By MICK ROBERTS ©
FRED Gessner was applauded for his courage fending off three bushrangers who attempted to rob his pub in the year 1900.
The Wheelers Hill Hotel, where the fierce gun battle occurred over 120 years ago remains trading today, along busy Ferntree Gully Road, just 30km from the Melbourne CBD. Gessner’s bravery is still a topic of conversation over a few beers in the bar of the pub.
Fred must have been well and truly bushed by the time he arrived home to his pub on Wheelers Hill. The husband of publican, Jessie, Fred had been in Melbourne on business, and, after stepping from the train at Oakleigh – about halfway between Wheelers Hill and the city – he rode the remaining 15km home by horse. It was about 2am when he walked into his pub to greet his wife.
The pair were retiring for the night when Jessie heard a noise downstairs. “You had better go downstairs, Fred, and see what’s the matter,” she reportedly said.
As a result Fred would find himself looking down the barrel of a bushranger’s revolver, with a voice demanding him to “throw up your hands”.
Frank and Jessie ran the Mulgrave Post Office Hotel, at Wheelers Hill, at the time one of the best known pubs on the highway between Oakleigh and Fern Tree Gully.
Frederick William Gessner was born in about 1860 near Melbourne. He was the oldest of 15 children born to German immigrant Friedreich Willihem Gessner and, his wife Caroline.
A farmer and hotel keeper in the Oakleigh and Wheeler Hill, 31-year-old Fred married Jessie Ballingell Cairns in 1891. She was the widow of John Thomas Day whom she had married in 1883 and had one child, a boy, by the name of Frank.
John Day was a sawmill proprietor before he was granted the license of the Mulgrave Post Office Hotel, at Wheelers Hill in March 1886.
The Mulgrave Post Office Hotel sat on the main route from Mulgrave to the rail town of Oakleigh at the corner Ferntree Gully and Jells Roads.
The building was established in 1869 by Mulgrave postmaster George Stott, when the mail was delivered between Oakleigh three times a week. In 1872 the post office was extended to include a general store and a hotel, although it seems it was not licensed to sell liquor. Four months after Stott’s death in July 1875, his widow Ann licensed the six bedroom hotel in November.
Several publicans past through its door over the following years and despite the renaming of the settlement from Mulgrave to Wheelers Hill in 1888, the pub retained the name “The Mulgrave Hill Post Office Hotel” for many years after.
The license of the Mulgrave Post Office Hotel was transferred to John Thomas Day on March 29 1886, a saw mill proprietor. The newly married couple, John and Jessie Day, were only at their new business venture when tragedy struck. John died less than two months after gaining the license of the pub. He was just 39 years of age.
Richmond newspaper, the South Bourke and Mornington Journal reported on Wednesday May 19 1886:
I have also to announce the death of Mr. John Day, of the Post Office hotel, Mulgrave. Deceased was almost a stranger amongst us, and had only been in the hotel a few weeks; he was formerly in business as a saw-mill proprietor near Gembrook. Mr Day was quite a young man and leaves a widow to mourn his loss.
Jessie continued hosting the pub after her husband’s death before marrying Fred Gessner in 1891. Between the pair they ran the pub and a farm, each sharing their time between a market garden and orchard. Both had their names on the license of the hotel at various times.
Fred caused some excitement around the Mulgrave area in 1896 when he reported that he spotted a “tiger” in the scrub while gathering ferns about three-quarters of a mile from Douglas’s Hill. The Melbourne Argus reported that Fred was just 30 yards from the tiger.
He saw three feet of it, and says it was of a light color [sic] with dark streaks. Gessner proceeded to the spot the animal had just left, and found a lair on the ground as if a cow had been lying there. About three years ago a “tiger” was reported to have been seen in the Sassafras settlement, but nothing more was seen or heard of it. A search party is being organised to hunt for the alleged monster.
Fred and Jessie became overnight celebrities following a bungled armed robbery by three bushrangers at the hotel in the early hours of the morning of September 14 1900. Fred’s courage in chasing the three bandits was widely reported, before the police tracked them down, with the help of indigenous “black-trackers” later that month.
After going down stairs to investigate a noise, Fred opened the side door of the pub leading from the living rooms and walked up the path at the side to the front paling fence. As he approached there stood three masked figures, one pointing a pistol, and calling upon Fred to throw up his hands. The Melbourne Leader reported in detail the confrontation on September 15 1900:
“What the devil do you want?” Gessner asked.
“We’ve come to blast up the show,” was the reply.
“Go on; what nonsense!” said the astonished hotelkeeper.
“You’ll get nothing here.”
“Won’t we? You’ll see!” answered the spokesman of the trio, and, addressing the armed member of the party, who had all this time kept the barrel pointed at Gessner, said, “You keep him covered while we try and get into the crib.”
Fred, who reportedly kept himself remarkably cool, said to the robbers: “What is the use of you fellows being such fools? You’ll only get yourselves into trouble.”
Without waiting for an answer to this appeal to reason, Fred ducked his head into the shadow of the fence and darted for the door. As he did so the highwayman fired, but he aimed too high, and as he reached the door a second shot was fired, which buried itself in the woodwork. Jessie by this time had locked the doors and windows of the pub, just as the robber showered the pub in bullets, smashing windows and damaging furniture and walls.
The Leader reported:
Gessner had a gun in the house and some cartridges. He loaded this weapon, and going into the bar, into which a couple of shots had been fired by the burglars, he discharged the weapon point blank at the wall, doing no more damage than the removal of a slab of plaster, as the small shot in the cartridges could not penetrate the wooden shell of the building. The sound of a gun had a sensible influence on the robbers. A man inside a house with a shot gun is a dangerous opponent for an attacking party not undercover, and they did not realise that quail shot were almost harmless. The masked visitors appeared to think that discretion was the better part even of a sticking up expedition, and they withdrew. Gessner, with a caution that shows how collected he was in the exciting circumstances, drew off his white shirt, in order that it might not afford a mark; and going out on to the back verandah let off another cartridge at one of the retreating figures. It did not stop him. One of the robbers mounted a big brown horse, and rode off; the two others got into a cart drawn by a grey pony.
GESSNER MEETS THE ROBBERS.
In the meantime Mrs Gessner had saddled the horse on which her husband had returned from Oakleigh, and throwing on a coat Gessner started off in pursuit, his object being to get up with the fugitives, if possible, and failing that to give warning to the police. Galloping like the wind in the direction of the township, Gessner, after going about a mile and a half, stopped at Grant’s blacksmith shop, another familiar object on the main road. Going down past the forge to the dwelling house, Gessner called out in great excitement to Grant to come out, that they were “all being murdered” up at the hotel. The blacksmith, with no other consciousness save the probability that there was “another blessed horse fell down” — he is used to being aroused to attend sick horses — struggled out of bed; and a few words put him in possession of the situation. Gessner went back to the road, and as he did so a cart drawn by a grey pony, and carrying two men passed, followed by another man on horseback. Now although we have described the robbers going off from the hotel in a cart and on horseback, Gessner had not been able to mark the departure closely enough for identification. He did not realise at once that the trio passing the blacksmith’s were his late visitors, but after the man on horseback had got some 40 paces away Gessner, who had brought his gun with him, suddenly suspected that these might be his recent assailants, and he called out: “Hi! Stop, there! Who are you?” The man on the horse answered; “It’s all right; I’m Sergeant Ryan” (the officer in charge of Oakleigh police station). “That be for a yarn!” exclaimed Gessner, who knew Ryan well, and he blazed away with his gun, hitting the black horse somewhere; at any rate the animal galloped off, the cart with its fast pony being a little distance ahead, and going at a great pace. Those philosophers who can always tell you after the event what ought to have been done will no doubt say that Gessner should have gone after his quarry, and either shot them down or kept them in sight until they were apprehended, or traced them, at a respectful distance, to their destination. He did none of these things. In the first place, his horse had travelled out from Oakleigh at a fast rate; he had done the mile and a half from the hotel in Metropolitan Stakes time, and the horse had no chance of reaching the disappearing trio; there are so many turnings and such a wilderness of roads that escape was easy for men with fresh horses. Be-sides, the man was in a state of intense excitement, and the possibility of all the robbers being armed and determined probably to make a desperate resistance no doubt encouraged hesitation about pursuit. Giving Grant his gun and the two cartridges he had left, Gessner begged his friend to go back to the hotel and take care of Mrs Gessner while he went on to the Oakleigh police station to inform the police. Gessner galloped off towards the township, and his interview with Sergeant Ryan and the subsequent proceedings in tracing the thieves are recorded below.
The blacksmith mounted a horse and went along to the hotel without seeing the fugitives. Mrs. Gessner, still thoroughly self-possessed, did not require any particular attention. The entire household had been aroused by the startling events of a few minutes previously, and some neighbours [sic], attracted by the noise of the shooting, had assembled at the house. It was ascertained that no vehicle or horseman had passed Wheeler’s Hill since Gessner had left, and Grant therefore concluded that the highwaymen had taken one of the cross roads towards Surrey Hills. He called at the house of Mr. Cotter, a justice of the peace, and on learning what had happened the latter gentleman accompanied Grant in a search for the delinquents. They went down towards Waverley and questioned some carters coming out from the city, but nothing answering to the description they could give had been seen going towards Melbourne.
THE SCENE AT THE HOTEL.
When our reporters arrived at the scene of the conflict yesterday morning, it was at once apparent that a serious attack had been made upon the building. From the story told by Mr and Mrs Gessner, and especially from the lady, who has a very clear comprehension of what occurred, it appears that the robbers, when they arrived at the house; which must have been directly Mr Gessner reached home, found one of the windows on the verandah facing the main road, and leading into a sitting-room, unlocked. This they had raised, but the door communicating with the passage was fastened. It was the endeavour [sic] to open this door and the noise it caused that first excited Mrs Gessner’s attention. When Gessner came out calling “Who’s there?” the three men left the room and crouched under the fence, subsequently “covering” the unsuspecting inquirer in the manner already mentioned. The shot fired at Gessner when he ducked and ran back to the kitchen door, passed through, one side of an iron tank and out at the other, then through the wall of the room, passing near a cage containing two canaries, and spending itself beside a sofa. The shooting that went on in the front of the house after Gessner got inside was commenced at the window of a room nearer the bar than that at which the burglars had originally entered. They seemed to imagine that the man they had missed had gone into this room, and they shot on the off chance of wounding him. Two or three panes of the window are broken out, and a groove in a chair several feet away shows the direction taken by the bullet. Then they went along to the bar, and apparently had two shots there, for in the division of the window, holes have been made in each pane of the thick plate glass, and one bullet is embedded in the bar counter, Inside the bar. Gessner’s forcible reminder to his assailants that he had a gun is seen in a big hole in the wall, but the quail shot did less damage than the report of the gun, which played havoc among the glass ware. Mrs Gessner, who is a native of the district, and very popular, showed himself to be a person of great daring and courage; Many a man would have been quite content after such an alarming fusillade as that to which his house was subjected to have given the desperadoes a wide berth, in case their drawing off was a mere ruse to bring him into the open. But he never hesitated about going after them, and it was a pity his wits were not sharper when he saw the three miscreants passing the blacksmith’s, for he might even with his quail shot cartridges have winged the horseman sufficient to bring him down, and thus have secured the early capture of the gang. The police however, think Gessner showed great pluck “for a civilian,” and that is probably the highest praise a policeman can bestow.
By the end of the month two of the three bushrangers had been captured.
John Gerard Wilckens, 20, and Frederick Tonsing, 24, were convicted of various robberies in the Black Flat and Dandenong districts, including that of Gessners’ pub, and each sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. A third bushranger, said to be the brother of Wilckens evaded capture.
Frederick William Gessner purchased the freehold of the hotel in 1916, making several improvements and additions to the timber pub. He died in Melbourne on July 16 1926. He was buried on July 17 in Oakleigh Cemetery with Jessie his wife, who had passed away on the March 21 the previous year.
Not much changed at the old pub over the next century after the infamous robbery of 1900, and it continued trading largely unaltered at the intersection of Ferntree Gully and Jells Roads, until the new millennium. In 2000 a modern hotel, which featured a 350 seat bistro, private function room, cocktail lounge and gaming room was built. Today the original heritage listed pub continues trading, although somewhat compromised by the encroaching major roads. The old timber pub features a sports bar on its lower level and a nightclub and function room upstairs.
Mulgrave Post Office Hotel
Name changed to Post Office Hotel, Wheelers Hill 1888.
Now known as the Wheelers Hill Hotel
1872 – 1877: Anne Stott
1877- 81: Rowland Freeman
1882: Thomas Wilkinson
1883: George Bassett
1884: George Sands
1885: John Sand
1886: John Thomas Day
1886 -1888: Mary Ford
1891-92: Jessie (nee Day) Gessner
1903-C1905: Frederick Gessner
C1905-1907: Jessie Gessner
1908-1911: Fred Gessner.
1911 – 1913: Alfred Charles Pope.
1913- 1916: Frederick Peebles
1916 – 1919: Fred Gessner
1919: Isobel Geary
1920: Mary Geary
1921: E. Quosdorf
1922: P. Butler
1923: Annie Henderson
1924: S. Jackwigle
1926: A.J. Knight
1927: Alma Rowe
First published 2016, updated 2021.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2021
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