The Upside Down Under
Bold Jack Donahue


Jack Donahue (1804 – 1 September 1830) was a bushranger in Australia between 1825 and 1830. Known as "Bold Jack Donahue", he became part of the notorious "Wild Colonial Boys".

Wild Colonial Boys
"Bold Jack Donahue", became part of the notorious "Wild Colonial Boys".

Jack Donahue, sometimes spelled Donohue or Donohoe, was born in Dublin, Ireland about 1804. An orphan, he began pick-pocketing, and after later involvement in a burglary, was convicted of intent to commit a felony in 1823. He was transported to Australia in 1825. Upon being shown his cell at Carter's barracks, in Sydney, Donahue remarked 'A home for life'.  During his early imprisonment, he was twice sentenced to fifty lashes as punishment.

Carters Barracks
Debtor’s Prison in the Carters’ Barracks precinct. Watercolour by Joseph Fowles. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, PX*D123

During his incarceration he was assigned to John Pagan of Parramatta and then, after a short period in a road-gang, to Major West, a Parramatta surgeon who owned an estate at Quaker’s Hill.

Donahue escaped to the bush from the Quakers Hill farm with two men named Kilroy and Smith. They formed an outlaw gang known as "The Strippers," since they stripped wealthy landowners of their clothing, money and food. Servants on the farms sometimes provided them with information about their masters, and at times even provided them with food and shelter.

On 14 December 1827 Donohue and his gang were arrested for robbing bullock-drays on the Sydney to Windsor Road. On 1 March 1828 Judge John Stephen of the Supreme Court of Sydney sentenced them all to death. Kilroy and Smith were hanged, but Donohoe escaped from custody between the court and the gaol in Sussex Street. During the next two and a half years he became the most celebrated bushranger in Australia, leader of a gang which included at various times, Webber, Walmsley, Underwood and others. They ranged over country from the Bathurst area south to the neighbourhood of Yass, east to the Illawarra, and north through the County of Cumberland to Wollombi on the southern approaches to the Hunter River valley.

Donohoe and Walmsley first committed highway robbery in company in November 1828 when they robbed Mr. James Chilcott who had stopped for water while on the road to Hunter's River.

Their descriptions were posted in the Sydney Gazette.....

One of the Men appeared to be an Englishman, of about 22 or 23 Years of Age ; about five Feet five Inches in height, a dark complexion, with jet black Hair and Eyes; he wore, at the time, a blue Jacket, Velveteen Trowsers, and a black Hat. The other Man is an Irishman ; about 25 Years of Age; about five Feet three inches High; with light complexion, almost sandy hair; small Eyes, and marked with Scrofula on the right Side of the Neck; he was dressed in a Nankeen Jacket and Trowsers, and a black hat.

As they gained more confidence and each became as desperate and ruthless as the other, they terrorised travellers and settlers from Sydney to Liverpool and Campbelltown down to the Illawarra in the south, out to Yass and Bathurst in the west and to the Hunter Valley in the north.

Notorious spot for bushrangers
The site of much bushranger activity. Road over Razorback Range. Earlier called Great South Road. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

They fell in with Mr. Clements at the Bulgar Road in April 1829, whom they fired upon and mortally wounded; it was said that Walmsley committed the deed as Clements had known him when at the Hunter's River, as an absentee working as a sawyer. Realising he was recognised, Walmsley fired the shot.

In the late afternoon of 1 September 1830 a detachment of soldiers and police came up with the gang in the Bringelly scrub near Campbelltown. During the ensuing fight Donohoe urged the police to 'come on', using the most insulting and indecent epithets. He was killed by a ball fired by Trooper Muggleston.

Details of Donohoe's fate were recorded in the Sydney Gazette in September:

"This daring marauder has at length been met by that untimely fate which he so long contrived to avoid. On Wednesday evening, at dusk, as a party of the Mounted Police were riding through the bush at Reiby, near Campbell Town, they came up with three bushrangers, one of whom was Donohoe; on being called upon to stand, they threw away their hats and shoes, and ran off, when the Police fired, and killed Donohoe on the spot, one ball entering his neck and another his forehead. Favoured by the dusk, the others made their escape, and in defiance of the dreadful fate of their comrade, that very night broke into a hut and carried off what they wanted.

The body of Donohoe was removed to Liverpool, and will be brought to Sydney this morning. Thus is the colony rid of one of the most dangerous spirits that ever infested it, and happy would it be were those of a like disposition to take warning by his awful fate."

Newspaper clipping about Bold Jack Donahue

An inquest was performed on the body of John Donohoe by Major Smeathman the coroner at the Fox & Hounds in Castlereagh Street, Sydney and later a Plaster of Paris case was made by Morland.

Death mask of Bold Jack Donahue
Death mask of Bold Jack Donahue

Sir Thomas Mitchell is said to have made the Pencil drawing above while the body of Donohoe lay in the morgue.

Bold Jack Donahue
A pencil drawing of Jack Donahue

Witness encounters with Donahue

Government surveyor Robert Hoddle wrote in his diary about a close encounter with Donahue in New South Wales in the 1820s:

"Another time, near the same place ('the junction of the Bringelly and Cowpasture roads'), the notorious Donahue nearly got me. I had dismounted from my horse to remove some shifting rails, being a short cut through the bush to Prospect Hill, the residence of a friend, Mr. Lawson. I remounted my horse double quick, and most unceremoniously left the rails on the ground, and lost no time to be out of sight. He was accompanied by another bushranger."

Toby Ryan later recalled how he had 'boiled the billy' with Donahue, when as a fifteen-year-old, he was out looking for cattle near Llandilo, New South Wales:

"Donahue was the most insignificant looking creature imaginable, and it seemed strange that such as he was able to keep a country in terror for eight years. He was attired in a velveteen coat and vest, cabbage tree hat, moleskin trousers, and a blue nankeen shirt, with a heart worked on the breast in white cotton".

A product of the times, Donohoe was defiant, brutal and sometimes dangerous. In death his deeds were glamorised and perhaps exaggerated; ordinary folk may have envied his apparent charmed life, and with the help of the press of the day the name John (Jack) Donohoe passed into Australian folk lore.

The ballad 'Bold Jack Donohue'

The exploits of Jack Donohoe and his gang became the stuff of legend and poems and ballads were written telling of daring exploits, lucky escapes, eventual capture and execution. It is said that the ballad ‘The Wild Colonial boy’ which relates the escapades of a fictional hero ‘Jack Doolan’ was based on the life and times of this well-known bushranger.

The ballad of Bold Jack Donohoe, once banned in Sydney taverns, came to represent an enduring popular perception of Australian bushrangers.

One of several versions of 'Bold Jack Donohue' ......

Come all you gallant bushrangers who gallop o'er the plains
Refuse to live in slavery, or wear the convict chains.
Attention pay to what I say, and value if I do
For I will relate the matchless tale of bold Jack Donohue.

Come all you sons of liberty and everyone besides
I'll sing to you a story that will fill you with surprise
Concerning of a bold bushranger, Jack Donohue was his name
And he scorned to humble to the crown, bound down with iron chain.

Now Donohue was taken all for a notorious crime
And sentenced to be hanged upon the gallows tree so high
But when they to him to Bathurst Gaol, he left them in a stew
For when they came to call the roll, they missed Jack Donohue.

Now when Donohue made his escape, to the bush he went straight way.
The squatters they were all afraid to travel by night and by day
And every day in the newspapers, they brought out something new,
Concerning that bold bushranger they called Jack Donohue.

Now one day as he was riding the mountainside alone
Not thinking that the pains of death would overtake him soon.
When all he spied the horse police well on they came up into view
And in double quick time they did advance to take Jack Donohue.

"Oh Donohue, Donohue, throw down your carbine.
Or do you intend to fight us all and will you not resign?"
"Surrender to such cowardly dogs is a thing that I never would do,
For this day I'll fight with all my might", cried Bold Jack Donohue

Now the sergeant and the corporal, their men they did divide
Some fired at him from behind and some from every side.
The sergeant and the corporal, they both fired at him, too.
And a rifle bullet pierced the heart of Bold Jack Donohue.

Now nine rounds he fired and nine men down before that fated ball
Which pierced his heart and made him smart and caused him for to fall
And as he closed his mournful eyes, he bid the world adieu,
Saying "Convicts all, pray for the soul of Bold Jack Donohue."

Archie Fisher sings Bold Jack Donahue


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