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The Bushrangers

"The Wild Colonial Boy"
Traditional Folk Song

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Bushrangers have a special place in the hearts of Australians. Thought of with pride and admiration rather than the contempt they probably deserve (as many were violent and ruthless criminals who lived by murdering and stealing), it is perhaps their bravado and self-reliance, their apparently carefree and reckless defiance of authority, and their romantic, wandering, adventurous lifestyle that has appealed to so many generations of Australians.

In the society of the day, Emancipists (freed Convicts) and their children were considered inferior human beings. They were not given equal rights and they were powerless against the troopers (police) who would taunt and harass them. The abuse heaped on them was often only verbal, but words frequently evolved into physical harassment as well. Occasionally this abuse was too much for a man to stand, and he'd end up "taking to the bush" and turning to a life of crime. According to these men, they were forced to become "Bushrangers" due to corrupt "troopers" and government officials. Here are the stories of a couple of Australia's "Wild Colonial Boys".

Captain Thunderbolt 1836-1870

Thunderbolt's Statue at Uralla

Frederick Ward had the reputation of being a bushranger who always treated women with respect and never robbed from the poor. Thunderbolt began his bushranging career when he escaped from the notorious Cockatoo Island Prison where he was serving a sentence for horse stealing. Operating in the New England district of New South Wales, he was very well known and popular with many of the local residents and for a time was a stockman of Barney Downs Station. Tenterfield residents described him as a gentleman, however the press of the day described him as a scoundrel and called for a bigger price to be put on his head. 

His daring and defiance of the Police eventually caused his downfall. At Uralla Constables Walker and Mulhall caught up with Ward and called on him to surrender. Shouting "I'll die first", he fired a single round at the Police while Constable Walker's shot found it's mark. Thinking he was mortally wounded, the Police left Thunderbolt on the river bank - intending to return the next morning for the body. When they finally returned, they found that Thunderbolt was still alive and had crawled some distance to a clump of bushes.  The story goes that he did die shortly after the group reached Uralla. Constable Walker received the reward for the capture of Thunderbolt and an Australian legend was born. 

Ben Hall  1837 - 1865


Born in Breeza during February 1837, both of Ben's parents had been Convicts and his mother had been raped by troopers. At the age of 19, Hall married Biddy Walsh, who was the sister of bushranger Frank Gardiner's mistress. Ben was a hardworking stockman and later, a respectable land owner, well known throughout the area as being generous and willing to help a neighbour.   

In 1862 Ben was arrested under suspicion of being an accomplice of Gardiner's and participating in a gold robbery. He wasn't committed for trial but when he returned to his home he found that his wife had run off with an ex-policeman, his house was burnt down by an arsonist and his cattle were either stolen or dead of thirst. When the Pinnacle Police Station was robbed in 1863, Hall was presumed responsible by police because he was later seen with the robbery suspects. In retaliation, Ben took to life as a bushranger, where he specialised in capturing and humiliating the troopers.

One such exploit took place at Canowindra. Early one morning, Hall and his gang held up and took control of the Robinson Hotel. The gang gathered all the town's people  and kept them prisoner in the hotel for 3 days. They treated their prisoner's well; giving them food and drink, and even providing music and other entertainment to create a party atmosphere. Hall and the gang also made the only policeman of the town march up and down along the Hotel's veranda. Eventually Hall let the prisoners go and even gave some of them 'expenses money'. The object of the 'hold up' was not to frighten the town people but to demonstrate his contempt for the police.

As the majority of the population could relate to his cause, he was soon elevated to hero status and immortalised in bush music.  

Hall was killed in 1865 at the age of 28. A friend, Mick Connolly, informed two policemen that Ben would be visiting Connolly's property that night. During the early hours of the morning, police and Aboriginal tracker Billy Dargin - a former friend of Hall's - crept up on the sleeping Hall and shot him. Wounded, Hall's last words were "Shoot me dead Billy! Don't let the traps (police) take me alive." After he died, he went down in history as a hero and legend.


In Ben's own words ......

I'm not a criminal. I've been driven to this life.  Pottinger arrested me on Forbes racecourse last year and I was held for a month in gaol, an innocent man. While I was away me wife ran away - with a policeman. Well, with a cove who used to in the police force. Then I was arrested for the mail coach robbery and held another month before I was let out on bail. When I came home, I found my house burned down and cattle perished of thirst, left locked in yards. Pottinger has threatened and bullied everybody in this district just because he can't catch Gardiner. Next thing I knew is that the troopers fired at me 3 weeks ago for robbing Pinnacle police station, when I had nothing to do with that little joke. Trooper Hollister has skited that he'll shoot me on sight. Can you wonder I'm wild? By Gawd, Mr Norton, it's your mob have driven me to it and, I tell you straight, you'll never take me alive!!" 

Ned Kelly  1885 - 1880

Ned Kelly became another champion of the underdogs who had suffered at the hands of corrupt troopers, Government officials and wealthy land owners. The third child of John (a former Irish convict) and Ellen (the daughter of Irish immigrants), Edward was born in June 1855 in Beveridge, Victoria.

After his arrest for "receiving" a stolen horse at 16, Ned became Australia's most wanted outlaw - successfully evading capture until his last stand at Glenrowan on 28th June, 1880.  He was hanged in Melbourne Gaol on 11th November at the age of 25. Sixty thousand Victorians signed a petition demanding his life be spared but their wishes were ignored. His last words were 'such is life'.

After his execution many Kelly sympathisers threatened to bear arms in mass resistance. To appease the masses, the actions of the troopers came under greater scrutiny and in a subsequent investigation, nearly every officer involved in the Kelly case was dismissed or reduced in rank. Although Ned remains a controversial figure in Australian history, "the only other figures of Kelly's stature are the cricketer Don Bradman, and the racehorse, Phar Lap. Kelly is a quintessentially Australian hero. He appeals to Australians' innate rebelliousness and distrust of authority."

Part of Ned's armour


In an interesting footnote, Ned Kelly and his gang were the subjects of the first ever feature film produced in Australia. Filmed in 1906, premiering on 26th December at the Athenaeum Hall in Melbourne,  "The Story Of The Kelly Gang" is hailed as being the first continuous narrative film of any significant length in the world. The film was about an hour long and presented highlights from the bushranging days of the Kelly gang, the outlaws being shown as gallant heroes with no apology for their antisocial behaviour. Playing to full houses for five weeks before moving to other Melbourne theatres, the film also screened in Sydney and Adelaide, toured Queensland, and was shown in New Zealand and England - where it toured as “the longest film ever made”.

The film was produced by John and Nevin Tait and two chemists, Millard Johnson and William Gibson, and directed by Charles Tait - an older brother of John and Nevin. It was filmed on a location near Mitcham, a suburb of Melbourne. Admission prices were from three shillings down to a shilling, half price for children. The movie is currently under restoration by Monash University's ANSPAG group.

For more comprehensive information on Australia's most famous Bushranger, visit

Others Of Note

"Black" Caesar - Not officially recognised as a bushranger, Caesar was an escaped convict (a "bolter"). Born in Madagascar around 1770. A former slave, he was transported on the First Fleet in 1788. Shot and killed on the 15th February, 1796. 

Jack Donahoe - Born in Dublin in 1804 and transported as a convict in 1824, Jack was known as "the Wild Colonial Boy" and had many songs written about him. These songs were banned in the colony as seditious - but one evolved and became the Folk classic "The Wild Colonial Boy".  Shot and killed by police at Cambelltown, New South Wales on 1st September, 1830. 

Captain Moonlite - Born Andrew George Scott in Northern Ireland in 1842, the son of a clergyman. Caught after surrendering during a shoot out, Moonlite was hung at Darlinghurst in Sydney in 1880, aged 38.

Matthew Brady - Born in Manchester, England in 1799 to Irish parents, Brady was the head of the "Tasmanian Gang".  Executed in April, 1826.

"Mad" Dan Morgan - Born in Appin, New South Wales in 1833 to emancipist parents, Morgan turned to bushranging at the age of 16 after being wrongly convicted of a felony. Shot and killed by a station hand following a hold-up in North-eastern Victoria.

Frank Gardiner - Born in 1831 at Boro Creek, Taro, NSW, Gardiner is one of few who survived his bushranging days. He retired from bushranging, married and moved to America. He died there in 1890, in what is thought to have been a bar room brawl.


For more information on Australia's Bushrangers, visit the Whiskers Hill Dictionary of Bushrangers at