These characters didn’t let their disability stand between them and history. Here are four remarkable tales from colonial Australia of resilience, the law, and wooden legs. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.
In 1847, the one-legged convict Thomas Keane appeared in the Ipswich court in Queensland charged by the local squatter James Canning Pearce of refusing to go back to work.
Keane had been transported for life from Ireland and was assigned to Pearce’s station at Helidon.
While at the station, Keane broke his wooden leg. He was then sent to Ipswich with money to buy a new one. But he tried to escape with the cash and was sentenced to three months imprisonment in Sydney.
To make sure he didn’t try to escape again, Keane was sent to Brisbane by punt down the Bremer River, while his leg was sent separately by land.
Fate, however, ensured that Keane got his revenge because Pearce was destined to be worn out by repeated disaster. Pearce purchased a small steamer named the Experiment which was the first steamer built in the colonies and in 1846 the first steamer to ply the Bremer River. She was ruined by a series of disasters including hitting rocks near Woogaroo, and later sinking while moored at Queen’s Wharf in Brisbane.
Pearce died at his residence on Edward Street in Brisbane after a long combination of diseases. Today’s modern Queen’s Wharf development will forever commemorate the successful revenge by the one-legged Keane.
Another remarkable story came in 1849 when a one-legged tailor Mr D. W. Elder appeared in the Ipswich court charged with being drunk and assaulting a constable during an auction.
Elder was determined that no other person should make a purchase and while buying everything, he amused himself by loudly using the grossest of language.
Elder resisted arrest and so had to be dragged off to the watch house with his timber leg ploughing a furrow in the street in which onlookers said they would happily have planted a crop.
Elder was not unknown in the Ipswich court, having previously been charged with stealing a box of cigars from the ‘father of Ipswich’ George Thorn. In fact, Elder was somewhat of a local celebrity and became better known by the name ‘The Peg-legged Tailor.’
Another tale comes from 1877 when the one-legged Henry Larter was charged with assault after he threw a man out of his Ipswich shop. Apart from using obscene language, Larter pushed the man out, and began striking him with his fists – and his wooden leg.
The case was dismissed possibly because the victim was a mad Irishman called Richard ‘Dick’ Skinnerty. A year earlier Skinnerty was charged with being of unsound mind. He’d been picked up at half-past eleven the previous night, running down the street without his hat or boots on, and calling out “The Roman Catholics are after me to kill me.” He was sent to the lunatic asylum for three months.
And finally in 1889, Patrick Brennan was a one-legged army veteran. He was arrested for vagrancy by Ipswich’s senior constable George Bain. Bain was highly respected having represented Queensland in intercolonial shooting matches and had been given an exemplary service award following a Brisbane fire some years earlier.
The magistrate was William Yaldwyn. He informed Brennan that his conduct was illegal, but because he had only one leg, he wouldn’t send him to gaol on one condition – that Brennan promise to immediately leave town.
Brennan promptly closed the deal, and it was reliably reported that the tread of his wooden leg very quickly sounded more and more indistinct as he hurriedly departed the precincts of the court and Ipswich itself.
History is filled with stories of resilience, but few more so than that of Ipswich’s convict, tailor, shop keeper, and army veteran, and their wooden legs that are still remembered a century and half later.
CLICK HERE TO HEAR A VERSION OF THE STORY TOLD LIVE ON RADIO
Hobart Town chain gang drawing 1900 – State Library of Victoria
Queens Wharf Brisbane River View – Queens Wharf development concept picture 2021
George Thorn the father of Ipswich – State Library of Queensland
Henry Thomas Larter whose father was Henry Charles Larter – Ancestry, Ashley Larter shared 2015