The Wild Boys of the Goulburn
People Magazine, September 12, 1962
The boisterous Hunters tamed Victoria’s toughest country
By Francis Murray
During the early 1840’s, Lamb Inn in Collins Street, Melbourne, became notorious as the haunt of high-spirited young men, among the wildest of whom were the “Goulburn Boys” –squatters from the Goulburn River runs.
Led by the Hunter brothers, they swooped on Melbourne for intermittent après. Their boisterous practical jokes made them the bane of the constabulary and the despise of sober-minded citizens.
However, the Hunter brothers were not mere playboy-hooligans; they were tough pioneers who helped the Port Phillip district to blossom into the State and Victoria.
Overlanders and pathfinders in its alpine terrain, they also played a leading role in establishing Australia’s horse-racing fame.
In 1838, Alexander Hunter, Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh –a high judicial office- formed a company to take up land in Australia. The shareholders included the Marquis of Aisla and other Scottish noblemen.
Hunter then had six sons, of whom five came to Australia between 1839 and 1851. they were John, born 1820, Alexander McLean (1821), James Arthur Carr (1824), Andrew Francis (1827), and William Ferguson (1828).
In 1839, the company sent James Watson and Alexander McLean Hunter to Melbourne to find suitable land in the Port Phillip district. For the company they chose property near Keilor, about 10 miles from Melbourne, and sailed to Sydney to buy stock.
Soon after they arrived there, John landed. He was followed in 1840 by James and two cousins, Campbell Hunter, and “Old” John (later nicknamed Howqua) Hunter, and the Marquis of Ailsa’s younger son, Gilbert Kennedy.
Reckless gig race
Watson was essentially the business manager. He was too preoccupied with company affairs to keep a tight rein on the bunch of boisterous men under 21, who had been foisted on him. With no work to occupy them, they painted Sydney red.
They were all accomplished horsemen, John being particularly reckless. Challenged to a gig race, he drove furiously along George Street, scattering pedestrians in panic, until the gig collided with a wagon. The gig was a complete wreck and two men and a woman were injured.
Angry citizens demanded his arrest, but Alexander sent the young men out of town before the police acted. He kept them holding a mob of cattle on the outskirts of Sydney, while Watson negotiated for labour and more stock.
Although free labour was at a premium, assigned convict servants were available to landowners. Watson put in a claim for a run at Lake George to secure 20 servants for the company.
Speeding up his buying Watson built up the herd to 500 head to get his mettlesome assistants on the track before they could cause further trouble in Sydney.
Despite his youth, Alexander had a sense of responsibility, which was lacking in the happy-go-lucky John. He was tackily acknowledged as the leader in all matters other than business, and took charge of the drive southward. On the track, he joined forces with Edward Bell, who was overlanding with 1,000 head.
At Goulburn, Alexander was faced with mutiny. There was a race meeting on and his brothers and cousins flatly refused to break camp until it had finished. All the Hunters rode at the meeting, and James won his first race.
Long cattle drive
As the Lake George claim was a mere subterfuge to get labour, Alexander ignored it. Purchasing more cattle en route, he reached Tumut with 1,000 head and bought a run at Gilmore Creek. Leaving Bell in charge there, Alexander bought another 700 head of cattle before going on to Keilor.
With a fine homestead and head station established at Keilor, John joined the young bloods at the Lamb Inn. One of their favourite sports was to race through the streets at midnight, scattering the watch and yelling “Fire”.
Disgruntled citizens, roused from bed by the false alarm, returned home to find sheep’s heads and rude notices nailed to the front doors.
Meantime, the steadier Alexander searched undeveloped country for more runs. Disappointed with the poor soil on an area, he had selected at Ballowea, near the present Mansfield, he pushed into wild terrain at the headwaters of the Goulburn River.
Having located good land on a tributary, he returned to Melbourne to learn that John’s escapades with the Lamb Inn roisterers had earned him the nickname of Jack the Devil. Alexander cracked the whip. He dragged his relatives from their fun and games and put them to droving the Keilor cattle to the Goulburn.
Expert bush riders
At the first camp on the selected site, the brothers were awakened by banshee screams from the banks of a nearby stream. They discovered a big tribe of natives daubed with clay, dancing a fearsome corroboree around huge fires. Alexander named the stream Devil’s River.
Undaunted by this experience, Alexander took up six runs covering nearly 200,000 acres along Devil’s River. He stocked them heavily with cattle and with sheep from Van Diemen’s Land.
In this wild country the Hunter brothers found an outlet for their high spirits. Already expert riders in the formal style, they rapidly became superlative bush horsemen and gained the reputation of being ready to ride anything, anywhere, and at any time.
John excelled as a horseman. Without saddle or bridle, he would race through the bush, swerving from trees and taking logs of fences without slackening speed. The not only trained a blind horse as a steeple-chaser, but won races on it.
As Alexander’s sense of responsibility never sapped his enthusiasm for racing, the brothers visited Melbourne whenever a meeting was to be held there. Two meetings had been held in Melbourne before the Hunters arrived, on a course on the site of the present Spencer Street railway station. Sportsmen as keen as the Hunters needed a secret track for trials. They found a mile-square flat beside the Saltwater (now Maribymong) River, where a semicircle of hills made a natural grandstand.
The track was so good that the Melbourne Race Club staged a three-day meeting there in March, 1840. Run under English Jockey Club rules, riders wore silks for the first time in Victoria. Within a year, the Saltwater track had ousted the old course, and Flemington racecourse was born.
When a new turf club took control of the new course, Alexander became the honorary secretary and held office for nearly 20 years.
Not content with executive office, Alexander was a formidable rival to his brothers as the leading rider. Their services were so much in demand that three of them often had mounts in the same race. When Andrew Francis joined them later, the four brothers rode in one steeplechase.
Having imported outstanding thoroughbreds, including Rembrandt, Pilot, and Romeo, Alexander not only raised the standard of racing, but helped to pioneer the Victorian bloodstock industry. Tiding Romeo in 1841, he won the Town Plate, forerunner of the famous Melbourne Cup.
Alexander’s popularity in Melbourne’s sporting world was emphasized in a practical manner on one notable occasion. He delighted in driving a mettlesome four-in-hand, and when they bolted in Collins Street wrecking the carriage of a prominent banker, damages of £500 were awarded against Alexander.
He called on his solicitor to arrange payment, only to be told that the damages had been paid by subscriptions from local sportsmen. Heading the list of contributors was William Stawell, later Sir William and Chief Justice of Victoria. He had been leading counsel for the plaintiff in the suit.
Meantime, James quickly rivaled John as a daring steeplechase rider. Riding a wild, untrained steeplechaser in a memorable race, he put his mount at a fence, but found a stray dog in the way. To avoid a bad crash, James swerved his horse and drove him at the high wing. To his horror, he saw a man and woman seated in a buggy drawn up hard beyond the wing.
It was too late to stop. James “lifted” his mount and they cleared both the wing and the vehicle without a touch.
In women’s clothes
John’s prominence among the Goulburn Boys led to reckless extravagance, which landed him heavily in debt. When the police came to arrest and imprison him on a creditor’s complaint he hid in a William Street house run by an old lag known as Slippery Sam.
Before things were safe for John a big meeting was scheduled for the Saltwater. Although constables would be there searching for him, John refused to miss the races.
During the last race two disgruntled constables stood near some Goulburn Boys who were grouped around a young woman in meticulous riding habit and mounted, side-saddle, on a thoroughbred.
The horses ridden by Alexander and James cleared away from the field over the last fence and the horsewoman’s excitement routed her discretion. She shouted enthusiastically in a deep bass voice and the startled constables moved in on their quarry.
At a touch of the crop the thoroughbred plunged wildly, scattering the Goulburn Boys and the constables. Then, jumping into stride, it cleared a fence on to the course proper. The “young woman” doffed her bonnet to the police before heading across country to the comparative safety of the Keilor homestead. John returned to town within a few days. He was playing billiards in the Lamb Inn when troopers blocked the doorways. With no hope of escape, John submitted quietly and was taken away, mounted, with a trooper holding the reins.
Nonchalantly whittling tobacco to fill his pipe, John suddenly leaned forward and slashed the reins, simultaneously driving in the spurs. His horse sprang into a gallop and Jack the Devil, without reins, showed the police a clean pair of heels.
Blazed a new trail
Despite their sporting activities and frequent visits to town, the Hunters worked hard on their runs and Alexander constantly probed the Victorian Alps for new runs. In 1841 one of the major Victorian problems was to find a land route from Melbourne to the rich country found by Angus McMillan and named Gippsland by Count Strzelecki.
With two white men and an aboriginal named Pigeon, Alexander forced a way through the formidable Barkly Ranges (which he called the Snowy Mountains) to blaze a trail from Mansfield to the Macalister Valley and the infant settlement at Port Albert.
When word of the exploit reached Melbourne, Crown Lands Commisioner Tyers was instructed to report on the route. For two weeks Tyers’ well-mounted party battled through the dense scrub and deep gorges. For much of the time they were hopelessly hushed among the precipitous mountains and thick forest.
With all horses except one dead, their clothing torn to rags, and reeling from exhaustion and near-starvation, the party stumbled on a cattle pad. It led to one of Hunter’s outstations and the salvation of the party.
Tyers reported that Hunter’s track was impassable. This prompted ugly rumours that Alexander had never reached Gippsland by the route he had claimed. He was so incensed that, with James, Campbell, Hunter, and a man named Hourdon, he followed his blazed track again in 1844.
An official apology
On reaching Gippsland, the party called at Tyers tendered profuse apologies, but, before Hunter’s track was used as a stock route, an easier track to Gippsland had been found.
Although Alexander obtained a grant of the (later) noted Tarwin Downs station in South Gippsland, he sold his option for £ 60 and returned to Devil’s River.
In 1846, trouble between the Scottish shareholders and the local management resulted in the company being wound up. The Hunter brothers were left without a station. They went to South Australia, where they established Moorak and other runs around Mt. Gambier.
Andrew Francis joined his brothers at Mt. Gambier in 1850, shortly before John sailed for the Argentine, where he married. He died in a cholera epidemic in 1868. William Ferguson, the youngest brother, came to Moorak in 1851.
A cripple from birth, William was not a rider, although an expert driver, but Andrew had served in the Cape Mounted Police and in the Victorian Police before going to Moorak. There he soon rivaled his elder brothers as a fearless horseman either with or without a saddle..
Tragic wild bull ride
Living up to the family reputation for daring, Andrew attempted to ride a wild bull, bareback, in a stockyard. He was thrown and gored so badly before the infuriated bull could be driven off that he died of his injuries on September 24, 1854.
About 1864, the surviving brothers disposed of their Mt. Gambier holdings, Alexander went to South Africa to engage in sugar production, while William elected to become a planter in Fiji. James sailed with his younger brother for the trip.
Impressed by the prospects in Fiji, James decided to settle there but found it necessary to return to Australia to wind up his affairs. He was unlucky in his choice of a ship for the passage home.
After sailing, the captain revealed himself as a chronic drunkard. He had neglected to take on sufficient stores and by drunken reckoning laid an erratic course through the South Pacific. With food desperately short, the ship was virtually lost at sea.
In those desperate straits, James took the law into his own hands. He clapped the captain in irons and put the mate in command after having ordered him to find the nearest landfall. With the entire complement in the last stages of starvation, the ship sailed into Twofold Bay.
Abandoning the Fiji project, James entered the stock-and-station business at Penola (S.A.) but later retired to a farm near Warragul where he died in 1889.
After six years in South Africa, Alexander returned to Victoria to become Director of Police Remounts. To secure a supply of good troop horses, he arranged a partnership with two high-class bush riders, Peter Snodgrass and Cuthbert Fetherstonehaugh, to hunt brumbies.
Hundreds of these gone-wild horses roamed the rugged, mountain country between the Goulburn River and the top of the Great Dividing Range. They mustered in small mobs of about eight good stock mares and their progeny, bossed by a runaway thoroughbred stallion with a cunning old mare as chief consort. She could smell a trap a mile off.
For two months Fetherstonehaugh camped in the Yea and Flowerdale districts, studying the habits and runs of the best mobs. The partners then built strong stockyards with long hidden wings leading to the sliprails.
With three expert, if reckless, riders on their tails, the brumbies were rushed between the concealed wings and into the yard. They were ridden on the spot, before being driven to Melbourne for final handling.
The partners caught more than 150 brumbies in the ranges, but their prize capture was the brumby king of Flowerdale. He was a big piebald stallion, which, as Ahdelkader, became the pride of the Cobb and Co string on the Melbourne-Kilmore run.
Alexander bought a 3,840-acre station near Cranbourne, and held it for a few years before selling, to visit Scotland. While abroad, he completed negotiations to buy a farm near James’ holding at Warragul, but he did not live to enter into possession. While returning aboard S.S. Tongariro, he died at sea on November 16, 1892.
Only the crippled William then remained of the five Hunter brothers who came to Australia. During his 25 years as a planter in Fiji, William had several narrow escapes from death. One night a dozen natives crept into his bungalow to kill him. His guns were beyond reach, but his crutch was at hand.
When he retired, William returned to Victoria to live with one of James’ sons on the Warragul farm. There, on March 9, 1906, he died, closing the epic of the five Hunter brothers’ pioneering in Victoria
From A History of Peeblesshire
J. W. Buchan and Rev. H. Paton. Published 1925-7.