Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert and 1863

By the start of 1863, the residents and travellers of central and south west NSW must have been starting to breathe a sigh of relief as the forces of law and order gained the upper hand in the battle with the bushrangers.

No new activity had been heard of the Gardiner gang since the bold robbery of the gold escort in June the previous year. While four gang members had been captured, Frank Gardiner and Johnny Gilbert however were still at large, while Ben Hall had briefly escaped being implicated in the robbery (he was definitely there though!)

8th May 1863

But then – he was back. On the 21st April in the company of Frank Gardiner, Lowry and John O’Meally, a small storekeeper outside of Young was deprived of £100 worth of stock.

This it turns out was to be almost the last NSW hold up of Gardiner’s career as the robbery of these supplies was probably to provision Gardiner for his imminent escape up north to Queensland.

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26th May 1863

While Gardiner headed north with his mistress into what proved to be a short retirement in Queensland [he was captured the following year], Gilbert was left to prepare for a new round of robberies.

One of the first things on his gear list were the finest racehorses the district had on offer.

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9th June 1863

Supplies were also needed, and the stores in Young had plenty of these.

Also additional racehorses could be had from the nearby Currawong property of James Roberts – the refuge of the Chinese miners on the numerous times they were expelled from the Lambing Flat fields in 1861.

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These preparations were just the calm before the gathering storm that would very soon engulf the communities living amonsgt the rolling goldfields landscapes of the Lachlan Fold Belt between the Murrumbidgee and the Lachlan Rivers.

Looking back on the bushranger's extraordinary spring campaign of 1863, one can't help but wonder how they got away with what they did. Surely the police could not have been so helpless to catch them, the public so powerless to resist just a handful of desperados?

To begin to really appreciate what happened and why, it is valuable to revisit the 1860s landscape of the battle ground and assess the relative advantages the bushrangers enjoyed over their prey.

Back in the 1860s, the farmlands of the region had only been partially cleared. This picture shows the Demondrille Homestead near Murrumburrah before the bushrangers burnt it down.

It indicates how much bushland existed in close proximity to the houses. Bush such as this provided both immediate shelter from gunfire and an ideal escape portal for the bushrangers.

From”Sketches of Yass and Murrumburrah District 185- / Mrs J Milbourne. Reproduced courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW. Digital Order a6085003

Gun technology had evolved a lot over the 1850s but revolvers still needed to be loaded with loose powder and a ball meaning re-priming them was slow.

Bushrangers had at least 3 or 4 six chamber American Colt revolvers they could load in advance (Ben Halls revolver shown left). The police each had one British Adams and Kerr 5 chamber revolver that was dangerous to use, hard to clean, very hard to fire from a horse and not accurate beyond 10 metres.

Ben Halls revolver image reproduced courtesy National Library of Australia. Other guns courtesy Wikipedia.

ONE [close range] SHOT IN THE LOCKER

Police rifles were single shot carbines whereas Johnny Gilbert had the latest multiple shot rifles.

As one commentator noted in 1865 “It seems that police are not armed for the occasion. A revolver is all very well in close quarters but when used at anything over 30 yards is a very uncertain weapon. The old carbine which is generally carried by police is next to useless at anything over 30 – 40 yards – especially when the more common ball cartridge is used.”

The fertile farmlands around Binalong and environs were home to prize thoroughbred racehorses that the bushrangers quickly claimed as their own. Lithe and supple through bushland these horses could also easily outrun any pursuit in open country.

Racehorse c. 1860 image reproduced courtesy State Library of Victoria Image IMP24/01/67/5.

It was Frank Gardiner who perfected the art of media management and bushranging. He cultivated a certain persona confident that all would dutifully be reported in a media where word counts didn’t exist and readers devoured every bit of detail.

Johnny Gilbert and Ben Hall learnt from Gardiner and also played to the media. Not everyone was scared of them, but mostly people were. As a result 95% of their battles were won with the simple words “Hands up”.

These various elements all worked massively in favour of the bushrangers over the forces of law and order. In addition though it must be remembered that they were not the only anti-establishment players in place across central and south western NSW at that time.

Prior to the gold rush providing a massive boost to the colony’s population, the working class was composed mainly of ex-convict elements or underprivileged immigrants who had come out to Australia under assisted passage.

These were people accustomed to oppression from establishment elements and for many of them the bushrangers were heroes giving voice to the powerlessness of the working classes.

By staying close to their roots in country they knew like the back of their hand, the bushrangers were hence able to rely on the support of some elements of the population.

This did not mean protection for the poor however. They were robbed as freely as anyone else. Just that the bushrangers definitely knew who their friends were, and you surely didn’t want to become one of their enemies.

7th September 1863

Another thing you definitely didn’t want to do was anything rash. John Barnes did on 30 August and he died as a result. Barnes’ store had been robbed twice by the gang when he heard on Sunday morning at the end of August they had just escaped from a police ambush.

In an emergency dash to help his sons in case the bushrangers called at the shop he met them on the road. O’Meally chased him when he refused to give up his horse and instead tried to escape. Shots were fired and Barnes fell – never to rise again.

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24th September 1863

Whereupon – it was definitely on.

Another day – another robbery it seemed that September. The list becomes repetitive but one event stands out. That was the day that the gang held up the a group of three policemen send out to capture them.

Time out from robbery for humiliation was all part of the daily round.

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30th September 1863

In a strident editorial at the end of the month, the Bathurst Times gave voice to the overwhelming frustration of a community disbelieving of the extent to which a band of youths had succeeded in bringing a community to a fearful standstill.

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1st October 1863

Across in Macquarie Street, NSW Parliament also paused to debate the matter.

While sometimes rambling, the level of detail recorded in the Parliamentary debates make them an essential resource for one who seeks to delve.

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Well indeed may the state's political masters debated the efficacy of their response to the bushranger problem.

With the social order of the south west of the state in upheaval, the local residents of Wagga even took to swearing in 27 local men as special constables to protect the town from attack.

This level of citizen zeal was at least more convincing than some of the efforts the police seemed to be putting in to catching the criminals. Truth to tell – on occasion they seem to have gone out of their way to avoid actually coming into contact with the bushrangers.

15th October 1863

This may seem somewhat far-fetched until one reads this detailed account of how the police went in pursuit of the bushrangers after they had the audacity to ride up and down the main street of Bathurst on a Saturday night in early October.

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17th October 1863

The thing about the Gilbert gang was the extraordinary arrogance of their activities. Surely they could have at least had the decency to rush away after a holdup rather than drift off without a care in the world?

The crowning glory in this came several days later when they held up the entire small settlement of Canowindra for three days, and levied a toll on people using the road!

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26th October 1863

But then it started to come unstuck thanks to the heroic resistance offered by Commissioner Knightley when his house was attacked on Sunday 25 October.

He mortally wounded gang member Bourke with a shotgun blast and was only just saved from immediate execution by the intervention of his wife. After a night of detainment and a ransom of £500 being paid, the bushrangers departed to bury their colleague.

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16th September 1863

The loss of one of the members seems to have taken some of the immediate sting out of the Gilbert gang and November saw them in a relatively quiet mood, accompanied by an increasingly aggressive police force who clearly had been shown up for resolve by Commissioner Keightley.

Suddenly also, the gang was now down from five to three. The death of Mick Burke clearly marked a turning point for John Vane who parted company with the gang and went to ground in the bush around Tuena.

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21st November 1863

But then it really went pear-shaped. Motivated by revenge on one of their active and outspoken community critics, the gang of three – Gilbert, O’Meally and Hall – attacked Davitt Campbell and his wife on their Goimbla property near Eugowra.

In the middle of a pitched gun battle the bushrangers set fire to the barn ignoring the agonies of a horse still in the building. Taking a moment out to view the building and silhoutted against the flames, Campbell took careful aim and fired a single shot. O’Meally fell never to rise again.

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23rd November 1863

Then – just a day later news broke that former gang member John Vane had given himself up. News of his surrender was then accompanied by his insider account of the affray that led to the death of Mick Burke.

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23rd December 1863

And then there were two – or at least for a while there were. Down to a tag team unit in early December, Gilbert and Hall continued to occupy themselves with robbery under arms at a much diminished scale.

Then in what was to prove their final affray before taking an extended summer break, they took to becoming highway toll collectors in the company of two new associates “supposed to be “Lynbane and Corcoran”.Thus armed with a Christmas bonus, the dynamic duo called it quits for 1863.

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