Bill Jenkins alias John King in 1861 was sentenced to two years hard labour for cattle stealing. In 1866 he got six months for stealing a cash box. He was a newly released and known criminal when on the 7th of January 1867, the Cobb & Co coach between Ipswich and Brisbane in Queensland was stuck up in the bush near Oxley Creek. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.
Both the mail and the passengers were robbed by a man wielding a double-barrelled pistol on horseback. But no one could identify the bushranger because his face was covered by a handkerchief.
However, one of the passengers was the Ipswich alderman and soon to be mayor of Ipswich, Harry Hooper. Hooper later recognised the horse that was used in the robbery.
It was owned by the former mayor of Ipswich John Johnston and it was in the yard of his general store in Nicholas Street. Johnston said that the horse had gone missing about the time of the robbery and was brought back by his son.
Hooper reported the horse to police. Neither the former Ipswich mayor John Johnston nor his son it seems were ever under suspicion, because a witness was found who would swear that he had seen Jenkins riding the horse in Ipswich on the night of the robbery.
Jenkins was nowhere to be seen and a reward of £100 was offered.
The horse was the only evidence linking Jenkins to the crime. In a huge stroke of luck for the fugitive, the animal was stolen from the Ipswich police yard on East Street and disappeared.
But what had happened was that the colonial chief of police in Brisbane knew that the case against Jenkins was highly circumstantial, and so assigned to a young constable Michael Burke the dangerous job of stealing the horse, and so hoping to flush Jenkins out of hiding.
It seems that the Ipswich police couldn’t be trusted because they weren’t in on the rouse, and so could easily have shot Burke during the night-time raid. Constable Burke is pictured at the very top, second from left, second from back row.
The plan did work, sort of, because after one-and-a-half years Jenkins did reappear in Ipswich, and he was promptly arrested. The missing horse that the constable had stolen reappeared for the trial.
Jenkins defended himself.
Prosecuting was Queensland’s number one law officer, the attorney general himself, Ratcliffe Pring. The colonial government was keen to get their man and shut down the burgeoning bush ranging industry. The bushranger Frank Gardiner had only recently passed through the district, Captain Thunderbolt was destined to be arrested and released from Ipswich just a couple of years later, and Ned Kelly’s bush ranging career down south was still years away.
Harry Hooper identified the horse. The double-barrelled pistol was linked to Jenkins by a dubious witness Peter Hallam who himself had been convicted of a number of offences over the years including cattle stealing and escaping from police. Even Hallam’s wife Fanny had been convicted of assaulting police and aiding her husband to escape.
The jury retired and after less than five minutes returned to say that Jenkins was guilty. He was then sentenced to eighteen years imprisonment.
After Jenkins had served half of his sentence, the star witness Harry Hooper must have felt some regret, because he got up a petition and Jenkins was released. Jenkins went on to enjoy a successful and legitimate business career.
But the story doesn’t end there.
In 1917, after many of the key players had passed away and the house of the late Harry Hooper was being demolished, a letter from Jenkins was discovered amongst old papers.
The letter referred to an amount of money to cover Hooper’s loss in the 1867 robbery, and that the writer held the deepest gratitude for the help that he received when most in need.
The letter was not a confession but a sincere thanks.
So maybe Bill Jenkins wasn’t guilty after all. Maybe the Ipswich mayor Harry Hooper felt regret for having convicted him so circumstantially. And perhaps the Ipswich mayor John Johnston who owned the horse might have known more than he let on.
We’ll never know, but official records show that William Jenkins was Ipswich’s own bushranger, and another of the many forerunners to the more famous Captain Thunderbolt and even Ned Kelly.
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Michael Burke 1888 – Queensland Police Museum
Harry Hooper Mayor 1869 – Ipswich City Council
John Johnston Mayor 1862 – Ipswich City Council
Ratcliffe Pring – State Library of Queensland