History | Tales from the frontier | Mike Scanlon

Memories: Toby Ryan, circa 1850, pictured with his horse and faithful hound.
Memories: Toby Ryan, circa 1850, pictured with his horse and faithful hound.

WHEN Marcus Punch stumbled upon an unusual, first-hand account of a distant ancestor’s life story, he was hooked. He’d discovered that ancestor, a former bankrupt keen to make money, had published his colourful life story in 1894.

His name was James Tobias Ryan. He’d been a jack-of-all-trades, from butcher, bridge-builder and auctioneer, to publican, politician, gambler and successful racehorse owner. Ryan’s ‘tell all’ book, at age 75 years, was called Reminiscences of Australia (1788-1894). And yet, it’s virtually unknown today. Despite no one’s memory ever being perfect, it still gives a valuable insight into our once struggling, far-flung British colony and the people involved in the nation’s founding.

Only six copies of the original 1894 edition, which includes details of the frontier country of the Hunter Valley in the mid-1830s, have survived in archives.

Punch said he’d contacted the National Library of Australia who believed his new, self-published, re-printed book would be of interest to historians and academics.

“Toby Ryan had an amazing life, living from 1818 to 1899, when he died aged 81 years. He was a larger-than-life character and a gambler. It was an extraordinary period of change in Australia,” Punch said.

“My mum showed me a family copy of the book back in 1980. That’s when I became interested in this elusive relative called Toby Ryan who was a grand-child of First Fleet convicts,” he said.

“Following a drunken fight with police at a party in Sydney’s Penrith in 1835, Toby, then aged 17, fled his home and family to come up into the Hunter Valley for three years, initially to Newcastle and Maitland, then Singleton.

“Toby Ryan then rose to become a politician, a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly from 1860 to 1872 and along the way owned a famous racehorse and met bushrangers, convicts, emancipists and free-settlers.”

Top gun: Author Marcus Punch outside Newcastle’s Fort Scratchley with his rare family history tale. Picture: Mike Scanlon

Top gun: Author Marcus Punch outside Newcastle’s Fort Scratchley with his rare family history tale. Picture: Mike Scanlon

Punch, of Tenambit, said on re-reading Toby Ryan’s memoir he became convinced of the need for the stories to be re-told, but in an edited collection of his favourite yarns.

“Toby Ryan was my great-great-great-great grandfather’s half-brother and the recent January 4th marked the 200 anniversary of his birth. So, to honour him and the people of his time, I’ve re-published his book, but modernising the spelling, punctuation and grammar, correcting errors I’ve found and adding footnotes,” Punch said. 

With the new, catchy title of Toby’s Gun, the shortened book revisits Toby Ryan as a witness to history as he saw it.

“Toby, for example, interviewed notorious bushranger Frank Gardiner who was then in Darlinghurst Gaol. Both had owned racehorses. They’d earlier met at a race meeting in Forbes,” Punch said.

“What surprised Toby was learning that Gardiner’s gang had planned to steal Toby’s horse as it was a superior mount, but the police scattered the gang before any theft could take place.

“Bushranger Frank Gardiner’s gang (which included Ben Hall) went on instead to famously hold up the gold escort coach at Eugowra Rock, NSW, in 1862.”

Such was the fame of the captured outlaw, that although Gardiner received a life sentence, soon commuted to 15 years, the former bushranger was released in 1874 on condition he left Australia. He was then deported from Newcastle by ship.

“The decision was controversial and it eventually led to the end of the NSW government of Sir Henry Parkes, who was also an interesting guy,” Punch said.

“Toby Ryan was once invited by Premier Parkes to come to his office to see what goods he’d brought back from a UK lecture tour. Strangely included in the items were six coffins.

“When Toby asked why he had them, Parkes replied, ‘they’re for my political enemies’ and one-by-one, his opponents did eventually disappear,” Punch said.

Toby Ryan had grown up in Sydney’s Nepean area and as a teenager was befriended by surgeon John Harris, of Shane’s Park. Dr Harris had been involved with the Rum Corps and his house may have been used to plot the arrest of Governor Bligh in 1808.

And early in 1830 Ryan and his father coming up from Parramatta one moonlit morning were held up by the bushranger Grovenor.

“The bushranger apparently spoke in code to an accomplice, then waved them on. It was the first time Toby had heard the expression, ‘Narboclish’. Toby asked his father what it meant, only to be told  ‘Never mind, my boy’.

Hunter escape: The replica William The Fourth steaming on the Hawkesbury River.

Hunter escape: The replica William The Fourth steaming on the Hawkesbury River.

“But it’s possible that Toby heard not code, but the bushranger Grovenor speaking in the Irish language. In it, there’s an expression meaning, ‘Don’t be bothered by that’, exactly as his father had said,” Punch said.

But in 1835 Toby and a friend escaped police and fled from Sydney to the Hunter via the paddle-wheeler William the Fourth.

Toby Ryan reported convicts remained working “at the breakwater at Nobby’s Island” and gathering shells for lime-making. 

They travelled to Maitland via Morpeth and on to Singleton. En-route, they saw more than “500 kangaroos in one flock pass by as orderly as a regiment of soldiers on the march” and 20 teams of bullock drivers camped together.

The chief conversation among the teamsters was the terrible ‘Major’ Moody (Mudie really) and the hanging of allegedly five men from a large gum tree for robbing his house a short time before. 

Almost as if in divine retribution, a fearful hurricane then struck, ripping Mudie’s nearby windmill apart so that it never operated again.

“And there’s a mention of John Fleming, described as the ringleader of the Myall Creek Massacre (near Bingara in 1838) who was given a string of horses to ride down the Hunter Valley to Newcastle,” Punch said.

 “After escaping justice, the law-abiding Fleming lived for another 56 years around the Hawkesbury and died in 1894. Ironically, he later even became a Justice of the Peace and the only hint of the (28) Myall Creek deaths in his obituary was an innocuous reference to the early days of the colony and ‘the trouble he had with the blacks’.”

And the history bug must be catching. Marcus Punch’s present hobby is hunting down old bushranger haunts with his sons. “There’s a bushranger cave out Minmi way I’ve found. It’s now under the main road, and out at Broke, we’ve found ‘Yellow Billy’s Cave’,” he said.

Punch’s limited edition re-print, Toby’s Gun, is available from McDonalds bookshop at Maitland, or at marcuspunch.com and quicksales.com.au for $24.95.