The Skull in the Mountain Stream

It was William Hand who found a skull back in 1891 in a stream not far from his Silvan property: a European skull with a hole battered in it. Identification was impossible,. A local assumption was that it belonged to a man who had mysteriously disappeared in 1884, believed to be a victim of foul play.

Could this have been the mysterious Jack Emerald? Who knows how many perished as most of Melbourne’s population of 25,000 odd streamed out to Mount Alexander after gold in 1851?

Thousands from many countries were said to have jumped ship, convicts crossed Bass Strait, Irish rebels fled to freedom, Americans brought new hope as California’s fields declined. Even the police took off for the goldfields. Melbourne was in chaos.

A party known only as the ‘Lucky Germans’ dared their luck in the unpopulated, impenetrable Dandenongs late in October. They vanished back to Germany after making a fortune in a month in a secret location in the vicinity of the Woori Yallock Creek. They had no need to claim the reward.

Jack Emerald came up Mt. Dandenong where timber workers had made it passable, and found a promising little creek that became a larger, eastern-flowing stream, a tributary of the Woori Yallock Creek. In his late teens Ben Simcox was prospecting just above Jack Emerald’s claim, but neither of them found enough to keep them there. Ben returned to Collingwood but solitary Jack Emerald left for parts unknown, as the ground proved disappointing. He tried elsewhere, to return again only when a big strike was made further down, where Jack Emerald’s creek flowed into the Woori Yallock.

‘It was named Emerald Creek because of Jack Emerald being found dead there,’ his fossicking neighbour Ben Simcox reminisced in old age. ‘Shot through the heart’.

Or perhaps the head? But when? They were a long way apart when they returned.

Geological surveyors battled from Dandenong through the Ranges to the Yarra In 1855 despite the ‘densely scrubby nature of the country’. The bushfires of early 1851 had ravaged five million hectares – leaving few identifiable bodies – and dense undergrowth grew back thicker than ever. They forced their way through and got lost, built themselves mia mias at night, and slept rolled in their opossum rugs in unknown, unlabelled whereabouts. They saw no use for the mountain country but the promise of gold.

A couple of years later Police Superintendant Smith could locate only about twenty prospectors in the entire Yarra Ranges area. Only their names defined the small creeks and gullies, sometimes changing as they moved on. Along the Yarra Valley, Boston’s Gully became Smith’s Creek; Yankee Jim’s and other such personal local names were only later fixed by survey. There was enough pay dirt in ‘Scotty’s’ Creek to keep Mr. Menzies going until his surname was officially affixed.

Others were believed to have preceded him on nearby tributaries of the Woori Yallock but disappeared without leaving a name, or a trace. If they were lost, starved, or died of exposure or accident, who would report their deaths? Or even find their remains, when even a dead kangaroo can completely disappear within a couple of weeks as its bones are exposed and scattered by predators among scrub, wombat holes and waterways?

The geological survey motivated Magistrate McCrea to assemble a prospecting party. Two Irishmen, Walsh and Geraghty, set off. On the way they met an American, McEvoy (a brother of Yankee Jim further up the valley), and Big Pat O’Hannigan on the way to Omeo, and persuaded them to join the party.

Working along the Cockatoo Creek, Big Pat caused such trouble that Gold Warden Warburton Carr had to put him in irons. He went off then with inexperienced Pete the Swede and battled through the scrub to reach the lower end of Emerald’s creek in January 1859. They struck it lucky and the rest of the party regrouped there. Soon hundreds followed, bringing further dangers of violence.

Simcox and Jack Emerald were now lured back, Simcox to settle in his old spot and build a slab hut. Jack Emerald continued downstream to the main creek near its junction with the Woori Yallock, both quickly lined with new claims. Big Pat’s site was now rumoured to be the rich one the Lucky Germans had found in 1851. Jack Emerald settled in a dry gully leading down from the bank of the stream. His surname being already in use, this became ‘Parson’ Jack’s gully, an ironical nickname said to arise from his extremely foul language.

Four hundred diggers got together to choose a name for the diggings: the ‘Dandenong Ranges Goldfields’. As chairman, Magistrate McCrea was to witness to this at a later Select Committee. This name however was more widely and vaguely applied, while Jack Emerald’s name remained in local usage. Across the Woori Yallock the diggings on its western tributaries became known as East Emerald. The population soon dropped back to 50-60 each on the Emerald, Warrandyte and Warburton.

As tent stores soon appeared on the Emerald diggings, some of the diggers were joined by their families. Kirkpatrick’s store also accommodated a policeman. When two Kirkpatrick children died they were buried on the slope above the creek.

The policeman was no longer there, being moved to a more central position up Scotty’s Creek where a township site called Main Ridge was laid out, but remained disused. In the 1870s his successor was summoned to the Cockatoo Creek to investigate some trouble over miners’ rights. His helmet and saddle were found at his camp site; but he was never heard of again.

When a hearing was set in 1861 to decide who was eligible for the Government reward for discovery, most of the Emerald diggers had already scattered over the Dandenong Ranges and up and beyond the Yarra valley. However, a number stayed on, or returned to settle after the 1890s forest subdivision. One of these was Emerald identity Gus Ryberg.

The squabbling began. Who was eligible? In the Irish party, Walsh claimed for the Cockatoo Creek, ‘portion of the Emerald Diggings’ in Jan. 1859. McEvoy’s claim of arrival in 1858 was substantiated by the others.

Apparently Jack Emerald’s name had spread more effectively than ‘Dandenong Ranges Diggings’. And Geraghty claimed for Nov. 1858, before Big Pat’s find. Geraghty was asked to describe the area, Gus Ryberg recalled. He couldn’t. He was illiterate, Gus Ryberg recalled; not unusual among the Irish rebels.

‘What does it remind you of?’ was the chairman’s helpful question. ‘The Emerald Isle’! It is puzzling to wonder how this wilderness transformed into gold workings could resemble ‘the Emerald Isle’. The widely used local name would provide a quick grab for an Irishman groping with the language of description. And then — a reward was in question. Had Jack Emerald survived those two years? Was he still on the ground?

No resolution was then possible. A Select Committee tried again in 1863. O’Hannigan claimed alone for Emerald, and for Warburton (Big Pat’s Creek) a year later. A petition supporting his claim was signed by over 2000 people, including Gold Warden Warburton Carr and several magistrates. It was mislaid by the Attorney General.

McCrea counterclaimed for the Emerald, Britannia (known as Yankee Jim’s) and Nicholson (McCrea’s Creek) goldfields, giving the names of three of his mates; he added Geraghty and O’Hannigan only when prompted. Warburton Carr wrote, ‘When I first heard the name of Mr. McCrea as the discoverer of some goldfields there I thought there was some misapprehension.’

The principal speaker at this 1863 meeting was Henry Frencham, an educated Irish squatter at Warrandyte who later claimed (along with a dozen others) the reward for the Bendigo diggings. ‘It was he who named the diggings,’ Geraghty confirmed: the Caledonia on the Plenty, the Britannia (Warburton), and the next should surely be ‘Hibernia’, a name used among the professional Irish. But ‘Emerald’ conveniently represented both its discouraged first prospector, and the Irish party who struck it rich.

Where was Jack Emerald in 1863? Could he have perished in Parson Jack’s Gully as a later digger so nearly did? Or moved on when again he missed the spot? If he simply disappeared, were there clues, and his body disposed of? Whose business was it to leave a claim unsupervised to report his death – and where, if the policeman happened to be roaming the Yarra valley? Gus Ryberg reported Jack Emerald as running a cattle property to the south. Whose was that ‘mysterious disappearance’ mentioned in 1884?

The Depression of the 1890s brought many unemployed to the Dandenongs to give the gold another go, or take up a block in the newly subdivided forest. Bennie Simcox, upgrading from claim to selection, established ‘Nathania Springs’ as a tourist destination, remembered him well and spoke of him. ‘Main Ridge’ only then began growing into the present Emerald township.

The first baby born in the new settlement, Aldy Coulson lived above Parson Jack’s Gully and knew several of the men who had remained on the Emerald Diggings or returned in the 1890s Depression. Percy Cerutty ran a tent store for the Monbulk settlers, but made the first worthwhile find in Parson Jack’s Gully. He too spoke to Aldy of Jack Emerald.

Percy almost perished in Parson Jack’s Gully. Falling into his own diggings, he lay with a fly-blown broken leg going rotten, until Aldy discovered him, hauled him out and got him to Lilydale on horseback. After World War II Aldy sold his property to writer Ivan Southall, who uncovered a flooded shaft. Would he have found Parson Jack’s remains there? A woman living on the other side of Parson Jack’s disappeared down a Chinese shaft, but the visitors she had turned to warn pulled her out.

There are no records of Jack Emerald’s life and death; but he was known by that name to three scattered local residents, all respected. He could have been a convict using an assumed name. He could have jumped ship and arrived with no official records. His name, however rare, distinguished his creek from Scotty’s and others for some years before the rush to the Emerald Diggings.

His could have been the skull in the mountain stream. We will never know.