By Kim Odgers During early research for my book Our Town Our People: A Tribute to the Men and Women who have shaped our town, I sat at dozens of kitchen tables across the region listening to the stories of our more senior residents as they recalled facts and yarns from an earlier simpler time. While these days short-term memory might be an issue for these remarkable folk, long-term memory was often razor sharp. One remembered story would lead to another connected story as I scrambled to write it all down.
I quickly learnt to carefully separate fact from yarn. For example, I was earnestly informed by one Nelligan resident that the origin of his town’s name was derived from an early incident when a local butcher apparently did away with his wife and threw her remains in the Clyde River. Occasionally the body would re-surface and the locals would observe “Here comes Nell again!”
The following story, partly told to me but mostly supported by official records, I believe to be true. If not, then it should be.
In the 1860’s, there is no reason to doubt that Moruya based Senior Constable Martin Brennan was anything other than a respected and diligent police officer.
Born in County Kilkenny, Ireland, Brennan migrated to NSW in 1859 and joined the police mounted patrol stationed at Braidwood. Three years later Brennan would wish that his detective skills had been a little keener and that he might have been able to better control the over-enthusiasm of his fellow officers. It was Senior Constable Brennan who triggered the town of Batemans Bay’s only gold rush.
Brennan went on to complete a notable career in the NSW police force rising to the rank of Superintendent. But in 1862, as a Senior Constable, he was in charge of the mounted escort operating between the Araluen and Mogo gold fields and Goulburn. This was a difficult and dangerous job. In the 1860s the murderous Clarke brothers, probably Australia’s most violent bushrangers, were active in the Mogo area and terrorized inland settlements including Michelago and Queanbeyan. Originally from Braidwood, the Clarke brothers are believed to have murdered 5 police officers and were responsible for 36 holdups.
Not that Martin Brennan was short on courage. The previous year he distinguished himself when dealing with the outbreak of violence in the race riots at the Lambing Flat goldfields (near Young). 3,000 European miners had attacked 1,000 Chinese in an act of defiance against authority the equal of the Eureka riots of Ballarat 6 years earlier. During the course of the unrest Brennan was wounded in the arm and had 4 horses shot from under him.
But on this day, 12 months after the Lambing Flats riots, Brennan may easily have been lynched by local mining hopefuls for the coming chaos he was to be partly responsible for.
Officers of the mounted gold escort returning to Moruya were in the habit of collecting fine sand from Batemans Bay for the purpose of cleaning personal cooking and eating utensils. Sand was carried in saddlebags to be eventually cast out onto the mounting yard at the rear of the Moruya police station. It was not uncommon for escort gold to be secured in sealed bags in these same saddlebags.
On one afternoon while cleaning his kit, Senior Constable Brennan noticed 18 small pieces of gold scattered beneath the sandy surface of the mounting yard. A further search yielded two ounces of gold. Brennan’s Sergeant unwisely and loudly then proclaimed to all within hearing distance that a marvelous rich gold strike had been discovered in the police compound.
Within 48 hours 1,000 hopeful miners had descended on the Moruya police station. Two shafts were quickly sunk but no further gold was to be found. Brennan, eager to be of help, informed the disappointed miners that the sand had been sourced from a beach “near Donovan’s Hotel” in Batemans Bay (close to the Soldiers Club). In short time dozens of shafts had been sunk around the hotel and along the beach. Brennan describes the scene as chaotic with “piles of sand thrown up in all directions”.
Before long a further 100 miners arrived in Batemans Bay by steamer from Sydney. After 10 days the dispirited miners dispersed. Only the town’s publicans and mining equipment storekeepers had profited.
Eventually Senior Constable Martin Brennan’s investigative skills finally kicked in and linked the placing of the sealed escort gold in the saddlebags along with the loose Batemans Bay sand. Apparently, it was not the first time that the sealed bags had leaked.
History does not record the reaction of the region’s miners to the official police explanation when released, but Martin Brennan was soon after transferred to Araluen, and then to Queanbeyan where he was promoted to senior sergeant.
In retirement, Martin Brennan wrote, “the gold fields were the resort of mountebank lords, charlatan doctors, clerical hypocrites, wily conjurors, artful spirit-rappers, deceitful fortune tellers, and brazen impostors, who on occasions appeared in profuse fertility, swindled the honest miners and business men, and caused the principal troubles on the gold fields.”
He could have also usefully added the difficulties miners sometimes faced by being inadvertently misled by their own officials.