I am writing from Australia where it has come to my disturbed attention, and to the notice of others down here, that there are moves afoot to have the historic Union Workhouse at Bridgwater demolished!

I am fully aware that as a place of refuge and hospitalisation it has long run its course, but should this amount to its removal? Its obvious significance to various Bridgwater residents is well enough known, but perhaps lesser known is that the old building is seen through the eyes of more than a few dwellers on these antipodean shores as a fundamental link to one of its foremost folk legends, Harry ‘The Breaker’ Morant, and as a result is, from time to time, visited by certain Australian travellers who see Morant in an iconic light.

Who was Morant? Morant was born at the Union Workhouse in 1864 the son of the then master and matron of the establishment as Edwin Henry Murrant. Well educated at Wood Green Masonic School, London, he gained a position as a tutor at Silesia College, Chipping Barnett, before departing the Old Country for North Queensland where he exchanged academia for the life of a stockman. A short-lived marriage soon after arrival to a future serial bigamist and Dame of the British Empire saw him follow a rover’s path as a cattle drover and breaker of untamed horses. It also saw him change his name and identity: Vicar’s son, judges son, finally settling on a son, at times nephew, of Vice-Admiral George Digby Morant, hence his eventual moniker, ‘Harry Harbord Morant’.

This son of Bridgwater travelled throughout outback Queensland and New South Wales following on from one scrape to the next. Harry was a boozer, a fighter and a man careless about others property - especially when it came to good horseflesh! As a result he came familiar with the insides of both courts and cells. Considering such things one may well ask why has he left in this country, with many, a lasting legacy of endearment? The answer is as simple as it is fragile. Morant was both a lover of fine music and poetry proclaiming a fondness of Byron and owned a good singing voice with which he would serenade the ladies for he was a romantic causing many a female to swoon. He was an eagerly anticipated balladeer of both love poems and bush verses, which were published in regular number in a plethora of both leading and lesser editorials. He was at interludes a journalist.

He was also a superb horseman. It was said of him that no Englishman ever held a seat like Harry Morant. Huntsman, polo player, steeplechaser, high jumper, buckjump rider; few could hold a match to Morant. Few men ever sat the great outlaw ‘Dargin’s Grey’, Morant, in 1897, rode the vicious grey to a standstill without stirrup irons or moving in the saddle. He was also a man of mystery. [It was not within his scope to tell the facts, totally reinventing his workhouse origins.]

He could be most genial, his accent polished, holding his own in any company, but there was another side to his coin. There existed an ugly moroseness, an irreverence, which drink could bring about. He also made an occupation of being a sponger. However, within the various circles that sought his company these latter traits were largely overlooked which became obvious in his multitude of obituaries and the poems that were written about him soon following his death in Pretoria, South Africa, where in 1902 as Lieut. H. H. Morant he was executed at dawn for being instrumental in the deaths of Boer prisoners. Although his guilt was self-admitted, sympathy was widely and quickly generated in Australia. Even as I type these words there exists an element down here that seeks his pardon on the grounds that he was unfairly judged.

I do not know too much about the history of the Bridgwater’s hero’s, not that Harry Morant was a hero, not out of the saddle at least, but I very much doubt that no other Bridgwater resident of yesteryear could lay claim to having some fourteen books, several plays, an award-winning feature film, numerous documentaries, a thesis for a doctorate, hundreds of articles, etc, etc, based upon his life, the Bridgwater Workhouse often featuring. I am aware of four further books in the pipeline.

I know full well that anything that I might say will have the slightest bearing on any council decision on the demolition of this historic building, but I feel it would be totally remiss of me not to utter a few words. One can only hope, and perhaps if the bulldozers do remove every vestige of timber and stone a small plaque may be situated bearing the name of Breaker Morant.

Jim McJannett, Cooktown, Queensland, Australia