Synopsis of the Event – Billabong Creek

One of history most popular Bushrangers, Ben Hall, was shot and killed by police on 5 May 1865, after a three-year crime spree in central West NSW. An informant had led the police party to Hall’s camping spot near Billabong Creek northwest of Forbes and they waited in ambush for him to arrive.

According to inquest statements by Sub-Inspector James Davidson who led the search for Hall, and his second-in-charge Sergeant James Condell, Ben Hall was identified on the night of May 4th 1865, while he camped in the scrub.  The police surrounded his camp and waited in ambush.

Davidson claims that early on the morning 5 May, as Hall walked to collect his horses he was called on to surrender. When he didn’t, Davidson fired the first shot as Hall turned and ran. Hall was then fired upon by Condell, Aboriginal tracker Billy Dargin, four more constables and another tracker. Hall was gunned down and killed in the ensuing melee.

When Ben Hall’s body was returned to Forbes and placed on public display, the sight of his bullet riddled remains triggered public outrage. Despite the police account that Hall was gunned down while trying to escape, rumours were rife amongst the locals that the police had outright executed Hall without giving him the chance to surrender.

Controversy surrounds the actual event as to whether Hall was asleep when he was shot, or whether he was in fact armed and trying to escape and how many shots were fired on him after he was hit and wounded.

 

Inquest

An inquest was heard in Forbes the day after the shooting event (6 May 1865). No original papers from the inquest survived, but the evidence given was reported verbatim in the newspapers of the day. Both Sub-Inspector Davidson and Sergeant Condell gave evidence. While parts of the officer’s statements are similar to each other; other parts are inconsistent.

Map drawn by Sub Inspector Davidson after the ambush and death of Ben Hall. It describes in incredible detail, the locations and movements of the police contingent and Bell Hall in his last hours.

Crucially neither mentioned whether Ben Hall did in fact have a gun in his hand at the time of the shooting.  Both local storekeeper William Jones and publican John Newall who knew Ben Hall gave evidence and identified the body as that of the rogue bushranger.

 

Character Bios:

Ben Hall (1837-1865)
The bushranger Ben Hall, is believed to have been born on 9 May 1837 at Maitland, New South Wales, son of Benjamin Hall and his wife Elizabeth; both parents were ex-convicts. He became a stockman and with his brother in law, John McGuire leased a run, Sandy Creek, near Wheogo. On 29 February 1856 at Bathurst Ben Hall married Bridget Walsh of Wheogo. Her sister Kitty became Frank Gardiner’s mistress. On the orders of Sir Frederick Pottinger, Hall was arrested in April 1862 at a race meeting for armed robbery but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. By then his wife had left him taking their infant son Henry. In July he was detained for his share in the infamous Eugowra gold escort robbery but again the case against Hall was dismissed for lack of evidence. Escalating legal costs probably forced Hall and McGuire e to quit the lease of Sandy Creek. On 14 March 1863, Frederick Pottinger burnt down Hall’s home. Embittered, Hall joined John Gilbert and became leader of a gang of bushrangers.

Hall was probably the most efficient of the bushranger leaders. His men were well armed and superbly mounted, often on stolen racehorses, which easily outpaced the police nags. Some of their holdups seem designed only to defy the police: on their daredevil raid on Bathurst in October 1863 they took little loot and at Canowindra they offered food, drink and festivity to all for three days, but drank little themselves and left the town empty-handed. On 24 October in a raid on Henry Keightley’s homestead at Dunn’s Plains Mickey Burke, one of the gang was shot. Hall prevented Burke’s mate, John Vane from shooting Keightley in revenge and accepted the £500 ransom procured by Mrs Keightley. John Vane surrendered to the police soon after and in November at David Campbell’s Goimbla Station, John O’Meally; another member of the gang was shot dead.

Gilbert returned to Victoria to visit his family and Hall was joined by ‘The Old Man’ (James Mount) and John Dunleavy – neither of whom lasted particularly long. When Gilbert returned soon after, John Dunn joined the gang.   In late 1864 they concentrated on the Sydney-Melbourne Road around Goulburn. On 15 November they held the road near Jugiong and robbed some sixty travellers; while holding up the Gundagai-Yass mail Gilbert shot Sergeant Parry. Then on 27 January 1865 Dunn shot Constable Nelson at Collector. Under the Felons Apprehension Act, which was soon passed by Parliament, meant that individuals named in the Act could be proclaimed an outlaw and any citizen was permitted to shoot without warning; proclamations declaring Hall and his companion’s outlaws were due to be gazetted on 10 May.  Their only safety was to keep on the move. It is said, that Hall with £1000 on his head, had decided to quit bushranging but was betrayed to the police by an informer.

On 5 May he was ambushed and shot by the police near Billabong Creek on the Lachlan plain. His body, riddled with gunshot wounds, was buried in the cemetery at Forbes. His funeral was ‘rather numerously attended’ for his reckless courage; courtesy to women, humour and hatred of informers had won him a sympathy not shared by his more bloodthirsty colleagues.

 

Sub-Inspector John Henry Davidson

Sub-Inspector Davidson was stationed at Forbes Police Station from c1862.  Born 1840 in Bathurst of Scottish migrant parents.

Sub Inspector Davidson (Far Left)

His father, Walker Rennie Davidson was Surveyor General of NSW 1864-1868.  In 1862 JH Davidson was a Sub-Inspector aged 23 years and assumed command of Forbes Police after the dismissal of Sir Frederick Pottinger in 1865.  His deployment to Bathurst region after 1862 saw him involved in the search for Frank

Gardiner and soon also Hall, Gilbert and O’Meally.  Davidson shot himself accidently in the foot in 1863 during a gunfight with Gilbert and O’Meally as they attacked the Carcoar coach that was carrying three prisoners.  Pottinger’s dismissal (for riding in a horse race at Forbes) meant Davidson was promoted just as information regarding Hall’s whereabouts came through in April.

Following the Hall saga, Davidson went on to become the Inspector of Police for the SW NSW at Deniliquin from 1869, where he was also appointed magistrate in 1870.  In 1872 he moved with his wife and young family to Armidale in northern NSW where he took command of the Northern police district.  He resigned in 1874, first to manage the family sheep farm and later moving to Toowoomba to manage another sheep property.  Davidson died 1914, aged 74.

 

Billy Dargin + Charley Edwards: Aboriginal Trackers

Billy Dargin was born on the Bogan River in about 1843.  Little is known about his parents, and it is thought that he obtained his surname through working for a squatter named Peter Dargin, who owned land in the Bathurst area and further out west.  It is said that “Dargin is common Aboriginal surname from the Bogan River particularly near its headwaters in the Peak Hill district.”  Billy Dargin’s part in the story of the police team who shot and killed Ben Hall, is still remembered today.

Billy Dargin assisted with pursuing Hall and his gang throughout 1864.  The Forbes Museum holds a document entitled, The Forbes Police Diary of Duties and Occurrences, which contains details about the work in the lead up to Halls death, of Billy Dargin and another Aboriginal tracker named Charley Edwards.

Both Dargin and Edwards were part of the heavily armed patrol, which left Forbes on Saturday 29 April and ended in the death of Hall.  Sub-Inspector Davidson led the police patrol. In his account of the events, Davidson reported that Dargin was one of the police who fired his double-barrelled gun and struck Hall in the torso.

Davidson had praised Dargin for his part in the pursuit and death of Ben Hall. He wrote that the “coolness, courage and determination” shown by him were “worthy of some substantial reward.” However, Davidson was critical of Charley Edwards, stating this his behaviour did not warrant anything beyond “some slight recompense”. No details were given, but from available accounts of the event, it appears that Edwards did not take part in the shooting.

In a shocking twist of events, both Billy Dargin and Charley Edwards were both dead before the end of 1865. Dargin continued his employment with the police until the end of October. Within a week of leaving the police, Dargin experienced agonising pains on the following Saturday morning and was dead by midday. He was buried the following day in the Presbyterian section of Forbes cemetery; no mourners attended. The accepted account is that remorse over the shooting of Hall drove Dargin to alcoholism, which soon resulted in ill health and ultimately death.

The bigger mystery surrounds the death of Charley Edwards. In August 1865, within a month of leaving the police, his remains were found near Grudgery Station. Both his feet were missing from his body, allegedly taken by wild dogs. Authorities identified his remains from his clothing found nearby and, from the skull, which, like Edwards was missing a front tooth.

It has been suggested that both met with foul play. Hall supporters were horrified by the manner in which he was killed, many calling the shooting a “cowardly act.”  There was little to be gained by wreaking their revenge on the police, but two former unprotected trackers may have been considered fair game. It is worth remembering that the massacres of the frontier were well within living memory in the mid-1860s and that generally, Aboriginal lives were considered less worthy than others. It is unlikely that proof will be found, but the timing and manner of their deaths raise suspicions.

 

Bridget ‘Biddy’ Walsh

Portrait of Biddy Walsh – Ben Hall’s wife.

Bridget Walsh was the second of three daughters and of John Walsh, a landowner at Wheogo, between Forbes and Lambing Flat. Her sister Ellen Walsh married John McGuire who owned a part share in the Sandy Creek Run adjacent to Wheogo. Ben Hall was the other shareholder in Sandy Creek.  \Bridget and Hall were married at St Michael’s Catholic Church on 29 Feb 1856, with the wedding witnessed by John and Ellen McGuire. Bridget gave birth to a son, Henry, in 1858, but there were rumours of an earlier child who probably died in childbirth.

Around 1861-62 Bridget left Hall, taking Henry with her to live with a flash Wheogo stockman named James Taylor. Ben Hall forcibly removed Henry from Bridget in early 1864 and took him to his (Hall’s) brother at Pinnacle Reef. Henry was returned when Bridget and Taylor had a summons issued against him for illegal detention of a child.

 


Felon’s Apprehension Act 1865

The Felons Apprehension Act to ‘facilitate the taking or apprehending of Persons charged with certain Felonies and the punishment of those by whom they are harboured’ [8th April, 1865.], was passed in direct response to the bushranger threat as perceived in 1865.  The Act stated that a Judge could issue a warrant for the surrender of a person considered to be a person charged with a felon punishable by death and to be then at large or escaped from custody, to surrender themselves by a certain date.  If the person failed to do so, a notice could be published in the Government Gazette, as well as one or more Sydney newspaper and one or more country newspaper, declaring them as an outlaw and allowing for an officer of the law or any other person to use a deadly weapon to assist in the apprehension of the outlaw whether a call to surrender had been given or not.  No consequences could be bought against anyone who acted within the Act.

Further, anyone seen to be harbouring a felon, supplying them with weapons, horses or other goods or withholding information could be charged with a felonry as well and be subject to imprisonment for up to 15 years.  Their property, including land and goods could also be seized.

Hall, Gilbert and Dunn had been called on to surrender by the gaoler at Goulburn Gaol, which they failed to do by 29 April 1865.   According to the law he was due to be proclaimed an outlaw on 10 May 1865 – five days after he was killed. Therefore at the time of this death, Hall was not yet officially an outlaw. The police killing of Ben Hall was not strictly legal.