Dr K’s Curious Chronicles: The Wild Rover

This story is about a wild rover called James Butler Kinchela; the wayward second son of the deaf and debt-ridden Attorney-General of New South Wales in the 1830s, when chain gangs and aristocratic pastoralists jostled one another in the streets of Sydney.

This story is about a wild rover called James Butler Kinchela; the wayward second son of the deaf and debt-ridden Attorney-General of New South Wales in the 1830s, when chain gangs and aristocratic pastoralists jostled one another in the streets of Sydney.

With dark hair and hazel eyes, James Butler Kinchela was both a dashing member of the colonial elite, and an Irishman with a predilection for adventure. He certainly made the young women of the colony swoon, including my great, great, great aunt, Mary Ann Gill, who was one month short of her 16th birthday when she slipped out the window of her father’s hotel to elope with him one autumn night in 1848. Kinchela was 23 years older than Mary Ann and something of a seasoned gentleman settler. He had owned property in Bathurst and Moreton Bay before becoming one of the first overlanders to travel from Sydney with stock to supply the starving settlers of South Australia in the early 1840s. After one particularly harrowing expedition, he bought land in Adelaide establishing an auction yard opposite the site of today’s St Peter’s Cathedral. Driving mobs of thousands of cattle and sheep along the rich river land countries of the Murray, these ‘overlanding’ parties pushed through Darling Junction where large groups of Latji Latji, Mutti Mutti and Ndarrindjeri people had only just encountered Europeans in the form of explorers such as Charles Sturt and Major Mitchell. Although first contact between the Indigenous occupants and these explorers had involved tentative moments of curiosity, relations quickly soured. By the time men such as Kinchela followed in their wake, these tensions had spiraled into violence. Overlanders reported that they were regularly deterred by ‘native fire’ and their camps surrounded by up to 1500 warriors. Letters to the newspapers described how the ‘native parties’ were increasingly disdainful of European weaponry, frequently engaging in ‘guerilla warfare’ against the men and their stock. By the time Kinchela commenced his first expedition to South Australia, relations had deteriorated into a state of ‘war’. Within weeks of Kinchela and his party arriving in Adelaide, Latji Latji warriors had killed four overlanders and left ‘the stinking carcasses of about 2000 sheep wantonly speared’ and strewn across the land in a defiant statement against European intrusion. We can assume that the atmosphere within the vulnerable colony was charged with panic and that the safe arrival of any expedition was meet with exaggerated celebrations of valor, mingled with deep relief. With the future of South Australia hanging in the balance, these overlanders embodied the very definition of 19th century daring-do, and it is likely that Kinchela enjoyed heroic status as he strode the streets of Adelaide. Despite this recognition, the promise of profit, and his investment in the auction yard, Kinchela never made his fortune in South Australia. Within years he was back in Sydney residing in a respectable establishment on Circular Quay, managed by two Dublin born emancipists who were determined to protect their 15-year-old daughter from wild rovers like the Attorney-General’s wayward second son. When her father, Martin Gill, learnt of the intimacy between Mary Ann and Kinchela, he removed the gentleman settler from his hotel, showed his daughter his guns and threatened to murder them both if the matter went further. Mary Ann responded by meeting Kinchela at a secret rendez vous where he promised to marry her. Before the ceremony began, however, an apoplectic Gill confronted the couple and, true to his word, fired two pistol shots at Kinchela, both of which missed their target. Within days, the two men were brought before the courts. A jury of sympathetic fathers found Gill innocent of ‘Shooting with Intent’, for which he was clearly guilty, and convicted Kinchela of abduction, the same crime which consigned the theoretical mastermind of South Australia, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, to London’s Newgate gaol in 1827. Kinchela was released from gaol in early 1849, just after the discovery of gold in San Francisco. In search of new fortunes and fresh fields the convicted bride thief, bankrupted father and tainted daughter travelled to California. Surviving a shipwreck and a pirate attack en route the party eventually arrived in this ramshackle gold town where the determined couple were married. We might imagine that after his numerous near misses and narrow escapes in the colonies, Kinchela was prepared to pledge, along with his wedding vows, that he would ‘play the wild rover no never, no more’. This seems to be so, for when he died in 1862, ‘Judge Kinchela’ as he was then known, had become a respectable magistrate who left his wife, the colonial girl who had risked all for love, an immensely wealthy widow. What she did with her fortunes is, however, another story. Dr Kiera Lindsey teaches Australian History and Australian Studies at the University of South Australia Photo: St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, Adelaide

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