FORGET the Kelly gang - Australia’s worst and most troublesome bushrangers carried out a reign of terror, striking fear into the hearts of many, in an area between the NSW South Coast and Braidwood between 1865 and 1867.
The Clarke Gang conducted an 18-month rampage of the southern goldfields, killing a police officer and holding up dozens of coaches, stores and villages.
They were also suspected of killing four special constables who were in pursuit of them, but they proclaimed their innocence about this right up until the time of their execution.
During the crime spree, they were responsible for a reported 36 hold-ups.
The gang consisted of John and Tom Clarke and their uncles, John, Tom and Pat Connell, as well as other relatives and desperate characters who joined the gang intermittently.
They were brutal outlaws who terrified settlers in the Braidwood district.
On January 10, 1867 the bodies of four special constables who had been sent from Sydney charged with tracking down the Clarkes were found murdered.
Pinned to the shirt of the party leader was a bloodied one pound note.
It was believed this was to serve as a warning to others of the danger of crossing the bushrangers.
The Clarke brothers were eventually captured at Berry’s Hut, Jinden Creek (near Braidwood) on April 27, 1867 and hanged at Darlinghurst Jail on June 25, 1867.
But according to Araluen author Peter.C.Smith, the Clarke Gang does not share the same level of notoriety as the Kelly Gang because their spree occurred 10 years before the Kellys at a time when many people in the colony of NSW had had enough of bushrangers.
He also postulates that the further development of communications systems aided the Kellys to becoming more well-known than the Clarkes.
‘The Clarke Gang: Outlawed, Outcast and Forgotten’ is a detailed account of the bushrangers by Mr Smith.
It is a huge tome (at 664 pages) but it is also a very entertaining book, with lots of detailed maps and well-reproduced historical photographs.
Apart from a very detailed history of all of the exploits of the Clarke Gang, the book also gives a good overview of the outbreak of bushranging in NSW and a brief summary of the exploits of other bushrangers such as Ben Hall and Frank Gardiner. But the Clarke gang is not just another bushranging story.
“The book explains how the bushranging outbreak occurred by going back to the days of convict transportation, the pattern of settlement with land grants and assigned convict labour and attitudes where many bushrangers enjoyed hero status to some,” Mr Smith said.
“It also puts the Clarkes into perspective in relation to other bushrangers.
They were arguably the worst and most troublesome of all time.”
Mr Smith admits to being obsessed with bushrangers.
“I have been fascinated by bushrangers since my school days.
I have always loved the bush and turned my interest to research when I found that most books written on bushrangers were as much fiction as fact.
My first bushranging book, ‘Tracking Down the Bushrangers’ was published in 1982,” Mr Smith said.
He feels that history has almost forgotten the Clarkes, and this is why he was passionate about writing the book.
“By the time the Clarkes were captured in 1867, the public were sick of bushrangers, gone were the days when bushrangers were regarded as heroes by a section of the community.
Ned Kelly came later, when the public were ready to renew their fascination with bushrangers.
Technology had moved on too, especially in Victoria.
A rail network existed by then too, the telegraph system extended to most country towns, and even connected Australia to England. Newspapers had become more sophisticated and the public were eager to follow the exploits of the bushrangers.
“The good people of Braidwood were also ashamed of the bushranging outbreak that saw the worst event in post gold rush bushranging history - the murder of the four special police.
Even the monument erected in their memory was not put in a prominent place, only in the cemetery, unlike the monument to police shot by the Kellys near Mansfield in Victoria - where a grand monument stands in the main street.”
The book was launched on May 23 at the Braidwood Services Club, which was overflowing with over 300 people in attendance.
“The full story of the Clarke Gang is now available for the first time,” Mr Smith said.
“Many descendants of the bushrangers, the victims and the big landowners still live in the district.
Most people do not feel that they are judged by what their ancestors did and in fact many are proud to have such fascinating forebears.”
Mr Smith said apart from this book, he continues to work on the history of the network of historic bridle tracks in the southeast.
“Many of these predate white settlement and were used by pioneer settlers to open up the country before there were dray roads.
There are so many fascinating stories,” he said.