In 1838, Melbourne was in its infancy and opening communication channels were utmost important for the newly established colony to survive. The land route from Melbourne to Sydney was just trackless wilderness. As if Travelling through this wilderness was not spooky enough, a traveller also had to face the spears of the hostile aborigines.
21-year-old John Conway Bourke arrived in Sydney in 1836 from Limerick in Ireland, with the hope of becoming a farmer, but destiny had something else in store for him. During the winter in 1837, Joseph Hawdon, John Howden and John Hepburn took a herd of cattle from Howlong station in NSW to Dandenong in Melbourne. In that winter it rained continuously for 42 days creating flood like situation in most parts of NSW. On reaching Murray river, the wheels were removed from the dray and tarpaulin was strapped under to make it drift across the water with the help of a tow rope. The rope broke off and one young man named John Conway Bourke rescued them and helped them cross the river.
Joseph Howden out of gratitude told Bourke that when he visit Sydney he is going to meet the Governor to make an offer to forward the mails from Sydney to Melbourne and if that proposal is accepted, Bourke is going to be the man to fill the position of the courier”.
Joseph Howden kept his word. He secured a contract at £1200 a year to carry the overland mail fortnightly to Yass. 1st January 1838 was Bourke’s first day at work as the overland mailman. At Lamb Inn in Collins Street, Bourke bid adieu to the assembled citizens with the bag of mails in his charge. He was accompanied by one Micheal O Brien, who rode with him until the Goulburn camp where Joseph Howden waited for him. From Goulburn Camp to Howlong Bourke was alone in his journey and at Howlong, he was told that someone would be waiting for him. Bourke’s horse bogged in the soft clay of Murray shallows and Bourke stripped and swam the river. When he reached Howlong, he was naked, and he searched for the hut and the yard where someone was supposed to wait for him. A pack of Kangaroo dogs attacked him, and he climbed on a tree from where he was rescued by the superintend at Howlong, Mr Wetherell. Wetherell initially took him for a bushranger who had been stripped naked by the aborigines to grab his clothes. There began the career of riding nearly 400miles to Yass in NSW carrying mail from Melbourne, where he met the mailman from Sydney and exchanged the bags. Bourke used to swim the Murray and the Murrumbidgee in Winter and Summer.
A few times Bourke had near death encounters with the aborigines. After leaving the mailman job, he squatted for some time and later became a licensee of Westernport Hotel at the corner of Queen Street and Flinders Street. By 1858, he was financially struggling and was given a subordinate position at a Post office, from where he retired with a modest pension. It was on his suggestion that camels were brought from India for Burke and Wills Expedition. John Conway Bourke died on 5th August 1902 in Flemington at the age of 87. He was buried at the Melbourne General Cemetery. In 1928, the Historical Society of Victoria unveiled a tabled at his unmarked grave, which read,
“John Convey Bourke, 1st Mailman (January 1838).
Born: Rathkeale, Limerick, Ireland. June 24, 1815
Died: Flemington, August 5, 1902
Erected by the Historical Society “
The Association members of the Old Drivers of Cobb & Co used to organise an annual pilgrimage to the grave of John Convey Bourke in the 1920’s and the 30’s, with the intention that the intrepid deeds of early pioneers should not be forgotten.
The Argus, Sat 5 Jan 1935 ‘’John Bourke’’, accessed through Trove on 24th December 2019
The Age, Mon 28 May 1934, “FIRST OVERLAND MAILMAN’’, accessed through Trove on 24th December 2019