Australia’s Longest Horse Chase: Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr Part II

By Frank Uhr

Although the Native Mounted Police (NMP) were primarily tasked with putting down Aboriginal resistance on the frontier, the Force also did various “normal” police duties. These sometimes included road making, gold escort duty, finding lost or missing persons, and tracking down regular criminals. In the 1897 words of the Commissioner of Police, William Edward Parry-Okeden, these tasks were “protecting life and property, and in honesty carrying out on the very outskirts of civilization the responsible work thrust upon them”. In this post I pick up the story of my great-grandfather, Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr, to reveal an amazing piece of regular policing in early colonial Qld. Australia’s longest horse chase dominated his life during the latter part of 1866 and the first months of 1867.

So, picking up from where we left off last post, D’Arcy had arrived in Burketown in April 1866 and by July 1866 would have settled in to a daily routine. In the final week of that month, a precipitous meeting occurred between two young men in one of the rowdier shanties around Burketown: Matthew Duffy, a 23 year old bushman from NSW (Springsure watch-house charge book QSA A/36336) and George Holt (alias “Boulton”), a 25 year old a horse breaker from Bowen Downs Station (Queensland Police Gazette, 8 September 1866). We don’t know what Duffy looked like, but Holt was described as “six feet high, dark complexion, brown hair, grey or blue eyes; a native of New South Wales; dressed in moleskin trowsers (sic) and Crimean shirt” (Queensland Police Gazette, 8 September 1866).

Both men began a hard-drinking session with the other bushmen around the bar until neither had any money, and could no longer afford to keep drinking. However, being resourceful, and with a good knowledge of horse flesh, Duffy and Holt stole two valuable horses from the paddocks of Alexander Scott Holmes, with the sole aim of selling them for some quick cash so they could then return to the shanty and continue their drinking (Maryborough Chronicle, 27 October 1866; Queensland Police Gazette, 8 September 1866). Unfortunately, they hadn’t bargained on being unable to sell two such well-known and easily identifiable horses in the small community of Burketown. To avoid arrest and community hostility, Duffy and Holt decided it was best to take the horses and sell them either far to the south or at Port Denison on the east coast.

On Sunday July 29, armed with a warrant from Police Magistrate (PM) William Landsborough to arrest at least one of the thieves, D’Arcy and one of the Aboriginal troopers from his NMP detachment —possibly “Sambo”—set out on what was to become the longest horse chase in Australia’s history (Brisbane Courier, 10 May 1870).

For the next six weeks on the track south, these four young men pitted their wits against each other in a deadly game of cat and mouse on the western plains of Qld as they moved south toward the safety of the NSW border, some 1200 km distant. D’Arcy, now a hardened 21-year-old NMP officer and his trooper companion were hard in pursuit, pushing their horses as hard as they dared, knowing that the two horse thieves must be captured before they reached the border.

Duffy and Holt had to make their escape from Burketown quickly with the two valuable Holmes’ horses, so may not have had the time to prepare as well as they would have liked. D’Arcy and his trooper companion, used to long patrols, would have taken the time to prepare, ensuring they had two riding horses each and a pack horse to carry their food, swags, arms, ammunition, oats, and even a supply of horse shoes and nails.

Averaging 24 km a day, alternately trotting and walking their horses, they would have reached a top, but intermittent, speed of up to 5 or 6 km an hour. Each day was the same: freezing nights and mornings, and cool clear days through the western Qld winter, travelling until darkness began to descend and the horses had to be fed and hobbled for the night, waiting for the other party to make a mistake. Both officer and trooper would have remained constantly alert, always suspicious of anything unusual and carefully questioning anyone they met on the long track south.

Finding or keeping their horses fresh would have been uppermost in both parties’ minds as they pushed further south. About 1000 km from Burketown, probably south of the NMP camp on Northampton Downs station near Tambo, this challenge forced D’Arcy to make a decision: “… finding it difficult get a supply of horses for both, I proceeded alone” (Brisbane Courier, 10 May 1870), dispatching Sambo to find his own way home while he continued the chase alone. Duffy and Holt, maybe a day or so ahead, were having similar troubles, but took a different approach to resolving the situation by stealing what they needed, increasing their small stolen mob to ten horses.

As D’Arcy crossed the Barcoo River, west of Blackall, and began to follow the Blackwater Creek system south toward the Bulloo River, he was hard on the heels of his quarry. Carefully questioning anyone he met he eventually realised that the warrant he had for the arrest of George Holt would not stand up in court—it turned out that Holt was really George Boulton using an alias (see p135 of the Fairhall Family Genealogy). On Blackwater Creek, D’Arcy approached the local JP William Lambert, at his station Listowel Downs, and had a new warrant granted in the name of George Boulton.

Approaching the border near Thargomindah Station on the Bulloo River, Matthew Duffy and George Boulton parted company. Boulton pushed east toward the Culgoa River, which crossed the border over 200 km to the south east, while Duffy mixed with the stockmen on Thargomindah and started to negotiate the sale of the horse he had stolen from Alexander Holmes in Burketown. D’Arcy, by now, was only hours behind, asking for information and tracking along the watercourses until he reached the Bulloo and Duffy’s tracks down the river leading to Thargomindah (Maryborough Chronicle, 27 October 1866).

Matthew Duffy had just completed a sale to one of the stockmen there, and was actually demonstrating to him just how quiet the horse in question was, when D’Arcy rode up and arrested him, impounding at least six other horses that Duffy had stolen from stations along the Barcoo River. It was 13 September 1866: 47 days and around 1200 km since D’Arcy had left Burketown.

With the help of another man, and with Duffy chained or handcuffed to the stirrup iron of his horse (Lawrie Kavanagh, The Courier Mail, 29 April 1993), the chase for Boulton began, with information that he was staying at a shanty on the Culgoa. When they arrived nearly a week later, though, George had moved again, this time south, across the colonial border toward the Narran Lake, about 100 km east of Bourke. Now in NSW, D’Arcy needed his warrants “backed for execution” in the new jurisdiction and, as his horses were totally spent, made for the police station in Bourke for help with both.

On 26 September, Duffy was escorted into the police station at Bourke, handed over to Sub-Inspector Zouch and bought before the Police Magistrate on charges of stealing (Maryborough Chronicle, 27 October 1866; Brisbane Courier, 10 May 1870). His Honour referred the matter to the court at Springsure, where witnesses would be available to testify to Duffy’s offences along the Barcoo. The following day, Thursday, D’Arcy secured Duffy to his horse and, with the help of a special constable, began the long trek back to Northampton Downs station.

With rule number 193 uppermost in his mind—“neither by day or by night, must the charge be separate from, or lost sight of, by an escort”— D’Arcy, the special constable and Matthew Duffy rode 600 km north, through Cunnamulla, Charleville, Augathella and onto Northampton Downs and Inspector Aulaire LiddiardMorisset’s NMP camp:

… Uhr would not have got much sleep once he took the prisoner. He would have had him chained to a tree by the ankle at night … by day he probably had his ankle chained or handcuffed to the stirrup iron of his saddle … Uhr would have had the prisoner riding out front and probably told him he’d blow his head off if he tried anything funny … (Lawrie Kavanagh, The Courier-Mail, 29 April 1993).

On 23 October, Duffy was handed over to Morisset, who eventually had him taken to the Watch House in Springsure where he was checked in at 4 pm on 19 November. With just a bridle and a saddle to his name Duffy was prisoner number 111, a literate Catholic, and was remanded to the Albert River court, presided over by PM Landsborough, on charges of horse stealing (Springsure Watch House Charge Book. QSA A/36336. RS 127/1/1).

Coincidently, on the same day Duffy that was remanded Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr arrived back at his post in Burketown. He had ridden some 2600 km and been on the road a total of 83 days, having returned with only one of the men he chased (Duffy). George Boulton got cleanly away, marrying Alice Eggins at Jones Island, near Forster Tuncurry on the NSW coast on 27 December, and living to be an old man, finally dying in 1926 (see p135 of the Fairhall Family Genealogy).

Meanwhile, Duffy was in confinement awaiting transport on a ship bound for Sweers Island where there was no lock-up, the entire island simply being a “prison” some 30 km offshore from Burketown (Deposition of Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr; QSA SCT/CC 18). Here we take a slight detour for a moment – but don’t worry, we’ll get back to his fate soon.

Around this same time, 52 km south of Burketown, at a sly grog shanty on Millar’s Waterhole near the boundary of Floraville and Armraynald Stations, a man named John Williamson shot and attempted to kill a local blacksmith, Charles Molloy (Queensland Police Gazette, 20 May 1867). On 17 December 1866 D’Arcy arrested the Scottish born bushman Williamson, a solidly built 29 year old who had arrived as a free immigrant on the ship City of Sydney, and whose wife still lived in Geelong (Prisoner records, Brisbane Goal, 1867- number 260, July 24, 1867. QSA PR/1/16AA; PRV 5939/1/8). Molloy had been walking about wrapped in blood-soaked mosquito netting nursing a chest wound made by a five-chamber revolver before the doctor arrived at the guest house later in the day. PM Landsborough also arrived and held an enquiry the following day (Deposition by Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr. QSA Depositions & Indictments. SCT/CC 18; PRV 11628/1/142). Williamson was remanded and, like Duffy, was to be held in safe custody on Sweers Island before being sent to Brisbane on a charge of attempted murder (Molloy ended up dying of his wounds late in January 1867).

A cottage on Sweers Island housed both PM Landsborough’s Court House and the office for the new Collector of Customs, George Frederick Sandrock, who had been appointed on 28 December 1866 (Treasury Dept. Registers of inwards correspondence. QSA, TRE/B5;SRS6033/1/5. Letter 1500, 27 November 1866); he was also postmaster, shipping master, meteorological observer, district registrar and unofficial gaoler to anyone being held in “safe custody” awaiting a hearing from PM Landsborough.

Figure 1 A painting of the Customs House on Sweers Island by a visiting Dutch naval artist in 1871 (image courtesy of NLA #5786982).

Early in February 1867 the “Salamander” arrived at Sweers Island with Matthew Duffy following his hearing in Springsure. Duffy joined Williamson in Sandrock’s safe custody on the open prison island of Sweers.

Neither was happy with their internment. Rather than endure their punishment the two teamed up to steal an open boat and escaped on or about 12 February 1867, sailing ~70 km to the coast and up the Albert River to try and hide themselves in the shanties around Burketown. There they would prepare for a final escape, either south following Duffy’s earlier route, or a quicker, faster ride to one of the sea ports along Qld’s east coast.

Their escape was discovered by D’Arcy, who had gone to Sweers to arrange for Duffy’s extradition to Rockhampton to face charges of horse stealing. Not being able to find him, and learning that one of the boats was missing, he went to PM Landsborough’s home and again obtained arrest warrants. Wanting to avoid another long ride, he then paid a man to sail him back to Burketown so he could arrest the two escapees before they had gone too far. Arriving on 24 February, almost two weeks after the pair had escaped from Sweers, D’Arcy spent the next ten days “back-slapping” and drinking (“hail fellow, well met” was his expression; Brisbane Courier, 10 May 1870) his way around the local pubs and bars, asking questions from the tough bush workers to gather any information on the track Williamson and Duffy had taken to escape the district.

Through this process D’Arcy learned that Duffy and Williamson were said to be headed to Port Denison and the growing township of Bowen on Qld’s east coast (Deposition by Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr. QSA Depositions & Indictments. SCT/CC 18; PRV 11628/1/142). From there it was presumed they would attempt to board a ship and, within hours, be out of reach of the Qld police, safely bound for the southern colonies, New Zealand or even California.

Early on the morning of 6 March, D’Arcy quietly saddled his horse before daylight and, without anyone knowing, slipped out of Burketown and headed south down the Leichhardt River and east across to the system of creeks feeding into the Flinders River, and then south again until he started to bear east along the ridge that separates the north and south flowing watersheds. He moved fast for six days and nights, avoiding any contact with the stations and their bush workers along the way; stopping only briefly to take some supplies from a remote hut, all the time aware of the traditional dislike the workers held of any one in power, in particular the police, or the “traps” as they called them.

Duffy and Williamson were less than 200 km from the coast when their escape to freedom came to an end on 12 March. Confronted by D’Arcy in the bush, they were recaptured  “with little trouble”, and returned to Sweers, handcuffed and chained, along the same track they had ridden to escape (Brisbane Courier, 10 May 1870). D’Arcy, still following police rule number 193, performed the feat with no help, returning the two prisoners to to safe custody singlehandedly. In 26 days he had ridden about 1000 km, the return journey with the two men in tow. On 15 April D’Arcy was reimbursed £21 for expenses he had incurred on his journey in pursuit of the escapees (QSA Col BB: M3152 – microfilm Z 4390).

Williamson was ultimately sent to Brisbane for trial and released in the latter part of 1867, presumably to return to Geelong and his wife. A record of Duffy’s hearing has not yet been found, but in 1874, seven years after his Qld adventures, he married Mary Colts in Young, NSW.

D’Arcy eventually resigned from the NMP in March 1869, following a dispute with his superiors over advancement. He would drive the first mob of cattle and horses from Qld to Darwin just a few years later, and then figure prominently in the development of the Palmer River, the Northern Territory, and finally the West Australian goldfields, where he died in 1907. He also (briefly) ran a pub (the Botanic Hotel) in Adelaide, where he was a contemporary of Thomas (Tom) Coward [link to post], one of the superiors he had clashed with in Burketown.

This exploration of D’Arcy’s long horse chases—the first being the longest in Australia’s colonial history—is a fine example of other significant deeds by a member of the NMP, showing very graphically that some of the officers of the Force were also “policemen” who didn’t spend 100% of their time leading dispersal raids against Aboriginal people in the bush.

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