Thomas (1840?-1867) and John Clarke (1846?-1867) were Australian bushrangers from the Braidwood district of New South Wales responsible for a series of high-profile robberies and killings in the late 19th century so notorious that they led to the embedding of the Felons' Apprehension Act (1866), a law that introduced the concept of outlawry and authorised citizens to kill criminals on sight. Active on the southern goldfields from 1865, Thomas, John, their brother James and a host of relations were responsible for a reported 36 hold-ups and the deaths of five policemen - four of them "special constables" bounty hunters - looking to bring them in. In 1866, the gang held the town of Michelago, New South Wales captive while awaiting the arrival a gold escort from Kiandra. Some modern-day writers have described the Clarkes as the "bloodiest" bushrangers of all. They were hanged at Sydney's Darlinghurst jail on 25 June 1867.
The Clarkes' father Jack, a shoemaker transported for seven years aboard the Morley, arrived in the Braidwood district as one of the assigned convicts brought in by Major Elrington in 1827. He married Mary Connell and took up a leasehold in the Jingeras, which proved too small to support his family of five children. He took to selling sly-grog, initiated his sons Tom and John into cattle duffing, and raised them to believe in his view of the fair and equitable distribution of property. They constantly raided crops and livestock, aided by their uncles Pat and Tom Connell. Their gang, the Jerrabat Gully Rakers, were regarded as scientists in the art of cattle duffing and horse stealing. The Clarke gang of relatives and friends was well trained in bushcraft and heavily armed.
They plundered publicans, storekeepers, farmers and travelers. They ambushed gold shipments from Nerrigundah and Araluen and the coaches that traveled from Sydney and the Illawarra. Till November 1866 they marauded virtually unchecked in a triangle through the Jingeras from Braidwood to Bega, and up the coast to Moruya and Nelligen.
On 9 January 1867, a party of special constables named John Carroll, Patrick Kennagh, Eneas McDonnell and John Phegan were ambushed and shot dead near Jinden Station. They had been tied to at tree and then shot. Tom Clarke then pinned a blood soaked pound note to the leader to warn others of the dangers of crossing them.
Their run of luck ended with the conviction at Darlinghurst on 15 February 1867 of Tom Connell for the robbery and assault of John Emmott, when he stole 25 ounces of gold dust, two one-pound notes, some silver coins and a gold watch . The many other exploits of the "Blacksmith", including the death of Constable Miles O'Grady were ignored, but his death sentence was on appeal remitted to life imprisonment. In February 1867 Long Jim "Jemmy the Warrigal", a second member of the gang, fractured his skull in an accident and died.
In late March 1867 the drought broke with floods which swept away steam engines, huts and mountains of earth. The remains of Billy Scott believed to have been murdered by his own gang, were found on 9 April, thus reducing the gang to two men, Tom and John Clarke. During April a police patrol led by Senior Constable Wright and an Aboriginal Tracker Sir Watkin Wynne (later Sergeant Major Sir Watkin Wynne), followed information to Jinden Creek, and reached Berry's hut on Friday 26 April. After a shoot-out on the Saturday morning, Senior Constable Walsh called for their surrender. (The surrender scene became the centerpiece of the Sydney Waxworks, with Tom shown with hand outstretched to meet Wright). The reward for Tom Clarke had by then been raised to 1,000 pounds and that for John to 500 pounds.
The brothers were arraigned in Braidwood and then taken by coach to the port of Nelligen, where they were shackled to the prison tree. From there they were conveyed to Sydney. On 13 May they appeared in court for their committal hearing, on wounding Wayne, prior to their capture by Wright, Walsh, Egan and Lenehan. The £1500 reward was distributed as follows: Wright £300; Walsh £130; Wyne £120; constables Lenehan, Wright and Egan £110 each; sergeant Byrne £30; constables Ford, O'Loughlin, Armstrong, Brown and Woodlands £15 each; and £7 10s each to trackers Emmott and Thomas. £500 went to a civilian informer (the highest reward offered until the £2000 for Ned Kelly).
Trial and execution
The Clarkes' trial on 28 May 1867 lasted just a day. Chief Justice of New South Wales Sir Alfred Stephen was known to be especially concerned about bushranging, in particular Frank Gardiner, and had most to do with the drafting of the "Felons' Apprehension Act".
It was stated in evidence that "when Thomas Clarke fired, John Clarke fired immediately afterwards ... with the intent to kill and wound the constables...".
The jury took 67 minutes to find both brothers guilty. Before passing sentence, Stephens pointed out that the Clarkes were to be hanged, not as retribution, but because their deaths were necessary for the peace, good order, safety and welfare of society. Their fate was to serve as a warning to others. Stephens then pointed out the list of their offences over the previous two years. Thomas: exclusive of the seven murders of which he was suspected, including that of Constable O'Grady, 9 robberies of mails, 36 robberies of individuals including Chinamen, labourers, publicans, storekeepers, tradesmen and settlers, John's offences in one year numbered 26 and his possible implication in the unexplained murder of the four specials. On 13 March 1865, the Araluen Gold Escort was attacked by the gang on the Majors Creek Mountain Road, and four troopers were shot dead. Two of the remaining troopers held off the attack and the gold was delivered to the Bank of New South Wales at Braidwood.
Following the death sentences, an appeal was made on a point of law. Because of the small number of Supreme Court Justices, the court of appeal was made up of Sir Alfred Stephen the Chief Justice, and Justices John Hargrave and Alfred Cheeke. The rejection of a new trial by two to one led many to believe that the conviction of the Clarkes was not altogether satisfactory. A memorandum was sent to the Governor, Sir John Young and the Executive Council. In the end, neither the Governor nor the ministry decided to interfere with the sentence imposed on either of the Clarkes. They were visited by their two sisters, their brother Jack (brought in from Cockatoo Island Prison), and their uncle Mick Connell (in gaol in Sydney awaiting his trial as one of their harbourers under the "Felon's Apprehension Act" for supplying food, gin and ammunition to the bushrangers in October 1866 as evidenced by his brother's 20-year-old pregnant lover, Lucy Hurley).
Tom Clarke, 26, and his brother John, 24, were hanged from twin gallows at Darlinghurst Jail on 25 June 1867, ending a reign of terror on the south coast of New South Wales which had cost the lives of at least eight men who were mainly police trying to capture the brothers. The Clarkes and other bushrangers may have had some influence in Parkes's campaign for educational reforms. In his electioneering speeches of 1867 he spoke of the Clarkes and the necessity of schools in the outback as a way of putting down bushranging. "The Clarkes and other executed bushrangers were in large measure the victims of circumstances. The eyes of the children of the bush opened upon wild, savage scenery. They grew up creatures of a warm, passionate nature, without knowledge and respect for the law of the land and without any bonds to bind them to the rest of society. We want the means of instructing the young so they shall form an honest and intelligent generation when we shall have passed away". Subsequently an attempt was made in the Braidwood district to improve the opportunities for education.
- Fitzgerald, A. 1977. Historic Canberra 1825-1945, a pictorial record. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra ISBN 0-642-02688-2
- The Clarke Brothers at About NSW
- Phillips, Nan. "Clarke, John (1846-1867)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 9 July 2011.