Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Hunter Valley Bushrangers

James Davidson and William Smith

James Davidson arrived on the Minstrel in 1825. He also went by the name of John Wilson or Writson. He was tried at Cumberland on 24 August 1824 and sentenced to transportation for life.

William Smith arrived on the Bengal Merchant in 1835. He was a farm servant and horse dealer from Birmingham who had been tried in Suffolk for stealing money and sentenced to transportation for life. He had red whiskers and a raised mole on the side of his neck. He was granted a ticket of leave for the Patrick Plains district in 1843.

Highway Robbery

Davidson and Smith were apprehended for robbing the Singleton Mail at Harper's gate at William Harper's Oswald Estate near Lochinvar in June 1849. They were taken to Newcastle gaol on 8th July 1849 and sent for trial at Maitland on 18th July.

The Trial

James Davidson and William Smith were indicted for 'assaulting Thomas Loxton at Harper's Hill on the 17th June 1849, putting him in bodily fear and robbing him of ten shillings in silver, they being at the time unlawfully armed with muskets'. Davidson pleaded guilty, and persisted in his plea ; Smith pleaded not guilty. The Attorney General stated the case to the jury.

Thomas Loxton deposed that he was postmaster at Murrurundi, and that on the 17th June he was travelling towards Maitland by the mail coach, and that they reached Harper's gate, about four miles from Black Creek, just after sundown ; the two prisoners rushed out from the side of the road, and stopped the mail ; each had a short gun in his hand - a kind of cut-down gun, or carbine ; Smith came towards witness with his gun levelled at him, and on witness's desiring him to keep off, Davidson came round, and demanded witness's money ; witness remarked to the driver that it was of no use resisting, as both men were armed ; witness then gave up 10s. in silver to Davidson. After this Davidson got the mail-bags, which he opened, and took the letters out, putting some in his shirt, and putting the others aside. Witness and the driver repeatedly asked him not to destroy the letters that were of no service to him ; Davidson at last got vexed, and threw three bags at them, which struck an elderly woman who was a passenger, and which witness kicked in among the straw ; one of these bags was the Murrurundi bag, and was unopened. After Davidson had finished opening the bags, he burnt the remaining letters, and told them to go on, which they did. Witness was positive as to the identity of both prisoners ; Smith for several minutes kept his gun levelled at witness, and witness, apprehensive that if the gun went off his life must be sacrificed, steadily watched him ; his face was partially concealed by a piece of crape, which covered his forehead, but witness was certain the prisoner Smith was the man. John Russell, the mail-driver, corroborated this evidence, and was positive as to the identity of both prisoners. Maitland Mercury 12 September 1849

Escape from Maitland Gaol

The two men were found guilty and sentenced to many years on the roads, the first three years to be in irons, so they had little to lose when they made their escape on the last day of their sentencing.

William Tristram, gaol-keeper at Maitland gaol failed to secure the two men in irons after their sentencing. On the last day of the Court sittings the two took their chance when the turnkey was distracted by other prisoners while in the exercise yard. The exercise yard was situated between the gaol itself and the SE outer wall and was divided off from the general yard by a high and close slab paling fence. In the West paling fence was the entrance to the yard through a locked stout wicket door.

The men made a ladder on the western wall by placing prisoners' rolled up beds (which had been taken out for airing) on top of each other. Davidson being taller first lifted Smith on to the top of the paling and Smith then drew Davidson to the top and they slipped down into the general yard unobserved by the constables or gatekeeper.

The gate was placed about the centre of the SW outer wall, and running along inside that wall and extending from near the gateway to the Southern corner of the wall were a series of low slab buildings used as a cooking house. The two men climbed on top of these buildings and although they were then observed by the gaol constable, they managed to let themselves down the outside by a rope and escape into the thick scrub of gum trees and bushes on the southern side of the gaol.

Changes at Maitland Gaol

An investigation later took place regarding the manner of escape of the two prisoners. William Tristram was dismissed from his position and replaced as Governor of the gaol by James Cox who was paid a salary of £100. Ann Cox his wife was matron at the gaol. Mr. Tristram was also required to repay money he had been drawing in government rations for his private servant. Other changes also took place at the gaol. The turnkey Mr. Tierney was promoted to principal turnkey replacing Major Lackey who was dismissed. Patrick Toole was appointed turnkey in place of Tierney and K. Rigney was appointed gaol constable in lieu of Constable Galvin who was on duty in the yard where the prisoners escaped.

The Pursuit

By the time the alarm was raised and police magistrate Edward Denny Day had raised a posse of police and volunteers, no trace of the men could be found. The pursuit continued throughout the evening and for the next two days without sight of the runaways and a notice of their descriptions was posted.

Davidson was described as a thick stout determined looking man of 45 - 50 years of age. 6' tall with a weather beaten countenance with deeply marked furrows and few whiskers he was said to be without any savage or ferocious expression. He had previously been attached to a survey party at Port Stephens.

Smith was a slight man of 5'7' with a thin sharp nose, high cheek bones, sandy whiskers and light brown hair. His eyes were small and he wore an expression of indecision in his countenance. He had been employed as a groom by Mr. Blaxland at Wollombi.


In September the Maitland Mercury reported the capture of Davidson -

Gallant Re-Capture of the felon James Davidson - The public will be somewhat gratified to learn that this man, who with his accomplice made his escape from the Maitland gaol, has been re-taken at the Australian Agricultural Company's station, Bundobah by Mr. Charles King, of Tahlee, assisted by his groom, Edward Stacey, and two stockmen after a most determined and obstinate resistance. On Monday evening, the 24th instant, he crossed the ferry at Sawyer's Point, and, passing through Carrington the following morning, reached Bundobah in the afternoon. At Sawyer's Point ferry he said his name was Young, at Tahlee garden he said his name was Cook, but at Bundobah, being recognised by some of his old acquaintances, he said his name was James Davidson. On Tuesday evening Mr. Charles King and his groom proceeded to Bundobah, and there, lying on a bed in the hut, discovered a stranger, who stoutly denied that he was the robber of the Singleton mail, although his name was Davidson. Mr. Charles King, how-ever, felt convinced that he was so, and presenting a pistol at him, demanded his surrender.

With many threats of determination to resist, he remained in the hut for some time, and at length forced his way out of it, saying he would light a fire and camp outside, this he partly did, but soon began to move off. Mr. C. King and his assistants immediately followed, and finding he was making for a creek, where he would probably get away from them, the groom let fly his pistol after him. Davidson's foot tripping at the same instant, he fell into the water-hole, while he was scrambling out on the other side, Mr. C. King's foot also tripped, and he found himself in the water with Davidson immediately above him, who flourished an enormous club with which he had armed himself.

At this juncture, Mr. King presented his pistol at him, but the cap missed fire. Observing from this determined act what he had to expect, Davidson retreated from the hole, and on the level ground soon found himself surrounded by the party. It might have been possible here to grapple him, but the quick eye of the blackfellow,' Cobrabald,' detected the moonbeams gleaming on a long and pointed knife which he had found in the hut, and which he now threatened to use with bloody violence against any one who dared to touch him. Mr. C. King now called out to the blackfellow to knock him down with a waddy, but not a sound stick could he find, though he left the mark of one of his missiles on his cheek bones. Finding now that Davidson was advancing towards him, Mr. C. King discharged his pistol at him, and lodged one of the swan drops with which it was loaded in his hand. Davidson then turned and ran, followed, as best they could, by his pursuers. The injury which he had received in his back, probably in jumping from the gaol wall, prevented his running more than about three hundred yards, when he again stood at bay with his knife and club. The fear of again receiving the contents of Mr. King's pistol, at length induced him to return with them to the hut, but he would not give up his knife and club until he began to feel faint and sick. He would not allow himself to be secured, but mounted a horse, which was led into Carrington. On the road, the escort was relieved by a small party from Stroud; he was finally lodged in the lock-up at Carrington.

He was then taken Maitland in custody of constable Evans and Edward Stacey, Mr. Charles King also accompanying the party. At Raymond Terrace they got on board the steamer to come to Morpeth, and as it happened that Mr. Day was on board, all doubt as to Davidson's identity was cleared up at once. Davidson states that when he dropped from the outer gaol wall the rope broke with him, and he fell nearly the full height, alighting on his nether end, and receiving a heavy shock throughout the back-bone; that he and Smith got as quickly as possible about two miles and a half from the gaol, where they lay quiet, and while lying concealed saw a constable hurrying past ; that on the following day they parted, nor had he seen or heard of Smith since ; that he (Davidson) was put across the Hunter below Raymond Terrace, by an old man in a boat, and from thence made his way to Port Stephens. Davidson states that ever since his fall he has experienced much pain and weakness in his back. He is now, we learn, too weak and ill, from this cause and the injuries he received in his re-capture, to be in a fit state to be removed from the gaol; and the injury to his back is said to be so serious that it will be many years before he fairly recovers from its effects, if he ever does so. Of Smith's movements nothing has yet been heard, beyond what Davidson has stated as above
. - Maitland Mercury 22 September 1849.

James Davidson received a ticket of leave for the Muswellbrook district in December 1854 (Maitland Mercury 2 December 1854)