Bushrangers in NSW

 

 

 

 

Were bushrangers villains or heroes?

The Australian Colonies
Stage 3 | History

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Looking down the barrel!

Being confronted by an armed bushranger would have been a terrifying experience.

During the colonial period bushrangers committed serious crimes. However, to some people they might have seemed impressive.

What was a bushranger?

Bushrangers were criminals who operated in rural areas and used the bush to hide and escape after committing a crime.

They were often violent and sometimes killed members of the public and police officers.

Reports of female bushrangers committing crimes did occur, but these were rare. 

Because bushrangers broke rules and challenged the police, some people admired them. They might have even assisted them by giving them food and shelter.

But most people – including the police – simply thought they were dangerous criminals.1

  • 1. Maryborough Chronicle, Wednesday 21 December 1864

Where did the name come from?

The word was first published in a newspaper in 1805.

So it must have already been in common use to describe criminals who operated in the country and lived in the bush.

On Tuesday last a cart was stopped between this settlement and Hawkesbury, by three men whose appearance sanctioned the suspicion of their being bush-rangers.2

The term ‘bushranger’ is unique to Australia.

In England, a criminal who robbed travellers on country roads was known as a "highway robber", a "tobyman" or a "scamp".

Many convicts transported to NSW had been convicted of 'highway robbery'.

Some like Lawrence Kavanagh returned to their old habits after they arrived in the colony. But others, like William Noah, worked hard and stayed out of trouble.

  • 2. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 17 February 1805 p2.
Bushranger camp, early 1800s.
Activity: source analysis

Who do you think they are?

Look closely at this artwork:

  • how many people are there?
  • what are they doing?
  • describe their camp;
  • what weapons do they have?
  • what food do you think they might have to eat?

Q. What does this artwork tell you about life as a bushranger, in the early years of the colony?

Source: View upon the Nepean River, at the Cow Pastures, New South Wales. J Lycett, 1825. Sydney Living Museums

When were bushrangers active?

From the earliest days of the colony some convicts felt they would be better off running away from the settlement.

They were called "bolters" or "absconders" and lived in the bush, stealing food from settlers to survive. This was a serious crime and if caught, they could face the death penalty.3

Most of these escaped convicts travelled around on foot because horses were rare during the early 1800s.4

But as horses became more common, criminals would steal them for transport.

This changed the nature of how these criminals could operate, making it easier for them to rob, escape and 'range' over a larger amount of bush. 

  • 3. The Australian, 18 October 1826, p3.
  • 4. Equinity exhibition at State Library of NSW, 2007- 08.

By the 1830s, bushrangers were committing a lot of crimes throughout the colony.

In response, the NSW Government passed the "Robbers and Housebreakers' Act" - also known as the 'Bushrangers Act'. 

The Act was supposed to make it easier to arrest a person who was suspected of being:

  • a 'transported convict' who had escaped;
  • an armed robber (bushranger) on the roads;
  • a person hiding or assisting a bushranger.

But the law caused problems, because innocent people (such as a man out hunting with his gun) were sometimes arrested and had to prove they were not bushrangers!5

  • 5. G D Woods, A history of criminal law in New South Wales: the colonial period 1788–1900, Federation Press, Sydney, 2002, p77.
Two bushrangers preparing to ambush a lone traveller
Activity: source analysis

A welcoming party?

Look closely at this painting:

  • Where and when is the scene set?
  • Who can you see?
  • What are they doing?
  • What do you think is about to happen?

Q. What does this painting tell you about how bushrangers operated?

Source: 'Meet me by the moonlight alone, and then I will-', George Lacy, c1860. National Library of Australia

Gold rush. Crime wave!

When gold was discovered in NSW 1851, a new wave of bushranging began.

Thousands of people travelled out to the goldfields which were in isolated, rural areas.

This created an opportunity for criminals to steal gold from the miners, instead of doing the hard work of finding the gold themselves.

Bushrangers were also very active in the Victorian gold fields and reports of their crimes were often published in NSW newspapers.

Read this account of a bushranger robbery, at Victoria's Ararat goldfields, in1857.6   

  • 6. Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 21 October 1857, p3.

The 'wild' 1860s

During the 1860s, newspapers in NSW were full of stories about bushrangers and their crimes.

The NSW police force was under a lot of pressure to fight back, and did so despite the risk to their own safety.

For example, during the 1860s:

  • over 400 men were arrested and convicted of armed robbery;7
  • at least 20 bushrangers were killed in shoot-outs or sentenced to death by courts;8
  • 11 NSW police officers were killed by bushrangers; many others were wounded in shootouts. 

 

  • 7. S West, ‘The role of the “bush” in 1860s bushranging’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 91, part 2, December 2005.
  • 8. Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 13 April 1889, p10.
Graph showing term bushranger in the newspaper over time
Activity: Bushrangers in the news.

What does this graph tell you about how the threat of bushrangers in NSW changed over time?

X axin (decades): 1800-1880
Y axis (number of news reports): 15; 23; 837; 2281; 2575; 1343; 13715; 6782; 4953. 

Data sourced through trove.com.au (2019)

In spite of the police's efforts, gangs of bushrangers continued to rob and kill people (including police officers).

So in 1865 the NSW Government passed another law, the Felons Apprehension Act.

Under this law, a person who had been declared an 'outlaw' by the courts could be shot dead without warning.9

The new law was supposed to make it easier to capture of confront violent bushrangers.

Only four bushrangers were officially declared "outlaws" in NSW during the gold rush: John Gilbert, John Dunn, Thomas Clarke and Patrick Connell.

All were either killed in shootouts with police or captured and executed for their crimes.

  • 9. E Eburn, ‘Outlawry in colonial Australia: the Felons Apprehension Act 1865 (NSW)’, Australia & New Zealand Law and History E-Journal, 2005, pp80–93 (https://hdl.handle.net/1959.11/1102).

Bushranging comes to an end

Bushrangers became less of a threat during the 1870s and 1880s. There were a few reasons for this:

  • new roads and railways made travel faster and safer;
  • NSW built an electric telegraph system, which made it easier for police to track bushrangers;
  • the NSW police force had become more organised, experienced and developed better tactics.

In 1879, the NSW bushranger known as Captain Moonlite was captured by police after a shootout. During the battle, a policeman was killed.

Moonlite was executed in 1880 - this was the same year in which another famous bushranger, Ned Kelly, was hanged for his crimes in Victoria.

In the years that followed, criminals still robbed people and may have hidden in the bush.

But the 'bushranging era' in Australia is considered to have finished by the 1880s.

Men would have had different reasons for turning to bushranging.

  • Some, like thousands of the convicts transported to NSW, turned to crime out of desperation because of unemployment, or poverty.
  • Others might have seen bushranging as a quick way to gain wealth - or even fame;10
  • There were also criminals (like the bushranger Dan Morgan) who were violent offenders and had a history of criminal behaviour.

Whatever the reason, their actions could result in innocent people experiencing terror, losing property, being injured or even killed.

  • 10. Maryborough Chronicle, 12 February 1868, p4.
Reward poster for bushrangers
Activity: source analysis

Reward offered for capture of bushrangers! 

The sum of £4000 was a huge amount of money in 1863, worth almost $1,000,000 today!

For comparison, at that time a successful goldminer might earn £5-£10 per week. 

Q. What does this tell you about how much the government wanted to catch these men?

Q. Read the poster carefully - what other reward is being offered?

What crimes did bushrangers commit?

Bushrangers robbed homes, farms, businesses and individuals. They stole horses (particularly race horses), gold, personal possessions (such as watches), money, mail, horse saddles, guns, ammunition, clothes and food.11

They also took advantage of people, by forcing them them to cook or provide food.

Stopping and robbing ("bailing up") a mail coach was another common crime. 

Between October 1863 and October 1864, for example, at least 60 highway robberies were recorded in the colony.12

Roads were often isolated and in poor condition, so travel by horse and cart was slow. This made it easier for bushrangers to 'bail up' a mail coach and then escape into the bush with their loot.

If a gang of bushrangers wanted to bail up a mail coach, they had to be organised and know when and where to strike.

For the people they robbed, the experience could be terrifying.

  • 11. Sydney Mail, 12 December 1863, p5.
  • 12. A return shewing the number of Highway Robberies and Other Robberies under Arms reported to the police of the colony from the October 18, 1863 to the October 18, 1864. Justice & Police Museum.

How successful were they?

Some bushrangers were successful at evading capture, especially if they had help from people sympathetic to what they were doing.

However, most were arrested by police soon after committing a crime.

For example, in 1864 a gang of bushrangers, including a man called John Foster, bailed up the Bathurst mail coach, as it travelled through the Blue Mountains13.

The gang made off with money and valuables – but what happened afterwards?

  • a few days later Foster was arrested by police in Sydney;
  • at trial he was found guilty, sentenced to ten years jail, and sent to Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour;
  • Foster was released from prison in 1872; 
  • he was shot and killed soon afterwards, when he broke into a house to steal some gold.

Like Foster, many bushrangers did not have long and successful careers.

  • 13. The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 1864, p2.

What weapons did bushrangers use?

Bushrangers would steal what they wanted. This meant they often had the best type of weapons and the fastest horses. Police used standard equipment, issued by the government.

The horses the bushrangers had with them were of first-class character and the men are reported as fairly bristling with fire-arms.15

In 1865 Ben Hall and his gang bailed up a mail coach because they knew that a passenger on board was carrying a Tranter revolving rifle.

This was the best type of rifle in NSW at that time; it could fire five bullets without reloading, which was a lot of firepower.

  • 15. The Kiama Independent, 3 November 1863, p3.
Gilbert the bushranger being shot by police
Activity: source analysis

This illustration shows a shoot-out between the bushrangers Gilbert and Dunn and NSW police officers. Gilbert is in the foreground.

Q. What is happening in this scene?

Q. How many weapons is Gilbert carrying?

‘Capture and death of Gilbert the bushranger’ F Gross (engraver), Australian News for Home Readers, 24 June 1865.

Gangs were often heavily armed, and each man would carry a range of weapons, including:

  • pistols
  • rifles
  • shotguns
  • knives
  • clubs
  • handcuffs

Look at the artwork to the right - how many weapons is the bushranger carrying? 

What happened to bushrangers?

Becoming a bushranger had serious consequences.17

Look closely at the fourth column of this document: what does it tell you about what those consequences could be?

  • 17. ‘Fate of bushrangers’, Freeman’s Journal, 27 December 1884, p4.
List of Offenders known as Bushrangers

Source: List of Offenders known as Bushrangers killed or wounded in the colony of New South Wales from March 1862 to 7 June 1870, NSW State Records

What is the bushrangers' legacy?

Now that bushrangers are part of Australian history, their crimes and violence are sometimes forgotten.

Instead, people remember their horse riding skills, their ability to survive in the Australian bush, or the fact that they challenged people in authority - such as the police.

Life in colonial NSW could be very hard, and people were not always treated fairly by the law. But most people did not use violence or turn to crime as a result.

While there are stories of bushrangers who were polite and others that returned certain items they stole, most did not.

Bushrangers have left a complicated legacy - what do you think?

Were they heroes or were they villains? 

Activities for students:

Stage 3 | The Australian Colonies
History | Creative Arts | English

These simple tasks, which complement the web resource, have been designed to fit easily into your busy classroom schedule!

Creative Arts activity: drawing

Hold the front page! Draw a bushranger robbery.

English activity: comprehension

Here; Hidden; Head: comprehension activity.

English activity: writing

Were bushrangers villains or heroes?

Footnotes

About the author

Head and shoulders portrait of man standing holding old bottle and in front of shelf of bottles.

Edward Washington

Program Producer – Learning

Ed is part of the Sydney Living Museums learning team, which provides curriculum-based programs to more than 60,000 students and teachers every year. In 2019 he received the Ruth Pope Bequest Annual Travelling Scholarship for international travel and study.