Capturing the essence of the Clarkes

GOING BUSH: Tom and Luke Clarke dressed as their famous antecedents Tom and John Clarke. Photo: Elspeth Kernebone
GOING BUSH: Tom and Luke Clarke dressed as their famous antecedents Tom and John Clarke. Photo: Elspeth Kernebone

Before the Historical Society got involved, Tom and Luke Clarke knew little of their infamous forebears.

The brothers are descendants of James Clarke, brother of the bushrangers Tommy and John Clarke, who was saved from their fate by an early prison sentence.

Their early ignorance behind them, the brothers are right into the re-enactment. “I thought I’d be mad not to give it a go,” says Luke Clarke, who will be playing the part of John Clarke.

“I’m definitely proud to be a part of it,” says Tom Clarke, who will be playing Tommy Clarke. “It's such a huge part of our family history, so there's no way we could turn down the opportunity.”

Born of a half-blind Irish pig-thief, Tom and John Clarke were among the eldest of 11 children of John and Mary Clarke.

Their father was a cobbler from Newry, Ireland, who had been sentenced to seven years’ transportation in 1827. After seven years’ hard labour, he was given a certificate of freedom in 1834.

The Clarkes’ mother, Mary (nee Connell), had emigrated in 1838 from County Limerick with her parents and eight siblings. 

The family was hired by Major Elrington to work on his estate, Mount Elrington, in the district of what would become Braidwood.

When the Connell family arrived, John Clarke was working as a cobbler at Mount Elrington. In 1839, within six months of the Connell family’s arrival on the estate, John and Mary were married. 

The pair soon moved to Nithsdale Estate, in the area of what is now Ballalaba.

By the time Tommy was born in 1840 and John in 1844, wealthy settlers had occupied the best land in the district. 

High prices on Crown land also prevented many poorer settlers from obtaining land, and settlers were forced to supplement their income with odd jobs, such as fencing and shearing, as well as the occasional sale of sly grog.

When gold was officially discovered in 1851, it brought an influx of settlers and wealth to the region. 

It was against the disorderly background of new wealth and a frontier society that Tom and John came of age.

Tom and Luke Clarke believe the re-enactment will highlight not just the story of the bushranger brothers, but the story of Braidwood itself.

“I think it’s more of an actual history of Braidwood,” Luke says. He’s not ashamed of his criminal ancestors; nor does he revere them.

“People had to fight to survive [then], it was about life and death,” he said. “...you’ve got to be proud of the history.”

  • Information taken from ‘The Clarke Gang: Outlawed, Outcast and Forgotten’