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Spriggo takes on the bad guys: gunplay in the bush

Don ‘Spriggo’ Spriggins in his mild-mannered-forester persona

This is a story about (among other things) my friend Don ‘Spriggo’ Spriggins. At first glance he is one of those mild-mannered and kindly gentleman-foresters who have spent a lifetime amongst the trees, admired and respected by all.

But is there another side to the man? Read on.

First, the back-story. I have known Spriggo for 60 years, from the time when I was posted to the Forests Department’s Harvey district in the winter of 1963, pretty-much fresh out of Forestry School. Don had recently migrated to WA from Victoria, and was now one of the district’s senior officers, sitting well above me and just beneath our boss, the legendary DFO Bev Campbell.

I was at that fragile stage in my forestry career where I was well-educated but useless. In other words, I had completed my university studies but was still a serious novice when it came to the practical day-to-day work of a forest district. DFO Campbell believed he had better things to do than train a beginner, so he basically ignored me, but Don took me under his wing, and would point me in the right direction, or away from the wrong one, or try to make sure I stayed out of trouble (not always with success). One thing for which I have always been grateful, was his cunning advice on the secret of getting across a good idea in an old-fashioned bureaucracy like the Forests Department. “The trick” Spriggo said (mildly) one day, “is to get Bev to think he thought of it. Then you’re home and hosed”. I was to use this stratagem many times in future years with various bosses. It invariably worked.

I’ll get back to Spriggo in a moment, because there is more to the man than meets the eye, but first I must relate a story from many years later in my forestry career. Its relevance will become clear.

The occasion was a field trip with a little group of foresters from India, visiting Western Australia to look at our progress with growing sandalwood trees in plantations. There is an enormous demand in India for the various products of the sandalwood tree, especially the aromatic oil that is distilled from the heartwood; it plays an essential role in many of the country’s religious and cultural ceremonies. The sandal tree grows naturally, and was once widespread in India, but no longer. The wild trees have been decimated by unsustainable harvest, and successful plantations had not (at the time I am talking about) yet been developed there – so, demand could only be satisfied by imports, especially from Australia. Most of this comes from harvesting the native sandalwood from the bush, but a substantial plantation program had evolved in the years around 2000 - 2010.

The go-to spot in Western Australia at the time was a first-class sandalwood plantation that had been established on private land near the wheatbelt town of Goomalling. Although the focus of the visiting Indians was on sandal, the so-called “Indian sandalwood” tree (Santalum album) being grown in the Kimberley region of WA, they were also keenly interested in the new plantations of Western Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) hosted on jam wattle (Acacia acuminata) and planted on former cropping land in the south-west. The plantation at Goomalling was still immature but growing nicely. The little sandalwood trees were sturdy and healthy, and already starting to produce the heartwood from which valuable oil could later be extracted. It was obvious that, all other things being equal, there would be many tons of valuable sandalwood coming off these hectares of plantation in not too many years hence.

A sturdy and healthy young West Australian sandalwood tree, being admired by forester Rowan Reid

The Indian foresters visiting the Goomalling plantation were at first impressed, but then they seemed to be puzzled about something. I wondered what the problem was, and finally one of them spoke up. “Where” he said, “are the guards?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, but then he explained: “If this was in India” he said, “there would be an armed guard with a machine gun at every corner of this plantation. Had it not been so-guarded, the sandalwood trees would have quickly disappeared, taken by criminals”.

“Every year” he went on “Indian foresters lose their lives, defending their forests and plantations”.

Well, I already knew that much of the Asian sandalwood trade was controlled by a black market in the hands of organized crime … but I had not until that moment given sufficient thought to the idea of foresters losing their lives in conflicts over valuable products like sandalwood. Nor had I really thought about our plantations as being a sufficient treasure-trove to attract serious criminals.

I realised that I was naïve. Australian foresters have mostly operated in a crime-free environment. Back when I worked as a district forestry officer in the south-west of WA, we would deal, from time to time, with some minor theft of forest produce or an infraction of the Bush Fires Act, but the business was never physically dangerous or life-threatening. The only firearm I ever saw in those days was the .303 Lee Enfield rifle carried in the cab of one of the forestry gang trucks at Mundaring Weir. This was used to knock off an occasional kangaroo, destined for the cooking pot or the barbeque, and everybody turned a blind eye. Besides, the rifle belonged to old Bill Trew, and nobody argued with Bill about anything.

Ironically, the nastiest threats I ever received during my forestry career were from peace-loving environmentalists opposed to the timber industry who would ring me up at home in the evening and shout abuse and threats at me (and once at my wife). Several of my colleagues had the same problem and one of them had to delist his private telephone number. It was unpleasant but not life-threatening; the callers never identified themselves and never carried through with their threats. I developed a great contempt for them.

Petty crime did occur in the forest, however, as it does everywhere. The great forester and timberman Phil Shedley had several good yarns on this subject, including the time (in March 1950), he was assigned to a big timber assessment project in the Ellis Creek State Forest. He had two assistants, one of whom was known as Darkie. Although nominally posted to the forestry settlement at Willow Springs, Phil’s assessment team camped rough at an abandoned sawmill site in the bush. In Leaves from the Forest, he tells the story:

Darkie came from a rough Nannup family that lived at the Kauri Timber Co mill. Some years before, he and his twin brother Snowy, were caught red-handed breaking into the general store and were marched off to the police station. In the melee following an escape bid, the police sergeant was shot dead with his own pistol. The subsequent court case resulted in Snowy doing life at Pardelup Prison. Rumour had it in Nannup that the wrong man was gaoled.

Darkie disliked Willow Springs and would either spend the weekends in camp alone, or hitch-hike back to Nannup. He very soon became disenchanted with the work and the conditions and one Monday morning fronted up to Stringer Crawford, the Assistant Forester in charge at Willow Springs, and announced that he wasn’t going with me to Ellis Creek again. He demanded a job in the gang. When this was refused, he asked for his money.

Stringer tried to phone the Forester, Oscar ‘Ock’ Pears, in Nannup but the bush telephone line was out. Having little option, he paid Darkie his dues and packed him off to Nannup in the stores truck.

On reaching Nannup, Darkie proceeded to call on Ock Pears at District HQ. He told Ock how he had had a row with Stringer about going with me to Ellis Creek. "He told me I was finished and to get on the store truck and call on you for my pay”. After trying unsuccessfully to phone Stringer, Ock paid Darkie again. Half an hour later Darkie had cashed both cash orders at the pub and was on the bus to Perth. Later that day, Stringer repaired the telephone line. It had been cut with pliers.

Ock’s response cannot be printed even in this permissive age. Head Office added to his rage by requesting that he make good the overpayment from his own pocket.

Back to Don ‘Spriggo’ Spriggins. I was chatting with him about all this one day and he told me an interesting story from his early days as a forestry officer. This was in Victoria in the late-1950s before he moved to WA and became one of our finest foresters:

......The first District I was posted to following my graduation from forestry school was Broadford, about 100 km north of Melbourne. One of my jobs was to pay the forestry workers out in the bush. Pay day was a big event in the life-cycle of the District. There was always a buzz in the office on the morning of pay day. A feature of the times was that everyone was paid in cash. The redoubtable Forest Assistant, Mrs Watts would have been down to the bank early and withdrawn a huge sum. She then neatly placed each worker’s entitlement in a separate brown envelope on which she had written the name of the recipient. These she packed into a large leather money bag.

There were about 55 workers on the payroll of the Broadford forestry district in those days, so it was quite a job, and a lot of money was involved. My role started as soon as the bag was packed: it was to drive around the bush to the various parts of the district where the men were working that day and deliver their pay.

On the first occasion I was entrusted with this job, I was just about to head off when Mrs Watts drew me aside and instructed me to take a revolver as a security measure. The weapon was kept (with a box of cartridges) in the office safe. I was given no instructions on the circumstances in which I would use the pistol (although perhaps these were self-evident), nor how to use it. So as soon as I was out in the forest I pulled up and fired a few shots into a tree stump to see how the pistol worked and to check my aim. I soon got the hang of it, and confident I could match Ned Kelly if there was an attempted holdup I set off on my round.

After paying the men at the first work site I drove off to the next, only to find on arrival that the money bag was missing! My heart skipped a beat; how would I tell the District Forester that I’d lost the pays? I’d probably be sacked on the spot! A very rapid drive back in the Holden ute followed, and to my relief the money bag was found, sitting on top of the stump where I’d left it. The gang had seen me leave it behind and were chuckling to themselves when I arrived back in a swirl of dust. The overseer dryly remarked “I thought you might be back”.

When asked on my return to the District Office how it all went I replied with the most nonchalant air that I could muster “no problems”.

Spriggo concluded his story by musing:

I would like to be able to say that there were occasions when the pistol came in handy, allowing me to foil attempts to hijack the payroll, but nothing untoward ever arose, and each week I would return the pistol to the office safe in virginal condition. I was glad that I had not had to use it in anger, but there was also a slight feeling of anticlimax that a modern Ned Kelly had not bailed me up and initiated some serious gunplay, in which I came out on top.....

I think Spriggo might well be underestimating the situation here. My own view is that the criminal underworld of Victoria was well-aware that he was on the job. “Don’t try a hit on the forestry pays” the word probably went around, “Spriggo is riding shotgun, and he’s armed and deadly”.

‘Spriggo’ Spriggins in his day as a young forestry officer in Victoria. Not wearing the usual departmental uniform on this occasion but attempting to out-do Ned Kelly in the beard department.

My own experiences of payday in the district office were boring in the extreme in comparison with Spriggo’s. In WA we paid our forest workmen by Cash Order, a sort of government cheque, which the recipient could bank, or cash downtown (as often as not in the local pub).

Payday came around once a fortnight, on a Thursday. “The Pays” would be made up, and the Cash Orders prepared by the district admin staff, based on the time sheets prepared for each employee by their overseer. The amount owed to each payee differed from person to person and from payday to payday, according to various loadings, overtime and other variables related to the Award and the season. As DFO my job was personally to sign each Cash Order. I would first quickly peruse each one to see that the amount in writing agreed with the amount in figures, and to verify that the name was of someone that I knew actually worked for us, and then I would scribble my signature. Since there was a limit on the amount a cash order could be made out for, there were often a lot of orders to sign. At Mundaring Weir I remember, where we not only paid our forest workmen but also the plantation logging contractors by Cash Order, I would almost come down with writer’s cramp on pay days, having to check and sign several hundred of the things. It was a tedious, but essential part of the job.

On payday, the men came in from the bush early, and reported to the office, where they were each handed their cash order. Occasionally one of them would tramp back into the office claiming that he had been underpaid and demanding a recount, but there was never any hint of trouble of any criminal sort, and controversies were always quickly sorted out.

In fact, most of the little timber and forestry towns in which I lived in the 1960s and 1970s were almost completely crime-free in those days – so long as you overlooked a bit of Drunk and Disorderly on the Friday night after payday, or fisticuffs in the wake of the local football Grand Final. This situation changed during the 1980s when environmental protesters began blowing things up, sabotaging logging equipment, de-railing trains and spiking trees. The bush became, for a few years, a dangerous place to work. Happily, those days are now over, but they were not much fun at the time, especially for timber workers whose lives were right on the line.

There was, however, one famous criminal incident in the karri country, back in the day. The story is told in the Sunday Times of August 9th, 1925, under the headline “Sensational Robbery in the Timber Country”:

While proceeding on Thursday last by motor-railway tricycle from Manjimup to Pemberton with portion of the fortnightly wages of the employees of the No. 2 State Mill, amounting to £1,985, three men, it is reported, were held up by a masked and armed man, and the money stolen.

The usual procedure attendant upon the payment of salaries at the mill is for the accountant to go to Manjimup on the tricycle, secure the money, and return under escort to Pemberton. On Thursday, Mr. F. Leeman (the accountant) took the journey to Manjimup and with a motor mechanic as driver, and Mr. Y.T. C. Barbour, manager of the Manjimup branch of the National Bank, was returning to Pemberton when the hold-up took place.

The report from Pemberton states that when about two and a half miles from the township the tricycle had to be stopped owing to a small sapling having been placed across the railway track. While the driver was clearing the line a voice was heard ordering the party to "put up' their hands. The order came from a masked young man armed with a rifle. Mr. Barbour, it is stated, attempted to draw his revolver, but he- received a shot through the hand from the "desperado" which severely injured the index and second fingers.

In a statement made on Thursday night, Mr Leeman said that after the driver had, under orders, disarmed Mr. Barbour, he and the driver were ordered to walk about 5 yards down the line. This was done, and the robber then slid down the bank of the railway cutting and procured the pay while still covering the party. Mr. Leeman and his companion were ordered down the line a further distance. The thief then disappeared in the surrounding scrub.

The party proceeded to Pemberton where Mr. Barbour's injury was attended to, it being found necessary to amputate the second finger of his right hand. The police were also communicated with.

It is customary for the policeman stationed at Pemberton to accompany Mr Leeman, but he is at present in Perth undergoing medical treatment, and it was not deemed advisable to have another constable in his place.

Upon learning of the robbery Inspector Condon despatched [two] Detective-Sergeants to Pemberton to make investigations. They left Perth accompanied by a black tracker in the police motor car on Thursday afternoon. Detectives and black tracker arrived at Pemberton on Friday morning and immediately commenced investigations. A search of the surrounding country was begun, and good progress was made by the tracker.

It was learned on Friday that the stolen money, £1985, had been insured against loss by the State Sawmills through Mr. H. X. Clarke, the representative of Lloyds in W.A. The payment of the sawmill employees took place on Friday, under arrangements made by the head office in Perth.

A report of the incident in The Sydney Morning Herald added the delicious detail that when ordered down the track, Accountant Leeman picked up a large stone and hurled it at the gunman, hitting him on the leg, but not deterring him. Throwing a rock at an armed gunman would seem to me to be a classic example of the brave, but futile gesture.

This story is rounded out in that authoritative history Tall Trees and Tall Tales:

Later, following a tip-off, the money was recovered, but despite the offer of a huge reward, no arrests were ever made.

The identity of the robber has always been a talking point around Pemberton. The planning of the job, and the recovery of the money suggested that a local identity was involved, and many rumours circulated over the years. Apparently, the legendary Pemberton doctor Cliff “Doc” Ryan learned the true facts through a deathbed confession, but he took them with him to his own grave.

Motorised rail trolley, an up-market version of the rail trike used to carry the sawmill payroll to Pemberton in the 1920s

[By the way, to give an idea of the size of the payroll taken by the armed bandit, 2000 pounds in 1925 is equivalent to perhaps $400,00 in 2023 money].

Harking back to that field trip to Goomalling with Indian foresters looking at sandalwood plantations and worrying about armed robbers, I later gave some more thought to the forestry situation in India, and its often-violent history. I recalled reading this obituary in a 19th Century edition of my favourite journal, The Indian Forester:

… we regret to report the death of Forest Officer C.F. Nepean, shot by dacoits [armed bandits] at Myawaddi on the Siam frontier of Burma in December last....

And a further story that also caught my eye. This relates how:

… in these days of safety and civilization it is not often that the forest [officer] runs any risk in the performance of his duty save from wild animals or from the maladies incidental to a forest life; so that the cold-blooded murder of a Forest Guard in broad daylight on a frequented public road, apparently for the sake of the Government revenue he was carrying, comes rather as a shock ...

The victim of this outrage was a strong young hillman, who was engaged in carrying the daily revenue from Lalpuri to Arnangarh, two forest revenue stations about 5 miles apart in the Bijnor District. He was dressed in the uniform of the Department and carried as arms the regulation khukri. On the day in question, the revenue post not arriving at Amangarh in time, enquiries were made at Lalpuri proving that the man had started from thence in due course, carrying some 42 Rands with him.

Suspicions being aroused, careful search discovered his body lying in the forest some 25 yards from the road. It was apparent that the forest guard had been surprised before he had time to draw his weapon, his hands had been secured with his own turban, and after being carried a short distance from the road he had been dispatched by repeated blows from his own khukri. The murderers then decamped with the revenue bag.

It would no doubt interest my friend Spriggo to read the final words of this report: It is now under consideration to arm all [Forest] Guards with Snider rifles, which will at any rate give confidence in meeting man or beast. Spriggo may only have had a six-shooter revolver, but I feel confident he could have repulsed any threat, whether from man or beast. Lurking beneath that mild-mannered demeanour is a Man of Steel.

I have never had to carry a firearm when working in the forest, well, not for purposes of self-defence or for dealing with wrong-doers. I did once have a licence for, and occasionally fired, a Very Pistol, used for firing flares during aerial burning operations to attract the attention of the aircraft, but this doesn’t really count. Nor, thankfully, have I ever been called upon to investigate the killing of one of my fellow-forestry officers, or to mount an armed guard over a plantation or other valuable forest asset.

This highlights, once again, the extent to which (up to now) I have truly lived in a lucky country.

Further reading

Underwood, Roger (1987): Leaves from the Forest – stories from the lives of Western Australian foresters. Lamb Print, Perth Western Australia

Morris, John and Roger Underwood (1992): Tall trees and tall tales – stories of old Pemberton. Hesperian Press, Western Australia

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