The Hospital Creek Massacre

In researching the Hospital Creek Massacre just north of Brewarrina in 1859, I kept coming across the likes of Keith Windschuttle refusing to accept that it even occurred. He writes; “I looked up Trove to see if any of the country or metropolitan newspapers of the day had reported the incident, but found no mention of it”. That’s Windschuttle for you, if it did occur it was merely an “incident”. He continues: “I couldn’t find anything about it in New South Wales parliamentary records in 1859, or any year thereabouts either. This was surprising since the killing of 400 Aborigines, or anything like that number, would have amounted to the worst single case of indigenous slaughter in the history of Australia, or indeed in the history of any British colony to that time.”

Well Keith, after what happened as a consequence of the Myall Creek Massacre in 1838 with 7 white men being executed for committing murder, there was every reason to believe no one made any report of the massacre at Hospital Creek. It was also such an isolated location, that there were only a few whites in the district and certainly no newspaper within hundreds of kilometers. What Windschuttle conveniently didn’t find in searching Trove, was an article written by G.M.Smith in 1928 in the “Sydney Mail”. Before you read it, I should point out that when Judith Wright wrote “The Cry for the Dead” she explains that one of the major causes of conflict between indigenous people and other settlers in the Wide Bay area of Queensland, was that cattle were trampling the banks of the water holes and creeks, destroying the environment that supported fish and shelfish. They killed cattle to stop them from aproaching the water, not for food. In the account of the conflict leading up to the Hospital Creek Massacre, Con Bride states that he was annoyed that the aboriginals were hiding in the trees along the watercourse and spearing the cattle from above. It soulds to me like they had the same intent; to stop the cattle from destroying the creeks and water holes.

As for there being no government or newspaper reports of the massacre, Con Bride states that he believed the government didn’t want to know about any conflict because he and others like him were clearing the country to make it habitable for an expanding pasturalist population.

Sydney Mail (NSW : 1912 – 1938), Wednesday 12 September 1928, page 53 Pioneers of the West The Massacre at Hospital Creek

I suppose there are still some old-timers like myself, and some a bit older perhaps, who will be interested in this brief record of some of the pioneers who followed so closely on the steps of Mitchell and Oxley, the explorers of that great stretch of country west and north west of Dubbo. — By G. M. Smith.

HARDY and enterprising men they were who went out to blaze the tracks for the coming generations and to settle what is now known as the Western Division of New South Wales. One can easily appreciate the rough and risky task which lay before them in taking up and stocking new country, on which there were then such large tribes of blacks.

Among the early settlers of that splendid pastoral country were the Redfords, of Warren, on the Macquarie River, and the Skuthorps, of Gulargambone, on the Castlereagh River. Those families, among others, had rough times in settling the country between Dubbo and what is now Bourke, on the Darling.

Of course, the Australian natives were never as hostile as the Maoris of New Zealand or the Red Indians of America; but friction between the black race and the whites who came to stock their hunting-grounds was inevitable. At that early date the black police had not been organised to protect the whites in the new settlements, as they were in later years, after the natives had murdered some of the whites and burnt their homes. The white men had to hold their own with the aboriginals as best they could, and, as far as I could learn on my arrival there a few years later, they did it with credit to themselves and as little cruelty to the natives as possible in the circumstances.

The early days were quite fresh in the memory of most of the settlers in that locality when I arrived and learnt much regarding the hardships of the pioneers. THE Redfords and Skuthorps were still on the rivers, and were the owners of some splendid country and fine herds of cattle; but some of the younger members of their families had strayed farther north, and had got well out into Queensland.

 Later in my overlanding days in the northern State I heard of Harry Redford at Mt. Cornish and Bowen Downs, and Jack Skuthorp got out into the Gulf country, where he discovered some human remains, which he took to be those of Leichhardt, the explorer, who had been missing for some time. Skuthorp expected to get the reward which the Government was offering for any reliable information of Leichhardt, but his claim fell through because he had no other proofs than the skeleton, which might have been that of a native. No doubt that was the case, as I proved to my own satisfaction a few years later when I was taking out cattle to the Territory.

In 1882 I took 3000 head of cattle to the Northern Territory for C. B. Fisher, who had previously taken up a lot of country there. I lifted the cattle at the Mooney River, in Queensland, and when I got to the Nicholson River, in the Gulf, which was the outpost of settlement in the northern State then, I had 400 miles of country to cross, inhabited only by natives, from the Nicholson to the Roper.

When I arrived at the Roper it was at a place called Leichhardt’s Bar. When I asked why it was so called I was told that it was the last place at which any trace of Leichhardt was found by the party who went out in search of him. It was a reef or rock crossing the river. To my mind that settled the question about Jack Skuthorp’s discovery in the Gulf, as the Roper is about 400 miles further north-west, at a rough calculation, than the Gulf, where Skuthorp found the human remains.

THE pioneers who settled the western rivers and plains had rough times and much difficulty in stocking that country and lifting the natives out of a state of savagery into something approaching civilisation; but the men who pioneered that other vast tract of country stretching away north of the Barwon River to the Warrego and Paroo rivers in Queensland, in my opinion, had a very much harder row to hoe, because of the fact that their work lay much further out from civilisation. Of those enterprising men there were many: but the two who stood out were William Forrester, better known as “Red Bill” Forrester, and Con Bride.

The Forresters were of the Narren River country, and the Bride family of the Namoi River. “Red Bill” and Con Bride were expert cattlemen and good judges of country, and in their young days had been engaged in stocking up new areas for various squatting firms and capitalists in Mudgee, Bathurst, and the Hunter district. Con Bride took up and stocked a number of stations north of the Barwon, the Culgoa, and the Birie ; and Forrester’s operations were further to the north.

Those two men had had a deal of experience among the natives in their time, and knew how to keep them in their place. They had learnt early in their pioneering days that it was easier to teach an aboriginal to fear you than to love you. They were always very civil to the natives on first acquaintance, and remained so as long as it suited the natives to be the same; but at the first sign of hostility they were prompt to deal with the blacks in a way they were not likely to forget. Of course, the pioneers were always well armed with such weapons as they had at the time.

I NEVER had the pleasure of meeting “Red Bill” Forrester, but was told that he had perished for want of water somewhere out in the droughty regions while exploring for pastures new just previous to my arrival there. I met Con Bride just before he died on a station called Quantambone. It was one of the large cattle stations on the Barwon when I came on to it a few years previously, having 45 miles’ frontage to the river and carrying nearly forty thousand herd of well-bred cattle, from which I had taken several large lots to the Melbourne markets in my overlanding days. A long drought wiped out more than half the herd. Then a Victorian firm bought the run and the remaining stock. They in-tended to run sheep. The first thing they did was to build a new homestead on the Cato Creek and make an out-station of old Quantambone, where they put a married couple in charge. Then they divided the country into sheep paddocks, except within ten miles of the lower end of the run. which they reserved for the reduced herd of cattle. These were put in my charge, as I was a cattleman. But I had some trouble in keeping them on the end of the run, especially the bulls, which wanted to roam all over the run as of old. They looked on the sheep fences with supreme contempt, and went over and through them as they liked.

ON one occasion I missed a bull, which my black boy also failed to find. I remembered that his run was usually at the top end in the pre-drought days; so, I decided to go up there to look for him. While there a man with a couple of horses arrived, and stayed the night. I thought he was a cattleman — a drover or a cattlebuyer, in the course of conversation he said he had been to the Temora gold rush and had spent some time there, but with no luck. He was now making back to the Flinders Rivet in Queensland, but as he was not feeling well had decided to go up to the Namoi River, where his people lived, and have a spell. “This reminds me of old times, camping at the old home-stead,” he said. “Then you have been at Quantambone before?” I asked. “Rather!” he replied, “It was I who first, took up this run, over twenty years ago.” Then I knew that I had met Con Bride for the first time. I had heard a lot about him, especially regarding his shooting a lot of blacks on the Hospital Creek, on Quantambone. It always went by that name, on account of, the wounded natives. I asked him about the massacre — for that was what most of those on the river called it; and they reckoned that Con Bride was too severe on the darkies.

“Well,” said Con, “that was one of the worst affairs I ever had with the natives in all my experience, and the one I most regret. But the natives, brought it on themselves; my mind is easy about that, I often had to spill a little native blood in self-defence in my early days, but I never did it without strong provocation. In this case I had to take strong measures, as it meant that either I or the black man must rule. I suppose you know the Hospital Creek? It crosses the plains a few miles out from the Cato Creek. Strictly speaking it is not a creek — only a chain of ponds formed by the over-flow from the Narren Lake, which at high flood flows across the plains into the Bokira Greek. There were fine holes in it which held water well in dry times, and nice shady timber round them, making a good camping ground for the cattle. But it was also a good camping place for the blacks, who came there in hundreds to live on the cattle. They had been spearing the cattle some time before I was aware of the fact. When I saw cattle on the run with spears sticking in them you can guess my state of mind, and when I saw some more near the creek dead and the meat stripped off the bones, and found skeletons all round about the watering-places, I decided to act. It seemed to me that their method of spearing was to get up in the trees early in the morning with their spears and lie in wait for the cattle at the holes. The beasts that were speared very badly died close about the water, while those that were more lightly injured carried the spears for miles out on the run. Few of them ever recovered after being speared.

“I TRIED to get the blacks to shift camp, A but they didn’t understand me, or pretended not to— which was very likely, as I could speak the native lingo pretty well. So, I rode to the station as quickly as possible and brought one of my black boys to talk to them in their own lingo. When he explained what I wanted them to do they said “Baal,” which in their language means “No. They evidently didn’t want to shift, as they were doing too well where they were; but I went back home and started one of my white stockmen up to the next station with a few lines to the manager to send me all the assistance he could spare in men, arms, and ammunition. The demand was only reasonable in those days, as the white settlers had to keep plenty of arms and ammunition for self-protection and to assist each other in cases of need. Next day I was pleased to see two white stockmen and half-a-dozen black boys, all well-armed, ride up. You may be sure I lost no time in getting all my own force under arms, and we rode out to the blacks’ camp nearly twenty strong. When we got within two hundred yards of the camp I halted my small force. Then I took one of the boys and rode up to their camp. When the boy told them I wanted them to shift the old darkies got very angry, and said ‘Baal,’ as before. I took the boy back to the others, and said : ‘Now, boys, we will fire a few shots over their camp. They might take fright and clear out.’ That volley caused a great commotion in the camp. They all ran up in a bunch, like a lot of wild ducks; but there was no stampede such as we were expecting. I noticed that they were all arming with spears and womeras, and when they made a move forward, I feared a rush on our small force by their hundreds: so we fired a volley into them, and a dozen or more fell. This caused a halt. Then they gathered round the wounded ones. Apparently they could not understand what had happened, and we took advantage of the confusion to send another volley whistling over their heads. That settled the matter. A general stampede took place across the plain towards the Culgoa, whence, I suppose, they had come.

‘WHEN I saw them in retreat I rode away to the station, to give them a chance to attend to their wounded and retreat in order. Next day we all rode out as before to the camp, and all we could see there was a lot of empty bough gunyahs. That affair got me a bad name down below with the people who never had to deal with the natives in their wild state. Had they been in my place probably they would have spilt more blood than I did. Some went so far as to say that I should have been put on trial for what I did, but the Government was well aware of the fact that the work we were doing outback could not be done with white-gloves on, and, therefore, were not too ready to take action in such cases, but de-pended on the humanity of the white settlers to spare the natives as much as possible.” CON never recovered from the illness that forced him to stay at Quantambone that night, and soon afterwards died on the very station he had pioneered in his younger days, and was laid to rest within cooee of the old homestead. Later that same old homestead was set apart by the Government as a mission station. It is quite likely that those now living there do not know that Con Bride, the enemy of their people in the early days of settlement, is resting in their midst, I was only once at old Quantambone after Con died, and I saw where they buried him — a few hundred yards from the old home stead, with nothing io mark the place. Should I ever visit Brewarrina again I will make it my business to ride up to the old station to see the blacks’ mission, and also to see if I can locate Con’s grave.

Published by gavinhamiltoncrawford

Retired from paid work but not from living. Actively engaged in writing cultural, social and family histories, reflecting on a meaningful life and volunteering.

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