24 January 1938 The Sydney Morning Herald

By J. H. M. Abbott

Hunted Like Wild Beasts.

A little history of the bushrangers was recited by Chief Justice Sir Alfred Stephen in sentencing to death the brothers John and Thomas Clarke in 1867.

Thus: "Hunted about like wild beasts, you must actually have undergone an amount of labour and fatigue greater than you would had you been working on the roads:

"I will read you a list of bushrangers, many of whom have come to the gal-lows within the last four and a half years. I believe they are all caught but one.

Many of these were young men, capable of better things; but died violent deaths - Piesley, executed; Davis, sentenced to death; Gardiner, sentenced to thirty-two years' hard labour; Gilbert, shot dead; Hall, shot dead; Bow and Fordyce, sentenced to death, but sentences commuted to imprisonment for life; Manns, executed; O'Meally, shot dead; Burke, shot dead; Gordon, sentenced to death; Dunn, executed; Lowrie, shot dead; Vane, a long sentence; Morgan, shot dead; yourselves, Thomas and John Clarke, about to be sentenced to death; Fletcher, shot dead; Patrick Connell, shot dead; Tom Connell, sentenced to death, but sentence commuted to imprisonment for life; Bill Scott, a companion of your own, believed to be murdered - by you.

"There is a list! . . . But better days are coming. It is the leaven of convictism not yet worked out. You will not live to see them, but others will."

There are three distinct periods in the history of Australian bushranging, and three distinct types of bushranger.

The runaway convicts whom the terrors of the "System" drove into the wilderness, in desperate attempt to evade its cruel discipline and harsh injustice, were of the first period and type - men, often, whom it is impossible not to pity, and sometimes like.

Then came the "flash," free young fellows of adventurous sort who were tempted into crime by the sight of rich convoys of gold travelling from the diggings to the capitals almost unguarded.

The third was a class of later days constituted almost wholly by the Kellys of Victoria, their friends, and sympathisers.

Also there were a few men like the brutal Daniel Morgan, the very decent Harry Power, and Frederick Ward - better known as "Thunderbolt" - who were distinctly individual, and had about them traces of all three of the types mentioned above, together with special good or bad qualities of their own.

Mr. Commissioner Bigge, sent out by the House of Commons to investigate the conditions of New South Wales in Governor Macquaries time, submitted a report in 1822 in which he defined bushranging as "absconding in the woods and living upon plunder and the robbery of orchards," and this may still suffice as an apt description of the pioneers of the profession.

These men were simply escaped convicts who subsisted by plundering settlers. Van Diemen's Land, as the penal settlement of twice convicted and more or less recalcitrant prisoners, suffered under the earliest and most violent outbreaks - distinguished by such as Michael Howe, Brady, the cannibalistic Pearce, and others; but, it was not until the 1820's that continental bushranging assumed anything like the proportions it had reached in the southern island during the administrations of Colonels Davey, Sorell, and Arthur as Lieutenant-Governors.

In Tasmania it began almost at the very settlement of the country by Lieutenant Governor David Collins in 1803, and it was almost fifty years before the colony ceased to be terrorised by bloodthirsty gangs of outlaws, the bane alike of settlers and aborigines.

The first of the New South Wales bushrangers were rather weaklings, loafers, and "lead-swingers" than hardened criminals.

In a general way, they were ever on the look-out for a chance of slipping into the scrub when the sentry's back was turned, and the wildness of the country in which they were forest-clearing and road making made it easy for them to get away.

It is almost incredible, but none the less true, that a great many of them fled into the wilderness of the Blue Mountains, or along the unoccupied north coast, in the hope of reaching the Dutch East Indies, India, or China.

Not many of them were able to read and write, and what they knew of geography was almost nothing at all. Any fantastic tale was believable; any old wives' story might be true.

The number of runaway prisoners who perished in the gorges and ravines of the Dividing Range or the almost impenetrable coastal scrubs and swamps has never been accurately estimated, but it must have been large.

The majority of them, however, only wanted to get away from penal severity and live free lives in the bush.

A few chanced a welcome, or the reverse, from the aborigines, and lived with them for years. Others merely wandered vaguely about, hopelessly "bushed," until starvation drove them back to punishment at the triangles and the slavery of the iron-gangs.

Many remained at large until re-taken, eking out a precarious existence by robbing isolated and infrequent settlers.

But there was a period between the runaway convict bush rangers and those who preyed on the gold-diggers which was a sort of transition stage of bushranging.

In that twenty years the sorry "System" of convict transportation and administration reached its height, declined, and was abolished in the eastern settlements, and the great effort for constitutional reform spreads itself over the two decades.

There was a bitter struggle between dying autocracy and democratic aspirations.

The community was still almost governed under martial law, but was emerging into freedom through much tribulation. In this period came into operation Governor Darling's infamous Bush-ranging Act, a measure which, though it certainly checked the evil, indirectly encouraged it.

This Act, passed by the nominee Legislative Council in 1830, was unique in its severity.

Under its protection, suspected persons might be arrested without war-rant, anyone carrying arms might be "taken up," and those suspected of bearing arms could be summarily searched.

If they had general search-warrants, the police might break into any dwelling at any time, seize such firearms as they found, and take into custody its inmates. The provisions of the Act were rigorously enforced.

Among its many severe clauses was one which rendered any man—free, emancipated, or "bond"—liable to be imprisoned on suspicion by an officer or magistrate, and perhaps marched hundreds of miles as a prisoner until he could prove he was lawfully at large.

When they had been found guilty, bushrangers were to incur the death penalty, and were to be hanged within three days. Harsh and unjustifiable as it was, this terrible measure effected its object, and bushranging "slumped" until the days of the diggings; but many a desperate man, capable of reform, was driven to "go the whole hog."

"The golden age of bushranging, however, was covered by the two decades, 1860-1880.

Within that twenty years Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall, and the Kellys invested bushranging with the strange but undoubted glamour it has always had for Australians.

Ex-prisoners, or those who inherited felon traditions, were responsible for the revival of bushranging after its virtual stamping out by Sir Ralph Darling's Act, and their recruits came from splendid young bushmen with a love of adventure and a distaste for regular work.

It would be idle to compare these youths with the motor bandits and gunmen of to-day.

There can be no doubt that Gardiner's and Hall's young men of the bush were a much better type of manhood than their successors in crimes of violence.

The late T. A. Browne (Rolf Boldrewood) has drawn them for all time in "Robbery Under Arms," and the Marstons are historical facts.

The writer and many of his bush-bred contemporaries in age have known more than one Dick or Jim Marston on the slopes of the Great Dividing Range. Altogether, they were a type that has not really done Australia much harm.

Some of the exploits of Gardiner's, Hall's, and Kelly's gangs are almost incredible.

The robbery of the gold escort at Eugowra Rocks, the raiding of Bathurst, the ransoming of the Gold Commissioner, Mr. Keightley, at Dunn's Plains, the occupa-tion of Canowindra and Jerilderie, and the bank robbery at Euroa were truly remarkable affairs.

But possibly the most remarkable of any incident in the whole story of bushranging was the "sticking up" of the mail-coach near Jugiong at the end of '64.

Here, on the Upper Murrumbidgee, Hall, Gilbert, and Dunn held up as captives about 60 people travelling along the road, including a mounted policeman, while awaiting the arrival of the Murrumbidgee mail-coach.

It duly appeared, with a constable guarding the mails, and a sub-inspector and a sergeant as mounted escort.

One bushranger guarded the captives while the other two attacked the coach.

The sergeant was shot dead, the sub-inspector surrendered, the mail-guard bolted into the bush, and the coach was captured and plundered.

These young men in the early twenties had done this almost incredible thing - quite incredible, were it not for one consideration.

Hardly a man amongst their captives could be certain of the bonafides of any of his fellow-victims.

Each and all of them might have been friends and allies of the bushrangers.

Such exploits as this were dazzling affairs, but on the whole the bushrangers lived the lives of hunted dogs.

There were only three things certain for them - the gallows, the bullet, and penal servitude.