The Battle of Black Springs

24 August 1988 The Canberra Times

By Robert Willson

At an inquest in the village of Jugiong before the Gundagai police magistrate, a jury of five men returned the following verdict:

"That on the sixteenth day of November, in the year of our Lord 1864, at a spot about four miles to the south of Jugiong, in the colony of New South Wales, the deceased Edmund Parry did die from the effects of a gunshot wound, at that time and in that place wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously inflicted on him by one John Gilbert .... "

Behind the dry official phrases of that verdict is the story of one of the most ferocious encounters in the story of bushranging in NSW.

It was Gilbert's first murder and Hall and Dunn were named as aiding and abetting him.

The motorist who passes through Jugiong on the Hume Highway to Gundagai may see the stone memorial to Sergeant Edmund Parry at a place called Black Springs not far from the village.

In the Gundagai cemetery the headstone erected to his memory by his brother officers commemorates a brave man who gave his life in the execution of his duty.

But more people seem to know the location of the grave of his killer. 

"Flash" Johnny Gilbert lies in the police paddock near Binalong. A crudely chiselled inscription on a large boulder commemorates the 25-year-old Cana- dian-born bushranger.

As Banjo Paterson wrote in a poem: "Every child on the watershed can tell you how Gilbert died"

But not so many know the heroism of Edmund Parry, and his story is worth remembering.

In the later part of 1864 it seemed that Hall, Gilbert and Dunn had virtually taken control of the great Southern Road, the modern Hume Highway, and robberies of the mail coach were almost daily occurrences.

The mounted police escorts were almost helpless because, as the Empire newspaper pointed out, they were like heavily armed dragons, delayed by all the routine and encumbered with all the accoutrements of a regiment of guards.

On the late afternoon of November 15 the mail coach from Gundagai to Yass had reached the hill at Deep Creek on the Yass side of Jugiong. 

Two passengers, Mr Sheahan, of Jugiong, and Mr Bradbury, of Queanbeyan, had alighted to walk up the hill when three armed horsemen appeared at the top of the hill, fanned out and galloped towards them.

The order was given to "Bail up!" and the party found themselves under arrest.

Mr Bradbury later recorded that Ben Hall said, with dry humour, "Walk up there; we have got quite a little township there," as he pointed up the hill.

Going up the hill they found a clearing in the bush where no fewer than 12 bullock teams and a large number of horsemen had been bailed up.

The bushrangers dragged out the six mailbags from the coach and proceeded to cut them open.

Hall asked if Sheahan and Bradbury would take some wine and when they accepted he called out to one of the teamsters, "Fetch over some port wine."

The wine was brought in a quart-pot and shared out while the gang rapidly went through the letters looking for bank notes.  

Bradbury watched them at work and remarked that they sorted the mail much quicker than was done in Sydney.

When the gang had finished the mail coach pushed on as fast as possible to Yass.

It was fully expected in the district that the next day's coach would also receive the attentions of the gang and so it proved to be.

On Wednesday, November 16, about noon, the gang set up a road block on the Gundagai side of Jugiong at Black Springs and stopped everyone.

Before long they had several settlers, four or five drays and carts, a dozen teamsters and about 30 Chinese, all being held at gunpoint.

About 12.30pm in the midday heat Constable McLaughlin, of Gundagai police, rode up and was ordered to stand and surrender.

He refused and drew his revolver.

A brisk battle continued until his ammunition was exhausted, when he surrendered.

For the next couple of hours all was quiet while the tension steadily mounted as everyone waited for the first sound of the approaching mail coach from Gundagai.

About 2.45pm the coach appeared in a cloud of dust.

Mr Rose, the Gundagai Police Magistrate, was a passenger and Constable Roche, of Yass police, was on the box with the driver. 

Sub-inspector O'Neill and Sergeant Edmund Parry were riding a short distance behind.

Accounts vary as to what happened.

It appears that Rose waved his hat from the coach to the mounted police as soon as the gang appeared. 

They spurred their horses forward.

Those already taken captive heard one of the gang say, "There's some traps with it," and they seemed to consider giving up the attempt.

But one, perhaps Gilbert said, "No, there's only two; let's mob them."

All three bushrangers spurred their horses a short distance up the hill, as if retreating, and then suddenly turned and charged in a body down the hill with a revolver in each hand, yelling curses and firing as they came.

Hall and Dunn concentrated their fire on O'Neill and Gilbert took on Parry.

A witness later wrote, "They worked their horses with their bodies, yelled and tossed themselves about in the saddle, never for a second maintaining the same position. 

As they neared their opponents O'Neill took deliberate aim at Ben Hall and fired but through the peculiar positions in which the bushranger threw himself the shot did not take effect."

O'Neill was very lucky to escape with his life.

While firing five chambers of his revolver his horse hurled him against the fork of a tree and severely injured his hip.

He took two shots from Hall, one in the right shoulder sleeve and the other in the left flap of his coat but neither did any harm.

He then struck at Hall with his empty carbine hitting him on the head and nearly stunning him.

For the next five minutes or so there was desperate hand-to-hand fighting with bullets flying in all directions.

A witness wrote, "During this time the yelling and shouting on the part of the bushrangers was something terrific, the din being heard for more than two miles away."

At last Gilbert got within a few paces of Parry and ordered him to surrender. Some say that Sergeant Parry replied that he would die first.

Gilbert fired another shot and Parry fell from his saddle to the road. 

With his ammunition exhausted O'Neill finally surrendered and the battle of Black Springs was over.

Constable McLaughlin later recorded what Gilbert said to him as they looked at the body of Sergeant Parry. 

The bushranger said, "See what that fool has got for not standing ... he's the first man I ever shot: I don't like to shoot a man, but I can't help the unfortunate man now."

Another witness said that he asserted that he was forced to do it. He only killed the sergeant in self-defence.

He said otherwise he would not have done it as he gained nothing by shooting Parry, "and the latter would have gained 1000 by reversing the order of things".

All the newspaper accounts resounded with the praise of the witnesses for the courage of the police troopers, except Constable Roche, who was given strict orders by the magistrate not to fire and then blamed for not having done so.

Even the bush rangers admitted that they put up a magnificent fight.

The Albury Border Post wrote that Parry died at his post as bravely and as calmly as any British soldier at Waterloo or Inkerman.

He had been transferred from Albury to Gundagai only a month previously.

The township of Gundagai came to a standstill for the funeral, with every store closed.

It was one of the largest gatherings ever seen in the town.

A year earlier the bushranger Gilbert had entertained the people of Carcoar with boastful accounts of the cowardice of the police.

But after the battle at Black Springs he was said to have looked at Parry's body and remarked, "He's got it in the cobra [head]: I am sorry for him, as he was a game fellow."

Almost exactly six months later, his own turn came.