By MICK ROBERTS ©
COMPARED by one 19th century scribe to Shakespeare’s Caliban from the Tempest, the legendary Donkey Jack was Wollongong’s best known drunk.
Of all the drunken characters who frequented the Illawarra – and there were many – none had better notoriety then Donkey Jack.
Donkey Jack’s real name was John Murphy. He reportedly fronted the magistrates no less than 300 times during his infamous three decade drinking spree, and spent the best part of 30 years in and out of incarceration.
Donkey Jack was a household name in the coastal townships of Wollongong, Shellharbour and Kiama during the latter half of the 19th century. He earned his nick-name because he kicked like a mule during his frequent confrontations with the law and other opponents.
Seventeen years after his death in 1902, a Sydney correspondent, describing Wollongong in the Australian Town and Country Journal, reported that when Murphy hit the grog the local police force were on high alert. “It took the combined efforts of all the force to land John Murphy in the cells,” the correspondent recalled.
Almost 40 years after Donkey Jack’s death, he was still remembered in reminiscences published in the Illawarra Mercury. The newspaper reported on August 29 1924 that he made history of a kind in Wollongong.
It was said that he could drink a glass of rum while standing on his head. He was a particularly strong man, short and nuggety. He had been an assigned servant and was a good worker. He was very much addicted to drink, and when in his cups was a dangerous man, and in his encounters with the police and others proved a tough customer. He used his head to some purpose, and his back kick was worse than that of a donkey.
In another reminiscences published in the Illawarra Mercury 50 years after Murphy’s death, he was described as being “compact built” and was “one of the strongest men I have ever seen”.
When he came to town it was most assuredly for a ‘spree.’ On the day of the election he got very merry. It took four tough old policemen to lodge Donkey Jack, in the cells.
Murphy first came to notoriety in the Illawarra during the mid 1850s when he was literally hauled by the local constabulary before the magistrates for drink related crime. He wasn’t a stranger to the crime, and had spent time in Sydney’s notorious Darlinghurst Gaol previously.
The Wollongong horse races were Donkey’s undoing, with him often getting on the grog before the races and as a consequence spending time in the Wollongong lock-up. He seems to have been in the main a harmless character, a likeable bloke when sober, but a ‘pest’ and a target for insults and jokes when on the grog.
Most colonial settlements had a ‘Donkey Jack’ or two. They were heavy drinking odd-jobs men, often homeless and relying on the goodwill of others.
An alcoholic, he lived in a time where help or welfare was non-existent. The authorities answer to ‘Donkey Jacks’ was simply to lock them up, releasing them when they were sober, so they could head back to the pub to celebrate their freedom and, inevitably, end up facing the same magistrates again.
A native of Armagh Ireland, Murphy, an errand boy, had been convicted at the Lancaster Quarter Session in England for stealing waistcoats in 1838. It was his fourth conviction and he was sentenced to seven years transportation to the penal settlement of New South Wales.
Not much is known about Murphy’s early years. He was one of 320 convicts whom arrived in Sydney Town in 1839 aboard the barque John Barry. He was just 22.
By the 1850s he was a free man and had made the Illawarra – where he drifted from job to job as a labourer – his home.
When sober Murphy was said to be a hard worker, but his addiction to alcohol meant he would never have stable employment, and he was destined to be in and out of gaol for the remainder of his life.
One of Murphy’s first recorded brushes with the law was in December 1856 when the Illawarra Mercury reported that the 39-year-old had been released from the Wollongong watch house, having been arrested on a warrant, charged with absenting himself from the service of James Mulhair of the Five Islands Estate.
Mulhair said he had made a verbal agreement with Murphy for his services for six months. Mulhair claimed Murphy had worked for just under a month before leaving his employment.
Murphy disputed his former employer’s account, and said he had entered the services of Mulhair by way of trial. Murphy considered himself at liberty to leave when he wanted.
However, the court was of the opinion Murphy had been hired for six months. When the magistrates asked if he was willing to return to Mulhair’s services, Murphy replied he would sooner spend seven years in the Cockatoo Island prison on Sydney Harbour. Mulhair told the court he would rather Murphy not return to his employment, and he was discharged.
Murphy had become better known by his alias, Donkey Jack by 1857, and he was a regular visitor to Wollongong’s little timber court house near the boat harbour for drunken behaviour.
Murphy, 40, spent 30 hours in the Wollongong lock-up for drunkenness in February 1857. Before the year was out, however, he was convicted of obscene language and spent six months in one of the colony’s toughest prisons – Darlinghurst Gaol.
No sooner was Donkey Jack out of Darlinghurst he was facing the Wollongong magistrates again – this time in the newly completed stone Wollongong Court House near the harbour. The Mercury reported on in March 1858, just a few weeks after the new court house was opened, that Murphy, “a most notorious character for his drunkenness and obscenity”, was charged with being a vagrant and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment in Darlinghurst Gaol with hard labour.
Just a few days after he was again released from Darlinghurst, Donkey was back in the dock of the Wollongong Court House. The Mercury reported that Murphy, “a notorious inebriate and blackguard” was sentenced to seven days hard labour on the roads for drunkenness.
The Wollongong Gaol, with six cells, was completed on a site near the court house overlooking the harbour in November 1859. It wasn’t long before Donkey Jack became a guest in one of the small cells which measured just 474 cubic feet (13.422 cubic metres). It would become his favourite prison, and once when arrested in Kiama for drunkenness, he asked the magistrates if they could send him to the Wollongong prison.
The Illawarra Mercury reported on November 19 1861 that 44-year-old Murphy pleaded guilty to the charge of using obscene language in Corrimal-street and was sentenced to one month’s confinement in Wollongong gaol. He was further charged with assaulting Constable Thomson.
It was connected with the preceding case, and the assault was committed whilst taking him to the watch-house. He was very violent when confined. The evidence was conclusive. Sentenced to three months, with hard labor in Wollongong gaol. This sentence to commence at the termination of the preceding one.
Donkey was 46 when Magistrate and Mayor of Wollongong George Waring gave Donkey Jack another warning and discharged him from prison for drunkenness in August 1863. Alas, a week later, Murphy was facing the court of petty sessions again for drunkenness. This time the magistrates were not so lenient and, as it was his fourth conviction in the last 12 months, he was sentenced to six months hard labour in Wollongong Gaol.
Unmarried, Murphy had no family and was in and out of prison hundreds of times for drunkenness, obscene language or riotous behaviour during the 1860s. He was revered for his fighting skills, particularly his lethal boot and head-butt.
Murphy did have his supporters. An advertisement in the Mercury exclaimed during 1867 that a “few friends and admirers” of Donkey Jack, “deeply impressed with a sense of his high moral worth, and disinterested labors in the Gaol and other public works of the colony”, collected subscriptions and presenting him with a new wheelbarrow on April Fools Day 1867.
His wheelbarrow, bought to allow him to continue his odd jobs around the township, never persuaded the 50-year-old from giving-up his inebriating ways, and he spent August 1867 in the Wollongong Gaol for drunkenness. As was a regular occurrence, he was released on the eve of the Wollongong races, only to be convicted once more for “being an idle and disorderly character, without any visible means of support” and spent another six months behind bars with hard labour.
Donkey Jack continued in and out of prison through the 1870s. His comparison to Shakespeare’s Caliban from the Tempest was made by “The Wanderer” in a letter to the Illawarra Mercury in 1879. Describing a visit to Brown’s Illawarra Hotel at Brownsville, near Dapto, he wrote:
In the evening, a figure appeared suddenly, which instantly reminded me of Shakespeare’s character of Caliban, a savage and deformed slave. This individual was on his entrance saluted with cries of ‘Hallo Donkey, how long are you out,’ ‘look at his head,’ and so on, whilst some of the younger portion imitated the hee-hawing of that patient and long-suffering animal whose name he bears. I ascertained from reliable authority the fact that he had started twenty-seven years in succession to see the Wollongong Races but, owing to intoxication, and the consequent necessary care bestowed upon him by the Police, had only succeeded in reaching the racecourse and viewing the sport once. I was informed that he has been before the “Bench” two hundred times within his lengthened residence in this district. Watching his behaviour, both when under the influence of liquor and when sober, his resemblance to Caliban is so strong that I will now quote from Shakespeare’s play of the Tempest the character of Caliban contrasted with that of ‘Donkey Jack’.
Act I. Scene 1st and 2nd. Caliban: I’ll swear upon that bottle to be thy true subject. Donkey Jack (to Mrs. B. the hostess); Mrs. B., so help me, if you’ll give me one nobbler, I’ll swear to do anything you want. Caliban: I’ll show you every fertile inch of this island, and I will, kiss thy foot: I prithee be my God. Donkey Jack, (to strange gentleman): Give us a glass, master, gets it, goes on his knees, and offers to worship the stranger. If you want to see the lake, Sir, I’ll show you the road; I know every inch for miles round.” Trinculo to Caliban: By this light, a most perfidious and drunken monster. When his God’s asleep he’ll rob his master. Again, Trinculo to Caliban: I shall laugh my self to death at this puppy-headed monster; I could find it in my heart to beat him, a most scurvy monster. Strange gentleman to Donkey Jack: Get up, you drunken beasti or I’II kick you up. Caliban to Trinculo: Come kiss me. Donkey Jack to stranger: Let me kiss your hand, Sir, before I got up. Trinculo to Caliban: A howling monster, a drunken monster. Caliban: You taught me language, and my profit on it. I know how to curse. Trinculo: A freckled whelp, hag-born, not honored with a human shape.
Act II. Scene 2. Donkey Jack to Stranger: If I do get drunk and swear it is because I was taught it when a boy. Bystander to Donkey Jack: Why, Jack, I don’t believe you were ever born; I think you grow’d up.
Act V. Caliban (promising to reform): Ay, that I will, and I’ll be wise hereafter, and seek for grace; what a thrice dolted ass was I to take this drunkard for a God (alluding to Stephen the Butler.) Donkey Jack (to Mrs. B. the hostess, the morning after a debauch): Mrs. B. give me one glass only one, for God’s sake, I won’t drink any more to-day, I’ll leave it off, &c.
But in fairness to Jack, I must say, unlike Caliban, he is perfectly trustworthy, and when sober works like a horse. I forgot to say that once, when annoyed in my presence, he ran at his tormentor full butt like a goat, and doubled him up. However, I have written, I am afraid, too much; and will therefore end by sincerely wishing Dapto and the Daptonians every success that they can wish for.”
At the age of 64, Murphy was still causing problems for the local police force, with him spending seven days in the Shellharbour lock-up for drunkenness in 1881. He was also given an additional seven days for “destroying government property while in the cell”.
Two years later there were signs that a lifetime of heavy drinking and age had finally caught-up with Donkey Jack. The Kiama Independent reported on January 3 1885 that the 68-year-old was charged with making use of obscene language at Albion Park, but was unable to attend court because of an ailment.
Two months later the Illawarra Mercury reported that Murphy was brought before the Wollongong court charged with having “no lawful means of support or fixed place of abode”. On the recommendation of Dr Thompson, Donkey Jack was remanded to Wollongong Gaol, “he not being in a fit state to answer the charge”.
Donkey Jack died at ‘home’ – in his favourite prison, the Wollongong Gaol – less than five days later from “a serious infliction of the brain”. His death certificate, filled-out by the Wollongong gaoler, states he was buried in the Roman Catholic Cemetery by Wollongong City Beach, on August 22, 1885. No minister officiated. He was 68.
For an elderly drunk – a vagrant, who had no family – his death was widely reported around the colony, with stories in newspapers including the Newcastle Herald, the Sydney Evening News, and Goulburn Evening Penny Post.
The Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate reported on Monday, August 24, 1885:
Gone at Last. An old identity, known as ‘Donkey Jack,’ died in Wollongong gaol on Friday. He had been convicted nearly 300 times for drunkenness. This beats Poll Cott.*
*Poll Cott was an infamous character in northern NSW during the mid 1800s, known for her use of a lemonade bottle as a weapon. She would put the bottle in a sock and swing it at her victims, threatening and robbing them. She had 257 convictions to her name. It was reported that it often took up to six policemen to subdue her during one of her rampages. See Salvation Army story: Lemonade bottle a trophy of grace.
First published 2014
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2021
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