A Guide to Australian Bushranging
It always astounds that so few books have been published about the Clarkes. Of course, this likely has to do with the fact that for the longest time it was a taboo and much of the story has been lost as subsequent generations disappeared, a phenomena not suffered by Ned Kelly or Ben Hall. So it is with much excitement that one approaches a tome that tries to shed new light in the dark corners of this complex and intriguing story.
Judy Lawson’s book, may appear slim and a quick and breezy read but it is quite deceptive in this regard. In reality it is a heavily immersive and detailed exploration of the Clarkes and the various murders attributed to them that warrants careful reading. Lawson has clearly done her homework and conveys in easy to follow language and structure her impressive research that combines the recorded history with the socio-political climate of 1860s Australia. The book contains several useful diagrams and lists to allow readers to keep track of people and places but if you’re expecting a wealth of pretty pictures you will be disappointed – though the writing more than makes up for it. It is clear from the outset that Lawson’s angle is quite different than what has gone before, stating her mission statement clearly on the cover: “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”.
Without going into too much detail (that’s what the book is for) Lawson breaks down the Jinden murders as well as the deaths of Miles O’Grady, Billy Noonang, Pat O’Connell, Jim Dornan and Bill Scott – all deaths that were attributed to Thomas Clarke and his gang in some respect. Each incident is presented without judgement and with all available information from witness accounts and testimony from various trials and commissions pertaining to the events to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions that may indeed be counter to the accepted narrative. Previous works have been written with the author’s judgement firmly in place, usually declaring that the Clarkes were guilty as sin. What Lawson achieves is providing a potent counter to this assessment. Many questions still hang over the deaths of the special constables: was it the bushrangers or their harbourers that pulled the triggers? Were the local police involved? None of the questions have simple answers but this book brings us closer than perhaps ever before to seeing a miscarriage of justice in the case of the Clarke brothers being hanged. By presenting each potential scenario and breaking it down to discuss what is and isn’t feasible it allows readers, especially those unfamiliar with the stories, to really understand the complexities of each case.
Lawson also discusses the Irish culture, including the roles of men and women, and emphasises the way that tension between English Protestants and Irish Catholics formed a key aspect of the Clarke outbreak. By describing historical conflict and ideological differences that contributed to the treatment of families like the Clarkes we see a dimension of the story that is not often factored into most retellings. The way that these conflicts as well as the division between upper and lower class people manifested in laws and the prevailing culture in New South Wales during the 19th century are incredibly important in understanding what may have pushed the Clarkes and their ilk into a lawless lifestyle. By looking at the larger context of this infamous outbreak of bushranging we get a feel for how situations like this resulted in similar stories in other colonies such as the Kellys in Victoria and the Kenniffs in Queensland. Lawson also highlights the unfortunate reality that the charge that sent Tommy and Johnny Clarke to the gallows was not the one that they were tried for, that there was a bigger motivation behind it and that the execution was a foregone conclusion as in the cases of Ned Kelly and Paddy Kenniff. A big part of the taboo of the Clarke story seems to stem from the concerted effort local police made to demonise their enemies. Without a means of recourse to the various accusations the bushrangers were not able to explain their own situation (and there was certainly more to it than simple disregard for law and order as evidenced by their wide syndicate of supporters and harbourers).
Lawson herself possesses a Bachelor of Arts, having studied geography and history for three years before becoming a science teacher in various states, territories and abroad. Her passion for the Clarke story has led to her researching and documenting it for almost four decades in the pursuit of truth and removing the stigma of the story on descendants and the broader community. Lawson discovered that she is in fact a descendant of the O’Connells in her thirties due in large part to her father refusing to talk about it, such was the potency of the taboo. This motivation and passion is evident in every drop of ink in this book and is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the Clarke story, a tale with so many twists, turns and mysteries it easily rivals that of the Kellys. Her aim is not to hold the bushrangers up as heroes or deny any wrongdoing, but merely to ask the questions that need to be answered and find whatever information possible to answer them.
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