The Escort Rock robbery story

On June 15th 1862 the gold escort from Forbes carrying a driver, the police escort of four and a large amount of gold, cash and other mail approached Escort Rock.

Frank Gardiner’s gang of bushrangers – Ben Hall among them – lay in wait behind large granite boulders after they had blocked the road with commandeered bullock wagons. This forced the coach to slow, as it passed between a gully a the rocky outcrop.

The gang fired on the coach as it passed, wounding two of the police. The frightened horses bolted and the coach overturned. The bushrangers ransacked the coach and made off with 2,719 ounces of gold and £3,700 in cash, packed on one of the coach horses (a multi-million dollar haul by today’s values).

Meanwhile, the coach driver John Fagan and the police made their way to nearby Eugowra homestead. The owner, Hanbury Clements, hurried to Forbes to alert the authorities.

A detachment of police and an Aboriginal tracker set off next morning and surprised the bushrangers at their Wheogo Hill hideout. After a long chase, Gardiner released an exhausted packhorse to avoid capture and a considerable amount of gold was recovered. More gold and notes were recovered when police apprehended gang member Harry Manns some time later, west of Forbes. The remainder of the haul has never been accounted for.

Eventually all the bushrangers were either arrested or killed. Hall, Gilbert and O’Meally were shot, Manns was hanged and the rest were gaoled for varying terms. Charters became a crown witness and was pardoned. After 10 years in gaol and because of a change in public opinion, Gardiner was released and exiled. He died in San Francisco in 1904.

Some contemporary newspaper accounts tracing out this story as it unfolded are included below.

3rd January 1862

The story of the Escort Rock gold robbery really begins in early 1862 with the opening up of the new spectacularly rich Lachlan goldfield and the establishment of the township of Forbes.

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18th March 1862

From the outset, the Lachlan let its gold do the talking. As this report notes, 11,510 oz were forwarded to Sydney last week, with an additional 5,000 oz being left behind as the boxes were not big enough to hold all the gold.

Hmm … a bit risky wasn’t it – broadcasting this sort of thing about in a landscape crawling with robbers and brigands. But then this was a gold escort – robbing travellers was one thing – but the gold escort – well you’d be mad surely?

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25th March 1862

Certainly there didn’t seem to be any concern over publicising the riches being carried under escort. Next week in the paper it was much the same story – only this time accompanied by a tale of how the bushranger Frank Gardiner was active again in the region.

Then next week – same story, buckets of gold and buckets of cash – all en route to Sydney.

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9th April 1862

So where was all this gold actually coming from? An authorative account from early April describes the operations of the field and the new township [Forbes] that sprang up overnight to service it.

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Amdist all this frenzy of activity on the goldfields the perils of the roads were much remarked upon in all accounts from the diggings.

What then did the government propose to do about this state of affairs? Well part of its response was to create a single law enforcement agency – the NSW Police Service – out of the separate law enforcement agencies.

After much debate through parliament in late 1861, the new legislation took effect in March 1862.

As far as the goldfields were concerned this meant the old mounted police with their semi-military style organisation was replaced by a police model based on the Irish system also then partly in place in Victoria.

This change was not entirely free from criticism though it wasn’t until several months after the act was introduced that it got a major public airing.

As one commentator wrote “The operation of the New Police Act has been such that few persons of any class in Gardiner’s [the bushranger] dominions — now extending from a little beyond Bathurst to the Victorian border — willingly afford help, succour, or information to the military gentlemen scouring the country.

31st July 1862

Foremost amongst the criticisms were that “Instead of clothing their persons in a suitable and serviceable bush dress, Mr. Cowper made the mistake of equipping them as semi-military dandies, and attempted to disguise them as gentlemen. This not only made them objects of ridicule but rendered them utterly useless as police, for owing to their clothing and trappings, they could be seen and heard a mile off”.

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3rd March 1862

Of significance with the passage of the new legislation was the appointment of the new superintendents for the yet to be finalised police districts. These names crop up regularly in newspaper accounts of events.

Henry Zouch who was in charge of Lambing Flat at the time of the much derided police retreat in the face of mob violence got Goulburn while Edward Battye was appointed to Lambing Flat. Meanwhile Lachlan was attended to by Sir Frederick Pottinger no less.

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26th March 1862

Pottinger is a central figure in the story of bushranging on the Lachlan. Always a colourful character, he attracted immediate unwanted media attention for the new Police Force when just weeks after its establishment he was convicted of an assault and was publicly reprimanded

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1st May 1862

Perhaps a desire to get some better media coverage spurred him strongly into action as a wave of police arrests of bushranging suspects followed throughout April.

One of these arrests for highway robbery was of a settler by the name of Ben Hall. Hall was accused of robbery carried out in association with Frank Gardiner but was later aquitted due to lack of evidence.

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29th April 1862

While Hall was yet to become a “big name” catch for Pottinger, it did at least place in in the dock an alleged member of the Gardiner gang.

Gardiner cultivated his popular image carefully, even buying in to the pending trial of Ben Hall with a letter to a local paper describing his gentlemanly exploits in relation to sparing the “hapless” police. Certainly he issues very direct challenges to Pottinger leaving no doubt as to the fact that this was getting personal.

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With this background, the stage is set to understand the full significance of what came next on the Lachlan that winter.

The spectacular hold up of the gold escort by the Gardiner gang was an act of bravado and unprecedented daring. This was as much a public display of Gardiner’s ability to humiliate the offical forces as it was of getting hold of a very large sum of money indeed.

21st May 1862

But first up – how were things going on the Lachlan diggings at Forbes? Were the rivers of gold still flowing?

Well yes they were, only there were also quite a few local variables that affected just how much gold went on a week by week basis.

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20th May 1862

Just as well then that the papers were so helpful in publishing up to the minute accounts of exactly how much gold was on the escort before it left town.

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21st June 1862

“17 June 1862 LACHLAN. Sunday, 11 a.m. The Escort takes 2719 ounces of gold, and £3700 cash.”

Yep – that’ll just about do it reckoned Gardiner Bushrangers Inc. The raid was on for Escort Rocks 45 miles out from Orange – look for some action around 4pm.

All up 4 police – not mounted, but rather crowded into the carriage – were on hand to protect in today’s terms around $4m worth of gold and $750,000 in cash. Should work OK.

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The robbery that afternoon was a violent one that left three of the four policemen wounded. Somewhat bizarrely the one policemen that escaped injury in the attack died several hours later when a pistol discharged and fatally wounded him.

The coroner’s report into the death of Constable Havilland – the first officer in the new Police Service to be killed on duty – reported it was not known if the bullet was fired either by intent or accident.

In the wake of the attack at first light the following morning “Sir F. Pottinger, with eleven troopers, twenty settlers, and two trackers, got on the track of the bushrangers. About three miles from the coach they found, near a campfire, the gold-boxes which had been opened.” – and indeed – not just opened but emptied also.

Several days later the residents of Forbes learnt that “two troopers belonging to Sir Frederick Pottinger’s party had returned to Forbes to obtain fresh horses, theirs being knocked up. These men report that they had tracked the bushrangers to within a short distance of Finn’s public-house, on the Lachlan, and within ten miles of Forbes. The rain had, however, set in, and destroyed the tracks. The black trackers could only discover the tracks of six horsemen.”

24th June 1862

The pressure on the Government over its failure to avert the disasterous gold escort robbery was immediate with the community leaders of Forbes assembling to call for action.

At issue was not just catching the robbers, but rather investing sufficient resources to both protect precious cargoes like the gold escort and also to maintain social order.

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22nd July 1862

Also no doubt feeling the pressure was Sir Frederick Pottinger – relentlessly on the chase after the robbers.

Fortunately after a month of pursuit – a breakthrough and recovery of some of the gold – the story of which is best told via the newspaper report of the time …

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Hence within a month of the robbery, two thirds of the gold and a fair bit of the money were recovered along with the apprehension of one of the gang - not a bad effort on the part of Sir Frederick Pottinger and his colleagues you'd have to admit.

Unfortunately Pottinger’s brief run of good luck did not hold and his hasty actions at an ambush site set up to catch Frank Gardiner unawares at the house of his mistress near the Weddin Mountains was bungled and Gardiner escaped.

26th November 1862

News of the botched attempt to catch Gardiner was at least able to lead off with some welcome advice that one of the robbers who had previously been rescued from the police had been recaptured in Yass.

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17th September 1862

Hence – even without Gardiner in hand – the great robbery wrap up was able to continue. Aided by two of the four robbers in custody “peaching” a long list of those wanted in relation to the robbery was being circulated.

Significantly it identifies Johnny Gilbert as the bold robber who escaped from police custody and then returned to rescue his two mates. Interesting also is the fact that Ben Hall is not included in the list – but he was definitely there all right.

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