In the years following the 1850s gold rush a new breed of entrepreneur, the Australian bush ranger, took center stage. And even though they held up gold and mail coaches, killed travellers, and in some instances took entire town’s hostage many have been described favourably by historians. Why?
Well perhaps the main reason was that while they perpetrated acts of extreme violence, this was often directed at figures of authority, and they often tempered their with a generosity of spirit around some of the communities in which they lived.
Ben Hall was one of those widely seen to be sympathetic to the plight of the ordinary person and whose violence was directed mainly at the police, to whom he bore a specific grudge. Ben was born in Maitland, New South Wales, and in 1856 married Bridget Walsh. The bush ranger Frank Gardiner’s mistress was Bridget’s sister and it was perhaps this connection that influenced his decision to become a bush ranger for by 1862 he first comes to the attention of the law. It was also around this time his wife left him, taking with her their infant son.
By 1863 he and John Gilbert were running their own group of outlaws, which included John O’Malley and John Vane. They conducted a series of raids at Bathurst, Canowindra, Dunn’s Plains, Goulburn between 1863 and 1864 and using stolen racehorses were able outpace the police mounts. The 1863 notice above relates to this early period of their career and the large sum of 1000 pounds reward on each of their heads gives us a good idea of their notoriety in the eyes of the law.
By late 1864 John Dunn had also joined the group and on 17 November while robbing a mail coach, near Jugiong, twenty-five miles beyond Yass, Gilbert shot dead Constable Parry. The event was described in some detail in the Sydney Morning Herald.
… The Gundagai mail was stuck up yesterday by Hall, Gilbert, and Dunn. The mail coach was under the escort of sub-inspector O’Neill and sergeant Parry, who saw the bushrangers on the top of a hill near Black Springs, between Jugiong and Gundagai. The police approached the bushrangers, who retreated, then suddenly turned round and fired on the police. Shots were exchanged until Parry had discharged his last barrel, when Gilbert called upon him to surrender. Parry said he would die first, when Gilbert shot him dead, the ball entering his right and passing out of his left side. Sub-inspector O’Neill, after firing all his ammunition, struck Hall with his empty weapon.
A constable named Roche, who was armed, and in the coach, bolted; it is said, in a most cowardly manner. The bushrangers had a number of teamsters and others bailed up, and those who had the opportunity of witnessing the affray, say that O’Neill and Parry acted most courageously; and the bushrangers, who were literally belted with revolvers, fought desperately, and eventually took every valuable enclosure from the mail-bags. The remains of the unfortunate police officer are being taken to Jugiong …
In December 1865 Ben Hall and his gang holed up in the town of Binda, near Cookwell. Here he and his gang drank with the locals at the hotel and with the assistance of two women, Ellen Monks and Christina Mackinnon, set fire to the property of a local policeman Edward Morris. According to his testimony
… I, my wife, the two prisoners, [Ellen Monks and Christina Mackinnon] and a neighbour named Hadfield were marched by the bushrangers towards Hall’s public house. They drove us in and bailed up tho place. There wore about a hundred persons in the, house – men, women, and children. The bushrangers said they did not wish to harm anyone, and told a fiddler who was there, to proceed, and the dancing went on. About two o’clock in the morning I could see that they had been drinking freely, and I thought it would be possible to take them, and proposed to one or two persons to rush them. Soon after this Gilbert followed me down the room, pointing his revolver at me. Ho called me a dog. Hall came from the two prisoners, and asked what was the matter, and in the confusion I made my escape by jumping through the window …
Just a month later, in January 1865, while holding up the Gundagai-Yass mail at Collector, Dunn killed Constable Nelson. On 29 April James Henry Davidson the sub-inspector of police, stationed at Forbes left the police camp with five men and two trackers in pursuit of Hall and his gang. According to Forbes they came across Hall on the 5 May and
… I identified the man as Ben Hall. I several times called on him to stand. After running about 100 yards, I got within 40yards of Hall, and fired at him. I shot with a double-barrelled gun. Hall, after my firing, jumped a little, and looked back, and from his movements I have reason to believe that I hit him. Sergeant Connell, and Dargan (the tracker) fired immediately afterwards. They were running a little to the left of me, and not far away. From the manner of Hall I have reason to believe that Condell and Dargan’s shots took effect. From that time he ran more slowly towards a few saplings. The police who were stationed beyond him immediately ran towards him, and fired. I noticed trooper Hipkiss firing at Hall with a rifle, and immediately afterwards the belt holding his revolver fell off him. At this time tie held himself up by a sapling; and upon receiving Hipkiss’s fire he gradually fell backwards. Several other shots were fired afterwards. There were about 30 shots fired in all. Hall then cried out, ‘I am wounded; shoot me dead.’ I then went up to the body, and noticed that life was extinct. I also observed that the bullet fired by Hipkiss passed through his body. I searched the body. There were £74 in notes in two chamois leather bags, one in his trousers pocket, the other in his coat breast pocket, three gold chains and a gold watch, a portrait of a female, three revolvers, and a number of bullets in his pockets, and a gold ring keeper on his finger. Along with his saddle was a quantity of wearing apparel. There were also two single blankets. I knew the body to be that of Ben Hall. His clothing I observed to be perforated with bullets. We caught the horses, and fixed the body of deceased on the saddle, and in this manner brought him to Forbes …
This description is interesting because when the object above was donated to the Museum in 1958 the owner Mr W Davis thought it was the very same holster Forbes describes falling from the body of Ben Hall.
Geoff Barker, Curatorial, TAM Project
Gundagai, The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 November, 1864, p.5
Telegraphic Message, from our Correspondents in Goulburn, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November, 1864, p.4
Hall, Ben (1837–1865), by Edgar F. Penzig, Australian Dictionary of Biography, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hall-ben-1507
Ben Hall, Inquest, South Australian Weekly Chronicle, 20 May, 1865, p.45