Carcoar a portrait of a Country Town

Carcoar and Bushrangers in New South Wales

My mate Graham Howarth, who is now in his mid sixties, was born in the New South Wales country town of Carcoar, the third oldest town west of the Blue Mountains, and situated on the banks of the Belubula River, a tributary of the Lachlan. Carcoar has strong connections to our bushranger history and was itself a wild town – in April, 1841, Carcoar was threatened with martial law for being a lawless neighbourhood!

The town was host to the bushrangers Curran and both the Frank Gardiner and Ben Hall Gangs. Even the original ‘Wild Colonial Boy’, Jack Donohue, once rode the neighbouring hills.

The following extracted from a privately produced pamphlet dated 1974 (Peter King, Carcoar). Peter, who operated Carcoar Antiques, at ‘Stoke House’ captures the local history flavour of the district including local reminiscences.

The Carcoar district has been called “Ben Hall Country”, and not without reason, as bushrangers were a serious problem in the early days, culminating in a reign of terror in the early 1860’s.

On 19th September, 1828, the exploits of a desperate gang of bushrangers around Bathurst and the Campbell River were reported in the press. The establishments of Thomas Arkell (Charlton), West, Armstrong, James Hassal, Dr. Harris, H. O’Brien and T. Mein were plundered. The notorious Jack Donohoe, who was the original for the song “The Wild Colonial Boy” was in the party. He was shot dead in September two years later in a similar raid.

The country in the Carcoar district was the haunt of many escaped convicts and bushrangers, including Curran, captured in May 1841, but for the most parts their periods of lawlessness were short-lived.

Ben Hall is often mentioned as having been born at Breeza, on the Liverpool Plains, in February 1837. In June 1863, however bush ranging researcher, Peter Bradley, says this isn’t possible as Breeza didn’t exist at the time. He says Hall’s father, Benjamin Hall, worked for a Samuel Clift on the Doona run (near Murrurundi).. “While Benjamin was working s overseer on this very isolated run his wife Eliza and their children were living in Maitland. Eliza was a maid at Clift’s House – known as Bridge House, by the river at Maitland. (Bridge House was built in 1830s and still survives).” I defer to Peter and state that Hall was born at Maitland.

Young Ben Hall started bushranging at Lambing Flat, which became too hot for him, and the gang decided to cut across country to Carcoar.

The Commercial Bank, which had opened that year, was a very tempting source of revenue, and Hall and Gilbert entered and held up the Chief Clerk, Mr. J. Parker.  The Manager, James McDonald, had just crossed the street to see a friend and happened to look back as the men enter-ed. He had a feeling something was wrong, and hurried back. When he saw what was happening, he rushed outside for help but the diversion of McDonald’s entrance had given Parker time to seize a pistol and fire a shot. This was heard outside and the bushrangers fled, realising help was on the way.

They then robbed a store at Caloola between New-bridge and Rockley and, about a week later, on the night of 2nd August, 1863, they paid a visit to Coombing Park in search of fresh horses. The stables were about 150 yards from the house and were in the charge of Charley the Ger-man. He saw movement in the stables and went to investigate, and when he saw two horses being led out, he fired.  The fire returned and he was struck in the mouth. Mr.  Icely and his visitor, Superintendent E. N. V. Morisset of the Bathurst Police, who was in the district investigating the lawlessness, came running out just in time to see the bushrangers departing with some horses, including Comus II, a very valuable thoroughbred. Charley the German slowly recovered under the care of Dr. Rowlands of Carcoar, and Comus II was eventually let loose after the men had made good use of him, and returned to Coombing Park.

The next exploit of the gang was to try and rescue three men suspected of aiding them and who were being taken to Bathurst by coach. Trooper Sutton was wounded but managed to put the bushrangers to flight. Hundreds of volunteers turned up in Carcoar and scoured the bush for the gang who cut across country in the direction of Abercrombie Ranges. At seven that evening they held up Chesher’s Inn and Teasdale Park and were next heard of at Trunkey Creek where they robbed three stores and a hotel.

Three troopers searching for the bushrangers stopped at the property of a man named Marsh near Carcoar for refreshment. The bushrangers swooped on them, tied them with their own handcuffs, and after much mirth they left them. They then held up the Bathurst-Carcoar mail and picked the pockets of the passengers, including those of Owen Beardsmore, Police Magistrate at Carcoar from 1859-1862.

They left the Carcoar district for a while and after murdering a man named Barnes at Murrumburrah they held up Grubbenbung near Garland, the property of John Louden.

From there, on September 26th 1863, they went direct to Cliefden, the property of Mr. William Rothery. They ate a hearty dinner, toasted each other on Mr. Rothery’s champagne and sherry and rode off on three of his best horses.

They then held up the property of Mr. T. Grant on the Belubula River and later took complete possession of the little township of Canowindra for two days. They lived in Mr. Robinson’s hotel in grand style, terrified the inhabit-ants and before leaving, they robbed the local store.

After stealing fresh mounts from Thomas Icely’s Bangaroo on the banks of the Lachlan, they cut across country and two days later they met two residents of Bathurst named Randolph McHattie and B. Battye near Mulgannia, Trunkey Creek. The men tried to strike a bargain with the bushrangers, and offered to run a race with them or have a boxing match but Ben Hall decided it was too risky. They stole their horses and rode off to raid Calloola again.

The next exploit was to raid Bathurst which caused a great sensation. They escaped and on October 24th 1863 held up Henry Keightley, the Police Magistrate, at Dunn’s Plains near Rockley. Henry Keightlley and a friend, Dr. Peechey, shot it out with the bushrangers and one of the gang, Michael Burke, was killed. (Ben Hall in error shot and badly wounded Burke, but let Vane think otherwise to avoid trouble. Burke, fearing the gallows, shot himself in the head.

Keightley was taken prisoner and his wifee and Dr.  Peechey drove through the night to her father, Henry Rotten, to get £500 ransom money for Keightley. They were successful, Keightley was released, and the gang escaped.

The next targets were Canowindra, Bangaroo and Mr.  Grant’s property on the Belubula River, Carcoar. O’Meally was shot dead on 19th ‘November, 1863, by Mr. D. H. Campbell on Goimbla Station, near Forbes,  and later two more members joined the depleted gang- They operated in the Young district for ii while and then returned once again to the long-suffering Canowindra, and then to Cliefden. There they found the house so well prepared that they were afraid to touch it. However, they stole three or four horses and set fire to a haystack containing 14 tons of hay, which, with a large shed, was entirely destroyed.

For the next eighteen months, they operated in Yass, Goulburn and Braidwood districts, and in May 1865 both Hall and Gilbert were shot dead in separate encounters with the police.

The deaths of Ben Hall and Gilbert was the end of the reign of terror in the Carcoar district. In July, 1865, a local correspondent wrote to the Sydney Mail. “Our district has been very quiet since the bushranging gangs have been destroyed, and many persons for the last 2 to 3 years have never travelled without being well-armed, are now without weapons.”