‘I have been authorised by his father to chastise the boy when he deserves it,’ said John Brown, master of the brig Venus, to the Water Police Court in 1859 when brought up on charges of ill-usage. The prosecutor? His eleven-year old apprentice, John Massey Thompson.
‘He is a sharp but pert boy,’ wrote the bemused court reporter as he listened to Thompson’s testimony. The lad reported that Brown had caught him by the ear and pulled him off the gangway and that, when he resisted and broke away, Brown grabbed his hair and drove him ashore. Thompson immediately stalked across to the Police Office and laid charges against his master.
‘I will not be ill-used by anybody, not even the Governor,’ exclaimed the mutinous boy when his master questioned him about the resulting summons.
‘What sort of language is that?’ demanded Brown.
‘It is English grammar,’ came the impertinent reply.
At which Brown grabbed a doubled-up rope and beat the boy, while a chained dog lunged at him and bit him.
Thompson had spent enough hours scratching at a slate to know exactly what English grammar was. He wasn’t a poorly educated rural lad like Thunderbolt and many of his cronies; rather he was the son of educated middle-class urban folk, a respectable family indeed. His mother was the daughter of an Irish protestant clergyman, and his father an employee of the City of Sydney Corporation, a administrator who bore the illustrious title of Assistant Inspector of Nuisances, a promotion of sorts from his previous role as Inspector of Water Closets. No doubt his duties were of the pen-pushing variety and that he employed others to undertake the less salubrious tasks of actually inspecting the water closets or the ubiquitous nuisances. He also employed others to manage his difficult son, eventually sending him hundreds of miles away to the tough environment of a country station near Moree. But John Massey Thompson could take such dictatorial authority only for so long. Early in 1865 he threatened to shoot the Terrihihi station superintendent then he stole a horse and headed west to pursue his long-expressed dream of joining a gang of bushrangers. And he found one.
Running away to sea? That was the dream of many a British youth who chafed at society’s strait-jacket, lured to the vast blueness by tales of naval heroes and England’s finest hour, or fantasies of swash-buckling adventures under a Jolly Roger flag. For most Australian residents, however, ‘the sea’ conjured up few romantic visions, as too many had dropped to their knees in thankful prayer after stepping onto Antipodean terra firma and reacted with horror at any suggestion that they step off again.
Australian lads had their own dreams and heroes, rarely men of letters or political vision, or Admirals who fought in long ago battles, although rum-swigging pirates continued to generate a sneaking admiration. The Antipodean heroes were men who ‘never horse could throw while the saddle-girths would stand’. Add a pistol to their hand and the rallying cry of ‘bail up’ and colonial youths had a home-grown buccaneer they could admire – or even run away to join.
In tomorrow's post, I will include the deleted/reduced section about Thompson in the aftermath of the Millie shooting.