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Caroline (Kate) Keightley (1841–1898)

There died in Prince Alfred Hospital on Dec. 7 Mrs. Caroline M. Keightley, the heroine of one of the most stirring incidents of early Australian bushranging. The story of her ride to Bathurst, in order to obtain the ransom wherewith to purchase from the bushrangers her husband's life, is well-known. Not only has it ever been a favorite chapter with readers of the history of those troublous times, but Rolf Boldrewood, one of the most popular of authors of Australian tales, has immortalised her by making her one of the heroines in his book, Robbery Under Arms. Mrs. Keightley, who was 57 years of age at the time of her death, had been ill for some time. Having in her youth attained some success as an amateur actress, she afterwards adopted the stage as a profession, and played for some time in a drama called "Bail Up," founded upon the incident related below. She was a daughter of the late Henry Rotton, of Bathurst, a well known and highly respected resident of that district, which he represented in the first Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, and widow of the late Henry McCrummin Keightley, who was one of the oldest and most distinguished officials under the then New South Wales Government, and who was instrumental in breaking up a notorious gang of bushrangers, and during which he shot one of the gang named Burke. In this encounter Mrs. Keightley also bore a brave part, by riding to the Commercial Bank, Bathurst, to procure the money for the ransom of her husband, who was in imminent danger of being shot by the gang, who held him in custody under dire threats of vengeance. The particulars were described in a paper of October 28, 1863, and briefly are as follow: On the evening of Saturday, October 24, between 6 and 7 p.m., the bushrangers Gilbert, O'Meally, Ben Hall, Vane, and Burke made their appearance at the house of Mr. Keightley, the police magistrate and commissioner at Dunn's Plains, near Rockley. Mr. Keightley was outside the house, and seeing the men approaching, thought they were police in disguise. They called on him to bail up, but he retired to the house; the arms and ammunition he had provided for his defence, as he was expecting an attack, being beyond his reach at the moment through an unfortunate oversight. Snatching up a double-barrelled gun, only one barrel of which was loaded, and a revolver, Mr. Keightley, with a guest, Dr. Pechey, took up a station at the door, when a shower of bullets was fired at them by the bushrangers. Burke, approaching the house, was instantly shot in the abdomen, and, leaning against the wall, said, "I'm done for; but I'll not be taken alive," and, placing a pistol at his forehead attempted to blow out his brains. The first shot only grazed his forehead, but the second blew away a portion of his skull, and he fell to the ground. Seeing what had occurred the bushrangers kept up a constant fire on the house. They continued their fire on Mr. Keightley and the doctor, who had by this time got into a loft above the dwelling. As the bushrangers threatened to fire the house, the two gentlemen came down, fearing that if they did not do so they would carry out their threat, and murder the female inmates. On reaching the ground Vane struck Dr. Pechey a violent blow, knocking him down. Vane was then about to shoot Mr. Keightley, and called on him to follow him down the paddock. Mrs. Keightley implored them to spare her husband's life, but apparently without avail. Vane said that he and Burke had been brought up as boys together, and had been mates ever since, and that the gun that had deprived him of life should take the life of the man who killed him: Mrs. Keightley ran up to Ben Hall, and clutching him by the collar, said, "I know you are Ben Hall, and they say you are the most humane, respectable, and best of them all; for God's sake do not let them murder my husband—save his life." She also addressed Gilbert in similar terms, begging them to interfere (O'Meally was then away looking after the horses). Gilbert and Hall appeared to be moved, and the latter called upon Vane to desist. After a parley, Gilbert and Hall dictated the terms on which Mr. Kelghtley's life should be spared. The Government had placed a reward of £500 on Burke's head and the amount of the reward was to be handed to them by 2 p.m. the following day (Sunday). The doctor was allowed to go to Rockley to fetch his instruments to try and cure Burke, but when he returned Burke was dead. Mrs. Keightley then prevailed upon one of them to fetch O'Meally, fearing he would not accept the ransom. He at first refused, but was ultimately pacified, and the party went into the house, where they were served with spirits and wine, Mrs. Keightley first tasting it to show that it was not poisoned. It was then arranged that Mr. Keightley should be taken to a place called the Dog Rock, on a hill near. Mrs. Keightley, in company with Dr. Pechey, was then sent to Bathurst to fetch the money (£500), the understanding being that if there was any treachery Mr. Keightley would be shot immediately, and the bushrangers would fight those who approached for the £500. Mrs. Keightley then rode into Bathurst with Dr. Pechey, and sought her father, who instantly went to the Commercial Bank at 4 o'clock in the morning, procured the amount required, and started for Dunn's Plains. The amount having been handed over to the bushrangers, Mr. Keightley was set at liberty, and soon arrived at Bathurst.

From Rockley to Bathurst and back, the ride which Mrs. Keightley undertook in order to get the money, is a distance of nearly sixty miles; and the road was at that time a very rough one.

One of her surviving sons, Mr Cyril Keightley, is a well-known actor. He returned to Sydney some days ago to see his mother in her last hours.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Keightley, Caroline (Kate) (1841–1898)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Caroline Keightley, n.d.

Caroline Keightley, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 34510

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Rotton, Caroline

New South Wales, Australia


7 December, 1898 (aged ~ 57)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia