There were several ways to lose your gold to bushrangers prowling the roads and byways of central and south west NSW at the start of the 1860s.

There was the traditional threat long posed by random brigands who grabbed a gun and waylaid passers by. Then there was the risk of encountering the much more organised and formidable members of the bushranger gang led by Peisley and Gardiner and later by Johnny Gilbert and Ben Hall.

The great 1862 gold escort heist

By the start of 1862, the Frank Gardiner gang were well established as a major threat to travellers and mail services on the highways of central and south west NSW. No one suspected however, that the gang would ever dare to take on the rich gold escort with its four armed police guarding the weekly consignment of gold to Sydney from the staggeringly rich new field at Forbes.

On Sunday 15 June however, this is exactly what happened, when the Gardiner gang held up the escort at Eugowra and relieved it of its burden of 2719 ounces of gold, and £3700 in cash.

While at first the gang got away, a determined police hunt led by Frederick Pottinger eventually suceeded in regaining much of the booty and capturing 4 of the gang members.

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Johnny Gilbert and Ben Hall

In the wake of the robbery and the massive police chase that followed, the gang split up and Johnny Gilbert took refuge for a time in New Zealand.

Upon his return in 1863, he and Ben Hall teamed up to form a new gang as Frank Gardiner opted for a early retirement in Queensland (though he was recognised and captured the following year).

By the start of spring 1863, Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert and their associates including Johnny O’Meally, Mick Burke and Johnny Vane were geared up and ready to unleash an unprecedented assault on the established law and order of the goldfields region.

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The raid on Bathurst

“To say that astonishment or excitement prevailed does not convey an adequate notion of the stunned and appalling effect produced, as little by little the fact was gradually affirmed that the bushrangers had actually made a descent upon the town.”

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The ransom of Commissioner Keightley

In late October, the bushranger gang made an attack on the home of one of their chief opponents – Gold Commissioner Keightley. Keightley however had been expecting an attack at some point and was well armed.

When Keightley was captured after having shot Mick Burke in the stomach, Johnny Vane was about to shoot him in revenge when Keightley’s wife stepped in to plead for her husband’s life.

A compromise solution was reached whereby the bushrangers were paid a £500 ransom to spare Keightley’s life. When this was delivered the following day the commissioner was released and the bushrangers departed.

They left with the dead body of Mick Burke who had killed himself with a bullet to the head realising that with his stomach wound he was done for.

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The Attack On Goimbla

Several weeks after the disasterous raid on Commissioner Keightley’s property, the gang made another nightime assault. This time it was on the home of another outspoken opponent – David Campbell.

Campbell also was well prepared to defend himself and his family and failing in their initial attempt to get into the house, the three bushrangers – Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert and Patrick O’Meally set fire to the barn.

While the bushrangers stood watching the blaze they little realised they were reflected against the light. From the verandah of the house, David Campbell took careful aim and killed O’Meally with a single shot to the neck.

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The Death of Ben Hall

Following the death of O’Meally, Ben Hall and Johnny Gilbert retreated over the first part of 1864 to regroup. They remerged in spring of that year for their final campaign.

By the beginning of 1865 however it was all starting to unravel and the coming of May saw first Ben Hall and then Gilbert shot and killed within weeks of each other.

The demise of the Hall / Gilbert gang spelled the beginning of the end of the battle between the bushrangers and the authorities for control of the highways and byways of central and south west NSW. While opportunistic brigands would remain a real and present threat for many years to come, the passing of Hall and Gilbert brought this chapter of NSW’s history to a close.

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