Local Interest 3: The Boy Bushranger

‘Stop! or I’ll blow your brains out.’!!!!

The McLaren Vale / Willunga district experienced its own Bushranger phenomenon in 1922. Not to the scale of the Ned Kelly Gang but a nervous time for the residents of this district. It did merit headlines in the Sydney Morning Herald as well as other capital city newspapers of Australia.

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Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Saturday 29 July 1922, page 11

BOY BUSHRANGER AT LARGE IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA.

ADELAIDE, Friday.

A boy who had been reading of the exploits of the Kelly Gang, and who apparently desired to emulate the exploits of the youthful bushranger at Neerim, Victoria, has caused a sensation in the Willunga district, 30 miles south of Adelaide.

His name is Norman Wilfred Baker, aged 14 years and 10 months, and on Tuesday last he is reported to have pointed a rifle at a farmer in the Willunga district, and compelled him to hand over 28 shillings. The lad’s father states that he left home with two rifles. He left a note behind saying that he was going to have “a short life and a merry one ” He had no equipment but the clothes he was wearing and a military overcoat. He has no mother, and has been living with his father and brother. The lad yesterday made his way through the scrub, which is very dense, and it was found subsequently that a hut occupied by a farm labourer had been entered and a quantity of provisions stolen. A number of police and a black tracker are searching in the vicinity. (end of article)

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Brisbane Courier (Qld.: 1864 – 1933), Saturday 29 July 1922, page 7

BOY “BUSHRANGER” BUSH ESCAPADES. POUCE IN PURSUIT.

ADELAIDE, July 28 1922.

During the past couple of days, the residents of the Willunga district, about 30 miles south of Adelaide, have been excited over the escapades of Norman Wilfred Baker, aged 15 years. The first knowledge the local police had of the affair was when F. De Caux was held up on Tuesday at the point of a rifle, and compelled to hand over 28/-. The police were informed, and information, from the boy’s father elicited that last Sunday evening his son had signified his intention of being a bushranger. It was elicited that the lad had been reading books about the Kelly gang, and had been fascinated by the doings of the two boys in Neerim, in Victoria. He had left home and, with the exception of two rifles, ammunition, bread, and a can of jam, had only the clothes he wore. The police began searching the surrounding country, which is covered with dense scrub, then on Thursday discovered that a hut used by an employee of N. Brookman had been entered and provisions and two rugs re-moved. With the aid of a black tracker the police traced the boy to Prospect Hill, which is further north, and found traces of a camp fire, but there their search, ended. On Friday, S. Dodd, of Prospect Hill, reported to the police that he had seen a lad answering the description of Baker near his property. The lad, however, soon eluded his pursuers in the scrub. Later further information was received from Kangarilla, a nearby township, that a robbery had occurred there, and another party of police are searching the countryside in that vicinity. Up to a late hour on Friday night. Baker was still at large. (end of article)

A YOUNG LAD INFLUENCED BY EXPLOITS OF THE KELLY GANG & ‘BOY BUSHRANGER’ HENRY MAPLE

     In July 1922, the boy Norman Wilfred BAKER, 14 years & 10 months old, lived with his father George Edmund BAKER and his older brother Rodney, who was 17 years old. Baker’s mother had died when he was very young and for some years he was under the care of his grandmother and after this he lived with a sister.

     The Baker homestead was about 7 miles from Willunga in the heart of the bush. The means of access to the homestead was then a rough unmade track called Range Road which branched off the Main Road approximately a mile out of Willunga. The little house was typical of the back blocks buildings of those days and comprised of two stone rooms and two small galvanised compartments at the rear. Norman had lived there since September 1920 with his older brother and father.

    George Edmund BAKER was a widower. They had moved from the Lake Frome district, Mount Barker. George was engaged in farming and woodcutting and worked the property which was 338 acres in extent. George shared the work with his brother Mr. F.H. Baker of Kangarilla, who owned the property.

    Norman had been in the habit of periodic Sunday visits to Mr Philip de Caux who lived by himself a couple of miles away from the Baker homestead. On one occasion Mr Philip de Caux gave him a book on the exploits of the Ned Kelly. Norman, according to Mr Philip de Caux’s dismay, had become obsessed with the exploits of these notorious characters especially with boy bushrangers that had gone on a spree that year in Neerim, Victoria by the names of HENRY ALEXANDER MAPLE & ROBERT BANKS.

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HENRY ALEXANDER MAPLE & ROBERT BANKS

  Henry Alexander MAPLE died 28 March 1922 in Neerim Junction, Gippsland, Victoria. His death was the result of a shoot-out with police and members of the local community who had known the youth all of his life. Henry was only 15 years old at the time, the second of six children born to Joseph Henry Maple and Ethel Louise (nee Awry). He appeared to have a normal childhood growing up on his father’s farm in the Neerim area with his brothers and sisters. There is however evidence from the inquest into his death that he once spent time in the Royal Park Neglected Children’s School and made the acquaintance of the other lad involved in the incident, Joseph Banks. It all began with a robbery at Neerim Junction general store that belonged to the Bloomfield Co-operative Butter Factory. The store was broken into and goods to the value of 60 pounds were stolen. They consisted of clothing, drapery, groceries and about 2000 rounds of ammunition as well as a Winchester rifle and a breech loading shotgun. The police discovered that a local youth (Henry) and a friend of his could not be found and they were suspected of the crime. At 5am on the third day after the robbery the lads had been seen firing 12 shots at a local house occupied by a settler and his family. One of the shots just missed one of his girls. Warragul police and a detective from Sale joined the search. They were engaged all day Thursday searching the thick bush to the north of Neerim Junction and along the River Latrobe. In many places it was too steep and the forest too thick to utilize their horses. They came upon the suspects later in the afternoon and they were called on to surrender, but instead one of them fired point blank at a Constable from a distance of only a few yards, the bullet going through his helmet and only grazing the scalp. The youths fled down the gully. Friday morning the officers came across a camp, evidently made by the youths and then while. riding from Goodwood towards Neerim Junction they met Banks. He was unarmed and made no attempt to escape. He took his captors to a spot where he had concealed a shotgun and about 250 cartridges. Maple, he said, had gone to Neerim Junction to obtain a change of clothes.

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  While this was going on, the women at some of the farmhouses spotted the other youth with a rifle and when attracting the attention of the men with their cries they frightened the youth away. As he proceeded through several properties he could be seen brandishing the gun and before long one of the local identities approached on horseback to head him off. Shots were fired and one of Maples’ struck the stock of the local identity’s rifle, and was deflected into his right arm near the shoulder. Another shot entered his back and also near his shoulder and he fell to the ground. Miss Martin, the district bush nurse hurried to his aid and dressed his wounds before he was taken to Dr Ley’s private hospital, Warragul.

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  Robert Banks, when brought to Neerim Junction said that he was glad that he had left Maple, to give himself up. He said they had met at the reformatory and when they left it was arranged that they would meet at Neerim Junction. He made a statement: “We broke into the Bloomfield store on Monday night and hid the goods in different places. On Wednesday night we went to a place near Johnstone’s where we had hidden food but it had gone. Maple blamed the Johnstones for taking it and we went to a gully below Johnstone’s house. The girl Johnstone came to the back door and Maple fired several more shots but he did not know if he intended to hit the girl.” Banks then described the encounter with police and the Constable brought Banks by motor car to Warragul where he was locked up.

   Henry Maple eluded the police for six days but on the seventh day he was seen crawling through some bracken on a local identity’s farm. Friends called out to him, telling him that the man he had hit had not died, and tried to persuade him to give himself up. The only reply was a volley of shots.

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    As it was obvious that he was not going to give himself up, shots were fired into the bracken; more shots rang out, then silence. After some minutes a search was made and his body was found slumped in the bracken. His rifle had jammed. Did he take his own life or was it accidental?

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  In a report which appeared in The Argus April 1922 it was explained: “Since the post mortem examination of the boy Henry Alexander Maple by Dr. Trumpy and the extraction of the bullet from the brain, the opinion is expressed that the fatal shot was fired by his own pea rifle. The bullet, flattened to the size of less than that of a threepence piece is about the same weight as the bullets found in Maple’s pockets. Maple had told his comrade Banks that he never would be taken alive. However it was also possible that the rifle had accidentally gone off when caught on the thick bracken fern near the log where he was found.” The coroner’s finding left the verdict open “Death from a gunshot wound while resisting lawful arrest”. This episode in 1922 was probably not technically “bush ranging” but because Henry was on the run in the bush for six days, he and his mate became known in the area as the “Young Bush Rangers”. Henry Alexander Maple is buried in Neerim cemetery, Victoria.

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NORMAN WILFRED BAKER GOES ON HIS SPREE

     The boy’s father stated that on Sunday 23 July 1922 his son got into a rage, and the next morning “cleared out” leaving the following note:-

“I am going to have a short life and a merry one. Don’t tell anyone about what occurred last night, or I’ll blow your brains out, both of you. Norm.”

Norman Baker left his home dressed in striped tweed trousers, a grey coat, and a short khaki overcoat. He was a big lad for his age, being 5 ft. 6 in. high, and powerfully built with a dark complexion and a prominent nose. He took with him on his excursion, two rifles and 100 rounds of ammunition and carried a loaf of bread and a tin of jam.

On Tuesday morning 25th July he bailed up Mr. Frederick De Caux, of Dingabledinga, who told the police that he was driving to Willunga in his horse and cart and when within a short distance of that town on a slight bend, about 3 miles out of Willunga on Brookman Road (near Magpie Springs), he was surprised to see a person with a black mask jump out of the thick scrub along the road and cover him with a Winchester rifle. The lad said, “Stop or I’ll blow your brains out,” and he relieved De Caux of 28 shillings. De Caux told the police he took a £1 note out his purse, and the lad said he could keep it. When asked why he did not act like a man, if he wanted a few bob, Baker retorted, “I’m not a man—I’m only a boy. If you move one step I’ll blow your brains out.” The lad then strutted off into the scrub.

Frederick De Caux was the brother of Mr. Philip de Caux, who Norman was in the habit of visiting periodically.

Mr De Caux then drove on, and before reaching Willunga met some Wood-carters he knew. De Caux said to the Wood-carters “If you chaps are going back along Brookman Road you better be careful. I have just been stuck up by a fellow down the road. He looks like a lunatic to me. He has got my purse and some of my money”.

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Picture of Wood-carters of that period.

Just that moment George Baker arrived on the scene and after the story was repeated to him he said “That’s my boy” and he explained about the circumstances of Norman leaving home. De Caux went on to the police station at Willunga and reported the incident to Mounted Constable Wegener.

A police party, in the charge of Mounted Constable McElroy of Victor Harbor which included Mounted Constables Wegener (Willunga), Redpath (Clarendon), Walsh (Morphett Vale), Klar & Hoffman (Adelaide) and Blacktracker McLean began the search for Norman Baker at the point where the robbery was committed. Mounted Constables Weidenhofer (Goolwa), Eddington (Echunga) and Haarsma (Mount Barker) were on the watch in their districts.

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Mounted police of that period

It was believed prior to holding up Mr De Caux, Norman Baker had hidden his other rifle in the scrub. Blacktracker McLean followed Baker’s tracks from the roadway where the robbery happened into the undergrowth and the party covered some miles towards Blackfellow’s Creek. When the word was brought that someone answering Baker’s description had been spotted in the neighbourhood of Blackfellows Creek, the work of following the tracks stopped to enable the tracker to go to Blackfellows Creek.

Many rumours circulated about Norman Bakers escapades. It is stated that he shot at a car near Willunga and smashed the windscreen. Another report at McLaren Vale was that he had held up a girl on a road near Kangarilla.

After deciding to go to Blackfellows Creek, the police party changed their plans in consequence to a report that Mr. Michael Clarke’s camp on the Brookman property, immediately adjoining Kuitpo Forest, had been raided.

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Blacktracker McLean.

It was ascertained that blankets and a quantity of provisions had been stolen. The conclusion was that it was the work of the Boy Bushranger Norman Baker. At day-break the police with Blacktracker McLean took up the new clue. They were later joined by 3 other police officers and a short distance from Mr Clarke’s camp, blankets were discovered in the scrub, made into a swag, and abandoned. Norman Baker was not to be found. It was considered that he was not far away but in such country the police had great difficulty in tracing him.

Young Baker had an intimate knowledge of the countryside. apart from the scrub and the hilly nature of the district there was a lot of swampy areas. Norman Baker knew every inch of the district and was to lead the police a merry dance. The task of the mounted police was not an easy one and some of them were feeling the strain of the continuous search.

Norman Baker’s greatest difficulty was to be in securing food and warmth at night. Since his ill-considered venture began the weather has been fairly fine, although chilly after sun set. The task of the mounted men is not an easy one, and some of them are feeling the strain of the continuous search, which has been in progress since Baker bailed up Mr.de Caux at about 11-30a.m. on Tuesday.

For some days the efforts of the police and black trackers failed to locate the lad, who had taken to the bush. It was reported that blankets and food had been stolen from a camp near Kuitpo Forest. But on Friday night 28 July he returned to his father’s farm, and the police, surrounding the place, went in and arrested the lad who was in bed. He remarked that he was only home for a spell, and intended taking up bush ranging again on Saturday.

Mr. C. G. Stevens who drove the police on the excursion after the boy bushranger described the lad as being on the intelligent side. Chatting with the boy as regards his experiences he found him somewhat moody at first but later on he chatted freely. Mr. Stevens also said that the country was very dense and tracking was hard, but the police stuck to their task well, although they had a trying time. Mr. Stevens characterized Mounted Constable McElroy, who led the search, as a very zealous officer.

Charged, convicted and incarcerated in the reformatory.

Baker was charged at the local Magistrates Court in Willunga on Saturday 29 July with what was the equivalent of robbery under arms. He was committed for trial at the next criminal sittings in Adelaide and bail was refused. According to the evidence of a police witness the boy, while being conveyed to the lock-up, stated that on one occasion one of the constable’s in search of him had approached within a short distance while he was hiding in the bush. If the constable had come within 60 yards of him he had intended to shoot him through the chest.

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WILLUNGA COURTHOUSE (as it was then)

Police reports show that Baker had been reading the history of the Kelly Gang and that his imagination had been fired by the exploits of Henry Alexander Maple, the youthful desperado who vainly sought to emulate the deeds of the Kelly’s in Victoria, a few months before. He had become imbued with the spirit of the boy bushranger (Ernest Clifford Hull) who had been recently captured at Clunes in Victoria. The numbers of “boy bushrangers” at the time prompted this commentary in the newspapers of the time, such as this from the Bunyip:

We should not say that a youngster who becomes intoxicated with Ned Kelly stories and goes round with a pea rifle in a ridiculous effort at bush ranging and is finally caught in bed, tired out with his little jaunt, was a hopeless character. We should say that like the biblical character of old he had played the fool, and not the man, but that he would likely get over it. It is hardly a case for the Bastille; it is rather a case for a good smacking.

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NORMAN WILFRED BAKER

Baker was escorted to Adelaide in the custody of Mounted Constable Wegener on Monday 31 July 1922 and lodged in the Magill Boy’s Reformatory to await his trial.

At his trial Baker admitted that he had assaulted and robbed Frederick De Caux near Willunga on July 25 1922. In ordering Baker to be detained at the Magill Reformatory until he was 18 years of age, the judge Mr. Justice Gordon told the prisoner that he hoped the discipline at that institution would show him how stupid he had been.

ESCAPE FROM MAGILL REFORMATORY

Baker escaped from the Magill Reformatory on Saturday 11 March 1923. He had been working at a cowshed with another boy at 3.30 p.m. and was missed at 4 p.m. The search for Baker involved police on motorcycles who scouted the vicinity of the Reformatory on the Sunday evening, but without result. A posse of mounted police and a black tracker explored the hills working towards Willunga on the supposition that Baker was making for home. A tracker followed in his wake as far as Norton’s Summit, but there the tracks disappeared and no further trace could be picked up in the scrub country.

Baker was subsequently recaptured by Mounted Constable Grow near Strathalbyn on Wednesday afternoon 15 March dressed in his father’s clothes, and carrying a blanket and three knives. He said that he had been hiding in the scrub near Willunga, and had stolen his food supplies in small quantities from his father’s house. When caught, he said he was making for Langhorne Creek to get work grape picking. He confessed that he “had had very little to eat”, and it is believed that dissatisfaction with the uncertain nature of his supplies prompted “him to decide upon seeking employment at Langhorne’s Creek”. He was returned to Adelaide and the Magill Reformatory.

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MAGILL REFORMATORY

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     I have been unable to find out what happened to Norman Wilfred Baker after his recapture and recommitment to Magill Reformatory. If anyone has any information to what happened to Norman I would be very grateful if they could let me know. From what I have documented I believe this was a case of a bored misguided young man indoctrinated by glamourised written material on Bushrangers of that period and has similar parallels of what has happened in recent times with young terrorists.

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I would like to acknowledge the following for some contributions to this web page.

Willunga library

State Library of South Australia

National Library of Australia

Willunga National Trust

References to:-

Willunga Town & District 1901 – 25 by Martin Dunstan

The Observer

The Chronicle

The Advertiser

Sydney Morning Herald

Brisbane Courier

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