June 2017

The Nation Reviewed

True history of the Clarke gang

By Sam Vincent
Illustration
Infamous bushrangers of Braidwood, New South Wales

Luke Clarke couldn’t even make the cut for his school’s drama class, but this weekend he and his brother, Tom, will play the leads in a period piece before 3000 people – less a case of jobs for the boys than keeping it in the family.

“Yeah nah, it’ll be good,” laconic Luke tells me in the southern NSW town of Braidwood, before licking froth from the beard he’s grown for the role. Bushrangers nowadays drink weak flat whites.

It’s 150 years since brothers Thomas Clarke, 26, and John Clarke, 22, were arrested; on Saturday, Tom Clarke, 28, and Luke Clarke, 33, will re-create it. On 27 April 1867, Tom and Luke’s great-great-grandfather, James Clarke, was in jail for possession of stolen banknotes, while in the mountains south of Braidwood his brothers surrendered after a shootout with police. The capture of the Clarkes, who were hanged two months later, brought to an end careers that included more than 100 robberies and the alleged murder of seven people, including five police – two on their knees.

“Braidwood people regarded this as a stain on their town,” says Peter Smith, president of the Braidwood and District Historical Society, and author of a biography on the bushrangers. Smith says that for much of the subsequent 150 years a “code of silence” reigned. In 1967, Smith, then 19, tried to organise a re-creation of the capture to mark its centenary. He was told to take his dress-ups 85 kilometres away to Goulburn.

Luke recalls that while he was growing up “there wasn’t a hell of a lot” said about it. There’s “Kelly Country” in Victoria, and New England’s touristic “Thunderbolts Way”, and Forbes flogs itself as Ben Hall’s hometown, but Smith thinks Braidwood has hidden this history because it happened in a concentrated area. Ned Kelly, Captain Thunderbolt and Hall were free-range bushrangers, whereas the Clarkes operated locally; the families who were terrorised by or harboured the brothers are still in the community. At least one changed its name afterwards.

What do these contemporary Clarkes make of their ancestors?

“It’s hard to put yourself in their shoes,” says Luke. “They had to fight to survive. They were probably opportunists and things came up, and whether they were forced into doin’ it or they decided to do it I’m not real sure.”

“And,” adds Tom, “how much evidence was there that they did all of that?”

The Clarkes were never convicted of murder, but Smith thinks they were guilty of all seven, and calls the killing of four police in January 1867 the “single worst act in bushranging history”. Thomas was outlawed, meaning harbourers risked 15 years in prison and confiscation of goods and property, and the community turned against the brothers.

“It was actually the Clarkes’ cousin Thomas Berry that informed on them,” says Smith. “And it was in his hut that they were captured.”

One hundred and fifty years on, Berry’s stringybark slab hut has been re-created in the centre of Braidwood’s showgrounds, built with chainsaws and electric drills and then adzed on the outside for authenticity. The surrounding poplars have lost almost all their leaves; the sun is low and the crowd squints under Akubras, the odd bonnet and, that staple of the rural Australian showground, the livestock agent baseball cap.

Mounted constabulary in navy tunics appear in the arena, followed by plain-clothes policemen and a tracker. And then the bushrangers arrive, bouncing in their saddles, and dressed in Napoleon boots, breeches, waistcoats and straw boaters rimmed with ribbons. The PA system crackles to life with the familiar voice of Peter Smith: “Two years ago, in 1865, Tommy Clarke escaped from Braidwood jail. It was the beginning of the Clarke Gang …”

The Clarkes tether their horses and disappear inside the hut; the pursuers surround them and then lure the horses into the open, creating a trap to ambush the brothers when they emerge.

Suddenly a drone starts buzzing noisily above the showground. “That part of the show?” a bloke sipping a tinnie asks loudly. It’s soon drowned out by the thunderclap of blank cartridges.

The Berry family, barefoot and wearing white nightgowns, flee the hut and take cover behind a haystack; John is shot in the shoulder in the ambush, and the Clarkes retreat inside and return fire for 20 minutes. The actual siege lasted six hours, but, as Smith announces over the PA, “obviously we’re going to shorten that time today because we don’t want to be here at seven o’clock”.

A plain-clothes policeman and a tracker are wounded. Smith becomes so caught up in historical detail that his commentary falls behind the action. Suddenly it’s all over, the Clarkes emerging with their hands above their heads.

The bushrangers shake hands with the police, which, Smith announces, is historically accurate: “like the end of a sporting event”.

Afterwards the crowd clambers into the arena. Berry’s hut immediately fills, mainly with weekend renovators discussing how they’d like to build their own slab hut if only they could get their hands on a portable sawmill. Smith reminds the actors to “please return the replica firearms to the historical society tent, where they will be on display”.

The executions of Thomas and John Clarke brought to an end the era of organised gang bushranging in New South Wales, and an existential threat to the state’s newly formed police force. At the height of the manhunt, 200 police pursued the Clarkes – a quarter of the force, recently amalgamated from decentralised law enforcement agencies.

Smith says the re-creation is about recognising an important historical event – not glorifying bushrangers. The NSW Police Force was supportive, and publicised the event as a police victory. Its members are in strong attendance in the arena afterwards, chatting to locals and comparing their uniforms to their 1867 equivalents.

But this is Australia. When queues form for photos with the actors, the longest one is for the Clarkes.

Sam Vincent

Sam Vincent is a writer, farmer and the author of Blood and Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars and My Father and Other Animals.

@samcvincent

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