Grenfell, Bushrangers, and Ben Hall

Last weekend it rained. Seriously rained.

But by Sunday morning it had cleared enough for us to consider a drive out. We tossed a coin between a loop inland or a dash down to the coast and back for a walk through wet drippy coastal rainforest.

The inland trip, with its promise of perhaps picking up some fresh cherries and apricots won out and we took out on a loop out up to Grenfell and back across the old gold country of New South Wales.

Australia, before the discovery of gold, was a violent lawless miserable place, with misplaced convicts and their half educated progeny trying to scratch a living from an unforgiving landscape, fearing the understandably frightening aggressive and sometimes violent aboriginal populations they’d displaced, while at the same time being ruthlessly exploited by a small coterie of landowners – the squatocracy.

Gold, or rather it’s discovery changed all that. Men (and some women) chose life in the goldfields where there was money to be made from mining, from sex, from drink.

Gold changed everything. Not just miners, but everyone out to make a buck streamed into the goldfields.

Suddenly there was more to life than endless labour, and for the first time, the promise of escape from a world consisting solely of cabbages, sheep and potatoes. Money meant you could buy things, and perhaps aspire to drink tea out of a china cup rather than a battered tin mug.

Lots of people started from the goldfields – as a for instance, Henry Lawson, the poet and journalist, was born in a mining camp near Grenfell and went to school in the area.

Entertainers and exotic dancers, gloss that how you will, were shipped in from overseas to entertain the miners and separate them from their hard won cash. And of course, where there was gold and cash, there were men willing to risk a firefight with the troopers to steal it before it could be safely locked away.

It’s why in these old gold towns there are huge nineteenth century bank buildings in among the pubs and shopfronts, all seemingly too large and too ornate for the town as it is today, the towns having been built in the good times before the miners went away. It must have been quite a sight, these big brick bank buildings, hotels with their iron lace work balconies and shops with their grandiloquent shop fronts all touting for business and surrounded by an untidy scatter of shanties, tents and sod huts.

And certainly there were bushrangers in the area.

Between Grenfell and Forbes there is a small range of hills where allegedly Ben Hall and his gang hid out while planning an audacious raid on the Forbes mail coach. Ben Hall was a bushranger in the 1860’s and had a liking for raiding the packhorse trains taking gold from the goldfields down to the railhead.

There’s a small cave where they are supposed to have sheltered – in fact as it’s at the top of steep rise, too steep to get horses up it’s probably more myth than truth. If anything, they probably used it as a lookout as it has good view out over the Forbes road and they could have seen the dust plumes of the mail coach and the troopers.

After the Forbes raid, Ben Hall came to a bad end, shot by state troopers while resisting arrest. Most of the gold was recovered, but not all. Frank Gardiner, one of Hall’s accomplices, and possibly the brains behind the raid, escaped hanging and was deported, leaving to run a bar in San Francisco.

There’s always been a suspicion that Gardiner came to an arrangement with the troopers and that perhaps the missing gold was his share from the raid which he used both to pay off the troopers and to set himself up in America.

The truth however is probably not quite so simple. Gardiner did spend a fair bit of time in jail after the raid so it’s not as if he was let to escape. All in all there’s a bit of a mystery there  – not quite as exotic as searching for Butch Cassidy in Bolivia, but interesting never the less.

If you want to follow up, my trip note are online as an evernote share

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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1 Response to Grenfell, Bushrangers, and Ben Hall

  1. Pingback: Sergeant Edmund Parry | stuff 'n other stuff

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