Bad Day at Barclay’s Battery by Gordon Plowman

Tom Coolon. Courtesy of

The following is an article written by Gordon Plowman, who emailed it to me and has given permission to publish. Although it is not from the WA Goldfields, it is a tale that could have occurred on any goldfield. I hope you enjoy it.

There’s a law on every goldfield, every miner must obey, The man who dares to transgress, will surely dearly pay. It almost never happens, for it’s a dangerous game To forego this old tradition, and jump another’s claim.” Eddie Cahill

Tom Coolon rose early, saddled his horse, rounded up his goat herd and drove them to the creek for water. He took the usual track through the bush careful to avoid the open shafts and gaping holes the miners had dug in pursuit of earth’s bounteous treasures. He noticed how some miners used hand windlasses to winch the heavy loads of rock up from the underground tunnels deep below the surface. More affluent miners had installed machinery to do the job. Piles of stone lay on the grass beside each lease. Coolon knew better than anyone that those miners who had toiled through the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold, day in and day out, would not earn a single penny until their stone could be crushed and the ores of silver and gold contained in it were extracted.

He ambled along behind his herd listening to the monotonous thud, thud, thud of Barclay’s stamper battery. Ceaselessly it thundered on, all day and into the night, crushing the seemingly endless stockpile of gold-bearing rock waiting to be processed. Above the roar of machinery, he could just manage to hear the gentle hiss of steam from the engine room. He watched the Bedan pans and the Wilfley tables grind and concentrate the precious ores of gold and silver. He pondered the mysterious workings of the assay plant before being distracted by the shrill sheik of a circular saw cutting timber at the sawmill. He reflected on his own life; the difficulties he had fought and overcome and his present precarious situation. He should, he thought, be sitting-pretty on the verge of becoming wealthy. But fate in the form of a man, Ben Thompson by name, had intervened.

The day’s work on the small, isolated goldfield of Mount Coolon, situated 260 kilometres south-west of Bowen in north Queensland, had begun. This day, the 13th of November 1918, sees the industrious people of the settlement each working at their allotted tasks, all with one ultimate purpose in mind – the production of precious ingots of silver and gold.

Tom Coolon waited at Police Creek while his thirsty animals drank their fill. While he waited, he contemplated his future and brooded over the past. Things had not gone well for him during the last few months and anger and resentment welled up inside him. As the first man to register a claim on the goldfield back in 1914, Coolon had the honour of having the new goldfield named after himself. He and his son, Hector, worked his Reward claim since then, hewing out tons of rich gold-bearing stone which now lay in a huge pile near their mine. But even stone laced with an abundance of gold is worthless until it is crushed and processed.

Richard Barclay had erected the only crushing battery and processing plant on the field and it was tied up processing ores from his own mine with no spare capacity to crush other miner’s stone. Tom had the frustration of having done all the hard work of extracting hundreds of tons of gold-rich ore, only to find he couldn’t get it processed. He had written letters to the newspapers practically begging someone with the knowhow and capital to set up a battery on the Mount Coolon field. His pleas fell on deaf ears. After the frustration of knowing he had a small fortune in gold-bearing ore piled up next to his mine, he eventually made contact with a man in Newcastle named Burns. In return for a share in the mine’s profits, Burns was to erect a crushing plant at Coolon’s Reward claim. Negotiations were in progress but, until a deal could be finalised, Coolon couldn’t see much point in continuing the very demanding task of hard rock mining. Besides, he had to provide for his wife and son, Hector, so he turned to other pursuits to bring in a livable income and, that’s when the trouble began.

As he rode slowly back toward his cottage the sound of Barclay’s battery faded into the distance. Suddenly he became aware of another sound. He bought his horse to an abrupt halt. He listened intently. The sounds were definitely coming from the direction of the Reward claim. He heard the steady blows of a pick digging away at the rocky ground. He heard the unmistakable sound of a heavy hammer striking a steel hand-gad as someone chiselled away an obstinate piece of rock. Someone was working in his Reward claim.

Barclay’s Native Bear Mine, Mount Coolon 1932

Much had happened on the field since it was discovered in 1913 and many changes had taken place. But, as far as Tom Coolon was concerned, the Reward claim had always been his and would remain in his possession until he decided otherwise. To his mind, anyone working on the Reward claim other than him was a claim jumper. He was not about to tolerate their trespass. He dug his heels into his horse’s flanks and cantered off in the direction of the sounds.

Over the years, Coolon had toiled for hours, days and months to excavate the deep trench along the course of the gold-bearing reef on the Reward claim. When he rode up and saw two men working on his claim, his blood boiled.

Bernard (Ben) Thompson and a young lad, Billy Bloome, were hard at work in the hole. They didn’t see Coolon at first but suddenly one of them became aware of a presence. They stopped work and looked up. There on the surface above them was the figure of Tom

Coolon mounted on his horse. Tall in the saddle with free-flowing red hair and beard he must have been an imposing if not ominous sight. Coolon, now fuelled by resentment, glared down at the ‘claim jumpers’ and shouted at the top of his voice, “What right have you on this ground?’ If Thompson was intimidated by the sight of Coolon he didn’t show it. He replied succinctly, “The law of the land.”

A heated argument broke out and continued until Coolon rode off in the direction of his house.

Of those who knew Tom Coolon, some considered him to be a gentleman. But Ben Thompson had seen the other side of his character. He knew him as a ruffian and a bully. He knew Coolon would probably go out of his way to cause him trouble. He thought he was sufficiently prepared to deal with it. The law of the land was indeed on Thompson’s side but the law that emanates from the barrel of a gun proclaims a rough justice of its own.

Young Billy Bloome, toiling away in the heat of the summer sun, could not even have imagined how events would pan out later on that fateful day.

Neither Tom Coolon nor Ben Thompson could claim unblemished reputations. Coolon, considered by some to be a bully and a cheat, was known to have had previous brushes with the law. Thompson had caused trouble at both the Oaks goldfield in the Gulf of Carpentaria and again on the Clermont gold-fields. He arrived at Mount Coolon labelled as a claim-jumper; a person who obtains another man’s claim by force or by illegal means.

About 10.00 am Coolon returned to the hole in which Thompson and Bloome were working. This time he carried a Winchester rifle. He dismounted then he shouted to Thompson, “I’ll give you five minutes to get off the claim.”

A lesser man may have taken to his heels and run but Thompson stood his ground. He shouted back, “I’m not going to go.” Coolon raised his rifle and fired a warning shot. Thompson drew his revolver. Coolon fired again. The bullet hit Thompson under his right arm. Thompson now realised he was in a fight for his life. He aimed his revolver at Coolon and fired. The bullet hit the barrel of Coolon’s rifle and deflected harmlessly away. Coolon remained unhurt. Thompson fired again but his pistol jammed. He was now defenceless. Thompson, bleeding from the gunshot wound, clambered out of the hole. Perhaps he thought Coolon would be happy now he had wounded him. But Coolon’s rage had not subsided. Just as Thompson reached the top of the hole and climbed out, Coolon fired again. This time he did not miss. Thompson fell to the ground and did not move.

Young Billy Bloome, now a witness to a possible murder, stood helpless and defenceless, trapped within the gold-bearing rock walls of the Reward Claim. Coolon, still holding his rifle, climbed once more into the saddle. Before he rode away, he shouted back to the frightened lad in a threatening tone, “Don’t you leave the ground.”

A terrible killing spree had begun. But our story has its origins reaching back to 1913 when Luke Reynolds, a young stockman working on Yacamunda Station 200 kilometres north of Clermont, stumbled upon a gold-bearing quartz reef where it had broken through the surface. Gold discoveries don’t come any easier than that and we can only wonder at the elation he must have felt. From that moment on, his future should have been assured; riches should have been his. He pegged out the gold-rich area of quartz he had accidentally discovered then set about registering his claim as the law demanded. When he began his 200-kilometre journey to Charters Towers to register his application as the discoverer of a new goldfield, his spirits must have been sky-high. But Luke Reynolds was about to learn some of life’s toughest lessons. He probably knew that as the first person to discover gold in an area where there had been no previous discoveries, he’d be entitled to a much larger claim than those granted to other prospectors. This would be his reward for his discovery. Although he did not know it at the time, he had also pegged out one of the richest areas of the entire gold reef.

Unfortunately for Luke, he made two serious errors. This first was his decision to register his claim at Charters Towers. Unbeknown to him, only the mining warden at the town of Clermont, 200 kilometres to the south, was empowered with the authority to register his claim. He didn’t find this out until he reached Charters Towers. He obviously recognised the value of his find because he proceeded as quickly as possible on the long journey from Charters Towers to Clermont to make good his rightful claim.

His second mistake would have dire and far-reaching consequences. He told one of the workers on Yacamunda station about his find. That man was Tom Coolon. As soon as Reynolds left for Charters Towers, Coolon pegged out the area Reynolds had discovered and claimed it as his own. He then set out in haste to Clermont to legally register the claim and derive all the benefits bestowed on the first discoverer.

Luke Reynolds was about to learn that all is fair in love, war and gold exploration. Coolon’s claim was granted and officially recorded by the Clermont mining warden. As the ‘discoverer’ of gold, Coolon was rewarded with a claim covering approximately five times the area of a normal prospector’s lease. The new goldfield would eventually become known as Mount Coolon.

Rumours persist even to this day that Coolon, who quickly realised the value of Reynold’s find, deliberately advised him to go to Charters Towers to register his claim as a diversionary tactic. Some say Coolon even supplied him with horses to make the trip. This gave Coolon plenty of time to make good his claim at the Mining Warden’s office in Clermont.

Reynolds, after all his effort in travelling first to Charters Towers and then to Clermont, soon realised he had been duped. Coolon had seen to it that Reynolds missed out on the first discoverer’s rewards and he now he had to be satisfied with a smaller claim on ground adjoining Coolon’s Reward claim. He worked his ground for a year or so before selling out to a Scotsman, James Barclay. History does not seem to record how Reynolds coped with Coolon as his neighbour.

The authorities, confronted with the problem of whether Coolon or Reynolds discovered the field, solved the difficulty in an interesting way. Today’s records show Reynolds as the discoverer of gold in 1913 and Coolon to have pegged the first claim in 1914.

While Coolon and his son Hector worked the Reward claim, other prospectors pegged less productive ground. By 1916, thirty men were employed to work on various claims and businesses on the Mount Coolon field. Prominent among these was James Barclay, the man who purchased the Native Bear claim from Reynolds. He erected machinery and built extensive gold processing and assaying plant.

Other miners looked forward to the day when Barclay would crush and process their ore but his plant could hardly keep up with the production from his own mines and so others had to wait and hope.

Life was tough. First drought, then floods hampered mining operations. Poor roads made transport slow and difficult. The biggest problem was, as always, lack of machinery to crush and process the stone. Huge stockpiles of stone remained “at grass” waiting to be crushed and processed. It must have been immensely discouraging for miners working at the bottom of a deep, dark shaft or in an open pit exposed to the hot sun, knowing they had little chance of getting their stone processed. With little or no money coming in from his mining enterprise, Tom Coolon began spending most of his time away from his mine in pursuing other interests.

The mining regulations stated that the holder of a claim must work that claim for a minimum of three days out of fourteen. If this requirement was not fulfilled, the claim could be subject to forfeiture subject to forfeit as determined by the mining warden.

The ever-vigilant Ben Thompson, always on the look-out for any opportunity, seized his chance. Among his other absences, Tom Coolon made a trip to Clermont to buy supplies of food. Floods had made rivers and creeks impassable and food supplies were desperately low. Coolon braved the flooded streams and washed-out gullies on his slow and arduous journey. On reaching Clermont and purchasing food supplies, he had now to return along the muddy track and across the same creeks and rivers from whence he had come. It took him over two weeks to accomplish this journey which most people would look upon as an amazing feat, given the difficult conditions. Ben Thompson saw this as an opportunity. He applied for forfeiture of Coolon’s Reward claim on the grounds that he had not worked it for over two weeks. Coolon and his supporters could scarce believe the temerity of Thompson’s action and probably thought his application would fail. Those who supported Thompson encouraged him to proceed. Thompson’s application for forfeiture split the population of the tiny mining town into two opposing viewpoints.

Mining Warden Power heard the case in Clermont. Coolon had already made it clear what he intended to do if he lost the case and had to forfeit the mine he had owned and worked for the past four years. He had made verbal threats against Thompson which is, perhaps, understandable. Then he turned his attention to mining warden Power and threatened him. Power was worried by his threatening comments and he sent telegrams to his superiors stating that he felt unsafe.

Thompson made several applications for forfeiture and four other miners supported his case as witnesses. These men had to attend each hearing at Clermont which, in those days was no easy trip to make. After due consideration and, governed by the mining law of the day, warden Power eventually made his decision. He granted ownership of Coolon’s Reward claim to Thompson. Without doing anything other than taking the matter to court, Thompson now owned a productive gold mine.

Coolon had lost everything he had worked for over the past four years and it was obvious he wasn’t giving it up without a fight. Coolon immediately appealed and the case was heard by Judge O’Sullivan, K.C. This time Coolon produced witnesses who spoke in his favour. He also explained how he spent time away from his claim in order to gather suitable timber for use in the mine. This, he argued, was a necessary and legitimate reason to temporarily suspend mining operations.

Three other miners, Brown, Smith and Wells, gave evidence supporting Thompson’s case against Coolon. Judge O’Sullivan reserved his decision but later he dismissed Coolon’s appeal. Ben Thompson now had the legal right to work the Reward claim – a right Tom Coolon would never concede.

The whole Coolon affair caused great resentment on the goldfield but day by day, feelings began to mend and everyday life began to normalise. Then, a week after the judge handed down his decision, all hell broke loose. This was the day on which Tom Coolon sought retribution.

Stunned by the shooting of Thompson, Billy Bloome watched Coolon ride over to the Kangaroo claim in search of Robert Wells, one of the men who had testified against him. Bloome seized the opportunity to clamber out of the hole in which he and Thompson had been working and get right away from the Reward claim. He quickly made his way to the Sydney claim where he found Alexander Smith, another of those who gave evidence against Coolon. Seemingly unperturbed by the shooting of Ben Thompson, Smith and Bloome decided to check Thompson’s body. Finding him dead, they covered him with a tent fly. Both men then went to the blacksmith shop on Barclay’s Native Bear lease. With their colleague dead and knowing the threats Coolon had previously made, it is difficult to understand why these two men did not make themselves scarce. Both the surrounding bush and the underground mine shafts would have afforded reasonably safe hiding places.

Coolon probably had every intention of shooting Wells but he couldn’t find him so he left the Kangaroo claim and he also went to the blacksmith shop. This was Well’s lucky day. His sojourn deep underground at the bottom of the mine shaft undoubtedly saved his life.

Coolon saw Bloome at the blacksmith shop and told him to get out. Not wishing to become another of Coolon’s murder victims Billy didn’t argue. He set off along the road to the Kangaroo claim. He probably thought Coolon had let him go; if so, he was wrong. Coolon followed Billy. Fifty yards from the blacksmith shop Coolon dismounted. He shouted at Billy, “I will give you five minutes to say your prayers.”

These were the last words the young lad would ever hear. Coolon didn’t shoot right away. Two other men were in his firing line. He stepped to the side of the road so he could get a clear shot. With calm precision, he took aim at Billy Bloome and shot him in the back. The boy fell face downwards – dead. The eighteen-year-old lad had not given evidence against Coolon and did not deserve to die. To have shot him in the back can only be judged as the cowardly act of vengeance.

Coolon had now killed two men in cold blood in board daylight and in front of witnesses. In his murderous frame of mind, this very dangerous man was like a powder keg ready to explode. Those who witnessed the killings did nothing. Even more surprising, the other two men who gave evidence at the mining court, made no attempt to hide, protect themselves or simply leave town. They went about their duties as though nothing had happened.

Coolon went back to the blacksmith shop where he threatened to shoot Smith because he too had supported Thompson’s claim during the court proceedings. Charles Woodland was there and intervened on Smith’s behalf imploring Coolon to leave him be. Coolon and Smith ended up shaking hands. If Smith accepted Coolon’s hand-shake as some kind of conciliatory gesture, he was naive in the extreme. His naivety would later cost him his life.

Coolon asked Woodland, whom he knew to be a J.P., to come to his house and write his will. He also asked another man, Bill Maddern to come to his house to witness the document.

On his way home, Coolon made a short detour to check whether Thompson was dead. He later said to Woodland, “He will not jump any more claims.”

Coolon instructed his wife to bring a pen and ink. He explained what he wanted to put in his will and Woodland began to write the document. Then without a word to anyone, Coolon left the house, got on his horse and rode back towards the town toting his Winchester. Woodland and Maddern were still there when he returned sometime later. Remorselessly he announced for all to hear, “I have Smith and old Bill Brown.”

He had ridden casually into town. He’d sought out Smith and shot him dead. Apparently unmoved by his slaying of Smith, he went looking for old Bill Brown.When he found him, he shot him too. Bill Brown didn’t die immediately. He was still alive when they found him and Barclay decided to drive him the 200 kilometres to the Clermont hospital. He died before they got him into Barclay’s vehicle.

Having murdered Billy Bloome plus three of the four men who gave evidence against him before Judge O’Sullivan, Coolon was finally satisfied. He handed his rifle to Woodland stating that he would not shoot anymore but would give himself up to the police when they arrived.

The body of his first victim, Ben Thompson, lay within sight of Coolon’s house and that seemed to worry him. He told Woodland he was going to use a horse to drag Thompson’s body away because it was bad enough for him to be within sight lying on the gravel without having him stinking about the place. Woodland told Coolon not to touch the body and that he would attend to the dead.

Woodland and Maddern left Coolon’s house satisfied he would not kill again. But Coolon hadn’t finished yet. At 5.00 pm that afternoon, Maddern observed Coolon’s wife running from her house screaming and waving her arms about. He and Woodland ran to her aid. The two men were now confronted with yet another killing – that of Tom Coolon.

Coolon lay on the ground beside his house. Blood poured from his mouth. His brains protruded from the top of his forehead. A .32 calibre revolver lay near his right hand. He had put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was still alive.

The police report by the investigating officer, Constable Robinson, states that Woodland and Maddern stayed with Coolon until he died one hour later.

Word of the murders reached the Clermont police and constable Robertson and tracker Merryman was dispatched to investigate. By the time they arrived three days later, the bodies of the four murder victims plus that of Coolon had been buried.

The remains of Thompson, Bloome, Smith and Brown still rest in peace at Mount Coolon. A plaque marks their last resting place. Coolon’s body was also buried here but his wife later had his body exhumed and interred at the Charters Towers cemetery.

Constable Robinson’s report states that he took possession of a .22 calibre revolver found lying near where Thompson was shot. It contained five full cartridges and one empty shell. The revolver was cocked but the hammer had jammed. Had Thompson been able to get that shot away, perhaps the events of that day would have turned out differently.

The Mount Coolon murders have fascinated and puzzled all those who know the story. Firstly, there’s the enigma of Tom Coolon, the man. In his younger days, he is said to have risked his own life to save others. Some of his acquaintances thought very highly of him. Others considered him to be a menacing bully and a thief. The one certainty is that he became a cold-blooded murderer.

Then there’s the question mark hanging over Bloome, Smith and Brown. Robert Wells escaped Coolon’s wrath by staying down his mineshaft until the whole dreadful tragedy had played out. After the slaying of Thompson, the others must have realised they were likely targets. Why didn’t anyone of them or indeed all three, make themselves scarce until the police arrived to arrest Coolon?

And why is it that as far as we are aware, no one tried to stop Coolon’s murderous rampage; was everyone too scared? There is another explanation: Thompson was seen by some as a claim jumper who had no right to the Reward claim. Murder can never be condoned but there were men at Mount Coolon who thought Tom Coolon had been hard done by and they were not favourably disposed toward the Thompson camp.

The murders rocked the tiny Mount Coolon settlement to the core. They also had wider implications. The murdered twenty-eight-year-old Harold Smith, an engineer, left behind a wife and four children. His father, Howard Smith, a well-known identity from Copperfield near Clermont, had previously lost his only other son. Herbert had been killed in action at the Dardanelles duringWW1. Now his other son, Harold, had been murdered.

Following widespread newspaper reports, a handwritten letter to the Queensland Police Department is a poignant reminder of one woman’s plight. Emily Brown wrote the letter hoping to ascertain whether the murdered William Brown could have been her estranged husband. Here is part of what she had to say:
“…..The reason I am asking is that I have not heard of my husband for years. He was working about that part doing some mining work I heard some time ago. When I read the paper I thought I would see if I could find out anything. He would be over 60 years of age. I am yours faithfully, Emily Brown, Marrickville, Sydney.”

The age-old lure of gold so often brings out the worst in humankind. Dishonesty, greed, hate, and vengeance even the impulses to kill, all are present in this story where the main protagonists paid with their lives.

After the murders, confusion over ownership of the Reward claim caused many problems. According to law, Ben Thompson owned the claim but he had been murdered. The original owner, Tom Coolon had committed suicide. The procedure was now for the executors of Thompson’s estate to post notices on the claim in order to take possession. In this lawless town, far away from the nearest police, the Coolon family and their supporters took up arms and threatened everyone who came close to the mine so that the necessary notices never were posted.

Following advice from someone familiar with mining law, Tom Coolon’s son, Hector, applied for the property as an abandoned claim. The wheels of justice turn slowly but Hector was eventually granted the lease. He and his mother floated the mine as, “The Mount Coolon Gold Mining Company, no liability.” Registered in Townsville in December 1920, the first directors were named as Catherine Coolon, Hector Coolon, Thomas Bell, Francis Quinn and John Quinn. A ten head stamper battery plus concentrating and extraction plant were installed and crushing began. The first crushing of 250 tons yielded 210 ounces of gold. The Reward claim had rewarded the Coolons at last. Three years later in 1923, Hector sold his share in the mine for £5,000, equivalent in today’s money of about $148,000. All the years of struggle and strife had finally paid off.

Barclay remained on the field and over the next decade acquired most of the leases at Mount Coolon. During the economic depression years of the 1930s, gold prices rose and several major companies rekindled their interest in gold mining. Barclay sold out to a much bigger and well-funded company, Gold Mines of Australia Limited and they wasted little time in expanding operations. During their tenure, 197,500 ounces of gold and over 60,000 ounces of silver were produced and in 1932, Mount Coolon achieved the highest gold production in Queensland.

During the boom years, Mount Coolon lived up to its reputation as a wild frontier town. The Bowen Independent Newspaper in October 1936, reported on a huge fight within the town. The trouble, it said, started on the dance floor and quickly spread to various parts of the township. Ambulance men could not keep pace with the numbers of casualties requiring medical attention. The brawl continued until someone set the police station on fire. Belligerents then ceased hostilities to join the constable in watching his quarters burn down. The news item concludes: “Evidently the good old days when men were men have not yet passed.”

By 1941 commercial production was no longer viable and mining ceased. The population dwindled. Mount Coolon became a ghost town and some of its old shops and buildings can still be seen in various stages of disrepair. The weir across Police Creek still remains as does the chimney Barclay built from bricks manufactured in the site. Old items of machinery are dotted about here and there.

Only the Mount Coolon Hotel, which was once James Barclay’s residence, has remained open for business. I spent a memorable afternoon at the Mount Coolon Hotel in the 1970s when Bindy Melon was the licensed victualled. I couldn’t help noticing a damaged wall in the bar room. I asked Bindy what happened. He replied nonchalantly, “A couple of station workers had a bit of a set-to. One of them got shoved through the wall.” “The wild and woolly west is still alive and well,” I said. “Oh yes,” Bindy replied with a shake of his head. “And that’s only the half of it,” he said pointing at the hole in the wall. If you visit Mount Coolon you can sit in the pub and look out over the tranquil dammed waters of Police Creek and marvel at Barclay’s chimney.

Relaxing at the Mount Coolon Pub

You can let the history of this place sink into your psyche. You can imagine the thud, thud, thud of Barclay’s battery crushing ore and you can see in your mind’s eye the spectre of Tom Coolon riding his horse, Winchester rifle in hand and his red hair blowing in the breeze. Or you can imagine the boom years when hundreds of men and a handful of women, all with uncertain futures, lived and worked at the mine destined to become, at least for a while, Queensland’s premier gold producer. Or, you can remain in the here and now and hope the wild and woolly west has finally been tamed.

The field is currently undergoing a revival. In 2006 Mount Coolon Gold Mines Pty. Ltd. acquired the Mount Coolon tenets and an extensive exploration programme began. Had Tom Coolon and his victims lived, they could never have imagined the productive future in store for what was in their day, a rough and tumble, lawless mining settlement.

Children play amongst the derelict machines at Mount Coolon

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