The Stagg Farm Incident: Murder, Home Invasion, and Kidnapping in Colonial Tasmania

Part VIII of An Australian Emigrant Family

Peter Blackwell, Ph.D. Brown University '88 (Rhode Island) and Mark Blackwell, B.Com. B.D. (Euroa, Victoria, Australia) [[email protected]]

Jonathan House was the son of John Stagg House, J.P. of Stag Farm. In 1850, Justice House sentenced a man named Bradley to three months imprisonment for petty theft. Bradley was an ex-inmate of the Port Arthur Penal Establishment and had been an assigned servant of the Van Dieman's Land Company and upon release had vowed to get even with all who had wronged him. Upon his release from prison he struck up an acquaintance with a convict cook in military barracks, named O'Connor, who desperately wanted to get to the mainland and join the gold rush.

With the help of Bradley, O'Connor escaped and got a change of clothes. O'Connor agreed to join Bradley in going to Stagg Farm to settle accounts with John House and get some money to go to Victoria. Along the way they came to the hut of a ticket-of-leave convict , One-Eyed Smith, who agreed to show them the way to Stagg Farm, after being threatened at gun point.

Jonathan House was lighting the kitchen fire at dawn when he saw the two men approaching trying to conceal their muskets behind the unfortunate Smith. He recognized Bradley as a man he had overheard threatening to shoot his father. He woke his father but before they could find a gun and some clothes, Bradley and O'Connor entered the house. House Sr., clad in a night gown and cap, escaped through a window and ran towards some nearby scrub. O'Connor saw him running and fired his musket superficially wounding him in the thigh. House made it to his nearest neighbor, where he borrowed some clothes and a horse and rode to Stanley to seek assistance.

The villains, meanwhile, had assembled the family and hired hands in the kitchen, threatening them on the belief that substantial amounts of money were hidden in the house. Among them were House's eldest daughter, Ellen, and her fiance, a young carriage painter named Phillips (a Thomas Phillips was also at the inquest but evidence has not been found to identify him as the same Phillips in this incident). When Bradley refused to shoot them, O'Connor pointed his gun towards Phillip's head. As he was pulling the trigger, Ellen dashed forward and took the full charge in her body and fell to floor gravely wounded. She eventually recovered but was in poor health for the rest of her life. The outlaws quickly withdrew taking Smith with them.

In response to the alarm that House raised, a small military attachment and some special constables were mustered and began to trail the two gunmen. O'Connor was still hopeful of stealing sufficient money to make a fresh start in Victoria when he remembered that the mailman, Paddy, the Tinker, would be carrying �2,000 in his bag to Stanley for the VDL Company to pay for purchases. The mail was carried on foot as the track was too poor even for pack horses. They made camp and waited and soon after 10 p.m. the diminutive mail carrier came into sight. He saw the men by the campfire beckoning him to join them for a cup of tea and cautiously approached to within a few yards when he saw the muskets in the firelight. He ran with O'Connor following shouting threats of murder. He fired hitting Paddy in the left arm. Faint from loss of blood, Paddy scrambled onto the foreshore, throwing the mailbag into a crevice in the rocks. O'Connor gave up the chase and did not see that the bag had been tossed aside.

Early the next morning, Paddy staggered into the military camp with the news of the assault and information that the bandits were heading to Table Cape.

At 11 a.m. the outlaws arrived at Alexandria, hid their belongings in a stable, and calmly walked into Matthias Alexander's Wynyard Arms and had a few drinks with Robert Wigmore. who did not know that they were outlaws or Smith was a hostage. Inquiring about passage to Victoria they were told to go down to the landing stage where Captain Jones was loading his schooner Dove heading to Port Albert on the Gippsland coast of Victoria. Not realizing the danger, Jones agreed to give them passage and they wandered back to the inn where they had their first good meal in two days. Suddenly one of the local residents came to the door and shouted to Alexander that the police were coming. Bradley and O'Connor scrambled to their feet and rushed out the back door to the stable to get their guns. In the process, O'Connor knocked Robert Wigmore's small daughter off her chair spilling her cup of tea. He apologized and gave her 2s.

Exchanging gunfire with the pursuers, the outlaws made their way through the scrub to the small jetty, while One-Eyed Smith finished his meal in the company of Wigmore, glad to be rid of his captors. Jumping on board the villains ordered Jones to set sail, Bradley aiming his musket at the captain and O'Connor, crouching under the taffrail covering the crew.

About three miles out into Bass Strait, Captain Jones unsuccessfully tried to catch Bradley off guard, only to have his finger blown off as punishment and a warning. Twenty four hours later they arrived on the South Gippsland coast and the outlaws put ashore and headed for Melbourne. Along the way they murdered a young ploughman and were caught by a detachment of troopers at Caulfield after a fierce gun battle. They were tried for murder and armed robbery in Melbourne and hanged at Pentridge Stockade.

Captain Jones returned to a hero's welcome by the settlers and continued to sail the Dove until his retirement in the mid 1860s.

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