TODAY IN BUSHRANGING: June 18, 1862. Camped atop Mount Wheogo in the wild west of New South Wales, Frank Gardiner’s gang of bushrangers hide out after ambushing the gold escort coach at Eugowra Rocks three days before.

The gold and cash stolen added up to about $5 million in today’s money – to this day, the largest haul of any armed holdup in Australia. Alongside Gardiner, the eight-man gang included some of bushranging’s biggest names such as Ben Hall, John Gilbert and John O’Meally.

Eugowra Rocks, NSW, where bushrangers ambushed the Forbes Gold Escort in June 1862.

As they shared out the takings and relaxed on Mount Wheogo, sitting out some heavy rain, they had no idea Sergeant Sanderson of the Forbes police, guided by tracker Charley Edwards, was closing in fast.

The holdup went well enough for them but the getaway would soon prove problematic…

Today in bushranging (May 5, 1865): Ben Hall, surprised at first light by police in his bush camp 12 miles from Forbes, is shot dead while evading arrest. His death ended a three-year criminal career described in its day as a ‘reign of terror’.

So bad were his depredations, and so unstoppable did he seem, that the government eventually fixed on outlawing him so he could be shot on sight. However, he was killed just a few days before this could take effect.

The shooting – he was riddled by many bullets – is controversial to this day, with the police party’s actions still coming under scrutiny. There were conspiracy theories, even in the 1860s. Did they act illegally, as if he was already an outlaw? Was he given a chance to surrender? Why did they fire so many times? More on this soon (in book form, I intend).

Death Of Ben Hall (1894) by Patrick Maroney is a fairly accurate depiction, although the police were not in uniform (standard practice for bush patrol work back then).

Today in bushranging: on April 23, 1862, colourful colonial police chief Frederick Pottinger (below) astonished the western NSW goldfields town of Forbes with the very public arrest of Ben Hall at the local races. It was Hall’s first – but far from last – brush with the law.

Although popular and well-known locally as a grazier, Hall had a secret sideline in armed robbery, which now lay exposed. Nine days before, he was recognised while sticking up road travellers with Frank Gardiner, who was then Australia’s most notorious bushranger.

Hall (above) was refused bail and committed to trial. The case against him seemed watertight and it looked as if a bushranging career had been nipped in the bud. But this was the beginning of a life of crime, not the end – the beginning, in fact, of the most extensive outbreak of armed holdup in Australian history.

Today in 1865: Ben Hall’s last bushranging raid (horse-thefts excluded) – the home invasion of Charles Cropper’s Yamma station, eight miles outside the goldfields town of Forbes in western New South Wales.

Ben Hall (above) and his partners-in-crime John Gilbert and John Dunn had just been named in a controversial ‘Summons To Surrender’. They had until April 29 to turn themselves in or be declared outlaws, which meant they could be shot on sight. Their response? Business as usual, as you’d expect. But Yamma had little for them to steal. Charles Cropper wasn’t home, and they left early so heavily pregnant Mrs Cropper could send a maid for medical help. Before riding away, Gilbert carved their names on a stool, which now has pride of place in Forbes Historical Museum (below).

Three weeks later two of them were dead and Australia’s biggest-ever bushranging outbreak was over. Hopefully my book telling this epic and wild tale will soon be arresting readers’ attentions from Bunbury to Byron Bay some time soon!  

I thought I’d share some extra information I’ve recently chanced upon concerning one of the convict escapes featured in Tour To Hell – an ill-starred quest in 1828 by runaways in northern New South Wales to walk to their imagined Timor.

The most detailed source is an 1828 Sydney Gazette article containing the confession of William Sergison, one of the survivors. A second version emerged several years later when another survivor, John Budge, re-entered the news after he captured a bushranger. The evidence surrounding Budge’s story differs markedly from Sergison’s, claiming the runaways had resorted to cannibalism.

Until now I couldn’t trace the original source for Budge’s evidence, relying instead on a secondhand account in George Boxall’s The Story Of The Australian Bushrangers (1899). But Serendipity has struck and here it is, from the Sydney Herald, October 11th, 1841.

SCONE, OCTOBER 4
The upper gang of bushrangers have again been heard of; a letter received from the Peel yesterday, states they attacked Mr. M’Intyre’s dray (at Weary Creek, outside the boundaries), which they plundered of tea, clothing, &c , and destroyed a great deal; that during the robbery, the bullock driver watched his opportunity, and seized one of them, whom he managed to secure and disarm, but that while he did so the other mounted his horse and fired at the bullock driver, but missed him; that  the men belonging to the dray kept the captured robber and his horse in custody some time; but fearing that he who had escaped would bring others to the rescue of his fellow, thought it best to give up the horse again and let the fellow go, retaining his firearms in case they should be attacked. Be this as it may, they brought arms with them to the Peel, which they declared to have taken from the bushrangers.

A gentleman has this moment arrived who saw the bullock-driver (Budge) shortly after his affray with the bushrangers; he states that Budge was accompanied only by a little boy, that one bushranger stood sentry over him whilst the other ransacked the dray. Budge, watching his opportunity, knocked down the fellow who acted as sentry, and, seizing his pistol, presented it at the fellow in the dray, whom he made come down and stand beside the other; after keeping them thus for some time, without any one arriving to assist him in securing them, he was necessitated to let them go, but retained possession of their arms, consisting of two guns and four pistols, and one saddle, the property of Mr. Jolliffe, which he delivered up to the Commissioner.

It is perhaps worthy of remark that this man, Budge, has before figured as one in an adventure of a very different nature to the foregoing. Some of your readers may recollect some years since a party of men running away from Sedgenhoe, the estate of Potter Macqueen, Esq., with the avowed purpose of searching for Timour – one, it may be recollected, was eaten by his fellows, so reduced were they by want of food ; one was found starved to death; some were never heard of; and this man, Budge, who had left the others and turned back, was found some miles from where they had set out, but unable to move, and all but dead. “

While researching for Tour To Hell, I came across an obscure but interesting convict, Colin Hunter, who was charged with ‘bush ranging’ on 6 February 1802. This is the earliest reference to the term bushranging I’ve located, three years older than the most commonly cited first-known mention (‘bush-rangers’ in the Sydney Gazette, 17.2.1805). There is an earlier one claimed (an 1801 manuscript by James Elder which calls a gang of convict runaways ‘Bushrangers’), but I’ve yet to see the original and the source citing it didn’t check out.

Even so, Hunter’s court appearance may be the earliest usage of ‘bushranging’ as a criminal offence, although the sense was no more than being illegally at large. His punishment was 100 lashes.

The term ‘bushranger’ obviously originated in the colony’s early years to define white people who left the settlements to wander the bush. As most doing this were runaway convicts, the term had criminal associations from the outset, even though early on it was also sometimes used for anyone skilled in bushcraft.

Over time the definition narrowed to denote outback banditry, as runaways tended to support themselves by theft. The title ‘bushranger’ has since been retrospectively applied to outlaws such as the First Fleet runaway John ‘Black’ Caesar, whose career predates the word. Caesar is usually called our first bushranger, probably because he was the first runaway to carry a gun, but Colin Hunter may have a pedantic technical claim to the title thanks to the wording of his charge in 1802.

Sydney in 1802. By W.S. Blake. Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an6016088-v)

So who was Colin Hunter? Unusually, he came to Australia from Africa, as a soldier stationed at the Cape of Good Hope. The convict transport Royal Admiral, which arrived (via Cape Town) in November 1800, lists him in an addition to its indent as one of nine Cape soldiers ‘to be sent to New South Wales as convicts’.  His crime was noted simply as ‘felony’, his sentence unrecorded.

However, a later amendment to this list reveals that three of these soldiers (John Smith, Thomas Rice and William Conway) ‘did duty on board HM Ship Porpoise’, which reached Sydney a couple of weeks before the Royal Admiral. In other words, instead of joining the Royal Admiral at Cape Town as convicts they were put to work as soldiers on the HMS Porpoise. Hunter was probably recalled to this military duty too – the 1806 Colonial Muster has him as ‘Coll Hunter, Cape soldier’ who ‘came free’ on the Porpoise, employed by John Bishop.

Hunter’s status in the colony – flogged as a bushranging runaway in 1802 yet listed as a free arrival in 1806 – is rather enigmatic. Then, in July 1808, the Sydney Gazette describes him as a ‘servant of the Crown’ (that is, a convict) who has absconded from the Hawkesbury farm of Thomas Rickerby. The notice cautions against ‘harbouring or employing him on pain of prosecution’.

Curiouser and curiouser: just over a year later he’s back in the Gazette, now one of 14 men due to depart the colony in the vessel Endeavour. However, it appears he didn’t go. While we can’t rule out journalistic error (i.e. the listing was wrong) or identity theft (more than one man used the name), it seems Hunter was either denied permission to leave, or changed his mind. Had his Cape sentence expired by 1809? Did his unconventional secondment to the Porpoise give him an opportunity to pass himself off as a free man?

However, there’s no doubt that Hunter got into serious trouble over the next three years. By 1812-13 he was up at Newcastle, a penal outpost for colonial re-offenders. Paperwork for this transfer also notes him as a Porpoise arrival. He had escaped Newcastle by March 1813, and three years later was known to be bushranging with a man named George Fuller.

Newcastle penal outpost in 1812, when Colin Hunter was sent there

In September 1816 this pair recruited two convict farm servants to raid the property of John Miller at Canterbury (now a suburb in Sydney’s inner-west). On the evening of September 30th, Miller was relaxing by his fireside with his wife and four children. Four strangers – two armed – suddenly burst through the farmhouse door. Miller rose to his feet in alarm and was immediately shot dead by one of the intruders. Ignoring the terrified screams of Mrs Miller, the bushrangers threatened her life and proceeded to pillage the house.

At first Hunter blamed his accomplice Thomas Dooley for the shooting, but the others soon found that Hunter’s fowling piece had been fired. Later in court Hunter claimed his gun went off by accident. This may have been true, but it didn’t stop the plundering – even the children’s clothes were stolen.

With a free pardon and fifty pounds offered for the bushrangers, it wasn’t long before they were rounded up. Colin Hunter, Thomas Dooley and Michael Ryan were hanged in Sydney for murder and robbery on November 4th, 1816. Fuller saved himself by turning informer. The hanged men were suspended for an hour before their bodies went to the surgeon for dissection, standard legal procedure if the judge did not order gibbeting after execution.

So ended a colourful, unusual and distinctly inglorious colonial career. First bushranger or not, he was possibly the only one ever named Colin, a very rare name in colonial times.