The issue of law and order on the goldfields was centre-stage in the public mindset in the wake of the riots at Lambing Flat in 1861. Part of the problem of getting a quick and efficient response to the affray was the fact that law and order operatives were scattered across a variety of disparate police units and not part of a single organisation.

Moves to remedy this saw a single agency – the NSW Police Force – commence operations on 1 March 1862 and the immediate challenges they faced in rural NSW were huge. Bushranging – always a latent problem – was totally out of control, in the wake of a massive influx of people onto the diggings around south western NSW.

Adding to this potent mix was the discovery of new fields of astonishing richness on the Lachlan at Forbes. With vast amounts of gold now being shipped across the mountains to Sydney, all the bases were loaded by the middle of the year.

Left: Police escorting prisoners for trial S.T.G. Gill Reproduced courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW Call no:SV* / SpColl / Gill / 3 Digital order:a928946

The new Lachlan fields that exploded onto the golden landscapes of the central west at the start of the year really were something else altogether.

Yes - sure, Lambing Flat and Kiandra were huge too - so what's the real deal about just another rich field in the mix?

Well the answer here was deep lead mining. Not just a small shaft sunk down to mine ancient river beds close to the surface as was common across all the diggings, but rather seriously deep shafts to mine seriously thick and abundant ancient river gravels.

These ventures rivalled reef mining in terms of the work needed to undertake mining a depths of several hundred feet below the surface and they were definitely not the place for the small scale 'workin man' with a pound in his pocket and a gleam in his eyes.

Mining syndicates - informal companies where both miners and outside investors pooled their resources - were needed on this ground. As a result, the name of the Lachlan diggings was bandied around a bit in late 1861 before it was ready to deliver at the start of the new year.

3rd January 1862

“This lead is, without doubt, the richest yet discovered in New South Wales, and it is only a matter of time to prove how far it may rival the rich finds of Victoria.”

With a calling card such as this – the Lachlan field looked forward to the new year.

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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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3 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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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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So - was anyone actually doing any mining while all this drama played out across the landscapes of Forbes, the Weddin Mountains and down to Gundagai?

Apparently so - it's just that news of these more routine matters tended to get tucked down the back of the goldfields reports whilst ever the drama around the chase for the robbers was ongoing.

26th November 1862

An additional factor that tended to dampen interest in the news from the fields at that time was the significant drought conditions that meant very little of the gold bearing gravels mined could actually be washed up.

These auriferous stockpiles hence sat idly by waiting for a change in the weather to be able to process them. Fortunately August finally brought some rain!

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16th September 1862

And of course – what would a new spring season collection be without a few new goldfields to report. In this case new discoveries around Wellington and Gundagai helped put these locales on the gold bearing maps.

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21st November 1862

Sadly however, the rains back in August were not the drought breaking event everyone had hoped for. With water soon once again in crucial supply, the goldfields relapsed into a state of semi torpor with all eyes focussed on the blue skies for a break in the weather.

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