Presented by Act Belong Commit
Frank Thomas was born in Greenough in 1896 and grew up on his father's farm in Coorow. At the age of 21 he took to the bush and lived the life of a bushranger. He stole food, saddles and the best of horses from farms, houses, trains and railway stations. He was an accomplished rider and bushman who was capable of eluding police on their many attempts to capture him.
Frank went on to become a convicted criminal and spent time at both the Geraldton Gaol and Fremantle Prison. However, is there another side to the story?
The Artist - Di Taylor
Over a period of five months in 2017, North Midlands Project and The Bank Gallery in Carnamah contracted Western Australian visual artist Di Taylor for an artist residency to explore the life and stories of local bushranger Frank Thomas.
WEDNESDAY, 15th NOVEMBER 1922: "The career of the Kelly gang and their decline and fall, is a memorable episode in Australian history, but the chronicler of Australian bushranging may find almost equally excellent material in the exploits of Francis Henry Thomas. On May 23 this man effected a dramatic escape from the Geraldton Gaol, where he was awaiting trial on charges of theft. As soon as he was clear of Geraldton, Thomas who is a brilliant horseman, executed a number of raids on camps pitched at various points between the Wongan Hills and Midland railway lines, stealing valuable horses and considerable quantities of stores. On Friday last he was recaptured by the police at Perenjori, and was being escorted to Geraldton when he again escaped custody, near the township of Buntine."
Roo Hunter by Di Taylor
Frank grew up on Jun Jun Farm in Coorow, where he became an accomplished horseman and excellent bushman. He assisted his father and elder brother Jack on the farm and is said to have known every inch of the country around Coorow and Marchagee.
In young adulthood he left home and worked as a Kangaroo Hunter in the Murchison.
Take Away (Chicken) by Di Taylor
Imbedded in local folklore is the story of police discovering Frank's camp where he was cooking a stolen chicken. He leapt onto his horse and took off, with the police following in hot pursuit. The police eventually lost sight of him so decided they'd return and enjoy his fire-roasted chook. When they arrived back at Frank's camp he'd already doubled back, taken the chicken and left again!
Train Ambush by Di Taylor
People often arranged for food and other supplies to be sent from Perth on the train. Frank was known to throw boxes of goods off moving trains and return later on a stolen horse to go through them. In 1921 packages were found in the scrub at Winchester. All of the food had been taken but other things had been left behind, like corsets for Mrs Mathilve Haussler of Gregorfields Farm.
Pepper Box by Di Taylor
Frank never harmed anyone but many feared he was behind every bush and about to pounce.
Meeting a bushranger was a chief dread of Mrs Maude Greenwood of Manell Farm in Waddy Forest. Her defence, which she kept at the ready, was a matchbox full of pepper. To use her own words she "would be a missing quantity by the time the bushranger stopped sneezing."
Just Before Dawn by Di Taylor
On a moonlit night Frank's father hung up a leg of mutton (meat) in his shed. He knew Frank was nearby and thought he would attempt to steal it... as Frank so often rose to the challenge of any bait laid out to capture him. Frank's father kept watch all night but near dawn he dozed off for just a moment. When he awoke, the mutton was gone. The pink represents an unspoken energy; care but also tension between Frank and his father.
Tracking Frank Thomas by Di Taylor
Three Springs police constable Charlie Kroschel engaged skilled Aboriginal tracker Joachim Dido to help find Frank's whereabouts. Over two weeks in the cold of winter they traversed the country across Winchester and Coorow. It was later remarked that Dido hadn't helped as much as he could have, as he didn't want the police to capture Frank!
Dido by Di Taylor & Delys Fraser
Aboriginal man Joachim Dido, who was employed by the police to track Frank, spent most of his life living and working in New Norcia, Moora, Carnamah and Three Springs. This painting of his life shows his movements, partners, the births and deaths of his children, sports he played, tracking work he undertook and geographic features such as the Moore River near Moora and the Mulliah / Yarra Yarra Lakes in Carnamah.
Eat My Dust! by Di Taylor
Frank was captured in May 1922 and taken to Geraldton Gaol, arrested on charges of stealing and unlawfully using horses. A fortnight later, he picked a lock in the exercise yard and escaped to freedom. For the next 140 days he continued his thieving ways but with greater enthusiasm and over a larger area, extending into the Murchison.
Stealth Capture by Di Taylor
Frank knew the value of a good horse and regularly stole the best in the district. On one occasion in 1922 he went to where Donald Macpherson's horses drank, near the Macpherson Homestead in Carnamah, and emptied their water trough. Frank returned later with a bucket of water and while one of the thirsty horses eagerly drank, he was easily able to catch the horse with rope taken off the bucket.
Bailed Up by Di Taylor
Frank was recaptured in Perenjori 140 days after escaping from Geraldton Gaol but soon escaped again from Buntine. Police from Mingenew hid at the Carnamah railway station ahead of the next train arriving. Frank appeared but quickly dropped the box he was about to steal and bolted - but tripped on the railway points charger. With the threat of being shot, Frank surrendered.
The below short story was written by emerging regional author Lauren Selfe based on the life of Frank Thomas. In response, leading Western Australian visual artist Di Taylor created the below artwork Dreaming of Freedom.
The morning began like any other. Frank awoke, just as the night began to fade, and the sun began its routine, slowly emerging above the horizon, brushing lightly against the dew covered grass, creating a warm, gentle glimmer that held Frank entranced, like any other morning. He wondered why other people would want to stay locked in their cages, avoiding a beauty so natural that it made birds sing in wonder. He watched silently as the sun's light kissed the trees, giving the leaves a golden glow. It was magic, he had realised, after watching it so often, the kind that could be seen and felt, by any who waited. It was magic, and he was happily under its spell.
His stomach let out a slight growl, making him aware of the world again. He stood, and glanced around at his makeshift camp, already knowing he wouldn't find any food there, so he stretched the sleep out of his limbs as he walked the short distance to the train tracks. He knew a train passes this point, just after the sun rises every week. So he stood near the tracks, slightly to the side and behind a large bush. The train didn't take long, he had timed his arrival well. He stepped from behind the bush after the first few carriages went by, holding out his arm and getting ready as the last carriage loomed.
He took the last step closer, and, with practised ease, grabbed onto the bar on the side of the carriage that easily pulled him along. The once jarring experience had become fun for him, after he'd become accustomed to the feeling of his muscles straining, almost hurting, but not quite. He loved the thrill of going faster than a running horse, with one thing keeping him from harm; his own strength and muscle memory. He moved along the side of the carriage like he was born to do it, and maybe he was. Born to be an outcast. His stomach reminded him why he was there, and he continued along the side towards the middle, unlatching the door and sliding it open far enough for him to climb inside.
He looked around the dim carriage as his eyes adjusted to the change in light. His eyes were drawn towards a pile of crates, so he moved closer and shuffled through the contents for a few moments, putting any he might like in a pile by the door. Once satisfied, he moved to the door, and threw everything he wanted out of the train and into the bush. He waited until the train slowed and the surroundings became less dense. He tensed, getting ready. He jumped from the train, landing in a roll to protect himself from a broken bone.
He stood and watched the train as it moved further away, then walked back along the tracks to where he had dropped his supplies. Picking up a tin that had broken as it landed, he ate the contents, finally satisfying his angry stomach. Leaving the tin on the ground, he picked up the other items and brought them back to his camp, humming an eerily merry song as he walked.
His eyes opened, and Frank was met with the cruel reminder of where he was. They had caged him. He was no longer able to see the magic that had captured his soul every morning. As he stared at the brick wall, he tried desperately to fall back into his dreams. He became frustrated when his other life eluded him, and he let out a scream, a keening noise that mixed with his anger. The day with the train. He wanted so badly to wake up and be back with the land.
Dreaming of Freedom
Di Taylor created this artwork in response to the short story on Frank Thomas (above). It shows an imprisoned Frank imagining his former life, which is depicted through the window. Di painted the artwork live over two days at the 2017 Mid West Expo in Mingenew.
Hold on to Your Horse
Click the orange play button (below) to listen to Hold on to Your Horse, a song created about Frank by WA singer-songwriter Ashlea Reale.
When Frank was arrested for the first time, in 1920, his father acknowledged his crimes but pleaded for him to receive medical attention rather than imprisonment. Sadly, his pleas were overlooked and Frank was sent to Fremantle Prison to serve out his sentence. Following his release, Frank was again wanted by the police in 1922 and it was during that year that his exploits were reported across ten of the most prominent newspapers in Western Australia. In November he faced court and was charged with multiple counts of stealing, improperly using horses and escaping custody.
Frank was sent to the Claremont Hospital for the Insane in Perth, where he remained until his death at the age of 63 years in 1960. A number of people who knew him were adamant that he was not insane, however, mental health was something that was largely misunderstood throughout Frank's life. It wasn't until a few years after his death that medical practitioners began actively working with and discharging their patients.
For more on Frank, see his entry in the Biographical Dictionary of Coorow, Carnamah and Three Springs.
Even the most capable and resilient of people struggle sometimes, which is why it is important to remain mentally healthy. Being active, having a sense of belonging and having a purpose in life all contribute to happiness and good mental health. We encourage everyone to Act Belong Commit.
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