Gunplay on the goldfields
The following story is an extract from
the limited edition publication Tennant Creek Mining Locations detailing
mines, their histories, their production and the characters who worked
them or who lived in the area at the time. It is a tribute to the gold
field of Tennant Creek.
'Snowy' Renfrey is one of those larger-than-life characters who occupy
the stage in life from time-to-time. Snowy Renfrey's other claim-to-fame
was that he was a hard man among hard men and that he was charged in
late 1934 with the shooting murder of one Michael O'Brien.
Snowy is first mentioned in the records of March 2 1934 as having successfully
applied, with Charlie Adams, for mineral applications on GML Nos 307
& 309, 8 miles ESE of the Pinnacles. Charlie Adams was also involved
in joint leases with one Stanley Potts in November 1934, after the events
of September in that year.
Apparently, on September 30, 1934 a fight took place between Renfrey
and Potts. The background to the fight is unclear, but the next day,
Sunday, following the fight and threats with firearms, Potts made his
way to the Hotel, apparently to report to police. He was accompanied
by O'Brien. For some reason or another, Potts decided to 'interview'
Renfrey, the perpetrator of the assault. Renfrey's camp was very near
to the hotel and on seeing him, Potts drew a revolver and covered Renfrey,
claiming that he took this action as a precaution against Renfrey using
Renfrey then went into his camp and returned with a pistol. Up until
then, O'Brien had merely been an observer but now he called a warning
and picked up a rifle from the car in which they had travelled to Renfrey's
camp. He didn't understand the safety catch on the gun and was fiddling
with it when Renfrey fired twice, hitting him in the lower body. Two
bullets were said to have lodged near the spine, having penetrated the
Right from the outset there was contradictory talk of who fired first,
how many shots were fired by Renfrey, whether the rifle was discharged
and so on. There was also talk that day, however, of lynching although
things did quieten down. On October 3 1934, after O'Brien had died,
Renfrey was charged with murder and went to trial in Alice Springs in
The trial was followed all around Australia with much comment made regarding
the 'wild west' nature of Tennant Creek and that, in the absence of
law and other facilities, miners were forced to settle their disputes
in a primitive fashion.
Renfrey was acquitted in front of a local jury, his lawyer successfully
arguing that he had acted in self-defence. He tried the same defence
six months later when he was again charged, this time with assault.
His defence lawyer stated again that Renfrey was provoked; "This
is a country where these things are a pastime ... the way things were
at Tennant's Creek, it was almost encouraged by the authorities. If
a man was challenged, he must give his opponent satisfaction".
There was no success with that plea on this occasion and Renfrey was
sentenced to six months imprisonment.
'Snowy' continued a colourful career, apparently being viciously slashed
across the face with a razor by an aggrieved opponent later on and receiving
sixty stitches in the wound. He continued his adventurous ways, with
talk of him being involved in various activities in the Pacific and
even as far afield as the Phillipines and China. Always one of those
people that gossip, innuendo and rumour pursue, there are stories of
other families, gun-running and worse.
He died in 1978 and was buried at sea in the Fenton Deeps off Darwin.
Of course, he was never without a sense of humour, even though many
can still attest to just how hard a man he was, able to end a fight
with a single blow. During the 1935 census, his occupation is given
as 'gravedigger'; one can't be sure in which manner he meant that he
Baker* carries a remarkable account of the shooting and the events leading
up to it and after it. His claims surrounding the pegging of the Rising
Sun leases can never be proven, but the following account has a remarkable
ring of truth to it:
"...There was a row down at the battery one saturday night when
a crushing was going through, With a chap named Snowy Potts and Snowy
Rinfray and how things finished that night I could not say, But on the
Sunday morning, Potts and a chap that called himself Mick Obrian came
up to Renfrays camp with a gun in it, and when Potts sang out to Renfray
to come out, and finish what he reckoned Renfray started Snowy Renfray
saw the gun in the car, so he turned into his camp and came out with
his American gun that he practiced with, and Potts was no mach to Renfray
with a gun and was not game, Mick Obrian who was from Canada, saw Renfray
with a gun thought Renfray would shoot his, So being Frighten picked
up the gun from the car, and Renfray thinking Mick would shoot, Let
Blaze at Obrian will Potts put up his hands his first shot hit Obrian
and he dropped the gun. But Renfray fired again thinking Obrian would
pick up the gun, By all account, Obrian was the Goat, and it was Potts
that was to blame. So Obrian must of run a Hundred yards with shock
before he drop right at my feet, and I could see he was pretty badly
shot and I laided him on the bed and ask Joe Kilgraff to try and get
through to Alice Springs for a doctor, and the only way he could get
through with a peddle Wireless, was through Mount Isa on to Melbourne
then to Adelaide then to Alice Springs, I kept him alive until the doctor
arrived Monday Morning after travelling right through the night and
when he saw Obrian he told me there was no hope, and that I could give
him anything to drink, and he would give him a needle to ease the pain.
Mick kept asking for tea and every body was willing to do anythink I
asked them, And Al McDonald was a great help by taking his turn of Watching
Obrian for the 19 hours I kept him alive, the only thing I could until
the doctor arrived was a sip of brandy. When Cameron the copper brought
Renfray over and Renfray said, I shot you as I thought you were going
to get me, and Obrian said I don't know who shot me, and it was not
you, a man to the Last. I had to lean over him to hear him answer, It
was all a Big Mistake, Potts had to much curage through to much to drink,
and Renfray did not drink, So After a couple of hours, Obrian passed
away and I told the Doctor and we postmortum on him and the two Bullets
went in to different ways but came out in the same place in the spine,
How he run that distance after being shot, one will never Know. Renfray
and Potts got six months and served their time at Alice Springs...."
* Reg Baker wrote this account in 1967 of the events he witnessed on
the gold fields in 1934.