A STORY HANDED DOWN
Editor’s note: This article, written by Anne McDougall, provides a family perspective on the events of almost exactly 150 years ago by shining some new light on Tom Connell, one of the bushrangers in this exciting colonial tale of gold, bushrangers, troopers and death – all ending in retribution through death by hanging.
The 150th Anniversary of the Clarke gang’s raid on Nerrigundah will soon be upon us and Peter C Smith’s new book “The Clarke Gang, Outlawed, Outcast and Forgotten” has helped to arouse and renew our interest in this troublesome time. Much of this story has been taken from an article my mother, May Koellner, wrote for the Moruya Historical Society “Genie Journal” over 20 years ago.
A story has been handed down in our family about the ordeal endured by my great grandfather John Emmott and of the kindness and protection shown to him by one of the gang. This gang member was Tom Connell, cousin of Tom and John Clarke, their mother’s nephew.
Much gold was being found at the Gulph or Nerrigundah as it is now called. Abraham Emmott had opened a general store at the Gulph with a manager in charge. Its functions were general storekeeping and the purchasing of gold from prospectors. His eldest son, John, used to ride out to the Gulph from Moruya to bring home to his father, money and gold from the store. The road from Moruya then went behind Bumbo, where there was no river to cross.
In his nineties, my grandfather Abraham Emmott, wrote an account of the incident as told to him by his father, which has passed on down through each generation of the family.
On that day in April, 1866, John Emmott, a young man of 25, had ridden on horseback from Moruya to visit the store at the Gulph and was returning home when, a short distance along the track at the Gulph Creek, he was stuck up by two masked bushrangers. They aimed their guns at him and demanded he surrender. John was carrying a parcel of gold which he was returning to Moruya. He made a quick but hasty decision. He would rather risk his life than tamely hand over his father’s money and gold to the bushrangers. He had a good horse and decided to gallop back at top speed to the Gulph. To his surprise the bushrangers did not follow him or shoot at him. They just let him fall into a well planned trap.
Two bushrangers on foot, who had let him pass, stepped out of the bush and signalled him to stop. He raced his horse past them and at close range they shot his horse from under him and shot John through the thigh. The ball entered through the back part of the thigh, going clean through to the front, travelling almost the length of his thigh. He tried to get the parcel of gold out so that he could throw it into the bush but he could not do it quickly enough as the horse collapsed under him. The bushrangers robbed him of his watch and chain and the parcel of gold and money.
They ordered him to walk down the slope to the creek where they had several other people who had been intercepted on the track and robbed. John was on the point of collapse from the fall and the wound in his thigh and could hardly stand, let alone walk. One of the bushrangers struck him heavily on the head with his gun. The other bushranger, Tom Connell, held John up and rebuked his mate for striking a badly injured man. Tom Connell then helped him down the slope to the creek. John asked for a drink and Tom Connell took John’s felt hat off his head, dinted the crown in and filled it with water, which John drank off the top of his hat. The next day, John’s brother Tom Emmott, took him home to Moruya on a spring cart.
The bushrangers gathered together and went into the Gulph where they visited all the stores and robbed them. When they came to Pollock’s store, one of the police, Constable O’Grady, stood on the verandah and ordered them to stop. They kept coming and he fired a shot at them fatalling wounding one. One of the bushrangers then shot O’Grady who died from the shot. Mrs. Pollock went out the back door and hid the gold which was held by the Pollock’s store. The courage of Sergeant O’Grady has been a legend at Nerrigundah ever since.
Another interesting aspect of the story to our family is that another great grandfather Emil Pfeiffer, was also in Nerrigundah that day. At nine years of age, the man of the house with his father away prospecting, he prepared to protect his mother, young brothers and little sister, with a gun.
Eventually all the bushrangers were rounded up. They were held in Sydney ( Darlinghurst Gaol) awaiting trial. John Emmott was called as a witness. In his evidence he made a strong plea for leniency for Tom Connell. He said that although he was a bushranger there was good in the man. He had befriended him when he desperately needed a friend. Some of the bushrangers were hanged. There was no evidence that Tom Connell had killed anyone, and he and some others were given a life sentence.
Ten years later, John Emmott, who had kept in touch with him while he was in gaol, had a letter from Tom to say he had been released for good behaviour. He wrote that he had learned his lesson and would lead the life of an honest man from then on. The two men continued to keep in touch by letter for the rest of Tom’s life.
This story had been handed down in my mother’s family and they knew it well. But they were in for a surprise one day as it had been a legend in the Connell family as well! In 1983, my uncle Jack Emmott of Bodalla, was surprised to receive a letter from a great grandson of Tom Connell, who had been reading records of the time and a ‘recent publication’, but who also knew about it all from his family’s history. He also knew of the fact that letters had been exchanged between the two men during and after Tom’s rehabilitation and to the end of his life.
Thus it was that Tom Connell’s great grandson visited John Emmott’s grandson and granddaughter soon afterwards at my mother’s home in Moruya, nearly 118 years after their brief encounter. They were able to talk about that incident of so long ago and of the far reaching effects of Tom Connell’s innate goodness of heart.
John Emmott was a truly Christian man and never held any real animosity towards the Clarkes. As a postscript we may lay to rest the story that as a result of the shooting he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. That was not true. He was a young man of 25 and the wound was a flesh one only, healing in good time to leave him walking quite normally.