Bushranging its origins


Depiction of an early bushranger ‘bail up’


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.

Jack Donahue death drawing









The death of the Bushranger, ‘Bold’ JACK DONAHOE.

Sydney Gazette. SYDNEY, Tuesday, September 7, 1830.

At one o’clock, yesterday. Major Smeathman, and a jury held an inquest at the Fox and Hounds, Castlereagh-street, on the body of John Donahoe, a prisoner of the Crown, by the Ann and Amelia. Having proceeded to view the body at the General Hospital, upon their return the following evidence was gone into.

Michael German said: I am a constable to Major Andll, of Stone-quarry Creek, and hold a Ticket-of-Leave. On the afternoon of the 1st instant, I was on duty in the neighbourhood of Bringelly, about a mile and a-half from Mr Lowe’s. There were two constables, and six of the mounted police in company with me, and we had been in die bush for the fortnight previous in search of Donahoe, Walmsley and Webber.

About 5 o’clock, our sentry saw a person, whom he took for Mr Parley, the Chief Constable, who had gone for provisions. We thereupon got up, and perceived at a considerable distance (I suppose a mile and a-half), three men and a horse, which appeared to have a pack-saddle upon it. This horse was black, and as Mr Parley’s horse was grey, we knew it could not be him. The sergeant then ordered us to pursue. The bushrangers were at this time near the bank of a creek, and to avoid losing them if they crossed, we separated, the sergeant and two men proceeded along the left side, while, myself and others, went cautiously to the right. This was on Mr Wentworth’s farm.

We got to within a hundred yards of them unperceived, when suddenly espying us, they made preparations for defence, and Donahoe exclaimed, “Come on, you cowardly rascals, we are ready if there’s a dozen of you!” The bushrangers then got each behind a tree, and a conversation of some length ensued, about fighting.

After a lapse of nearly half an hour, one of the police-men fired, his shot knocking the bark from the tree behind which Webber was situated. I now levelled my piece, which went off at the same moment with those dis-charged by two of the robbers. In about another minute one of the soldiers named Muckleston, fired, and I instantly saw the man now stated to be Donahoe fall. We pursued the others and after going a considerable pace, in consequence of the night coming on, were compelled to give over the pursuit.

John Muckleston corroborated the testimony of the last witness, and stated further, that the bushrangers were in a hollow surrounded by bush, by which means they were prevented from observing our approach. When Donahoe saw us lie took his hat off waved it three times, threw it in the air, and bid us defiance in the language made use of by the last witness.

Wm. Hodson sworn— I am a sergeant of the 57th, and attached to the mounted police. I was out in the neighbourhood of Bringelly on the ist instant, under orders from Mr M’Arthur and Mr M’Allister to scour the bush thoroughly, and remain out till I brought in Donahoe, Walmsley and Webber, who, from previous information were known to be in that direction. The latter two were known to me, and Dr Gibson stated that he knew the other to be Donahoe, who was described as a native of Dublin, 23 years of age, five feet four inches in height, brown freckled complexion, flaxen hair, blue eyes and has a scar under the left nostril.

When we returned to Donahoe, he was in his last agonies. One ball had entered his neck and the other his forehead. Private Muckleston having loaded his carbine with a carbine ball and a pistol ball. I kept the body where we were for the night, and brought it to Liverpool and then to Sydney last Saturday, together with the property found on the pack-horse. The witness here produced a watch, several deeds, grants of land and transfers, together with some female wearing apparel, about 150 Ibs of flour and some meat. The papers were all identified as the property of a person named Begley, residing at Prospect, from whom they were stolen about a week before.

The jury after consulting about five minutes returned the verdict of — Justifiable homicide.

Thus is the Colony rid of one of the most dangerous spirits that ever infested it, and happy would it be were those of like disposition to take warning by bold Jack Donahoe’s awful fate. These are the verses of the ballad.

Bold Jack Donahoe

In Dublin town I was brought up, in that city of great fame—

My decent friends and parents, they will tell to you the same.

It was for the sake of five hundred pounds I was sent across the main,

For seven long years in New South Wales to wear a convict’s chain.


Then come, my hearties, we’ll roam the mountains high !

Together we will plunder, together we will die

We’ll wander over the mountains and we’ll gallop over plains—

For we scorn to live in slavery, bound down in iron chains.

I’d scarce been there twelve months or more upon the Australian shore, When I took to the highway, as I’ve oft-times done before. 

There was me and Jacky Underwood, and Webber and Walmsley, too,

These were the true associates of bold Jack Donahoe.

Chorus: Then come, &c.

Now Donahoe was taken, all for a notorious crime,

And sentenced to be hanged upon the gallows-tree so high. 

But when they came to Sydney gaol he left them in a stew,

And when they came to call the roll they missed bold Donahoe.

Chorus: Then come, &c.

As Donahoe made his escape, to the bush he went straightway.

The people they were all afraid to travel night and day—

For every week in the newspapers there was published something new

Concerning this dauntless hero, the bold Jack Donahoe I

Chorus: Then come, &c.

As Donahoe was cruising, one summer’s afternoon,    

Little was his notion his death was near so soon. 

When a sergeant of the horse police discharged his carbine,

And called aloud on Donahoe to fight or resign.

Chorus: Then come, &c.

“’Resign to you— you cowardly dogs, is a thing I ne’er will do,

For I’ll fight this night with all my might,” cried bold Jack Donahoe. 

“I’d rather roam these hills and dales, like wolf or kangaroo,

Than work one hour for Government!” cried bold Jack Donahoe.

Chorus: Then come, &c.

He fought six rounds with the horse police until the fatal ball,

Which pierced his heart and made him start, caused Donahoe to fall.  And as he closed his mournful eyes, he bade this world adieu.

Saying, “Convicts all, both large and small, say prayers for Donahoe !”

Chorus: Then come &c.