Terracotta, underglaze, glaze, iron oxide, little plants
A re-imagining of the life of an unlikely bush-ranger, Captain Moonlite, and his companion, James Nesbitt.
On exhibition in the lock up cell at the Balmain Watch House, July 2016
It was the second half of the 19th century. Gold rush fever had well & truly hit Australia. Tall tales of vicious bush-rangers terrorised & terrified the population. In 1868, a 25 year old Irish man called Andrew George Scott arrived in Australia. He sought wealth like most newcomers to Australia, he wasn’t of the demeanour to mine for gold. He was a charismatic story teller & a dreamer. He was employed by the Anglican Church as a lay preacher & sent to the mining town of Bacchus Marsh in Victoria.
The Iron Church
One night the bank manager, a drinking buddy of Scott’s, was held up & large amount of gold was stolen. The manager claimed that the robber was Andrew George Scott dressed in a black mask & cape, going by the name ‘Captain Moonlite’. The case went to court & at the trial Scott convinced the judge & jury that he had been out of town. The manager himself & the school master were convicted. No one knows what really happened. A popular theory is that they were all in on it & turned on each other.
Scott left Bacchus Marsh & began to live a rather gentlemanly life in Sydney. He racked up debts getting fancy new clothes & he failed to pay for his lodgings. He travelled to Fiji & New Caledonia, always with grand plans & dreams for another life. He returned to Australia to raise funds & acquire goods to begin a business in Fiji with a close friend. Around this time presented gold at the Royal Mint. The cake of gold had similarities with the Bacchus Marsh gold. It was his debts that caught up with him though. He never returned to Fiji, as he was captured & sentenced to 12 months in Maitland Gaol.
On his release he was charged for the Bacchus Marsh robbery. He was sent to the new Ballarat Prison while awaiting trial. It was built in the Pentonville style, with corridors of cells branching out from a central point. This was supposed to be a money saving design so it could be staffed with one guard. The lone guard could sit in the centre point & see down the hallways of every branch. Scott masterminded an escape plan that saw him & three others escape. All four men were eventually captured & returned to Ballarat. Scott was put on trial. After a falling out with his lawyer he defended himself. By all accounts, he did an amazing job, however the absence of a key witness & the number of testimonies from people he owed money to, led the jury to convict him. Now it was official – Andrew George Scott was Captain Moonlite.
He was sent to Pentridge (now Coburg, Melbourne) prison. Here he met James Nesbitt, a young man from a poverty stricken family with a history of robbery. Their friendship blossomed inside the prison. One of Nesbitt’s recorded misdemeanours was for ‘taking tea to Prisoner Scott’. He had an extra say added to his sentence for this. It was reported that they had to be separated to ‘preserve discipline’. In the press, Scott was reported to be a bit of a rabble rouser & a disobedient inmate. Although one of his offences was ‘letting water out of the bath’. The media were not known to report good behaviour, it wasn’t in the headlines when he was released three years early for good behaviour. James Nesbitt, who had been released a year earlier, was waiting for him outside the prison walls.
They moved to a boarding house in Fitzroy, where Scott started preparing a lecture tour. He planned to travel around rallying against the treatment of prisoners. Throughout this time, the authorities & the media would not let ‘Captain Moonlite’ die, rumours of his escapades would not stop. When Scott sought honest work, his potential employers were warned off. Police harassment continued & Scott (as Moonlite) was accused of crime after crime.
Scott & Nesbitt attempted to leave it all behind, & took with them a band of desperate young men. The police continued to harass them every chance they got. As they marched north someone started the rumour that they were seeking to join the Kelly gang. Word of this reached Ned Kelly, who said he would shoot them down if they approached him. Times were tough all over Australia, unemployment was high. The Moonlite gang sold what little they had, living on damper & koalas. They made it to New South Wales & heard of a station that had a reputation of generosity to swagmen.
Scott & his gang of young men approached the remote farm at Wantabadgery, near Gundagai. They requested shelter, work & food. When they were denied they bailed up the place keeping hostages. The police arrived & a shoot out occurred. A police officer & James Nesbitt were fatally shot. The police reported that Scott ran to James’ side & kissed him passionately. He wept as they dragged him away. He wore a lock of Nesbitt’s hair as a ring on his finger as he was put on trial. He was convicted, hung & buried in Rookwood Necropolis in Sydney.
The death of James
A letter to Nesbitt’s mother was revealed. He wrote “My dying wish is to be buried beside my beloved James Nesbitt, the man with whom I was united by every tie which could bind human friendship, we were one in hopes, in heart and soul and this unity lasted until he died in my arms.”
His wish wasn’t granted until 1995, when a privately funded campaign by interested citizens won the right to have his body exhumed & brought to Gundagai Cemetery where Nesbitt’s body lay.
Reunited for ever after (close up)