Dollypot, Greenhide and Spindrift:
a journal of bush history
Vol 3. No. 2
Russian Jack: Synchronicity and a Different JFK
by Diane Oldman
I rather thought I had made up the word ‘synchronicity’ and when I attempted to look it up in several dictionaries I couldn’t find it. So I decided it was a new noun – my noun. Then I discovered this definition from Wikipedia:Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated occurring together in a meaningful manner. To count as synchronicity, the events should be unlikely to occur together by chance. Apparently it is a theory developed by psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, for whom I have a grudging admiration on other counts.
This is a story of how synchronicity led me to Russian Jack hero of WA’s Northwest, a JP from Carnarvon, Hesperian Press, Cathie Clement, writer-historian and many others. I am not going to repeat Russian Jack’s story as it is well known to all those who have studied the history of our Northwest; I am merely recalling my involvement with this larger than life figure.
My story begins in England in 1994 when my sister asked me, on my return to WA, to check the name Kirkus in the Australian telephone directories. Claire Kirkus, a friend of hers living in France was seeking connections with her husband’s Kirkus ancestors. I did eventually discover a connection with a sea captain in Melbourne in the 1850s but this fact is only the B movie to my main feature.
Meanwhile Claire had been advertising in an international family history magazine for information about the name Kirkus and found that it appears in many forms:
kirkhouse – a village hall alongside a church where refreshments were served; kirkhus – a person who worked in such a building; Kirkui, Vilna - a village in Lithuania; kirkusa – to scream or shriek; kirkossa – in church (the two latter words are in the Finnish language).
Claire had also discovered from English census returns and trade directories that the Kirkus clan of Hull in Yorkshire had been Russian mat and hemp traders in the 19th century. Her enquiries relating to Russian mat traders put her in touch with
A man whose forebears were also trading mats in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1783. The correspondent sent Claire information about a shipment of mats exported from Archangel by way of Heligoland to avoid excise duty. Heligoland was under British Administration from 1809-1890 and is a tax haven even today.
Finally, Claire’s other correspondent was a Justice of the Peace from Carnarvon, WA who described himself as ‘an author-historian’. Bryan Clark was researching for a book on interesting personalities from WA’s northwest. Bryan was particularly fascinated by the tales of Russian Jack whom he believed to be the only Russian-born immigrant in WA at the time of the early gold exploration. Brian wrote to Claire Kirkus, Tales of his feats of strength were legion; his reputation preceded him wherever he wandered in the outback country. He was truly a unique personality. He told Claire that he had identified Russian Jack (aka John Fredericks or Ivan Fredericks) as John Frederick Kirkoss (hence JFK). On his death certificate his birthplace was recorded as Archangel.
So here we have a connection with the name Kirkus and the place of the imported mats (Archangel). Did Claire’s husband Roger KIRKUS have Russian ancestors named KIRKOSS, or did Russian Jack have English ancestors named KIRKUS? I was intrigued!
In many of the accounts of Russian Jack he is said to have been a Russian Finn. What is a Russian Finn, I asked myself. Well, it is true that Finland was invaded by Russia more than once and in the mid 19th century it was a Duchy of Russia, even though it was autonomous. But Archangel, where Jack was allegedly born, was never in Finland. It has always been a Russian seaport.
When nothing new transpired, I soon forgot about Claire Kirkus, Bryan Clark and Russian Jack. Then six years later in July 2000 the Western Australian newspaper ran a story entitled “Russians pay homage to Jack with a heart of gold”. My interest flickered for a moment; I sent the clipping to Claire and that was that.
Fast forward another six years to June 2006 when I was at a conference in Darwin. I met someone who was also interested in Russian Jack - especially rumours that he had ridden with WA bush rangers, the Ragged 13. Sharon Mansell, office manager at the Birth Death & Marriage Registry in Alice Springs, introduced me to a book written by Peter J. Bridge simply titled Russian Jack. I purchased it immediately. I told Sharon about the exchange of letters between Claire Kirkus and Bryan Clark from Carnarvon. I then discovered that in the intervening years between 1994 and 2006 Bryan Clark had moved to Alice Springs and was known to Sharon Mansell. More synchronicity!
Thus in 2006 I read Peter Bridge’s book about Russian Jack and agreed with his comment about the infinite capacity of journalistic inventiveness of which historians must beware. Even Jack’s contemporaries who included Daisy Bates, G J C McDonald, the Murchison Police Sergeant based for a time at Peak Hill and Russian Jack’s mate Dead Finish, who worked gold claims with him, may have sacrificed absolute truth for the sake of a good yarn many years after Jack’s death in 1904.
In 2010 I was asked to prepare a lecture for the University of the Third Age as part of a series called Mixed Bag; I decided upon an account of Russian Jack. It was time to revisit Peter’s book. I noted again the dedication of the book‘to the pioneers of the Kimberley and to Cathie Clement, my companion in search of the old Kimberley’. I did not know Cathie Clement, her interest in the Kimberley or Russian Jack, and wondered about the dedication.
In the first chapter of Peter’s book I read that little was known of Jack’s life before he came to WA. His Murchison mate Dead Finish claimed a seafaring past. To my knowledge Jack’s entry into Australia had not been found to date. I checked some recently released shipping arrivals and found a John Fredericks, seaman, 19 years old who arrived in Sydney from China in 1872. This matched Jack’s probable age – although he was described as ‘Swedish’, not Russian or Finnish. Sometime in May 2020 I made contact with Peter Bridge for the first time and told him of my find.
Within a few weeks I was at the State Library’s Durack Exhibition at a lecture by Professor Geoffrey Bolton and afterwards, at the wine and finger food, I was amazed to find myself standing next to the person behind the name badge ‘Cathie Clement’. My first two words to her were ‘Russian Jack’; more synchronicity?
Cathie, characteristically I suspect, followed up with more information for me about Russian Jack – even another (slightly earlier) 1872 shipping record for the same John Fredericks.
An account in Peter’s book is Russian Jack’s arrival in Derby in 1886 attributed to E C Dance who was in that town to help build the Port Hotel. From Dance we may have had the best eyewitness account of Jack and his famous wheelbarrow.
Four days after meeting Cathie at the Durak nosh-up, I was at the Western Australian Genealogical Society’s AGM. I quite unwittingly sat next to Yvonne Coate, a founding member of WAGS and joint author of Lonely Graves. I had heard of Yvonne, of course, but had never met her. In another burst of synchronicity, she told me that E C Dance was somehow connected with her family and she had a copy of a letter he had sent to his family in England. Yvonne was kind enough to transcribe part of this narrative for me …. and of course it matched the words in Peter’s book.
You may not be surprised that I feel a connection with Russian Jack – and a great affection for him. So why was JFK such a hero? Well, if you believe the ‘legion tales’: he carried a sick mate and his gear on his wheelbarrow from Derby to Halls Creek, or was it Derby to Wyndham, or perhaps Wyndham to Halls Creek; even Laverton is a possibility. Well, it was over 100 miles or was it 200 or perhaps 300 miles. The sick friend got well, or did he die? Jack was very strong - 6 ft. 2 in. tall with a 48 inch chest, or was it 5 ft. 10 in. with a 60 inch chest? He died aged 40 or was it 45; some say 49; more likely he was 52 or 53. But he was certainly a different JFK.