Jimmy Governor (1875 – 18 January 1901) was an Indigenous Australian who was notorious across Australia for the murders in 1900 of four members of the Mawbey family and their woman boarder, which quickly became known as the Breelong Massacre. He committed the murders with fellow indigenous worker Jacky Underwood at Breelong, ten miles from Gilgandra in the Central West region of New South Wales. Jimmy Governor and Jack Underwood then took to the bush, together with Jimmy's younger brother, Joe Governor. Underwood was captured just a few days later on 24 July, the same day that a reward of £200 for the capture of each was offered by the government, later increased on 25 September 1900 to £1,000 each. The government instituted a process on 5 October 1900 to proclaim the Governor brothers outlaws so that, when they failed to appear at a police station by the afternoon of 16 October 1900, they became outlaws, who could legally be shot and killed on sight.
Jimmy and Joe had parted early from Jack Underwood, at Digilah Station north of Dunedoo on Sunday 22 July when they were first shot at by a settler named Simpson. Underwood was almost 40 years old (he told a gaoler 37 yrs), had lost the sight of one eye in childhood and had a lameness in his leg that caused him to drag his left foot. He would not have been able to travel on foot as quickly as the Governors. Underwood was captured two days later on 24 July at Redbank near Leadville, taken to Mudgee Gaol, and then Dubbo Gaol where he was held until his September trial and execution on 14 January 1901. Over the next three months the two Governor brothers, styling themselves bushrangers, committed four more murders and carried on a series of break-ins, robberies, and assaults. They showed great skill, ingenuity and bush craft in avoiding their pursuers. The manhunt that got underway to capture them was reputedly Australia's largest. Up to 2,000 volunteers and police were involved in the hunt for them across 3,000 km of country.
Jimmy Governor and Jack Underwood had attacked the Breelong victims on Friday night, 20 July 1900 with tomahawk and waddies, and three died when they were attacked - the woman boarder, Miss Helen Kerz who was the teacher at Breelong school; a son Percy Mawbey (14 yrs) and a daughter, Hilda (11 yrs). Another daughter, Grace (16 yrs) died on the Sunday, 22nd., The mother, Mrs Sarah Mawbey, died on Wednesday 25 October.
Atmosphere of Terror- The Governor brothers' violent spree while at large created a reign of terror in the areas where they were moving through or had once lived, which "completely monopolised public interest". People residing in the large region between Dunedoo in the west and Singleton in the east, and later northward as far as Port Macquarie, lived in paranoid fear of attack. Settlers moved out of their homesteads on any news that the Governors were heading to their area, and women and children were brought together in towns for safety while men in their local area joined the pursuit. Business was at a standstill in many places in the Wollar/Denman/Merriwa areas. In particular, Jimmy first targeted the area of the Goulburn River around Wollar where he had once worked, to settle scores with men who had treated him badly. As the brothers outwitted and even taunted the police and trackers hunting them, public pressure grew for the police to capture them. They were proclaimed outlaws on 23 October 1900, the last persons to be so declared in NSW. Jimmy was captured by locals near Wingham on the Manning River on 27 October, and Joe was shot dead north of Singleton on 31 October 1900. Jimmy Governor was tried for murder in November 1900, and hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol on 18 January 1901. Jack Underwood was tried at Dubbo for the murder of Percy Mawbey, and found guilty. Underwood was hanged at Dubbo Gaol on 14 January 1901.
Jimmy Governor was born about 1875 to Thomas Grosvenor, who became known as Governor, and Annie Fitzgerald, near Denison Town in the Talbragar region. The land administrative parish of Talbragar covers an area from the Talbragar River near Dunedoo extending eastwards towards the village of Uarbry.
Family and background
His father, Tommy Governor was stated by others to have been a full-blood Aborigine. Tommy had self-reported (for Maitland Gaol records in 1890) that he came from the Williams River in Queensland. The Maitland Gaol description book recorded that he had scar marks across his chest. This indicates he was a full-blood Aborigine, who had undergone tribal initiation. A portrait drawing of him in an 1892 newspaper (as discoverer of silver at Mt Stewart) shows a steady, handsome man who appears to be a full blood Aborigine. Tommy Grosvenor/Governor probably headed south to NSW accompanying a drover or bullock team, and likely took the name of the drover in charge as his own 'European' name, as was a common approach among Aborigines in the mid-1800s. From newspaper reports in 1888, it appears Tommy had first lived in the Paterson River area (Singleton) before going westwards in NSW to the Talbragar River and Dunedoo/Denison Town area.
Annie Fitzgerald (Jimmy's mother) seems to have met Tommy Governor in the region of Talbragar/ Mundoran. Annie reportedly had an Aboriginal mother, and a white Irish father named Jack Fitzgerald who worked as a stockman on 'Caigan' station. 'Caigan' was a huge pastoral station held by squatter Andrew Brown and located in the area north-east of Mendooran and this would be where they met. Annie Fitzgerald's mother was "Polly", a local Aborigine on Caigan. One account of Annie has her born on 'Caigan', where her mother's Aboriginal people resided. The European-given names of Polly's family group, with whom Annie was raised, were Tommy, Penny, Jimmy, Maggie, Dicky, and others, according to local selectors who knew them and described them as "an honest lot".
Tommy, Annie and their children lived throughout this area from Jimmy's 1875 birth until about 1888 when Tommy took them east to the Paterson. Tommy seems to have been a good worker. He was an Aboriginal man who gained paid work in the European world, setting an example which Jimmy would follow. The family had been at Denison Town (nearer Dunedoo) to Uarbry 15 km further east, Gulgong further south and Wollar, a small village further east of Gulgong.
The family had also lived at Leadville, a village between Cassilis to its west and Dunedoo to the east. In June 1888 it was reported that it was not widely known that Tommy was the discoverer of silver at the Mt Stuart mine, (located near Leadville, and 14 km from Dunedoo). He was described as "an old Aboriginal named Thomas Grosvenor, better known as Tommy 'Governor', who lately decided to go to the Paterson, his old hunting ground" and he was presented with a purse of sovereigns before he left "to help him on his journey".
A teenager in Singleton area. When Tommy moved his family back to the Paterson River in mid 1888 they lived outside Singleton. On New Year's Day 1890, a boy who was described as Tommy junior (most likely to have been Jimmy, since he was aged 15 and the eldest) won the high jump at the Gresford Sports Day. In July 1890, Tommy gave evidence as a court witness that he was then camping near Singleton. A police witness stated this camp was near Dunolly, implied to be an Aboriginal camp since all the other witnesses in the case were Aboriginal and also lived there. Later the same year Tommy was charged with wounding an aboriginal with a pen-knife over an altercation about cooking meat over the fire. The evidence was that the family lived in a tent at the "black's camp" near Singleton (as described by the police officer). At his trial there was a recommendation for mercy since Tommy believed himself justified in self-defence, and he got three months' jail.
After several years near Singleton, Tommy then moved his family westwards back to the Gulgong area. Tommy held a variety of jobs over the years. A reference to Tommy in a Mudgee newspaper after his death referred to him as "the Wollar tracker"; his son Jimmy's 1898 marriage record referred to Tommy as a bullock driver.
Education and work
Until he was about 13 years old (1888), Jimmy lived with his family in the Denison Town-Gulgong region. Former Gulgong residents reported in 1900 that, fifteen years earlier in 1885 and 1886, Jimmy had gone to school at Gulgong with his brothers but they had been teased there.
About 1888, his family then moved to the Singleton area, where they all lived in the Aborigines' camp.
In the 1890s the family moved back to the Gulgong-Wollar area. Jimmy was then beyond school age. It appears the family lived in the Aborigines' camp at Wollar. Jimmy worked at Wollar. In mid 1896, he became a police tracker (Aboriginal tracker) at Cassilis, where he worked for eighteen months until 18 December 1897. The gossip about Jimmy suddenly leaving Cassilis as a tracker was that he wanted to avoid the family ire of a white girl who was pregnant to him. From a narrative he gave a journalist at Wingham just after his capture, his life during 1898 can be traced because he said he then went back to Wollar (where his family lived) and "after a time I went to Gulgong wood-cutting for a man named Starr, then I went wool-rolling at Digilbar, then back to Gulgong." It was during this 1898 period back in Gulgong that he took up with Ethel Page since she was about five months' pregnant at their marriage in December 1898. "I got married, and followed various occupations up to the time I went to work for Mr. Mawbey."
Jimmy had always worked, holding various jobs. After his police tracking work, he returned to Wollar in 1898, He must have met Ethel when he was working at Gulgong, and her family lived there.
Leadup to the Breelong Murders
Marriage to Ethel Page
Jimmy must have met Ethel Page when he was working at Gulgong after he resigned as a police tracker. Ethel's family was living at Gulgong in the second half of the 1890s. In 1898 Jimmy and Ethel married at the rectory of the Anglican church in Gulgong. Ethel was then aged 16, and was five months' pregnant with his child. She gave birth to their son, Sidney, registered at Gulgong in 1899. Ethel and Jimmy were expecting their second child at the time of the murders, a daughter, who was born in 1901, after Jimmy was hanged.
Ethel's background: Ethel had been born in 1882 on the Macleay River district near Kempsey. Her parents, Charles Page and Julia, née Moore, were both English and had separately migrated to NSW where they met, and they married at Kinchela Creek near Kempsey. In 1884 her father Charles Page, labourer, living at 'Clybucca' on the Macleay River, became insolvent. By 1893, when Ethel was then aged 11 years, Charles and Julia Page had moved to the Mudgee area -probably straight to Gulgong - since their fourth child's birth was registered at Mudgee. The family lived at Gulgong for a number of years as the births of the next two children were registered in 1897 and 1899 at Gulgong, where her father worked as a labourer.
Ridicule of their marriage: Jimmy and Ethel were subjected to ridicule from other people since inter-racial marriages were not accepted kindly at that time, especially where the wife was white. Few specific vilifying comments about Jimmy and Ethel have been recorded, other than those of the Mawbey women. However, some indication is given by this newspaper article immediately after the murders: "Why She Married an Aboriginal", and the comments: "[Jimmy Governor] only consented, it is said, to perform the [marriage] ceremony at the earnest solicitation of the girl's mother, who, for reasons which may be understood, wished to save her daughter's reputation. One naturally wonders what manner of woman the mother was who insisted on uniting her daughter for life to a low-bred savage aboriginal." The same newspaper noted that "The country people say rough and nasty things of her".
As a deeper example of the attitudes of white people at that time, the following was written of Ethel on her remarriage in the year Jimmy was executed: 'The second marriage is just as repulsive as the first, for the bride groom is a half-caste, and in spite of all her faults the woman is white. That the institution of marriage should be for such degrading and soul destroying unions is disgraceful'.
Working on Mawbey's property
In April 1900, Jimmy Governor had contracted with John Mawbey to do some fencing on the Mawbey's selection (farming property) located at Breelong, ten miles from Gilgandra, on the Gilgandra-Mendooran road. Jimmy's wife, Ethel, was given some paid housework in the Mawbeys' new house on their property. Jimmy, Ethel and members of Jimmy's extended family who were assisting with the fencing work, were living about 3 miles from the new Mawbey house, (and 4 miles from the old one) near a creek on the property.
Ethel gave evidence about their time at Mawbey's place. They had been camped there doing the work about four months. The other Aboriginal people camping were Jimmy's brother Joe; Jack Underwood (who had the disability of only one eye), who had been at Mawbey's for only about six weeks; Jack Porter who was an old Aborigine and had been there only two weeks, with a boy named Peter Governor who Ethel named as Jimmy's nephew. Jack Porter said at the Inquest that he had arrived from the Redbend Mission (near Coonamble). Ethel and Jimmy, with their baby son, had their own camp on the creek; Joe was with Jack Underwood about 100 yards away in a separate camp, and old Porter and the boy Peter were about another 100 yards away.
Jimmy had asked John Mawbey for more rations (basic food items like flour and sugar), but Mawbey was not prepared to give any more until the contract job was finished.
Ethel told Jimmy about taunts from Mrs Mawbey because she was a white woman married to a black.
On the night of the murder, John Mawbey, his brother-in-law Fred Clarke, and eldest son were staying overnight at their old house (an old inn and post office located on the property) because they were bagging wheat until late.
Jimmy, wanting to confront Mrs Mawbey about the things she was saying to Ethel, went on the night of 20 July 1900, with his friend Jacky Underwood (aka Charles Brown), to the house where the Mawbey women were living. He made different statements at different points about what had happened, but at his trial which, specifically, was for the murder of Helen Kerz, Jimmy stated that he had gone to see Mrs Sarah Mawbey "to make her mind about what she is talking about. I'll take her to court if she does not mind herself." He stated also that Mrs Mawbey and the governess, Helen Kerz, insulted him about his wife and his colour.
The Breelong Murders
"I went up to the house. I said, 'Are you in, Mrs. Mawbey? Did you tell my missus that any white woman who married a blackfellow ought to be shot? Did you ask my wife about our private business ? Did you ask her what sort of nature did I have - black or white?'"
With that Mrs. Mawbey and Miss Kerz turned round and laughed at me with a sneering laugh, and before I got the words out of my mouth that I said in court I struck Mrs. Mawbey on the mouth with this nullah-nullah. Miss Kerz said, " Pooh, you black rubbish, you want shooting for marrying a white woman." With that I hit her with my hand on the jaw, and I knocked her down. Then I got out of temper and got hammering them, and lost control of myself. I do not remember anything after that." (Report of trial, SMH 24 November 1900 p.1)
Four members of the Mawbey family were murdered: Mrs Sarah Mawbey and three of her children, Hilda, Percy and Grace, together with school teacher Helen Kerz, on the night of 20 July. A surviving witness, 9 year old Albert Mawbey who'd hidden under a bed, ran to the 'old' house on the property where his father was, and raised the alarm. "After he first struck Miss Kerz she ran 100 yards, and Governor, with a murderous implement in his hand, pursued her and beat her head in." He then pursued Hilda Mawbey, who had tried to escape with Miss Kerz, and beat her to death.
A hunt for the men ensued, as Jimmy, Joe and friend Jack Underwood went on a robbing, murderous spree eastwards in the Hunter Valley area, resulting in a large manhunt that followed was of over 100 constables and 12 trackers.
On the run
Other murders along the way were not random events, but had a motive of revenge for slights given at some earlier time in Jimmy's life.
One of the most notable trackers involved in the pursuit was a friend of Jimmy, James Gillis McDonald from Mudgee, at whom Jimmy fired a warning shot that ricocheted off of his saddle. It was later revealed that during the terror, the woman who raised James Gillis McDonald's daughter was hiding under a bed, was shot in the leg and had it amputated.
Alexander McKay was killed near Ulan on 23 July. Elizabeth O'Brien and her 18 month old son were murdered at Poggie, a near Merriwa, on 24 July; and Keiran Fitzpatrick near Wollar, on 26 July.
Jimmy Governor was shot in the mouth on 13 October, and was subsequently captured on 27 October 1900, several months after the massacre. His brother, Joe Governor, was shot and killed four days later on 31 October at Mount Royal near Singleton. Convicted of murder, Jimmy was hanged the following year. Jacky Underwood was hanged at Old Dubbo Gaol on 14 January 1901.
The police cell in which Jimmy Governor was first detained after his capture can be seen in Wingham, on display at the Manning Valley Historical Society Museum opposite Central Park and The Log in the centre of Wingham.
It is also the subject of Australian poet Les Murray's poem "The Ballad of Jimmy Governor".
- Sarah Mawbey, wife of John Mawbey (Breelong, 20 July)
- Helen Kerz, schoolteacher (Breelong, 20 July)
- Grace Mawbey, 16-year-old daughter of John and Sarah (Breelong, 20 July)
- Percival Mawbey, 14-year-old son of John and Sarah (Breelong, 20 July)
- Hilda Mawbey, 11-year-old daughter of John and Sarah (Breelong, 20 July)
- Alexander McKay, property-owner (near Ulan, 23 July)
- Elizabeth O'Brien (near Merriwa, 24 July)
- James or "Poggie" O'Brien, baby son of Elizabeth O'Brien (near Merriwa, 24 July)
- Keiran Fitzpatrick, property-owner (near Wollar, 26 July)