maintaining and implementing criminal and civil legal processes
A Gringai man named Charley informed the Rev Therkeld as they travelled to Dungog, where Charley was to be hanged for the killing of Fred Simmons, that he had been instructed to kill this shepherd and others by members of his tribe.1 Charley, it seems, was upholding the laws of his culture and in doing so came in direct conflict with the new order and its laws that now dominated the valleys of what had been the lands of the Gringai.
This new order of the European settlers provided Dungog and Paterson with courthouses from which magistrates administered the law as it related to convicts, free settlers and land grantees. They also, on occasion, attempted to fit the Gringai people within this system with limited success. This was a legal system designed to ensure that a labour force was kept labouring and in which a lost sheep could result in a flogging and a master could be criticised for being too easy on his convict charges.2 Masters could also recommend tickets-of-leave and whether or not free passage for a convicts wife and children should be granted; though in 1827 Governor Darling removed this privilege as many masters refused to do so in order to retain good workers.3 Local landowners often acted as magistrates, with the proviso that they could not sentence their own convicts.
Charles Boydell on the Allyn River criticised a proposed new law that would limit punishments, as this would allow a servant to sin ‘to the utmost limit of his tether’.4 Perhaps some did so. Convicts could also resist this control over their lives by setting fire to the barns and crops of masters they considered too harsh or unfair, though simple absconding was the most common form of rebellion, with one third of Tocal’s convicts on the Paterson River having done so at one time or another.5 Such absconders might live in the bush, become bushrangers, or pose as free men in a town, a practice made easier by many employers desperate for workers and often former convicts themselves. The Habouring Act, 1825 and Bushranging Act, 1830 were introduced to reduce this problem.6
Dungog received its own courthouse with lockup soon after the Court of Petty Sessions was established in 1833, and a barracks for mounted troopers in 1838 in order to control the many bushrangers that were escaping from the Australian Agricultural Company (AAC) lands to the east and making their way via Dungog to the Hunter Valley settlements. In 1836, John M’Gibbons was appointed to be ‘the Watch-house Keeper, and Thomas Brown, holding a Ticket-of-Leave, to be Constable’ at Dungog.7 Tenders were then called in 1837 for the erection of a Mounted Police Barracks and the Police Magistrate transferred from Port Stephens to Dungog.8 The first courthouse and lockup was on land now occupied by Dungog Public School and St Andrews Presbyterian Church. The barracks were placed on another hill dominating the town which, after the withdrawal of the troopers, was converted into a new courthouse that continues to operate today.
The completion of these barracks and their subsequent occupation by troopers was felt to be a great improvement in the service, which seemed to consist of mostly escorting absconding convict workers to court. A service that the billeted and part-time police had done very inefficiently according to one writer, due to their preoccupation with other duties and tendency to do their escort duties at night, when absconders were prone to escape.9
That the threat from bushrangers could be quite significant is well illustrated by this report at the end of the 1830s of a gang on the Williams River:
The noted bushranger, Opossum Jack, with a band of ten armed and mounted marauders are on the Williams’, and have plundered the residence of Mr. Chapman, of the Grange, near Dungog … After possessing themselves of plate and other valuables, they left Wallaroba, threatening that if any alarm was given, they would return on a future day and make it worse for them. On leaving the Grange, they exultingly exclaimed that they would visit Mr. Cook, the magistrate, and serve out the settlers. On being apprised that mounted bushrangers were in the district, the police magistrate sent an express to Maitland, a distance of forty miles, for the mounted police, and to the credit of these efficient men, they were, in the space of nine hours, roaming the banks of the river … The landed proprietors on the Williams’ are in a state of the utmost alarm, and have a right to demand aid, that the cause may be removed.10
Law and order issues in the 1830s and 1840s on the Williams River included dealing with the administration of the convict and the ticket-of-leave system, taking depositions, appointing and dismissing constables, sentencing cattle thieves, investigating ‘Sly Grog’ sellers and forgers, apportioning rewards to informers, and making appeals for troopers in the event of bushranger attacks. This was criminal law – civil law involved disputes between landowners, and investigating breaches of publicans’ licenses.11 Levying fines and collecting fees were naturally part of this system, and in 1837 a total of £63/2/8 was collected in fines and £22/10/0 in fees for the October quarter at Dungog.12
General policing was handled by constables appointed by the Magistrates and for many years this was an ex-convict named Patrick Conway who Magistrate Cook reported gave ‘good service in taking bushrangers and putting down sly grog shops’. Cook felt that his 1s per day pay should be increased.13 The job of these enforcers of the law was not a popular one and in 1847 it was reported that:
A mare belonging to the Chief Constable of Dungog, having on the 19th instant been maliciously stabbed by some person unknown; the Government have offered a reward of £10 for such information as may lead to their apprehension and conviction of the guilty parties or a conditional pardon of the person giving such information, should he be a prisoner of the crown.14
From his appointment in 1834, Thomas Cook had been a paid Police Magistrate, as was the Magistrate at Paterson, though his fellow magistrates at Dungog acted voluntarily in that capacity. However in 1845, a government policy of gradual reduction in paid Police Magistrates and their replacement with unpaid local landowners acting as Justice’s of the Peace, led to Cook too became an unpaid magistrate, despite local protests at this measure.16
This cost saving measure was still drawing complaints several years later when Christopher Lean wrote in the 1860s about the inefficiency of appointing unpaid magistrates.
Any hypocritical, sympathetic old rascal that appears before the Bench, either as a plaintiff or defendant that will bless your Honour’s Worship will at once be proclaimed a “good old man” and may safely calculate upon having a verdict in defiance of evidence of Acts of Council.17
While Dungog was always well provided with police and court, Clarence Town was not and in 1856, for example, was without a lockup.19 A courthouse was finally built at Clarence Town in 1869 and a Police Station established in 1875 (rebuilt 1912). Gresford, on the Allyn River, provides an example of the difficulties of dealing with crime in an isolated but self-reliant community:
On Monday night last, Mr. Woodhill, licensed hawker, was staying at the Gresford Inn. During the evening he found a quantity of his goods had been stolen from his dray. On search being made by Mr. Woodall and the inmates of the inn, the goods were found, and a man by the name of “Lanky Ned” was taken in charge for stealing them. Lanky Ned was handcuffed, and shut up for the night in the inn, there being no police stationed at Gresford; however, in the morning Ned had made his escape; but the police stationed at Paterson were early made acquainted with the affair, and at once started for Gresford, and again apprehended Lanky, who was the same evening duly lodged in the gaol at Paterson, and will be brought before the bench to-day.20
For a short time a District Court sat at Dungog, but over time the courts at Clarence Town and nearby have closed. That at Dungog remains an operating court and as such can claim to be the oldest such courthouse outside Sydney.
Magistrates’ Letterbooks, 1834 to 1851
Various court houses and police cells
Site of hanging (Dungog)