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William Strutt's Bushrangers on the St Kilda Road, painted in 1887, depicts what Strutt described as "one of the most daring robberies attempted in Victoria" in 1852.[1] The road was the scene of frequent hold-ups during the Victorian gold rush by bushrangers, mostly former convicts from Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania), which collectively became known as the St Kilda Road robberies.

Bushrangers were armed robbers who hid from authorities in the bush of the British colonies in Australia. The earliest use of the term applied to escaped convicts in the early years of the British settlements in Australia. By the 1820s, the term had evolved to refer to those who took up "robbery under arms" as a way of life, using bases in the bush.

Bushranging thrived during the gold rush years of the 1850s and 1860s when the likes of Ben Hall, Bluecap, and Captain Thunderbolt roamed the country districts of New South Wales. These "Wild Colonial Boys", mostly Australian-born sons of convicts, were roughly analogous to British "highwaymen" and outlaws of the American Old West, and their crimes typically included robbing small-town banks and coach services. In certain cases, such as that of Dan Morgan, the Clarke brothers, and Australia's best-known bushranger, Ned Kelly, numerous policemen were murdered. The number of bushrangers declined due to better policing and improvements in rail transport and communication technology, such as telegraphy. Although bushrangers appeared sporadically into the early 20th century, most historians regard Kelly's capture and execution in 1880 as effectively representing the end of the bushranging era.

Bushranging exerted a powerful influence in Australia, lasting for over a century and predominating in the eastern colonies. Its origins in a convict system bred a unique kind of desperado, most frequently with an Irish political background. Native-born bushrangers also expressed nascent Australian nationalist views and are recognised as "the first distinctively Australian characters to gain general recognition."[2] As such, a number of bushrangers became folk heroes and symbols of rebellion against the authorities, admired for their bravery, rough chivalry and colourful personalities. However, in stark contrast to romantic portrayals in the arts and popular culture, bushrangers tended to lead lives that were "nasty, brutish and short", with some earning notoriety for their cruelty and bloodthirst. Australian attitudes toward bushrangers remain complex and ambivalent.


The earliest documented use of the term appears in a February 1805 issue of The Sydney Gazette, which reports that a cart had been stopped between Sydney and Hawkesbury by three men "whose appearance sanctioned the suspicion of their being bush-rangers".[3] John Bigge described bushranging in 1821 as "absconding in the woods and living upon plunder and the robbery of orchards." Charles Darwin likewise recorded in 1835 that a bushranger was "an open villain who subsists by highway robbery, and will sooner be killed than taken alive".[4]


Over 2,000 bushrangers are estimated to have roamed the Australian countryside, beginning with the convict bolters and drawing to a close after Ned Kelly's last stand at Glenrowan.[5]

Convict era (1780s–1840s)[edit]

Convict artist Joseph Lycett's 1825 painting of the Nepean River shows a gang of bushrangers with guns.

Bushranging began soon after British settlement with the establishment of New South Wales as a penal colony in 1788. The majority of early bushrangers were convicts who had escaped prison, or from the properties of landowners to whom they had been assigned as servants. These bushrangers, also known as "bolters", preferred the hazards of wild, unexplored bushland surrounding Sydney to the deprivation and brutality of convict life. The first notable bushranger, African convict John Caesar, robbed settlers for food, and had a brief, tempestuous alliance with Aboriginal resistance fighters during Pemulwuy's War. While other bushrangers would go on to fight alongside Indigenous Australians in frontier conflicts with the colonial authorities, the Government tried to bring an end to any such collaboration by rewarding Aborigines for returning convicts to custody. Aboriginal trackers would play a significant role in the hunt for bushrangers.

Colonel Godfrey Mundy described convict bushrangers as "desperate, hopeless, fearless; rendered so, perhaps, by the tyranny of a gaoler, of an overseer, or of a master to whom he has been assigned." Edward Smith Hall, editor of early Sydney newspaper The Monitor, agreed that the convict system was a breeding-ground for bushrangers due to its savagery, with starvation and acts of torture being rampant. "Liberty or Death!" was the cry of convict bushrangers, and in large numbers they roamed beyond Sydney, some hoping to reach China, which was commonly believed to be connected by an overland route. Some bolters seized boats and set sail for foreign lands, but most were hunted down and brought back to Australia. Others attempted to inspire an overhaul of the convict system, or simply sought revenge on their captors. This latter desire found expression in the convict ballad "Jim Jones at Botany Bay", in which Jones, the narrator, plans to join bushranger Jack Donahue and "gun the floggers down".

Donahue was the most notorious of the early New South Wales bushrangers, terrorising settlements outside Sydney from 1827 until he was fatally shot by a trooper in 1830.[3] That same year, west of the Blue Mountains, convict Ralph Entwistle sparked a bushranging insurgency known as the Bathurst Rebellion. He and his gang raided farms, liberating assigned convicts by force in the process, and within a month, his personal army numbered 80 men. Following gun battles with vigilante posses, mounted policemen and soldiers of the 39th and 57th Regiment of Foot, he and nine of his men were captured and executed.

Vandemonian bushrangers plundering and burning a homestead

Convict bushrangers were particularly prevalent in the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land (now the state of Tasmania), established in 1803.[3] The island's most powerful bushranger, the self-styled "Lieutenant Governor of the Woods", Michael Howe, led a gang of up to one hundred members "in what amounted to a civil war" with the colonial government.[6] His control over large swathes of the island prompted elite squatters from Hobart and Launceston to collude with him, and for six months in 1815, Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey, fearing a convict uprising, declared martial law in an effort to suppress Howe's influence. Most of the gang had either been captured or killed by 1818, the year Howe was clubbed to death by a soldier.[6] Vandemonian bushranging peaked in the 1820s with hundreds of bolters at large, among the most notorious being Matthew Brady's gang, cannibal serial killers Alexander Pearce and Thomas Jeffrey, and tracker-turned-resistance leader Musquito. Jackey Jackey (alias of William Westwood) was sent from New South Wales to Van Diemen's Land in 1842 after attempting to escape Cockatoo Island. In 1843, he escaped Port Arthur, and took up bushranging in Tasmania's mountains, but was recaptured and sent to Norfolk Island, where, as leader of the 1846 Cooking Pot Uprising, he murdered three constables, and was hanged along with sixteen of his men.

The era of convict bushrangers gradually faded with the decline in penal transportations to Australia in the 1840s. It had ceased by the 1850s to all colonies except Western Australia, which accepted convicts between 1850 and 1868. The best-known convict bushranger of the colony was the prolific escapee Moondyne Joe.

Gold rush era (1850s–1860s)[edit]

Bushrangers attack mounted policemen guarding a gold escort

The bushrangers' heyday was the Gold Rush years of the 1850s and 1860s as the discovery of gold gave bushrangers access to great wealth that was portable and easily converted to cash. Their task was assisted by the isolated location of the goldfields and a police force decimated by troopers abandoning their duties to join the gold rush.[5]

George Melville was hanged in front of a large crowd for robbing the McIvor gold escort near Castlemaine in 1853.[5]

Bushranging numbers flourished in New South Wales with the rise of the colonial-born sons of poor, often ex-convict squatters who were drawn to a more glamorous life than mining or farming.[5]

Much of the activity in this era was in the Lachlan Valley, around Forbes, Yass and Cowra.[5]

Ben Hall ambushed and shot dead by eight troopers, 1865

The Gardiner–Hall gang, led by Frank Gardiner and Ben Hall and counting John Dunn, John Gilbert and Fred Lowry among its members, was responsible for some of the most daring robberies of the 1860s, including the 1862 Escort Rock robbery, Australia's largest ever gold heist. The gang also engaged in many shootouts with the police, resulting in deaths on both sides. Other bushrangers active in New South Wales during this period, such as Dan Morgan,[5] and the Clarke brothers and their associates, murdered multiple policemen.[7]

As bushranging continued to escalate in the 1860s, the Parliament of New South Wales passed a bill, the Felons Apprehension Act 1865, that effectively allowed anyone to shoot outlawed bushrangers on sight.[8] By the time that the Clarke brothers were captured and hanged in 1867, organised gang bushranging in New South Wales had effectively ceased.

Captain Thunderbolt (alias of Frederick Ward) robbed inns and mail-coaches across northern New South Wales for six and a half years, one of the longest careers of any bushranger.[3] He sometimes operated alone; at other times, he led gangs, and was accompanied by his Aboriginal 'wife', Mary Ann Bugg, who is credited with helping extend his career.[3]

Decline and the Kelly gang (1870s–1880s)[edit]

An 1870 cartoon shows a personification of New South Wales slaying "the last of the bushrangers"
Watched by hundreds of onlookers in the surrounding hills, troopers engage in their final gunfight with Captain Moonlite's gang in 1879.

The increasing push of settlement, increased police efficiency, improvements in rail transport and communications technology, such as telegraphy, made it more difficult for bushrangers to evade capture. In 1870, Captain Thunderbolt was fatally shot by a policeman, and with his death, the New South Wales bushranging epidemic that began in the early 1860s came to an end.[9]

The scholarly, but eccentric Captain Moonlite (alias of Andrew George Scott) worked as an Anglican lay reader before turning to bushranging. Imprisoned in Ballarat for an armed bank robbery on the Victorian goldfields, he escaped, but was soon recaptured and received a ten-year sentence in HM Prison Pentridge. Within a year of his release in 1879, he and his gang held up the town of Wantabadgery in the Riverina. Two of the gang (including Moonlite's "soulmate" and alleged lover, James Nesbitt) and one trooper were killed when the police attacked. Scott was found guilty of murder and hanged along with one of his accomplices on 20 January 1880.[10]

Among the last bushrangers was the Kelly gang in Victoria, led by Ned Kelly, Australia's most famous bushranger. After murdering three policemen in a shootout in 1878, the gang was outlawed, and after raiding towns and robbing banks into 1879, earned the distinction of having the largest reward ever placed on the heads of bushrangers. In 1880, after failing to derail and ambush a police train, the gang, clad in bulletproof armour they had devised, engaged in a shootout with the police. Ned Kelly, the only gang member to survive, was hanged at the Melbourne Gaol on 23 November 1880.[11]

Isolated outbreaks (1890s–1900s)[edit]

In July 1900, the Governor brothers—a trio group consisting of an Aboriginal fencing contractor named Jimmy Governor and his associates, Joe Governor and Jack Underwood—perpetrated the Breelong Massacre, wounding one and killing five members of the Mawbey family.[12]

The massacre sparked the Governor brothers to engage in a crime spree across northern New South Wales, triggering one of the largest manhunts in Australian history, with 2,000 armed civilians and police covering 3,000 km of northern New South Wales in a search for the brothers.[12] The Governor brothers were pursued by authorities for a total of three months, consequently being brought down on 27 October with the arrest of Jimmy Governor by a group of armed locals in Bobin, NSW, and the death of his brother, Joe Governor, near Singleton, NSW a few days later.[13]

Jack Underwood (who had been caught shortly after the Breelong Massacre) was hanged in Dubbo Gaol on 14 January 1901, and Jimmy Governor was hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol on 18 January 1901.[13]

"Boy bushrangers" (1910s–1920s)[edit]

The final phase of bushranging was sustained by the so-called "boy bushrangers"—youths who sought to commit crimes, mostly armed robberies, modelled on the exploits of their bushranging "heroes". The majority were captured alive without any fatalities.[14]

Public perception[edit]

The body of Joe Byrne, strung up as a curiosity in Benalla, 1880. Photograph by John William Lindt.

In Australia, bushrangers often attract public sympathy (cf. the concept of social bandits). In Australian history and iconography bushrangers are held in some esteem in some quarters due to the harshness and anti-Catholicism of the colonial authorities whom they embarrassed, and the romanticism of the lawlessness they represented. Some bushrangers, most notably Ned Kelly in his Jerilderie letter, and in his final raid on Glenrowan, explicitly represented themselves as political rebels. Attitudes to Kelly, by far the most well-known bushranger, exemplify the ambivalent views of Australians regarding bushranging.


A statue of Captain Thunderbolt, Uralla, New South Wales

The impact of bushrangers upon the areas in which they roamed is evidenced in the names of many geographical features in Australia, including Brady's Lookout, Moondyne Cave, the township of Codrington, Mount Tennent, Thunderbolts Way and Ward's Mistake. The districts of North East Victoria are unofficially known as Kelly Country.[15]

Some bushrangers made a mark on Australian literature. While running from soldiers in 1818, Michael Howe dropped a knapsack containing a self-made book of kangaroo skin and written in kangaroo blood. In it was a dream diary and plans for a settlement he intended to found in the bush.[16] Sometime bushranger Francis MacNamara, also known as Frank the Poet, wrote some of the best-known poems of the convict era. Several convict bushrangers also wrote autobiographies, including Jackey Jackey, Martin Cash and Owen Suffolk.

Cultural depictions[edit]

Tom Roberts' 1895 painting Bailed Up depicts a Cobb & Co hold up from the 1860s.

Jack Donahue was the first bushranger to have inspired bush ballads, including "Bold Jack Donahue" and "The Wild Colonial Boy".[17] Ben Hall and his gang were the subject of several bush ballads, including "Streets of Forbes".

Michael Howe inspired the earliest play set in Tasmania, Michael Howe: The Terror! of Van Diemen's Land, which premiered at The Old Vic in London in 1821. Other early plays about bushrangers include David Burn's The Bushrangers (1829), William Leman Rede's Faith and Falsehood; or, The Fate of the Bushranger (1830), William Thomas Moncrieff's Van Diemen's Land: An Operatic Drama (1831), The Bushrangers; or, Norwood Vale (1834) by Henry Melville, and The Bushrangers; or, The Tregedy of Donohoe (1835) by Charles Harpur.

In the late 19th century, E. W. Hornung and Hume Nisbet created popular bushranger novels within the conventions of the European "noble bandit" tradition. First serialised in The Sydney Mail in 1882–83, Rolf Boldrewood's bushranging novel Robbery Under Arms is considered a classic of Australian colonial literature. It also cited as an important influence on the American writer Owen Wister's 1902 novel The Virginian, widely regarded as the first Western.[18]

Bushrangers were a favoured subject of colonial artists such as S. T. Gill, Frank P. Mahony and William Strutt. Tom Roberts, one of the leading figures of the Heidelberg School (also known as Australian Impressionism), depicted bushrangers in some of his history paintings, including In a corner on the Macintyre (1894) and Bailed Up (1895), both set in Inverell, the area where Captain Thunderbolt was once active.


Actor playing Ned Kelly in The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), the world's first feature-length narrative film

Although not the first Australian film with a bushranging theme, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)—the world's first feature-length narrative film—is regarded as having set the template for the genre. On the back of the film's success, its producers released one of two 1907 film adaptations of Boldrewood's Robbery Under Arms (the other being Charles MacMahon's version). Entering the first "golden age" of Australian cinema (1910–12), director John Gavin released two fictionalised accounts of real-life bushrangers: Moonlite (1910) and Thunderbolt (1910). The genre's popularity with audiences led to a spike of production unprecedented in world cinema.[19] Dan Morgan (1911) is notable for portraying its title character as an insane villain rather than a figure of romance. Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner, Captain Starlight, and numerous other bushrangers also received cinematic treatments at this time.

Alarmed by what they saw as the glorification of outlawry, state governments imposed a ban on bushranger films in 1912, effectively removing "the entire folklore relating to bushrangers ... from the most popular form of cultural expression."[20] It is seen as a major reason for the collapse of a booming Australian film industry.[21] One of the few Australian films to escape the ban before it was lifted in the 1940s is the 1920 adaptation of Robbery Under Arms.[19] Also during this lull appeared American takes on the bushranger genre, including The Bushranger (1928), Stingaree (1934) and Captain Fury (1939).

Ned Kelly (1970) starred Mick Jagger in the title role. Dennis Hopper portrayed Dan Morgan in Mad Dog Morgan (1976). More recent bushranger films include Ned Kelly (2003), starring Heath Ledger, The Proposition (2005), written by Nick Cave, The Outlaw Michael Howe (2013), and The Legend of Ben Hall (2016).

Notable bushrangers[edit]

Name Lived Area of activity Fate Portrait
Bluecap (alias of Robert Cotterell) c. 1835–? New South Wales Imprisoned, cause of death unknown
Matthew Brady 1799–1826 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
Edward Broughton 1803–1831 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
Mary Ann Bugg 1834–1905 Northern New South Wales Died of old age
Richard Burgess 1829–1866 New South Wales
Michael Burke 1843–1863 New South Wales Shot
Joe Byrne 1857–1880 North East Victoria Shot by police
John Caesar 1764–1796 Sydney area Shot
Captain Melville (alias of Frank McCallum) c. 1823–1857 Goldfields region of Victoria Suicide
Captain Moonlite (alias of Andrew George Scott) 1842–1880 Victoria
New South Wales
Captain Starlight (alias of Frank Pearson) 1837–1889 New South Wales
Imprisoned, died a free man
Captain Thunderbolt (alias of Frederick Ward) 1835–1870 New South Wales Shot by police
Martin Cash c. 1808–1877 Van Diemen's Land Imprisoned, died a free man
Clarke brothers 1840/1846–1867 New South Wales Hanged
George Clarke (alias "The Barber") 1806–1835 Liverpool Plains in New South Wales Hanged
Patrick Daley 1844–? New South Wales Imprisoned, died a free man
Edward Davis ?–1841 Northern New South Wales Hanged
Jack Donahue c. 1806–1830 Sydney area Shot by police
Jack the Rammer (alias of William Roberts) ?–1834 South Eastern New South Wales Shot
John Dunn 1846–1866 Western New South Wales Hanged
Ralph Entwistle c. 1805–1830 New South Wales Hanged
Joe Flick c.1865–1889 Gulf Country of Queensland Shot dead by Native Police
John Francis c. 1825–? Goldfields region of Victoria Imprisoned, cause of death unknown
Frank Gardiner c. 1829–c. 1904 Western New South Wales Imprisoned, died a free man
John Gilbert 1842–1865 Western New South Wales Shot by police
Jimmy Governor 1875–1901 New South Wales Hanged
Ben Hall 1837–1865 Western New South Wales Shot by police
Steve Hart 1859–1880 North East Victoria Possible suicide
Michael Howe 1787–1818 Van Diemen's Land Shot by police
Thomas Jeffrey 1791–1826 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
George Jones c. 1815–1844 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
Lawrence Kavenagh c. 1805–1846 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
Dan Kelly c. 1861–1880 North East Victoria Possible suicide
Ned Kelly c. 1854–1880 North East Victoria Hanged
Patrick Kenniff 1865–1903 Queensland Hanged
John Kerney c. 1844–1892 South Australia Imprisoned, died a free man
Fred Lowry 1836–1863 New South Wales Shot by police
John Lynch 1813–1842 New South Wales Hanged
James McPherson 1842–1895 Queensland Imprisoned, died a free man
Moondyne Joe (alias of Joseph Johns) c. 1828–1900 Western Australia Imprisoned, died a free man
Dan Morgan c. 1830–1865 New South Wales Shot by police
Musquito c. 1780–1825 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
James Nesbitt 1858–1879 New South Wales Shot by police
John O'Meally 1841–1863 New South Wales Shot
George Palmer c. 1846–1869 Queensland Hanged
Alexander Pearce 1790–1824 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
John Peisley 1834–1862 New South Wales Hanged
Sam Poo ?–1865 New South Wales Hanged
Harry Power 1819–1891 North East Victoria Imprisoned, died a free man
Rocky (alias of John Whelan) c. 1805–1855 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
Owen Suffolk 1829–? Victoria Shot in prison
John Tennant 1794–1837 New South Wales Hanged
John Vane 1842–1906 New South Wales Imprisoned, died a free man
Wild Toby c. 1840–1883 Queensland Shot by police
William Westwood 1820–1846 New South Wales
Van Diemen's Land


  1. ^ Ian Potter Museum collection: Bushrangers Archived 28 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine, u21museums.unimelb.edu.au. Retrieved on 9 January 2011.
  2. ^ Hirst, John Bradley. Freedom on the Fatal Shore. Black Inc., 2008. ISBN 9781863952071, pp. 408–409.
  3. ^ a b c d e Wilson, Jane (14 April 2015). "Bushrangers in the Australian Dictionary of Biography", Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 14 June 2018.
  4. ^ "Bushranging". The Australian Encyclopedia. Vol. 2 (5th ed.). Australian Geographical Society. 1988. pp. 582–587. ISBN 1-862760004.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Bushrangers of Australia" (PDF). National Museum of Australia. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 September 2007. Retrieved 16 April 2007.
  6. ^ a b Boyce, James (2010). Van Diemen's Land. Black Inc.. ISBN 9781921825392. pp. 76–82.
  7. ^ "Capture of the Outlaw Clarke and His Brother". Empire (Sydney, NSW : 1850–1875). 29 April 1867. p. 5. Retrieved 4 August 2020.
  8. ^ "Felons Apprehension Act 1865" (PDF). Parliament of New South Wales. 8 April 1865.
  9. ^ Baxter, Carol. Captain Thunderbolt and his Lady: the true story of bushrangers Frederick Ward and Mary Ann Bugg. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2011. ISBN 978-1-74237-287-7
  10. ^ "Andrew George Scott (1842–1880)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 24 March 2024
  11. ^ "THE EXECUTION OF NED KELLY". West Australian. 23 November 1880. Retrieved 24 March 2024.
  12. ^ a b "The Governor Brothers | State Library of New South Wales". www2.sl.nsw.gov.au. Retrieved 29 December 2021.
  13. ^ a b Walsh, G. P., "Governor, Jimmy (1875–1901)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 30 December 2021
  14. ^ Johnson, Murray (2010). "Australian Bushrangers: Law, Retribution and the Public Imagination". In Robinson, Shirley; Lincoln, Robyn. Crime Over Time: Temporal Perspectives on Crime and Punishment in Australia. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 1–19. ISBN 9781443824569.
  15. ^ "Ned Kelly and the myth of a republic of North-Eastern Victoria". National Library of Australia. Retrieved 24 March 2024.
  16. ^ "How 'demon bushranger' Michael Howe fought off a 'drunken buffoon' governor and won". ABC News. 25 February 2023. Retrieved 24 March 2024.
  17. ^ "Old Windsor Road and Windsor Road Heritage Precincts". Heritage and conservation register. Roads & Traffic Authority. Archived from the original on 3 September 2007. Retrieved 20 April 2007.
  18. ^ Graulich, Melody; Tatum, Stephen. Reading the Virginian in the New West. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8032-7104-2
  19. ^ a b Australian film and television chronology: The 1910s Archived 29 August 2016 at Wikiwix, Australian Screen. Retrieved 8 October 2015.
  20. ^ Cooper, Ross; Pike, Andrew. Australian Film, 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production. Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780195507843.
  21. ^ Reade, Eric (1970) Australian Silent Films: A Pictorial History of Silent Films from 1896 to 1926. Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 59. See also Routt, William D. More Australian than Aristotelian:The Australian Bushranger Film, 1904–1914. Senses of Cinema 18 (January–February), 2002 Archived 24 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine. The banning of bushranger films in NSW is fictionalised in Kathryn Heyman's 2006 novel, Captain Starlight's Apprentice.

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