The Bold, The Bad and The Ugly: 'Australia’s Wild Colonial Bushrangers’

'Brave' Ben Hall (1837-1865)

Born to ex-convicts in Maitland, New South Wales, ‘Brave Ben Hall’ was one of Australia’s ‘gentleman bushrangers’. He became a stockman and along with a colleague leased a run near Wheogo.

In 1862, Hall was arrested on the orders of Sir Frederick Pottinger, suspected of armed robbery. His wife Bridget left him, taking their son. Shortly afterwards Hall was detained once again on a charge of gold theft, but not committed for trial. Returning home, he found that his house had been burned down by Pottinger, and all his stock has been stolen or strayed. The embittered Hall joined forces with Canadian-born bushranger John Gilbert, and became leader of his own gang of bushrangers.

Hall’s gang were organised and highly efficient, often riding stolen racehorses to easily outrun the police. Hall had a policy of courtesy and non-violence towards his victims (unfortunately not shared by members of his gang), and occasionally staged daredevil holdups simply to embarrass the police. In one raid on the town of Canowindra the gang staged a three-day party in which the town’s residents took part, and then left empty-handed.

Hall and his companions were declared outlaws in 1865, and a price of £1000 was placed on Hall’s head.

At this stage Hall’s stated intention was to quit his life of crime, but in May 1865 he was betrayed by an informer, ambushed and killed by eight policemen.

Hall’s body was buried in the Forbes cemetery. Notably his funeral was ‘rather numerously’ attended, particularly by women.

The short but dramatic life of ‘Brave’ Ben Hall has inspired film and television, music and poetry.

‘Captain Moonlite’
Andrew George Scott (1842 – 1880)

Scott, self-styled ‘Captain Moonlite’, has one of the more romantic stories among Australian bushrangers, based on his close affection for his companion James Nesbitt.

Scott was born in Ireland, the son of an Anglican clergyman. He was well-educated in his youth and in 1861 Scott took part in the New Zealand Wars against the Maori. At this stage it is believed that his comrades nicknamed him ‘Captain Moonlight’.

After this Scott travelled to Australia and in 1869 he was sent as a lay reader to Mount Egerton. Here, he and two friends engineered the robbery of the town’s bank, leaving a note signed by ‘Captain Moonlite’.

Scott went on to commit a number of crimes including passing fraudulent cheques and stealing a yacht. In 1870 he was sent to Maitland gaol for twelve months, feigning madness for some of the time, and ended up serving a lengthy sentence in Pentridge Prison.

It was here that Scott formed a close bond with James Nesbitt. When Scott was released in 1879, he and Nesbitt remained together, forming a small band of bushrangers with three other young men from the streets of Melbourne.

In November 1879, Moonlite’s gang held up the Wantabadgery sheep station near Wagga Wagga for two days. Troopers attacked the homestead, killing two members of the gang, one a boy of only 15, and the other, James Nesbitt.

When Nesbitt died, Moonlite lost heart for the fight and allowed himself to be arrested. On 20 January 1880, Moonlite and one of his accomplices were hanged.

While in gaol, Moonlite wrote passionately about his love for Nesbitt. He wore a ring of Nesbitt’s hair to his hanging, and requested that he be interred in the same grave in Gundagai. His request was not followed, and Captain Moonlite’s body was dumped into an unmarked grave at Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery.

However, in 1995, a group of people, moved by the story, fought successfully to have Moonlite’s remains exhumed and reburied next to Nesbitt’s grave.

The Kenniff Brothers
Patrick Kenniff (1863 – 1903) James Kenniff (c.1869 – 1940)

The Kenniff brothers, ‘Queensland’s last bushrangers’, were children of an Irish-born selector in New South Wales. Early in life the boys were involved in cattle-duffing, setting them up for a life of crime.

In 1893 they moved to the Upper Warrego, and occupied several blocks. Patrick and James got together with a group of convicted cattle duffers and started to steal cattle from neighbouring stations, especially the Canarvon Station that adjoined their block. This led to a mutual dislike between the Kenniffs and the station owner, Albert Dahlke.

Eventually the government terminated the Kenniffs’ lease, spurring them to become bushrangers.

In 1902, Queensland police took out a warrant against the brothers. A posse was formed to bring the brothers in, consisting of their enemy Dahlke, Constable Doyle, and Sam Johnson, an Aboriginal tracker.

The posse tracked the brothers down to Lethbridge’s Pocket. The brothers managed to escape, chasing Johnson from the scene and leaving the charred remains of Doyle and Dahlke along with evidence of a gun fight. A huge manhunt followed, and the Kenniffs were apprehended at Arrest Creek.

A trial followed during which the brothers were accused of the murders of Doyle and Dahlke. The trial of the Kenniff brothers caused a sensation in Queensland at the time, with many believing in their innocence. Both were eventually found guilty and sentenced to death.

Patrick, protesting his innocence to the last, was executed in 1903 at Boggo Road Gaol. His funeral was attended, unusually, by over a thousand people.

James’ sentence was commuted to 16 years gaol, but he was issued a Royal pardon and released in 1914. He became a fossicker at Charters Towers, and eventually died there in 1940.

'Mad Dog'
Morgan Daniel Morgan (c.1830 –1865)

Dan ‘Mad Dog’ Morgan was one of Australia’s most terrifying bushrangers. After his death he was described as ‘one of the most determined and bloodthirsty of colonial freebooters’ due to his unpredictable, violent behaviour.

Not a lot is known about his early life but he is likely to have been born Jack Fuller at Appin in New South Wales, the illegitimate son of Irish ex-convicts. Throughout his criminal career, he was known by several other aliases including John Smith, Down-the-River Jack, Billy the Native, and Mad Dog Morgan.

Morgan’s known criminal career began in 1854 with highway robbery and robbery under arms. In 1864 he shot and killed a station overseer and two policemen, and earned a price on his head of £1000. A terrifying crime spree followed in which Morgan particularly targeted station owners who were known to be hard on their employees.

Morgan’s behaviour was erratic and he seemed to suffer huge mood swings. He delighted in humiliating his victims, and was known to brutally torture people, however at times his behaviour was almost courtly. On occasion he would shoot a person in cold blood and then become maudlin, crying and begging their forgiveness.

The end came for Morgan in 1865 after he held up a homestead at Peechelba, north of Wangaratta, demanding that the owner’s wife play the piano for him while he ate. When Morgan emerged the next morning to select a horse for his getaway, he was ambushed by armed police and shot in the back. He died of his wounds five hours later.

Morgan’s fearsome appearance and terrifying demeanour inspired the 1976 feature film, Mad Dog Morgan.

Moondyne Joe
Joseph Bolitho Johns (1827 - 1900)

Johns, popularly known as Moondyne Joe, was Western Australia’s most notorious bushranger, famous mainly for his multiple gaol breaks.

He was thought to have been born in Wales or in Cornwall, the son of a blacksmith. He was transported to Western Australia for theft, arriving in Fremantle in 1853 and settling near Moondyne Springs by 1860.

Johns was constantly in trouble with the law, arrested multiple times for various offences. Determined not to serve out his sentences, between 1865 and 1867 he made four attempts to escape gaol, three of them successful. After the last attempt he was at large for four months, bushranging in the Darling ranges with two companions.

After being recaptured, he was placed in irons in solitary confinement in a specially reinforced cell with triple-barred windows in the Fremantle Prison. When his health began to suffer, he was given daily exercise in the prison yard breaking rocks. Cleverly, Johns managed to use the pile of rocks to hide the fact that he was tunnelling through the prison wall. He successfully absconded yet again in 1867.

For the next two years, Johns roamed the hill country east of Perth. In 1869 he was again arrested and charged, this time for escaping from legal custody, and sentenced to a year’s additional imprisonment in irons.

In 1871, Johns was finally released, and granted a conditional pardon in 1873. He eventually settled down into a respectable life, dying in the Fremantle Asylum in 1900.

Although Moondyne Joe did not carry out dramatic holdups or shootouts, his determination to remain free inspired ex-convict writer John Boyle O’Reilly to write a highly romanticised novel about him. His story also inspired a film, numerous books and poetry. The township of Toodyay holds a yearly Moondyne Festival to celebrate his life.

Captain Thunderbolt and The Captain's Lady
Frederick Ward (1835 - 1870) Mary Ann Bugg (1834 - 1905)

Frederick Ward was also known as ‘Captain Thunderbolt’, and his partner Mary Ann Bugg as ‘The Captain’s Lady’. As a couple, they became notorious bushrangers in 1863–1864.

Mary Ann Bugg was born to a convict and his Aboriginal wife at Berrico outstation in NSW. Throughout her childhood she was moved from place to place, due to efforts at the time to ‘integrate’ Aboriginal children. After relationships with a number of different men, she met Frederick Ward in 1861.

Frederick Ward was born at Windsor in NSW. Initially he worked as a drover and horse-breaker but in 1856 was arrested for horse-stealing and sentenced to hard labour at Cockatoo Island. In 1863, Ward escaped from Cockatoo Island, and went to Dungog where Bugg was working.

In the early 1860s, Ward adopted the title ‘Captain Thunderbolt’ and went on a bushranging spree, working across New South Wales from the Hunter Valley to the Queensland border. He worked with a number of associates, and also with Bugg, who proudly called herself the ‘Captain’s Lady’. Thunderbolt and his accomplices managed to engender a certain amount of public sympathy through their prudent avoidance of police, gallant treatment of others and acts of bravery. The Captain’s Lady was also known for her habit of dressing – and riding – like a man.

Ward was eventually surprised and shot in 1870 after a showdown with police. By this time Bugg had settled down in Mudgee where she lived out her life quietly. Bugg had fifteen children in total, with the last born in the 1870s.

Today the legend of Thunderbolt the ‘gentleman bushranger’ and his Lady lives on, in the form of a number of films, a statue at Uralla NSW, and a famous painting by Tom Roberts.

The Kelly Gang
Edward Kelly (1855 – 1880) Daniel Kelly (1861 – 1880) Joseph Byrne (1856 – 1880) Stephen Hart (1859 – 1880)

The nefarious Kelly Gang are among Australia’s best-known bushrangers, led by Edward (Ned), son of Irish ex-convict John ‘Red’ Kelly and his wife Ellen, née Quinn. The other gang members were Ned’s younger brother Dan, Joe Byrne from Beechworth, and Steve Hart from Wangaratta.

The anti-establishment Kelly family, who believed themselves to be victims of police persecution, were frequently in trouble with the law. In 1878 Ned and Dan fled to the Wombat Ranges near Mansfield after a run-in with a police trooper, and it was here that they formed the gang and took up bushranging. After a deadly skirmish with police at Stringybark Creek, leading to the gang murdering three policemen, they were declared outlaws, with a huge price on their heads.

In 1880, the gang took over a hotel at Glenrowan, hoping to derail and hold up a train. It was at this time that the outlaws took up their famous armour, made from plough mould-boards. Police surrounded the hotel and a desperate shoot-out began.

This was the last stand of the Kelly Gang. Byrne, Hart and Dan all died at the scene and Ned was shot several times, and ultimately arrested.

Ned was tried for murder in Melbourne, and executed at the Melbourne Gaol on 11 November 1880. His last words were said to have been either ‘Ah well, I suppose it has come to this’, or ‘Such is life’.

The story of the Kelly Gang has entered Australian folklore, with Ned himself as one of Australia’s best-known folk anti-heroes. Some see the gang as classic ‘larrikins’, embodying courage under fire and sympathy for the underdog. To others the Kelly Gang were violent criminals. Either way, the exploits of the Kelly Gang are a part of Australia’s history and identity, and the symbol of the iconic cylindrical helmet is recognised by Australians everywhere.

The Birdman of the Coorong
John Francis Peggotty (1864
– 1899)

The Coorong, at the mouth of the Murray River, is the site of the strangest of Australia’s bushranger stories.

According to the story, John Francis Peggotty, born in Ireland in 1864, was a premature baby who never grew over the size of a seven-year-old child. At some stage, Peggotty travelled to South Africa, where he learned to ride ostriches.

Peggotty loved wearing gold and jewellery, and learned to climb down chimneys to steal it. For this he served five years in prison in England, before coming to Australia and resuming his crimes in Adelaide.

In 1898, Peggotty moved to the Coorong region to become a bushranger.

Several travellers were most surprised to be held up by a diminutive bearded figure riding an ostrich, brandishing two small ornamented pistols, stripped to the waist and wearing huge amounts of gold and jewellery.

At first the police were disinclined to believe the story, until the body of a man was discovered, surrounded by large bird prints. In 1899, a party of mounted police officers encountered Peggotty on his ostrich. They opened fire and attempted to give chase, but the ostrich ran easily over a sand hill that their horses could not climb.

Peggotty committed a dozen or more holdups, and another murder, before his career ended abruptly in 1899 near the town of Meningie. A gunman managed to wound Peggotty critically, before taking aim at his ostrich and shooting its head off.

The headless bird bolted over the sand dunes with Peggotty clinging to it. The dead ostrich was eventually discovered, but not Peggotty, who was believed to have crept away to die from his wounds.

According to legend, the Birdman’s body is still somewhere in the sands of the Coorong, bearing at least a million pounds’ worth of gold and jewellery.

Nobody knows whether Peggotty’s story is true, but it is commemorated in the town of Meningie, with the statue of an ostrich with a riding saddle.

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The Bold, The Bad and The Ugly-Australia’s Wild Colonial Bushrangers’ 2019 $1 Mintmark & Privy Mark Uncirculated Coin Set 
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The Bold The Bad and The Ugly-Australia’s Wild Colonial Bushrangers’ 2019 $10 Gold Proof 'C' Mintmark Coin