Think South Australian history is low on outlaws? Armin Mayer won’t have a bar of it.
South Australia drew the short straw when it comes to outlaw folklore and the lucrative storytelling of bushranging tales of old. Iconic Ned Kelly cast a shadow over our highwaymen and few are remembered with tourist trinkets, a novel or a movie. We do have reason to be proud though. Our most successful bushrangers were miniature in size but their deeds colossal.
Birdman of the Coorong
The small town of Meningie focuses the spotlight on John Francis Peggotty, who never grew beyond the stature of a seven-year-old. An ostrich rider in South Africa, chimney sliding burglar in London, and jewellery fetishist in his spare time, John was eventually forced to relocate to Australia at the close of the 19th century. There the pint-sized bushranger took to riding the Coorong’s wild ostriches. Now, a statewide search is on to recover his vanquished body (and historical credibility) pierced by the bullets of fisherman Henry Carmichael. A million dollar’s-worth of bling is said to be buried in the sand hills.
One wonders if the Eudunda District will finally elevate the exploits of eleven-year-old Matthias Weis to the iconic status they deserve. Despite his tender age, Matthias took to the bush with a stolen horse and sheep dog. He was able to elude the police and commit a number of minor burglaries, the pinnacle being an audacious robbery of a horse and spring-cart from the main street of Robertstown. Unfortunately, the young bushranger was handed over to the authorities by his stepmother when he attempted to sneak a bit of food from his own home. He then drifted into anonymity.
Norman Wilfred Baker
Fourteen-year-old Norman Wilfred Baker came to a similarly inglorious end but the good people of Willunga would do well to remember his bravado. “I am going to have a short life and a merry one,” he proclaimed as he absconded from his home near Willunga with a pea rifle and a hundred shots of ammunition. His daring hold-up of Mr Frederick DeCaux at the top of Willunga Hill saw police and a tracker on his tail. He eluded both, and after a few further misadventures, was found in his bed at home. Sentenced to the reformatory until he was 18, Norman escaped a few months later. He was almost in Strathalbyn before he was recaptured.
A local Ned Kelly link
It appears SA may be able to secure a slice of the Ned Kelly pie after all, with sources recording Ned’s arrest in Goolwa, March 1880. The fact was reported as far away as NSW (Newcastle Morning Herald) and Tasmania (The Launceston Examiner). Little had been heard of the Kelly gang during this time. Some wondered if they’d made their way along the Murray, aiming to cross over into SA. Had they sought refuge in the wild terrain of the Coorong? Unfortunately, the matter turned out to be an alleged case of mistaken identity by an officer keen to bag the £4000 reward. Or was it? Could closer inspection make Ned Kelly historians cross the border and put him alongside our diminutive bushranging battlers? Come on people, a good myth doesn’t create itself.
Like this? Check out South Australian born film maker Matthew Holmes take on the mystique os Australian bushrangers.