Long before the days of Ned Kelly, when desperate criminals roamed the unconquered Australian bushland, George Comerford, a notorious escaped convict, and his companion, Joseph Dignum, may well have been the first bushrangers in the Australian colony of Victoria, which was still part of New South Wales in the 1830s.
Comerford has been described as “disloyal, deceitful and treacherous,” though the mannerisms of this tall, mild-looking man of slim build in his early 20s have been said to have been “rather effeminate,” and that he did not look like a man one would expect to take part in the cold-blooded slaughter of eight people.
Comerford had been tried and convicted of petty crime in England, where he was sentenced to transportation for a period of seven years. He arrived in New South Wales on board the Hive in 1835. Soon after, he was assigned to work for Ambrose Wilson of Penrith, but absconded from his service within less than six months.
Having made good his escape, Comerford assumed the name William Cooper and claimed that he had been born in New South Wales. A man named Ebden engaged him as a shepherd and sent him to work in the Port Phillip District, later the colony of Victoria. In May 1837, Comerford left Ebden’s station with two assigned servants, one known as Joseph Dignum and the other simply as Smith. Little is known about Smith; Dignum – whose real name was thought to be Hugh Jennings – was about 33 and ferocious in both nature and appearance, although he often pretended to be weak-minded. Dignum had escaped with earlier with two other convicts from Yass in New South Wales before they were joined by Comerford and five other escaped convicts.
With Dignum as their self-appointed leader and Comerford as their second-in-command, all nine fugitives headed overland for South Australia via Portland Bay, on a route established earlier by the explorer Major Thomas Mitchell. Along the way, they robbed lone travellers and stole from the homes of isolated settlers.
With Dignum in charge of the band of desperate men, they headed for the small settlement of Melbourne. After robbing isolated homes in the region they soon attracted the attention of the local police force, which at that time numbered only seven men. As things got hot for the men, they set off on foot to South Australia.
They soon started to run short of provisions and a quarrel started over which route they should take. Dignum and probably Comerford had decided to rid themselves of the rest of the group. Laying low, they waited for everyone to fall asleep. Comerford and Dignum then rose quietly and picking up an axe they each attempted to kill all the others with a blow to the head.
The scene was horrific – four men died immediately and the others were finished off with either further blows or shot. Comerford and Dignum threw the bodies of their victims onto several huge logs and tried to get rid of their remains by burning them.
Comerford and Dignum then backtracked because they were short of food. They took a job with a squatter for a short while and then left him to work for another. The first squatter had a work agreement with the two men and had them arrested. But before he could take them to court, they escaped.
Dignum decided to go to South Australia but to travel alone. He took a shot at Comerford who managed to escape and returned to Melbourne. Believing now that Dignum intended to kill him, Comerford surrendered to the police and told them his extraordinary and bizarre story.
As there was no suitable court in Melbourne for their trial, Comerford and Dignum were taken to Sydney. The authorities found it hard to believe Comerford’s account of the massacre. But they escorted him back to Mount Alexander to check out the facts. There, Comerford found the site and the story was proven by the human bones and clothing that were scattered about.
As they were returning to Melbourne, Comerford complained about having to walk with handcuffs on, so they took them off during the day. One day, it was found that the tea and sugar had been left at the previous campsite and two men were sent back to retrieve it. While they were gone, Constable Matthew Tomkin made the mistake of leaving his carbine leaning against a tree.
Tomkin, who was posted to Melbourne only a few months earlier, was a former convict. He had been jailed for seven years and had been transported from Ireland to Australia in 1819. After his release in 1826, he joined the Sydney police and was later assigned to Melbourne. Comerford, seizing the opportunity, rushed forward and grabbed and cocked the musket, which he pointed at Tomkin. The constable, who could see Comerford’s intent, started to rush him in an attempt to recover the weapon. Before Tomkin could deflect the barrel of the firearm and wrest it from the prisoner, Comerford fired a musket ball through the policeman’s body. Sergeant Isaac Chinn heard the shot and turned in time to see Tomkin reel back and fall. He also saw the prisoner, still carrying the musket, disappear into thick scrub.
Chinn gave chase immediately but lost his quarry in the dense scrub. Meanwhile, Private McDonald and Constable William Partington returned to the campsite, where they found the badly injured Tomkin. They saw that the musket ball had entered his body on the left side and exited on the right.
Despite his wounds, Tomkin was able to tell his colleagues what had happened. But he begged them not to leave, as he feared that wild dogs would attack him. He died three hours later. McDonald and Partington had watched helplessly as their colleague died slowly. Now, they had to bury his body and cover his grave with logs and rocks to protect it from the wild dogs he had so feared.
Comerford returned to his old stamping ground. A reward of £50 and a free pardon were offered to any convict who could secure his arrest. Shortly after, Comerford entered a hut occupied by “Kangaroo Jack,” who recognised the bushranger. As Comerford was lighting his pipe, Jack landed a terrific blow almost knocking him out.
Comerford was taken to Melbourne to stand trial. On Monday, 28 May 1838, he was brought before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, charged with “the wilful murder of Matthew Tomkin by shooting him at Deep Creek, near Port Phillip, on December 30, 1837.” Comerford pleaded guilty to the charge.
“Are you aware,” the Chief Justice asked, “that I have no discretion, but must pass sentence of death upon you?”
“Yes, Your Honour,” said Comerford, “I offer up my life to God for the crimes I have committed.”
The Attorney General then advised the Chief Justice that the Crown, by means of Comerford’s confession, had a further seven charges of murder against the prisoner.
The Chief Justice delivered a brief summation before he sentenced the prisoner to death. He ordered that the execution take place within the customary 48 hours, and that Comerford’s body be buried within the precincts of the jail.
Comerford was executed and buried early on Wednesday morning, 30 May 1838, as the Chief Justice had directed. In light of his murder charge, Comerford could not, under the law at that time, give evidence against Dignum in the Port Phillip murder cases.
Without any other evidence on which to build a case against him, Dignum only faced charges for some of the robberies committed while he was at large. He was found guilty of these lesser crimes, and was sentenced to imprisonment on the dreaded Norfolk Island penal settlement. Many years later, Dignum was finally hanged for the murder of a police sergeant who was killed during an attempted escape.
Source: Alan L Peters, “A slaughter for silence,” Police Journal (Australia), October 2005, pp 30-31.
(c) Patrick Comerford, 2009, 2010, 2013,; last updated 18 December 2010, 15 April 2013.