The meaning of the word "Bushranger" has evolved over the years. In the early years of European settlement it referred to a good bushman with the hunting, horsemanship and survival skills needed to live in the Australian 'bush', the later and more accurate description of an outlaw, horse thief, cattle duffer (rustler) and robber came into being soon after settlement.
From 1788 to 1868 there were 140,000 males and 25,000 females transported to Australia, most of these were thieves, they were sentenced to a minimum of seven years to "life" for those who had committed more serious crimes, from this rich source came the first bushrangers.
The Convict Bushrangers
All of them were poor, and lived a mean existence in crowded prisons or hulks (prison ships), with poor food, hard labour and brutal punishment for wrongs. They worked for the wealthy landowners and free settlers, as well as constructing the roads, bridges and buildings for the new colony.
Many could not bear it and became 'bolters', preferring to take their chances escaping into the bush. Alone in rough country without posessions they 'bailed up' travellers and robbed farms for money, horses, food, guns and clothing, and became the first bushrangers. 'The years of brutal treatment in prison, lack of food, and the need always to stay ahead of the police and settlers' guns, meant that normal standards of behaviour no longer applied for them' They had no respect for the rights of others, had nothing to lose for their robbery and murder and were greatly feared. Many escapees had little chance of surviving in the bush of their new country. Few lived long in freedom. Some died of starvation, sickness or exposure, or were killed by the police and landowners. Those who were captured alive were hanged or flogged and those that survived died in prison or exile.
Gold FeverThe second factor that led to bushranging was the gold rush of the 1850's 1860's which saw a mass exodus from the coastal cities to the ranges. Traffic on the roads to the early goldfields at Orange and Turon in New South Wales and Ballarat in Victoria was heavy. There were no banks on the gold fields, you carried your gold on you. Those who struck it rich became an easy target for those who preferred stealing to working. Many diggers were robbed or killed. 'On the Kiandra diggings in New South Wales in the 1860s, diggers formed the Miners' Protection Committee to protect their gold from the raids of Frank Gardiner's gang..Bushrangers held people up on the lonely roads near the gold fields and raided wealthy squatters with properties near the gold towns.
The Wild Colonial Boys
Unlike the convicts who chose to take their risks in the bush to escape the harsh conditions of captivity, the next wave of bushrangers were native born, bush bred youths and young men, the sons in most cases of free poor settlers, who combined contempt for authority with a spirit of reckless adventure. They were stronger, healthier and better horsemen than their forebears, and some such as Captain Starlight, were eagre to acquire notoriety. Some like 'Mad' Dan Morgan were ruthless and vicious murderers, but others were almost admired for their daring,flashness and treatment of women. Four of the most notorious were Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall, Fred Ward AKA Captain Thunderbolt and Ned Kelly.
By far the most famous of these are the Kelly's.
More books, songs, and films have been written about the Kelly's than any other group of Australian bushrangers. Opinion about them is still strong and sharply divided.
John 'Red' Kelly born in 1820 in Tipperary, Ireland (d. 1866) and was transported from Ireland to Van Diemens Land in 1841 for stealing pigs. He and his wife, Ellen Quinn (b. co Antrim, Ireland, 1832) had four children Edward b June 1855, James b 1860, Daniel b 1861, and a daughter, Kate. Their rebellious spirit, resentment of the wealthy and contempt for authority was passed to their children growing up in a closely knit community near Greta in north-eastern Victoria.
When hard working small farmers could only make a meagre living, the Kelly boys found it easy to justify stealing horses to make extra money and they were pursued by the police from their teenage years.
The family stuck together. Even Ellen was jailed in 1878 for attempted murder when the constable who arrived to pick up Dan was injured.
With friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, they took to the hills to escape the police. Unlike many other bushrangers the Kelly gang robbed banks, hotels and rich property owners, not the locals and travellers.
Other members of the Kelly Gang were Steve Hart and Joe Byrne. Despite the heroic light cast by posterity, they were all quite prepared to kill to escape arrest. Two police were murdered in October 1878 at Stringybark Creek provoking public outrage and a bounty of £2000 was offered.After hiding out in the hills for a couple of months the gang rode into Euroa and stuck up the bank taking £2000, this time without killing. Early in 1879 they held up the Jerilderie Police Station, Hotel and Bank.
Meanwhile the gang lay low and planned a showdown at Glenrowan which began on 26 June 1880 when Byrne shot informer Aaron Sherrit dead. The gang sang and talked to sixty-two hostages all day while they waited in the hotel for the arrival of a trainload of Melbourne police. The police surrounded the hotel in the small hours of the morning. At dawn there was a shoot out, started by Ned in his famous suit of armour.
An early likeness of Ned Kelly wearing his famous suit of amour created from plough shares it offered protection to both the head and body but not to arms and legs, all of which suffered many gunshot wounds in the ensuing battle.
Byrne and two hostages were mortally wounded in a gun fight reportedly witnessed by six hundred spectators. The bodies of Steve Hart and Dan Kelly were burned when police set fire to the hotel and Ned was taken prisoner.
Ned was sent to Melbourne for trial and sentenced to death. He was hanged on 11 November 1880. The next year the Kelly outbreak was the subject of a Royal Commission which heavily reprimanded police handling of the affair. Ned was survived by his mother Ellen, sister Kate, and younger brother Jim.