Australia was a penal colony, a destination for thousands of prishoners who had previously swamped the English goal system. Transportation, for many, meant a reprieve from the death sentence, but life in the colony was anything but easy. Most of the population were criminals or their minders, and the environment was impossible to tame. Convicts endured hard work, long hours, poor accommodation and shortages of food. As a result, many prisoners became 'bolters', preferring to take their chance in the bush rather than live a convict life. These men became the first bushrangers, robbing travellers and farmers for food, money, guns and horses. The attacks were often brutal, since their protagonists had nothing to lose. Bushrangers became greatly feared throughout the colony.
Bushranging gained momentum as the gold rush brought an influx of immigrants and wealth to the bush. There were no banks on the goldfields, and those who found wealth had to keep their treasure with them. They became easy targets for thieves who preferred stealing to working. Gold was transported to Sydney on three heavy coaches once a week. These coaches, and travellers on lonely roads, became the chief prey for bushrangers. Police had almost no chance of stopping the attacks and were heavily criticised for their incompetence.
A new breed of thief
After the convict bushrangers came a new breed of thief. They were wild colonial boys, bred in the bush and often from poor free settlers. They were skilled horsemen and stronger and healthier than their predecessors. From this group, some of Australia's most famous bushrangers emerged: Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall and Ned Kelly.
Australia's bushranging history includes a colourful canvas of characters. Some were notorious for their viciousness. Dan Morgan was known for killing sleeping and unarmed men. Thomas Jefferies, perhaps the most violent of the bushrangers, bashed a baby to death, raped its mother and shot its father dead. Alexander Pearce is remembered as the most prolific cannibal in Australia's history. Other bushrangers were romantics. Frederick Ward was remembered for his gallant behaviour toward women, his good humour and his stand against violence. He boasted that he killed no one during his bushranging career.
Then there was Ned Kelly.
Kelly defined his own period of bushranging. He was the son of Irish settlers, who brought him up to resent wealth and the law. His teenage years were spent stealing horses and dodging the police. He took to the bush to escape arrest with his brother Dan Kelly and two friends, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. Together, they became the Kelly gang.
Although not a violent group, they were more than prepared to kill rather than be captured. In 1878, they shot two police, and a £2000 reward was put on their heads. Unlike other bushrangers, they chose banks, hotels and rich property owners as their targets. Despite the best efforts of the police, the gang remained elusive. When an informer infiltrated the group and a sting was planned, the Kelly gang discovered the traitor and shot him dead. With the knowledge of the planned setup, they prepared for the showdown.
The gang rode into Glenrowen and captured the town's hotel. Ned Kelly wore his famous armour fashioned out of scrap metal. Here, with 62 hostages, they waited for the truckload of Melbourne police to arrive. Ned Kelly initiated the shootout. Joe Byrne and two hostages were mortally wounded in the gunfight. Steve Hart and Dan Kelly were burned alive in the hotel when the police set it on fire. Virtually impervious to bullets, Ned Kelly stood his ground until his exposed ankles were shot and he was captured. He was sentenced to hang and it was on the gallows moments before his death that he uttered his famous catchphrase: "such is life".
Bushrangers have had a profound impact on the development of the Australian national identity. Their larrikinism has been immortalized, and their exploits are now looked on with a sense of national pride. In a nation of convicts they are our proudest symbols of freedom and anti-authoritarianism.
Bushrangers of Australia
Villains or heroes: uncover the details of Australia's most notorious bushrangers in our interactive feature.
by Guy de Winton
The Bushranger Site, at scs.une.edu.au/bushrangers/home.htm
Miriam T Place, Gold Down Under, Crowell Collier Press 1969