Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Clarke, Thomas (1840–1867)

by Nan Phillips

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

This is a shared entry with John Clarke

Clarke Family: Thomas (1840?-1867) and John (1846?-1867), bushrangers, were born near Braidwood, New South Wales, sons of John Clarke. Their father had arrived in 1828 at Sydney in the Morley with a seven-year sentence; he was assigned to a pastoralist. A shoemaker by trade, he later tanned and dressed hides and made boots for convict servants at Mount Elrington near Braidwood where he rented a small block and in the 1860s became a free settler. He did not farm his land but appears to have lived by stealing cattle. When gold had been discovered in the district in 1852 he and his sons stole the diggers' horses, planted them and then claimed the rewards. Clarke reckoned this trade was worth some £250 a year. In 1866 he was arrested for killing an Aboriginal and while awaiting trial in Goulburn gaol died from influenza on 7 November aged 71; he was buried at Braidwood. In 1839 Clarke had married Mary Connell, an Irish migrant. Their three sons and two daughters grew up without schooling or religious instruction 'in an isolated community little less than a den of thieves, connected either by marriage or misdeeds'.

Thomas and John junior began work as stockmen on unfenced stations and connived with their employers in the widespread cattle-stealing which continued until curtailed by the Registration of Brands Act in 1866. John was released in 1864 after a year in gaol for horse-stealing and in January 1865 their brother James was sentenced to seven years on Cockatoo Island for receiving the proceeds of a mail robbery. In that year Thomas, who was said to have been in Queensland in 1864, was detained in Braidwood gaol while waiting trial for assault and robbery; in October his family arranged his escape. At the inquiry a Goulburn magistrate criticized the lack of staff and security at the gaol, claiming that it was 'of more importance than many other prisons … is in the neighbourhood of Araluen … also of Jingera and other places notorious for cattle-stealing, the former place being the locality of the Clarke family'.

Thomas was joined by several relations and between October 1865 and May 1866 was credited with three charges of horse-stealing, eight robberies including two mails and post offices, the wounding of John Emmett and the murder of Constable Miles O'Grady at Nerrigundah on 9 April. By proclamations issued on 15 May and 5 June Thomas Clarke and Thomas Connell were declared outlaws under the Felons Apprehension Act. In May Thomas Clarke was joined by his brother John and 'no more remarkable confederacy of robbery, violence and murder has ever been known to exist in any civilized community'. Failure to catch Clarke's gang led to public outcry and the colonial secretary, Henry Parkes, sent 'special' police to the Braidwood district in April 1866. They were unsuccessful and soon recalled. In September Parkes secretly appointed John Carroll, a senior warder at Darlinghurst gaol, and three others to capture the Clarkes. Carroll resorted to bribery and arrested Clarke's two sisters, other relations and friends on charges of harbouring, but received little support from the local authorities. In January 1867 Carroll and his party were murdered near Jinden station. The crime was credited to the Clarkes and a Gazette Extraordinary called on officials and settlers to help in catching the gang and offered a reward of £5000 for their capture or £1000 each, with lesser amounts for information. An uncle, Michael Connell, and James Griffen were arrested and charged with the murder, but their release on bail by local magistrates led to an official inquiry in March. Its scathing findings on conniving officials and landowners and the 'complete absence of moral training, education and religious instruction' touched off a newspaper controversy on the culpability of the squatters, the Irish and the small-holders. John Dunmore Lang, a passenger on a mail coach held up near Goulburn on 22 February by Thomas Clarke and his partners, was not molested and his later claim to understand the attraction of such a life to young men added fuel to the arguments by moralists but did not help to catch the bushrangers.

In March Parkes sent a strong force of experienced police to Braidwood. On 27 April a party under Senior Constable William Wright was led by the noted black-tracker 'Sir Watkin' to Fairfield, about twenty miles (32 km) from Ballalaba. There Constable Walsh, Sir Watkin and John Clarke were wounded; Thomas and John were captured.

At their trial in Sydney on 28 May special precautions were taken to prevent any display of public sympathy. The brothers were charged with wounding Constable William Walsh with intent to murder. Although defended by William Bede Dalley, who challenged the legality of the proclamations declaring them outlaws and their right of self-defence against 'unknown' assailants, the Clarkes were found guilty by the jury and sentenced to death by Sir Alfred Stephen. In his address to the prisoners he listed their record, exclusive of suspected murders, as: Thomas, nine mail robberies and thirty-six robberies of individuals of all classes in two years; John, twenty-six crimes in one year. An appeal was refused and the two men were hanged at Darlinghurst gaol on 25 June; they were buried in the Roman Catholic section of the Haslem's Creek cemetery (Rookwood). Thomas Clarke had married Charlotte, daughter of Michael Hart, at St Bede's Roman Catholic Church, Braidwood on 31 January 1863. His wife left him after he was outlawed and gave their only child another name.

Frank Gardiner's operations in the Goulburn district under the alias 'Clarke' confused reports about the identity of the two gangs. The Clarkes had operated widely throughout the southern highlands to the coast near Moruya wherever rugged mountains gave them refuge. They had organized an extensive harbouring and 'bush telegraph' system, with threats of personal and property damage or a share in the spoils to ensure their immunity from the law. The execution of the Clarkes dispersed the gang and ended organized gang bushranging in New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • C. White, History of Australian Bushranging, vols 1-2 (Syd, 1900)
  • G. E. Boxall, The Story of the Australian Bushrangers (Lond, 1902)
  • A. Crawford, Eighty-Five Years in Australia (Syd, 1925)
  • S. Shumack, Tales and Legends of Canberra Pioneers, J. E. and S. Shumack eds (Canberra, 1967)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1865-66, 1, 807, 1867-68, 1, 683, 807, 2, 115, 271, 1868-69, 1, 671
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1865-67
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 11, 25 Mar, 15 Apr, 31 May 1865, 1866, Jan-June 1867
  • Australasian, 7 Apr, 28 July 1866, 2 Mar, 11 May, 20, 25 June 1867
  • Empire (Sydney), Feb, Mar 1867
  • Colonial Secretary's papers, 1860-69, no 4/679/2 (State Records New South Wales)
  • HO 10/22
  • private information.

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Citation details

Nan Phillips, 'Clarke, Thomas (1840–1867)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clarke-thomas-3226/text4861, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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