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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Bushrangers in the Australian Dictionary of Biography

by Jayne Wilson

The Bushranger (cigarette card collection)

The Bushranger (cigarette card collection)

National Library of Autralia, 41236093

A ‘bushranger’ was defined initially as an ‘escaped convict who took refuge in the Australian bush’ but this early definition has subsequently been broadened to refer to any ‘criminal living in the bush, and subsisting by robbery with violence[1] Bushrangers meeting both definitions played an active role in Australian history for over a century, commencing with the first British settlement in New South Wales in 1788 and ending with the hanging of the part-aboriginal bushranger, Jimmy Governor, in 1901. The exact number is unknown. A list compiled by one researcher includes 1,200 names,[2] and there are undoubtedly others whose activities appear to have been lost in obscurity.[3] The significance of bushrangers in the development of the nation is acknowledged in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). There are details of 25 bushrangers and 192 other persons who had some connection with bushrangers, either as victims, captors, or legislators and judiciary, in the ADB’s biographical corpus of the lives of over 12,000 ‘significant and representative’ persons in Australian history’.

This essay examines the lives of the ADB’s 25 bushrangers and the different eras and regions in which they operated. Bushrangers came from varied backgrounds, were subject to different influences, had diverse modus operandi, and attained various degrees of status and fame over careers of differing lengths. These men, who committed acts of lawlessness which were quite often brutal and indiscriminate, have gained legendary status in the folklore of Australia.

The earliest documented appearance of the term ‘bushranger’ was on 17 February 1805 when the Sydney Gazette reported that ‘a cart was stopped between [Sydney] and Hawkesbury, by three men whose appearance sanctioned the suspicion of their being bush-rangers’.[4] While the term did not appear until then, the practice of ‘bushranging’ had been occurring since shortly after the First Fleet landed in Botany Bay in January 1788 with its cargo of 736 convicts. Although early Sydney had a reputation as a repressive and brutal penal colony, in the early days of the settlement it was recognised that reward was more effective than punishment. Convicts were free to come and go from their assigned employment with private masters and government works, and they were able to earn money. They were not kept under strict surveillance at night and found lodgings wherever they could. Male convicts were encouraged to take up small land parcels and work to support themselves. Even Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks, which was opened in 1819, was initially built, not as a prison, but to house male convicts who were working on government projects.[5]

But despite this relatively open environment, convicts were often driven to steal food and clothing, particularly when food shortages led to a reduction in their rations. When they did, official punishments were harsh. Floggings were regular occurrences and executions were undertaken in public as a deterrent to other offenders. Returning home to Britain was the aim of many and, while ten percent achieved this, by 1820, as a result of serving their time, another ten percent had attempted to escape by sea or overland, with some reported as believing that they could trek to China. Some convicts who escaped to the bush in early days established good relationships with Aboriginal groups and prospered, but they also received blame for the aggression and retaliation of Aboriginal people against settlers. In November 1797 John Wilson, an escaped convict, turned himself in after being on the run. All he wore was a kangaroo-skin loincloth and his body bore the scars of an Aboriginal initiation ceremony. He told stories of others who had perished in their bid for freedom. [6]

The first bushranger in the colony was the convict John Caesar. ‘Black’ Caesar was a large man of African descent whose appetite was described as ravenous. He was a conscientious and hard worker but when convict rations were insufficient to satisfy his hunger, he was compelled to steal food from others. He was convicted on several occasions for stealing and taking to the bush with firearms. Despite the seriousness of stealing food in a time of severe food shortage, Caesar’s life was initially spared and he was sent to Norfolk Island. On returning to Sydney he was again punished for stealing and, after one last escape, was shot and killed in February 1796.[7]

Gradually the system began to change and with these socio-economic developments, bushranging also changed. Measures were introduced to diminish the convicts’ independence and relative freedom. In 1816 their right to earn extra money was reduced, being eventually abolished in 1823. It was replaced by an informal system of private rewards and indulgences, including passes allowing the convicts to go into town on Sundays. Hyde Park Barracks became a place of hardship and constraint, the first time a large number of convicts were kept together in government quarters. Distinctive convict clothing was introduced. These measures were designed to impose order, control and discipline, and as the boundaries of the settlement extended, more convicts began to rebel, and take to the bush.[8] As the colony grew, landholders who had acquired large tracts of land in the regions around Sydney required labour for land clearing and overseeing stock. Convicts were transferred to these outer regions as assigned labourers and servants. While there were rules about how they were to be treated, clothed and fed, the rules were open to abuse. Many were harshly treated and punished with floggings and periods labouring in government road gangs. Their response was often to abscond and turn to bushranging.

Governor Macquarie acknowledged at the time that:

I have no doubt that many convicts who might have been rendered useful and good men, had they been treated with humane and reasonable control, have sunk into despondency by the unfeeling treatment of such masters; and that many of those wretched men, driven to acts of violence by harsh usage, and who, by a contrary treatment, might have been reformed, have taken themselves to the woods, where they can only subsist by plunder, and have terminated their lives at the gallows.[9]

One such master was James Mudie who boasted ‘that his servants were severely disciplined under exacting rules’ and, as a Justice of the Peace on the Bench at Maitland, was ‘greatly feared by convicts because of his excessive use of flogging for even minor offences’.[10] In November 1833 a group of six convicts assigned to Mudie, and his son-in-law John Larnach, rebelled against the quantity and quality of food they received, robbed the stores and took to the bush. The careers of this group of early bushrangers were short-lived when they were quickly captured by a party led by Robert Scott. All except one, who was sent to Norfolk Island, were hanged. Mudie and Larnach were officially exonerated of ill treatment at an enquiry held to investigate claims which had been made at the convicts’ trial.

The most notorious of the early New South Wales bushrangers was John Donohue, who began his career in December 1827 when he committed a number of robberies on the Sydney-Windsor road. After being captured and tried, Donohue was sentenced to death but escaped during transfer from the court to gaol. During the next two years he led a gang of bushrangers which travelled over a wide area of country from Yass to the Hunter River region and east to the Illawarra. When eventually confronted by police near Campbelltown in September 1830, he was shot and killed in the ensuing gunfight. Donohue was considered to be a ‘defiant and rebellious robber of the rich and powerful (almost anyone other than a convict)’ and his courage won him many admirers.[11] He was the first bushranger to be popularly celebrated, being the model for a line of clay pipes marketed in Sydney, and the subject of a number of ballads about his life. His features were immortalised in a pencil drawing by Sir Thomas Mitchell, drawn while his body lay in the morgue.[12]

The spread of settlement rapidly outpaced administrative and judicial control. In 1828 New South Wales had six police forces – the Sydney police, mounted police, water police, border police, native police and rural constabulary. The border police, which had been formed in 1824-25 to patrol the outer areas of settlement, was made up of uniformed military personnel, who were subject to military rather than civil authority. The rural constabulary was often made up of former convicts who had served their time. In 1830, in a bid to curb the activities of bushrangers, the Legislative Council introduced what came to be known as the Bushranging Act, an Act to Suppress Robbery and Housebreaking and the Harbouring of Robbers and Housebreakers. It gave the police power to arrest any person on the mere suspicion that he or she was illegally at large, with the onus of proof on the person arrested.  Police also were given powers to search for stolen goods or evidence of harbouring criminals.  The Act was widely resented and its legality was later questioned by both Governor Bourke and Justice Burton. Bourke thought the Act ‘contrary to the spirit of English law’, and Burton stated that it was ‘repugnant to the laws of England’ in almost all of its provisions. Despite these misgivings, the legislation was re-enacted in various forms almost continuously up to 1853. It has been suggested that the ‘militaristic policing of the Bushranging Acts contributed to a strong current of resentment against the state and its protectors that is still evident in Australian society today. [13]

That divisions between free settlers, convicts and the military had increased is evident in the following description from the 1838 Report of the Select Committee on Transportation:

In New South Wales… the community was comprised of the very dregs of society; of men proved by experience to be unfit to be at large in any society, and who were sent from the British gaols, and turned loose to mix with one another in the desert, together with a few taskmasters, who were to set them to work in the open wilderness, and with the military, who were to keep them from revolt. [14]

The same report provides an indication of the growth in ‘highway robbery, bushranging, [being] at large with fire-arms, etc.’ at this time. Of 45 persons committed for trial in 1829 for these offences, 33 were convicted. Of these, eleven were executed and the remainder sentenced to transportation to a secondary penal settlement. By 1834, the number committed for trial had increased to 161, including three women. Of the 111 found guilty, 20 were executed, 89 were sentenced to transportation, and two to imprisonment with hard labour.[15]

It was during this period that two other significant bushrangers operated – William Westwood and Edward Davis, the only Jewish bushranger on record. Westwood (known as Jackey-Jackey) roamed the Southern District of New South Wales from 1838 to 1841, stealing horses, money, clothes, provisions and arms, but reportedly never hurting his victims and always being courteous towards women. Old hands remembered him as 'the gentleman bushranger' who ‘was always polite and well behaved’.[16] He was sent to Van Diemen’s Land in 1842 and after further convictions was transported to Norfolk Island, where he was the leader of a mutiny in 1846 in which he killed an overseer and three constables. In the condemned cell he gave an account of his life to the religious instructor Thomas Rogers, which was eventually published in 1879. He was hanged in October 1846.[17]

Edward Davis led the ‘Jew-boy gang’, which operated in northern New South Wales around Maitland in 1839-1840. The make-up of the gang appears to have varied from time to time, and its actual existence prior to August 1840 has recently been questioned, but there is no doubt it committed some daring raids on settler properties in August to December 1840.[18] This gang was known for its gaudy attire and were reported at one time as wearing ‘broad-rimmed Manilla hats, turned up in front with abundance of broad pink ribbons, satin neck-cloths, splendid brooches; all of them had rings and watches. ... The bridles of their horses were also decorated with a profusion of pink ribbons.’[19] There appears to have been some conflict between the members of this gang in relation to violence but in any event their reign ended with a shootout.  They were all hanged.[20]

Bushranging began in Van Diemen’s Land very early in the history of that settlement in 1804. The crop failures which led to food shortages in Sydney meant that there were also no supplies shipped to the fledgling colony on the Derwent River. In order to supplement the food supply, armed convicts were permitted to go into the bush to hunt kangaroos. This presented too great an opportunity for freedom and not all returned. They became familiar with their new surrounds and, having guns but limited ammunition, soon roamed the island raiding the properties of settlers. They stole livestock, food and weapons both for their own use and for trading with others. When Lieutenant Governor Thomas Davey arrived in the colony in 1813, bushranging was rife. Of concern were not only ‘the barbarous crimes’ being committed by the bands of escaped convicts, but the assistance being given to them by some settlers. In exchange for kangaroo skins and stolen stock or goods, these settlers were thought to be providing food, clothing and shelter to the outlaws and warning them of approaching soldiers. Davey was hampered by the distance from the legal administration in Sydney in his attempts to deal with the bushrangers. At the same time the very worst of the convicts were being sent to Van Diemen’s Land as punishment for second offences committed in Sydney.[21]

In response to Davey’s repeated complaints and requests for increased military assistance, a proclamation was issued by Governor Macquarie requiring the various members of a large gang led by an escaped convict, John Whitehead, to surrender themselves by 1 December 1814.[22] If they did so they would be pardoned, but if they did not they would be treated as outlaws and dealt with accordingly. The effect of this proclamation was that many of the bushrangers merely surrendered, claimed their immunity and returned to the bush. The bushranging problem continued.[23] In April 1815, on the advice of the Van Diemen’s Land magistrates, Davey declared martial law. The proclamation was technically illegal and was subsequently repealed in September 1815. At the same time, the trade in kangaroo skins was banned, a curfew was imposed for servants, licensed houses were required to close early, small boat movements were limited, and several leading bushrangers were captured. However, in 1816, following repeated criticism of his conduct by Macquarie, Davey was removed from his position and replaced by Lieutenant Governor William Sorell.[24]

Sorell introduced measures to increase the number of district constables, restrict the sale of munitions and punish settlers found assisting the bushrangers. Regular musters and identity passes were introduced. Sorell’s main target was Michael Howe who had become the leader of the main bushranging gang after Whitehead had been killed by a party of soldiers in October 1814. Sorell offered Howe a conditional pardon for all his offences, except murder, if he informed on his companions. Howe took up the offer but when he suspected that the pardon was not to be forthcoming, he fled back to the bush. A reward of one hundred guineas was offered for his capture in September 1817.[25] He was eventually cornered and clubbed to death in October 1818.[26] Howe was regarded ‘as one of the most notable of the revolters against law and order in the colonies’.[27]

The relationship of these early bushrangers with the Aboriginal people of Van Diemen’s Land is subject to differing reports.  Some of the escaped men are reported to have lived with Aboriginal bands and taken wives from amongst their women.[28] Other reports suggest that the bushrangers conducted ‘shocking armed raids on the Aborigines – with relentless murder, raping and abduction – [which] were the great cause of endless strife between whites and blacks.' [29] Howe is reported to have abducted an Aboriginal girl known as Black Mary, who nonetheless became his loyal partner. She used her knowledge of her native land to assist him to avoid capture. Black Mary can be classed as one of the few female bushrangers.

Australia’s first recognised Aboriginal bushrangers were also involved in the Michael Howe story. In 1805, in response to a question as to whether an Aboriginal person was ‘civilised’ enough to give evidence in their own defence before a criminal court, the judge advocate in Sydney had ruled that it was impossible to bring an Aborigine to trial for a crime committed against either a colonist or another Aboriginal person. If apprehended, an Aborigine could be transported without trial to any part of the colony where they would remain at the governor’s pleasure.[30] This was how Musquito, a New South Wales Aboriginal man who murdered another Aborigine ended up in Van Diemen’s Land in 1813. He helped track down Howe in 1816. When his promised repatriation to Sydney did not eventuate, he joined a local Aboriginal clan and lived in the bush. In late 1823 and during 1824 he and another Aboriginal man known as Black Jack, were reported to have led an Aboriginal group in the murders of several stock-keepers on the east coast. In July 1824, they were captured and this time were given a trial at which they were found guilty of murder. They were hanged in February 1825.[31]

In January 1822 a new penal station was opened at Macquarie Harbour on the remote west coast of Van Diemen’s Land. It was reported that during the period 3 January 1822 to 16 May 1827, 116 prisoners absconded from the harsh conditions of the settlement. Of these only fifteen survived – 75 were supposed to have perished in the bush, six were murdered and eaten by their companions, and of the 24 who did manage to escape to other settlements, two were hung for murder and thirteen for bushranging.[32] One of the notable bushrangers was Matthew Brady who escaped with a group of companions and sailed a small boat from Macquarie Harbour to the Derwent River. He roamed the island as a bushranger for two years, fighting a number of battles with government troops and settlers. He was eventually captured and hanged in May 1826.[33]

After the hanging of Brady, the threat to the colonists from bushranging in Van Diemen’s Land appears to have abated. But, in 1837, Martin Cash arrived from New South Wales from where he had fled after being suspected of cattle duffing. He had been sent to New South Wales as a convict but had attained his freedom.  In Van Diemen’s Land he was convicted of larceny and sentenced to seven years, but escaped numerous times. With two others he pursued a bushranging career on foot, robbing inns and the houses of settlers. On hearing that his wife had deserted him, he risked a return to Hobart Town and was captured. He was tried for killing one of his pursuers and sentenced to death. There was a campaign at the time against capital punishment and his sentence was commuted to transportation for life. After ten years on Norfolk Island and having gained a ticket of leave, he returned to Tasmania where he led a respectable life until his death in 1877: ‘Cash's Irish charm and cheerfulness, and the chivalry and enterprise of his rebelliousness, made him a popular scoundrel, in his later years known to all and enjoying the goodwill of all.’[34]

The statistics indicate that of a total of 312 individuals who were classified as bushrangers in Van Diemen’s Land between 1807 and 1846, 123 were executed, 22 were shot dead, 122 were re-transported to a penal settlement, eight were given lesser punishment and 27 were pardoned or surrendered under amnesty. Ten escaped.[35]

The second wave in New South Wales

The second wave of bushranging in NSW began with the discovery of gold in 1851. In contrast to the early bushrangers, who were escaped convicts, the new bushrangers were mostly native-born youths who  chose to take to the roads ‘partly out of a misguidedly romantic sense of adventure’.[36] Transportation of new convicts to New South Wales had ceased in 1840. Land had been opened up for lease and purchase by the ex-convicts but this land was generally the less productive remote land, with the better land being retained by the wealthy squatters who had acquired large tracts through grants in the earlier days of settlement. Other ex-convicts were employed as farm labourers and servants for the squatters and free settlers, and they formed the basis for the development of a new social class – the rural poor.

Many of the new generation were unemployed, uneducated and were raised without a ‘sense of communal responsibility of a religious upbringing, since churchmen shunned the poor rural areas’.[37] There was a significant gender imbalance in bushranger demographics with men outnumbering women by nearly two to one. They were influenced by stories of oppression, harsh and vicious treatment of convicts and the heroic stands taken by the early bushrangers. They were also bush savvy, could ride and had a good network of family and friends. They lived in an environment which fostered crime, both for survival and as a revenge against the wealthy free settlers. Stock duffing, the stealing of cattle and sheep, became a popular pastime, both for food and trade. When pressed by the police, those suspected of these offences took to the road and survived by stealing and the support of others.

The discovery of gold near Bathurst in early 1851 and the large numbers of gold-seekers who headed for the diggings provided a new focus for the bushranger. It was reported that ex-convicts from Van Diemen’s Land – half bushranger, half gold-seeker – were robbing travellers along the roads to the goldfields.[38] While the discovery of gold at Ballarat in the newly independent state of Victoria diverted much of this flow, a number of the New South Wales goldfields continued to provide rich yields. It was in this area, around the Lambing Flat and Forbes goldfields, that one of the most famous of the bushranging gangs, led by Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall and John Gilbert, prospered. Hall, the son of ex-convicts, had been born at Maitland, while the other two had arrived as children with immigrant parents – Gardiner from Scotland and Gilbert from Canada. All three were excellent horsemen, often using stolen racehorses to outrun the police. Their greatest robbery was of the Forbes gold escort at Eugowra Rocks on its way to Sydney in June 1862. The gang got away with £14,000 in cash and gold.[39]

The success of this gang of bushrangers, and others such as John and Thomas Clarke, Dan Morgan and Frederick Ward (Captain Thunderbolt), who all operated in this period, was prolonged by the inadequacies of the police force at this time. A new centralised police force was established in March 1862 in an endeavour to overcome the shortcomings of the previous system. The officers in the new force were the equivalent of officers in the military and, of the thirty-five appointed, only thirteen had previous police experience. The old chief constables were transferred to other districts and many resigned. Members from other ranks were moved out altogether and replaced with recruits from Sydney, who received little training. Those ‘destined for the mounted police were taught to ride, to move in formation like cavalry, and the use of the sword’, skills, which when combined with their military saddles and long stirrups, rendered them completely ineffective when required to chase bushrangers through the difficult mountainous terrain.[40]

Sir Frederick Pottinger had joined the old New South Wales police force as a mounted trooper, after having to leave England because of debt. When it was discovered that he had a title, he was quickly promoted to officer level in the new force, stationed at Forbes. His attempts to capture the bushrangers resulted in humiliation and appeared to spur on the bushrangers to greater challenges. ‘Some of their hold ups seem designed only to defy the police: on their daredevil raid on Bathurst in October 1863 they took little loot and at Canowindra they offered food, drink and festivity to all for three days, but drank little themselves and left the town empty-handed’.[41] Pottinger was eventually dismissed from the police force in February 1865.[42]

In March 1865, in an attempt to resolve the problems with the bushrangers, the NSW government introduced the Felons Apprehension Act which included provisions for declaring specified bushrangers to be outlaws. This was similar to the proclamation tried in Van Diemen’s Land in 1814. If the bushrangers did not turn themselves in by an advertised date, anyone encountering them would be legally empowered to shoot them on sight. Severe penalties were set for harbouring bushrangers, and the rewards were made available for information leading to arrest. Police were given special powers to appropriate horses so that tired horses could quickly be replaced with fresh ones to continue the chase. Shortly after the Act was proclaimed, Gilbert and Hall were killed by the police. Dan Morgan, who in the first three months of 1865 was credited with six major robberies of coaches and pastoral stations and an attempted murder, met a similar fate.[43] The Clarke brothers, who were also declared outlaws under the Act, continued to commit violent armed robberies which included several murders until they were captured near Braidwood in April 1867. They were hanged in June.[44]

Frank Gardiner is the only notorious bushranger in this period to survive, dying a natural death in Colorado, America, in 1903. Shortly after the Eugowra gold heist, Gardiner and his mistress escaped to Queensland where they ran a store near Rockhampton. In 1864 he was arrested by New South Wales police and sent to trial in Sydney at which he was given a cumulative sentence of 32 years hard labour. Following a campaign in 1872 decrying his harsh sentence, he was released along with a number of other prisoners who had been found guilty of bushranging and were being held in the Colony’s prisons. There was a strong feeling that many of these offenders were still young men and could make a valuable contribution to society. Gardiner sailed for America and by February 1875 was reportedly running a saloon in San Francisco.[45]

Frederick Ward (Captain Thunderbolt) is described by the ADB as New South Wales’ last professional bushranger. He and his gang robbed inns and mail-coaches in the Liverpool Plains, New England and Hunter River districts over a period of six and a half years, one of the longest careers of any bushranger.[46] Ward’s ‘wife’, Mary Ann Bugg, of Aboriginal and European parentage, played a significant role in extending his career and is credited with helping him to escape and acting as his scout. She, like Howe’s Black Mary, deserves the title of bushranger. However, like many bushrangers, there are differing accounts of Bugg’s life.

Not all bushrangers had long careers and gained fame. Most had extremely short careers, such as the three French immigrants, Charles Robardi, Auguste Rivet and Louis Deuchef, whose partnership lasted one day. They held up the Lambing Flat to Yass mail coach in August 1862 and the driver was shot dead. Robardi and Rivet were arrested immediately and tried in Goulburn. Robardi was hanged in May 1863 and Rivet sentenced to servitude for life.  Deuchef escaped and was not captured for six years.[47] As these three demonstrate, bushranging was not limited to the ex-convicts, the native-born, or those who had grown up in the colonies. On the gold fields near Mudgee, a Chinese miner named Sam Poo committed a series of robberies when his luck as a prospector ran out. He shot and killed a police constable, and then engaged in a gun battle with troopers when trying to avoid capture. He was tried and hanged at Bathurst Gaol at the end of 1865. In the reports of the time his race was not given focus, but later accounts placed more emphasis on his Chinese heritage.[48] These immigrant bushrangers are among the hundreds who have gained limited fame. The first highway robbery in the Port Phillip District is thought to have occurred in April 1842, but it was not until the region became a separate colony in 1851 and gold was discovered near Ballarat that bushranging began to flourish. Transportation to Port Philip Bay and Sydney had ceased in 1840, but continued to Van Diemen’s Land until 1853. It was an influx of ex-convicts from Van Diemen’s Land, who purportedly ‘took up their old habits’, which was blamed for the rapid increase in crime in the new colony.[49] Of 3,958 crimes tried before the Melbourne police court in the half year to the end of September 1852, two thirds of those charged had originally been transported to Van Diemen’s Land. These included twenty-five out of twenty-six cases of robbery in company. An attempt was made to pass legislation to prohibit the entry of ex-convicts into the State, but this was rejected by the Colonial Office in London.[50] As in New South Wales, the police force in the new colony was inadequate to deal with the influx of gold seekers to the diggings and the increasing criminal activity. Public reputation had suffered due to the corruption, harassment and harsh methods used for licence collection on the goldfields. Hostility existed within the force between the native born in the lower ranks and the officers who had all been drawn from outside the Colony. Communication was poor and adequate training in bush skills was lacking. Many of the city police who were posted to rural stations feared the bush.[51]

Lone travellers, small groups and mail coaches going to and from the goldfields were easy targets for attack. One of the men who was active at this time was Francis Melville, who arrived in Victoria in about 1851 after spending the previous thirteen years as a convict in Van Diemen’s Land. There he had been before a magistrate 25 times, escaped on a number of occasions and lived for a year with Aboriginal people. After being captured and tried for bushranging activities in Victoria, he was committed to the prison hulk ‘Success’, from where he planned an escape with several accomplices. The escape failed and he was transferred to Melbourne gaol where, eighteen months later, he was found strangled by a red-spotted blue scarf. Whether he was murdered or committed suicide was never determined.[52]

One of Melville’s accomplices in the escape attempt from the prison hulk was Henry Power, another ex-convict who had moved to Victoria from Van Diemen’s Land. He escaped from Melbourne gaol and fled to the Ovens district where he was involved in the well-organised duffing and horse stealing operation which had been in force in the district for some time.  After being captured for horse stealing in 1864, Power escaped again and, assisted for a short time by a thirteen year old lad named Edward Kelly, in one year claimed to have committed over 600 robberies. He was eventually captured at Beechworth and returned to Melbourne in 1870, but was released seven years later after reports of his ill-health prompted applications by several prominent women for his fifteen year sentence to be reduced.  His body was found in the Murray River in 1891.[53]

The Ovens district became a centre of tension between the established squatters and the new ‘selectors’ who had taken up land under the various Land Acts which were passed between 1860 and 1870. Following calls for land reform, these Acts were designed to encourage settlement of the ‘small man’ or selector, and to stimulate agricultural production. The initial effect was for squatters to take up almost 90% of the land and the system remained open to manipulation. Stringent requirements for development and improvement of the land were imposed in addition to rental payments, making it difficult for the small selector to comply with the requirements of the Act. Many had little farming experience and, faced with poor land, adverse weather, disease and pests, found it difficult to survive. Land was forfeited when the Land Act was breached and many were forced to seek employment elsewhere to supplement their incomes and meet their obligations.[54] It was here that the Kelly and Quinn families had settled.

Edward (Ned) Kelly, who had served a bushranging apprenticeship under Power, is by far the most notorious and best known of Victoria’s, and indeed Australia’s, bushrangers. Kelly’s father, who had been sent to Van Diemen’s Land from Ireland for stealing pigs, had died in Victoria in 1866 when Kelly was eleven. His mother and seven other children had moved to a hut near Glenrowan, where the family had taken up a cattle run in poor country. From early on, Kelly and his extended family were involved in the district’s cattle and horse stealing operations. Relations with the squatters and police were bad, and the reward system offered to police encouraged increasingly indiscriminate arrests. The Kellys ‘saw themselves as victims of police persecution’ and were ‘acutely aware of inequality of opportunity enjoyed by the squatters and denied to the predominantly Irish settlers’.[55] Bound by family loyalty, the arrest and imprisonment of Kelly’s mother prompted Ned’s ongoing retaliation against authority and, in particular, the Victorian police. He was aided by an active ‘bush telegraph’ and the support of an estimated two thousand active sympathisers in the Beechworth area.[56] The bush was a barrier for the police, and they were ineffective against the gang, which eluded capture for nearly two years. Kelly’s exploits culminated in the final stand of the Kelly gang at Glenrowan. The outlaws were equipped with armour made from plough mould-boards and faced the police with a sense of invulnerability. Ned was shot and captured. Despite strong agitation for a reprieve, he was hanged in Melbourne Gaol in November 1880.[57]

South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland

It has been suggested that ‘there were no bushrangers in South Australia … There were no hold-ups of stage coaches, notorious gangs terrorising districts, or highwaymen preying on wayfarers’. The law-breaking that did occur was an ‘embarrassment to those who came as emigrants to a society supposedly free of crime and convicts’.[58] As the only state which was not settled as a penal colony, South Australia took early measures to remain free from the convict taint and was the first, in 1838, to establish a centralised and organised police force.

There are, however, at least two bushrangers who are reported as having operated solely in South Australia. John Wilson and Edward Green committed robberies against settlers in the Lyndoch valley in early 1840. A party of troopers sent to apprehend them was ambushed and Wilson and Green fled to Melbourne. They were eventually arrested there, and returned to Adelaide where they were tried in November 1840 and sentenced to transportation for life.[59] That South Australia is the only State with no bushrangers recorded in the ADB most likely reflects the insignificance of Wilson and Green, but may also suggest an ongoing desire to retain that state’s distinction as the only state which was free of convictism.

By contrast, two of the twenty-five entries for bushrangers in the ADB are from Western Australia, a state that was colonised late (1829) and had limited bushranging activity. Convict transportation to Western Australia occurred between 1850 and 1868, and the activities of one of its two bushrangers reflected those of the early convict bolters of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Joseph Johns (Moondyne Joe) neither held up mail coaches nor attacked banks [but] raided poultry runs, visited half-way houses and perhaps stole horses … Through his determined bids for freedom against the harsh prison discipline of the convict period he became a romantic figure in the eyes of the public’. After serving out his punishment, Johns went on to lead a respectable life and died at the age of 73.[60] Another West Australian to gain notoriety and an entry in the ADB was Thomas Hughes who ‘figured for a brief period as Western Australia's most notorious outlaw in the generation between convict transportation and the 1890s gold rush.’ He too lived into his seventies, being released from prison after eleven years and leading an ‘eccentric but harmless’ life in the Pinjarra district. [61]

Queensland too had its bushranging activity. Some of those in New South Wales made forays to the north, and James McPherson undertook most of his crimes in Queensland. He came to Australia with his parents in 1855 aged thirteen, and attended a Brisbane school. After commencing study at night school while apprenticed to a builder, he ran away and worked on various stations until he held up a publican who owed him wages. On the run, he headed south, committing several hold ups on the Great North Road, and was reported to have been in search of his hero, Ben Hall. He took part in a shootout with Pottinger in New South Wales and was eventually captured. While being returned to Rockhampton to face charges, he jumped ship at Mackay and for a time robbed mail coaches in the region. He was again captured and, in 1866, was sent to the penal settlement at St Helena Island, Moreton Bay. There he gained further notoriety with a ‘spectacular but unsuccessful escape attempt’.[62] His sentence was remitted following a petition from the citizens of Brisbane, and he went on to, marry, raise a family of five and lead a respectable life, until he died at age 53.

The End of Bushranging

The last of the recognised Australian bushrangers was hung in Darlinghurst Gaol, Sydney, on 18 January 1901. Jimmy Governor, a part-Aboriginal man, was educated at a mission school and became a police tracker at Cassilis, in northern New South Wales, before becoming a fencing contractor. In 1900 he reacted to reports that his wife was being taunted for marrying a black man and, in a confrontation, he and another Aboriginal man, Jacky Underwood, killed two women and three children. Underwood was caught but Governor, together with his brother Joe, went on a ‘killing rampage’ in northern New South Wales, ‘exulting in outwitting their pursuers’ and calling themselves bushrangers.[63]

That bushranging, in particular gang bushranging, ceased in Australia after the turn of the century is attributed to a number of practical changes in the country’s infrastructure:  a more organised and mobile police force; the opening of railways and better and faster roads; and improved communications with the rapid development of the telegraph network. Of more significance were the changes in class relationships and removal of conflicts in the rural areas as conditions improved, and the development and penetration of an effective trade union movement.[64] The role of the bushranger was gone.

The Bushranging Legend

It has been suggested by Graham Seal in The Outlaw Legend that Ned Kelly and others ‘were not celebrated because they were criminals and robbers’, but ‘because they were seen, rightly or wrongly, to embody a spirit of defiance and protest, a symbolic striking back of the poor and dispossessed against those perceived as their oppressors.'[65] Historians, among them Russel Ward, saw them as ‘symbols of the emergent Australian national feeling’.[66]

The twenty-five bushrangers in the ADB display characteristics which have been ascribed to the hero outlaw or social bandit, who ‘inhabits the grey area between criminality and political or pre-political protest’.[67] There is a perception that they robbed from the rich and helped the poor, and became outlaws as a result of oppression and unjust treatment. Many had reputations for gentlemanly behaviour, even towards their victims, and protected the poor and defenceless. Almost all had strong support from their social group. Clever and continuing escapes from their pursuers were part of their operation. Finally, the majority of them ‘died game’, either shot or hanged.[68]

In the reporting of the time, many of the colony’s newspapers helped to glamourize the deeds of the bushrangers.  The Sydney Morning Herald expressed concerns that:

There is a style of describing criminal exploits which tends to promote their imitation and lessens the sense of their atrocity. The miserable vanity of these criminals is gratified by the record of their rough and insolent humours. We believe in periods of excitement the Press may do much by limiting their reports to the most simple and rigid form of narrative, and by uniformly treating of these criminals as if they were vermin that infest the soil. When the proper sentiment shall prevail respecting such outrages we shall see a greater determination to denounce and suppress them. The bulk of uneducated persons are much affected in their judgment of crime by the notoriety it obtains, and the melodramatic terms in which it is represented.[69]

It is also, perhaps, not co-incidental that there are more entries in the ADB for writers, journalists, poets and authors who have written about bushrangers, than there are for bushrangers themselves. The lives and deeds of the notorious have been analysed and celebrated in various forms, from the time they were ranging the Australian bush, until the present day. Many books have been written about them, and they have formed the material for novels, plays, ballads and poems. Unfortunately there are inaccuracies in the details of many of these accounts, with early versions, in particular, caught up with the romance of the outlaw legend, popular opinion and a reliance on oral history and memory. Some later writers have adopted these inaccuracies without sufficient original research.[70] Irrespective of the truth and accuracy of these accounts, their stories live on, even in the pages of a national project such as the ADB.

It is Ned Kelly who has had the broadest impact both in Australia and internationally. As well as many factual and fictional written accounts of his life, he has been the subject of at least six feature length movies and five plays, the first of which hit the stage in March 1879 while the gang was still at large. Numerous songs have been composed about him, sung by popular Australian country artists such as Tex Morton, Slim Dusty, Smoky Dawson and Buddy Williams, and he is known in the international art world through Sidney Nolan’s series of paintings which depict him in his rudimentary armour. A postage stamp was issued in his honour in 1980 and his image was portrayed to a vast international audience at the opening of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. In north eastern Victoria, many tourism ventures rely on the appeal of the Kelly legend.

While Ned Kelly is Australia’s most famous bushranger, he is considered by some to have been merely a murderous outlaw, but by many others, as a hero of his time. Of the hundreds of men and fewer women who were classified as bushrangers, some have also achieved hero status. Far more have been forgotten. Many led short and eventful lives, which ended at the point of a gun or by the hangman’s noose. A small number lived to raise families and lead respectable lives. Circumstances such as starvation had forced some of them into bushranging, but others saw it as a rebellion against an unjust system, and others again as merely an opportunity for adventure, or a chance to emulate their heroes. Whatever their circumstances, bushrangers played a part in the development of the Australian nation and remain a significant part of both its history and folklore.


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Citation details

Jayne Wilson, 'Bushrangers in the Australian Dictionary of Biography', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, originally published 14 April 2015, accessed 19 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

The Bushranger (cigarette card collection)

The Bushranger (cigarette card collection)

National Library of Autralia, 41236093


Medal awarded to Sergeant Thomas Quigley, for the apprehension of bushrangers in NSW c.1849-50

Powerhouse Museum (Sydney), 303810


Bushranger and police, pencil sketch by George Hamilton, 1875

State Library of New South Wales, 458009


Death of Thunderbolt, the bushranger, by Samuel Calvert, 1870

State Library of Victoria, 49196100


A bushranger robs a traveller, by Nicholas Chevalier and Frederick Grosse, 1855

State Library of Victoria, 49387055


Trial of Frank Gardiner, the bushranger, by Samuel Calvert and Oswald Campbell, 1864

State Library of Victoria, 49196068


British pepperbox revolver used by Wingy, a Tasmanian bushranger, c.1840-50

State Library of New South Wales, 846631


Surrender of the Clarke brother bushrangers, by Arthur Jackson, 1867

State Library of Victoria, 49316016


Bushranger medal, awarded to the Faithfull brothers for engaging in a gunfight with bushrangers Frank Gilbert, Ben Hall and John Dunn, 1865

National Museum of Australia


Bushrangers' camp, by S. T. Gill, c.1871

State Library of Victoria, 49394671


Bushrangers' camp, by S. T. Gill, c.1871

State Library of Victoria, 49394672


Troopers charging after bushrangers, by S. T. Gill, c.1871

State Library of Victoria, 49196656


Troopers after bushrangers, by S. T. Gill, c.1871

State Library of Victoria, 49394670


Bushrangers hold up the mail, by S. T. Gill, c.1864

State Library of Victoria, 53403157


Bushranger, preliminary sketch, by William Strutt, 1852

National Library of Australia, 3231685


Posse of mounted police, Aboriginal trackers and district volunteers hunting for Jimmy & Joe Governor, 1900

State Library of New South Wales, 391946


Gold escort attacked by bushrangers, by McGready, Thomson &​ Niver, 187?

National Library of Australia, 8420450


Bushrangers hold up the Mudgee Mail, from Illustrated Sydney News, 1874

National Library of Australia, 8420536


Captain Moonlite gang, by Patrick Marony, 1894

National Library of Australia, 2292683


Funeral of four police officers, killed at Jinden, NSW, by the bushrangers Thomas and John Clarke, by C. Winter, 1867

State Library of Victoria, 49327284


Police in a shoot-out with Captain Moonlite and his gang, at Wantabadgery pastoral station, Wagga Wagga, NSW, published in The Australasian Sketcher, 1879

State Library of Victoria, 49318002


Troopers in search of the Kelly gang, published in The Australasian Sketcher, 1878

State Library of Victoria, 49317801


memorial in Mansfield, Vic, erected by the Victorian government in honour of three police officers killed by the Kelly gang in 1878

Monument Australia, 32102


wanted poster, offering a reward for the capture of Ned Kelly, 1879

National Library of Australia, 8391421


Ned Kell's armour, by Francis Carrington, published in the Australasian Sketcher, 1880

State Library of Victoria, 49318203


Ned Kelly in his suit of armour, by James Curtis, 1880

State Library of Victoria, 49359170


Ned Kelly, with and without his armour, by Charles Hunt, 1880

National Library of Australia, 8420640


The men who captured the Kelly gang, by Julian Ashton, published in the Illustrated Sydney News, 1880

National Library of Australia, 8420575


Trial of Ned Kelly, the bushranger

State Library of Victoria, 49202192


Ned Kelly giving evidence at his trial, published in the Illustrated Australian News, 28 August 1880

State Library of Victoria, 49384528


Ben Hall and Frank Gardiner and John Dunn hold up the mail at Black Springs, NSW, by Oswald Campbell, published in The Illustrated Melbourne Post, 1865

State Library of Victoria, 49368311


Bushranger Dan Morgan is pursued by police, by Nicholas Chevalier, published in The Australian News for Home Readers, 1864

State Library of Victoria, 49327176


Ben Hall's revolver, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 7969455


Bushrangers waiting for the mail in New South Wales, by S. T. Gill, 186?

State Library of Victoria, 52349834