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Wanted: Brave Ben Hall
Brave Ben Hall

The gentleman bushranger

Like Mathew Brady, Ben Hall was an outlaw who came to represent a moral code in a world that didn't really have many morals at all. In songs and community talk, he was elevated as a kind of noble outlaw that robbed the rich and respected the poor.

The child of two ex-Convicts, Ben was born in February 1837. When he was growing up, Ben tried hard to be a good citizen. He became known as an honest and a generous soul who would always help a neighbour in need. At the age of 19, he married Biddy Walsh and devoted his energies to becoming a hardworking stockman and later, a respectable land owner. Unfortunately, his desire to be a good citizen led to his world falling apart.

In 1861, he let police stay overnight at his house while they were hunting the bushranger Frank Gardiner. One of the men, James Taylor, used the opportunity to sweet talk his wife and finally persuaded her that her life was with him, and not with Ben.

Two months later, Ben was arrested as a suspect in a gold robbery and held in gaol for a month. In all likelihood, Ben had nothing to do with the robbery, but he associated with thieves and aroused suspicion as a result. Either that, or the bitterness at losing his wife to a policeman had led to him making threats against police that came back to haunt him.

In July, Ben was again arrested on suspicion of being part of a robbery. Again, he was not committed for trial, but the detention led to legal costs that made it difficult for him to hold onto his property. A series of escalating conflicts between police and Hall then led to police inspector, Sir Frederick William Pottinger, burning down his house. In his diary, fellow police officer, Const. William Hollister, casually wrote about accompanying Pottinger to set the homestead ablaze.

Embittered, Ben joined a gang of bushrangers. By 1863 he was regularly bailing up mail coaches on the roads between Bathurst, Young and Yass. For Ben, the career as a bushranger was more than just making a living. It was also about making a point against the police that destroyed his life. Such a point was clearly made when the gang took control of the Robinson Hotel in Canowindra. The gang gathered all the town's people and kept them at the hotel for 3 days. They treated their prisoners well; giving them food and drink, even providing music and other entertainment to create a party atmosphere. They also made the only policeman of the town march up and down along the Hotel's veranda to humiliate him. Once the party was over, they gave the townsfolk "expense" money and then left without taking any loot with them. The event was solely designed to display their honesty and respect for the common man. On another occasion, Ben's gang captured three officers that had been pursuing them. They then removed the officers of their uniform, tied them to trees and commenced a lecture on the follies of police excesses.

The Bathurst Times said of the gang:

"Bushranging by this gang is not followed as mere means of subsistence. Every new success is a source of pleasure to them and they are stimulated to the novelty of actions by desire to make history. This has become their ambition. They aspire to a name...The sympathy which they get from a section of the public builds up their vanity in which they indulge."

By 1865, the reward on Ben's head had reached £1000 and he was running out of friends to trust. To make matters worse, an imminent Felons Apprehension Act would soon allow an 'outlaw' to be shot and killed at any time without warning. In April 1865, the gang temporarily split up but arranged to meet again near Billabong Creek near Forbes.

An oral hisory of his death proposed that Hall's friend, Mick Connolly, told policemen that the outlaw would be visiting his property that night. During the early hours of the morning, police and Hall's former friend the Aboriginal tracker Billy Dargin, crept up and shot the sleeping Hall. The wounded bushranger's last words before dying were:

"Shoot me dead Billy! Don't let the traps take me alive." 

In truth, an informer simply told police who subsequently waited and watched. At dawn on the 5th of May, an unsuspecting Hall walked out of the scrub to collect his horses. Eight police opened fire. In a matter of seconds, Hall lay dead with 30 bullets in his back.

In what may be a sign of different values of a different era, Hall's present day relatives have called for the coronial inquest into his death to be re-opened on the grounds his death was illegal on a number of fronts. Firstly, Hall was killed under the Felons Apprehension Act which allowed 'justifiable homicide.' Though the Felons Apprehension Act had been passed, it did not come into force until six days after Hall's death – hence, as defined by the act, Hall was not an outlaw when he was killed. Secondly, Hall's body was riddled with more than 30 bullets. This would seem that the police used an excessive degree of force, and obtained emotional gratification by continuing to fire into his immobilised body. Thirdly, Hall never threatened police. He was shot in the back while running away. While force may have been needed to prevent his escape, at the time he was surrounded on three sides, his horses were out of reach, and his only escape was towards a flat plain. Guns were therefore unnecessary.

While such details may matter today, at the time they really didn't matter at all. Laws only existed, and were enforced, to suit specific interests. If things had been any different, Hall probably would have remained a respectable property owner.

Ben's side of the story (Printed in a newspaper column during the 1860s)

"I'm not a criminal. I've been driven to this life.  Pottinger arrested me on Forbes racecourse last year and I was held for a month in gaol, an innocent man. While I was away me wife ran away - with a policeman. Well, with a cove who used to in the police force. Then I was arrested for the mail coach robbery and held another month before I was let out on bail. When I came home, I found my house burned down and cattle perished of thirst, left locked in yards. Pottinger has threatened and bullied everybody in this district just because he can't catch Gardiner. Next thing I knew is that the troopers fired at me 3 weeks ago for robbing Pinnacle police station, when I had nothing to do with that little joke. Trooper Hollister has skited that he'll shoot me on sight. Can you wonder I'm wild? By Gawd, Mr Norton, it's your mob have driven me to it and, I tell you straight, you'll never take me alive!!" 

 

The Ballad of Ben Hall

Come all Australian sons to me: a hero has been slain,
And cowardly butchered in his sleep upon the Lachlan plain.
Oh, do not stay your seemly grief but let a teardrop fall,
Oh, so many hearts will always mourn the fate of bold Ben Hall.

No brand of Cain ever stamped his brow, no widow's curse did fall.
When times were bad the squatters dread the name of Ben Hall.
He never robbed a needy chap, his records best will show,
He was staunch and loyal to his friends and manly to the foe.

Oh, and savagely they murdered him, those cowardly blue-coat imps,
Who were set on to where he slept by informing peeler's pimps.
Every since the good old days of Turpin and Duval,
The people's friends were outlaws too and so was bold Ben Hall

 

Ben Hall

Come all you young Australians and everyone besides
I'll sing to you a ditty that will fill you with surprise
Concerning of a ranger bold whose name it was Ben Hall
But cruelly murdered was this day which proved his downfall

An outcast from society he was forced to take the road
All through his false and treacherous wife who sold off his abode
He was hunted like a native dog from bush to hill and dale
Till he turned upon his enemies and they could not find his trail

All out with his companions men's blood he scorned to shed
He oft-times stayed their lifted hands with vengeance on their heads
No petty mean or pilfering act he ever stooped to do
But robbed the rich and hearty man and scorned to rob the poor

One night as he in ambush lay all on the Lachlan Plain
When thinking everything secure to ease himself had lain
When to his consternation and to his great surprise
And without one moment's warning a bullet past him flies

And it was soon succeeded by a volley sharp and loud
With twelve revolving rifles all pointed at his head
Where are you Gilbert? where is Dunn? he loudly did call
It was all in vain they were not there to witness his downfall

They riddled all his body as if they were afraid
But in his dying moment he breathed curses on their heads
That cowardly hearted Condel the sergeant of police
He crept and fired with fiendish glee till death did him release

Although he had a lions heart more braver than the brave
Those cowards shot him like a dog no word of challenge gave
Though many friends had poor Ben Hall his enemies were few
Like the emblems of his native land his days were numbered too

It's through Australia's sunny climb Ben Hall will roam no more
His name is spread both near and far to every distant shore
For generations after this parents will to their children call
And rehearse for them the daring deeds committed by Ben Hall

Streets of Forbes

Come all you Lachlan men and a sorrowful tale I'll tell,
The story of a decent man who through misfortune fell,
His name it was Ben Hall, a man of high renown,
Who was hunted from his station, and like a dog shot down.
Three years he roamed the roads, and he showed the traps some fun,
One thousand pounds was on his head, with Gilbert and John Dunn.
Ben parted from his comrades, the outlaws did agree,
To give away bushranging and to cross the briny sea.
Ben went to Goobang Creek, and that was his downfall
For riddled like a sieve was the valiant Ben Hall,
'Twas early in the morning upon the fifth of May
That the seven police surrounded him as fast asleep they lay.
Bill Dargin he was chosen to shoot the outlaw dead,
The troopers then fired madly and they filled him full of lead,
They rolled him in his blanket and strapped him to his prad,
And they led him through the streets of Forbes, to show the prize they had.

 

 

Rebellion

John Caesare
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Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
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White Australia Policy
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Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero

Nancy Wake
A larrikin and a hero

The Depression
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Prime Ministers
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"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)