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Russian Jack

One of Western Australia’s most colourful pioneers, Ivan Fredericks, better known as Russian Jack, was born in the Russian port of Archangel. In 1886 he arrived in the Kimberley to make his fortune in the gold strike. According to historian Geoffrey Blainey, Russian Jack pushed a barrow with shafts 2.2m long and a wooden wheel so wide it would not sink into soft sand.
Russian Jack personified the notion of “mateship”. On one waterless stretch he overtook two old men who were too tired to carry their swags. He loaded the swags on his barrow and delivered them to the nearest waterhole. On another occasion he wheeled a sick prospector in his wheelbarrow through the Kimberley’s harsh landscape to shelter and water.
russian jack But for all his noble deeds, Russian Jack never struck his bonanza. Once he fell 20m into an open cut while walking in the dark. He was found three days later in a sorry state. His first comment to his rescuers was, “I’ve missed a shift”.
Russian Jack was about 40 when he died in Fremantle of a hard life coupled with even harder drinking. His last years were spent in a shelter for the homeless and in prison. A Catholic priest, Father John Smyth, performed the service around his unmarked grave. Almost a century later Ivan was chosen as “a symbol of nobility” by the Russian Orthodox Church and a marble cross was erected on his grave. He is also honoured by a bronze statue outside the Visitors’ Centre in Halls Creek. MCB text, photo, and caption.

The following article © Diane Oldman is published here with her kind permission.


by Diane Oldman

About 12 years ago, while on holiday in England, my sister asked me to search the Australian telephone directories for the name KIRKUS. With no assistance then from a CD-ROM or the Internet, I spent many days rearranging 54 volumes of the White Pages in Safety Bay Library (donated, as it turned out, by my friend Liz QUANTOCK). My sister had met Claire and Roger Kirkus in France and, discovering Claire to be a genealogist, very kindly offered my services to investigate occurrences of the name here. Before I had chance to finish the job, I found Claire’s name in the ‘Pass It On’ section of the Family Tree Magazine. Claire was prepared to search BT 122/8 for anyone sharing her own interest in seafaring ancestors. I asked her to do a search on behalf of Helen MURPHY, who at the time was seeking Matthew Joseph RYE. This proved as unsuccessful as my search for the name Kirkus in the telephone directories. But Claire had other things to tell me.
Claire’s husband had an ancestor Captain William Empson Kirkus, born in Hull and drowned in Port Phillip (Melbourne) in 1850. William had a number of grandchildren in Australia via his son William junior and Mary Margaret ATKINSON. William junior was an auctioneer at Hobson’s Bay when he died in 1888. Claire felt it likely that there would be Kirkus descendants somewhere in Australia. Although there was no mention of Kirkus in the White Pages across Australia, I was aware of the Kirkus Road in Medina. The Nomenclature section at the Department of Lands Administration indicated that in 1955/56 the street had been named for Able Seaman Kirkus who was a crew member of the Tranby that arrived in the Swan River Colony on 3 February 1830. Aha! I thought, add another 20 years onto Able Seaman Kirkus and he could well have been promoted to a drowned Captain by 1850. I entertained myself with a bit of research about the ship Tranby and passed it on to Claire. She came back to me with an extraordinary coincidence. Her husband Roger’s grandmother, an ALWARD, lived at Tranby Croft in Grimsby - just over the River Humber estuary from Hull where Captain William Empson Kirkus was born. The Alwards were shipping fleet owners - did they own the Tranby? I later checked the Lloyds Lists and discovered that the Tranby, at least when it sailed for the Swan River Colony in September 1829, was owned not by the Alwards, but by Bolton & Co. Many years later, while working on the Schools Records Project, I came across a document (dated August 1954) prepared by a Margaret A. Feilman entitled "Kwinana New Town" which records our able seaman as Henry Kirkus, Apprentice. I’m quite sure that eventually Claire was able to make a connection between her husband’s Alward and Kirkus families in Grimsby and Hull, and I didn’t pursue the able seaman’s career any further. It was something else entirely that caught my attention.
Claire had already undertaken research into the Kirkus name. She knew that KIRKUS was a variant of KIRKHOUSE or KIRKHUS (one who worked in a kirkhouse - a kind of village hall alongside the church where refreshments were served). She believed that at least one kirkhouse (the building) remained in Scotland, while the name was restricted to the north-east of the British Isles. It survives quite distinctly as KIRKHOUSE in the Tyneside area but nearly always KIRKUS in East Yorkshire. She had found other variants: KIRKAS(S), KIRKIS (S), KERKEHOUSE and KIRKOS(S). Claire had a Kirkus correspondent whose father had gone to Canada from Lithuania where there was a village named after Kirkus: Kirkui Vilna Lituania USSR.
Sometime during our correspondence in 1994/95 Claire mentioned another Kirkus assault she had made via the Family Tree Magazine ‘Can You Help?’ pages. In the February 1994 edition the following query appeared:
While I was searching directories for Hull, I found a Kirkus ancestor described as a “Russian mat importer”. In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, one character, fleeing Brussels on the eve of Waterloo, has to leave her “Russian mat” behind. Does anyone know what a Russia(n) mat was and where they were imported from? Mrs. Claire Kirkus.
Claire received evidence that another family was importing Russian mats into London from Archangel via Heligoland (to avoid duty). The eldest son of this family was sent to St Petersburg in 1783 to handle the business from that end. Claire’s husband Roger’s indirect line Hull ancestors were Russia(n) mat merchants. Was it possible that a Kirkus was also shipped off to Russia to oversee the mat business? At this point Claire declared that she didn’t even know what a Russian mat was; even the Victoria & Albert Museum were stumped!
[I recently checked the good old Internet and discovered an alternative to the kind of mat a Russian would wipe his feet on. An article in the September 2003 edition of the New Yorker describes mat as the ancient tradition of Russian swear words and proclaims, perhaps more interesting than mat's etymological derivation is its psychological origin: why is Russian profanity so firmly rooted in sex? Who cares !!]
So, what has any of this got to do with JFK?

russian jack statue

Does anyone recognise this statue? Read on ...

Claire's 'Can You Help?' query elicited a response from a man in Carnarvon, WA who described himself as “an author-historian working in the North West of Western Australia.” The author was researching, for a book, some interesting personalities in the days of North West settlement. He was especially fascinated by tales of “Russian Jack” whom he believed to be the only Russian-born immigrant in WA at the time of the early gold exploration. 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. Sadly he died of pneumonia when aged only 40 years and was buried at Fremantle in a pauper’s grave, stated the author. He told Claire that after much research and through friends in Russia 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. The author told Claire that he was hoping to visit JFK’s birthplace in August or September 1994. So did Roger Kirkus have Russian ancestors named KIRKOSS, or did Russian Jack have British ancestors named KIRKUS?
I awaited developments but none came until July 2000 when the West Australian newspaper ran a story entitled “Russians pay homage to Jack with a heart of gold” accompanied by a photograph of Archbishop Hilarion Kapral, Father Okunev and Dean Protopopov of the Russian Orthodox Church in Australia blessing a headstone and plaque that had been erected close to JFK’s pauper’s grave. The ceremony coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Russian church in Perth. I sent the article to Claire with an amused comment: Wouldn’t all the priests in the photograph be mortified if their hero was of British stock - and Hull no less! The end of my interest in Russian Jack, I thought.

russian jack story

Then as recently as the Darwin Congress in Genealogy in June 2006, I met someone who was also interested in Russian Jack - especially rumours that he had ridden with WA bushrangers, the Ragged 13. Sharon MANSELL, office manager at the BDM Registry in Alice Springs, introduced me to a book written by Peter J. Bridge simply titled Russian Jack. I bought it immediately. I told Sharon about the exchange of letters between Claire Kirkus and the author-historian from Carnarvon. I had forgotten the Carnarvon man’s name (after all, it had been twelve years!). When I arrived home from the Congress, I retrieved my paperwork (yes, I still had it). The Carnarvon man was Bryan Clark, JP. Much to my surprise he was not referenced in Peter Bridge’s book. I then discovered that Bryan was living in the Northern Territory and as a JP could surely be found by Sharon (the BDM Registry is part of the Justice Department). It turns out that Bryan not only lives in Alice, but Sharon knows him well! My first comment to Sharon was ... well, find out if Bryan ever went to Archangel in 1994!
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 - 6ft.2in. tall with a 48inch chest, or was it 5ft.10in. with a 60 inch chest? He died aged 40 or was it 45, some say 49, more likely he was 52 or 53. Peter Bridge brings together an amazing number of conflicting newspaper and personal accounts of JFK’s life on the goldfields of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Peter completely debunks the West Australian report of July 2000, writing: In what appears to have the hallmarks of an expensive politico-religious stunt, the Catholic Russian Jack, a Russian Finn, has been ‘reburied’ as Russian Orthodox. Enough to start a war in Eastern Europe! The headstone and bronze plaque also have his name, age and other details wrong. The journalist’s comment? What does it matter? It’s only folklore. According to Peter, Russian Jack was recorded as Jas. Fredk. KIRKOSS as well as John Frederick KIRKOSS (were these the same sources for Bryan Clark’s version of his name?).
What does this all mean? Firstly, we must believe in synchronicity as evidenced by the timely yet coincidental crossing of paths of my sister in England, Claire in France and me in Australia; and even more so if one factors in the meeting of Sharon Mansell in Darwin who knows Bryan Clark in Alice Springs who wrote to Claire Kirkus. Secondly, we must not ALWAYS believe in eye witness accounts, official documents and headstones!
The photograph of Russian Jack on the front page came from George Hope’s Murchison Goldfields Supplement to the Geraldton Express of 1897. I copied it from the Internet web site which contains The History of Halls Creek. The photograph on this page is of a statue in the Halls Creek main street (Jack and the sick man on the wheelbarrow).

Blurb for Peter Bridge's book, from his Hesperian Press website

Out of the great Kimberley goldrush of 1886 came stories of hard men in a hostile land. Some grew into legends, entering folklore, larger than life in their own lifetimes but now almost completely forgotten. Men like those of the Ragged Thirteen, Paddy the Flat, Tom Hood, Frank Hann, Billy O'Donnell, William Carr-Boyd and Russian Jack. Women also, Mother Dead Finish and the Mountain Maid. Of all these none has seen the legend eclipse the man as the story of Russian Jack. A legend in his own lifetime, the strongest man on the goldfields, Wheelbarrow Jack.
The first great gold rush of Western Australia drew men from thousands of miles to the Kimberley. A few hardy overlanders made it through with packhorses from the Territory and further east or from the south via Newcastle Waters. Most, however, landed by ship at two previously non-existent ports, Wyndham and Derby.
From these distant and uninviting landings the diggers headed south or east through desolate, uninhabited and trackless country to their goal, Halls Creek. At the time of the rush it was an area rather than an organised settlement and consisted of police tents and a hastily erected bough shed sly groggery, with the diggers scattered over a wide area.
Men died from thirst, disease or native attack, and were buried where the fell. Horses, especially those from New Zealand, died by the score, and their bones and the wreckage of the drays together with the lonely graves marked the new track as tragic milestones.
Along the track from Derby, Russian Jack set out with his ungainly wheelbarrow loaded with provisions. In a particularly difficult section about thirty miles from Halls Creek he found a sick and worn out prospector. Succoured, he was placed with his swag on Russian Jack's barrow and carried to safety.
By this act Russian Jack endeared himself to a generation of men and ensured himself an unlooked-for fame and immortality that has become the epitome on the concept of mateship in Australia. This is his story.

References, Links and Acknowledgements

Bridge, Peter J. 2002, Russian Jack, Hesperian Press, ISBN 0 85905 283 4

Diane Oldman, 'Russian Jack: synchronicity and a different JFK', Dollypot, Greenhide and Spindrift: a journal of bush history, Hesperian Press, vol 3, no. 2.

MCB photos and caption

Many thanks to Diane Oldman (personal communication)

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