If you ever feel like the odds are stacked against you, just think of John Francis Peggotty – the bling-obsessed bushranger with dwarfism who rode an ostrich.
If you ever feel like the odds are stacked against you, just think of John Francis Peggotty – the bling-obsessed bushranger with dwarfism who rode an ostrich.

Inspiring legend of the ostrich-riding bushranger

SOMETIMES it feels like the world just has it in for us.

That chiselled Adonis over there was born stronger and richer, and that dazzling woman was gifted by the gods with an intellect and personality that makes everybody fall at her feet.

Here I am, all hook nailed and awkward with rapid-growing nostril hairs and breath that would cripple a sewage plant skunk, no matter how much bleach I gargle.

It's not fair.

Well, if you ever feel like the odds are stacked against you, just think of John Francis Peggotty - the bling-obsessed bushranger with dwarfism who rode around on an ostrich.

A sketch of John Francis Peggotty on his ostrich robbing one his victims, as illustrated in the original Australasian Post article. PICTURE: SUPPLIED
A sketch of John Francis Peggotty on his ostrich robbing one his victims, as illustrated in the original Australasian Post article. PICTURE: SUPPLIED

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So the story goes, young John could "not tip the scales against a medium-sized bird" when he was born in 1864, but the diminutive fellow survived against all odds.

His celebrity grew to magnificent proportions, even if his body did not.

The little Englishman left home at age 18 and travelled to South Africa, where he was stunned to witness men clinging to the backs of large, weird birds at breakneck speed.

They straddled custom-made saddles strapped around the ostriches' bellies and, at some stage, Peggotty must have acquired the skill.

He was back in England by 1890, making a small fortune for himself by squeezing his tiny frame down chimneys to separate wealthy Londoners from their jewellery collections.

His love of necklaces was ultimately his undoing, as his landlady dobbed him in when she got suspicious of his gallivanting around the property with gold dripping from his chest.

Leon Bignell rides the ostrich statue at Meningie.
Leon Bignell rides the ostrich statue at Meningie.

Peggotty served five years in prison - likely such a short stint because he pretended to be a child - then set sail for Australia to work on his uncle's farm in Orange, NSW.

Farm work was not really to his liking and he wound up in Adelaide where he plied his old trade as a thief with a gang of young vagabonds.

Apparently many of them were nabbed by the local plod, so Peggotty was forced to lie low for some years before really coming into his own.

He eventually shifted to the Coorong on the South Australian coast, where legend has it he was responsible for more than a dozen hold-ups and even a handful of murders before finally meeting his maker.

His reputation as the most eccentric bushranger in Australian history came from his penchant for parading about, stripped naked to his waist with a heap of gold jewellery over his body and two big pistols by his side - and, more importantly, the fact that he rode an ostrich.

Ostrich riding is a real thing. PICTURE: JAMIE HANSON
Ostrich riding is a real thing. PICTURE: JAMIE HANSON

One day a fisherman, Henry Carmichael, did not take too kindly to being robbed at gunpoint by this little man on bird-back and set chase on his horse on September 17, 1899.

Carmichael was a crack shot with a long-range rifle and managed to flank the sparkling bushranger and kill the ostrich on the spot.

Closer inspection showed thick blood trailing away from the bird corpse - but John Francis Peggotty's own cadaver was never found.

They say the bones of the Birdman of the Coorong still lie somewhere under the sand dunes, along with a fortune in glittering jewels.

Now, a pessimist might say this tale was a fabrication since its first written record appears to be an old issue of the Australasian Post - a fairly dubious publication, heavy on bikini girls, that paid aspiring writers for their contributions.

Ostrich racing at Dingo in Central Queensland. PICTURE: JAMIE HANSON
Ostrich racing at Dingo in Central Queensland. PICTURE: JAMIE HANSON

They might even say the name was pinched from Charles Dickens's classic novel, David Copperfield.

Well, bugger those people.

The town of Meningie propped up an ostrich statue in Peggotty's honour in 2013, reinforced to take the weight of anyone wanting a photo on top of the saddle.

That is proof enough for me.

If ever I feel down, I will henceforth remember the weird life of John Francis Peggotty - a man who made the most of what seemed like an impediment, but wound up making him a legend.

Originally published as Inspiring legend of the ostrich-riding bushranger


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