Bushranging its origins



Cyril Duncan sings the complete ‘My Name Is Edward Kelly’, a ballad learned from his father. Sung in the first person, the ballad is one of the most powerful ever recorded in oral tradition. Recorded by Warren Fahey, Hawthorne, Queensland, 1973. Mr Duncan, emotionally charged in singing the song, goes into a two verse anti=police ditty immediately after the ballad rendition.


Joe Watson, aged 92, sings the complete ‘Ballad of the Kelly Gang’, a song he learnt around 1910. Recorded by Warren Fahey, Caringbah, NSW, 1973.


The word bushranging is unique to Australia and comes from our very early adoption of the word ‘bush’ to describe the areas outside of what were our earliest towns. Originally used to describe scrubland it became a generic word to describe anywhere, be it the far outback or the coastal areas. The settlers, especially those from England, found it difficult to refer to the wild, often hostile bush as woods or forests, the terms they used back home. The bush became a symbol of impenetrable Australia – a place of both solitude and independence and frustration and danger. Many convicts ‘escaped’ from the chain gangs or stockades and made their way into the bush and, after a few days, returned to the safety of the camp. Children strayed into the bush surrounding Sydney and were declared ‘lost in the bush’. The word became part of our vocabulary in so many ways, many we still use today – bush walk, bushwhacked, bush tucker, bushland, bush camp, etc. The first documented use of the word ‘bushranger’ in print was in the Sydney Gazette of Feb. 17, 1805
It was natural that convicts who absconded into the bush would be referred to as bushrangers since the word ‘ranger’ was used in the context of ‘ranging the country’, meaning to travel. The convicts did not escape for adventure – these were desperate men under a desperate system and to many the thought of running through the bush to escape torturous conditions was not seen lightly. Most were terrified of being lost, poisoned by snakes, speared by Aborigines or eaten by some wild beast. There were no highways hence no highwaymen. Once these convicts had escaped they had to survive and petty attacks on farms were common. As they become more desperate so did their crimes including murder, rape and arson.
Jack Donahue (various spellings) was our first celebrity bushranger and not the last. The bushrangers came into their own with the discovery of gold in the 1850s and so did a litany of words associated with them including bail up! or bailed up which describes the act of robbery. Sticking up is another term associated with bushrangers. It also came into use for modern day holdups.

Australia had many very colourful bushrangers. Ned Kelly, Thunderbolt, Ben Hall and Frank Gardener lead the pack with ballads, poems and yarns that have been passed down for over a century.