Saturday, May 28, 2011


Prior to committing the Breelong murders, Jimmy had responded to personal slights by using the white legal system.
When a woman had put he and Ethel down at the Gulgong Show, Jimmy had gone to the police about it.
The offender was then made to have an apology published in the local newspaper.
And when Mrs Mawbey began putting he and Ethel down at Breelong, Jimmy spoke about taking her to court.
So why did he resort to the Aboriginal customary law of pay back instead?
He may have been pressured into doing so by his full-blood 'uncle' and elder, Jacky Porter.
The word 'pride' is oftened used today by Aboriginal people and appears to be very important to them.
Jimmy's Aboriginal pride had been dealt savage blows by both Mr and Mrs Mawbey, by the former's token payment for 100 unsatisfactory fenceposts and the latter's putdowns of him as relayed by his wife, Ethel.
Jacky Porter may have pointed out that it was not only Jimmy's pride that had been trampled upon, but theirs too as part of his family, and also his 'tribe' (clan) and his nation.
Porter's presence at Breelong may have had something to do with the death of Jimmy's father.
Tommy Governor died in May 1899 and Jimmy's younger brother, Joe, together with a full-blood Aboriginal man, Jacky Underwood, came to visit him in June.
The purpose of their visit may have been to bring Jimmy the news about his father.
They then planned to go to Coonamble to see an 80-year-old 'uncle', Jacky Porter, possibly to do the same thing.
Jimmy invited them to come back and stay with him for a while, and to bring the elder tribesman with them.
Coonamble was roughly half-way between Gilgandra, the closest town to Breelong, and the place where the Castlereagh River joined the Barwon River.
It took about eight days for the return trip on foot.
While Jimmy may have not wanted to rock the boat with the Mawbeys because they were his employers, Jacky Porter would have seen the situation from a very different perspective.
So too would have Jacky Underwood whose real name according to a police telegram was Jacky Underwood Porter.
In 1900 he was said to be aged 38, so he could have been the elder's son or grandson.
Jacky Porter Senior brought with him Jimmy's young nephew, Peter Governor, said to be aged 10 or 11.
One newspaper article said he was actually 15 but small for his age.
Peter may have been the son of one of Jimmy's three older siblings, possibly the eldest, Tommy Jnr, who was no longer living.
Perhaps he had been sent to the old man when his father died, or for initiation.
An elder charged with upholding the respect of his people may have had no hesitation in urging Jimmy to avenge his family, his clan and his country.
In my view, this is the best explanation so far of why the murders occurred.
But it is just speculation, and there were other factors involved ...

Thursday, May 26, 2011


On the surface, Jimmy appears to have been on a pretty good wicket working for the Mawbeys.
He had guaranteed 12 months work which would earn him over 52 English pounds.
[Update 5-6-11. He could earn a maximum of 21 pounds 4 shillings, not 52 pounds.]
In other words, more than one pound a week.
On top of that he was given free regular rations of sugar, flour and meat.
He did not bother much with the latter, prefering to catch his own.
Other food like milk, butter, tea and fruit and vegetables had to be purchased from the Mawbeys in advance of his first salary which was due to him after half of the job had been completed.
Mr Mawbey had extended the hand of friendship to Jimmy, inviting him to play cricket with his sons, on the cricket ground near the old Breelong Inn.
He also lent his wife a horse and saddle to ride to Dubbo to collect her infant son from her parents and bring him to his new home.
But there was a constant underlying tension created by the uppity women in the Mawbey household.
They openly discriminated against the young couple, giggling at Jimmy, and at his infant son, and asking Ethel very personal questions about her husband's sexuality.
Ethel was constantly whinging to Jimmy about it, but he had turned a deaf ear.
It appeared that he did not want to have any confrontations with his employer that might result in him being sacked.
Then the four Aboriginal men arrived in the camp and things suddenly changed dramatically.
In less than a month they had eaten Jimmy out of house and home.
They were there at his invitation so he had to extend hospitality to them.
But his salary was only designed to feed two people, not six.
He had only invited them to stay for a couple of weeks and their time was almost up.
Meanwhile, Mr Mawbey had found fault with 10 per cent of the 1000 fence posts Jimmy had installed and at first refused to pay for them.
He then relented and paid him a crown (5 shillings) instead of the 32 shillings he would have received otherwise.
This has been decried as being mean, but Mr Mawbey was in a bind himself.
If he had paid for the unsatisfactory work, it would have continued.
As it turned out, it would have been much better for him and his family if he had taken a less punitive approach and paid Jimmy at least half, 16 shillings, or even three-quarters, 24 shillings, for the condemned fence posts.
He was going to use them anyway.
And that would have been enough to warn Jimmy to do the job properly next time.
Jimmy would have received around 24 English pounds for the work he had done correctly, yet he had no money.
This meant he could not afford to buy any food, and had to go begging on a cold winter's night for more basic rations from the Mawbeys.
It appears that Jimmy had already spent all his earnings in advance on food and other provisions during the six months he had been at Breelong.
He was a heavy smoker so would have been buying tobaccco too.
Mr Mawbey's rejection of Jimmy's work is said to have occurred before his kinsfolk arrived.
But if it was after, then they may have been the ones at fault.
Nonetheless, there was a grievance among the Aboriginal men about it according to a hawker who used to park his cart near their camp.
He saw them making nullas nullas and boondis, clubs carved out of wood, weapons of war designed to kill.
Their sense of honour had been affronted and this meant payback had to be enacted to restore it.
Unfortunately, Mr Mawbey did not seem to know anything about Aboriginal culture and customary law, so he would not have seen it coming.
The hawker, Sam Ellis, only picked up on it after the murders.
I doubt if Jimmy would have ever contemplated murdering the Mawbeys on his own.
It would have been physically impossible without the support of others.
And Jimmy claimed that he only did it because the others were urging him to do it.
Both his wife and his kinsmen were placing pressure on him to prove that he was a man.
But this was not the case with the subsequent five murders he committed, so there was more to his motivation than that.
The rest were revenge killings, as were those at Breelong.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


I've been wondering about the role of Jacky Porter, the 80 year old Aboriginal 'uncle', who arrived at Jimmy's camp at Breelong not long before the murders there were committed.
Porter appears to have been dismissed by the authorities at the time as an old man incapable of participating in the killings, or making any contribution towards them.
But within Aboriginal society, he would have been a respected 'elder', and a very important person in Jimmy's eyes.
It is possible his role in what happened has been overlooked.
In July 1841, the wealthy squatter, Edwin Rouse of Guntewang pastoral run near Mudgee, was asked by the authorities about his experience with employing Aboriginals.
He stipulated that any prospective Aboriginal employee had to be beyond the control or authority of the Elders and Chiefs of the district.
Otherwise, whatever kindness was shown towards them, or however attached they became to a family, the connection would never be sustained so long as they came under the influence of their native rulers. [Source: Rouse Hill and the Rouses (1998), Caroline Rouse Thornton, p.290]
The attack on the Mawbey family as a whole, not just the individuals perceived by Jimmy as the main offenders, was traditional tribal behaviour under customary law.
'Payback' was meted out by the members of one family on the members of another, not individual on individual.
This was particularly so if the individual who had done the injustice had fled or been put in gaol.
If payback was prevented, justice was not done, so the family feud continued to fester.
It is for this reason that some Aboriginal legal circles are arguing today that the customary law of payback be respected by Australian lawmakers, and that the perpetrators of payback not be charged with a criminal offence or gaoled.
In their eyes, the traditional form of justice restores the natural order and the matter can be dropped, while intervention by our legal system just perpetuates it.
So it would seem that from an Aboriginal perspective, Jimmy was quite justified in killing innocent children because it was part and parcel of family payback.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Doorway at the gallows
Last Thursday I went to the place where Jimmy Governor was hanged at the old Darlinghurst Gaol (now the National Art School and previously East Sydney Tech) in inner Sydney.
It is still a sinister place, even though the gallows, its ropes and trapdoors, have long gone.
A book about the place, Hope in Hell by Deborah Beck, says the spot is said to be haunted at night.
I can well believe that.
It's the place where the spirits of around 50 people left their physical bodies and some of them might still be hanging around.
Jimmy was hung in January 1901 at the gaol's new 'model' gallows built in 1869.
The killing device was located between the Y section of E wing which housed condemned prisoners.
It runs parallel to Burton Street and faces Darlinghurst Road.
The gallows consisted of two trapdoors in a wooden floor with two nooses overhead.
Many of those hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol were buried inside the grounds.
But Jimmy was buried at Rookwood Cemetery.
This suggests someone paid for his plot there, as well as transportation of his body by train from Central Station to Rookwood.
If this is so, it may have been his childhood friend and, in adulthood, legal defence at his trial, Mr Boyce.
My great grandfather's younger brother, George Mawbey, 42, attended the hanging.
According to the Sands Directory, George was living in Palmer Street, close to the main road, Oxford Street, just a couple of blocks from the gaol.
It was not one of the better parts of town.
In 1894 he had been living on the other side of Oxford Street, in Ann Street.
At that time, aged 36, he was fined one pound after being taken to court by the equivalent of today's RSPCA for making his horse work when it was lame.
His occupation was that of a contractor.
My grandfather, 21-year-old John Mawbey Jnr, the eldest child of John and Sarah Mawbey, was staying with his uncle in the Palmer Street house when his mother and three younger siblings were murdered at Breelong.
He was trying to enlist to go at fight for the British at the Boer War in South Africa.
Little did he know that a much more important battle in terms of his own life was being waged on a cold winter's night inside his own home at Breelong.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


After Jimmy was captured near Wingham, a constable in charge of him told The Evening News that he had said:
"The next scene will be the rope. I would not mind if it were this minute. I've made a name for myself."
Was 'making a name' for himself something he was proud of?
Was it what he had wanted all along?
Was it one of the reasons he married a white girl?
Or did it only become important to him after he had committed his first murders at Breelong and knew that his time as a free man was almost up?
His friend and 'fall guy', Jacky Underwood told police that after these murders, Jimmy wanted to kill his wife Ethel and son, but that he had prevented it.
Jimmy had responded with defiance saying:
"That's nothing. I don't care whether I married to her or not. I want to be the greatest murderer in New South Wales. I'll do for the first man I come across, either man or woman. I don't care a ____." (Source: Moore and Williams, p.45)
At this time he had already murdered the two women who had put him down, shown him disrespect, for marrying a white woman, Mrs Sarah Mawbey and the school teacher, Ellen Kerz.
They had been his two prime targets at the Mawbey household at Breelong.
It was him they had blamed for the socially unacceptable interracial marriage, not his white wife, Ethel.
When Jimmy and his brother Joe turned up at the abode of his next murder victim, 70-year-old Alexander (Sandy) McKay, who they despatched brutally in the backyard before approaching the house, Jimmy boldly announced to its occupants: "We are murderers."
There was something childlike about this boastful statement.
When McKay's wife asked him not to kill her, he agreed and kept his word.
Yet he had shown no mercy at Breelong and would not show any at his next destination, the O'Brien home at Merriwa.

Friday, May 13, 2011


There are many tragic aspects to the Jimmy Governor story, including what happened to him.
He was good looking and athletic, talkative and sociable and worked for his own keep instead of relying on the government for food rations.
Young white women found him very attractive and Ethel was not the only one to fall pregnant to him out of wedlock.
What I find particularly touching is his tendency to spontaneously burst into song.
It suggests he was an emotional, passionate man, ruled more by his heart than his head.
On the steamer bringing him from Taree to Sydney for his murder trial, he was singing Scottish songs, 'Bonnie Mary of Argyle' and 'Annie Laurie'.
And while he was in gaol he was singing what his goaler called 'native songs'.
It's a pity more information about them was not recorded.
This may have helped determine what 'tribe' he was from.
A journalist on the steamer who reported the songs Jimmy was singing, also said he was a heavy smoker and good at four-handed euchre (card game).
He was very chatty and open, but also had 'a quiet reserve which seems to be natural to him'.
The reporter said:
The outlaw has no trace in his speech of the usual dialect of the Aboriginal.
His language is just the same as that of any white Australian, native-born or of English descent.
His grammar is not, of course, of the most elegant description, but his only dialect is the dialect of the average bush labourer.
He is a master of the latest slang terms and freely uses 'flash' talk and slang in his conversation.
He never says he ran away.
He always 'slithered'.
'Slithered' is a favourite words of his.
Jimmy's totemic animal, the goanna (large lizard), would also have 'slithered'.
The journalist also observed that Jimmy did not seem at all anxious to hide a single detail of his days during the period in which his name was a terror to thousands.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


It is said that the Governor family were of the Wiradjuri tribe, noted for its warriors.
They were once the biggest tribe in New South Wales with the town of Mudgee within its northern border.
The territory further north was occupied by the Kamilaroi, and it is to this tribe I am starting to suspect the Governor family belonged.
The Kamilaroi were the second biggest tribe.
Its people occupied the land around Singleton in the Upper Hunter Valley and further north around Tamworth.
They also were on the Barwon and Namoi Rivers, the places where Jimmy Governor's father, Tommy, claimed to have been born.
Jimmy's maternal grandmother was a Wonnarua woman from the Upper Hunter area.
My reasons for thinking this are:
1) When Jimmy and Joe were on the run from the law, they initially stayed within Kamilaroi territory.
One of the reports I have read about Jimmy's capture said that he could give all the details of the country he travelled through until after he left Cobark, east of the Barrington Tops and west of Gloucester.
This could have been because he was now out of familiar Kamilaroy country and in that of the Kuringgai people (see Fraser's map).
Jimmy would have been educated about his country during his initiation at puberty.
2) Being Kamilaroi could explain why the Governors, Tommy in particular, did not mix with other Aboriginals in the Gresford, Paterson and Vacy districts.
They would have been of a different tribe or tribes.
The territory around Gresford, Maitland and Dungog was that of the Kuring-gai people, a sub-group of the Wonnarua.
Tommy was said to have been downright aggressive towards some of them.
Maybe this had something to do with his wife Annie who was half Wonnurua and half white.
Maybe the full-blood Wonnurua rejected her because of this.
She was self-conscious of her red hair, inherited from her Irish maternal grandfather, and used to wear a hood to hide it.
3) It was observed that Jimmy used to carve the shape of an iguana (goanna) into the ground.
This has been taken as an indicator that he was Wira djuri.
But the Kamilaroy also had a goanna as a totem for one of its four 'skin' groups.
4) Jacky Underwood, the friend of Jimmy and Joe Governor, was born in the vicinity of Idaville Station near the town of Cassilis in Kamilaroy territory.
5) Mudgee was in Wiradjuri country, but Gulgong where the Governors lived, was on the other side of the ranges, in Kamilaroy country.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I have just found on the internet a thought-provoking article about the importance of 'culture' in all societies, with particular reference to the Aboriginal one.
The article was published by Dr Anthony B Kelly on 28 July 2000.
Coincidentally, this was the same month, and two days after the last of the Governor's 10 murders were committed 100 years earlier.
The article talks about the breakdown in both black and white societies in Australia, and the associated escalation of violence.
It is long but well worth reading.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


In all societies throughout the world there are class differences based on family background, occupation or wealth.
Jimmy's parents were no ordinary blacks.
His mother, Annie, was the daughter of a house servant working in the homestead of a wealthy squatter, Andrew Brown, Esq., JP.
She was born on his pastoral property, Caigan, on the Castlereagh River, about 10 miles north-east from Mendooran.
In June 1847, Caigan was one of eight pastoral runs in the Bligh county for which Brown had despasturing licences.
Another wealthy squatter, Richard Rouse, held nine runs in the district, including Breelong which was also on the Castlereagh River, 20 miles west of Mendooran.
Brown and Rouse were both know for their benevolence towards indigenous people, although the latter had whipped his convict workers.
They let them live on their properties and gave them food, shelter and work.
This was the very least they could do when they had stolen the land from the Aboriginals and left them without any way to survive on their own.
People who work for important people generally feel important themselves by way of association.
This could have been a reason why both of Jimmy's parents did not like mixing with other Aboriginal people.
When Annie's Irish father had died before her birth, her mother Polly had raised her with a male house servant at Caigan.
The Rouse family claim that Jimmy's father, Tommy, was born on one of their pastoral properties on the Barwon River.
In later life he asked Mr Rouse to act as intermediary for him in his dealings with white officialdom to assist him to get food rations.
When Tommy discovered silver in 1887, he was not allowed to make a claim for it, but instead was given the use of 10 acres of a common at Wyaldra Creek on the northern outskirts of Gulgong.
He built a house for his family, but it appears they only lived there together briefly.
When Tommy was not working, they were forced to move onto Aboriginal reserves where they could get food rations.
There also might be something in the fact that the English surname they adopted was that of the top white official in the land, the governor.
It is said that when Tommy had encountered the real governor of New South Wales, Lord Jersey, at the Mudgee show, he had introduced himself to him as 'the other Governor'.
Tommy had chutzpah!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


There is no doubt in my mind that Jimmy loved his young white wife, Ethel, or 'Mrs Jimmy Governor' or 'Mrs James Ethel Governor' as she was commonly known.
The prospect of her leaving him on the night of the Breelong murders made him want to die.
Ethel was probably the only person in his life who had truly made him feel good about himself.
She thought he was special and took pride in the fact that she had won his heart in competition with other girls.
And he had asked her to marry him.
No other man had done that.
Jimmy had shot through when faced with a previous shotgun marriage, but he was happy to stay with Ethel when she became pregnant out of wedlock.
He even dressed in white cricket clothes and borrowed a sulky for their wedding so they could marry in style.
But then their romantic bubble was soon burst by the pointed looks and remarks of the townsfolk who objected to the marriage of a white woman to a black man.
To them it was shocking, confronting, unacceptable.
Jimmy and Ethel were shunned, by both blacks and whites.
This was the tragedy of their times, as well as their relationship.
Their love match had no chance of succeeding under such negative public scrutiny.
I think they would have struggled to gain public acceptance today in certain quarters, even in these relatively racially enlightened times.
They would have been a source of curiousity, as have other Aboriginal men married to white women who have been written about in magazines in more recent times.