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Friday, September 30, 2011

Charles Nicolson, the Sophia and the Pirate Bushrangers [Brian Stevenson]

Most followers of the Kelly saga will know Charles Hope Nicolson, the doughty and humorless Scot who played a large role in the life of Ned Kelly. He had questioned the very young Ned in Ned’s capacity as assistant to that old reprobate, Harry Power, and seems to have formed a favourable early impression of the teenager, possibly even trying to find him work in New South Wales, away from the pernicious influence of his clan. Nicolson was on hand when Harry Power was captured, and in late 1878 was appointed Assistant Commissioner of Victoria Police, with the specific task of capturing the Kelly Gang. It was Nicolson who set up a network of police spies and informers, who, as is well known, provided him with information of varying quality about the past, present and future doings and whereabouts of the Gang. The 1881 Royal Commission considered him at least partly responsible for the length of time that the Kellys remained at large, and recommended that he not return to the force. He became a Police Magistrate in 1882 and died in Melbourne in 1898.

Nicolson joined the force as a cadet in December 1852, and it was in his first year of service that he had an adventure that seems to have been overlooked by Kelly scholars. Indeed, Cadet Nicolson nearly lost his life in an encounter with two extremely unlikeable miscreants, who in their brief criminal careers, were both pirates and bushrangers who committed crimes in two colonies, Van Diemen’s Land and Victoria.

The case of the pirate bushrangers had its commencement on 14 September 1853 when the two miscreants, Henry Bradley (about 22) and Patrick O’Connor (about 30) robbed the farm of Mr Jonathan House near Launceston. House escaped through a window, but O’Connor discharged both barrels of a shotgun at one Mr Phillips, killing him instantly. They then robbed several more homesteads, and the next day they materialized at Circular Head where they boarded the schooner Sophia and forced the nine member crew to sail across Bass Strait to Victoria, landing near Cape Schank on 19 September.

At Mr King’s farm at Brighton they ordered a ploughman to release his horses for their use. He thought they were joking and told them to ‘Come back at dinner time.’ One of them shot him dead. They appeared at Clarke’s station shortly afterwards, in the guise of shepherds asking for work. Mr Clarke refused, and one of them shot at him, putting a hole through his hat. The gardener tried to help Clarke, but was shot in the chest.

They went via Balcombe's station to Brighton, where they bailed up King's farm. During this robbery they ordered the ploughman to release his horses for their use. He treated their youthful demand as a joke, and told them to "Come back at dinner-time." One of them shot him dead on the spot. For this crime the Government offered a reward of £200. Bradley was described as "Harry, 23, 5' 5," fair complexion, brown hair, long and curly; no whiskers; thin face with particularly large nostrils, wearing a Petersham coat, and armed with a rifle and three pocket pistols."

They next appeared as shepherds asking for work at Clarke's station. When their services were refused, one of them fired at Mr. Clarke, the ball passing through his hat. When the gardener ran to Mr. Clarke's assistance he was shot through the chest, and the bushrangers fired six further shots at Clarke, without effect. They went to one of the station huts and kept seven men hostage while they cast more bullets from lead that they had procured, and then moved to Kane’s station, where they tied up eleven men and pillaged the premises.
It was here that the long arm of the law caught up with them in the person of five police under the command of Sergeant Nolan, with several volunteers. Cadet Charles Hope Nicolson, a little short of his 24th birthday, was with the party.

In the witness box in court in Melbourne, Nicolson told how Cadet Thompson, trooper Osler and himself arrived at Cain’s station and found it apparently deserted. But he heard a voice calling out and he went into the homestead and untied the bound men he found there. Nicolson saw O’Connor approaching the house on horseback ‘he seemed a much larger man on horseback’ – and someone said ‘That is the bushranger.’ Thompson and Osler came out and O’Connor said ‘Put down that pistol’ and almost immediately he began firing. Thompson was shot. O’Connor disappeared for ‘a minute or two’ and came back with Bradley, giving Nicolson a chance to reload, he having fired two pistols at O’Connor without effect. When O’Connor reappeared, he said to Bradley ‘Take the gun and shoot the ----‘, and Nicolson again fired his two pistols, again without effect, though he thought he had hit Bradley because he ducked his head. ‘I fired at Bradley, and as he ducked his head I thought I had shot him.’ The two miscreants disappeared. Thompson was badly wounded in the left breast, the ball having come out below his left shoulder.

They caught up with the bushrangers the next morning. Both were on horseback, but Bradley dismounted and got behind a tree. Nicolson continued: ‘I rode at O’Connor: we each fired. O’Connor’s ball whizzed past my cheek, slightly grazing it, and I could not pull my horse around directly. He fired again and I returned his fire. This time his ball went though the neck of my horse. […] O’Connor galloped off and we exchanged shots again. My revolver pistol missed fire. I had now come up with him, and struck him on the head and knocked him off the horse. We had a struggle, and at last I threw him down. He then said he would surrender, and asked me not to shoot a fallen enemy.’

Osler captured the other prisoner, Bradley.

The two wretches were brought to Melbourne for trial. While the image of a pirate-bushranger sounds like it has potential for glamour, the journalist was little impressed with the pair, though he did make some allowances for O’Connor, who was described as ‘a rather stoutly built, fresh-coloured young man of fair complexion, about 25 years of age and about five feet eight inches in height … [his] appearance is rather that of a young man, brutalized by degrading associations, sensual, ignorant, obstinate, passionate and ferocious.’

Bradley, however, was portrayed in a way both devoid of sympathy and commendation: ‘Bradley is one of the most unwholesome, ill-looking ruffians that ever stood at the bar of a criminal court. […] [He] looks like an innate villain, without any redeeming quality; his very appearance denotes the debased, treacherous villain, which his life has realized. He appears to be scarcely five feet in height, and about the same age as his companion in guilt. His phrenological developments denote cunning as his only capacity, and his physiognomy is as unprepossessing as was ever displayed in human form.’
Bradley laughed when some aspect or another of his crimes was described, and was placed in the dock while eating something. He continued to do so – his ‘manner from the moment he entered the dock was disgusting in the extreme.’ The reporter believed he was feigning bravado.

After Nicolson gave his evidence, O’Connor cross-examined him, presumably as to exactly what had happened. O’Connor seems to have been trying to deflect some of the blame from Bradley. Nicolson said, in answer to his question (whatever it was) ‘I am sure you are the man who fired at Thompson. It was about a minute after you fired that Bradley came up.’
O’Connor: ‘I took you for a nice gentlemanly-looking man, but you know you have told what is not true. Perhaps the vengeance of God may fall upon you as well as on me. I won’t ask you anything more.’

Bradley: ‘No, it’s of no use to ask him anything.’

O’Connor kept on trying to defend Bradley. O’Connor ‘I do not deny I shot Thompson. But as regards this man Bradley, I mean to say he was not there when I fired…I do not see how you can bring him in guilty, he had nothing to do with it: the trooper has not told the truth: that is all I’ve got to say.’ Bradley, offered the chance to say something in his own defense, ‘replied impatiently, ‘No, I’ve nothing at all to say.’’

The judge summed up and said to the jury that ‘if Bradley were proved to have been in company with the other prisoner at the time either immediately before or immediately after, and were generally acting in concert with him, no matter whether he were present at the identical moment when the shot was fired, he was equally guilty. It was quite immaterial by whose hand, of the two accomplices, the deed was done.’

After death sentence was pronounced, Bradley ‘said with a grin – ‘Thank you, my lord, I’m very glad for your sentence; I’m very glad indeed.’ He then turned round and laughed again in the most impudent manner, evidently anxious to exhibit the utmost bravado.’

The badly wounded Cadet Thompson was invalided out of the force and died only three years later. His assailers had already paid the penalty. The precious pair went to the gallows on 24 October 1853 and faded into history, although Nicolson, almost totally by virtue of his association with Ned Kelly, did not. In 1908 one of the few surviving police cadets of the period was interviewed by the Argus newspaper, who remembered Charles Hope Nicolson as ‘without doubt, the pluckiest man I knew.’

(Sources: Stefan Williams, Dictionary of Australian bushrangers: Argus 20 June 1908: Courier (Hobart) 4, 27 October 1853: Justin Corfield, The Ned Kelly encyclopedia.)

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