Home' Greymouth Star : December 6th 2014 Contents Saturday Afternoon
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Who killed George
Provincial government. His father was
the Provincial Engineer, and his brother,
Arthur Dudley Dobson, was credited with
discovering Arthur’s Pass.
On that fateful day, George Dobson had
been given the task of walking the track
from the Arnold township down into
Greymouth. There had been complaints
about the state of the track and George
Dobson was to make a report on its
gold-buyer, who had, without success,
invited Dobson to come with him down-
river on a supply boat by chance returning
When George Dobson’s body was
discovered, some weeks later, the coronial
inquest recorded large contusions on the
left and right sides of his head. Also, the
neck was swollen in the front, from ear to
ear. It was surmised that the head wounds
were caused by a “blunt, flat instrument”
such as the stock of a gun. The cause of
death, the inquest jury found, was murder
There have been many accounts of
George Dobson’s murder. All of them
ascribe the murder broadly to the Burgess-
Kelly gang, a group of ex-convicts who
indeed blazed a trail of crime from
Hokitika, via Greymouth, to Nelson —
where three of the gang were hanged
for the murder of five travellers from
the Nelson goldfields on the evidence of
Thomas Sullivan, one of their number.
At the Nelson trial, Sullivan successfully
claimed that he was merely the “roadman,”
that is the lookout, and had taken no part
in the murders.
Later in 1866, another ex-convict, James
Murray, who had a loose connection to
the gang, was charged with the murder
of George Dobson, again on the evidence
of the informer, Thomas Sullivan. After a
brief retirement of the jury, James Murray
was found not guilty.
So, who killed George Dobson ?
It is my conclusion that Dobson was
murdered by the informer himself, Thomas
Sullivan — possibly aided and abetted by
another person who has not previously
been connected to the case.
I have made use of the detailed on-
line records of The Old Bailey, as well as
Australian archival materials concerning
convict transportation ships and their
complements, Tasmanian convict Conduct
Registers and the Australian and NZ
newspapers of those times.
Burgess and Kelly arrived in Hokitika
late in 1865. They had just been escorted
out of Otago under armed surveillance,
after a stint in the Dunedin Gaol for
discharging a firearm at police on
the Otago goldfield. They had hopes
of making a fresh start — in the
accumulation of ill-gotten gains — on the
new West Coast goldfields.
Richard Burgess was an ex-convict who
said he was sentenced to 15 years in the
Old Bailey for house-breaking and theft
in London. He was 17 years old when
he was landed in Port Phillip, now called
Melbourne, along with 247 other young
men on the transportation ship, the Joseph
Somes. His autobiography, called his
Life and Confession, was written while
being held on the charge of murder in the
Nelson Gaol. He wrote it in an attempt
to refute the informer Sullivan’s account
of events, insisting that it was he and
Sullivan who had committed the Nelson
murders and that his co-defendants,
Kelly and Levy, were innocent and indeed
were not even there at the time. Burgess,
aware that his days were numbered, had
discovered God and his evidence in court
was disregarded as a boasting blasphemy
designed to exonerate his friends.
“Gay Lothario” with women. Burgess was
a flash gambler and a serial womaniser,
preening in the admiration of his peers.
Nevertheless, he was constantly subject to
“misfortune” — a convict term for getting
caught. Although he was never charged
with murder in Australia, Burgess’s
penchant for robbery led to him spending
eleven of his fourteen years there in gaol
or on the hulks. His provocative arrogance
ensured several floggings for incidents of
Finally out of prison, Burgess decided
that he should decamp to Otago, the new
goldfield across the Tasman.
He took with him his mate, Thomas
Noon, who had taken up the name of
Kelly. Tommy Kelly was a talkative,
good-humoured gambler and thief with
a weakness for drink. As a young man
he had been apprenticed to a tailor.
Ironically, he was sentenced to seven years
transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in
The Old Bailey for the theft of a pair of
trousers from a competitor’s shop.
It is common in these days to compare
the seeming pettiness of convicts’ crimes
with the apparent severity of sentence.
What is not understood is that few were
transported for a first offence. For most
convicts, a fresh start in a young, new land
was an opportunity to break away from
a pattern of unemployment, poverty and
crime. Most transportees did well in their
new land and lived lives of prosperity.
Thomas Kelly did not avail himself of
such opportunities. Released from Van
Diemen’s Land on a Ticket of Leave to
Melbourne, he was in and out of gaol for
various petty crimes.
When Burgess and Kelly arrived in
Hokitika, they found good numbers of
former convicts in the town.
Burgess and Kelly’s reputation had
preceded them. From the start they knew
that they were under police surveillance.
So Burgess began to look for a third
man. Burgess, no fool, but perhaps more
cunning than intelligent, believed that
if either he or Kelly displayed himself
prominently in one of the big hotels or at
the theatre — while the other worked with
a third man, they could avoid suspicion
in the event of a major “piece of work,” as
they called a robbery.
Burgess found their third man in one
Thomas Sullivan. Sullivan seemed a good
choice. He was newly arrived in Hokitika
and unknown to the authorities. Sullivan
too was an ex-convict. He said he was sent
down by The Old Bailey and transported
on the convict ship, the Canton, for
stealing from a London shop. After a
series of minor thefts of cash-boxes and
suchlike, the Burgess-Kelly gang had had
to slip out of Hokitika in the early hours
one morning. They had to abandon their
plan to travel down to Okarito and rob the
Bank of New Zealand. The police were on
to them. Both Burgess and Kelly had only
just escaped imprisonment in Hokitika for
the theft of revolvers and police uniforms
which were going to be used in the
Their escape from justice resulted from
the perjured evidence by the newcomer,
Sullivan, and another ex-convict — a
gullible house-painter named George
Chamberlain — who claimed to have
witnessed Burgess finding the revolvers on
Surreptitiously, the gang crossed the
Teremakau river and tramped up to
Greymouth. The victim this time was to be
Edward Barton Fox, a gold-buyer based at
Maori Gully. Burgess had previously been
in touch with Billy De Lacy, an ex-convict
Greymouth ostler who was also a “putter-
upper” — that is, an informant who helped
set up robberies in exchange for some
of the takings. In Greymouth, however,
the Police Inspector was now a certain
William Henry James, who knew Burgess
from Victoria days. Burgess understood
that he would need to lie low. Burgess
slipped across the river into Cobden until
nightfall. Meanwhile Kelly and Sullivan
settled in at the Provincial Hotel on
Greymouth’s Richmond Quay.
Early the next morning, Kelly and
Sullivan were sent up the Grey River
track. It closely followed the river, passing
through heavy swamp, stony river bed,
and muddy-rutted bush. Kelly was in bad
shape. Quite apart from the effects of
the heavy binge of the day before, he had
a bruised face, a closed eye and a severe
headache from a fall in the boat crossing
the Grey River. As well as that, he had
The information from Billy De Lacy
was that E B Fox would be coming down
the track the following day. Fox would be
loaded with bags of gold dust and nuggets.
Kelly and Sullivan’s “job of work” was to
intercept him on his journey and relieve
him of his burden.
In the meantime, a little cockney, Jimmy
Murray, had arrived in Greymouth, hoping
that Burgess might let him in on the job.
He had heard a whisper that something
big was being planned. Burgess, being in
hiding from Inspector James, took Murray
on as an errand boy.
From the next morning, the gang’s plans
began to go awry. The gold-buyer didn’t
come down the track into Greymouth. As
already stated, he had been lucky enough
to pick up a ride down the river on a
returning supplies boat. However, someone
who did not look like a digger and had
an attache case across his shoulders had
indeed walked the track. It was Fox’s
friend, George Dobson.
Kelly and Sullivan had carefully chosen
their spot to ambush Edward Barton Fox.
They had pitched their tent just off the
track, not far from the two islands which
sit mid-stream in the Grey River, almost
in sight of the Brunner coalmine. It was
just before a bridge over a small ravine.
Everyone who used the track would have
to cross it.
Well, the inevitable happened. George
Dobson’s body was later found buried near
a terrace, inland from the bridge, at a place
now called Dobson.
Reefton-born historian, author and academic
JOHN ROSANOWSKI has been acting as an
old-fashioned detective in a bid to solve one of the West
Coast’s oldest murder mysteries: who killed George
Dobson? He revealed his findings — and raised a whole
new theory — at the recent ‘Digging History’ goldfields
seminar, as part of Hokitika’s 150th celebrations.
This is where the mystery begins to
unfold. While Sullivan claimed that he
was only the “lookout,” Burgess, the gang
leader, insists in his Life and Confession
that Thomas Sullivan played a principal
part in the murder. He says that Sullivan
told him that once he had stopped
Dobson, “I could not let him pass because
he saw me without any disguise.... I took
him into the bush about a 100 yards from
the road.... Then I made him sit down [
that is knocked him to the ground] and
there we strangled him.” But he told
Burgess not to worry, because the body had
been well concealed.
Later, in Nelson, when the gang was
being held in gaol on suspicion of the
murder of four, wealthy men coming
from the Deep Creek goldfield, Sullivan
was quizzed by the police about the
disappearance of George Dobson. He
told them approximately where to find
the body and said that Dobson had been
murdered by Kelly and the little cockney,
Sullivan told the police that Burgess
had had Murray killed because the gang
thought Murray had “snitched” to the
Greymouth police about the plan to rob
Later in the year — after the Nelson
executions of Burgess, Kelly and Levy
James Murray was charged with the
murder of George Dobson. Sullivan, the
informer, was brought to the West Coast
as the central witness. The authorities had
him dressed in a dark jacket coat, with a
black velvet waistcoat, blue silk tie and a
smart white collar. James Murray, on the
other hand, stood in the dock in prison
At the Greymouth Magistrate’s Court
depositions, Sullivan — now very much
aware that James Murray had not been
killed off — had to try to make the most
of it. He once again told an elaborately-
detailed story of the events. His evidence
lasted over six hours. Sullivan was a most
impressive raconteur. At great length,
Sullivan told the court, step by step, his
story that James Murray and Thomas Kelly
had killed Dobson not far from the Grey
River track in mistake for the gold-buyer.
He, Sullivan, was — as in Nelson — only
the lookout, the roadman on the track,
he said, and had taken no part in George
Dobson’s death and wasn’t present at the
In the Supreme Court trial held in
Hokitika, the jury took less than 30
minutes to find James Murray not guilty.
He had been able to produce a very
significant witness. It was a 12-year old
girl by the name of Priscilla Fellows. This
young girl testified that she had served
dinner to Murray at her parents’ Criterion
Hotel in Greymouth at 5.30pm on the day
of the murder — which had to have taken
place in the late afternoon. She was able
to mark the precise date, the 28th of May,
from specific events of family business, and
she was backed up by her mother.
So, who killed George Dobson?
As I stated previously, current and
contemporary accounts ascribe the murder
generally to the Burgess-Kelly gang, as if
all of them took part. However, as you can
see, it is not that simple. James Murray,
an adjunct member of the gang, had been
clearly proved to have taken no part.
Burgess was definitely not involved, being
very much under cover with Barnard and
staff of the Provincial as witness. And Levy
was still in Hokitika.
That leaves the informer, Thomas
Sullivan, and Kelly. Sullivan’s fraudulent
accusation against the hapless Jimmy
Murray, I believe to be proof positive of
Sullivan’s guilt. After the exoneration of
James Murray, the gold-buyer E B Fox
attempted to have Sullivan charged with
After all, the promise of a pardon to a
non-participant was contingent on the
conviction of the guilty party or parties.
Because Murray had been acquitted,
Sullivan’s pardon for association with the
Dobson murder no longer applied. Fox’s
sworn civil warrant was, however, blocked
by the authorities.
It ’s clear to me that Sullivan was never
brought to book over the murder of
George Dobson because the authorities
had other crucial concerns. Fundamentally,
their whole credibility was at stake.
Sullivan had been their key witness in the
conviction and executions of Burgess, Kelly
and Levy in Nelson.
That whole affair had made headlines
throughout New Zealand, was widely
published in the major Australian dailies
and even attracted notice back in the
Home Country. If Sullivan were to be
found guilty of the Dobson murder, the
validity of the Nelson verdict would have
been thrown into extreme doubt. And the
methods used to obtain the Nelson verdict
would come under an embarrassingly-
close scrutiny. And from my research, the
methods used to gain those convictions
were very suspect indeed. It ’s probable
that two innocent men were hanged in the
In support of the above conclusion,
my discovery of an obscure Tasmanian
convict Conduct Register reveals that
the informer, Sullivan, was a clever and
accomplished liar. It transpires that a
group of 26 convicts had been consigned
in shackles to Van Diemen’s Land from
South Africa on the Gilbert Henderson, a
commercial passenger ship. It included a
Thomas Sullivan who had been sentenced
to transportation as a military deserter.
Not surprisingly, the Gilbert Henderson
is never included in the widely-published
lists of Australian convict ships.
Nevertheless, in the Tasmanian archives
there is a slim convict Conduct Register
for this small group of miscreants. Could
this be our Thomas Sullivan I asked myself,
when I had exhausted almost every other
resource to track him down.
By sheer good fortune there is extant a
letter written and signed by Sullivan to the
Nelson Clerk of Court. Would you believe
that the signature of Thomas Sullivan in
the obscure Conduct Register for those
few convicts on the Gilbert Henderson is
an excellent match?
Practically all of the details Thomas
Sullivan gave about himself in the various
courts were false.
He wasn’t convicted in The Old Bailey
for anything, let alone theft from a shop.
No, he was in fact a military deserter and
had spent time on Robben Island off the
Cape of Good Hope. Nor did he arrive in
Van Diemen’s Land on the Canton. And
he wasn’t a convict overseer in Port Arthur,
as he claimed. He was a member of the
But was Thomas Kelly his accomplice in
the murder of George Dobson? This seems
to be most unlikely. Kelly had smashed
his face and eye the night before — and
also had dysentery. He was probably in
no great shape to be party to a callous,
violent murder. But this is only conjecture.
Nevertheless, such a crime was not in
Kelly was a good-humoured thief and
a garrulous chatterer. Moreover, and this
is very significant, later in Nelson he had
refused to be a party to the murders of the
ill-fated Deep Creek goldfield travellers
and went to his death lamenting he was to
be hanged, on Sullivan’s evidence, for the
murder of people he had never even seen.
He continued to scream it through the
white hood as the trip-lever was pulled on
A major question remains. Was there
a different accomplice? My research has
thrown up evidence that this was the
case. Burgess, the gang leader, wrote a
tantalising end-piece to his discussion of
the murder of George Dobson. He said:
“Sullivan in his revelation of the tragedy
said ‘We burked him.’ Then Burgess went
on: “But of whom he meant the we I am
ignorant, but I have my surmise.”
When I came across these words in
my research, my antennae were alerted. I
believe that Burgess was trying to show
how clever he was. It seems clear that he
was indicating in this remark that there
was another person involved in the murder
and that he had a very good idea who it
I recalled that I had a clipping of a
strange statement that Kelly had made
before his execution to his attendant
clergyman. After the executions, the
Nelson clergyman, a Rev Mr Johnston,
was quoted in the Nelson Examiner
newspaper as saying that Kelly had utterly
and consistently refused to admit to any of
The Rev Johnston added in his
newspaper interview, that Kelly had on
one single occasion made reference to the
murder of George Dobson. These are the
Reverend’s words: “He said that Sullivan
and a man named Ned poisoned him with
I should interpolate here that this
statement may be evidence that Kelly
was not present at Dobson’s murder. The
inquest had sound anatomical evidence to
conclude that Dobson had been strangled.
Kelly, however, knew that Sullivan had
with him a three-inch phial of strychnine
and, I would suggest Kelly was saying how
he thought the murder must have been
At the time I came across the statement
of the Reverend, I immediately assumed
that Kelly was referring to the presence of
Edward “Ned” Jones. You will recall that
Jones was being held on a charge of theft
from the person. When exactly did Ned
Jones get out of the Hokitika gaol? I knew
that he had made bail, but when was it?
Dobson’s murder was definitely on
the 28th of May. I found that Jones had
officially been granted bail at the sitting of
the Hokitika magistrate’s court three days
later on the 1st of June. But did this rule
out Ned Jones? I’m not so sure.
Could it be that Jones’s bail had been
allowed a few days earlier, under what is
called a ‘Registar’s Bail’?
In the event, Ned Jones was never
convicted on the charge of theft in
Hokitika. His victim, the American sailor,
Thomas Thomson — when the police
finally located him — refused to give
evidence against Ned Jones, despite being
threatened with obstructing the course of
justice by the police. Thomson had clearly
been intimidated by a fear of retribution.
As regards the informer, Thomas
Sullivan: Sullivan was eventually set free.
He was given £50 pounds and a ticket to
England and expelled from New Zealand.
In England, the police of Scotland Yard
were waiting for him, and detectives
shadowed him at every moment he was
there. He then found his way back to
Australia. Sullivan, it appears, thought he
would be feted as a hero.
Instead, he was treated like a pariah.
This was the man who had dobbed in his
mates. Shunned by all, for the next five
years Sullivan wandered the borders of
Victoria and New South Wales. In 1881,
he died as the result of an accident at the
appropriately-named Hanging Rock - and
was buried in a pauper’s grave.
In 1881, he died as the result of
In 1881, he died as the result of
an accident at the appropriately-
an accident at the appropriately-
named Hanging Rock — and
named Hanging Rock — and
was buried in a pauper’s grave.
was buried in a pauper’s grave.
”” The scene of the crime — now Dobson township.
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