I told the priest that I wished to get married at once, at the same time presenting my intended”, saying she was of his religion. However, he was told “We don’t marry in Lent!” Day pushed the matter with all the fervour he could; but no, “the rules of the church forbade it.” No problem for our pragmatist: “If you have no objections, we’ll seek the Church of England parson.”
Next day he made enquiries for the Church of England minister Dean Cowper and was directed to his residence. The door was opened by a young woman, whom Dedicoat mistook for a servant. After some discussion, he offered the girl “a shilling for having fetched the Dean”. The Dean arrived. Some gold nuggets were passed: “… on visiting the big bugs, unless you greased the hand of the attendant, you would have to wait.” (OCD p.174) He gives the girl her promised shilling only to be told she was the Dean’s wife. Confounded – for once! – he admits “I am an ignorant blockhead and big fool of a digger.”
The Dean instructed them to go up to St Philip’s church on Church Hill to make the proper arrangements. However, it was not so easy: How old is your wife? Fifteen or sixteen. She must have the consent of her parents. They are in Ireland, so “how could I get their consent?” According to the Shipping Records both were dead. There must be a proved statement of residence, guardianship, etc., “as everything must be straightforward to prevent future liability.” “I then said, ‘I want the marriage to be performed as quickly and cheaply as possible. This is Saturday; can’t we have it off tomorrow?’” The banns have to be called “three times in church, and we can only call twice in one day.” Needless to say, Day gets around the problem with £5.
The long and the short of it: “Next evening, in company of Mr and Mrs Marley, the master and mistress of the girl, I went to the church, and after service the ceremony was performed, and we returned home to the Crispin Arms.”
The details are on the marriage certificate: Sunday, 6 April 1852. Dean William Cowper, Church of England Chaplain, in the presence of Batw [Bartholomew] Mahony and Ann Mahony her x mark, at St Philip’s, Sydney, married William Day, bachelor, and Mary Kirwin, spinster, both of this parish and both signed with their x mark. He is 28 years and six month old; she is about sixteen or seventeen.
“At my suggestion, the landlord agreed to have a night license for next night, when we might enjoy ourselves to our hearts’ content, and I would get one or two friends to join in. Accordingly, during the day, I went to Ashton’s Circus, the clown at which was an old acquaintance of mine. (See p.30 of this text, also OCD pp.112.) I invited him, and he promised to bring some of the band to supply us with dance music. After making sundry other preparations, I instructed the landlord to furnish a good supply of liquors, to place them in a room by themselves, and let me know the amount, as to prevent any disputes I would not have any bar shouting. After the circus performance, my friend, with his companions and instruments, arrived, and the dancing, mirth and fun soon became fast and furious. I ordered a bicker of she-oak (ale) for the bar customers, and about 2 am retired, leaving the company to enjoy themselves as they saw fit, leaving ample store of cake and drinkables for their consumption.”
In his memoirs he recounts what I believe to be an episode that reveals the kind of man Mary Kirwin has married, as if what we have read so far has not revealed enough evidence. “The next day the landlady twitted me with my rashness in making preparations before I had got the girl’s consent, I coolly answered that I was aware of all this; but I was determined to have a wife, and at first sight took a fancy to this one. Had I been refused, I would have gone to the Registry Office, and, the girls being assembled, would have declared myself in want of a wife, showing plenty of gold and notes; so that I never dreamt of failure; and besides, being quite respectably togged out in my newly-purchased sailor’s garb, and with my expectations, did she think for a moment I would long be without a wife? ‘Why’, I said, ‘since I left your son here in this house a month ago for the Turon I have got 20 oz. 9 dwt gold, which I sold to Bill Nash at £3.3s.6d per ounce, who gave me an introduction to his son-in-law on the Turon – Mr Forbes, the banker. So you see I was not such a big fool after all.’” (OCD p.176.) Whatever allowance we make for exaggeration and memory in his conversations, this revelation of his character must ring alarms bells.
He asks Ann Mahony to take care of his new wife until such times as he was to be able to provide a house for her in Sofala. Having Mrs Mahoney’s consent, he sets off for Sofala two days later where he rejoined his “former comrade [Rose Hinton], with whom I had left my tools, and again set to work beside her in my old claim. Near the tent where I had been stopping there was a spare bit of ground next to Mr Heath’s van, sufficient for the erection of a hut, and here I began to build a solid log hut, the ends notched and overlapping, as I had been used to in Van Diemen’s Land. The chimney I built of stout logs, with a dry cask on top, clayed round and firmly secured by cross sticks. The dimensions of the hut were ten feet by twelve feet. As I was then as strong as a horse, the logs I carried singly were nearly enough for two ordinary men. The door I erected with leather hinges, and worked in an inverted bottle bottom. I then fixed a cupboard up against the togs near my bed, with a lid in front on hinges, which, when opened, formed a table.” (OCD p.177) His ingenuity never ceases to surprise and impress.
Mary Kirwin – from Tavern Wench to Digger’s Wife
We have no idea of what Mary Kirwin looked like or what her personality was. What we do know is that her marriage to Bill Day was to produce five children. At some time she turned to drink – whether inclined to it by nature or driven to it by her marriage it is impossible to say – and the eventual loss of her four daughters Mary Anne, Matilda, Julia and Elizabeth (Eliza or Betsey) who died in an orphanage aged five, and loss to oblivion of her son Richard. It is reasonable to assume, from the little I know as fact, that Mary Kirwin died unreconciled to, indeed rejected by, her daughters and alone.
Who, then, was the man Mary Kirwin so readily married? What was there about him that moved her to say Yes to his request – perhaps his demand? What was there about her that moved her to say Yes? As to the last question, we can only speculate.
According to the Shipping List (NSW State Archives: Shipping Lists, Reel 2461) Mary Kirwin was fifteen years of age when she arrived, in the company of 243 orphan females and other immigrants, in Sydney, 29 June 1850, on the ship Maria. She had been a farm servant in County Carlow, Ireland, and her parents, both deceased, were named Timothy and Martha. Mary was C. of R., i.e. Church of Rome, or Roman Catholic. She could neither read nor write; her health was good and no remarks were recorded for her. According to that information, Mary Kirwin must have been born in about 1835. I do not know what she did immediately on arrival but by March 1852 she was, as we have seen, employed by Bartholomew and Ann Mahoney at the Crispin Arms, 112 Clarence Street, Sydney. According to Dedicoat, Mary Kirwin – whom he never names – was a “good-looking” girl, (OCD p.158) and he decides there and then to marry her. Again according to Dedicoat, when he does return some seven of eight months later and asks “Are you quite ready?”, “Without further hum or hah, she said Yes”. (OCD p.172)
For an orphaned girl, unable to read or write, someone like Bold Bill Day must have seemed a heaven-sent opportunity to better herself. After all, he had a tremendous ego, he was probably physically impressive, he was well dressed and he had about £90 of gold to his name. He must have offered more than the Clarence Arms could have done.
While there is no way of telling what either William Dedicoat or Mary Kirwin looked like, we may make a guess from the looks of the two daughters for whom we have photos. These photos are of both Mary Ann and Julia in their later life. Julia is on the left and Mary Ann on the right. By no stretch of the imagination can they be called attractive.
There is, however, a certain softness in these two photos of Julia.
The photo on the left may have been a wedding photo, Julia aged about 19; the provenance of the other I do not know.
We have already heard of several episodes where he comes across as protector of those in need or distress: his assistance of the young unmarried mother in Part I Chapter IV, his help of the young Worcester College student in Part I Chapter V, his support for the young lady he mistook for a young man in Part IV Chapter I, and of course his fortuitous encounter with Henry Mahoney, son of the Crispin Arms’ Ann Mahoney. He was nothing if not confident in his abilities, the certainty bred of native cunning – his memoirs are bursting with his confidence. He is practical, indeed pragmatic: the whole pre-nuptial affair and his readiness to be married in whatever church fitted his time frame suggest as much, as does the wedding banquet – such an affair, with Ashton’s Circus, an abundant supply of liquor, an open tab, and leaving the guests to get on with it while he retired at 2am with his new bride. His whole story shows him as embracing and taking advantage of every situation he finds himself in: in Van Diemen’s Land, in southern Australia, on the goldfields – everywhere.
But it is his admission – his boast – to Ann Mahony that strikes me most. This man, on his own admission, was determined to have a wife. Had Mary Kirwin said No, he would have headed straight to the Registry Office and, “the girls being assembled, would have declared myself in want of a wife, showing plenty of gold and notes; so that I never dreamt of failure; and besides, being quite respectably togged out in my newly-purchased sailor’s garb, and with my expectations, did she think for a moment I would long be without a wife?” (OCD p.176) It would not be long before Mary Kirwin came to see the kind of man she had married.
Bill Day – Digger
Meantime he returns to Sofala and resumes his search for gold, leaving his new wife in Sydney for the time being. He runs into trouble with some of the other diggers who, he believes, are stealing from his cache. Needless to say it ends in fisticuffs.
The time comes for him to fetch his wife. He sends £7 for the coach and other requirements and rejoins Rose Hinton down the creek, “as the ground was still payable”. He is telling Miss Hinton about his “curious wedding and other things”, when his wife and her friend, a Miss Hollingdale, “appeared on the bank above and stood surveying us, they having come over to see the working for gold. Looks none of the brightest were cast upon me. Going home at night, things looked rather gloomy, and comparative silence was maintained for a time, my wife merely remarking, ‘It does not look well of you working in company of an unmarried girl.’” Not a good start to the marriage.
Bold Bill Day did not warrant that epithet for nothing. It seems that he very easily moves in on other men’s diggings – the cause of regular friction, as we have seen; though it must be said that plenty of other diggers did the same thing: hence the need for a Commissioner, someone to oversee the many disputes the diggings gave rise to.
He takes advantage of another flood to work a piece of ground which turns out to belong to several others who had purchased that ground for £40. By good chance he overhears one of them boasting that he had “found a bloke in their grounds who was at first rather bounceable, but that he had soon made him walk.” Red rag to our Brummy bull! In brief, Dedicoat appeals to the Commissioner who, because of his “five days’ unmolested occupation has acquired a right to both bank and river claim.’” (OCD p.180)
Ever the entrepreneur, he soon purchases “a large tent of tanned duck [heavy canvas] in the form of a circus tent, used by the Presbyterians for divine worship, together with a kit of blacksmith’s tools.” Taking advantage of his training as a gun lock filer in Darlaston, he erected a signboard – “Guns and pistols repaired here.” He soon had any amount of work, and “found it more profitable and easier employment than gold digging, as if I had no smithing work to do I could go at the gold at any time.”
He has purchased a claim from diggers Moogee and Dunbar for £20 near his hut and spends much time, even at night, searching for gold. He digs out a pillar and, discovering some quantity of gold, breaks though into Dunbar’s drive. At this moment “my wife came to the top of the shaft and called me. Thinking it might be some repairs wanted to be done in the blacksmithing line, I went up and asked for what I was wanted. She seemed like one bewildered, and stammering and stuttering had only time to say ‘I …’ when the whole ground under which I had been working sank bodily down, burying tools and everything I had below under hundreds of tons of dirt. After realising my narrow escape, I asked my wife what she had called me for.” She could not provide a reason and Dedicoat concludes, “Thus had Providence cast a protecting arm around me, as on several occasions before.” (OCD p.183. This is but one of several references throughout his memoirs to a protecting Providence, as we have seen.)
He heads into Sofala town to purchase new tools and as he passes the Gas Hotel, on the corner of Davis and Bowen Streets, kept by Davis and Spiers, Davis suggests he buy a more suitable building in town for his workshop. So he shifts from Church Hill, and sets up yet another establishment adding to his former signboard – “Tools bought and sold here,” opening “a Johnny-All-Sorts establishment.” He adds a Carpenter and Blacksmith’s shop, and engaged “an elderly carpenter named Job Webb, a good workman, though somewhat given to take a drop, on the conditions that if ever I found the signs of intoxicating drink upon him he should receive only £3 per week, while if he refrained from liquor I would pay him £4 per week.” (OCD p.184)
Dedicoat is a mixture. He opposes strong drink yet he is not afraid to take over other diggers’ claims if he believes he can get away with it. He seems to have a strong moral code in some ways and yet by the end of the decade he finds himself incarcerated on Cockatoo Island for his part in a stagecoach robbery on Mount Victoria. We can only ask – but never know the answer – how Mary Kirwin coped with this man with whom she is to have five children.
However, there is far more to Dedicoat than that. From his memoirs we see that a man of great capacity. At the age of 18 he is 5 ft 8 ins high. Over the next couple of years he will reach his full height of six feet. He was a powerfully strong man, a prodigious worker and walker. Resilient, proactive, always with an eye to the main chance, he was adventurous and brave – perhaps to the point of foolhardiness at times. He was one to both make and take opportunities, able to take advantage of situations for his own good and occasionally ready to take advantage of other Turonites. To his credit, he never seems to have taken advantage of people weaker than himself, but was always ready to take on a bully. While he was hard and even ruthless, he had a strongly compassionate side to him, as we have seen. I believe he had a strong sense of justice. Later in this story we will read that he is suspected of the murder of a policeman, Trooper Codrington. He was exonerated of this action. However, I do not believe he was capable of such an action. He was charged with manslaughter when he was on Cockatoo Island, but, as the circumstances will make clear, he was released without a conviction. Foolhardy, a boaster he may have been, but not a killer. He must have had real charm; he certainly had the gift of the gab. I believe he was fair in judgement, whether that judgement was positive or negative.
Bill Day – Undertaker
Day now gives an account of his job as “Goldfields’ Undertaker”. Chapter IX of Part V of his memoirs requires some clarification as to the dates of certain events.The chapter deals with two events: his appointment as local undertaker, and the visit of Governor Fitzroy to the Turon. We can date both events: his appointment as undertaker occurs in early January 1852 and the visit of Governor Fitzroy was on 20 April 1852. (Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser 1 May 1852, abridged from The Empire, 20 April 1852.) His marriage to Mary Kirwin took place in between these two events, 6 April 1852.
Dedicoat tells us: “When [I was] busy at work one evening, Doctor Bell, resident in Sofala, came to the shop saying, ‘Our undertaker, Rogers, has gone to Tambaroora. Would you mind acting for him, as one of my patients has just died’.” Day is reluctant to have anything to do with funerals – “barring my own” – but his man Job Webb talked him into it.
It will come as no surprise to the reader that the episode held its humorous side. “The doctor told us we should find the body at the hospital on the race-course. I asked the doctor, to save time and trouble in taking measurement, if the corpse was a big or small man. ‘About the average height, five feet seven or eight.’ Old Job began on the coffin and slept at my place that night to be up early. I engaged a man to sink a grave for £1, telling him to start early and pick out what he thought the softest place in the churchyard near the entrance gate. Long before daylight I had Job up to finish the coffin, which, I placed on a wood-barrow and I wheeled it up to the hospital. We had no matches, and it being only now daybreak we had little light for our work, but on opening a door we could see a body lying on a bed. We carried the coffin in and stood it by the side. Then Job said, ‘I fear we have made a misfit; he seems longer than our coffin.’” He instructs Day: “When we lift the body, take hold of the covering, turn him a little on his side, place him in, and pull off the covering. As I am more used to this work than you, I’ll take the head and you the feet.”
The moment Day takes hold of the feet, “up sprang the corpse to a sitting posture, and in the dim light I could just see the face pale enough, with eyes wide staring at me, and rolling about, very unlike those of a dead man. After one hasty and terrified look at the resurrection, I sprang for the door, falling heels over head, capsizing the coffin, and rushing down the hill to the town as fast as my legs could carry me.”
He rushes into Doctor Bell’s house and tells his tale. Bell explained: “There are only two men in the hospital, the corpse and old Smith, the wardsman, who is himself very sick. I suppose you have frightened the life out of him, taking the wrong man.”
The right man was placed on the barrow, and wheeled across Church Hill Creek to the burial-ground. “The man I buried from the hospital had been wounded by a blow of a spade on the head, inflicted in a moment of jealousy by the husband of a woman with whom he was suspected of being too intimate.” There was no ceremony over the grave and no one in attendance. Dedicoat makes a poignant reflection on Sofala burials. “During the four years I acted as undertaker, I kept no sort of record of burials, nor was I ever asked for any. I merely placed the bodies in different burying-places, in the respective cemeteries, about a mile apart. In cases where the friends of the deceased attended the funeral, the officiating priest or clergyman, as the case might be, of course performed the funeral rites, but in other cases, as was inevitable with such an immense population on such a limited space, the bodies were huddled into the graves and covered up without further ceremony.”
Soon afterwards, it was Wardsman Smith’s time to go. “About a fortnight after the first funeral, the man Smith, whom we had attempted to put in the shell while yet alive, died, and my man Job, having given orders for the grave to be sunk close to the church door by the vestry, I carried the coffin up and left everything in his hands. About thirty years afterwards, all signs of the grave having been meanwhile obliterated, I found that during my absence in England there had been erected a neat fence, enclosing a handsome headstone, with an inscription in gilt letters, “– Smith, born 31 October 1819, died 12 January 1852, son of the Rev. — Smith.”
Visit of Governor Fitzroy
No sooner has Dedicoat returned from his wedding in Sydney than there was news that Governor Fitzroy was going to pay a visit to the Turon Gold Fields. Dedicoat reports it thus: “It was unanimously agreed among the diggers that he should be received by them in the red overshirts common among them. On the night of his arrival a grand dinner was provided, at a guinea a head, in the billiard-room of Captain Broomfield’s hotel. The tables were packed. After an enjoyable evening the Governor resolved to depart, but when he wanted to look at his watch he found that with the flight of time his timepiece had flown also. The alarm having been sounded, there was a general rush to the room to learn particulars. Among others came the cook of the establishment, who, on returning to his kitchen, discovered that every article of plate used at the dinner had been taken in his temporary absence. On his journey the Governor had stopped at Roberts’s Hotel, Green Swamp, about thirty miles from Bathurst, where his presence caused great excitement, a visit in the district from Her Majesty’s representative being an event so unusual. I have no doubt his Excellency considered that in losing his watch only he had escaped cheaply from a crowd of such rough-looking customers as the Turon miners then were.”(OCD p.187)
The Empire 20 April 1852 (abridged in the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser 1 May 1852) presented a more fitting account. “On Thursday last (April 20 1852) all our gold-digging operations gave way to the excitement arising from the Governor General’s expected arrival on the Turon. At an early hour Union Jacks, which had never before ‘fluttered in the breeze,’ were hoisted above almost every tent on Sofala, the calico metropolis of gold digging operations in the colony. At two o’clock the gold commissioners, mounted police, and about 200 diggers, some on horseback, others on foot, started up the hills on the Bathurst road to meet his Excellency. On arriving at the tableland there was a general halt, horses, and all who were footing it, being nearly exhausted in getting up the steep ranges. The day being rather hot, there was a general rush made to a ginger beer and lemonade establishment on the road side. After waiting about half an hour, a reconnoitering party returned, and made known the near approach of the Governor. All were speedily arranged along each side of the road, and as soon as his Excellency entered between the two columns, which he did uncovered, the most enthusiastic cheering commenced, and was continued until he had passed along. All parties then fell into the rear, and formed quite a large procession. In entering the township and crossing the bed of the Turon, the inhabitants welcomed his Excellency with loud cheers, which were continued until he arrived at the commissioner’s tents, where he put up for the night. On the following day (Friday), Mr Middleton, Mr Ellis, Mr Whitelaw, Mr Threlkeld, and Mr West, who had been appointed stewards, waited on his Excellency to present an address, and invite him to a public dinner. At seven o’clock twenty gentlemen, in red shirts, sat down with his Excellency, to a first rate dinner, prepared by Captain Bloomfield. The best wines, dishes, and fruits which the district, or even the colony, could produce were on the table. Festoons, natural and artificial, with evergreens from our wild mountain gorges, gave a splendour to the entertainment which has not been surpassed even in Sydney. After dinner the chairman, Mr W. Hardy, gave the toasts appropriate to the occasion.” On the following Sunday His Excellency and suite attended Divine Service at Trinity Church, Kelso.
The next half dozen years were productive for Dedicoat not only in terms of the wealth he acquired from his gold discoveries but also in that he and Mary had five children. Under normal circumstances it would seem logical that he should have turned a corner in his behaviour. He had had quite a few brushes with the law and there were two cases of incarceration – one for a period of two months in Stafford Gaol (England) and then his long period in Van Diemen’s Land as a convict in Port Arthur from 6 August 1840 and as an assigned servant until he received his Ticket of Leave, 23 May 1848. However, by late 1859 he is back in jail, on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, for his part in a stagecoach robbery on Mount Victoria. What was there in Dedicoat’s makeup that turned him to crime again? For all that we know about the man, that question is difficult to answer.
He settles in to his digging but admits to becoming “a little addleheaded”, so much was he “hampered with my ever increasing riches.” He misplaces a bag of rich wash dirt and naturally seeks to blame someone else – till his wife shows him where he had left it. Nonetheless he was picking out coarse gold from the dirt to the amount of about five ounces nightly, making between £30 and £40 a night for a few hours’ labour.
Almost a year to the day after their marriage, the couple celebrate the birth of their first child, daughter Mary Ann, 10 April 1853, christened as a Wesleyan, l May 1853. One year and four months later, 4 August 1854, their second daughter Matilda (or Mathilde) is born, baptised Roman Catholic, 3 September 1854. Soon afterwards things turn sour. He complains that “I found my wife had been induced to join (Mrs Wilson) in her cups,” and later about “these drunken women” and “their increasing drunken fits.” (OCD p.220)
This seems to be where the trouble starts, and Dedicoat blames it on his wife, though the seeds of such troubles are inevitably sown many years before in any human being’s behaviour. For William we can posit many causes for his robbery attempt in 1859; but for Mary’s drinking we simply do not know the reasons.
In the earliest years of my research I had very few details of this sad tale, apart from the story told by my Aunt Julia that one of their children – my aunt’s grandmother Julia, the third child – turned her back on her mother Mary years later, presumably in Sydney, when the mother came to where her daughter was living to attempt some kind of reconciliation, maybe even seek financial assistance. In 1985 I made the following deductions. “From Old Convict Days and from my aunt’s story, we know that the mother was not capable of looking after the children. If she was often drunk and the father was on Cockatoo Island for a period, the children would no doubt have had to be placed in an orphanage. My enquiries of both the Sisters of St Joseph (both the Black and the Brown) Josephites revealed that they had no orphanage in the Bathurst district at this time. A Sister of Mercy told me they had an orphanage at Bathurst at the time when Mary Kirwin with five children would have needed help. I also enquired of the Good Samaritan Sisters and the Sisters of Charity. None of these enquiries yielded any relevant information.”
I also wrote to the archivist of the Saint Mary’s Cathedral. The Cathedral Archivist John Cummins’ reply came years later in December 1989. It was a goldmine of information for me: four Day girls, aged 6, 5, 4 and 2 were admitted to the Roman Catholic Orphan School, Parramatta. “Both parents are Catholics. Their father has been sentenced to Cockatoo and their mother is utterly destitute. The Magistrates have sent the children to the Very Reverend Dean Grant, Bathurst, for transmission to the school.” It was Father Grant who christened Julia only about four years previously . These few details suggest a terrible story of parental neglect but also a commendable sense of responsibility on the part of the authorities, both government and church. How the girls came to be in that terrible situation will become clear over the next few pages. In the meantime, let us return to Dedicoat’s story.
Dedicoat continues his account. “Upon its being known that I was lucky, some of my gossiping neighbours, getting on the vain side of my wife, persuaded her to employ a girl-help to look after the two children and assist in the house affairs.” So, there are two children – he never mentions the other two girls, one dead at the age of five, or the boy (who was still alive at the age of 30).
According to Dedicoat, his wife Mary was adamant about having a servant, so, having to go to Sydney to purchase timber and coffin furniture, he was persuaded to bring a servant-girl back with him. On the way to Sydney he, with his 200 ounces of gold, travels with “a young chap from Bathurst, who would persistently force his acquaintance on me.” The companion seems to want to get Dedicoat drunk, “shouting at every public-house where the coach stopped”, but Dedicoat drinks only “soft tack” [ie, beer rather than spirits). They stop at Mr Kendall’s pub at Hartley. Dedicoat takes great precautions, the companion having engaged a double-bedded room for their accommodation. They travel to Penrith, “where I stopped at my old quarters”. It is the same procedure on the part of the friend and the same precautions on the part of Dedicoat. The coach for Sydney leaves at 3am. Dedicoat is safe. “On the road between Parramatta and Sydney the conversation turned on bushranging. One of the passengers remarked that we were lucky in escaping the bushrangers, and looking at my worthless toggery, said that had he been one of the ranging fraternity I should have been the first one he would have attended to, as my attire would at once have aroused his suspicions that I was not what I seemed – a poverty-struck and disappointed miner.” Dedicoat cannot help himself: he has to show then his swag of gold “greatly to the chagrin of my quondam friend, of whom, after leaving the coach, I saw no more.” However, “On reaching my old friends of the Crispin Arms I warned them of such a customer, giving a minute description of him.” (OCD p.192)
He goes on to the Registry Office and applies for “a servant-girl for Sofala to look after a child [sic] and be generally useful.” He asks for “a decent, good-looking girl, as in my business [his gunsmith business] I had plenty of young men customers who liked good looks, and I was not particular as to wages.” He boasts that “whoever thought of coming need not look hard at my outlandish figure in a blue serge shirt, as if I could not afford to keep a girl, as I had a wife and two children [sic], plenty of money, and more to come.” He heads for the saw mills and Iredale’s ironmongery “for coffin furniture”. On his return to the Registry Office, his “uncivilised attire” ensures that none of the girls are interested in his request for a serving maid. However, “I pulled from my pocket a half-handful of nuggets, and laid them on [a parchment sheet]”. He had their attention, but too late for them. He goes elsewhere and “got a girl from some private friends and took her to the registry office to have a proper agreement drawn up”. The girls who had spurned him now proclaim: “Look, look, that’s the man who had the pocketful of gold nuggets. What fools we were to refuse his offer.” (OCD p.194)
The return journey proves to have serious repercussions. We have seen any number of times that he is inclined to boast a great deal. This time it lands him in real trouble. While at the Crispin Arms he met an old digger from the Turon down on a fortnight’s spree, “of which I got a full account.” So, “On our way over the mountains a good deal of blowing and gassing was going on among the passengers, and to make myself as good as my fellow-travellers in that line, and to avoid the penalty of shouting for all hands failing a yarn, I, taking my cue from the adventures of my spreeing friend, described his gallantries as my own, and spun out a wonderful story which lasted for two long stages.” (OCD p.195)
No sooner had he arrived home than his wife “wormed out of her [new servant girl] quite innocently all particulars of my proceedings in Sydney, and getting on the soft side of her, heard of all my boastings in the coach on our passage over the Blue Mountains.” Day had brought back some presents and as he was sitting “as merry as a cricket, displaying to my wife a real darling of a new bonnet, she sprang from her seat with the fury of a tiger cat, snatched the millinery from my hands, gathered up all the other presents and toys without a word, and bundled them into the flames on the hearth.”
She, understandably, “began rampaging about the floor like one demented and ordered me off to Sydney again to my female friends in Woolloomooloo or elsewhere. She said that she was done with me and this world, and would go drown herself. I really thought her mind was gone.” This must offer an insight into Mary Kirwin. Did she not know her man by this? Was there some weakness in her personality, some insecurity, some tendency to make herself the centre of attention with over-reaction. Does this episode give some insight into how she came to the tragic end she must have faced?
When he realises the cause of her reaction – the servant girl’s recounting of his boasting – he “could not impress the truth on her mind, nor did she ever after forget it, my foolish boasting ever proving a thorn in my side” – as it continues to do: his troubles only increase in the coming years.
Great collector of stories that he is, he recounts a tale of one of the five local doctors, a Doctor Lipsome, an excellent “clarionet” player, a tale which also reveals that Day is also adding property ownership to his many accomplishments. A Sofala boarding-house keeper, “T-”, came to him to complain about his next door neighbour, the musical medical man, living in a house owned by Day. He is “continually at it; and my wife, being so very fond of music, keeps dancing and capering about the house, and neglecting her duties. I can get no good of her when he begins. I wish you would try and get him to leave the house.” Day is reluctant to lose a good tenant, but suggests that the “best plan is to lodge a complaint at the court-house, and charge him with being out of his mind. There are five doctors here, and they’ll be glad to lessen the number of rivals”. The plan works: poor Doctor Lipsome is ordered to Bathurst Gaol for several months for medical surveillance, and so “T- was relieved of his grievance.”(OCD p.198)
Day continues his operations in the shaft on Church Hill, “with no falling off in the general yield of gold”, and at the same time he manages to look after what he calls “other affairs” and he begins to make money rapidly. “At this time anything I handled or took in hand turned out gold, and I was rapidly laying down the substantial foundation of a respectable fortune.”
He decided to take up residence at Tambaroora (some 40k slightly to the north-west of Sofala) while engaging in some business transactions and to open his own trade of gunsmith the same time, leaving Job in charge of his Sofala business. Not even this goes smoothly. He becomes involved in an altercation, appears in court, pays a £1 fine and as a gunsmith was ordered to repair a broken weapon. He erected his “usual” sign “Gunsmithing and Blacksmithing Done Here”, and set to work repairing guns, pistols, etc., executing all the orders left with his wife, at the same time as working a claim.
There follows a curious incident. He is working a claim when a Commissioner turns up and asks for his licence. He does not have one so he tells the Commissioner: “It’s down the hole in my waistcoat pocket.” Down the shaft he borrows a mate’s licence but forgets to ask the man’s name and, not being able to read, is stuck. Not one to be put out by such difficulties fronts the Commissioner: “I shan’t tell you my name, nor show my right; I don’t believe from your dress you’re a Commissioner, or that you have any authority.” He is hauled before Commissioners Johnstone and Maclean. Maclean tells him: “If I send anyone round with authority to inspect rights, and I find you or anyone defy him, I’ll give you the chain to some purpose, my bold ‘Bill Day’.” Thus, he says, he finds out his mate’s name and “for many years I went by that name”. (OCD p.207)
This is a strange comment. He was married as William day, so I can only assume that by “this name” he means Bold Bill Day, and epithet which did indeed stick. It is possible, however, that this episode took place in the early months of his time in Sofala, before he married, and this was where he picked up the name Bill Day.
He tells of many other adventures which add little to this account. There is one episode worth recounting because, for once, Day comes off second best. He took the gold he had “hoarded up, and sold it satisfactorily at Bathurst, and getting in tow with some card-sharpers (as I found too late) in my first gambling transactions on the western gold-fields, I lost about three hundred pounds.” (OCD p.214).However, “having once launched out in the alluring vice of gambling, I now nightly followed it up, although never neglecting my regular work by day, nor did I ever indulge in strong drink while at play.”
He loses about £1000 but is fortunate enough to discover how he is being taken down and manages to recover a good deal of his money. That does not prevent him from taking up billiards and doing no better. “I finished up by smashing the cue across my knee, and made a vow never to handle a cue or play a card while on the Turon, and from that day to this I never have.” (OCD p.216)
At this stage he says he decides to contact his family in England, “never having written to any of my family in the old country, and as I now had a tolerable competence I would send them something as a reminder of their long-lost relative. Accordingly I made up and sent to each of my six brothers and sisters about 3 oz. of gold, and £30 worth to my mother, father being long dead.” (OCD p.217) It is impossible to date this episode exactly. It was probably in the mid-1850s. Dedicoat senior died 18 December 1847. How did Dedicoat know his father was dead? Were his family in contact with him? “Six brothers and sisters” – Richard, Leonard, Samuel, Matilda, Anne and John. Leonard died 23 June 1845. Dedicoat may not have known, or simply not remembered when he dictated his memoirs.
Around this time, the mid-1850s, Day sets himself up the Ironbarks area where there had been some recent discoveries of good gold deposits. It is not easy to follow his tracks but it seems that he travelled back and forth between Sofala and Ironbarks, which today is known as Stuart Town and is situated south of Wellington on the Macquarie River NSW. It is about 65 k from Sofala as the crow flies. He was still carrying on his “trucking, buying and selling”, presumably operating between the two settlements. His daughter Elizabeth was born there 3 December 1857. Were the rest of the children with Bill and Mary Day when Elizabeth was born?
The amount of territory he covers is amazing. At this stage of his story he is engaged not only at Sofala and Ironbarks but seems to be working at Tambaroora, Stony Creek and “Burrendong (or Spring) Creek.” It is impossible to correlate his movements with any accuracy.
There are other engagements and encounters, other problems with claims and licences, other great discoveries of gold, none of which add greatly to our understanding of William Dedicoat. He finishes this section of his memoirs by admitting, “Getting tired of travelling to and from my home (twenty miles) [i.e., from Ironbarks to Sofala] every Saturday, and having an accumulation of work on hand at the shop, I sold out my claim, contrary to the advice of my neighbours, for £50. They proved right in the end, for hundreds upon hundreds were obtained from it. However, I again settled down to hammer and anvil, and was content at home.”
He should have been content, but he wasn’t. By this time, 1859, there are four children. We already know of Mary Ann and Matilda. Julia was born at Sofala 24 November 1855 and at her baptism, 24 January 1856, she was recorded as Julia Dee, daughter of William Dee and Mary Kirwin. Elizabeth, Betsy, was born 3 December 1857 at Ironbarks. And there is another child on the way when Dedicoat makes a foolish decision which is to cost him his freedom and his family.
Robbery, Arrest and Trial – 1859
Dedicoat – or his editor – entitles Part VI Chapter I of the memoirs “The Curse of Drink”. It would seem to refer to Mary Day’s behaviour rather than anything Bill Day himself is guilty of. This man has been a successful gold digger and entrepreneur who has gained himself quite a reputation among the other diggers and in the township of Sofala. He now throws it all away. The temptation he responded to came in the form of a letter from his former manager on the Turon, Bob Wilson, telling him that he had lost all his savings in a fishery speculation, and asking Day to provide him with funds for his return to the goldfields. (OCD p.120) Day sends Wilson £20, “on the understanding that when he arrived he was to work for me at £3 per week, and repay me £1 per week in liquidation of the loan.” Dedicoat had built another house on the opposite side of the road from his first one, “the latter being too small for my family [his wife and, by 1859, four daughters aged six, five, four and two, and another child on the way] and this I arranged to let Wilson have on his arrival.” Wilson brought a young wife with him, “so I furnished his new abode, and made it comfortable for him.”
It was now that Day’s troubles started in earnest, a combination, it seems, of Wilson’s wily ways and the behaviour of the two wives. “Wilson had not been long located with me when it turned out that his young wife was in the habit of visiting Kilreavy’s public house, for drink, and bringing it home.”
Here is Day’s account of the matter. “After a time I found my wife had been induced to join her in her cups; indeed, on one occasion I found the two on the floor dancing Jack’s the Lad to their own music, and no dinner cooked. Before the advent of Wilson’s wife my old woman was noted as a hard-working woman, attentive to her household duties, and a kind and affectionate mother [this is his only tribute to his wife, and this reflection makes her future life all the more tragic], but now these orgies were of daily occurrence, and how to mend matters puzzled me. At length I proposed to give Wilson the same wages, and forgive him the balance of his debt, provided he removed his wife to a safe distance. He was agreeable, but the wife would not stir, and the discrepancy in their ages, he being on the shady side of forty, gave her the supremacy over him, and he was helpless in controlling her.” (OCD p.221)
Day “got maddened to such a pitch at their increasing drunken fits that I was almost tempted to bundle both of them down a hole.” One must ask how his own behaviour may have contributed to the situation.
Essentially, Dedicoat seems to have been a decent man. On the scale of things, the theft of a waistcoat and handkerchief was hardly at the worst end of criminality, and the punishment of Port Arthur would have hardened any man. Hard he was, as even the kindest reading of his memoirs must suggest. But a hardened criminal? I don’t think so. Why then did he turn to such a serious crime as the robbery of the mail coach? This was no youthful lark. The deed was a highly criminal act; the consequences such as no sensible man could have thought of lightly. The question of why he turned to such folly tantalises this writer, who can find no simple answer.
One must also ask why Dedicoat would give ear to Wilson’s suggestion. Wilson has heard of a certain amount of money heading towards Sydney on the mail coach at the end of June and says, according to Dedicoat, “What a swag of money there must be in the mail about the end of June. I see how we are hampered with these drunken women. I want to get away, but I have not the means of shifting. I’ll make a proposal to you. You know I’m an old hand, and understand the tactics of the game I intend. If you’ll find me in arms and rations, and go with me, I’ll stick up the mail between Bathurst and Orange. I only want you to be with me to carry off the plunder, which we will share.”
It is hard to believe that Dedicoat could not see through someone as transparent as Wilson; after all he readily shows his suspicions of any number of other people, for example his suspicious companion on the stagecoach to Sydney and later the Sofala Bank Manager Johnson. It is possible that Dedicoat himself was the instigator of the plan, though the role of Wilson in their arrest at Walton’s pub and thereafter is attested to by independent commentators.
We cannot know the truth of the story as told by Dedicoat, but he agrees to join Wilson and indeed he goes one step further. “As we were going in this line (bushranging) we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and that we ought to go further down on the Sydney Road, so as to intercept the Mudgee as well as the Bathurst mail on the Sydney side of Mount Victoria, past Hartley.”
With their cache of arms – a double-barrelled gun, a horse pistol, a dagger pistol, with some rations, about £1 in silver, and a change of clothes – they set off with their cover story that they were on their way to Sydney. They “tramped through the Dirt Holes to a relative of Mrs Beard’s, a publican, across Green Valley, past Keefe’s and near the Two-mile Creek Station, camped in the bush. Next day we passed Keenan’s old public house on the Mudgee Road, and on to Brown’s mill at Bowenfells. About ten o’clock that night we passed through Bowenfells and Hartley to Mount Victoria, a half-mile from Shepherd’s Tollbar. On the Lithgow side of the Sydney Road we found a cave about 100 yards from the road.”
“A Spineless Companion”
They make their preparations and next morning, about 7am, the coach passes and Wilson loses his nerve. The intention seems to be that Wilson will do the deed, Dedicoat will help him carry away the swag, Wilson will make his way out of the country and Dedicoat can return to Sofala with his share of the proceeds and get back to his normal occupation, untroubled by the law.
However, as the next coach approaches and passes without Wilson acting, Dedicoat charges him: “You have run me all this distance on a dangerous errand, and now your heart fails you. Had I known this would be the upshot, I would not have left the Ironbarks; the truth is, you haven’t the spirit of a cur, you’re only a skulk.”
He decides: “Tomorrow morning, on the arrival of the mail, I’ll go and stop it, if there are fifty passengers. You go about a half-mile on the road we have marked out for our escape, and wait there, for you will be no good to me should they prove too much for me, and if I did right I would put a ball through you, and leave you to rot here.”
After more abuse, and disguising himself with a flour bag with some eye holes cut in it, Dedicoat sets about robbing the next coach. “I had been thus ensconced about a quarter of an hour when I heard a creaking, shuffling noise in the road below me; and, peeping over the bank in front, I saw about sixteen of the road party from Hartley preparing with their overseer to commence work at this identical spot. Here was a dilemma … While considering my hazardous situation, I heard the sound of approaching wheels, and knew there was no time to be lost. At the moment the leaders of the team came opposite my lurking-place I sprang on the bank and in a voice of thunder shouted, ‘Stop! Anyone that stirs I’ll put a ball through’.
“Among the passengers was a man of commanding stature and gentlemanly appearance. I sang out to the driver, ‘Chuck out these mail bags, and look sharp about it, or I will very quick [sic] fetch you off your perch.’ He threw out ten bags.” There is a comic moment when “a batch of newly-arrived Chinamen from Sydney, on their way to the diggings, came up. They crowded together in a mob, right in front of the horses, and the way was effectually blocked with their bamboos, baskets, and broad-brimmed hats. They looked like a flock of bewildered sheep.” (OCD p.227) Dedicoat is as racist as the next one, given the way he refers the Aborigines and the Chinese.
Bill had got himself into a right royal mess. Among the passengers was his old bullock-driver from the Turon, Jem Goodwin, on his way to get married in Sydney. The tall friend “of commanding stature and gentlemanly appearance” turned out to be “Holyoake Bailey, Esq., the Attorney-General, on his return from the Mudgee election”.
Dedicoat escaped with the mail bags, discarded the newspapers and other bulky articles. “My load was now necessarily greatly lightened, and even up to now I wonder how I managed to get along so well under such a weight of leather and paper (11 heavy mail bags).” No sooner does he march off than he “spied the craven I had so unceremoniously dismissed” offering to give him a hand – so, “glad of the relief, throwing animosity aside, I yielded up the spoil to his care.” (OCD p.229)
Wilson once again tries to turn the tables on Dedicoat while he is distracted by the momentary pursuit. When he does catch up with his accomplice he found he had “turned off the track we intended to keep, but being good hand, from old experience, in running a trail, I easily followed him, and in about a mile more overtook him. ‘You’re off the track. You’re making on for Bell’s line, on the road for Windsor, and a mile off our line.’ I did not dream at that time that the diversion had been made with any treacherous motive.”
They sorted and buried their swag and made their way to Walton’s pub where Dedicoat was known by the publican, only to find that Walton had moved on and his place taken by a retired police sergeant from Hartley. They stayed the night, not without some misgivings about their safety, thanks to an injudicious reaction by Wilson to a comment in the bar about the robbery.
“A Treacherous Companion”
“We slept till getting on for daybreak, when a tremendous rattling at the bolted door aroused us. ‘Who’s there?’ I cried. ‘Police. Open the door.’ A constable at once entered and took up his station, pistol in hand, in one corner. Others followed. ‘Any objection to be [sic] searched?’ ‘No.’ On being searched nothing was found on us but a few shillings in silver. Then the first constable said, ‘I saw the little man put something under the bed-tick while his mate was being searched.’ On looking under the mattress, lo and behold! they produced a letter. I was thunderstruck and gazed on in a daze.” (OCD p.235)
Dedicoat was well and truly set up. For a man of his experience, this is an unexpected turn of events, though we have to question the exact truth of his account of the robbery and its aftermath.
They were handcuffed and marched off to Hartley where they were placed in separate cells, and next day Captain Battye came from Bathurst. “Being the first called out, I was taken to the courthouse and examined verbally, and bodily for marks, and sent back. Wilson was next called, but what took place I know not. Even then I had but faint suspicion against him; but I did not hear him re-enter his cell. One morning I shouted from my cell to my mate; but receiving no answer, I was puzzled, and my trust in his honesty began to waver. That evening Mr Brown, the police magistrate, and some other gentlemen, came to see me, as a sort of wild beast from a menagerie.” Brown whispered to Dedicoat “He has slewed,” giving him to understand that his companion had turned informer. (OCD p.236)
“I was transfixed with horror. Wilson was led next day to the spot whence we had taken a bird’s-eye view of our situation on the first morning of our foray, and pointed out the tree on the hill as being close to the plant of the stolen goods, whither, I suppose, they took him as a guide.
“Two days after I was brought for examination, and placed in the dock, before an immense crowd. Seeing my mate coming towards the dock, I made to open the door for him, when Captain Battye said curtly, ‘Save yourself the trouble.’
“Battye prosecuted, saying that Wilson had turned Queen’s evidence, and had clearly explained all. He certainly adhered in his evidence strictly to the truth as to our proceedings from the first move. I will give him credit for this much. Mr Brown then asked me if I had any questions to put to the witness, when I replied, ‘No, I think not.’ Thereupon I was committed to Bathurst to await my trial, being meantime placed in another cell, and on a chain.” (OCD p.237)
According to Dedicoat’s memoirs (OCD p.241), after some days a report was spread in the gaol that “Wilson, the informer, had made his escape from the watch house, where he was under surveillance. The lockup keeper had to attend suddenly on his sick child, and left the door unlocked. Wilson then walked out and was off.”
In my original account of this story (1985) I wrote “Wilson later disappeared entirely and was never heard of again, much to the chagrin of the authorities, including Chief Justice Alfred Stephen.” However, in April 2014 I came across the following information on Rootschat from contributor, Dawn Montgomery. It is lightly edited. “My mother’s paternal grandfather was one Robert Wilson, a gold miner on the Turon goldfield near Hill End, NSW. I recently discovered pretty conclusively that he was the Robert Wilson who in company with Bill Day, The Blacksmith Bushranger, held up the Bathurst Mail on 24 June 1859. Day got seven years’ hard labour on the roads for his trouble, but Wilson was apparently given indemnity for leading police to their stash which resulted in most of the almost £5000 being recovered. But he escaped from custody (probably not trusting the police to hold up their end of the bargain re him turning Queen’s Evidence.) Through TROVE I have found where he was apprehended in 1862. An item in Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 19 Apr 1862 had this snippet: ‘11 to 18 April 1862, the Yass Courier mentions the capture of a man named Robert Wilson, supposed to have been one of the party of three who stuck up and robbed the Bathurst mail in the month of June 1859. [Wilson’s] capture was effected on Sunday week by Sergeant Brennan, at Scurr’s public house, North Yass.’ Other reports of his part in the hold-up say after he escaped “he was never heard of again”, which the above newspaper piece proves wrong.”
This is the account from the Yass Courier (copied in the Sydney Morning Herald 14 April 1862. “The Bathurst Mail Robbery in 1859 – Robert Wilson, charged with robbing, in the company of others, the Bathurst mail, in the month of June 1859, and who was subsequently apprehended, and in August of the same year, broke out of the lock up, was recaptured by senior sergeant Brennan, at Scurr’s public house, at North Yass, on Sunday. The police had been upon his track for some days, but had failed to meet with him until the day mentioned. On Monday the prisoner was brought before Dr Blake. Richard Gosling was examined, and ‘deposed that he is a butcher, and resides in Yass’. He recollected the Bathurst mail being robbed in 1859; in that year he saw one William Day in the gaol at Bathurst, on a charge of having robbed the mail in company with Robert Wilson; had known Day and Wilson seven years ago as mates on the Sofala gold field; Day said at the time that Wilson, who was then in the lock-up, was the man who did the business along with him; witness [Gosling] recognised Wilson (the prisoner) as Day’s mate. The prisoner was remanded for further examination. From what we can learn, it would appear that Wilson and Day, after their apprehension and previous to their committal, were separated, the former being confined in the lock-up and the latter in the gaol. The amount stolen was over £15,000, [£4800, according to OCD p.244] and it is due to the energies and acuteness of Captain Battye that the delinquents were apprehended. Wilson was separated from his companion with the view of his turning Queen’s evidence, but it would appear that he was apprehensive that the testimony affecting his confederate was too clear for the extension of any clemency to himself, and therefore be endeavoured and succeeded in making his escape from custody. From information received, senior sergeant Brennan succeeded in apprehending Wilson at Scurr’s, as we have already stated. Wilson was with a dray, and the police closely watched it, but without success. On a second or third visit Mr Brennan noticed that a dog had been tied up to the tail cross-piece, and was not there on the occasion of the first search. It was concluded that the man who was wanted had been there in the interim, and ongoing to Mr Scurr’s public-house he was found in the bar, and after a little resistance on his part was taken in charge.”
Without wishing to exonerate my great great-grandfather or minimise his role in the robbery, I find some sense of closure in the discovery of this information. The account in the Yass Courier of 14 April 1862 seems to corroborate Day’s own memoirs of 1892. I cannot, however, explain the sheer stupidity of Dedicoat’s decision, of one who had so much to lose and nothing to gain. What was it in Dedicoat’s character that led him into so many risky actions during his life? Those who knew him in his pre- and post-Cockatoo Island must have had strong reactions to him and some of these come down to us through various writers who have turned their attentions to the complicated man’s story. Some of these I will address later in this account.
The story of Trooper Robert Codrington
As if our man were not in enough trouble, while he is awaiting trial he is accused of the murder of Trooper Robert Codrington. He gives an account of the matter in his memoirs (OCD pp.239-241) “While I was living at Ironbarks, a trooper who used to ride from Cheshire Creek to meet the gold escort on Wyagdon Hill, between Sofala and Bathurst, was shot dead, and it was supposed that while the murderer was disposing of the body, the escort had passed, and thus escaped being robbed. When I had been a week in gaol awaiting my trial Detective Harrison, with Captain Battye and Mr Chippendale, the gaoler, came to my cell, and charged me with the murder of Trooper Codrington, on Wyagdon, on such a date. I was all aghast, troubles heaping upon troubles. Still hope did not fail me, and I determined to meet them all with a stout heart. I learned from one of the gaolers the date of the murder of Codrington, and became more reconciled to the state of affairs, as I knew that I could call the evidence of Mr E Coombes, manager of the Wentworth Company, for whom I was working at that time, to show that I could not have been implicated; also the evidence of a man named Charles Wilson, who had been working for me close to my house at the same date; and, moreover, that it could be easily found from the books of Mr Coombes’ company that I had rendered a daily account of the work done by me.” He asked a fellow prisoner to write him a letter for Mr Coombes. “I then sent for the governor of the gaol and told him that I was anxious to see Dr Palmer, the police magistrate, in reference to this murder case. I said to the doctor, ‘I give you a letter for Mr Coombes, who can clear me. You can read it, see it safely posted, and should it miscarry, I can call on you at the trial to depose as to its contents.’ Whether the letter was sent or not I heard no more of the charge, and was never indicted.”
Captain Battye demands our attention. Captain Edward Montague Battye was a most highly regarded person in the colony at this time, by all accounts a most honorable man. At the age of 16 he was a familiar at the British royal court; in 1834 he joined the army, being attached to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, rising to the rank of captain. In 1847 he was aide-de camp to his uncle, General Wynyard, whom he accompanied to Australia. In 1850, on the growth of the goldfields, Captain Battye was asked by Sir Charles Fitzroy to reform the military mounted police. In 1851 he was appointed to the Public Service, having received office as superintendent of the Western Patrol, whose headquarters were at Bathurst and at Parramatta. “The outbreak of the gold-mining on the famous Turon fields found him in turbulent times, and conflicts with the bushrangers who infested the country rendered his life as well as that of every police officer in the country, anything but a sinecure.” (Sydney Morning Herald 13 July 1898) He died in 1898 at the age of 82.
Captain Battye seems determined to blame Dedicoat for the murder of Trooper Codrington. In two letters [NSW Archives Bathurst Circuit Court 9/6424. William Day 1859] Battye writes: “William Day is the man who robbed the Mudgee Mail on two occasions” [Letter to Crown Solicitor Queen vs William Day, Bathurst, 18 July 1859] and “William Day [Robert Wilson’s companion] is known to me and I believe him to be the one concerned in the Mudgee mail Robbery on two occasions – the highway robbery of W Phillips in 1855, if not in the murder of Trooper Codrington on Wyagdon Hill.”
Others have written of the matter, but Matthew Higgins has a good account. (Op. cit. pp.53-4)
“One serious crime that has remained a mystery to this day is the killing of Trooper Robert Codrington.” Codrington was based at the Cheshire Creek Barracks established 1853 to safeguard the passage of passenger and gold. He guarded the “formidable Wyagdon descent” on the way to Bathurst. Three days before Christmas 1857, the 25 year old was shot dead before reaching the escort. To those who saw the site it seemed obvious that he had been shot by bushrangers waiting to rob the escort. The escort had in fact gone on unmolested so it was assumed the robbers were hiding the body when the coach went by, none being aware of the fate of Codrington. “The district was outraged. Codrington belonged to a very respectable British family. Much sympathy was expressed for his 17 year old wife Louisa and her twelve-month old baby.” A reward was offered by the government and another was raised by local subscription. But no conviction could be made.
Six months later, 24 June 1859, Day and Wilson committed their robbery. Higgins writes: “Though previously a respectable citizen on the Turon and at Ironbark, [Dedicoat] was charged with Codrington’s murder a week after landing in gaol.” As we have seen, Day wrote a letter to a previous employer and, writes Higgins, “the resultant alibi satisfied the police.”
Higgins adds a note about Dedicoat’s years in Sofala subsequent to his return from Cockatoo Island. “After his release in December 1863 he returned to Sofala and set himself up once again as miner, blacksmith and gunsmith, proudly advertising in the Bathurst press ‘Bill Day back again on the Turon’. He kept his record clean for the rest of his life, yet many locals maintained their suspicions and according to Mark Hammond, Day ‘lived under a cloud till his death’, though outwardly he seemed oblivious of it all.”
There is another theory about Codrington’s death put forward by Higgins. Towards the end of the century, Mark Hammond, by then a Sydney politician, heard that the murder “had been cleared up by a dying confession of a man in the Old Country” who had sought out Codrington and murdered him on account of some secret grudge. Hammond was inclined to believe the account as “robbery was not the object of this cruel murder”. Higgins concludes: “Quite a few old Turonites believed this story and even today [Presumably 1990, when Higgins’ book was written] the belief in the ‘secret grudge’ – resulting from a love affair – still holds currency.”
For all his misdeeds, Dedicoat does not appear to be a violent man. I believe murder would not have been in his make-up. When it came to the crunch he was prepared to admit what he did and take his punishment.
While Day was waiting for trial “the time hung heavy on our hands, and to relieve the monotony we instituted a Judge and Jury court, tried one another, and passed sentences, according to statements elicited, which sentences, strange to say, came very near the actual results at the legitimate trials, mine being an exception, as I was awarded at the mock trial fifteen years.” (OCD p.243)
The Trial – Judge Dickinson
And so to the trial. The Assizes were opened under Judge Dickinson. “The Attorney-General [Holyoake Bailey] (my friend of the mail attack) prosecuted, with Mr Lee, Clerk of Arraigns.” After hearing another case, “the Attorney-General then stripped off wig and gown and stepped into the witness-box, not appearing again in the case, another barrister taking his place. He (the Attorney-General), having been a passenger by the despoiled coach, swore to my voice, as did also the coachman. Other witnesses against me were Captain Battye and the apprehending constables. The evidence went to show that I was the companion of the escaped informer, who had disclosed the plunder and who had concealed the Bathurst letter at the inn. The judge requested a statement of the whole amount which given as in gold, money, etc., to the amount of £4800. This evidence was quite sufficient to convict me. It appeared in the course of investigation that the landlord at Middle River, after turning out the lights, had slipped off unseen by me and given the information leading to our arrest, for which he received the £100 reward.” (OCD p.244)
Day was called on for his defence, “but having no witnesses I produced certificates of character from the highest and most influential men on the western goldfields, including the Commissioner and JPs. I addressed the jury for about an hour and a half. When the acting Attorney General rose to reply, I appealed to the judge as to whether it was usual when a prisoner was undefended for the Attorney General to use his right of reply. On this knowing hit, the acting Attorney General resumed his seat, and the jury retired.”
Here Dedicoat refers to the presence of his wife in court. (OCD p.245) The Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal of 14 September 1859 adds a poignant detail which we will come to. Dedicoat believes he will receive a sentence of “ten years, with about three years in irons.” After about an hour the jury returned into court with a verdict of Guilty. “I made a long appeal to the judge on behalf of my wife and family; but a deaf ear was turned to me. The judge, in passing sentence, remarked that as the robbery had not been committed through want, his determination was to give me the utmost penalty the law provided.”
Day could not refrain from making matters worse – and again we must ask what possessed this successful man not only to turn to such a serious crime but also to conduct his own defence in such foolish way. It is not as if he is not aware of his family. There is an element of madness in the man at this time; or maybe the recklessness with which he has always led his life simply got the better of him.
In the course of the judge’s speech, “knowing I could not make matters worse, I frequently interrupted him, but was met with a stern ‘Silence, prisoner’.” He almost did make things worse: the judge warned him that “Instead of being indicted for stealing you ought to have been arraigned on a charge of highway robbery under arms, and the Attorney General might now withdraw the one and substitute the other charge.” Fortunately for our man, “to this the Attorney General did not assent.” The judge continued, “Under the latter charge it would have lain in my power to give you imprisonment for life, while the highest sentence on the former is seven years, which I now inflict on you, with hard labour on the public works of the colony.” (OCD p.246)
The Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal of 24 September 1859 gives a more detailed and objective account of the proceedings. This is an edited account.
“William Day pleaded Not Guilty to an information charging him with having at Mount Victoria on the 24th June 1859 feloniously and forcibly – being then armed with a gun stolen from William Audill, one hundred letters; a sum of money and other articles, the property of William Audill. Mr Wild appeared for the Attorney-General.” Audill deposed: “I am a mail-driver on the Bathurst Road. On the morning of the 24th June, as I was going up Mount Victoria, about two hundred yards from the top of the hill, a man came out from the bush, and presented a double-barrelled gun; he appeared to have a piece of blanket over his face, with a hole in it to see through; I was walking by the side of the horses at the time; the prisoner is very much of the same figure, but I could not see his face; the day after, I saw the prisoner in the Hartley lock-up, and recognised his voice, which was a very rough one, as that of the man who stopped me; when the prisoner came up, he said ‘Hold hard, stand, give me out them mail bags’; I replied, ‘I must not do that’; he again said, ‘You give me out them mail bags’; I replied, ‘I must not, if you want them, come and take them’; he then said, ‘I’ve asked you three times, I don’t want to shoot, or murder you, but by G-d, if you don’t give me the bags, I will’; I then got up on to the box, and threw them out; the gun was pointed to my head the whole time; after I did so, the prisoner said, ‘Go on now’.
“The Honorable Lyttleton Holyoake Bayley, being sworn, said: I remember the 24th June. I was coming down from Mudgee; when crossing Mount Victoria, I got off the coach, and walked on with another passenger; on reaching the top of the hill, Goodwin went into the bush, and I walked backwards and forwards, waiting till the mail came up; as it was some time coming up, I looked round, and noticed that the mail was standing still, and I saw someone having a loud conversation with the mailman; I then went towards the coach, and when at a distance of 90 or 100 yards, I saw that the person who was talking to the mailman had a kind of flannel bag over his face, and a gun pointed at the mailman; on going on a few yards further I heard this person calling upon Audill to give up the bags; I did not hear Audill’s reply, but I heard the man repeat his demand; Audill then got on the coach, and threw the bags to the man; something else was said which I could not distinguish; immediately after Audill drove on towards us; the robber did not then pick up the bags, nor did he remove the gun from his shoulder, but kept it pointed towards the driver and us, until we got nearly out of sight; I then saw him remove the bags into the bush; I heard the robber’s voice, which was rough and harsh.” A “Brummy” accent is hard to miss.
Dedicoat cross-examined the witnesses himself on the matter of his height.
Thomas C. Gore, Registrar of the District Court, Bathurst, Constable Merrin, William Thompson, Post Master at Bathurst, Robert Hall Thompson, his son and assistant in the Bathurst Post Office, all gave evidence. Gregor McGregor, innkeeper at the Middle River, Mudgee Road, 12 miles from Hartley, gave evidence: “I know the prisoner; I remember the night of Friday the 24th June; I saw the prisoner for the first time that night; he came to my house in company with another man, and wanted to have beds and supper. [Dedicoat gives the same details that appear here.] That night I showed the prisoner and the other man to bed; I locked the door of the room, and sent my servant to Hartley for the Police, and the Chief Constable and Trooper Moran arrived early next morning; on their arrival I unlocked the door, and they entered the room; on coming out they showed me a letter, which I now identify.
“William Armstrong deposed: I am Chief Constable at Hartley; I went on the 24th June to the top of Mount Victoria in search of the mail bags, but found nothing; on the morning of the 25th I received information, and went to Mr Macgregor’s public-house at Middle River, and searched there; I went into a bedroom and found there the prisoner Day and a man named Wilson, dressing themselves; Day had a bundle of bank notes in his hand; Day picked up his coat, and in the right hand pocket I found a pistol capped and loaded, and a knife, (produced) and between the bed and mattress a letter (produced), together with a small box of caps on the table; I also searched Wilson, and found on him six £1 notes and 2 half sovereigns; I took the prisoners out, handcuffed them, and gave them into Moran’s charge.”
Witnesses depose that Wilson led them to the “a quantity of bags and newspapers, some papers, which turned out to be the letters, all opened, and a quantity of half notes and cheques crossed which have been all forwarded to the Postmaster General. Wilson then led us in a westerly direction, and the Police Magistrate discovered a double-barrelled gun, one large horse pistol, and two smaller ones, under a log.” They proceeded to find monies to the value of about £4800.
“All this search was conducted under the superintendence of the prisoner Wilson, who has since escaped.”
Another witness, Henry Moran, swore: “I arrested the prisoner; he told me on the way to Bathurst that he should plead guilty to robbing the mail, and said that the bag found by Captain Battye was the same one which he wore when he robbed the mail, and that it was his mate’s wife’s flour bag. He also said it was a good job he arrested him where he was, and that it was not for want that he robbed the mail. If he had got off safe that time, he should most probably have tackled it again. [It is not hard to believe this.]
“The prisoner, when called upon for his defence, made a long vague statement, with a view to throw the whole blame of the transaction upon Wilson; he also put in a letter addressed to the Jury, to the same effect, which was read by the Clerk of Arraigns, and called William Thelwell a turnkey of the Gaol, to prove that he had told him, on learning that Wilson had escaped, that he was very sorry for it, as he was a great scoundrel, and he could have made him convict himself out of his own mouth. His Honour having summed up, the Jury retired for a few minutes, and returned a verdict of Guilty. The prisoner handed several certificates of character to the Judge, two of which were read to the Jury; but as no person in Court could prove the signatures to the others, they were rejected. One of the Mounted Police Force stated that he had known the prisoner at the Turon for seven years, and had never heard anything against him, he always believed him to be sober, honest, and industrious. The prisoner said he had a wife and four children, and his wife was again near her confinement, he hoped, therefore, that His Honour would deal mercifully with him.”
I have tried to read Judge Dickinson’s notes at Day’s trial. (J. Dickinson, Judge’s Notebook. Bathurst Circuit 19th-22nd September, pp.65-88 Ref. 2/3142) The Judge’s handwriting was extremely difficult to decipher, but the general gist was clear: he recorded the witnesses’ statements, much as they were given in the original depositions at Hartley. Day’s words to a number of these witnesses were reported, but none of his words to the Judge, even though Day in his book says “I was then called on for my defence; I addressed the jury for about an hour and a half.” No wonder his “long appeal to the Judge on behalf of my wife” resulted in “a deaf ear” being turned to him.
By now we are well enough acquainted with Bold Bill Day to understand where that particular epithet came from.
The Honourable Judge records a verdict of Guilty in his notebook. The sentence, as we have seen: seven years’ hard labour on the roads or other public works of the Colony.
Dedicoat concludes this section of his memoirs with tales of his time in Bathurst Gaol before he is transferred to Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. They are of no great import for this history though they add colour to the history of the times. He makes no mention of the terrible plight that his wife and four children, soon to be five, were to face in the coming years. Maybe there is something behind Higgins’ reflection that “outwardly” Dedicoat “seemed oblivious of it all”. Whatever the truth, Dedicoat remains an enigma for me.
Imprisonment Again – Cockatoo Island
As I read great great-grandfather’s memoirs I never cease to be amazed at the positive spin he puts on almost every situation. There is little doubt that he was an utter rogue, every bit of a braggart, but he seems to be good hearted. As he recounts his memoirs at the age of about 73, he seems to do so without any rancour towards those many people responsible for apprehending and guarding him on so many occasions during his life. One wonders whether he is capable of empathising in the normal way. Is Matthew Higgins correct in his use of the word “oblivious” (Higgins op. cit. pp.53-4) about William Dedicoat? Was Dedicoat a man who, by nature, simply saw the best in everyone and everything? Had the 73 year old hard-doer simply mellowed with experience and age? Had he ever reflected on the terrible hurt he caused his wife and children? He shows no signs of remorse about that in his memoirs. Were his memoirs, then, just another illustration of his perpetual showmanship? Or were they so heavily redacted that they reflect the writers rather than the author?
We must consider the question of how carefully edited these memoirs are. It is attested to that they were “dictated” (see p.101 of this history): Charlie Smith of Sofala wrote to H.H. Neary, 22 August 1940, stating that ‘I remember him at one time dictating his life to the late Mr. E.J. Aubrey who wrote part of it. Another man by the name of McWilliams wrote the main parts. It was either in 1891 or 1892 that I heard Day dictating to Aubrey”. The grammar and vocabulary are excellent, far better than we might expect from someone with as little formal education as Dedicoat. The order of events is generally confirmed from independent sources. The “spin” of his role in so many stories is consistent with my understanding of Dedicoat as a braggart. His centrality to so many of the stories is suspect. I question whether he was responsible for the positive, indeed glowing, comments about his gaolers and people in authority like chaplains. Did Aubrey and Williams add the gloss or is it a reflection of a genuinely simple, mellowed and grateful man as he nears the end of his life?
If further proof were needed as to his attitude, the first paragraph of his next chapter (OCD p.249) provides it. A chain gang of some 19 or 20 prisoners made their way to Darlinghurst Jail via Parramatta, “station by station”. He is visited in his cell by Mr L-, Clerk of the Arraigns, who tells him: “Well, you made a very good defence, but cheer up; you’re young yet [is he 40?], and good conduct will carry you through comfortably.” After L- leaves, Dedicoat finds lying on his bed, “which L- had been sitting during the talk”, “a silver-mounted meerschaum pipe and a sovereign, which, no doubt, had fallen ‘accidentally’ from his pockets, and for which I thanked him many years after.”
William Day, that confident man, ever cheerful, forever falling on his feet, however frequently he changed his name, has now arrived, thanks to his crime, on Cockatoo Island. Did he realise how fortunate he was? After all, Judge Dickinson did tell him that “Instead of being indicted for stealing you ought to have been arraigned on a charge of highway robbery under arms. Under the latter charge it would have lain in my power to give you imprisonment for life.”
The description of the prisoner is succinct: WILLIAM DAY – COCKATOO ISLAND RECORDS 1859-1865
• William Day – per ‘Favourite’. [No hint here of a longer voyage to Van Diemen’s Land per Asia!]
• Tried: Bathurst Circuit Court 21 September 1859
• Sentence: 7 years to the Roads or Public Works
• Offence: Mail Robbery
• Age: 35 [That question again]
• Native Place: Staffordshire
• Religion: Roman Catholic. [A convenient conversion somewhere along the road, like Saint Paul?]
• Trade: Gunsmith and Blacksmith. [From Gunlock Filer to fully fledged Gunsmith and Blacksmith, to boot.]
• Complexion: Dark Ruddy
• Colour of Hair – Brown, of Eyes – Grey
• Height: 6’ 0”. [He has grown 2 inches since he was 18. And he had become physically very powerful.]
• Remarks: Arms hairy.
The eight entries as to his conduct are intriguing, seriously tantalising, revealing little.
• 12 October 1859 – Received from Darlinghurst Gaol
• 2 January 1861 – Discharged to Darlinghurst Gaol to take his trial for the manslaughter committed on the person of Jas Healds on 20 December 1860
• 1 February 1861 – Received from Darlinghurst Gaol
• 17 October 1864 – Answer to petitions “from the report of the state of his health the Board suggests that he may be a fit object to be invalided to Berrima gaol” – No. 74 this date
• 1 April 1864 – Fighting on the Works. Admonished and discharged
• 19 September 1864 – Petition refused [?] C.S. No. 57 dated this date
• 10 October 1865 Residue of sentence to be remitted on 21 December next [?] No. 62 this date
• 21 December 1865 – Discharged free
Manslaughter? Ill health? Fighting on the Works? Petition refused? Much, but perhaps not all, will be revealed.
On their transfer to Cockatoo Island the prisoners are told to hand over any money they have on their person. Not one inclined to follow orders, Dedicoat watched “an amusing scene” of the “new chums cutting out their stores from coat collars, trousers or boots.” He chooses to swallow his sovereign and fifteen shillings in various coins. “Keeping a sharp look-out, I commenced operations by first bolting a half-crown, a rather difficult and painful process at first attempt. Having got over the first difficulty, the rest followed easily, and in quick succession, till all was disposed of, and a curious sensation I felt.” No new chum he, Dedicoat is up with all the tricks an old lag is heir to. However, retrieval is yet to come.
Each man was supplied with a dish, spoon, two blankets and a rug, “but no bed or bed-tick.” With his clothes for a bed and shoes for a pillow, he made the best of it for a week, when, resourceful as ever, he managed to get from a man in the carpenter’s shop a tick, full of shavings, “and this was a much-envied luxury”. (OCD p.250) He was, however, no match for the long established inmates.
Cockatoo Island Identities
Some of the Cockatoo Island prisoners were of the most vicious kind, tough men, violent and dangerous. The prisoners were formed up into “messes” of six, and “there happened to be collected in one, six of the most inveterate scoundrels and bullies on the island, on whom we ‘crawlers’, as we were termed, dared not look”. The leader, one Swan, had been transported for a term of thirty years, for killing a man and burning the body. “He was a powerful man of most desperate character, well up in fisticuffs, and partial to the use of the knife. The free officers of the island, as well as the prisoners, stood in awe of him … he was a black-hearted villain.” Bold Bill soon gets his measure: “his time had to come to be tamed down”. (OCD p.251) Be warned, Mister Swan!
In Dedicoat’s ward was Jack Peisley, a murderer and Frank Gardiner’s confederate, who was later hanged at Bathurst, April 1862. On the other side was Frank Gardiner himself.
Then there was Billy Mundy, night patrol and ward-cleaner. He was in for life for killing and disembowelling a man; afterwards, on ticket-of-leave, he was employed by a family near Bathurst, “almost every member of which he subsequently murdered”.
Dedicoat throws himself with typical enthusiasm into whatever job he is asked to perform, often enough volunteering for difficult tasks as a way of establishing his good will: “On his [i.e., Chief Engineer Broderick] applying to me, I at once willingly (as it seemed) undertook the office, and never refusing was frequently sent for, and thus I got into his good graces.” (OCD p.255) His first job, that of repairing a broken pump, ends in near-disaster, but “Mr Broderick laughingly praised my skill in the very efficient patch I had placed on the pump, while I, having changed my wet clothes and donned a dock suit, stood by rather crest-fallen.” (OCD pp253-4) The story, which Dedicoat tells against himself, is amusing and worth reading in its entirety.
One Braggart to Another
He encounters an old acquaintance from the time of his trial in Bathurst, one Whittaker. (OCD Part VI, Ch VII.) This Whittaker, it seems, is somewhat of a boaster, talking of his connection with “some of the highest people in England, among them a certain ducal family, and particularly his own sister, a leader of the aristocracy. He added that through the influence of his friends he should only be here about eighteen months, or two years at most, and all he might save up here should be mine, with other high-flown pledges of gratitude. He finished by informing me that his father had been Lord Mayor of London, and had lost about a quarter of a million in a late dock fire in London. (OCD p.254)
The canny Dedicoat is not fooled, but says to him, “You’ve been kind enough in writing for me and in other ways; if you want a few shillings you can have them, but don’t fancy, because I’m an ignorant ass and you’re well up, that I’m going to be fooled by your boasting.” All Dedicoat wanted was for Whittaker to write a few letters for him. It paid off. “Christmas had now come round, and I was told that if I had any friends in Sydney they would be allowed to send pie a dinner. I had a letter written and despatched to my old friend, Mrs Marley, of the Crispin Arms, who promptly furnished me with most enjoyable food, sufficient to last me a fortnight, with two silk handkerchiefs, which we were permitted to wear.”
His following comment says less than we might want it to. “After dinner I got my noble friend to indite a letter to the kind friend who had taken charge of my children in my trouble, receiving, in due time, a favourable and most consolatory answer.” (OCD p.255) If only we knew more. The comment prompts a question: if the four girls were in the Catholic Orphanage at Parramatta by 28 November 1859, who was the “kind friend who had taken charge” of them? Of the baby Richard, born 4 November, not a word. Surely Dedicoat knew of the birth of his son.
“Taming a Bully”
Behind all these yarns lurks the bully Swan, with his “blustering interference”. To make an enemy of great great-grandfather Dedicoat was not a wise move, as we will see. Swan “again began annoying me in the yard before the other men, but I determined to bide my time. I was strong as a bullock, and had made up my mind to fix him somehow.” He bided his time indeed until “One eventful morning a dense fog overspread the island, rendering it unsafe for the prisoners to be employed in their usual outside work; so we were all kept in the yard. Round the walls of this yard were several stone troughs for washing. I went to one of the troughs to have a wash, and as I passed I saw Swan sitting in a recess. I pulled off my jacket, washed, and dried myself, and as no one was about but we two, and the sentry could not well see into this portion of the yard, I thought it a grand opportunity for settling scores with my tormentor. Walking quickly to where he was, I sprang at him, seized him by the two ears, and in a death-like grasp, with the full strength of my powerful arms, dashed his head against the stone wall. The blood spouted in torrents from his mouth and nostrils. I dragged him forward, and, as a finisher, dealt him an upper cut under the chin almost breaking his jaw.” And so it goes. The reaction among the prisoners was all Dedicoat could have hoped for: “one and all, free and bond, inwardly rejoiced at the discomfiture and permanent downfall of the tyrannical and overbearing bully.”
In a reflection worthy of a Dickensian pathetic fallacy, he adds “The fog cleared off and work was resumed as usual.” (OCD p.257)
Swan remained in hospital for nine months, but he was well warned: “You aggravate me I’ll not leave a breath nor a sound bone in your ugly carcass. If ever you interfere with me after this warning I’ll not hesitate a moment to kill you outright.” He adds “From this time out, everything went quietly.” Not surprisingly.
Cockatoo Island Superintendent – Captain Gother Kerr Mann.
The Cockatoo Island superintendent was a gentleman called Captain Gother Kerr Mann. Mann appointed Dedicoat sub-overseer in the engineering department. “Conduct yourself well and you will be recommended for a remission of sentence.” Dedicoat was appointed over some who had been six or eight years in the prison so it came as a surprise to them when his name was called out to lead the party of workmen next morning. However, he was determined to be fair: “Now, men, I’ve not taken this billet to be a tyrant, over you, as I know from experience many subs are, but to act to you as I would wish you to act to me, to be fair and just, and favour no one above another. Now, the first man who disobeys a just order goes straight from the shop to the quarry, so don’t be deceived. I’ll ill-treat no one, but give every man his deserts.”
He didn’t waste any time in establishing his authority. He picked out the “flashest bounce in the gang” (OCD p.260) for a difficult job, and when the man objected Dedicoat took him to the head office at once. Needless to say the man ended up doing the job, but the effect on the rank and file was very positive in Dedicoat’s favour. He also recommended his old pal Whittaker as “a good penman and an accountant, and as I was unable to write, he would be of great use to me in keeping account of all work done in the shop.” You’ve got to admire his self-confidence and his readiness to make the most of every opportunity. Had he taken the straight path, he may have risen in society and become a very successful entrepreneur and businessman.
Every engineer received ninepence per week to buy tobacco or sugar, and the labourers earned sixpence, “except on wet days, when, there being no work, pay was stopped”. On Saturday they had the opportunity to “get shaved, washed, and prepared for Sunday.” Among his perks was “a blue jacket and long watchman’s coat, in contradistinction to the grey garb of the ordinary prisoners”. In his flash garb – he loved his flash garb – he was positioned as watchman at the gate and happened upon some clandestine gambling. He was obliged to put a stop to it lest he suffer: “had they been caught, and I proved cognisant of it, I should have suffered both disgrace and punishment” – not to say the loss of his gaudy gear.
Hero Once Again
Some time during this year, according to his memoirs, he meets with a near fatal accident. There is no mention of it in the official records, though the following note appears in the official records dated 17 October 1864: “Answer to petitions ‘from the report of the state of his health the Board suggests that he may be a fit object to be invalided to Berrima gaol’”. The implication seems to be that his health was so precarious that a move to Berrima would help improve it.
During one job he was ordered to have some of the machinery “scraped, cleaned and painted”, so he fetched from one of the other gangs a man in cross irons. “There was a very large wheel weighing about fifteen hundredweight leaning against the wall of the shop. The man, hampered with his shackles, got entangled with the prop supporting it, and in endeavouring to extricate himself brought the wheel down with a crash. The boss, penetrating the inner side of his thigh, pinned him to the floor.” Bill ran to his aid “thanks to my enormous strength, which was made greater by excitement, I managed to relieve him of the pressure. He crawled from under, and the heavy mass fell to the ground. I had sense enough left to feel that, from the over-exertion, something had given way internally, although I felt no pain at the time. An instant after I felt a choking sensation in my throat, and a stream of blood burst from my mouth. I can recollect no more till on recovering my senses I found myself in the hospital, with the wounded man by my side.”
Typically, he got out of hospital as soon as he could – he claims “low diet and no money earned” as his reasons. However “my eagerness and impatience told against me, as for three years after I suffered from intermittent blood-spitting.” This probably occasioned the 1864 reference to Berrima in the official records, though he himself is to refer to Berrima as “that dread of all criminals”. (OCD p.281)
One night while he is sleeping near the hospital a terrific thunderstorm occurs and “two sentries stationed outside the ward had sought shelter under the lee of the angle of the walls. A streak of lightning, probably attracted by the fixed bayonet of one, passed through his body, leaving a blackened and lifeless corpse, while the watch of the other was picked up as if from a smelting furnace. The steel and iron was torn from this man’s boots, and shortly after, I believe, he followed his comrade.” In the morning “through the excitement caused by the effects of the storm, and my own bodily weakness, I was returned to the hospital for a couple of days.” (OCD p.265)
It is not easy to correlate Dedicoat’s memoirs and the official records. While I believe the events he talks about did occur, it is his role in them that we are entitled to question. Too often we have seen him as the hero at the centre of certain events for us to take his version of those accounts literally. However, of the episode just recounted, the accident in the workshop and Dedicoat’s subsequent hospitalisation, the details are corroborated in Mary Day’s petition of 17 May 1864. Another such episode is his account of the riots which certainly did take place on Cockatoo Island. Again, according to his memoirs, he is the hero of the moment.
It is inevitable that closely confined prisoners will occasionally riot, so it comes as no surprise that this happened on Cockatoo Island, and Captain Mann “did all in mortal power short of bloodshed to pacify the mutineers”. (OCD p.264) Mr Keillor, a free officer and manager at the quarries, however, fell victim to the rioters and was lucky to have Dedicoat on hand: “enfeebled as I was, though still retaining much of my natural vigour, I threw myself among the prisoners, and forced my way through, seized the now insensible officer, flung him across my shoulders, made my exit by the gate, and slammed it, leaving all vowing all sorts of vengeance on the convict dog who rescued the free man”.
Dedicoat, inevitably, feared for his life and refused to re-enter the ward. Next day he was called up before “the Water Police Magistrate on the island, Mr Cloete, formerly commissioner at Sofala, who on my appearance instantly recognised me, said he was very sorry to see me there, and asked as to my conduct since my arrival”. (OCD p.265) One of the free warders supported Dedicoat: “were [he] put in the ward with those infuriated brutes [he] should be murdered”.
A few months later he is appointed constable and once again intervenes in a life-threatening attempt on one of the officers, Mr Byron. Dedicoat raises the alarm “seizing the assailant by his irons I hauled him off and held him till aid arrived. The excitement and over-exertion brought on blood-spitting in redoubled force. Feeling my senses leaving me, I just managed to reach the hospital, coughing and retching so violently as to bring up to my throat, almost choking me, a large piece of some substance (6 in. by 7 in.) resembling flesh, the blood at the same time gushing in torrents from my mouth”. (OCD p.267) His treatment involved spirits of wine, cupping, being blistered on the chest and ordered infusion of roses and tincture of iron. “Becoming convalescent, I was allowed more liberty.”
Governor Young pays a visit to the island and “was brought to my bed and informed of the meritorious acts I had performed, in saving the lives of two free officers and a prisoner”.
Dedicoat is pleased to hear that his old mate Whittaker is to be released “and exiled” on orders of some English Duke. Whittaker is very pleased with himself: “What do you think of my blowing now?” A few days later Whittaker came “swaggering down the yard, gold-headed cane in hand, his military gait and huge stature (six feet two inches) commanding attention from all”. (OCD p.268)
The Letter Written on Frank Gardiner’s Back
It is at this point of his memoirs that appears one of Dedicoat’s most entertaining tales – how he had a letter written on Frank Gardiner’s back, aimed at getting some remission of his sentence. It is not easy to date this remarkable story, entertaining if not wholly factual – in other words, typical of much of Dedicoat’s memoirs. Gardiner was granted his Ticket of Leave from Cockatoo Island in December 1859, two months after Dedicoat arrived, which seems too early for the episode to take place. Dedicoat says it occurred soon after the arrival of Governor Young in the colony, (OCD p.267) which was in 1861. Gardiner’s Ticket of Leave was cancelled in 1861(OCD p.252 Becke’s footnote) so Gardiner may have been back on Cockatoo that year, the episode occurring then. It is possible that Dedicoat simply concocted the fabulous tale. However, it is worth listening to his version.
“One day in the shop, Gardiner, the noted bushranger, said I ought to get up a petition, stating the services I had rendered, and I might get a partial remission. I told him what I knew to be a fact, that if I went to the superintendent I, no doubt, should get permission to write, but that the chances were ten to one against my letter ever leaving the office, as all letters describing anything occurring on the island were stopped, so my petition would be of no use. He asked me where my wife lived, and being told Bathurst [Mary Day’s petition corroborates this], he said if I would think of some plan, any message I entrusted him with should be faithfully delivered. At last I conceived an idea – to have my letter written on Gardiner’s back. Although in the search the body was stripped, yet, by being on his back, it might escape detection. That night I begged the loan of a pair of scissors from Miss Taylor, telling her I wanted to put a patch on my clothes. In the place where I had my meals was a favourite cat, which I caught, and from her tail cut off the tip, and some of the long fur from the flanks, and made two little brushes. I then got some red lead, and to heighten the colour, started my nose bleeding, and mixed the paint. I acquainted the draftsman in the shop with my intentions, and he being a good penman, I got him to write my letter on Gardiner’s back as he lay face down in the pattern shop. The letter was a statement of the grounds of my petition; my good deeds, etc., occupying from the shoulders to below the waist. In order to dry it, I advised Gardiner to say that I had had him down the well at the pump, and that he had got a chill, when he would be allowed to stand by the boiler fires till the paint and blood dried up. He faithfully delivered my message, as I had a letter from my wife telling me that Gardiner had given her all the particulars, which should be attended to.” (OCD pp 268-270)
Whether there was such a letter, we have no way of knowing. However, Mary Day did have a petition written to the governor, Sir John Young “Bart. [Baronet] KCB GCMG Governor in Chief of the Colony of New South Wales &c, &c, &c” The petition makes clear reference to those incidents just recalled, even though there is no mention of them in Dedicoat’s official Cockatoo Island records.
The document reads:
This petition of Mary Day now living at Bathurst
Humbly Shewith [showeth]
That your Petitioners [sic] Husband received a severe injury after he had been on Cockatoo Island about eight months in consequence of exerting himself at a time when a great wheel of about [written across the petition in another hand: “For the report of the Supr of Cockatoo Island B.C. 20th May 64”] a Ton weight falling on a fellow prisoner on the name of Hawkins, and your petitioners husband was the chief means of saving his life, as he and a free overseer lifted and held up [written across petition: “noted 28/5/64”] the great weight until assistance arrived, that the prisoner Hawkins lay ill for ten months after the accident and that your petitioners husband suffered severely for two years afterwards so [written across petition: Chief Justice W.J [?] June 1 1864] much so that at one time Doctor West despaired of his life and that for two years afterwards your petitioners husband spit blood and is taking medicine up to this present day in consequence of the same.
That in July 1862 on the occasion of one of the free officers going into the yard he was assaulted by two of prisoners named Smith and Morton your petitioners husband being there at the time secured one of them and Doctor Macdonnell the other one and held them until assistance arrived or in all probability Mr Kelleher would have lost his life if not for your petitioners husbands assistance [,] as it was he was confined to his house for ten days in consequence of the beating he received at the time.
That in October 1862 when the chief warder Mr Byron was at his office in the dormitory just after the gangs went out a prisoner named Morton went up to him with a stone in his hand and struck and beat him about the head with it and knocked him down, your petitioners husband hearing the noise rushed to the free mans [sic] assistance and held the Prisoner until the Soldiers came and secured him; there being no other free men present at the time in all probability Mr Byron would have [been] killed if your petitioners husband had not saved him.
That your petitioners husband has compleated [sic] a period of four years and eight months of his sentence, two years and a half of which he was sub-overseer and that in 1862 was removed from the yard in consequence of the assistance he had rendered to the free officers on different occasions Mr Cahill, Mr Lumly [?] and Mr Kelleher three of whom went up to the office[r] and stated that they believed your petitioners life was in danger being among the men after the signal service he had rendered to the free officers, and from that time to this he has been removed as much as possible for protection.
That your petitioner having four small children depending on her for support and that her husband has never been before convicted of any crime she prays your Excellency will be pleased in your great mercy to grant your petitioners husband the remission of the remaining portion of his sentence or whatever portion your Excellency may think fit in your great mercy to grant, I am now in great need of a protector for myself and children as my health lately has been on the decline and your Petitioner will in duty bound ever pray.
We will return to Mary’s petition later.
From Mary Day’s petition we can date the several episodes where Dedicoat came to the aid of the prison guards: July and October 1862. He recounts these events in Part VII Chapter VI – A Prison Mutiny. His memoirs then recount the visit of Governor Young and the story of the letter on Frank Gardiner’s back – Governor and Bushranger, Part VII Chapter VII. Those events are followed in the memoirs by two chapters concerning a charge of manslaughter against Dedicoat – Manslaughter, Part VII Chapter VIII and Darlinghurst, Part VII Chapter VIII. Independent information and documents help us date these events. As we have seen, Frank Gardiner received his Ticket of Leave from Cockatoo Island in December 1859 – about two months after Dedicoat arrived. Governor Young was Governor of NSW from 16 May 1861 till 24 December 1867, and it is likely that his visit to Cockatoo Island was made within the first year of his governorship. Dedicoat’s records from his Cockatoo Island sojourn clearly date the manslaughter episode:
2 January 1861 – Discharged to Darlinghurst Gaol to take his trial for the manslaughter committed on the person of Jas Healds on 20 December 1860.
1 February 1861 – Received from Darlinghurst Gaol.
The chronology: Dedicoat arrives on Cockatoo Island, 12 October 1859; Frank Gardiner released from Cockatoo Island, December 1859; Dedicoat’s saving of Hawkins from under the fallen wheel, around June 1860; the manslaughter episode and consequent trial, 20 December 1860 till 1 February 1861; Governor Young’s visit to Cockatoo Island – probably some time late in 1861 (possibly once again in 1864); Dedicoat’s efforts on behalf of the prison guards, July and October 1862. From his official Cockatoo Island records there is no further reference from his return from Darlinghurst Gaol, 1 February 1861, till 1864 when there are several entries – one for fighting on the works and several concerning various petitions on his behalf.
Spear Throwing Gone Wrong.
And so to the charge of manslaughter. Dedicoat seems unable to keep out of trouble. He has been on the island some 14 months and his ingrained tendency to boasting leads him into yet another episode that could have cost him even more of his liberty.
“One day several of the bushrangers in the yard were boasting what they could do in defiance of the police, when I observed, ‘You talk about your defying the police. There’s not one of you could hold your own against them as I could do, without arms of any sort, beyond what the bush would provide me with. If I were to be met by the police in the bush, and one of them were to attack me, I could make surer of killing him with a spear than you could with a rifle at one hundred yards, as my spear would not miss fire.’ One of them said, ‘If you were to throw a spear at me at fifty yards, with nothing better than this’ (holding up an eighteen-inch file) ‘I could ward it off.’
“Close beside where this talk was going on stood Mr Doran who heard all. I continued, ‘If I had a spear I would make a white ring at the end of the yard and show you what I could do.’ One of them [Jas, ie, James, Heald, as we know from Dedicoat’s Cockatoo Island records] answered, ‘I will make a spear and woomera (or throwing stick), and with this file, standing here, I defy you to hit me, and will freely forgive you if you do.’”
In brief, the spear is made, the plan set, all the free men out of the way, except – fortuitously for Dedicoat – Mr Doran, and the drama, the tragedy, set in motion. “The challenger got the eighteen-inch file, and took up a position about seventy yards off. All being ready, I was frightened, and told him repeatedly that if he missed guarding off the spear he would certainly be killed. ‘Oh, that’s all blow. I know you can’t touch me. I want to bring you blowers down a peg.’ With that I laid hold of the spear, and took my stand at the end of the shop, telling him to be on his guard; that I should call out three times, and at the third call would let fly. I did so and away went the spear straight to the mark, and down he fell, the spear penetrating his head.”
Inevitably some of the men rushed to Healds’ assistance but Dedicoat had enough presence of mind to tell them not to remove the spear as the victim would die instantly. As Dedicoat attends to him, Healds says “‘Well, Bill, I can’t blame you; it’s all through my pigheadedness this has happened. It’s my own fault.’ In the presence of the superintendent and doctor, he said, ‘You mustn’t blame Bill. I was standing looking up to the loft when the piece of wood somehow slipped and entered my head. I’ve only myself to blame.’” (OCD pp 270-272)
Healds dies the next day; Dedicoat goes to Superintendent Mann and is placed in a cell before facing examination before the coroner and jury.
On a visit to Cockatoo Island, Saturday 20 September 2014, I came across the following details from a Guide Sign.
“Military Guardhouse and Isolation Cells – Surveillance and Punishment
“The Military Guardhouse was built by convict labour gangs with stone from Cockatoo Island to the likely design of Royal Engineer, Captain George Barney. The Guardhouse originally housed the 56 British infantry soldiers who lived and worked on Cockatoo Island. From here, the guards could observe the prison block and, if necessary, it could be used as a stockade. Muskets could be fired through the numbered loopholes, or slits. The Guardhouse, with windows for cross-ventilation, was standard for the 1820s regiments serving in tropical countries. The hooks inside the Guardhouse were used to hang the soldiers’ kit bags. [One can be seen on the left wall through the doorway.] The chimney at the back of the guardhouse is not part of the original building and was added in the 1960s. The kitchen block to the rear is separated from the main building.
“Adjacent to these buildings was a range of 12 punishment cells into which prisoners would be lowered through trapdoors. These punishment cells were later demolished when the hillside was excavated to make room for the Sutherland Dock.
“A prisoner, Bill Day, described his time in the isolation cells after spearing a fellow prisoner with a piece of timber as a kind of Russian roulette dare:
I was sent to a cell, six feet by eight feet and nine feet high. The entrance to this cell was through a trap-door in the roof, and down a ladder, which was afterwards pulled up, cutting off all chance of escape. At supper-time my rations were lowered, but as soon as the trap was closed I was besieged by a whole army of enormous rats. I took off my blue jacket, and wrapping the food therein, put it under my head, stuffing my boots and socks into the mouth of the sink-hole, whence the rats had come. I lay down so and at length fell asleep in my cell. In the morning I found my visitors had gnawed their way through my jacket and carried off every particle of eatables. Also they had eaten through the toes of my boots to gain entrance. (See original account OCD p.273)
“These cells were so inhumane that official investigation later forbade their use in winter due to their damp, southern exposure. In 1864, the army was finally withdrawn from the prison and the police took over. From this time, Building 1 underwent a variety of changes, its stonework being removed from the two front guard rooms for other uses during WWII.”
Dedicoat goes on: “The confinement in the damp cell brought on another fit of bleeding internally, and I drew the attention of the night watchman, whom I told I was bleeding to death. The assistant surgeon being called, I was ordered to the hospital, where I lay about a month awaiting trial at the assizes.”
The episode occurred 20 December 1860; he was marched to Darlinghurst Gaol 2 January 1861.
Dedicoat was committed to Darlinghurst on a charge of manslaughter. “The coroner said he could not see anything in the case that would prevent my being returned to my situation, as no malice could be proved against me, but that I must be committed on the charge of manslaughter.”
Trial at Darlinghurst
He was marched through the streets, handcuffed, to Darlinghurst, 2 January 1861. Patrick Fletcher in a brief account of Cockatoo Island, 2011, writes: “In 1860, the convicts went on strike over the uneven manner in which the remission of sentences was administered. The ringleaders, heavily ironed, were marched off to Darlinghurst Gaol, a parade that scandalised Sydney.” He quotes the Sydney Morning Herald of 21 January 1861: “With one or two exceptions a more villainous looking band of ruffians could not be gathered on the face of the earth. They were of all countries, of all colours, of all ages, of all appearances, of recklessness and desperation, of some few with features moodily tinctured with sorrow, but without the faintest ray of hope about them.” Was Dedicoat one of this “more villainous looking band of ruffians”?
History repeats itself: the Judge in the case was none other than Judge Dickinson, he of the impenetrable handwriting.
As usual, Dedicoat decided to defend himself. When he was asked if he had any character witnesses, “I named Captain Mann, superintendent; Mr Broderick, chief engineer; Mr Doran, sub; and Mr Taylor, clerk; and yourself, your honour. His honour stared and asked what he had to do with it, when I replied that he had tried me in Bathurst for the crime for which I was now undergoing a sentence, and that he had read several certificates of character I had then produced.” (OCD p.275) Bold Bill Day indeed.
Broderick, the chief engineer, and the superintendent Captain Mann spoke on his behalf. “The jury, without retiring, brought in a verdict of Not Guilty, and I was discharged, handed down, and marched back to the island.” And a very lucky man, to boot.
And so he returns to Cockatoo and his previous employment. He has a good way of dealing with the men, separating out the trouble makers, sometimes taking to them physically, sometimes simply setting one group against another. It seems he took serious risks but came off well. Chapter X, Stern Discipline, details some of these events, which do not need recording here.
Among his many encounters over the next few years there were episodes of violence against some of the men he was responsible for, but Cockatoo Island was a place of violence and it seems that many of these episodes were unrecorded. There is one report in his records of such violence: “1 April 1864 – Fighting on the Works. Admonished and discharged.” Whether this is the episode referred to in Chapter X is difficult to say.
The following episodes will give some idea of how Dedicoat and no doubt plenty of others on Cockatoo Island managed their discipline.
“If I had anything against a man, instead of bringing him up for punishment, I would say, ‘Stand back in your rank,’ and would have nothing to say to him in the presence of any other gang but our own, nor in that of any other overseer or free man; but when I had them again in the shop, I would walk boldly up to the offender and leather him there and then.”
“Among my men was one, a bit of a bruiser, who had been rather obstreperous, and showing off before the blue-jackets [sailors from a man-o’-war, the Orpheus]. We went up to dinner, and in the afternoon the men went to work in the shop. I took my opportunity, and this man being the head of the mischief-makers, I had to conquer him or lose my influence over the rest, so I went at him, and battered him about till he shouted murder. Being close to the police-station, two constables came up to see the cause of the outcry. As the man was cut and bleeding, we should both have been arrested for fighting had not I, as overseer, at once given my opponent in charge for striking me. He was taken off to the cells, brought up before the Water Police Magistrate on a charge of insubordination and striking an officer, and would have met with condign punishment had I not told the magistrate that there could not be a better workman, or one generally more attentive to his duties, but that his violent temper led him astray, and on that account I did not wish to press the charge.”
“I then went back to the shop, where seven or eight men were at work at the forges, took up a plan of some work to be done, and, passing the other men, who, expecting something, stopped work to look on, went up to the man who had threatened me. I showed him the plan and told him I wanted him to do the required job. I just happened to see him drawing the heated iron from the fire, but before he had removed it more than a few inches, I seized the tongs, and with all my force brought them down on his arm. I repeated the blow as a reminder, and left him. This visitation landed him in the hospital wards for some six or seven months. Having thus cowed the two ring-leaders, I had peace and quiet in the gang as long as I was overseer.”
“Thus, by stratagem and determination, I gained complete command over my men.” (OCD pp 277-279)
His Old Nemesis, Swan
He records in his memoirs another encounter with his old nemesis Swan, whom he obviously regards with some respect.
“A curious incident about this time happened in connection with the big man named Swan whom I had so grievously beaten on a former occasion, and who, by the way, never showed any malice. Swan was noted as a tasteful and skilled workman in ornamental stone-cutting and scroll-work, and was directed to hew, carve and figure out an immense ornament for the dome of the engineering house – a stone representation of the Royal Arms. The site of his operations was directly in front of the engine-shed, where I was acting as sub-overseer. He had been engaged on his carving for about two years.” When his work was almost completed his assistant was banished to the quarries. His successor did not suit Swan, but the decision was to stand. Swan “forthwith beat his magnificent carving to pieces with a sledge-hammer.” Dedicoat was asked to intervene “to endeavour to prevent this wanton demolition of as fine a piece of stone-cutting as had as yet been seen in the colony”, but he declined to do so. The carving was lost and Swan was sent to Darlinghurst. (OCD pp 279-280)
As the histories record, mutiny was never far below the surface on Cockatoo and there were various attempts made to escape, which Dedicoat recounts in Chapter XI, A Plan of Escape. However, it seems that the ringleaders were sent over to Darlinghurst and “things on the island then became quieter.”
The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust website makes the following note: “Escape from Cockatoo Island was rare, not least because few prisoners could swim. Supposedly shark-infested waters around the island also tested the resolve of those bent on escape. But amongst the few that did, Frederick Ward managed it. In 1856 Fred Ward was sentenced to seven years on Cockatoo Island for stealing horses. In September 1863 Mary Bugg, his devoted part-Aboriginal wife, took the risk and swam to the island and left him the tools he needed to break free. Two nights later Ward and his mate Fred Britten made a swim for it. Britten drowned, but Mary was right there on the shore waiting for Fred Ward, along with a fast, white steed, right beside where the Dawn Fraser Pool is now. Fred and Mary got away, and galloped off into the sunrise. As the bushranger Thunderbolt, Ward menaced northern New South Wales until shot by police at Uralla in 1870.”
There is one part of Chapter XI worth recording here as an indication of how these prisoners stuck by each other once they had achieved their freedom. One Dave Clarke (not, as far as I know, one of the notorious bushrangers, the Clarke brothers, of whom more later) “had formerly got away from the peninsula, Port Arthur, got out of the Bathurst cells, and even out of the strongholds and vigilance of Berrima – that dread of all criminals. Long after, hearing that I was on the Turon, he called on me there, to my great surprise, and, of course, as I was one of the old flock of black sheep, I was bound to make him as welcome as my own safety would permit. I gave him a hearty meal, some tea and sugar, etc., and five shillings to carry him on the road. At night, in conversation, I asked him how he managed to get away from Darlinghurst, about the strongest prison in the colonies, so quietly.” Clarke explained that our old friend Swan “was one of the principal hands employed in building that wing, and being an ingenious customer, he constructed a get-away in one of the cells, securely blinded from detection, so that should he ever be confined in that gaol again, by finding his way to this cell he could easily get out.” Clarke apparently discovered Swan’s secret escape hatch. (OCD p.282)
Visit of Sir Henry Parkes
In Chapter XII Dedicoat records a visit of Sir Henry Parkes to Cockatoo Island. “On his arrival on the island, at a subsequent period, the prisoners would be on the lookout for the man with the umbrella, crying out, ‘Here comes our best friend’. In fact, he was looked upon by the men as the hero of the day, and from the date of his advent among them, matters were entirely changed, and for the better in every way. A little time after, a committee of inquiry was appointed to visit the island, to inquire into the alleged grievances and the causes of the late tumults, when from among the men a number were picked out for examination, all the officers being excluded. In consequence of this, great reforms were instituted, particularly in the sleeping accommodation, and in the way of discharging prisoners.” (OCD p.283)
By all accounts, conditions on Cockatoo were desperately in need of reform, but there was always an underlying current of dissension, often to the point of serious danger to those in charge. “On one occasion with Mr Broderick was murderously set upon by some fiends armed with shovels, and would certainly have suffered severely, if not been killed outright, but for the intervention of myself and a free man. My service Mr Broderick never forgot. Superintendent Mann, who, I may say, erred on mercy’s side, was on several occasions rushed by the senseless and infuriated band of ne’er-do-wells, but being of a mild temperament, though firm in action, he had, as a rule, the good feeling of the worst of the crew. Had he been like his confrère in position in the hulk at Melbourne John Price (a tyrant to the core), he might have shared the same fate.”
Appeals for Release
By now it is time to turn our attention to the several appeals made on behalf of Dedicoat for early release. While there is some documentation available, the complete process, especially the involvement of his wife Mary, is not clear. Mary’s own story is even less clear. We know she was living at Seymour Street Bathurst at the time of the 1864 petition. Thereafter she disappears from the scene, except for one story told by her daughter Julia. It was this one story that set me on the trail of William Dedicoat, convict and bushranger. In brief the story is as follows. Julia Butler, my aunt, was raised by her grandmother, Dedicoat’s third daughter, Julia (Dedicoat) McLean. She told me that on some unspecified occasion Mary Day came to visit her daughter Julia in Sydney. Julia, who may have been married at the time, did not believe that the woman was her mother, until Mary produced a prayer-book, which appeared to serve as sufficient proof to Julia. Sadly, Julia refused to have anything to do with the woman because of her perceived abandonment of them as children. It was from this story that everything I know about William Dedicoat takes its origin.
Chapter XIII gives Dedicoat’s account of his personal appeal to Governor Young on one of his visits to the island. I can find no independent evidence of any other visit to Cockatoo Island apart from that of 1861, but given Young’s personality and behaviour in NSW he may have made several visits. In fact, Dedicoat’s account of the Governor’s visit indicates that the visit referred to occurred in 1864. (OCD p.287)
In his account of Sir John Young in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976, John Ward makes the following points which are relevant to this history. On 18 January 1861, Young (Baron Lisgar) was appointed to succeed Sir William Denison as governor of New South Wales; he arrived in Sydney on 21 March that same year. “Unlike some of his successors, Young had little trouble over his exercise of the royal prerogative of pardon. Except in capital cases, he dealt with pardons without reference to his ministers; most of the colony’s leading men preferred the prerogative to be beyond the reach of political influence. Young and his wife were keenly aware of the social responsibilities of Government House and were active in good causes. He worked diligently for the Sydney Ragged Schools, the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children, the Sydney Female Refuge Society, the Female School of Industry and the House of the Good Shepherd. The Youngs left Sydney 24 December 1867; he died on 6 October 1876 at Lisgar House, Bailieborough, Ireland, without issue. Lambing Flat, a town in New South Wales, was renamed Young after him.” Ward notes: The colonial secretary William Forster resigned 1865. Both these names appear in Dedicoat’s records.
Whether Dedicoat approached Governor Young in the manner he describes in Chapters VII and XIII it is impossible to tell, but it is not unlikely, given what we know of him.
Addressing Governor Young
Dedicoat’s account is as follows. “Great excitement was caused on the island by a report that Governor Young was about to put in an appearance on a tour of inspection, and preparations on a great scale were made for his reception, everything being in the height of order and cleanliness, not a thing out of place. After viewing the official premises, the prisoners’ quarters, the cells, and the various workshops, he came to the engine-room, where I was stationed. It was a perfectly understood law that no prisoner should address a visitor on any pretext, unless spoken to in the first place, but I told Mr Doran my intention of speaking up for myself. He strongly advised me against any such attempt, as I should certainly land myself in trouble; but I determined to carry it out. One of the men was at the lathe, employed on a very showy piece of brass work, cutting a worm. To this the attention of the commodore and the others, with the exception of the governor and his aide, was called. Seeing my opportunity, I started the slotting machine and went to the drilling machine, when they came up and stood looking on close to me. I told the governor then that I had been five years [this places the visit in 1864, the year that Mary Day’s petition to Governor Young is dated] in that room as overseer without an atom of complaint against me, and spoke of my saving life, etc. The superintendent, turning round, and seeing me in conversation with his excellency, and the aide taking notes of my complaint that no notice had been taken of a petition presented by my wife in Bathurst, came rushing up, horror-struck at my audacity. I, knowing the consequences of this breach of rules, cried out in a state of alarm and excitement, careless of all rules of etiquette or governmental formalities, ‘Stick to me, your excellency, stick to me, or I’m ruined for speaking to you.’ (OCD p.287)
“As soon as Captain Mann came up, knowing I could not make matters worse, and seeing the governor amused at this comical scene, and inclined to listen, I launched out with all the fervour I could command, laying down everything I could think of in my favour, when his excellency was pleased to say that on his return to Sydney, he would have these matters looked into, and I should receive an answer to my petition.” (OCD pp 286-8) It may have been this intervention that prompted the Governor’s response to Mary Day’s petition of 17 May 1864.
Dedicoat is, of course, called up before the island authorities, but it seems that they were on his side. Superintendent Mann and Mr Broderick, the chief engineer, must have looked kindly on Dedicoat, probably believing that for all his bluster he was a decent and reliable man.
Dedicoat continues his account. “I put my name down one day (as we had to do if we wished to see the superintendent on any particular business), and on seeing him I referred to my petition. He said he would take me to the Water Police Magistrate, Mr Cloete. Mr Cloete told me to get my petition ready and he would himself deliver it to the Colonial Secretary. I paid five shillings to one of the prisoners, who was equal to the task, had it drawn up, and at the time appointed handed it in. [No reference to Frank Gardiner here] In three weeks after I was called to the office and informed that I was to be released in two months, i.e., three days before Christmas. My sufferings from anxiety of mind and impatience were extreme. I remained at work as usual, restless, fretting and anxious.” (OCD p.290)
Mary Day’s Petition
We have already seen Mary Day’s petition, dated 17 May 1864. It is impossible to tell the circumstances behind that petition: who instigated it, who drew it up, or how Mary Day paid for it. It clearly states: “That your petitioners husband has compleated [sic] a period of four years and eight months of his sentence”, so there is no doubt about the date of the petition. The petition concludes: “That your petitioner having four small children [italics mine] depending on her for support and that her husband has never been before convicted of any crime [italics mine] she prays your Excellency will be pleased in your great mercy to grant your petitioners husband the remission of the remaining portion of his sentence or whatever portion your Excellency may think fit in your great mercy to grant, I am now in great need of a protector for myself and children as my health lately has been on the decline and your Petitioner will in duty bound ever pray. Mary Day, Seymour Street, Bathurst.”
The petition raises some questions. Why did it take another 18 months for Dedicoat to be released (December 1865)? Were the three daughters back in Bathurst with their mother in 1864? I doubt that they were. It is my assumption that the daughters were put into service directly from the Orphanage, but I have no proof of this. It is a fact that the oldest daughter, Mary Ann, worked for the Greningers at Braidwood; Matilda, the second daughter, was apprenticed at the age of thirteen in 1867 to Mrs Connor of Shoalhaven. I conjecture that Julia may have been in service in Surry Hills, maybe at McLean’s Cordial Factory. We know that Elizabeth (Betsy) died 2 December 1862 in the Catholic Orphanage in Parramatta. The fourth child must have been Richard, the baby born December 1859, now aged four and a half years. Was he still with his destitute mother?
Then the obvious question: did Mary know that her husband had been a prisoner in Port Arthur, or was that information kept from her by William? We will never know. After all, it was not until the 1980s that William Dedicoat’s full story came to light for the descendants, even though his children must have known the truth at least by the 1892 publication of his memoirs. In the years following, the truth of the story must have been lost to his descendants, very likely because of the confusion created by his various pseudonyms.
What was the outcome of Mary Day’s “humble petition”?
The NSW Archives [64/4909] carry the following document written 3 September 1864.
Mary Day’s Petition
Reply from Chief Justice Alfred Stephens to Colonial Secretary William Forster
Chief Justice [Alfred Stephens]
3 September 1864
Reporting on Petition Praying remission of William Day’s sentence
It has been impossible for me without neglecting more pressing duties to report on your petition on behalf of William day and the similar petitions of other prisoners recently before me – until the present week.
Sir John Dickinson’s notes in the case are voluminous and I have had great difficulty in deciphering them but I am able to collect the following facts – from which I cannot augur favourably for the prisoner. The offence was that of robbing the Bathurst Mail which was then on Mount Victoria. He was alone at that time, but disguised by a thick mask and armed with a gun and pistols, which he frequently threatened to use. He was taken two days afterwards in company with one Wilson – on whom was found a letter proved to have been in the Mail when robbed. Wilson soon afterwards confessed his participation in the crime by remaining at the side of the road to act in case of need; and he showed the constables where the plunder, and the gun and pistols, were concealed in the bush. Above £4000 were thus recovered. The Prisoner’s boots corresponded with the marks on the road, and the Prisoner on this discovery admitted the truth of Wilson’s statement adding that they had planned the robbery a week before, and that he was glad to have been found out, as, if he had escaped, he should have been sure to carry on the same game again. Eventually, however, the Prisoner withdrew his confession but tried to make the police believe that he would plead guilty and seemed anxious to be the means of convicting thereby his comrade. What had been done with Wilson or where he is now, I do not know. There are many strong circumstances of good conduct, and something more since his conviction, in favour of the extension of indulgence to the Prisoner. He is, however, a bushranger, and two years only of his sentence remain unexpired. The balance, on these conflicting considerations, I must submit to the decision of His Excellency. It is not altogether within my province.
I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
Across the document the following has been written, 9 and 19 September 1864:
His Excellency [Governor Sir John Young ] [to] WF [William Forster, Colonial Secretary] Sept 6 1864: I refuse. It is too soon to accord a remission – I note the prisoner’s conduct seems to have been very good in gaol. J(ohn) Y(oung). [Governor of NSW]
WF Sept 9 1864 Inform the Supd 13 [Sept] Superintendent 19 Sept 1864
Mrs Day Sept 1864
The Hon. The Colonial Secretary
It seems that Dedicoat’s efforts to cosy up to Governor Young did nothing to sway the Governor’s judgement.
One year later, reprieve is granted.
Decree of Remission of Sentence [NSW Archives 65/4221]
14 September 1865
To His Excellency Sir John Young Bart KCB Governor in Chief of New South Wales and its Dependencies etc.,
William Day in Praying remission of Sentence
The Humble petition of William Day at present serving a sentence at Cockatoo Island
Most respectfully shewith
That petitioner was tried at the Criminal Court Bathurst on the 21st Sept 1859 and sentenced to 7 years on the Roads for Mail Robbery.
That petitioner has now served with good conduct and industry a period of six years and humbly prays that Your excellency will take his case into merciful consideration and be graciously pleased to grant him such remission of the residue of his unexpired sentence as to Your excellency may seem meet.
And your Petitioner will ever pray
Wm X Day
Cockatoo Island Sept 1865
The following is written across the document:
His Excellency A. rchp[?] 7 Oct/65 give authority for releasing Wm Day on the 21st Dec next. JY.
A 10 Oct
Superintendent… 10 Oct 1865
The Cockatoo Island record of the remission of sentence [NSW Archives 65/4221] reads:
PARTICULARS OF CONVICTION AND HISTORY OF WILLIAM DAY
Name: William Day
Arrived in Colony per ship, Favorite
When and where tried and convicted: Bathurst 21st September 1859
Offence: Mail Robbery
Sentence: 7 years Roads
Name of Judge before whom convicted: Judge Dickinson
Forwarded to the Principal Under Secretary
Petitioner’s sentence will expire on the 21st of September 1866.
According to the regulations under consideration, he would have been by servitude eligible for discharge on the 27th of April 1865 making a remission in all of 1 year, 4 months and 24 days or one fifth of the sentence.
Day’s conduct has been “very good”, recommended for the remission of the remainder of his sentence.
If Day (Dedicoat) had been eligible for discharge 27 April 1865, why was he not released till 21 December 1865, a remission of 9 months only? This is simply another of the mysteries surrounding William Dedicoat aka Jones aka Day aka Derecourt.
Back to the Turon
Let him tell the story of his return to what will be home for the rest of his life.
“At last the weary time of waiting expired, and I was called to the office; and, under charge of a policeman for the last time, was sent to the office of Sheriff Maclean, with a letter of recommendation for a supply of cash. There I received £4, and a most friendly piece of advice from our late commissioner on the goldfields. Some of the free engineers, on being told by me that I intended again following my trade of gunsmith on the Turon, presented me with some useful tools from their private stock, and three days before Christmas 1863 I got my discharge, and was again a free man.
“I went into a public-house in Sydney [was it his friend Mrs Mahony’s Crispin Arms?]and had a glass of ale, or she-oak, and in feeling [in my pocket] for cash to pay, pulled out the piece of parchment containing my discharge. Before the astonished waiter, I put it in the fire, he no doubt thinking me cracked, burning cheques in that reckless fashion. In bidding a long farewell to Cockatoo, I may here state that during all my time as overseer I never had a man brought up for punishment, always performing that operation myself, and was the better liked for it, both by men and supers. Keeping my pledge to Mr Maclean, I only stopped one night in Sydney, and at once started for Bathurst on my way back to the Turon.” (OCD pp 290-291)
The Old Familiar returns – a changed man? Well, maybe in some ways. However, it is the rare person, male or female, who undergoes any serious conversion during life: we all carry our personalities from cradle to grave, modifying our behaviour, learning a few things – if we make the effort. My guess is that William Dedicoat did not undergo deep changes, however much he may have mellowed with age. Nonetheless, he did live a decent, if occasionally querulous, life from his release from Cockatoo Island 21 December 1865 till he died in Bathurst Hospital 20 April 1897.
What of the Family?
Was William home for Christmas? Was there a home for him, with his wife now living in Seymour Street, Bathurst? What name did he go by? Was he a softened, chastened man? Was there a loving wife returned to Sofala to meet him, the Mary Day petitioner whose petition concluded: “That your petitioner having four small children depending on her for support and that her husband has never been before convicted of any crime she prays your Excellency will be pleased in your great mercy to grant your petitioners husband the remission of the remaining portion of his sentence or whatever portion your Excellency may think fit in your great mercy to grant, I am now in great need of a protector for myself and children as my health lately has been on the decline and your Petitioner will in duty bound ever pray. Mary Day, Seymour Street, Bathurst.”
Were the “four children” there to greet their long absent father with hugs and kisses? Had the girls returned from the Orphanage by December 1865, or were they in service by then, at the ages of 12, 11 and 10, and Betsy dead? How did little Richard respond to the father he had never seen? Did the two ever meet? Dedicoat never acknowledges any of this in his memoirs.
Mary’s “serious decline in health” is very likely due to alcoholism – I would be happy to be proved wrong. If so, she is hardly capable of looking after four children. This does not augur well for a happy return. Did he ever see his wife again? Did he ever see his children?
We do know that he had a good deal of contact with the eldest girl, Mary Ann, who returned to Sofala. He would never have seen Betsy, who died in the Orphanage at Parramatta. We do not know what happened to his wife Mary, though, because she was living in Seymour Street Bathurst at the time of her 1864 petition, he may have visited her in Bathurst. I conjecture that he never saw Julia again, given her reaction to her mother’s visit some time after she left the Orphanage. If she rejected her mother for her apparent abandonment of the children, how much more likely is it that she wanted nothing to do with a father who behaved the way William did?
I have no idea whether he saw Matilda again. She went, at the age of 13 (ie, 1867), to work for a Mrs Connor of Shoalhaven and was married to James Cross in Sydney by the Reverend James Fullerton, 2 March 1874, with her sister Julia as a witness. Julia was married to Malcolm McLean by the same Reverend Fullerton almost two months later, 29 April 1874.
I have no idea how long Richard lived or what happened to him. The only information I have about Richard is from his very detailed birth certificate. “Fourth November 1859. Richard, present. Father: William Day, confine(d) at Cockatoo, [aged] 40, [born] England. Mother: married April 1851, Sydney NSW; previous issue: Mary Ann 6, Matilda 5, Julia 4, Elizabeth 2, none dead. Mother: Mary Kirwin, 24, Dublin, Ireland. Informant: Mary (her X) Day, Mother, Ranken Street, Bathurst. Witnesses: (none), Mrs Gibson, Bathurst. Registration James Benseville [?] 28th November 1859.” Richard was still alive at the time of his father’s death, according to Dedicoat’s death certificate, his age given as 30 – he was in fact 38.
We will not be surprised to know that Bill soon fell on his feet once he had returned to Sofala. An old acquaintance, Mr Larkin Foreman, publican, butcher and mail contractor, gave him a cordial welcome. “I told him of my intention to try the diggings once more. He said, after my experience in engineering on the island, I ought to set up in my old trade of blacksmith, but I wanted a start for that. He said, ‘You make out a list of everything you want; I’ll get them for you.’” Dedicoat does just that. There is no doubt that Dedicoat had gained a great deal of practical engineering experience on Cockatoo Island which is now to stand him in good stead. I have not detailed these experiences in practical engineering but they are there to read in his memoirs (OCD Part VII, pp 248-288).
I find it worth noting that a number of people tell Dedicoat that with his experience, his youth, his attitude etc., he will do well. It is the same with people who help him out with a little extra bread, a pipe, some tools. These comments run like a chorus through the memoirs. Do they reflect reality or simply Dedicoat’s wish to put a good spin on everything?
Meantime he seeks a loan from another old friend, Mr Joseph Walford JP, owner of great part of the township. Some others attending on Walford allowed Dedicoat to go first, saying “You’ll soon be out again if money’s your errand.” However, Walford comes good, with a warning: “I hope you will now look a little better after yourself, and get into no more scrapes; though I don’t blame you so much for the last affair, as you were treacherously led into it by a villain.”
Ever the positive spin from Dedicoat: this is another such example of the many reflections in the memoirs which seek to show him in the best possible light.
He loses no time in opening a shop and building a house, with the assistance of carpenter Joseph Stone (according to Tipping). His shop stood between those of two other blacksmiths. Some expressed surprise not only that Bill would take up his old trade but that he would do so between two other blacksmiths. Nonetheless, he reports: “All prepared, up went the sign — ‘Gunsmith, Blacksmith and Jobbing-smith of all sorts.’ I advertised in the local papers, ‘Bill Day back again on the Turon.’ In the first week or two I had orders to occupy my time for three months. In two months I had paid off all my obligations to Mr Walford, and as I had no rent to pay while doing, so I now agreed to pay ten shillings per week, and as he had a great many houses on the river and elsewhere, I had any quantity of orders from him.” (OCD pp 293-4)
“Bill Day back on the Turon” – in the 1867 Postal Directory our man is listed as William Derecourt Sofala (Tipping). Brian Hodge in his lists of the name, location and occupation of the goldfields’ settlers in 1867 (Brian Hodge The Goldfields Story 1851-1861 Book I Valleys of Gold p.59) includes, for Sofala, “Derrencourt, William, gunsmith, Denison Street.” Day, Derecourt, Derrencourt – there is that problem of the name once again.
A Bush Tragedy
Some time during 1866 (Tipping) there occurred a terrible tragedy. Such events could not have been uncommon on the goldfields and it is not surprising that Dedicoat is so close to some of them. His near neighbours are William Chisholme, storekeeper and saddler, and John McGuiness, a lodging-house keeper. McGuiness’s daughter Mary had married Robert (Bob) Corf in 1863. They had two children, Robert (b. 1864) and John (b. 1866). McGuiness and his wife continually urged Corf to become a Catholic, as they and their daughter Mary were. “Bob often told me of their constant nagging, by which they were rendering his life miserable.” On one occasion Bob became drunk, was locked up and was found to have a razor in his pocket. Dedicoat says he warned the authorities of the danger, but to no avail.
Meanwhile Dedicoat returned to some gold digging, with Corf as his assistant. “Next Monday I went up the creek and washed up some of the dirt that Bob had stripped from near my old holding on Church Hill Creek. I finished up with £40 worth of gold.” One night Corf knocked out Dedicoat’s pegs, re-pegged the ground on his own account and went to the commissioner, Mr Bridson. Histories of the goldfields at that time frequently recall such incidents. Dedicoat appealed to the commissioner; his right was upheld and he dismissed Corf. “Being ousted by me, and getting the cold shoulder from the diggers for this attempt at a dirty trick”, Corf moved to Two Mile Creek, haymaking, hoping to become a shepherd and “to remove his wife from the old folks if she would go as hut-keeper”. Mary refused.
Soon, violence erupted. Bold Bill, as ever, was quickly on the scene. “I hastily flung on some clothes and, barefooted, hurried out, and was horror struck to see the poor little baby lying near the middle of the street close to a great pool of blood. Getting better light, and looking closer, I discovered the body of Mary, with the blood gushing from a gaping wound in her throat.” Bob was dead. Doctors Henry Hinton and Westby Walker attended to Mary but soon, too, “with one convulsive gasp [her] spirit fled”.
Dedicoat writes in great detail of the gruesome and sad aftermath. After the funeral he and some others surrounded Mary’s grave with large boulders, “still to be seen”, he proclaims, in 1892.
Some time after the funeral, John McGuiness, Mary’s father, went to the Weddin (around Grenfell in the Central west of NSW ) as a selector. Dedicoat tried to help him settle but McGuiness “behaved very shabbily, not repaying money that I had lent him. I returned on my way home on foot. Between the Weddin and Cowra I was overtaken by young Jack McGuiness, the eldest boy [Mary Corf’s brother], who told me that, as I had been so kind to them before, he had run away, and wanted to go back to Sofala with me, where he would work for me at any wages I chose to give him, as all he wanted was a comfortable home. Knowing his situation, I consented. Shortly after he had joined me, as we were tramping along, two men suddenly sprang from the bush by the road, and bailed us up. Here was a pretty fix: once sticker-up himself stuck up.” Needless to say Dedicoat knew one of them. “Hilloa, Jack, is that you? Have you taken to the road? I remember you working on the old Dubbo road. They used to call you Three-Finger Jack. I’m Bill Day.”
They all sit and yarn, Dedicoat showing no fear as, “had he attempted any treacherous act, I could have caught him and easily strangled him, being so superior in strength and determination. Consequently I told him the truth, that I had a goodish bit of money on me, when he said he was glad to hear it, that his own pockets were pretty well lined, and that he would have let me have some if I wanted it. Seeing that he had no bad intentions, I promised not to mention having met him, as there was a large reward offered for his capture.” (OCD p.301)
They go their separate ways, but late that evening Dedicoat is woken from his sleep by the suspicious Three-Finger Jack who had followed him to see if he had any communication with the police. Satisfied, he goes off. No sooner had he done so than a trooper comes in search of him. Dedicoat “innocently told him the reason of our making the public highway our camping-ground, when, somewhat mollified, but grumbling at his damaged uniform, he followed his horse, and left us to repose in quiet till morning, and I never saw him or the bushrangers after.”
Hard Work at Sofala
Six foot tall and no doubt strengthened by both hard physical labour and his many experiences on Cockatoo, Dedicoat must have been a formidable presence in and around Sofala. He is not yet 50 years old – far from the age of 74 at which he died. He was bold, not to say brash, a boaster, but also willing to put his boasts into effect. Hard work, long distance walking – neither held any fear for him.
Some years after these events he took a contract to acquire and put up twenty telegraph posts, from McCann’s racecourse into the town, at £1 each. “Being, as I said, of immense strength, I cut the posts on Bell’s Creek Mountain, and up-ended them to draw; they were mostly stringy bark. At nights, coming home, I would shoulder a post down the mountain, so doing with the whole twenty, not once having one drawn [by horse]. I had some larger than the others for erection in town, one in particular, a very heavy pole, near Mr McCloy’s, took the attention of the diggers passing, some of whom wondered how on earth I was to up-end it by myself. While they were talking I made a bet that I would sink the hole for the post five feet deep, strip the wire from the old pole, and fix it on this, completing the whole in one hour and a half, which I did, and won the bet.” (OCD p.303)
He tells us that for six years he had been looking after “the line from Tambaroora to within fifteen miles of Bathurst, a length of about forty-five miles, at 7s 6d for a horse, and 7s 6d for myself, or 15s per day whenever on the line repairing, etc., a portion of a day counting at full pay. During all these years I never had assistance from any, nor did I ever use a horse in drawing in the poles.” This is an extraordinary feat in anyone’s terms.
As such a hard worker and such a canny and forward thinking businessman, Dedicoat sets himself up very well. Life is beginning to come together for our man. But the man died a pauper: where did all the money go?
A New Property and House
Then there occurs a revealing paragraph. “One day I told Mr Walford that it was my intention to take up a spare block of ground, between the Hospital and Parsonage, putting up a house on it, with a garden, and send for my daughter, then living at a Mr Greninger’s, near Braidwood.”
I assume this piece of ground is the one shown on the Town Plan of Sofala for 1870 as owned by “William Dedicoat”. It stands at the north-eastern end of Sofala’s Bowen Street, an independent block next to the river and opposite the Church of England Parsonage. (See (12) Map 2 p.90)
It must have been in the late 1860s that Dedicoat told Mr Walford of his intention to “take up a spare block of ground, between the Hospital and Parsonage, putting up a house on it, with a garden, and send for my daughter, then living at a Mr Greninger’s, near Braidwood.” Some time later – it is not clear when – Dedicoat purchased another property along the Bathurst Road (now Peel Road). Joyce Pearce and Garry Tipping [“A Walk through Historic Sofala in the Shadow of the Old Goldminer, Bill Day”, undated] say that Dedicoat built a house, “having a frontage of 35 feet to the Sofala and Bathurst Road”, near the Showground; and there he lived “with his daughter, and prospected among the dry gullies, living to a grand old age into the present century.” Which of the two houses Mary Ann came to is not clear. She seems to have travelled back and forth from Braidwood several times to her father in Sofala, looking after him till his death 20 April 1897. We know that she gave birth to a daughter, Florence, in 1870, place of birth and father unknown; the child died, aged two, in 1871 and was buried in Sofala. We also know that she married in Bathurst, 4 January 1879, aged 25 years 9 months, John Seech, a Sofala widower.
Walford was generous in his offer to Dedicoat: “I have plenty of houses about and any quantity of timber, and anything you are in want of you can have.” He tells Walford “I intended taking up a piece of land on the racecourse near my work, and building a house on it at the end of the shop I had put up there. I applied for a residence area, although I had no occasion to do so, only for greater security, as any miner by his miner’s right and under the improvement clause could take up two acres of land, and, having fenced it and built on it, could make application to purchase. I selected a piece of ground on the edge of the racecourse, the house having a frontage of thirty-five feet to the Sofala and Bathurst Road, having a lovely view of the country up and down for miles, a splendid run for my fowls, and no neighbours to find fault or be offended as in the town, only half a mile away. There was any quantity of timber of all sorts within easy reach, and water almost at the door.” (OCD p.312) For all his gregariousness in company, Dedicoat obviously valued his privacy. So he began work on his new house, and with the help of a local carpenter he “built a house twenty-four feet by fifteen feet, fronting the road, surrounded by a post and rail and paling fence, and made a fine piece of garden.”
He also shrewdly arranged some significant water rights. He assisted in the cutting of a water race “leading from near the head of Little Oaky Creek, about three miles in length, along the old Bathurst and Sofala road and into a reservoir then being built at the head of Church Hill Creek. In assisting to do this I put on a man to work at £3 per week, with the understanding that I should have the surplus water, which I conducted by another race cut from the top of Cemetery Hill, and crossing the road in a culvert opposite the cemetery, and along it into Bullock Horn Creek, on the racecourse. By having this position on the hill, and by virtue of my storm-water right, I commanded the whole water-shed, which could be led by races for miles either up or down the river, and entering my sluicing ground in Bullock Horn and round the cemetery became of great value. This latter race ran side by side with that of Cummings and Barlow at the head of the cemetery. After a time, by application under the Mining Act regulations, this reservoir came into my possession, increasing the value of my holding on the racecourse.” (OCD p.304) He has kept up his gold mining but also adds to his profits from his water rights. A very astute operator, our Bill.
A Bank Robbery
On 3 July 1866, a branch of the Bank of New South Wales was opened in Sofala, with Mr J B Johnston as Manager. Several years later, 26 May 1868, the Board Minutes of the Bank of NSW report that “Telegrams were read reporting that the Sofala Branch had been robbed of about £1700.” The Minutes of 2 June 1868 report: “Further telegrams announcing that the robbery of the notes at the Sofala Branch had been confessed to by Mr J B Johnston, the Manager, and that he had been committed to take his trial.” (Tipping)
Dedicoat has his own account of the robbery. With his many jobs sluicing for gold, working for Walford, at the forge, and other places, “I used to wonder how I had so much to do at the bank. The manager, Mr Johnston, used to frequently have a yarn with me while at work in the shop about Cockatoo and my former career. One day I had to repair a pump at a certain public-house, and when finished, went in to have a glass. Looking into the parlour I saw Johnston at a table playing cards, and was surprised, but of course took no apparent notice.”
Dedicoat, however, was not shy with advice. “I was astonished, Mr Johnston, to see you occupied as you were last night. You know I have had a great deal of experience of the world. Don’t be offended at what I say. I became a poor man through cards, and such must be the fate of all. If the authorities get word of this you are a ruined man; and what will become of your wife and family? Take my advice, though a fool’s, and don’t touch another card.”
Johnston apparently gives Dedicoat a full account of his losses and asks him for a loan. “You are always willing to do a good turn, but what I propose to you I would not for the world anyone knew, as it would seriously injure me. You’re doing well in the shop and sluicing, and have money by you, as you never bank it. I want you to lend me £100 for six months, and, besides the usual work at the bank, I will give 5s per week interest and a receipt for the money.” Dedicoat agreed, and placed the receipt in a jar where he kept such things.
Some time later, Johnston came into Dedicoat’s blacksmithing shop and asked if he knew where he could get a very small lathe. “My impression was that he intended to try the safe for his own purposes and that if anything went wrong I should be suspected. I resolved to be on my guard. I believed his aim in regard to the lathe was to leave an impression of his master-key somewhere about my shop, and that with the lathe on my premises, and my assisting him in making a certain key, he could rob the safe, and suspicion would be thrown on me.” Johnston also asked Dedicoat for a small crowbar and gave him a small dark lantern to repair, with instructions to bring it and the bar to the bank next morning at nine o’clock, that he would leave the bank door ajar, and Dedicoat could put them on the counter, and pull the door to as he went out. (OCD pp 308-309)
“My suspicions were now thoroughly awakened. I mended the lantern, but did not take it to the bank, nor did I make the crowbar.” Next morning Walford came to his shop and told him the bank had been robbed. The astute Dedicoat says “I suppose they are galloping after the robbers; but, in my opinion, the further they gallop the further they’ll go from the right parties.”
After some ado – well worth reading – Dedicoat went to the jar where he kept his papers, got Johnston’s receipt for the £100 loan and asked an acquaintance to read it. Johnston had made it out to read that Dedicoat owed him £100. “This he had palmed off on me under a pledge of secrecy, knowing I could not read, and that my word once passed was sacred and binding. All was now clear to me: the money lying about in my way, as if carelessly left; the many trifling jobs keeping me occupied so much about the bank; the lathe, the turning of the key, the crowbar and dark lantern.”
Johnson was of course arrested and tried for the robbery.
Dedicoat tried in vain to recover the loan. However, “The stolen money, I believe, was traced and mostly recovered, and thus was I again protected by an all-ruling Providence.” (Ibid.)
Various Stories of a Prosperous Dedicoat – the Advantages of Living in Australia
The events of the robbery recounted in Chapter V are definitely dated to the middle of 1868. From here to the end of his memoirs, however, we seem to be reading Dedicoat’s random recollections for which few definite dates are clear. Tipping dates the race meeting of Chapter XI to 1867, based on the presence of “poor Shuttleworth, the only constable on the ground”. (OCD p.333) Edward Shuttleworth was in the NSW Police Force from 2 April 1863 till 13 January 1868.
Dedicoat seems to be settled and prospering. His blacksmithing business is thriving; he continues to make a tidy sum from his gold diggings – the felonious Bank Manager Johnston commented to Dedicoat: “You’re doing well in the shop and sluicing, and have money by you, as you never bank it” (OCD p.307); and he has some substantial property or properties in and near Sofala.
Dedicoat obviously trusts Joseph Walford and the trust seems to be mutual, otherwise Walford, a wealthy businessman in Sofala, would not have been so ready to support Dedicoat. As we have heard, Dedicoat tells Walford that he “intended taking up a piece of land on the racecourse near my work, and building a house on it at the end of the shop I had put up there.” (OCD p.312) So, with the help of a carpenter friend he builds his house with its thirty-five foot frontage and “lovely view of the country up and down for miles” with his fowls for company and no neighbours to trouble him.
Here he reflects on one of the advantages of “the liberal land laws” in NSW, “in comparison with those of the older countries”, namely, “the extent of freedom and liberty allowed to the smallest occupier. Take, for instance, a case such as my own. I want a settled home; I select a piece of ground, no matter where, so long as it is on un-alienated Crown lands; I put four pegs or posts in the ground, one at each corner of the allotment selected; I start to build a house on it, no matter of what dimensions; the material is all at hand, no putting your hand in your purse for timber merchants’ accounts; I am my own merchant, and the almost unlimited bush forest my market; I go there, fell what timber I require, draw it in, and erect my house, and no one to ask me what I do or why I do it. So with the fencing of the land; I get posts and rails, split palings, fell trees, and draw logs, strip immense sheets of bark from the trunks for roof coverings, and no one to say me nay, or ask from me one penny for leave or liberty so to do.I run my stock, through a vast tract of unoccupied country, almost free, or on the extensive commons, some hundreds upon hundreds of acres, at a nominal charge for horses, for instance up to a certain number one shilling per head per annum. (OCD pp 312-3)
“If not at work on my own account I can let my services to any employer that suits me, or that I may suit, for a time, long or short, as required, at wages varying from 30s to 50s per week, and no references required, so long as the agreement is fulfilled. In fact, a man with prudence, frugality and care need have no fear of not prospering in this land of plenty and freedom.”
This is the talk of a settled man, not the chancer he had tended towards for much of his life. What a great step forward from those earlier devil-may-care years when he could have made anything of his life but chose the path to prison.
He now sets his mind to an even greater control over the water use in the area. “Another race about four and a half miles long from Spring Creek, round the ridges, flumed with boards across the smaller creeks and gullies, was finished on to the race-course, and reservoirs constructed by Barlow, Gumming, and party, at a cost of £600. In this I bought a fourth share from Mr Timothy Halpin, a storekeeper, and made up my mind as opportunity offered to become in time the sole owner of this race, as by so doing I would hold the key of all the workings within an area of twenty or thirty acres, to the debarring of anyone else, as the two main races would command the whole watershed of the surrounding hills for miles on two different falls.” Now in addition to the water from his original race he had an extra supply from this one, plus another £1 per week. The shrewd businessman is well in control.
Eldest Daughter Mary Ann
His new house on the Bathurst Road is finished, “the floors boarded”, and, “a ‘shivoo’ by way of housewarming”. (OCD p.314) One night he was sitting by the fire “alone with my daughter”, and he said to her, “You have never given me any account of your life at Braidwood all the time you were away. Let’s have it now.”
Mary Ann, the daughter referred to, was Dedicoat’s eldest daughter. It is not possible to date this episode or to know how often Mary Ann returned to be with her father. It is possible that this particular occasion was in the early 1870s some time after the death of her two year old daughter Florence, 1871. We know that she married John Seech 4 January 1879, and that she looked after her father till his death in 1897.
Mary Ann must have been either very forgiving or very needy to respond so readily to the father who was responsible for the break-up of the family. I make that comment, mindful that the daughters may have blamed the mother for that state of affairs: that is certainly the impression left by that one story my aunt told me of daughter Julia’s rejection of her mother some years later. There is a strong possibility that Mary Day was an alcoholic who had no control over herself, her affairs or her children. I must stress again that these conclusion are my conjectures. Were the daughters able to tell their own stories, they may have a different explanation, understanding, insight.
After her orphanage sojourn, Mary Ann was employed by a Braidwood family named Greninger. According to information from the Braidwood and District Historical Society, 15 May 1992, there was a family of Greningers in Braidwood in the 1860s. “Wenzil and James or John were born in Germany, named Gruinenger. Bushrangers, the Clarke brothers, were very active in this district about that time, also Frank Gardiner and Starlight briefly.”
Mary Ann recalls – in the words of Dedicoat (if not his editor): “When I first went to Mr Greningers, near Braidwood, they had no family. The diggings were in full go and gold plentiful. Mr Greninger had a tannery near Braidwood, and a boot factory, employing a great number of hands. Near the house was a large bush paddock for the cattle, running miles back through a dense scrub. I sometimes went here for the cows. At this time the gang of bushrangers known as Clarke’s gang was in the neighbourhood, and had been for a good while. I had frequently seen some of them (as I found) going through the paddock, jumping their horses over the fences, going towards the scrub, and had been asked by the police if I had seen anything of such men. I always answered No, fearful of consequences. One day the cows had strayed further away, and I was tracking them through the scrub, when suddenly I was seized by a one-eyed man, a member of the gang, subsequently supposed to be murdered by the Clarkes, who led me off to a cave at some little distance. He told his mates that he had found me prowling through the scrub. ‘If we let her go, we’re sure to be trapped; she’s bound to split on us. I think the best thing we can do to prevent it is to knock her on the head.’”
She must have been a bold lass – only about 15 years of age. She was born in 1853 and Dedicoat is recalling events from the late 1860s. Mary Ann was pregnant in 1870, aged 17. This all points to a lass in her mid-teens confronting these hardened bushrangers. The question of the father of the child also arises – one of the Greninger family, a local lad, raped by one of the bushrangers?
“‘I’ve seen you two’, I said, pointing to the Clarkes, ‘often going over the fence and through the paddock, and I’ve never told anyone, not even the police, when I’ve been asked, always saying I had seen no one, and I’m sure I’m not going to tell now if you let me go.’ The Clarkes were also of this opinion, one of them saying I looked like a brick, and he would engage I would not peach [ie, impeach, blab]. After a long barney among themselves they let me off with heavy threats as to the consequences should I blab, which I never did while they were out.
“After a time I became nursemaid to Mrs Greninger’s first baby, and was as happy as I could wish. One day, months after, I took the child with me searching for the cows, of which I had lost the run, and wandering hither and thither, found I had got lost. I kept on walking about, followed by a little lapdog. I at last got frightened and confused. At nightfall I wrapped the child in a shawl, and having no means of making a fire, crept into a hollow log or stump of a tree as far as I could to get out of the wind and cold night air, protecting the child with my dress till morning, when it became peevish and hungry. I chanced upon some wattle gum, and gathered all I could find, ate some myself, and softening it, gave some to the child. I wandered about all that day, eating nothing but a little of the gum, and at night had to seek the best shelter I could find for myself and my poor little charge, sometimes eating, or rather chewing, the soft and moist roots of tussock grass. The child I managed to appease by little pieces of manna which I had collected under a tree. The third day when emerging from my shelter, I was confronted by something in the shape of a very tall man, seemingly covered with a coat of hair, and looking as frightened of me as I was of him.
“While he stood gazing at me, without attempting to get nearer, I heard at a distance a peculiar cry, between a laugh and a bark, which my companion of the scrub answered in the same manner, and, after seeming to consider for a few moments, he leisurely walked or shuffled off, greatly to my relief. I was afterwards told it was what the people here called a Yahoo, or some such name.” Becke adds another footnote to explain that such tales were not uncommon at the time and probably arose from encounters with “ragged lurking bolters from the convict gangs, if they were not intentional hoaxes.” (OCD p.316)
Mary Ann continues her story. The little dog Fanny had accompanied her, so she drives the dog away in the hope that it will return to the Greninger homestead. And so it does. The family had engaged several “black trackers” who were “about to renew their labours, when Mr Greninger, coming out of the bush, joyfully cried, ‘Little Fanny’s come home; she was with them, we may find them now.’
“Having had a feed, she soon began to sniff about, and shortly scampered off into the bush, in the direction whence she had come, the watchers after her, some on foot and some on horseback. They followed her in her course backwards and forwards for about fourteen miles, when she brought them at last straight to where we were. They placed us in the saddle, and we returned home. I was at once put to bed, and carefully and kindly tended until I quite recovered, as also the poor child, for whom I was most anxious.”
Mary Ann recounts another wonderful bush story with a touch of Dickens’ Miss Havisham about it. “A person lived near us, an eccentric sort of old lady, who had had six husbands. I called on her one day with a friend, and found her seated in a large arm-chair, seemingly almost helpless. In the cellar beneath the room she had five coffins with glass covers, containing the remains of her five departed partners in life, while the last resting-place of the sixth was under the door-step in front of the house. She was quite lively and chatty, despite her bodily frailty, and at times quite amusing.” (OCD p.317)
She is her father’s daughter, not at all abashed about her contact with the bushrangers – a typical attitude of many of the country folk at the time. The local “Sergeant Duffy (in charge of the force at Braidwood) came over to Mr Greninger’s and asked if he would kindly allow me to go over for a time to take charge of his child during the illness of his wife. I thought I should enjoy the change for a little, and I went to Braidwood, when I found that the Clarkes had recently been captured by a party passing themselves off as surveyors, in the vicinity of their haunts, though with the loss of one of their party, who was shot in cold blood. The Clarkes were now lying in the gaol at Braidwood, and I would sometimes go with the sergeant, or some other of the gaol officials, to see them, being grateful for their interference while I was in the hands of the one-eyed ruffian who proposed my death at the cave in the scrub. In sympathy I used every stratagem I could think of to alleviate their sufferings somewhat by conveying to them trifling articles. One day, however, I was found out, and my visits prohibited in future.”
There is more to this young lass than we might imagine. “The men in the prison used to be led out at times by the officers of the gaol, or by Sergeant Duffy himself, to work in the fields, grubbing stumps, etc. They were at work at a very large stump on one occasion when I happened to take the child to its father. The stump had been nearly uprooted, and the prisoners were endeavouring to overturn it. Duffy, putting down his gun, went to their assistance, and the man next to him, no doubt by a pre-concerted plan, made a rush at him, or the gun, and they grappled. Seeing the sergeant in some danger of being strangled I dropped the child, and catching hold of the barrel of the gun, brought the stock down with all the strength I could command on the head of the assailant, sending him kicking, and freeing the sergeant, who recovered his weapon and at once marched them all back to gaol. [Her father’s daughter, this one.]
“A short time after this the Clarkes were hanged, and though they were deserving of their fete, I felt sorry, on account of their protecting me when my life was in danger. After this, knowing I could now do them no earthly harm, I told Mr Greninger of what had occurred at the cave in the scrub. He communicated with the police, and on search being made, the relics of their raids, with portions of their stores, were found.”
At this point of her stay at Greninger’s she receives her father’s letter calling her home. After some time, however, she says to him: “Now, as you have not much need for me here, what do you say if I pay them another visit? It seems a shame I have been away so long and never written to them. I’d like to go back for a while. I have saved some money of my own, and with a little help from you I could easily go.” Dedicoat agreed and told her to write and say that she would be in Sydney on a certain day, and would write from there asking at what time it would suit them to meet her at the steamer at Nelligen. He gave her £20 for expenses, and “packed her off.” (OCD p.319)
Mary Ann’s grand-daughter, Nona Ruston, in undated correspondence with the author, told several stories of her grandmother, Mary Anne Seech, a formidable old lady who ruled the roost at her house: she once reprimanded one of the boys, who took no notice of her, so she promptly threw a fork at him and hit him in the eye! Mary Anne recalled occasionally having to take food up the hill at Sofala to various bushrangers, of being in a stagecoach on one occasion, and of being held up by bushrangers. When she blurted out at one of the bandits “I know you”, someone, according to Nona Ruston – her mother?, her father?, a Sofala local? – promptly clapped a hand across her mouth. It also appears that Day would regularly do some horse-shoeing for the bushranger Starlight, an elegant man who would wait around with top hat and cane whilst his horse was being attended to. He would leave town, and ten minutes later – “you could set your clock by it” – the troopers would ride into town in vain search of him.
“An Old-Time Race Meeting”
Dedicoat has by now settled into a respectable life. He has the support and it seems the affection of at least one daughter. He is silent about the rest of his family. He does not reveal his heart. We can only tell of him by his deeds – those recorded by himself and those recorded in the official records of Sofala.
I am placing the final chapter of his memoirs, Chapter XI “An Old-Time Race Meeting”, at this point because the race meeting he talks about – more a brawl than a race meeting –probably occurred about this time, 1867, as Tipping suggests; also because the final few chapters are random ramblings as they come to the old man’s mind.
“An incident of old times, worthy of record, has just come to my remembrance.” (OCD p.329) It is of no great consequence to this account of Dedicoat’s life and need not be recorded in detail. The reference to Constable Edward Shuttleworth, who was a member of the NSW Police Force from 2 April 1863 to 13 January 1868, helps date the episode to about 1867.
It involves a fracas, part of the regular entertainment circuit on the goldfields, between “an intimate acquaintance of mine, a Mr Lyle”, a Turon dairy farmer (Tipping) and a Mrs O’Keefe who owned “Keefe’s” public-house, about twelve miles from Sofala. (Michael O’Keefe, publican, Tambaroora, according to Tipping). Dedicoat accompanies Mrs O’Keefe to the races at McCann’s racetrack just outside Sofala, near Dedicoat’s new “35 foot frontage”. The redoubtable lady sets up a brawl with Lyle, a “determined Orangeman”. Needless to say the whole crowd joins in and poor Constable Shuttleworth is helpless. “Sticks, stones, and bottles from the booth held by Mr Partridge, of the Museum Hotel, came into requisition, and were freely handled.” Eventually the excitement dies down – until another time.
Final Memories of a Packed Life
Dedicoat continues to buy up assets and now, because “Barlow, Cummings and party” (See OCD p.313) wish to sell up, he manages to obtain “sole possession of both ground and water supply, which I long had an eye to. I then started and cut a tail race in Hospital Gully to where the company had accumulated an immense pile of tailings during about two years’ workings, which I intended to wash away, to form an open face in the ground for future operations.” He put two men, Williams and Smith, in charge of the sluicing, and from the tailings in the two sluices he derived about £18 per week. (OCD p.320)
Dedicoat’s purchase of the water and his arrangements with Williams and Smith afford him another opportunity, for, thanks to the rich discovery of gold by the brothers Moore in “New Chum Gully about nine miles distant, in a wild and rugged country”, now having the “liberty to look about”, he heads off with a hundred-strong party of diggers to seek yet another fortune. He was not to be disappointed: “On arrival there we found the find no myth, but a pleasing reality. Though fortune on a gold-field is ever fickle, none had much cause for complaint, for I believe I averaged about the least of the lot, and my share of the gains was not to be despised, being about £4 per week.”
He returns to Sofala regularly for supplies. He adds a reflection on the heavy drinking that featured on the goldfields. “I used to come in weekly for rations, as did many others, returning on Monday, some with the regularity of clockwork, others dilly-dallying on the way to finish the carouse carried on during the stay in town. In some cases miners, did not again reach the scene of operations till Wednesday, and then in anything but a fit state of body or mind to prosecute their labours. In those back gullies and ranges, the sad effects of intemperance and recklessness under drink have been more than once brought to light. Men have hoarded a few pounds, started on a prospecting tour, and, luckily securing gold, have returned to town to dispose of it. Returning, many a one with his brain clouded by drink has lost his way, and the cases have not been few in which such wanderers have succumbed to exposure.”
Dedicoat knows well the dangers of living in those conditions. Alcohol, violence, theft and all manner of other vices were perhaps more prevalent on the goldfields than they might have been in town. I write nothing of the conditions of the goldfields at that time since this information is readily available in the many books and articles written about them. From Dedicoat’s own account, the effects of drink have been the occasion of some comment – including such effects on his own wife. His memoirs also recount a number of incidents of violence. And the temptation to theft is illustrated not only by the Sofala Bank Manager Johnson, but more than amply in Dedicoat’s own actions which led to six years on Cockatoo Island.
He points out that, “As for gold among the ridges, there is no telling what an immense amount of riches is unearthed back from the Turon. There is not a gully or creek known that has not borne good fruit to the miner, and to say that they are worked out is to the experienced miner almost equivalent to admitting that they have not been half developed. Thousands of acres of unexplored ground await only the enterprise and experience of practical hands.” (OCD p.322)
However, his time is fully occupied in looking after his sluices and races, so, as “I had no one to attend to the business of the shop and household affairs, I sent for my daughter to return, as she could receive orders for repairs, etc., in the shop, and in the course of a week she came home. The season now being very rainy, I had an over-supply of water, and carried on the work night and day, sunshine or rain, on an open face thirty feet deep near the cemetery. At night working alone I had two large lanterns fixed at a distance apart to throw light on the sluice. If it rained, though I always worked barefooted, I had no other clothing but my trousers, and an oil-skin cap on my head, always keeping a dry long flannel shirt under a large oilcan to slip on when I knocked off.” Matthew Higgins comments: “According to his memoirs, Day sluiced night and day when the water allowed; anyone travelling by on one of those evenings could be excused for thinking they’d seen something supernatural as they passed the cemetery and his workings, if Day’s description of himself is anything to go by.” (Higgins op. cit. p.105.)
“Queer Bush Visitors”
Dedicoat launches into another of his dramatic stories, this concerning a “well dressed gentleman mounted on a blood bay horse.” Soon after his daughter’s return he was sitting with her at the door, when the said gentleman rode up and asked for employment. Seeing the magnificent horse, and having suggested he sell the beast and the “housings”, Dedicoat invited the stranger into the house for meal. “He fastened his horse at the door, and my daughter placed some food on the table before him. At that moment I heard the sound of horses coming up at a smart pace towards the house. I asked my daughter to see who they were. She ran out and said they were two police. The jaws of my visitor ceased operations, and he looked flurried and rather disconcerted. Sergeant Fagan [Senior Constable Michael Fagan, NSW Police 1862-1900, promoted to Sergeant March 1894. Tipping ] jumped off his horse and inquired who claimed the horse at the door. Fagan then arrested my would-be employee on a charge of horse-stealing, and marched him off.”
The horse had been stolen near Cobar. Consequently Dedicoat was subpoenaed, the prisoner committed to take his trial at Dubbo Quarter Session, “to appear at which I was bound over in £40. At the appointed time Fagan and I started off on horseback for Dubbo, going by Hill End.” They came to country “I knew in days bygone. I went straight past the site of my house when Wilson and I had started on our mad road exploits. All traces of my former home had disappeared.” (OCD p.325) But he takes the opportunity to look around and reflect on how much gold may still be around the old workings – he concludes that there was a good deal as yet undiscovered. “The gold-bearing veins here were very easily missed, as at times they ran close to the rock, and at others they would run three or four feet up, in a mullock above the gravel, and much really payable ground was left untouched by the inexperienced miner.”
Dedicoat and Fagan ride to Dubbo. The horse in question has disappeared. The trial is aborted and Dedicoat returns home – another tale told.
In his penultimate chapter Dedicoat reflects on state of the diggings around the Turon. He believes there is still plenty of gold to found by a willing digger. “But this does not suit the generality of miners nowadays, as they are bent on day work at wages that a poor man cannot afford, as it is often a matter of indifference to them how his interests are affected, provided they obtain their wages.” (OCD p.327)
This recalls for him “an occurrence which took place during my late trip to England. Coming along the road one evening between Shirley and Birmingham after dusk, I heard a rustling in the ditch by the side of the road under the hedge, and thinking it was some stray donkey or other animal I went up, when a human voice issued from the depths of the ditch.” The talk turns to wages and hours, and Dedicoat tells his man that “where I had just come from, the gold mines of New South Wales, he would not catch anyone working such hours nor at anything like such wages, and gave him full particulars of mining and agricultural affairs, and added that as he was a man with a family he was just the person wanted in the colonies, to which he ought to turn himself, as he could get assistance in emigrating. He seemed quite struck by my remarks, but whether he availed himself of my advice I know not.” (OCD p.328)
This reminds him of an episode from his early days in Sofala. “The great laxness about money prevailed upon the diggings in the good old times, many instances of which I might give. I remember once coming home and seeing two bank-notes blowing about my garden, and on looking into the matter I found my daughter, then little, sitting in the doorway building a baby house with stones and bank-notes worth £200. I knew the money could not be mine, as I had all my money safely stowed away, with the exception of a few pounds, and here was a sum of nearly £200 flying about the country. On appealing to my wife as to the possibility of accounting for this strange occurrence, she was as much in the dark as myself. A short time after it came to her remembrance that a Mr C. Wilson, a gold-buyer, had left a parcel with her, which she had carelessly laid on one side, ignorant as to its contents, and afterwards, the child crying, she had tossed this parcel to her to keep her quiet. Thus the money was being cast about almost at the mercy of the wind. I think [that] of the £200, the contents of the parcel, about £25 was never recovered.” He recalls several other examples of such laxity concerning money at that time.
A Chancery Suit
As for Dedicoat’s return to England, referred to several times, this is how I account for that part of Dedicoat’s story.
At some stage, probably around 1880, he returned to England. Currently it is not possible to date this event. He says he was involved in a Chancery suit, but gives no details in his book, and I have no other information about it.
However, in his memoirs he refers several times to his return to England. The earliest reference occurs on p.2: “The incident [he was a pupil at the ‘Dame’s School’ ] had an importance little thought of at the time. Fifty years afterward, however, it was remembered and helped to identify me when, after my wanderings, I returned home to become party to a Chancery suit.” He says he was born in 1819 (p.1 of his memoirs), and if 50 years is accurate, his return to England probably occurred in the late 1870s.
On p. 65 of his memoirs we read: “I never saw him again till I visited England about a claim to some money in Chancery of which I had been advised by an advertisement shown to me by Sergeant Casey of Braidwood. This was at the time that the Tichborne claimant was ‘starring’ it in England. I found E. working like a labourer at his brother’s brickworks in Birmingham.” The Tichborne case came to law in 1871.
On p. 187, he recounts his work as an undertaker in Sofala: “About thirty years afterwards, all signs of the grave having been meanwhile obliterated, I found that during my absence in England there had been erected a neat fence, enclosing a handsome headstone, with an inscription in gilt letters, ‘– Smith, born 31 October 1819, died 12 January 1852, son of the Rev. — Smith.’” Again, this information points us to about 1880.
Finally, editor Louis Becke writes: “Day has resumed correspondence with his family, of which he is now by no means reckoned the black sheep, and has sent them gold dust and specimen pins.” (OCD p.336) Dedicoat himself tells us: “Before leaving the Turon, I bethought me I had never written to any of my family in the old country, and as I now had a tolerable competence I would send them something as a reminder of their long-lost relative. Accordingly I made up and sent to each of my six brothers and sisters about 3 oz. of gold, and £50 worth to my mother, father being long dead [18 December 1847].” On p.53 I suggested that this occurred in the 1850s before he moved to Ironbarks (see OCD p. 217).
H.H. Neary in 1940 published his reminiscences Ghosts of the Goldfields – Pioneer Diggers and Settlers on the Turon. I do not know how reliable Neary’s memoirs are. He has several pages on Day, describing him as “a powerful man of giant stature, his strength was enormous”. He records the robbery of the mail coach, but the details are almost unrecognisable; he also recalls a pig-stealing episode in Sofala which Day records in his memoirs as occurring in Van Diemen’s Land. But the most fascinating anomaly occurs in connection with the Chancery suit in England: he says Day would not return to England “which he cursed repeatedly for the ruin of his life in deporting him as a convict in his early manhood”; instead he sent “his niece (or a lady that claimed to be his niece) home to England to pick up the fortune that was left him – saying he would never return to the country that had wronged him.” (Neary op. cit. p.167) Neary’s account differs markedly from Day’s own memoirs: no such bitterness towards England occurs in them. My conclusion is that Neary’s picture of Dedicoat is not very reliable.
At this time I have no answer to the matter of the Chancery suit.
This story of the Old Time Race Meeting, told above, concludes Dedicoat’s memoirs.
Thus ends Dedicoat’s historically very valuable personal account of life not only in country England but at Port Arthur, as a Ticket of Leave man, as one of the early gold diggers at Sofala and as a prisoner on Cockatoo Island. However fanciful some of his accounts may be there is more than a kernel of truth in all of them, as this account has tried to illustrate, particularly with reference to independent records.
Dedicoat died in Bathurst Hospital, as William Dedicoat, of heart disease, aged 78, 20 April 1897. Even in death, there were conflicting accounts. These I deal with in the following section. I also reflect on Louis Becke’s comments and add comments from various other authors who have written about Bold Bill Day, William Dedicoat, William Derecourt, William Dericott or the several other versions of his name which seem to have been in use in his latter years in Sofala.
As Others See Us
William Dedicoat’s memoirs were originally published in The Sydney Evening News. At the bottom of the first instalment the following note appears: “The history of William Derricourt, or Day, once of Darlaston, England, now of Sofala, NSW”. The series was entitled “Old Convict Times to Gold Digging Days. Complete History of Australian Life for Fifty Years”. Part One appeared Saturday 11 July 1891 and the series continued daily “(Sundays excepted)” to 5 September 1891. Louis Becke published the text in book form in 1899 and brings his edition to a conclusion with some personal comments and a few snippets of information about Day’s final years. That the memories were dictated is attested to in a letter in the Mitchell Library, dated 27 August 1940, from the Mitchell Librarian to Dr. A.D. Osborn of the Harvard College Library, Cambridge, Mass., USA: “I was led to the dates [of the serialisation] by a letter from Charlie Smith of Sofala written on August 22nd, 1940 to H.H. Neary of Lakemba. Smith states ‘I remember him at one time dictating his life to the late Mr. E.J. Aubrey who wrote part of it. Another man by the name of McWilliams wrote the main parts. It was either in 1891 or 1892 that I heard Day dictating to Aubrey’”.
Louis Becke’s Reflections
Louis Becke (1859-1913) was almost as colourful a character as Bill Day. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography gives the details of his life. He wrote almost 40 novels, adventure tales and sets of short stories but he died in penury.
In 1899, several years after Dedicoat died, he published his very lightly edited version of Dedicoat’s memoirs with a few footnotes, a preface and a brief epilogue.
“Mr Day concludes with somewhat of a lament over the degenerate diggers of the present time, many of whom seem, according to his account, to prefer regular wages to the glorious uncertainties of the early days. He himself, too, sturdy man as his memoirs reveal him to have been, has altered somewhat with advancing age, and has had to change with his times. His last great fight about a disputed water-right was settled unsatisfactorily to him in a fifty days’ law case before the Warden’s Court.” (See also Matthew Higgins Gold and Water, p.92.) Becke adds: “He lost the case because of the absence of a solicitor” which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Dedicoat through these pages.
This recurrent litigation may help explain why Dedicoat died in the Bathurst Hospital as “decrepit and a pauper.” (Mudgee Guardian Friday 26 January 1900) It is also possible that his old gambling ways returned. Whatever the cause of his ultimate poverty, we are not likely to know it.
The Bathurst District Court records for Friday 12 February 1897 on the matter of Flynn v. Dedicourt [yet another spelling of the name ] reads [courtesy Taylor 7 October 2014]:
In this case, in which His Honor Acting-Judge Wade reserved his decision at the District Court held in Bathurst on the 4th of this month, Mr. C. C. Vinden, (Acting-Registrar), read the written decision this morning. Mr. A. G. Thompson, solicitor for the applicant, and Mr. McIntosh, solicitor for the defendant, were present. The decision is as follows — On the evidence I find that the appellant on August 1st, 1896, obtained a certificate of registration of a water race; that this race was taken up as an abandoned tenement; that objection was lodged in the usual way to the registration of the application by the respondent, and was disallowed by the warden. No appeal was lodged against the issue of the certificate. Some short time afterwards when rain came the respondent cut the appellant’s race, for which he held his certificate, and deprived him of his water. The appellent swore that the locus of the trespass is within the limits covered by the certificate of registration. The respondent urged that in the course of this race was a dam for which he produced a certificate of registration, and contended that the race of law ended at the dam; (2) as a matter of fact his race ended at the dam; (3) the Spring Creek race, after leaving the dam, ran in a different course from that stated by the appellant. As to the ground (3) I prefer to adopt the version of Flynn as to the other grounds, applying the reasoning of Morgan v. Readford (5 N.S.W.R.383) to the views I take of the facts. I am of opinion that as between these parties it must be taken that the matter has been determined; and the appellant is entitled to the race along the course described by him. I cannot now reopen the question of his title. Inasmuch, then, as the water was disputed from this course the appellant is entitled to damages, which I assess at £5. Under these circumstances the evidence as to respondent’s possession of the dam is immaterial. Granting the appellant’s rights to the race and dependent upon respondent’s privileges in respect of the dam, yet there has been no damage or injury to that and the trespass proved was some distance away. I order that the appeal be sustained; the order of the wardens appealed from be reversed; the respondent pay the appellant the sum of £5, together with the cost of this appeal.
Becke continues (OCD p. 334): “He still, however, has much of the old spirit within him, and his blood was stirred by the news of the later Hill End finds. ‘It put me in mind,’ he says, ‘of the rich old times on the Hill, when I lent a hand in lifting the world-renowned mass of gold in one cake from the police-office to the rack of the escort coach, the mass weighing some three hundred pounds, which was obtained from Byers and Holterman’s [sic] ground, Hill End, or rather Hawkins’s Hill. It was bundled up in a three-bushel bag. Gold is still abundant in all these ridges and mountains, more especially among those overhanging the Macquarie at Burrendong and Ophir.’”
This just may be another of Dedicoat’s by-now familiar fantasies. Lorraine Purcell, Convenor of Hill End and Tambaroora Gathering Group, points out (personal correspondence 29 September 2014) that “Dedicoat mentions he was there and was one of the chaps who helped carry the big Holtermann nugget from the Police Office to the Escort Coach. Holtermann’s Nugget was taken from the mine on the Saturday 19 Oct 1872 and was stored and displayed in Hodgson’s Store in Hill End for less than a week (raising money from the locals towards the new hospital) as it was taken directly to the Battery on the following Friday to be crushed up in Hill End, so it didn’t really get taken from the Police office by the Gold Escort.”
We know already that Dedicoat believed there was still much gold to be had from the area. Becke quotes another tale of Dedicoat’s in which he tells of a miner named Prosper, “a very appropriate name as events will show,” he adds.
Prosper discovered a nugget of solid gold, about £400 in value. He complained to Dedicoat afterwards “that the Wattle Flat was about done, and that he could get very little gold in general. I told him that as he had some money by him now he ought to stick to the place where he had found the nugget, and give it a thorough overhauling; that I had great faith in nuggets, like pigeons, being in pairs. He followed my advice, and after much searching and working round the spot, and almost disheartened, he was there with his boy one day, when the latter, unearthed a lump of some substance bearing the resemblance of a large cinder or clinker, and after knocking it about a bit with the pick took it up, and from the weight found it to be a metal, and called his father, who at once exclaimed, ‘That’s the other fellow’s brother.’ It was about the same weight and value as the other, the shape of a smoothing-iron and as black as coal. In paying me an account he owed me he gave me a pound as acknowledgment of the good effect of my advice.” (OCD p.335-6)
By the mid-1870s, Becke says Day was living on Spring Creek “which he describes as the most congenial of all places for an old digger.”(OCD p.336) This does not seem to be his 35 foot frontage property along the Sofala-Bathurst Road. The racecourse at that time was to the east of Spring (Sheep Station) Creek.
Becke adds a few more random bits of information, including the reflection that “Day is now by no means reckoned the black sheep” of the family, as we have noted.
Dedicoat’s Death and Grave
Becke’s reflections conclude with an account of Dedicoat’s intended grave. It is curious that, while Dedicoat died in 1897 and Becke’s version of the memoirs did not appear till 1899, he writes as if unaware that Dedicoat has already been dead for perhaps two years.
“The last to be said of this survival of the old days is that he has prepared his own grave and epitaph, ‘Old Bill Day’s Grave’, having been a sight in Sofala in its destined occupant’s lifetime. The way he was led to make these gloomy preparations was characteristic. He had had a suit with Bill Musgrave, a fellow-digger, concerning sluices; but in the latter part of Musgrave’s life the pair became friendly, and one day, talking over the speed with which the dead were forgotten, they decided, possibly half in joke, that whichever was spared longer should make it his duty to see to the other’s grave. Musgrave died, and Day after some years was reminded of his old comrade and opponent by having some words with the widow about a business matter. The widow unfairly threw out the broad hint that her husband had never been in trouble. Upon this our hero, knowing that the deceased’s grave was yet unfenced, came out with the obvious retort that it was a pity then that his memory was not more respected. He then called to mind his odd bargain with Musgrave years before, and set to work to repair the omissions of himself and others, causing to be erected round the mound that covered the deceased a fence large enough to cover a second grave, which for the time was only marked by a shallow trench and a row of rose cuttings.
“Over Musgrave’s grave his mourner and intending companion had placed a headboard, with the following inscription:
I lie on your right hand.
When the roses grow up
They will shade you and me.
When decayed and forgot,
God will not forget me.
Born 5th June 1819. W.D
Musgrave, it must be understood, was lying to the right of where Day intended to lie. The widow of the former objected to another’s last tribute to her husband, and so Day had the word ‘right’ changed to ‘left’, and removed the headboard to the site he meant for his own last home. It is to be hoped it will be long before the words above the tomb can be considered literally true; but whenever in the course of time they become so, the little trick concerning them will be recognised as peculiarly appropriate in connection with the memory of a sterling man, who though an ‘old hand’, had to resort to so many shifts in his life.” (OCD p.338)
So Becke ends his reflections.
Dedicoat died in Bathurst Hospital, the death recorded in his proper name as William Dedicoat, of heart disease, aged 78. (Bathurst Free Press, 4 May 1897) His death certificate gives 20 April 1897 as the year, though Pearce and Tipping say in their booklet “He settled down with his daughter and prospected among the dry gullies, living to a grand old age into the present [ie, 20th] century.” They also note that he is buried “in a now unmarked grave in the present cemetery near his home.”
The details on the death certificate are quite complete and remarkably accurate, particularly the name Dedicoat and his parents’ names. I wonder who supplied them.
Date and place of death: 20 April 1897, Hospital Bathurst.
Name and occupation: William Dedicoat, Miner.
Sex and age: Male, 78 years.
Cause of death. Duration of last illness; medical attendant; when he last saw deceased: Morbus Cordis; J.H. Moore, registered; 19 April 1897.
Name and occupation of father. Name and maiden surname of mother: William Dedicoat, Farmer. Mary Humphries [The date 19 April 1897 was written here and crossed out.]
Informant: Certified by Arthur [Blacket?], Tenant, Hospital Bathurst.
Particulars of registration: [Smith?], 6 May 1897. Bathurst.
When and where buried; name of undertaker: 1897 22 April, Church of England Cemetery; Thos Caples.
Name of religion and Minister and names of witnesses of burial: Ernest Lethbridge, Church of England; John England, + Matthews.
Where born and how long in the Australasian Colonies or States: Birmingham, England. 10 years in Tasmania. 48 years in NSW.
Place of marriage, age and to whom: Sofala NSW. 30 years. Mary Ann Kirwan.
Children of marriage: Mary Ann 48 years; Julia 40; Matilda 39; Richard 30. Living. None dead.
Lorraine Purcell alerted me to the following information from the Mudgee Guardian Friday 26 January 1900. It appeared in a review of Becke’s edited version of Dedicoat’s memoirs. “It is recorded in the book under notice that Derricourt prepared his own grave and epitaph ‘Old Bill Day’s Grave’, having been a sight in Sofala in its destined occupant’s life time, but sad to say, neither the epitaph nor the grave was ever used, for Bill died in the Bathurst Hospital, and was buried as a pauper in the Church of England cemetery. He was admitted, a decrepit old man, on April 15, 1897, and death ensued from heart disease on the 20th of the month. The deceased was 78 years of age. The body was buried by Mr T Caples next day. Thus ended the stormy life of one who, despite his errors, succeeded in some respects in gaining the esteem of those amongst whom he lived for so many years.” A kind tribute.
Dedicoat said in his memoirs that he was born 5 June 1819. There is another view that he was born 5 June 1823, and christened 26 October 1823. I have depended on the former date for this account. Whatever the case, the fact that he died “a pauper and a decrepit old man” seems a disappointing end to such a bold and successful man. What brought him to this sad condition we will never know, but the loss of his fortune and the more tragic loss of his family are a sad ending to an absorbing, fascinating story.
The matter of his name continues to intrigue. In the 1867 Postal Directory he is listed as William Derecourt, Sofala. In February 1876 on an “Application for the establishment of a Public School at Sofala”, a Petition to the Council of Education, his name appears as William Dericott. The name is written very neatly, in almost a schoolboy’s hand – one could be forgiven for thinking he had just learned to sign his name. There is no X to indicate it is the signatory’s mark (see p.6). In his appearances before the warden over various litigations, he uses his correct name – more or less, as Higgins writes (op. cit. p.105). In the one court record I have quoted above, the name appears as “Dedicourt”.
Reflections – Matthew Higgins, Henry Neary and others
Matthew Higgins gives an entertaining conjecture of Dedicoat’s final years. “For the people who stood at the bar of Sofala’s Royal Hotel or that of the Commercial a few doors along or who drank and yarned at Wattle Flat’s Star and Royal pubs, there were some entertaining topics of conversation. One no doubt humorous subject was the cantankerous behaviour of that old Turon personality, Bill Day. It may have been noticed in the last chapter that he showed little hesitation in reverting to the warden’s court as soon as a dispute arose. During the 1890s his name (or rather his real surname, Derrincourt [not quite correct, as we have seen] and variant spellings of it) appears time and again in the warden’s court records as he took other miners to court over disputes relating to his water races and claims. He and Nicholas Flynn seem to have almost had a ‘war’ during 1893 and1896-97, with one accusing the other on a range of charges. Day was now in his late seventies, approaching the end of a remarkable life. He had known the convict hell of Van Diemen’s Land, the excitement of the 1851 Turon rush, life on dreaded Cockatoo Island and then the satisfaction of having again rebuilt his life, though he still had not escaped the suspicions aroused by the Codrington murder. He was a local landmark. Passengers on the Bathurst coach saw him smoking his pipe by his store or working his claims at the back of the old racecourse and the cemetery. According to his memoirs, Day sluiced night and clay when the water allowed; anyone travelling by on one of those evenings could be excused for thinking they’d seen something supernatural as they passed the cemetery and his workings, if Day’s description of himself is anything to go by. Day’s memoirs survive him and form a valuable (if not always accurate) insight into life on the Turon.” (Higgins, op. cit. p.105.) Valuable, certainly; but not always accurate? In fact, not too far off the mark, however much of a spin he puts on his own role in many of the actions.
R.G. Parker in his “Cockatoo Island: a history” (Nelson 1977) writes of Dedicoat as “the hero of a curious incident in the island’s history”. He then recounts the tale of the letter on Frank Gardiner’s back and says that “when his back had been ‘read’ ashore by a lawyer, legal action was commence which resulted in Day’s pardon a year later.” As we have seen, there were some years between Gardiner’s release and Day’s release.
Dedicoat makes another appearance in Robert Shannon’s Colonial Australian Gunsmiths. (Wentworth Press, Sydney, 1967, p.27-28) He writes a brief account of Dedicoat’s career under the heading: “William Derecourt, Convict, Bushranger and Gunsmith, Sofala (alias William or Bill Day, alias William Jones)”. The summary tells us nothing new, but Shannon does make a comment which comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Dedicoat’s story: “… between gold digging, gun-smithing and blacksmithing under the name Bill Day, it was generally believed that he had made a small fortune.” Apart from some gifts made to the family back in England, we might wonder what he spent his fortune on, as he had turned his back on gambling and seems to have been a moderate drinker. And he died a pauper, according to the Mudgee Guardian. Shannon concludes his account: after his release from Cockatoo Island “Day moved back to Sofala where he was in business as a gunsmith from about 1866 to 1894 under the name of William Derecourt (there a number of spellings).” Little to be learnt here, except a reinforcement of the issue of his names.
Then there is Henry H. Neary’s rather fanciful 1940 account of our man: Ghosts of the Goldfields – Pioneer Diggers and settlers on the Turon. A Book of Reminiscences by Henry H Neary. C Merritt, Sydney, 1940. It is as well we have more reliable information about so colourful a man as our Bold Bill Day. Neary gives an account of the murder of Constable Codrington, including the information that his (Neary’s) father was one of the last people to speak to the unfortunate trooper. The murder was generally regarded in the area as quite outrageous. We have seen that Dedicoat was suspected but not found to be responsible for the atrocity. Neary (p.88) refers to “an ex-bushranger” being arrested but able to prove he was elsewhere on that day.
In his fuller account of Dedicoat he claims he was generally known in Sofala as “Bill the Blacksmith, a man of giant stature, his strength enormous.” Neary, as a youngster, had often seen Bill “drawing a load of wood with a chain and rope from the top of Cemetery Hill down to his hut, a load that it would take a fairly good horse to draw.” He tells another story of a harmlessly-meant trick played on Bill by one of his working mates. When he realised he had been tricked, Bill, “transferring his wrath from the effigy [the source of the trick] to his mate, he seized a tomahawk and gave chase.” The mate got away but next morning, even though he had cooled down, Bill is supposed to have said that had he caught his mate that night, “while his temper was up, he would certainly have murdered him.” I would take that with a grain of salt – belt about, bash, yes, but murder no.
Neary also recounts a story of the theft of some of a litter of pigs, “an incident that caused so much talk in the little village of Sofala at the time.” (pp 164-5) In fact this episode occurred in Tasmania many years before, about 1847. (OCD pp.88-9. Also p.27 of this history.)
We have heard, already, Neary’s account of the “large fortune” left to Dedicoat in England and Dedicoat’s prejudice against England “which he cursed repeatedly for the ruin of his life.” (Neary op. cit. p.167) He concludes that “Bill completed the necessary documents required to establish his identity in connection with the estate and sent his niece (or lady that claimed to be his niece) to pick up the fortune left to him – saying that he would never return to the country that had wronged him.” This does not accord with what Dedicoat writes in his memoirs more than once, as we have seen. As for a niece, there is nothing to indicate her existence. Currently, however, we have no certain knowledge of the Chancery matter.
Neary has several more stories to tell. “Bill, in his quest for gold, one time got himself into trouble with the authorities by sluicing away part of the Chinese cemetery. Many graves were washed out, but Bill said it was a pity to see the gold go to waste for the sake of ‘a few chinkies’ bones’.” (Ibid.)
And a final humorous tale: “Bill had his coffin made many years before he died and used it as a safe in which to store his damper cakes.” When he came to die, “the coffin, so long waiting for its occupant, was utilised and the bones of Bill still lie in the grounds covering the old goldfields where he had made himself so conspicuous.” And that, of course, is not true, Bill being buried in a pauper’s grave in Bathurst
A harmless fabrication, adding nothing to what we know of the man. On the whole, I find Neary’s account more fanciful than factual.
Charles White in his History of Australian Bushranging in recounting his version of Bill Day’s story does so under the heading “The Blacksmith Bushranger”. (White, Charles. History of Australian Bushranging Vol. 1, Currey O’Neil, 1891, pp 192 ff.) He gives a lengthy account of the mail robbery on Mount Victoria and devotes a lot of time to Trooper Codrington. He adds nothing of significant value that is not already covered in this account. However, his summary of Dedicoat’s memoirs in general is worth recording. “Before the full term of his sentence had expired Day was released and resumed his dual calling – that of blacksmith and digger. He is still  living at the old spot and, considering his advanced years [probably 73], is still a remarkably strong man. Just recently he supplied a writer for one of the Sydney evening papers with what purported to be a complete history of his life, and the same was duly published with sensational headings and ‘padding’; but many of the ‘facts’ recorded could have existed only in Day’s imagination or in that of the scribe who jotted down his maunderings [sic]. Throughout the story told by him he figures as a hero-criminal who was keener-witted, stronger and more industrious than those among whom he moved, and most honourable in his dealings with his fellow men, who for the most part were half-witted rogues.”
One can understand White’s assessment, but a closer reading of Dedicoat’s account and the correlation of independent material with it, validates the truth of most of his stories. It must be admitted, however, that his personal slant on the material is much as White says. I have often reflected, as I have researched the details of this story, that it is surprising that Dedicoat – or any of his other personae – should have been present at, indeed the centre of, every significant event he recalls. That the events did take place has been verified in most cases from independent records, but his role at the centre of many of them may be doubted.
Two interesting letters appeared in the Sydney Evening News during the serialisation of Dedicoat’s memoirs, both from Sofala men and friends or acquaintances of the author.
The author of this story has received the following letter from an old comrade on the diggings and desires that it be published.
Church Hill 20/ 8/ 91
If this letter I have got written is of any service to you, you can make use of it with my best wishes for your success. I willingly testify to the general accuracy of your statements about the different scenes on the goldfields, as far as I know personally. As you know, I have been on the Turon since almost the first opening of the goldfields, and very little of the main incidents have escaped from my memory. I quite remember your working that piece of ground in Church Hill, so wondrously rich, having bought the log hut you mention from a woman, about to join her husband in Tambaroora, for 30s (I think about 1854). I afterwards worked the ground myself, with grand results, five or six ounces per week in off and on working, whereas had the work been continuous or regular, we might have got the same amount almost daily. I have lived on the same ground from 1854 or thereabouts until now, and ought to know something of Turon affairs. I even remember you coming one day when I was sinking and telling me I was throwing the gold away – the wash dirt was of such thickness or depth – which I proved to be a fact. Anything I can do to further your views I shall be happy and willing to do.
Yours truly, John Reynolds, Sofala.
(The Evening News, Thursday, September 3, 1891.)
The second letter was written 24 August 1891 but was published nine days earlier than Reynolds’ letter:
Sir, Being a subscriber to your valuable journal for the last 10 years, I shall be obliged if you will publish the following: In reading the experience of an ex-convict, commenced in your issue of July 11, there are several things mentioned which appear at first sight incredible. Having been a neighbour of Bill Day’s for the last eight years, I can prove many of his statements to be correct. The other day while down examining his deep sluicing ground, 25 feet, I had my doubts about his ability to break a stone with his naked fist. I, in the presence of my brother-in-law, picked up a stone of over five pounds weight out of the wash dirt, which had not been handled before, and asked him to satisfy me by breaking it, which he did, into three pieces in one blow. One piece flew a good distance. No deception about the thing. His claims to walking feats can easily be explained. He has an unusual long step, and also possessed of a great amount of patient perseverance. A few years ago he started for Bathurst, which is fully 30 miles, and arrived there in six hours. He has for many years been working as a hatter,[ie, a loner] which he finds better, as he can get through a greater average amount of work. When he has no water to sluice his usual task is to sink a shaft of 30 feet in five days, afterwards tunnelling out seven wheelbarrows of wash dirt, and cradling the same, is his daily average work. I do not know another on the Turon that gets through such an amount of work in the same time. I can give him a very high tribute as a neighbour, and for many years a kindness to myself and family.
J. W. James
Sofala August 24
(Letter to the Editor The Evening News Saturday August 29, 1891)
These tributes speak for themselves.
Dedicoat’s memoirs went through quite a number of editions. After their initial appearance in the Sydney Evening News in 1891 they were edited into book form by Louis Becke and published in London in 1899 and New York in 1900. There were other early editions. In 1975 they were reprinted as one of the Penguin Colonial Facsimile editions, Ringwood, Victoria. There is also a Swedish selection of short stories about the Pacific from Pacific Tales in which parts of Dedicoat’s story appear.
SOME CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
By any reading of Dedicoat’s story, he was a complicated man. Even a careful correlation of his memoirs with independent material fails to provide a definitive picture of his personality. I make some attempt here to summarise a most complex man.
“I can truly say that even in those early days I had a good heart, and was ready to stand up for the weak and oppressed.” (OCD p.1.)
I began my account of William Dedicoat’s story with the comment that this is his “first reflection on his upright and noble character.” At the end of my reflections I would like to repeat that “he never shies away from his criminal deeds”, and that, “having lived with his story for thirty years I am inclined to believe in his essential decency. He was a boaster, always at the centre of any adventure, always the hero, but I do not believe he was malicious or mean spirited. I believe his early assessment is a true assessment: a man with ‘a good heart, ready to stand up for the weak and oppressed.’”
He had a violent streak; he was not a man to be crossed. He was generous. He was foolhardy, in fact irresponsible, especially when it came to his wife and children. He might be described as “a street angel and a house devil” – good with strangers, negligent to the point of dereliction with his own family. He was not stupid – under other circumstances he might have become a successful entrepreneur, a good businessman. There was, however, an essential weakness of character which underlay almost everything he did in his rich and varied life.
A noble hero on occasions, a dreaded enemy at other times; a man with little respect for authority, little sense of his place; he lived by his wits, the skin of his teeth. He could talk his way out of any situation, or at least he tried, not always successfully. He lacked humility but never did he lack bravery. He had charm – both men and women responded to him positively, with warmth and generosity. He suffered violence, often because of his own foolhardiness, but he seems always ready to forgive or at least acknowledge the good in most of his enemies and his bêtes noires.
An enigma. Still a mystery after all these years.
The details of Mary Day’s death and burial are unknown. Possibilities include “Mary Day, 3 February 1867, buried at Camperdown, born England, fifteen years in NSW”, and “Mary Day died 1890 aged seventy-four, at Camperdown, widow”.
Other questions remain: the fate of his son Richard; his visit to England for the Chancery case; his relationship and contact with his family in England. There are other questions.
The story is not finished.
Dedicoat’s year of birth
I believe it is impossible to determine with any reliability the year that Dedicoat was born. I give here the facts I have at my disposal and my reasoning for choosing 5 June 1819.
In his memoirs he clearly states that he was born 5 June 1819. The records from St Nicolas’s church, Kings Norton UK, indicate that he was christened 26 October 1823, but it is not known how old he was on that occasion. Brian Dedicoat sets his birth year as 1823 (Rootschat), no doubt guided by the christening date. My Heritage, on the other hand, gives several versions of the birth date: Lisa Wood-Bradley gives 5 June 1819 while Kevin Bell and Gavin Greer give 5 June 1822. His parents William Dedicoat and Mary Humphries were married 29 October 1821 – that information could be thought to corroborate, though not confirm, a birth date of 5 June 1822.
When he was tried at Stafford for larceny, 17 October 1836, his age was given as 14, suggesting his birth year as 1822. His age is not given when he was tried at Stafford 2 July 1839 and sentenced to transportation. However, when he was discharged from the Woolwich Hulks, 17 April 1840, his age was given as 16 – thus a birth year of 1824. On his arrival in Van Diemen’s Land, several months later, 6 August 1840, his age was given as18, making his year of birth 1822. I am more inclined to believe the latter rather than the former.
On his third daughter, Eliza (Betsy)’s birth certificate, December 1857, his age was given as 40, making him born in 1817. However, he is still said to be 40 on his fifth child Richard’s birth certificate in November 1859, hence a birth year of 1819. This date is thrown into doubt by the information from his trial in Bathurst, 21 September 1859: age 35, therefore born 1824. His death certificate, 20 April 1897, gives his age as 78 years, calculated no doubt from his testimony in his memoirs.
There are two ways of looking at the question, as far as I can see. We can take his word that he was born in 1819 – that is a reasonable assumption. However, the definite date of his christening in 1823 is a strong reason for believing 1822 or 1823 to be the year of his birth, and the accumulation of evidence from his several imprisonments tends to support that conclusion. Then the birth certificates of two children throw this logic to the winds.
While I am attracted to either 1822 or 1823, I have, for lack of clear proof, adhered to 1819 as the year of his birth, acknowledging that this is not necessarily correct, and have calculated various other ages from that year.