The Library is closed onsite, open online. See updates here.

The Governor brothers

Joe and Jimmy Governor

Arguably the most notorious bushranger outlaws of them all were also the last. On the eve of Federation the atrocities that brothers Joe and Jimmy Governor committed, their skill at evading capture, their bold taunting of their pursuers, and the eventual trial of Jimmy transfixed the fledgling nation.

The Governor brothers were not born to a life of crime.

A measure of the notoriety of the events during and after the massacre is the number of stories and ballads composed about it, many reflecting the social attitudes and prejudices held at the time about Aboriginal people.

The Governor brothers were not born to a life of crime. From an Aboriginal family, Joe and Jimmy had worked with their father Tommy as cattlemen and horse-breakers on several stations along the Paterson River and Allynbrook.

Jimmy spent a short time upholding law and order, enlisting in 1896 as a tracker with the New South Wales mounted police, stationed at Cassilis. Apparently frustrated by the lack of advancement and dissatisfaction with his colleagues, however, he left after only a year.

Interracial taboo

In December 1898, Jimmy married 16-year-old Ethel Page and the couple moved to Breelong in Gilgandra.  Jimmy erected fencing for John Mawbey.

A marriage between an Aboriginal man and a white woman was taboo at the time, and the tensions this caused were to play a significant part in the horrifying events that unfolded.

Ethel worked as an unpaid housemaid for the Mawbeys, relying instead on rations from the family. Unhappy with this arrangement and goaded by slurs on their interracial marriage the tensions between the two families came to a head on the night of 20 July 1900.

Jimmy decided to face John Mawbey and try to settle his grievances, taking along Ethel, his brother Joe and friend, Jack Underwood. They reached agreement with John Mawbey peacefully. However, Jimmy then decided to confront Mrs Mawbey and the family’s teacher, Ellen Kerz over the way they treated Ethel.

Giving evidence later at his trial about that night, Jimmy claimed that the women had insulted him, saying,

"'You want shooting for marrying a white woman…'With that I hit her with my hand in the jaw and knocked her down. Then I got annoyed and I did not know nothing after that."

Australia's largest manhunt

Mrs Mawbey died from the injuries of this violent attack three days later. The teacher, Ellen, along with girls Grace and Hilda tried to flee through a window. They were not fast enough and Jimmy caught up with them and beat them to death with a nullah or boondi - a kind of club. He also attacked and seriously wounded Mrs Mawbey's son Percy.

In all, five died in the short spree of violence that became known as the Breelong Massacre and news of the Mawbey family’s slaying spread quickly. The hunt was on to capture the Governor brothers and Underwood.

Ethel fled to Dubbo with her baby as parties of armed civilians gathered for the search. Underwood was caught quickly, however the Governor brothers eluded capture.

The attempt to bring them to justice eventually grew to become the largest manhunt in Australia’s history, ranging across 3,000 kilometres of northern New South Wales and involving around 2,000 civilians and police in tracking the brothers.

Crime wave

Over the next two months, the brothers embarked on a spree of violence, vowing vengeance on those who had wronged them in the past. They committed more than 80 crimes, including the rape of a 15-year-old girl at a farm at Cobark Creek.

Ripples of fear at this two-man crime wave spread and soon settlers in the wider region were deserting their homesteads. 

In a bid to settle some old scores, mainly with men he had worked for and whom he believed had treated him badly, Jimmy Governor travelled along the Goulburn River around the Wollar area. Most of his targets had been warned of Jimmy’s intentions, however, and had fled their houses.

Ripples of fear at this two-man crime wave spread and soon settlers in the wider region were deserting their homesteads. Business came to a standstill, schools closed and no one travelled through the area unless they had to.

All the while the brothers managed to keep one step ahead of the police, relying on Jimmy's tracking skills and knowledge of police tactics. Jimmy provoked the police by leaving them letters, keeping the brothers visible in a bid to make the police look incompetent.

The pressure on the authorities grew, and in early October 1900 the reward for their capture rose from 200 pounds to 1,000 pounds while the Governors raided properties in the Paterson Valley and camped along the Paterson River. They moved east through Allynbrook and also robbed huts in the Gresford district.

The net closes

Their luck eventually ran out. After moving north up to the Forbes River, the brothers only evaded capture by vigilantes after a shootout in which Jimmy was shot in the mouth, losing several teeth and plenty of blood. The pursuers were hot on the scent now, following the trail of gore left by the wounded Jimmy.

With the net closing in, the brothers became separated while crossing a river. Alone and seriously wounded, Jimmy’s capture was now inevitable. At dawn on Saturday, 27 October 1900, armed locals surrounded him. Amongst them were three generations of the Allyn district Moore family, including 73-year-old Thomas Moore Senior.

After a brief chase, Jimmy was captured. Given food and tea, he was then handcuffed and announced he was glad he hadn’t been captured by the police stating, 'they couldn’t run down a bloody poddy calf!’

Joe Governor survived until the morning of  31 October. Asleep at his camp hidden away in a deep gorge at Glen Rock near St Clair, Fallbrook Creek, a local grazier, John Wilkinson and his brother investigated smoke from a campfire. They found Joe asleep and opened fire. He tried to escape but was too slow and a bullet struck his head at close range.

Sentenced to hang

Jimmy’s captors handed him over to the police who took him to trial in Sydney. On 19 November 1900 he stood before Justice Owen at the Central Criminal Court accused of 'feloniously and maliciously murdering Ellen Josephine Kertz', the teacher employed by the Mawbey family.

The newspapers reported extensively on the revelations of the trial and the eyewitness evidence of Ethel Governor and thirteen-year-old George Mawbey (the only witness to the Mawbey murders at Breelong).

It made a gripping story as Jimmy spoke at length about the events at Breelong and his exploits during his three months on the run.

Found guilty, he was sentenced to hang. His execution date was delayed, however, by almost two months due to planned festivities to celebrate Australian Federation. Jimmy finally met his death by hanging at Darlinghurst gaol on 18 January 1901.

 Alone and seriously wounded, Jimmy’s capture was now inevitable. 

About this item: 

Caption title. "... separately issued ballad narrative of the Jimmy Governor murders of 1900"

The Breelong Blacks page 1
Digital ID: 
View collection item detail
The Breelong Blacks page 2
Digital ID: 
View collection item detail
The Breelong Blacks page 3
Digital ID: 
View collection item detail
The Breelong Blacks page 4
Digital ID: 
View collection item detail

Made possible through a partnership with Peter and Ellie Hunt