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Noble, Jack (c. 1855–1935)

by Galiina Ellwood

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Wannamutta (c. 1855–1935), native police trooper, better known as Jack Noble, was born on Sandy Cape, K’gari (Fraser Island), son of Budjula (Butchulla) parents Jacko Morris and Carie Martin. He was taken from his family at the age of fourteen by Constable Thomas King and put to work as a trooper with the Queensland Native Mounted Police, a paramilitary force used against Aboriginal resistance on the colonial frontier between 1849 and the early 1900s. At this time he went by the name Jack or Jack Moran/Morran.

Kidnapping and coercion were common methods of recruitment for the Native Mounted Police, which exploited the hostility of Aboriginal people to clans remote from them. Jack’s first posting was in the Rockhampton area where he trained under King and took part in massacres. Although the documentary evidence is fragmentary, contemporary inquiries and family histories reveal that the discipline of troopers by their white officers was very harsh, including whippings, branding, and summary execution. Desertion meant a death sentence: the deserter’s brother troopers would be ordered to track him down and kill him on sight.

Following the discovery of gold at Palmer River in 1872, a detachment of Native Mounted Police, including Jack, was sent north to the newly established town of Cooktown. They disembarked the SS Leichhardt on 23 October 1873. After resting for a few days, they set out for the Gugu Yalanji (Kuku Yalanji) ancestral lands on 28 October, accompanied by a large group of miners in search of gold. On the morning of 5 November, at a lagoon on the Normanby River, between eighty and 150 Kuku-Warra were massacred by the miners and the Native Mounted Police. The site of the massacre became known as Battle Camp.

By 1875 Jack’s detachment had been relocated to the native police camp and barracks at Boralga on the Laura River, under the command of Sub-Inspector Stanhope O’Connor. At the request of the Victorian police, in February 1879 Jack and five other troopers—Hero, Johnny, Jimmy, Barney, and Sambo—joined the hunt for the bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang in Victoria. The Victorian authorities were having no luck tracking the outlaws and so called on the well-known expertise of the Queensland trackers. Normally the troopers had to pay for their rations out of their £3 a month pay, but in Victoria they received that money clear. The young men were experienced trackers and excellent horsemen. It was later reported that ‘of all those who pressed close upon their heels’ the Kelly gang ‘most feared O’Connor’s trackers,’ calling them ‘little black devils’ (Morning Bulletin 1929, 10).

Unable to find the Kelly gang, the Queensland troopers were about to leave Victoria when Aaron Sherritt was shot by a member of the gang on 27 June 1880. Immediately, the troopers were recalled to track the gang from Sherritt’s house. Sent from Melbourne to Beechworth to set up temporary quarters, they were on the train that the Kelly gang attempted to derail and were present at the battle between the gang and the police on 29 June at Glenrowan that resulted in Ned Kelly’s capture. After the battle, they were sent home via Sydney. Jack and Barney were promised a share of the reward for capturing Ned Kelly—£50 each—but they never received it. In 1994 their descendants petitioned for the modern value of the reward money. Taking into account inflation and interest, they claimed $42 million, but the case was unsuccessful. After seven years of hearings, the court determined that the money had already been paid to the Queensland government on their behalf.

It was during his time in Victoria that Jack took the surname Noble (or Nobel), given to him for his noble efforts at tracking. His movements upon his return to Queensland are unknown; however, by 1889 he was stationed at Turn Off Lagoon (Corinda) Police Station near Burketown. Joe Flick, a young stockman of German and Aboriginal parentage, had been arrested in 1888 for attempted murder but had escaped from the Normanton gaol. Recaptured in the Northern Territory and extradited to Queensland, Flick had once again escaped from the Normanton lock-up. Constable Wavell and Jack tracked Flick to Frank Hann’s Lawn Hill station where, following a gun battle, Wavell and an Aboriginal stockman were killed. Jack left the Native Mounted Police after this incident and returned to K’gari.

While living at Bogimbah mission on K’gari in the early 1900s, Jack met and married Alberta Clift, a Quandamooka (Jandai) woman from Stradbroke Island. He customarily adopted her young son, George, who took the surname Noble. During this period Jack was also known as Nobel Morran. In early 1902 Jack and Alberta were sent from Bogimbah to Great Keppel Island, but they were not there for long. After Alberta argued with the superintendent over blanket distribution, they were removed to Rockhampton where they found work at a hotel at Emu Park. According to Alberta, ‘the Work was [too] hard … to do for no Wages only Tucker and Tobacco’ (QSA ITM336994). Wishing to return to George who had remained at Bogimbah, the couple accepted money from George’s father to pay for their travel. Once back on K’gari, they took George, who was ill at the time, and Jack’s father, to a healthier area at Sandy Cape.

Jack and Alberta, like many other Aboriginal people, found themselves being governed by a repressive and controlling government system that used removals as a form of punishment. Despite Jack’s request to be allowed to remain at Sandy Cape, on 3 October 1902 he and Alberta were removed to Yarrabah mission near Cairns; George had already been taken there. Yarrabah was run by Ernest Gribble, a paternalistic and authoritarian missionary who enforced strict rules, including segregating the sexes and confining children in dormitories. After Alberta had a verbal disagreement with Gribble’s wife, Emilie, she and Jack left for Cairns, where he found work. However, Gribble refused to allow George to join them, so the couple voluntarily returned to Yarrabah in 1903.

Bogimbah mission was closed in 1904 and its residents forcibly transferred to Yarrabah. The following year Jack and Alberta were back at Cairns, sheltering absconders from Yarrabah and encouraging others, especially their K’gari kin, to leave the mission. When Gribble learned what Jack and Alberta were doing, he complained: ‘Can nothing be done to remove this man and his wife from the locality?’ (QSA ITM336758). In April 1906 Jack and Alberta were moved to Myora Aboriginal Reserve, Stradbroke Island, Alberta’s ancestral Country, but George remained at Yarrabah. Alberta wrote to the authorities asking for her son to be brought to her, as she was ‘very sick,’ and ‘crying and fretting after my little boy made my sickness worse’ (QSA ITM336795). George was instructed to write to his mother, but they were not allowed to be reunited.

In 1926 Jack was removed from the town of Urangan near Hervey Bay to Barambah (later Cherbourg) Aboriginal Settlement and, in 1928, from K’gari back to Barambah. He was living at Pialba when he died on 15 January 1935, predeceased by Alberta and survived by George. Several newspapers recorded his passing, noting in particular his role in the capture of Ned Kelly. For many decades after his death, this was how Jack was remembered in family tradition—as a policeman who hunted Ned Kelly, not as a member of a paramilitary force that hunted and massacred Queensland Aboriginal people. Yet this fuller story is also part of his legacy. Having been taken from his family and trained to kill in an unacknowledged frontier war, Jack’s choices in life were limited. Through his adoption of George and sheltering of absconders from Yarrabah, he showed that he was more than a killer; he was also a generous and caring individual.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Burke, Heather, Bryce Barker, Noelene Cole, Lynley A. Wallis, Elizabeth Hatte, Iain Davidson, and Kelsey Lowe. ‘The Queensland Native Police and Strategies of Recruitment on the Queensland Frontier, 1849–1901.’ Journal of Australian Studies 42, no. 3 (2018): 297–313
  • Family knowledge of IADB subject
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton). ‘The Black Tracker.’ 27 December 1929, 10
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton). ‘Old Tracker’s Death.’ 18 January 1935, 12
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Tracking Down a Just Reward.’ 30 March 2000, n.p
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM336758
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM336795
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM336304
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM336994

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Galiina Ellwood, 'Noble, Jack (c. 1855–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/noble-jack-31647/text39124, published online 2022, accessed online 20 August 2022.

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