In January 1788, the first group of British and Irish convicts arrived in Botany Bay, Australia, marking the establishment of New South Wales as a penal colony of the British Empire. Over the next 80 years, around 162,000 convicts were transported there.
Not all remained imprisoned, however. Over the years, many inmates fled their incarceration and lived as outlaws in the wild bushland around Sydney. These escaped convicts, many of whom indulged in crime and called the bush home, were known as ‘bushrangers’.
In later years, the term ‘bushranger’ came to encompass anyone, not just escaped convicts, who adopted a roaming life of crime similar to the highwaymen of Britain or the outlaws of the American Old West. The Australian gold rush era of the mid 19th century, in particular, saw the notoriety of bushrangers skyrocket.
Here are 5 of Australia’s most infamous bushrangers.
Daniel Morgan (1830-1865)
Later dubbed ‘Mad Dog’, Daniel Morgan has a reputation for being one of Australia’s most bloodthirsty bushrangers. A prolific horse thief in his early life, he was first detained on the prison ship Success, where he was said to have been involved in the battery and eventual death of a warden there.
Following his release after 6 years, he set out on a life of crime in the bush area around Wagga Wagga, embarking on a spree of robberies along the way. On one such robbery, he tied the station owner’s son to a post so that he could “enjoy the spectacle of the place being burnt down”, before indeed setting it alight.
Morgan was prone to fits of rage that saw him shoot at will. On one occasion, the story goes, he killed a policeman just for greeting him ‘hello’.
Notorious and a known danger, Morgan himself was killed in 1865 in an ambush by police. His famous long black beard, of which he once stated “a man must have something to be proud of”, was then flayed from his face by a local doctor, in a vengeful move much denounced by contemporaries.
Captain Thunderbolt (1835-1870)
Frederick Wordsworth Ward, better known as Captain Thunderbolt or the ‘gentleman bushranger’, was the longest-roaming bushranger in Australian history and one of the only convicts to break out of the formidable prison of Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour.
Ward was imprisoned there for stealing horses, but he managed to escape the island penitentiary with the help of his lover, an aboriginal woman named Mary Ann Bugg. The tale goes that she swam through treacherous waters to deliver a metal file to him so that he could cut through his leg irons and release himself. Bugg is widely thought to be the first female bushranger, and the pair then went on the run together until 1867 when they separated.
On 25 May 1870, after almost 7 years of outlawry, Ward was shot and killed by a policeman after a long and difficult pursuit through rough terrain. Thousands flocked to see his body.
Ben Hall (1837-1865)
Ben Hall was a leading member of the Gardiner-Hall gang, a group of bushrangers prolific across New South Wales. After falling in with notorious bushranger Frank Gardiner, Hall began a life of crime. Unlike many of his fellow bushrangers, however, he was not directly responsible for any deaths.
On 15 June 1862, he and the Gardiner-Hall gang embarked on their most infamous robbery, targeting a gold escort coach near Eugowra, New South Wales. Making off with 77 kg of gold and 10 bags of cash, they pulled off what remains the largest gold heist in Australia’s history, raking in a haul worth around $10 million today.
Incredibly, Hall escaped imprisonment due to a lack of evidence against him. Over the next 3 years, he undertook over 100 robberies with his associates, until his luck ran out in May 1865. Ambushed by 8 policemen, he was shot at least 30 times as he attempted to flee. Dying aged 27, his last words were reportedly, “I am wounded; shoot me dead.”
He later became a prominent figure in Australian folklore, inspiring many bush ballads and a number of films and written works.
Brothers Tom Clarke (1840-1867) and John Clarke (1846-1867)
Like many bushrangers, brothers Thomas and John Clarke began their lives as outlaws under the guidance of their father Jack, who had been transported to Sydney in 1828. Alongside their uncles Pat and Tom Connell, their gang of family members soon became highly skilled in the art of cattle duffing and horse stealing.
They went on to commit a series of high-profile crimes, including one of the most shocking attached to their name. On 9 January 1867, 4 constables were ambushed near Jinden Station, during which they were tied to a tree and shot dead. A blood-soaked pound note was then pinned to the leader, Carroll, as a warning to anyone who might try to pursue the Clarkes and their associates.
These crimes, alongside the authorities’ tireless efforts against the Gardiner-Hall gang, led to the enacting of the Felons’ Apprehension Act in 1866. This law introduced the concept of outlawry in Australia and authorised citizens to kill bushrangers on sight.
By March 1867, the gang has been reduced to just Thomas and John. With the help of Aboriginal tracker Sir Watkin Wynne, the brothers were eventually tracked down by the police, and on 26 April a fierce shootout took place between the two. Eventually forced to surrender, the pair were found guilty and hanged from twin gallows at Darlinghurst Jail, with Tom aged 27 and John aged 21.
Ned Kelly (1854-1880)
Arguably the most famous bushranger in history, Ned Kelly was born in 1854 in Victoria, Australia. He spent his early life in and out of prison for a myriad of crimes, and after an altercation in his family home in 1878 was indicted for the attempted murder of a policeman.
Stealing away into the bush, he swore to avenge the treatment of his mother who had been imprisoned over the incident. Alongside his brother Dan and 2 others, he soon shot dead 3 policemen and was declared an outlaw.
For 2 years the group evaded the police, with Kelly openly stating his disdain for the Victorian government and the British Empire, and demanding justice for his family and the rural poor. He documented these views in his personal manifesto, known as the Jerilderie Letter, in which his hatred for the police and their persecutions are evident.
In 1880, Kelly and his gang engaged in their final shootout with the police, an event in which they are infamously known for wearing homemade suits of supposedly bulletproof armour. Severely wounded, Kelly was the only one to survive the shootout and was later tried and sentenced to death by hanging. His last words were supposedly, “such is life”.
With his death, the lawless age of bushrangers drew to a close.