John "Rocky" Whelan (1800-1855) Bushranger


Whelan's Cave, Mt Wellington

John 'Rocky' Whelan, who would shoot then rob his victims, was the most bloodthirsty of Tasmania's bushrangers. He is rumoured to have said he would ‘kill a man for four pence’.

Whelan was described by bushranger Martin Cash as "so callous and hardened that he seemed to regard the lash, the dark cell, and the rest of Price's contrivances with the most profound indifference". Cash had known Whelan on Norfolk Island where he arrived in 1834 having committed a string of offences as a convict in Sydney.

Whelan was tried at the Wexford Quarter Sessions in January 1829, sentenced to 7 years transportation, and arrived in Sydney aboard the Larkins in December 1829. He was again tried in Sydney for highway robbery, and transported to Norfolk Island, where he was involved in the taking of the supply vessel, "Governor Phillip".

Between 1834 and 1852, during his time on Norfolk Island, Whelan committed at least 40 offences and received 700 lashes. When Norfolk Island prison was closed down in 1853, Whelan was sent to Hobart Town where he was assigned to a public works gang, but after two days, he absconded. Upon capture, he was transferred to Port Arthur.

Sculpture of a dogline gaurd dog at Eaglehawk Neck

Whelan escaped from Port Arthur on 28 January 1854, evading the dogs and guards at Eaglehawk Neck. Once free, he took to bushranging, and survived for 12 months at large, living in a cave on Mount Wellington, overlooking Hobart for a few months. The locality is today known as Rocky Whelan's Cave. He had another hideout near Kingston.

Whelan met a Mr. Dunn, a young storekeeper from Franklin, who was on tho way home after transacting business in Hobart. Whelan robbed him, and then murdered him a short distance back from the rough Huon track.

The mysterious disappearance of Dunn was not revealed for some time, but the robbing and murdering of a traveller on the Hobart to Launceston main road placed suspicion on Whelan, who was apprehended while trying on a pair of boots in a shop in Upper Elizabeth Street, Hobart. When searched, he was carry a double-barrelled pistol, loaded and capped, and a large amount of cash.

Whelan, along with his accomplice, Peter Connolly, was tried and found guilty of the robbery under arms of William Kearney and Richard Carpenter. They had stopped the two men on the highway outside Richmond, and robbed them at gunpoint, and with violence.

Legend has it that Whelan had murdered Dunn for his boots because his own boots had holes in them. He then discovered that those boots also had holes in them so he stole some money to pay for their repair, and took them to a Hobart bootmaker to have them repaired.

After Whelan had gone, the bootmaker recognised the boots as a pair he had made for Dunn. The next day when Whelan came to collect the boots, the police were waiting for him and arrested him.

Whelan was sentenced to death by hanging on 26 June 1855, and caused a sensation by making a last minute confession to the attending clergymen, in which he admitted murdering an elderly man near Kingston, an old man at Bagdad named Thomas Axford, a hawker at Cleveland, and Dunn, the young man he had shot, struck on the head and robbed on the Huon Track. The decomposed body of the unfortunate Dunn was discovered at the spot named in Whelan's confession.

Defiant to the last, when Whelan was standing on the scaffold, he expressed his regret that he had not shot George Marshall of Sorell when he had the opportunity. After his hanging, remarks made by his accomplice, Connolly, about Whelan's delight in being made a public spectacle, helped influence the abolition of public hanging in Tasmania.

Whelan's police record exhibits a series of one hundred and twelve offences; he had been flogged twelve times and subject to numerous other punishments.