Ben Hall’s Gang – what really happened at Jugiong?

…the murder of sergeant Parry was probably the first murder that could be brought home to the offenders Gilbert and Hall…

So wrote the Inspector-General of Police, John McLerie, to the Colonial Secretary, William Forster, on November 23, 1864, setting in motion the series of events that would lead to the downfall of Ben Hall and the gang that had terrorised outback New South Wales for nearly three years.

A week earlier, on November 16, four miles outside Jugiong, Ben Hall, John Gilbert and John Dunn were waiting to ambush the Gundagai mail coach on its way to Yass. Fore-warned of a potential assault, Sub-inspector William Gregg O’Neill and Sergeant Edmund Parry of the Gundagai police rode behind the coach ready to come forward to meet any attack. Riding beside the driver was constable William Roche of the Yass police, escorting the coach on its return journey, and inside the cab, one passenger, twenty-seven year old Gundagai Police Magistrate, Alfred Cyrus Spencer Rose, sat with the curtains closed and no expectation of what awaited them.

As the coach approached a hill four miles outside Jugiong, the coach driver signalled to O’Neill and Parry, who rode up to the coach and saw what the others had – about forty people being held at gunpoint by three heavily armed men ranged at the top of the hill, who, when they saw the police, deliberately bore down on them in a determined attack.

As Hall and Dunn engaged O’Neill he fought it out with them, even striking a blow to Hall’s head with the butt of his carbine, while Gilbert took on Parry. O’Neill was one of the best police officers in the force with an unprecedented reputation and his preparations for an attack had been well above and beyond the usual, but by the end of the afternoon, Sgt Parry had been shot dead, constable Roche had fled into the bush with the arms and ammunition and O’Neill had been forced to surrender.

Why? The real reason has been locked behind rumour and folklore for over a hundred years – until now. The events at Jugiong became the basis of two inquiries, one in public, the other behind closed doors, and both are covered in detail in The O’Neills of Queanbeyan. One incredible fact disclosed during the public hearing into the constable who fled was that, out of fear the bushrangers would turn their attention to the coach, the Police Magistrate ordered him not to fire. At the time, the police were under requirement to obey the instructions of any magistrate in the territory and accordingly constable Roche complied. O’Neill’s response to that was straightforward and direct – when he found Roche the next day he removed him of his arms saying he was not fit to wear them, dismissed him from the force and had him charged with desertion. It was at the public hearing into Roche’s desertion that the Police Magistrate admitted his part in the events that had led to Parry’s death. An equally unimpressed Premier, Charles Cowper, made plain his thoughts on that during a second inquiry held into the encounter, made necessary by the deaths of Hall and Gilbert and held many months later after a witness of dubious motive tried to  raise questions about O’Neill.

Although never made public, much more was also revealed and with the true details of the Colonial Secretary’s private inquiry related for the first time in The O’Neills of Queanbeyan, finally, what really happened at Jugiong and what it meant for bushranging history can be examined.

Warrants had been immediately issued for the arrest of John Gilbert for murder and Ben Hall and John Dunn for aiding and abetting. Contrary to what has become popular belief, Insp-gen. McLerie wanted the gang to be captured alive and put on trial so that the details of the Jugiong raid could be heard in court in public. However, while Parry’s was the first murder that could be definitively placed at the Hall gang’s feet, it was not the last and by May, 1865, Hall had been shot dead, soon followed by Gilbert in June. Dunn had escaped, but following his dramatic capture, escape and re-capture he was sentenced to death for the murder of another innocent police officer, Constable Nelson, who Dunn shot with a gun Ben Hall put into his hand with the instruction to “manage the situation”, during a raid at Collector, rendering a trial for the events at Jugiong unnecessary. In March, 1866, still a teenager, Dunn was hanged, a pitiful end for a boy enticed onto the road by unscrupulous men.

At the same time that Dunn was awaiting the gallows in Darlinghurst, O’Neill was experiencing a battle of a different kind. With the aid of the press, the public and one of the most incisive minds in Australia’s history, that of the Colonial Secretary at the time, Charles Cowper, he had survived the encounter at Jugiong with his reputation intact, but, still venturing where angels fear to tread, he soon found himself facing a whole new level of danger after he arrested the Chief Justice’s nephew for cheque fraud and the President of the Legislative Council’s former cattle overseer – for cattle-stealing.

At no time was the Chief Justice, one of the great men in Australia’s judicial history,  himself implicated in any wrongdoing by his nephew or the controversial events that surrounded him, but the scandal that arose from it was such that he almost resigned.

With the aid of documents from the Colonial Secretary’s files never before discussed in public and much other research, the raid at Jugiong is described in The O’Neills of Queanbeyan in a level of detail never before covered in Australian history as are the events that led to O’Neill’s dismissal from the force in March, 1866, albeit with his name intact, the beleaguered man of substance having emerged from one of the biggest legal scandals of the time, his removal due neither to the Jugiong raid nor misconduct on his part.

By the early 1900s, the truth surrounding Ben Hall and his gang had been superseded by myth and total concoction, as had the reputation of the New South Wales police, the folklore surrounding bushranging having assumed such proportions as to make exposure, discussion and analysis of real events difficult for even the best of historians.

It’s time to bust the myths. Ben Hall was neither a struggling selector nor an innocent man forced onto the road by police persecution. With several of his family, Ben Hall lived on the 10000 acre “Sandy Creek” station on the Lachlan, adjacent to his mother-in-law’s even larger “Wheogo” property. In June, 1862, Ben Hall had taken an active part in the Eugowra escort raid, when under the command of Frank Gardiner, several men ambushed and shot four police officers in an organised attack. One of the perpetrators, a good friend of Hall’s, Daniel Chartres, turned Crown evidence and a relative of Hall’s by marriage, Member of Parliament, J. J. Harpur, claimed that Hall evaded conviction  only because he paid Chartres to leave his name out of his testimony. Hall also paid good money to his lawyer, William Redman, to my knowledge, identified for the first time by myself as the Member for Queanbeyan at the time, O’Neill’s former home district, to get him off. In 1863, Hall captured a police Sub-inspector, Norton, who he sent back into town minus his horse. By the early 1900s a tale had started to appear that Hall had apparently written to a local newspaper that he had said to Norton on that occasion that he had turned to bushranging because the police had supposedly arrested him for nothing and burned his house down while he was in jail, during which time his wife left him and his stock were left to perish. The myth about that letter has gained great circulation and has been the main basis for the persecution theory, appearing in many accounts of Hall’s supposed history. However, it is unreferenced, unverified and whether it existed or not, its contents are indisputably incorrect.

There are marked similarities between Gardiner and Halls’ gang and the Clarke-Connell gang that lived in the Jingerra mountains straddling the Queanbeyan and Braidwood districts and it is no coincidence that they were at times collaborators. They each consisted of an entire clan of families and associates, with similar antecedents and lack of socialising influences, living within large tracts of land, geographically favoured by isolating terrain. This and more specific circumstances in Hall’s life provide sufficient explanation for the lifestyle he chose to adopt. It is correct that Ben Hall’s house was burned but the circumstances of that are very different from those related in the persecution version, not the least of which being that he was not even in jail at the time.

Not surprisingly, it was Hall’s lawyer, Redman, who originally came up with the persecution theory, but even he admitted Hall’s latter guilt.

The following excerpts from The O’Neills of Queanbeyan go some way toward returning to the realms of reality a man around whom dangerous myths have been woven which mask only the truth about significant events and a lot of genuinely good people.

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The chapter on William Gregg O’Neill in The O’Neills of Queanbeyan covers O’Neill’s career and the relationship between the bushrangers and the police during a time that the police were under scrutiny and political debate surrounded the introduction of the new Police Regulation Act in 1862.

For background as to Ben Hall and his gang specifically, Mark Paul Matthews’ website, “Ben Hall, Australian Bushranger”, provides detailed information. Importantly, Matthews provides an image from the diary of a police officer who was present when Ben Hall’s house was burned, direct evidence of a pivotal piece of information that dispenses with the persecution fallacy surrounding Ben Hall that arose after his death.