If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that I’m passionate about history and research. Moreover, I’m quite the Sherlock Holmes when it comes to delving into our family history. That means that I’m not only a good sleuth, but I’m also obsessed. I pursue these mysteries like a hound.
Yesterday, I came across this gripping tale of rivaling sides of Sydney Harbour coming together in a bare-fisted, illegal fight and as much as I’m a gentle soul who deplores violence, the story drew me in.
Sydney Harbour 1860.
The year is 1857 and Europeans had only been living in Sydney for 69 years, and it was still a fledgling settlement. Indeed, you can take away the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, and Sydney Harbour cut the city in half with North and South divided. Indeed, only a ferry connected the North Shore with the city. There was no bridge. Yet, the physical divide was only part of the issue. There was also quite a social divide, resulting in a fairly intense rivalry between the North and South, which at times turned to violence and a need to prove virility and manhood. Without these elements, I wouldn’t have a story.
View Sydney Harbour circa 1870
To be perfectly honest, my connection to this story is a little tenuous. The story centres on a fight between Thomas Waterhouse from the North Shore and One-Eyed Bourke from The Rocks, a notoriously rough area on the South side of the Harbour. I am connected to the Waterhouse family through Jessie McQueen White (mother Elizabeth Johnston) who married Thomas Gerrard Waterhouse, grandson of Thomas Waterhouse and Lucy Huin, who owned the Green Gate Hotel in what is now modern Killara. However, back then, the pub was nothing but a bark slab hut.
Apparently, the Waterhouses were great fighters:
“Fight was the one particular subject of conversation at this place; it was a veritable atmosphere of fight, for the simple reason that the Waterhouses had made their mark in the colonial fighting world, and so had some of their neighbors, and fight was all they thought of.”
Anyway, there’s no point me repeating the story, as the newspaper story below provides a gripping account both of the fight itself, and its social context.
Four Sisters in Killara taken later around 1909. Their finery contrasts to the dire poverty in The Rocks.
Playfair Street, The Rocks…Image Archives Office.
Our Strange Past by George Blaikie:
“Sydney’s magnificent harbor does not exist, as some rude critics contend, solely to prevent the harbor bridge from looking silly. It also acts as a barrier between the north side and the south side of Sydney.
As you may well imagine, there has been intense rivalry between the two social stratas. Back in 1857, relationships between the two sections were in a particularly bad state. Rough and tumble characters from the Rocks , —spiritual home of the toughies on the south side —strained matters even more by making raids over the water and, in a spirit of high fun, belting up the steady citizens living on the north side.
Toughest and nastiest of the raiders was One-Eyed Bourke, a professional pugilist, who added embarrassment to battery by freely issuing challenges to ‘any man on the north side’ to stand forth and meet him in single combat. Around this time Mr. Waterhouse arrived down from the bush with his eight sons and took over the Green Gate Hotel at Lane Cove.
A strong team of highly experienced bashers called at the Green Gate and had a beer each. They demanded more. ‘You may care to pay for the first round before having more,’ it was suggested.
‘We’re from the Rocks,’ snarled the visitors. ‘We ., gets beer or we takes it.’ ‘Send for young Tommy,’ someone said calmly. The call went out and, soon, into the bar bounded a fresh, handsome young man who looked as though he spent all his waking hours in performing good deeds and eating vitamin Bl. Tommy addressed the Rocks push: ‘Would you gentlemen please retire?’ ‘Yaah!’ chorused the louts. ‘Turn on the grog or we’ll bust this joint up.’ I do not know how many southsiders were involved in this unhappy affair, but I am pleased to announce that clean-living Thomas knocked over every one of them who happened to be ‘ present.
The news spread quickly round the north shore: A champion fighter had risen up in the ranks! When the first rush of rejoicing had calmed, men began asking one another: ‘But is he good enough to accept the challenge of One-eyed Bourke?’ It was regretfully decided that Thomas would be no match for the professional pug. Hope, which had flared for one magnificent moment in the bosoms of the oppressed northerners, subsided.
Over at the Rocks, the I doings at the Green Gate Hotel were carefully analysed. Most popular conclusion was that the bashers Thomas had bounced must have been drunk and defenceless at the time. There was no other possible explanation to the miracle of one northern softie successfully laying the knuckle on several tough southerners. Special representatives from the Rocks went over to the Green Gate to attend to Thomas. They came back bruised and tattered with a story of a soft-spoken toff who moved on his toes like thistle-down and hit with both hands like a trip hammer. Once more hope flared in the northern camp. A deputation of good citizens called on young Thomas. They explained how One-Eyed Bourke had hurled many taunting challenges which no one had the muscle or the nerve to accept. ‘Would you care to accept the challenge, Thomas?’ ‘Certainly, gentlemen,’ agreed Thomas. ‘I’d be delighted. I enjoy a bout of fisticuffs.’
‘In that case,’ declared the deputation happily, ‘we’ll back you for 100 guineas.’ ‘Thank you, gentlemen. Please accept the challenge, and I’ll go into training.’ One-eyed Bourke was both pleased and amazed a hear that he had been taken up at last — particularly with a wager of 100 guineas tossed in for good measure. Bill Sparkes, the then champion of Australia, was imported at considerable expense to the north shore to train Tommy.
Officially, prize fighting with bare knuckles was illegal in Australia in 1857, and the details of the Bourke -Waterhouse battle had to be kept secret from the police. But, as all Sydney was talking of the project, Ted Cowell, of the Water Police, couldn’t help hearing about it. ‘I’ll stop it, if it’s the last thing I do,’ declared Cowell. From early on the appointed Saturday morning almost everyone in Sydney capable of movement began trooping to the Green Gate. By 2 p.m. a great mob milled around the inn. Word came out to them: ‘The ring will be set up at the top of Lane Cove river.’ The ring stakes were being driven when Water Policeman, Ted Cowell, turned up with a crowd of officers. ‘The police! Move to Pearce’s orchard!’ came the cry. The day was hot. Ted Cowell was a very fat gentleman not designed for cross-country running. ‘You’ll go ahead and stop the fight,’ he instructed his officers. ‘I’ll get back to headquarters.’ Eagerly the police went after the crowd. Once out of Ted Cowell’s sight they doffed their caps and took off their tunics. They were as anxious to see the clash of the northern and southern champions as anyone else.
A roar went up as One-Eyed Bourke stepped into the ring cockily. He was a heavily built, vicious looking character with the marks of his trade heavy upon his face. Taking off hat, coat, and shirt he tossed them out of the ring. Stripped he looked a magnificent fighting machine. He was in perfect nick. Thomas Water house hopped lightly over the ropes and waved to his supporters. Quickly he stripped to the buff. He was a good 12 stone but appeared light in comparison to Bourke from the Rocks. His face was fresh and unmarked. The boxers came to the centre of the ring and tossed for corners. Thomas won. Calmly he glanced at the sun and chose to fight with his back to it. Time was called and Bourke came out heavily from his corner. Thomas moved out on his toes, his left fist held well forward and his right across his chest. Bourke suddenly belied his heavy build by leading so fast with his right that Thomas couldn’t dodge the blow and in a moment blood was running from his nose. The Rocks mob cheered, the gentlemen from the north side groaned.’ Thomas backed away and began circling.
Thomas kept dancing until Bourke was facing into the setting sun, then sniped his left hand twice into his opponent’s one good eye. He repeated this manoeuvre a few seconds later. Bourke ignored the blows and continued to move forward. The spectators slowly began to realise that Thomas was fighting to a scientific plan — to close Bourke’s one good peeper. Not one of his scores of opponents in the past had ever thought of trying this tactic on Bourke, and the tough pug didn’t realise what his young opponent was up to until he found he wasn’t seeing him too well. Bourke had to hit out at where he thought the target was and rarely landed a blow. He tried to get in to close quarters and pin Thomas in a corner. The boy was too smart to fall into this obvious and dangerous trap. He kept Bourke at arm’s length.
A left turned Bourke’s head to one side, a right took him neatly behind the ear and he hit the ground. The northerners were now shouting wildly. Their dreams were coming true. There was the terrible, taunting Bourke looking sick in his corner while young Thomas Waterhouse sat up primly on the knee of one of his seconds smiling cheerfully as Bill Sparkes poured wisdom into his ear. These days, referees promptly stop any fight in which one of the contestants starts to show signs of severe wear. In 1857, the fight game was quite different. The mere fact that One-eyed Bourke had been reduced to No-eyed Bourke didn’t result in anyone, including Bourke himself, thinking for one moment that the show shouldn’t continue. The pugilists of those days had peculiarly lasting qualities.
For two hours young Thomas rejoiced the hearts of the northerners by hitting Bourke with every punch he could devise. He knocked the Rocks man down often enough, but he couldn’t knock him out. Dusk came and deepened. At the end of a round Bourke’s seconds came forward with a proposition. ‘It’s almost too dark for the spectators to see,’ they said. ‘What about postponing the rest of the fight until tomorrow morning?’ The mob favoured this proposal and Thomas agreed even though the move was to his disadvantage. Still, one can’t help being a gentleman, I suppose. Next morning, at the appointed time, Thomas and his seconds were at the ring and so was the crowd. But where was One-eyed (or No-eyed) Bourke? Without generally announcing the fact, Bourke had retired from the fight game. That a pretty boy should have trounced him was too much for his fighting heart. Furthermore, his backers had renounced him and decided to call the 100 gns. wager off. It is fair to assume that Thomas won the fight on a technical knock-out even though there was no official result. The The Rocks push ceased coming over the water to sport the knuckle on pleasant Saturday afternoons. And life on the north side has been pleasant ever since.” Newcastle Sun (NSW : 1918 – 1954), Wednesday 13 January 1954, page 15
Have you done much research into your family history and have you found any gripping stories you’d like to share? Please leave a message and any links in the comments below.