Updated October 21, 2005

MMarian is an enthusiastic amateur historian whose obsession with the Kelly story began on 21st October 1980, the evening the first episode of The Last Outlaw was screened. Her 'simple' ambition is to know everything about Ned.

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William "Brickey" Williamson
"All that trouble for doing a good turn."

by Marian Matta

In 2004 I was contacted by Betty Falconer, the oldest living grandchild of William Williamson, generally known in the Kelly story as Brickey. Betty wondered if I’d like to know more about her grandfather and, being a pretty normal Kelly researcher, I jumped at the chance. Once I’d spoken to Betty and done some digging of my own I realised just how little I’d known about William. Given that so much of our information about the Kelly Outbreak is based on personal accounts (often heavily biased) I think it’s essential for researchers to have at least some idea about the people who have passed on this history, and with that thought in mind I offer the following account of Brickey’s life.

William Williamson was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England on 15th November 1847, the son of cabinet maker Alexander Williamson, who worked at the Newcastle docks. His parents ensured that their children received good educations, and later events would prove that the family developed close-knit, enduring ties.

Each day after school, William waited on the docks for his father to finish work and the pair would then walk home together. However, William had a touch of the romantic adventurer in him and when he was fourteen, while waiting for his father, he decided to stow away on the Norfolk, bound – he thought - for America. Whatever William believed his destination to be, the captain had his sailing orders and in October 1862 the ship reached its intended destination, Melbourne. His family thinks he probably hadn’t remained undiscovered for long and would have been put to work as a crew member. In Melbourne William found plenty of work - and a nickname - as a brick-maker. (Incidentally, he was not called Brickey in later life.)

For a while, William disappeared from the records but in March 1871 he was to be found at Greta in north-eastern Victoria. He had been staying all that month at the Kelly place on the Eleven Mile Creek, where Ellen Kelly supplemented her meagre farming income by taking in boarders and selling the odd unlicensed glass of alcohol at her small (and presumably rather crowded) bark hut. On March 27th, Mrs Kelly’s eldest son, Ned, was released from Beechworth Gaol where he had been serving a short sentence for assault. A couple of weeks later, on April 15th, William joined Ned, Ned’s brother-in-law Alex Gunn and Alex’s friend Isaiah 'Wild' Wright in searching for Wild’s missing horse, the “remarkable” chestnut mare that Ned would end up getting a three year sentence for receiving. When Ned came to trial in August over the theft of the mare, William appeared as a witness for the defence. At that stage he was still describing himself as a brick-maker. (Such tradesmen were sometimes self-employed, travelling around and making bricks on-site for clients out of the available clay.)

In January 1872 it was William’s turn to feel the sharp end of the judicial stick. Up until this point it appears that he had been just an observer of the sort of activities that the police and the Kelly clan indulged in but this time he got caught up in the action. He had accompanied Ned’s uncle, “the notorious James Quinn” to quote the Ovens & Murray Advertiser, to the home of a splitter named John Page, where Quinn had viciously assaulted Page with the handle of an auger, jumped on another splitter called Tom Rice, and then hauled Page outside by the hair with the apparent intention of drowning him in a waterhole. William’s only involvement seems to have been that Quinn had asked him to remove a sliprail from a fence to facilitate Page’s demise. When the pair were found guilty, Judge Hackett recognised his lesser contribution and gave him an eighteen month sentence with hard labour for “aiding and abetting an assault”, in contrast to Jimmy Quinn’s three years.

As was usual back then, the prison recorder at Beechworth Gaol missed little in describing William. He was recorded as being 5 feet 7 inches tall (170 cms, although his grand-daughter recalls him as being about the height of her father, i.e. around 5’ 10”). 9 stone 10 pounds (62 kgs), of slight build, with a fair complexion, dark brown hair and eyebrows, blue eyes, a square face, a nose which was slightly inclined to the right (again, Betty recalls him as having a straight nose, a fact which seems to be borne out by photos), and otherwise unremarkable features. He also had the usual collection of scars and marks that a working man of that period tended to acquire.

William was a model prisoner, apart from being charged with “having tobacco” on two occasions and having two days added to his sentence as a result, and he was freed by remission on 3rd February, 1873. A year later, Ned Kelly finished his own prison term and the pair resumed a friendship which presumably had begun before they were both sent down.

At first glance, they appear unlikely allies. Ned was 18 or 19, the possessor of a colourful vocabulary, the big, strong scion of a wild Irish Catholic family whose reputed propensity for drinking and brawling was well-known to the local constabulary; William was 26, physically unprepossessing, a non-swearing teetotaller and nominal Anglican. (In fact, he had no religious beliefs but was tolerant of the beliefs of others.)

On the other hand William and Ned were both intelligent, strongly opinionated men who shared a love of reading and horses. (Local boy Joseph Ashmead was later to say of the pair who broke some horses for his father, “I could not help thinking what a dashing, fearless fellow Ned Kelly was, and a companion he had with him who was known as Brickey was if possible more reckless".) Furthermore, although Brickey didn’t approve of heavy drinking by others he was not a wowser and all his life he enjoyed attending wakes and gatherings, for the company if not for the alcohol. However, when Ned took employment as a timber-getter and sawmill worker later in 1874, his friend thought that it was unfortunate for him to join the company of older, rather hard-bitten drinking men.

Sometime in the mid-1870s, William selected the block west of Mrs Kelly’s. Like the Kelly block, it was 88 acres, a long, narrow, flat, less-than-fertile strip (described on a map as “fair agricultural land”) running south to a low range of hills. I have been unable to locate his Lands Department file so I don’t know how successfully he was running his farm but if his later experiences are anything to go by we could assume he gave it his best shot. It has also been suggested by at least one researcher (Corfield) that at this time he was involved in the horse-stealing business conducted by Ned Kelly and some of his friends and relatives; while I have no doubt that William knew what was going on, I don’t know of any evidence which proves his actual involvement.

As was common amongst the local selectors, much of his first income came from the timber which was cleared and split, and splitting timber was what William was engaged in when Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick rode up, late in the afternoon of 15th April 1878, with an alcohol-fuelled plan to arrest Dan Kelly. Of course, it is unlikely that anyone beyond William’s family and the communities in which he lived would have been at all interested in his story if it hadn’t been for the Fitzpatrick Incident. Fitzpatrick and he - and to a lesser extent Ned - were the only participants who left anything like full accounts of what happened, and none of them told the whole truth either then or later. (The very full statement which William wrote in 1881 in the hopes of being released from gaol is reproduced HERE.)

The Fitzpatrick Incident is the great mystery in the Kelly story, and it is not my intention to even begin to unravel it. In his book, Ned Kelly: A Short Life, Ian Jones tried to draw together several accounts and to distil the essential points from them. It was a brave and credible attempt but we have no way of knowing if his conclusions were wholly or partially correct. We can say, however, that later that night a wounded Fitzpatrick returned to base, declaring he had been attacked and threatened by Ned, Dan and Mrs Kelly, Ned’s brother-in-law Bill Skillion and William Williamson, that within thirty-six hours the latter three had been arrested and that the two men had a six month wait in prison until they came to trial.

On 9th October, 1878, William was found guilty of “wounding with intent to prevent lawful apprehension” and three days later was sentenced to six years imprisonment with hard labour. The following week he was transferred to Pentridge Gaol in Melbourne but if he thought life couldn’t get much worse he was in for a shock when a week later came the police shootings at Stringybark Creek.

The body of Sgt Kennedy had not yet been found when William made his first statement, on 29th October, to Inspector Green, a statement that was in the hands of Superintendent Sadleir, the head of the North East police district, the next day and which helped the police in their initial pursuit of the Kellys. There is no record of what pressure, if any, was brought to bear by the police (the force’s attitude to cop killers hasn’t changed over the years, not surprisingly) and perhaps no pressure was required anyway. It’s unwise to second-guess someone’s motivations, especially so long after the event.

He gave information on the places the Kellys might camp, where they were likely to get supplies, who would support them, details of their weapons, and a description of “Billy King” by whom it’s usually assumed he meant Ned’s friend Joe Byrne. A sketch was also drawn in accordance with his instructions, showing a hollow log near the Kelly house where food might be left for the gang. Seventeen days later, Inspector Green obtained more information, this time on the gang’s likely movements and the Kelly horses. William also threw in a few more details about “Billy King” which clearly didn’t apply to Joe although the two men must have known each other quite well. He added that Tom Lloyd (whether uncle or nephew was not specified) and Wild Wright would “put [the Kellys] away”. Both of the statements made to Green are a jumble of facts and opinions and perhaps even some false leads (the hollow log would be found complete with undisturbed cobwebs) but they sound as though they came from a man who was very badly shaken by the situation he was in.

In late January 1879 the Kelly Gang began spreading disinformation about their next venture, a raid into New South Wales. Both Williamson and Michael Woodyard, another imprisoned former associate, were approached for information. The report on their responses is dated 7th February, the day the Gang closed in on Jerilderie for their spectacular bank robbery. Once again, William seems to have given a grab-bag of facts and opinions, and he also came up with a scheme to gain more information; he suggested the Kelly sisters be arrested and detained in Beechworth Gaol, that their mother be transferred there temporarily so that the girls could tell her all they knew, and that a meeting then be arranged back in Melbourne Gaol between Mrs Kelly and William, where he would somehow get her to spill the beans. While it’s true that he was transferred to Melbourne Gaol in late May, returning to Pentridge twelve days later, it’s unlikely that it had anything to do with his proposed scheme.

As William continued to languish in gaol, the Gang played out its last dramatic chapters, but it was only after Ned’s trial and execution in November 1880 that he wrote to the Chief Commissioner of Police Captain Standish giving “a statement of the affair”; anything that he had to say at that point could no longer have an effect on Ned’s fate. With Ned’s death, it seems to have been “every man for himself” as the police and authorities scrambled to cover their backs and, with a growing clamour for an investigation into the police handling of the Kelly Outbreak, no doubt Standish was pleased to have any evidence that would support his actions and those of his force.

The Royal Commission on the police force of Victoria began its first day of hearings on 23rd March 1881. First up was Captain Standish and within minutes he had publicly dropped William right in it, saying “I had a conversation, a long conversation, with Williamson, in Pentridge, and he entirely corroborated every word of Fitzpatrick’s evidence; and he gave me some considerable information, and volunteered to assist me in every kind of way…….I think [six years] was a very severe punishment myself.” He did not mention having received a letter but this is not especially surprising – Standish was a very unreliable witness whose object seems to have been to present himself as a man fully in charge of the situation but never quite responsible for the actions of his men.

On 7th April Supt Sadleir took the stand and after mentioning William’s statement he begged the Commission not to publish details for fear of reprisals, but it was already too late. Sergeant Whelan told the Commissioners that Kelly sympathisers were intending to kill Williamson, and that the newspapers were scanned eagerly each day to see who had passed on information to the enemy.

CONTINUED:

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First Published 20th October, 2005

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