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Ben Hall and the outlawed bushrangers

Unknown artist, Ben Hall, the bushranger, c. 1860s.

Unknown artist, Ben Hall, the bushranger, c. 1860s. Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: 195452.

The exploits, capture and death of Brave Ben Hall in the 1860s are part of Australian folklore, as well as marking a historical shift in the treatment of bushrangers. Hall's exploits and the apparent inefficiencies of the New South Wales (NSW) colonial police resulted in the passing of a law which allowed outlawed bushrangers to be shot, rather than arrested and sent to trial.

The bushrangers of the 1860s and the 1870s were nearly all Australian-born, known to have exceptional horse skills and local knowledge of the country. While the earlier bushrangers were nearly all escaping the convict penal system, the generation of bushrangers from 1860 to 1880 was said to be encouraged by disputes between rich squatters and poor selectors. These differences were said to be supported by corrupt police and magistrates, following free selection of Crown land in 1861.

The introduction of the electric telegraph in the 1860s and the launch of Australian illustrated papers in the 1880s made bushrangers a popular topic in the English and Australian papers of the day. The public loved the saga leading to the death of Ben Hall in 1865 (illustrated in the Australian News for Home Readers) and that of the Kelly Gang, 'sons of old Ireland', in the 1870s. These and other bushranger sagas had all the associated ingredients: betrayal, hold-ups, police corruption, chivalry, assault and violence.

'Brave' Ben Hall 1865

Ben Hall was born at Breza on the Liverpool Plains in north-central New South Wales in 1837, the son of two convict transportees to Van Dieman's Land, his mother chosen by his father whilst she was at the Female Convict Factory at Parramatta. Hall's father had become a freeholder and a successful farmer, working as an overseer on a property in the Lachlan district. Ben Hall spent his youth working with horses and cattle, developing expertise and great skills. He took a lease on a property in Sandy Creek, adjacent to Wheogo station, with his wife Bridget Walsh.

Unknown photographer, Wheogo homestead in the 1900s.

Unknown photographer, Wheogo homestead in the 1900s. Image courtesy of the Eugowra Promotion and Progress Association Inc.

Ben Hall was said to have taken up bushranging at the age of 22, in 1861, after two wrongful arrests and 'to meet the man who ruined his happiness' when his wife ran away with a former policeman. After a wrongful arrest, on suspicion of being an accomplice of bushranger Frank Gardiner, he spent four or five weeks in the lockup until he was released due to lack of evidence. A second arrest when he was mustering his horses also foundered due to lack of evidence.

When Hall returned to Wheogo, after the second wrongful arrest, he was devastated to find that his house had been burned down and his stock lay dead, perished in the yards for lack of water - the sliprails had not been dropped by the arresting officers. This shocked the other settlers who remained sympathetic.

Not long after that, Hall joined up with Frank Gardiner and his gang who robbed from Yass to the Wedden Ranges. As Australian-born men, they had excellent knowledge of the country and were known as great horse riders.

'That settles it... There's no getting out of this. May as well have the game as the blame.'
(Ben Hall while under pursuit for Daly's Thefts.)

Oswald Campbell,

Oswald Campbell, Hall, Gilbert, and Dunn sticking up the Mail at the Black Springs, 1865, wood engraving. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: IMP25/01/65/9.

Ben Hall took over as leader of the gang after a robbery at Eugowra, when Frank Gardiner absconded to a new life in the north. Over a few short years, he committed over 600 robberies but he never killed anyone, and this contributed to his image as a popular folk hero. In 1863 the whole gang bailed up the entire town of Canowindra, shepherding everybody into Robinson's Hotel and instructed them to eat or drink all they wished - at the gang's expense. The 'party' lasted for three days until the 14 dray drivers warned Hall that the river was rising and that they needed to leave before they were stranded.

There were plenty of sympathisers who offered them safe hiding places and who in turn were often rewarded with a share of the goods. Ben Hall was also seen as a 'Robin Hood' figure, stealing from the rich and redistributing the booty to his supports, family and friends.

The original arresting officer, Sir Frederick Pottinger, a baronet, was said by Hall, in a statement to Inspector Morton, to be threatening and bullying him because he could not catch the bushranger Gardiner. In 1864, the Melbourne Punch lampooned the police as fashionable and working country women - scrubbing and cleaning 'scouring the country after Bushrangers'. In 1865 Pottinger was recalled to Sydney, having neglected his duty when he rode in the races at Wowingragong and failed to notice Hall's gang there on the course. While Pottinger resigned his commission, his actions were described with the dubious term of 'even Blind Freddy couldn't see it'.

Felons Apprehension Act 1865 (NSW)

The activities of Ben Hall's gang and the inefficiencies of the police were discussed almost daily in the NSW Parliament. As a result, the government rushed through the Felons Apprehension Act 1865 (NSW). The Act enabled the gang to be outlawed and made it possible for anyone to shoot them, rather than arrest them and go to trial. People named in the summons were expected to give themselves up. Anyone found to be harbouring or assisting the bushrangers were also considered to be felons.

The death of Ben Hall

Unknown artist, Capture and death of Ben Hall, the bushranger, 1865.

Unknown artist, Capture and death of Ben Hall, the bushranger, 1865, print: wood engraving. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: IAN25/05/65/1.

Ben Hall's hiding place was betrayed to police by an accomplice who was safeguarding Hall's escape money. Troopers arrived at Ben Hall's camp before dawn, but waited until sunrise until they could identify him. When the plain clothes but armed men emerged from the bush, Hall ran in the opposite direction before being shot in the shoulder and back.

Hall called out to this friend Billy Dargin, an Aboriginal tracker who was close by (trying to take him alive), 'I am dying! I am dying! Shoot me dead', Hall having previously vowed 'They'll never hang Ben Hall'. The other troopers opened fire after he hit the ground. The police report stated that 30 bullets were found in his body.

The bushranger ballad The Streets of Forbes records the life and death of Ben Hall, believed to have been devised by his brother-in-law after he saw Ben's body paraded through Forbes.

Dargin he was chosen to shoot the outlaw dead;
The troopers then fired madly; filled him full of lead.
They rolled him in a blanket, and strapped him to his prad,
And led him through the streets of Forbes to show
The prize they had.
The Streets of Forbes, John McGuire (attrib.), 1865

John Gilbert and John Dunn, the two remaining outlaws from Hall's gang, were captured by police. Gilbert was shot by police in May 1865 and his body exhibited at Binalong Police Station for three days. Dunn was captured on Christmas Eve 1865 and taken to stand trail for his earlier shooting of Constable Nelson at Collector. Dunn was executed in March 1866 stating, in a letter to his father, that he was 'in very tolerant spirits'.

Other notorious bushrangers

The Clarke brothers

When the Clarke brothers, Thomas and John, were sentenced in 1867, the Chief Justice described the bushrangers as 'the scum of the earth, the lowest of the low, the most wicked of the wicked [and yet] are occasionally held up for our admiration....It is the old leaven of convictism not yet worked out'. The Clarkes' territory ranged from Yass to Goulburn and over to Braidwood, and their crimes included thieving horses, nine robberies in two months, and feloniously wounding a black tracker. In 1866, under the Felon's Apprehension Act 1865 (NSW) the Clarke brothers were declared outlaws for reasons of 'robbery, violence and murder'. In 1867, four 'special' constables sent to capture the bushrangers were found shot dead near Jinden Station. Although charges were never laid for the shootings, shortly afterwards, the reward for the Clarke brothers' capture stood at 5000, second only to the Kelly brothers. Both were hanged at Darlinghurst Goal in 1867.

Captain Thunderbolt and Yellilong

Constable Walker, Capture of Thunderbolt, near Uralla, 1870.

Constable Walker, Capture of Thunderbolt, near Uralla, 1870, lithograph published in the Illustrated Sydney News. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an8420644.

Frederick Ward (alias Captain Thunderbolt) gained his reputation because of his skill in the saddle - he rode a horse 'like a bloody thunderbolt' - and for his practice of horse stealing. In 1856 he stole 75 horses, and after four years' imprisonment on Cockatoo Island he broke his parole and stole another two horses. In 1860, after another three years was added to his sentence, Ward escaped and then re-appeared as Captain Thunderbolt in the New England areas - attacking mail coaches and hotels. Ward once travelled over 200 miles to steal a prize horse; he stole many of the finest racehorses in New England.

Ward was accompanied by his companion, an Aboriginal women Yellilong, also known as Mary-Ann Bugg, an accomplished horse-woman with great bush skills, who traversed the country hunting for food, caring for Ward and gathering information about the whereabouts of the police. At times she travelled with her children, who were occasionally entrusted for care with Ward's friends. When Yellilong was dying of pneumonia in 1868, Ward ensured that she was cared for at a Musseullbrook station by Mrs Bradford. Yellilong's children were then adopted by sympathetic farmers in the district.

Ward claimed that he never shot anyone; when his body was recovered from the Rocky River, after being shot by a policy officer in 1870, his revolver was not even loaded.

Fred Lowry

Other notorious bushrangers in NSW included Fred Lowry and his gang, John Foley and Larry Cummins who held up the Mudgee Mail as it laboured up the Blue Mountains carrying 5700 in old banknotes and depicted as a colour lithograph in the Illustrated Sydney News, June 1874. When Cummins and Foley were arrested the bank eventually regained about 2000. The rest of the cash was recirculated around the Goulburn district as Lowry's 'legal' tender. Lowry was shot by a police officer from Goulburn, uttering 'Tell 'em I died game'.

Outlaws - 'like a dog shot down'

T Cappington, Ned Kelly at bay, 1880.

T Cappington, Ned Kelly at bay, 1880, postcard: B&W. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: H23556.

The shoot-out at Glenrowan, Victoria occurred six years later between the Kelly Gang and the police, where three members of the Kelly Gang were killed. This event was later represented by Ned Kelly's suit of armour. Ned Kelly wore a crude suit of steel armour fashioned by a local blacksmith from pieces of a plough. As Ned Kelly walked towards the hotel out of the bush, wearing the armour underneath a grey coat, stopping to fire a revolver;

shot after shot was fired at it, but without effect...the blows ringing out with the clearness and distinctness of a bell in the morning air ... [when] a man in a small round tweed hat stealing upon the left of the figure ... about thirty paces of it firing two shots in quick succession....The figure staggered and reeled .... Ned Kelly himself.
(The Australasian Sketcher)

Ned had been shot twice in the legs by Victoria Police Sergeant Steele and was saved from immediate execution by Constable Bracken who warned Steele 'shoot him now and I shoot you'.

Ned Kelly's armour remains a potent symbol for many Australians of the defence by an idealist Irish rebel against the perceived injustice of the colonial police and magistrates and a justice system which permitted bushrangers to be shot, rather than tried.

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Last updated: 7th October 2011

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