Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert and 1864-65

Thank goodness for the Christmas / New Year break is what everyone must have been thinking at the start of 1864. One of the features of life on the goldfields from the outset was the way in which religious observances were strictly adhered to – at least so far as the holidays went.

Sunday was indeed a day of rest, a day to down tools and catch up with community events. Christmas also was a time to pack off home for a break and a sojourn with family and distant friends.

Hence as Johnny Gilbert and Ben Hall headed home to their summer campcaves in the Weddin Mountains and occasional fireside refuge at a supportive settlers cottage, everyone had time to draw breath at last.

In this quieter vein, the new year began very slowly on the bushranging front, with the big news coming from interstate in March with the story that Frank Gardiner had been arrested in northern Queensland.

21st April 1864

Prior to his capture, the last reported sighting of bushranger Frank Gardiner had been back in May the previous year when he held up a store at Canowindra in the company of Gilbert and O’Meally.

Gardiner’s disappearance had proven a problem for anyone in the region who happened to resemble him as look-alikes found themselves in the lock up till their identity could be proven.

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3rd June 1864

With the arrest of Frank Gardiner ever more questions began to be asked about the whereabouts of Johnny Gilbert and Ben Hall. Apart from a few desultory robberies that could have been the work of any part time criminal, little of any note had been heard of them since the mayhem of the previous year.

Then when they did return, their bad run of luck from the close of 1863 proved to be still with them, as they tried to rob two off duty constables who were game for a fight and they left empty handed.

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Then however, the weather took a major turn for the worse as the drought gave way to the flooding rains that inevitably follow.

With rivers impassable and creeks troublesome the police charge sheets showed that little was heard from Hall and Gilbert over winter and early spring.

Jun 13: Robbed Mr. D. C. Clement’s house, near Billibong, of firearms and other property.

Jun 22: Robbed Mr. Pearce’s Store, at Canowindra, and burnt his account books.

July 13: Robbed Mr. J. Grant’s station, at Belubula River, and stole a horse.

Aug l8: Stole three horses, three saddles, and bridle, the property of Mr. W. Gibson, of Wheogo; also fired upon four police constables.

22nd September 1864

Come late September, the lack of bushranger activity over the previous months led at least one correspondent to question whether or not the numerous raids that had previously gone astray had led the gang to go into retirement.

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5th October 1864

This hope however was overly optimistic as a small group headed by Ben Hall commenced a series of highway robberies in early October. At this time Johnny Gilbert was not with them and their activities were fairly small scale. At one robbery Hall asked after details of the gold escort saying “We are not strong enough to have a go at them, but will shortly.”

Hall also showed those in the mail coach some slight wounds in his shoulder received from a police encounter several weeks previously.

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25th October 1864

Then, come the end of the month, the old firm of Hall and Gilbert were back in action.

Gilbert had returned, Gardiner ( “The Old Man”) who had featured in recent robberies alongside Hall had been captured and the numbers were made up by a new recruit in the form of Johnny Dunn.

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Hence it was that mid spring once again brought with it an onslaught from the bushrangers on the populace of southern NSW.

This time however, rather than homesteads and shops being the focus of activity, it was the highways themselves that would be the battleground.

This ushered in a truly remarkable three month period when the bushrangers and the police fought for control of the main southern road leading between Sydney and Melbourne as it ran through towns like Goulburn, Yass, Jugiong and Gundagai.

While the bushrangers largely won this battle at the time, it was a tragic miscalculation at one of the first in the series of robberies in mid November that would immediately result in the death of Sergeant Parry and set in train a sequence of events that would lead to the deaths of Hall and Gilbert in May the following year.

17th November 1864

The death of Sgt Parry occurred when Johnny Gilbert shot him as he heroically fought against the bushrangers during a hold up of the mail coach he was guarding just outside of Jugiong.

In the wake of this offence, Hall, Gilbert and Dunn were convicted in absentia of murder, and this would subsequently underpin their declaration as outlaws the following year.

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Whilst Gilbert later expressed his regret at shooting Sgt Parry to some of the people the bushrangers detained in their highway holdups, the die was well and truly cast in the wake of this action resulting in the death of a policeman.

From thereon there was no summer break for the trio of Hall, Gilbert and Dunn as they prowled the highways of the south over the next three months. The charge sheets from this time read as follows:

Nov 19: Stole three horses from the Boloro Station.

Dec 10: Stole some property from Mr. M’Laughlin, of Young.

Dec 27: Robbed and burned Mr. Morris’ stores, at Binda.

Dec 30: Robbed Mr Davidson’s house, at Murrumburrah Plains. 1865

Jan 19: Robbed a store at Wheogo.

Jan 24: Robbed John Ross, on the Yass Road.

Jan 26: Robbed a public house near Collector; when Constable Nelson was mortally wounded by Dunn.

Feb 1: Robbed the Braidwood mail, twelve miles from Goulburn.

Feb l8: Stole three horses at Molonglo.

Feb 23: Had an encounter with the Goulburn police at Mutbilly, when Constable Wiles was wounded.

Mar 4: Robbed the Goulburn and Gundaroo mail, near Geary’s Gap.

Mar 13: Robbed the Araluen Escort, when two constables were wounded [and Gilbert was shot in the arm]; stole two horses.

Meanwhile events were transpiring in the NSW Parliament that would usher in the end game in the long running battle of NSW vs Hall & Gilbert.

By the time the Felons Apprehension Bill was passed in Autumn 1865, the bushrangers were already in serious disarray. Their attempts to rob the mail at Araluen had left Gilbert wounded and months of life on the road were inevitably taking their toll.

17th March 1864

Once the new legislation was due to come into effect the gang members would be called upon to surrender. If they failed to do this they would be declared literally outside the law and any member of the community could shoot to kill if needed to apprehend them.

Additionally, anyone offering them shelter or assistance would become an accessory to the murder of Sgt Parry – a hanging offence.

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19th April 1865

As the act came into force, the gang were then called upon to surrender.

While the new legislation was never actually used in the final separate ambushes that killed Hall and Gilbert, it had an immediate impact through imposing drastic consequences for anyone supporting the bushrangers.

This may well have prompted the informers into action to get their hands on the £500 rewards on offer before someone else did.

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13th May 1865

Ben Hall was the first to be killed in a police ambush at dawn on 5 May.

Significantly some explanation was made later that this action was undertaken in full accordance with the existing law and was not reliant on the new Felons Apprehension Act which was still in the juducial process of actually declaring Hall an outlaw.

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15th May 1865

Just over a week later on 13 May, Johnny Gilbert was also killed in a police ambush. Johnny Dunn fighting alongside him escaped but was later captured and hanged in March the following year.

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20th May 1865

It is significant, that of the two deaths, it was that of Hall that most affected the emotions and curiosity of the populace.

A postscript to Hall’s life looks at why this may have been the case. This in turn helps understand why Hall has since gone on to become a bushranging icon in the popular mind, while the legacy of his partner in crime – Johnny Gilbert – is to be largely remembered for the brutal criminal he was.

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