A Gentleman of the Road-

Four years after the establishment of the Department of Mines, it bore little resemblance to the tiny Mining Branch which had started operation within the Department of Lands and Surveys in Perth WA.

Patrick PELLY

Patrick PELLY

Mr Patrick Pelly, a clerk with the Department, was remembered as ‘a reserved, courteous and obliging old fellow’, however he was without a doubt one of the Departments most intriguing employees. Born Frank Pearson in Mexico in 1837, he arrived in Australia in the early 1860’s and proceeded to commit a series of armed robberies and murders in Queensland and New South Wales, operating under the alias ‘Captain Starlight’. He was arrested and convicted and he served more than sixteen years in gaol and on his release he assumed the identity of a fellow prisoner and also took on the title of Major.

By the time he joined the Western Australia Public Service in 1896, he had been immortalised in Rolf Boldrewood’s novel ‘Robbery Under Arms (1888) and he wore a leather band around his right wrist to disguise one of his many bullet wounds. His true identity was only revealed after his death, from accidental poisoning in Dec 1899.

Evening Journal Adelaide 26 December 1899, page 3

Evening Journal Adelaide 26 December 1899, page 3

Mount Barker Courier and Onkaparinga and Gumeracha Advertiser SA23 November 1900, page 2


A most interesting story has been published in the West Australian Press, showing clearly that Mr. P. F. Pelly, or Major Pelly, as he was known, who died from the effects of poison taken by mistake for medicine on December 22 last, and who was at the time of his death employed in the Geological Department, Perth, as a Government Geologist, was none other than ” Starlight,”the notorious Australian bushranger of 30 years ago. In Perth it was recognized by those over him that he was a man of no mean attainments. Those who came in contact with him could not understand his strange ways. Only on rare occasions was he known to speak of himself. All the information he ever volunteered was that he had served in the British Army and had seen active service. In proof of this he displayed bullet wounds in various parts of the body. With this evidence, none doubted his word. People did not seek for credentials, and as he did not thrust himself on society with his title of Major, he was never required to display any proof of his bona-fides other than the bullet wounds.

From hints dropped at times it was also gathered that he was the descendant of an old Irish family. Pelly was of a retiring disposition. His death was supposed to have resulted through taking cyanide of potassium in mistake for medicine. A copy of the Morning Herald containing a report of the inquest reached Father Pelly, of Ireland, and he communicated with a brother, Patrick Edward Pelly, confined in Pentridge Gaol in Victoria, on the subject. This prisoner then wrote to Dr. Black, Coroner of Perth, what was looked upon as an extraordinary letter, but that document, on being handed  over to the police, set them inquiring. The object of this letter from Patrick Pelly was really to endeavor to trace a long missing brother of his.

The letter states:—

George Kirkcally PELLY, my only brother, in Australia, when I last saw him in l891, he was a clerk in the A.U.S.N. Company in Brisbane but I have heard afterwards that he left there, and I have not heard from him since, except once when I was told he was in Sydney. If the description I have given of my brother does not tally with that of the deceased, I am forced to think that Frank Gordon, to whom I handed a number of my family papers and photographs and who was a fellow prisoner at the time, and who promised to deliver them to George Kirkcally Pelly for delivery to my brother, must have assumed my name of Patrick and adopted our family name on the strength of the information supplied by the papers and photos. God grant that neither my brother nor my friend Gordon may be identical with the deceased Pelly, but in furtherance of the ends of justice and to allay the anxiety of my people, I trust you will let me know as soon as possible, and if the papers and photo. in question should be in the posession of the deceased’s landlady or executor I should be thankful to receive them, as I prize them very much.

Without delay the authorities in Perth instituted inquiries.  Patrick Pelly, of Pentridge, was sent a photograph of ” Major Pelly,” of Perth, deceased, and he immediately recognised it as that of his friend and gaol companion, “Gordon,” alias ‘Starlight’, the bushranger.

In a communication to the gaol authorities he said that was the person to whom he gave his family  papers and photos, to deliver to George Kirkcaldy Pelly in Brisbane.  Another letter from Pentridge, dated Jul 24, states that he first met the deceased as Frank Gordon in 1887, then serving sentence in Queensland.

This real name was Frank Pearson, born in Mexico, of a Spanish mother and an Irish father. He received a great part of his education in Rome.  Pelly then relates “Starlight’s” Australian life since 1861, when he joined the gang of bushrangers, of which he became the recognized leader. His life I believe  is accurately described in”Robbery Under Arms’, except the final catastrophe. I have read the book (Robbery Under Arms), and I believe the author had the facts related by “Starlight” himself.

The New South Wales police supplied the West Australian authorities with a photograph of “Starlight’ The likeness is unmistakable, and although the photo, is some years old there was little alteration in the mans features.  Those who knew Pelly would recognize the picture immediately. Prison statistics showed that he. was born in 1837. He had two bullet wounds on his right arm, one in the groin, one on the hip, and another in the right shoulder. The left arm was tattooed. The police are in possession of many other interesting documents, and have obtained most of the missing papers and photos which have been forwarded on to the rightful owner.

NOTE:- Frank PEARSON is buried in the Karrakatta cemetery in Perth under the name of Patrick PELLY.

The Bushranger


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My name is Moya Sharp, I live in Kalgoorlie Western Australia and have worked most of my adult life in the history/museum industry. I have been passionate about history for as long as I can remember and in particular the history of my adopted home the Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia. Through my website I am committed to providing as many records and photographs free to any one who is interested in the family and local history of the region.

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  1. Well done again Moya! Another little gem of history and a connection with my grandfather through his association with Gerald Browne, T.A. Browne’s son.

    thank you
    Paul Cribb

  2. Phil Bianchi says:

    Amazing story Moya – thanks for bringing it to light.

  3. Phoebe Watt says:

    intriguing story: I loved it. thanks Moya. I note in Karrakatta’s description the author of Robbery Under Arms denied any connection to the fictional hero.
    fancy being so vain about one’s age, one would dye one’s moustache with potassium cyanide to remove the stains: and, when in a drunken state, swallow the contents of the cyanide bottle -by mistake for his heart medication.
    9I tried logging in with Google but it just didn’t work -puzzled]

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