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Making a Nation: Bushrangers

Were bushrangers villains or heroes? | Sydney Living MuseumsSource: Sydney Living Museums

With the influx of people and wealth to the Australian colonies due to the gold rush also came the rise of bushrangers, outlaws who robbed travellers and towns in the Australian bush. Ned Kelly and his Kelly Gang are the best known of the bushrangers, but there were many others that you may not have heard of. Read through the resources below to learn more about bushrangers and the impact they had on Australia's national identity.

Bushrangers (National Museum of Australia, n.d.)

This website looks at some of the more famous bushrangers in Australian history, with a focus on the infamous Kelly Gang.

Bushrangers (State Library of Victoria, n.d.)

In the Victorian bush, one type of criminal reigned supreme: the tough and ruthless bushranger. Despite all their crimes against police and the general population, Victoria's outlaws have always ignited public fascination and sometimes sympathy. From Dan ‘Mad Dog' Morgan to Ned Kelly, the bushranger is an icon of 19th century life in the bush. Learn who these men (and occasionally women) were, what they did, and why they had such a huge impact on Victoria's criminal history with this website.

The bold, the bad and the ugly: Australia's wild colonial boys (Royal Australian Mint, n.d.)

Read through this website to find brief summaries of some of Australia's more famous bushrangers.

Iron Outlaw

This website contains a wealth of information about Ned Kelly, including links to pop culture and links to primary sources.

Captain Thunderbolt (State Library of NSW, n.d.)

This article tells the story of "gentleman bushranger" Captain Thunderbolt, who was active in NSW in the mid 1800s.

Were bushrangers villains or heroes? (Sydney Living Museums, n.d.)

Bushrangers were criminals who operated in rural areas and used the bush to hide and escape after committing a crime. They were often violent and sometimes killed members of the public and police officers.  Because bushrangers broke rules and challenged the police, some people admired them. They might have even assisted them by giving them food and shelter. However, others saw them only as criminals. But what was the truth? Read through this website to decide for yourself.

Ned Kelly's last stand (National Museum of Australia, n.d.)

On 28 June 1880 Victorian police captured bushranger Ned Kelly after a siege at the Glenrowan Inn. The other members of the Kelly Gang – Dan Kelly, Joseph Byrne and Steve Hart – were killed in the siege. The gang had been outlawed for the murders of three police officers at Stringybark Creek in 1878. Ned Kelly was tried and executed in Melbourne in November 1880. The Kelly Gang’s last stand has become an Australian folk legend, however views are divided about how it should be remembered. Read through this website to learn more about the Kelly Gang and their infamous history.

Troopers, tracker, bushrangers and their weapons (Sydney Living Museum, n.d.)

An explanation of the weapons used during the three principal phases of the war against bushrangers on the Australian frontier.

5 of Australia's most notorious bushrangers (History Hit, 2022, January 28)

In January 1788, the first group of British and Irish convicts arrived in Botany Bay, Australia, marking the establishment of New South Wales as a penal colony of the British Empire. Over the next 80 years, around 162,000 convicts were transported there. Not all remained imprisoned, however. Over the years, many inmates fled their incarceration and lived as outlaws in the wild bushland around Sydney. These escaped convicts, many of whom indulged in crime and called the bush home, were known as ‘bushrangers’.  In later years, the term ‘bushranger’ came to encompass anyone, not just escaped convicts, who adopted a roaming life of crime similar to the highwaymen of Britain or the outlaws of the American Old West. The Australian gold rush era of the mid 19th century, in particular, saw the notoriety of bushrangers skyrocket. This website discusses 5 of Australia’s most infamous bushrangers.

Ned Kelly's Armour

Look closely and you will see the bullet holes in the armour Ned Kelly wore during his last stand off with the police.

List of bushrangers 'at large'

List of offenders known as bushrangers in the colony of New South Wales now at large c1864.

Wanted poster

Reward offered for capture of bushrangers! 

The sum of £4000 was a huge amount of money in 1863, worth almost $1,000,000 today!

For comparison, at that time a successful goldminer might earn £5-£10 per week. 

The Australian News for Home Readers. 28 March, 1867.

This illustration depicts a robbery by bushrangers that took place in March 1867. The artwork was produced soon after the event.

Frank Gardiner criminal history sheet (12 June 1870)

Gardiner, whose real name was Francis Christie, was originally from Scotland.

During the 1850s he committed many crimes, was sentenced to prison, and escaped. 

In 1862 Gardiner's gang (which included Ben Hall) was involved in one of Australia's largest gold robberies - the Lachlan Gold Escort robbery.

Gardiner was captured by police in 1864 and sentenced to 32 years hard labour. 

He was released in 1874 and exiled from Australia.

The Jerilderie Letter

Usually known as the 'Jerilderie letter'. Written by Joe Byrne at the dictation of Ned Kelly. Chronicles the careers of Ned Kelly and his gang from 1870 onwards. Includes a description of the shooting of three police officers at Stringybark Creek, Vic. in Oct. 1878. Cites cases of alleged police corruption and expresses pro-Irish and anti-English sentiments. Accompanied by a note, undated, on the letterhead of 'Wareena', Wangaratta, stating that 'This is the document given to me by Ned Kelly when the Bank at Jerilderie was stuck up in Feby. 1879'. The note was written by Edwin Richard Living who was a teller at the Bank of N.S.W. at the time of the robbery.

Ned Kelly's death mask

Convicted at Melbourne on 29 October 1880 for murder, Ned Kelly was a well-known bushranger who captured the public’s imagination. His death mask was created after his execution at the Old Melbourne Gaol on 11 November 1880.  He was aged 25.

After the execution, Kelly’s body remained suspended for 30 minutes as required by law to ensure he was dead. It was then placed on a handcart and wheeled out the door, across the yard and into the dead-house. There the execution mask was removed to reveal that Kelly’s features had not been disfigured. He had died with a placid expression and his eyes remained bright. Waxworks proprietor Maximilian Kreitmayer shaved the head and prepared a wax mould for a death mask.

The mask was cast using plaster and many copies were made, including one that Kreitmayer displayed in his Wax Museum on Bourke Street.  Death masks were made in the name of science – as well as to inspire fear in would-be criminals.  The use of the now discredited science of phrenology was an attempt to understand criminality.  Phrenology was a method of reading the shape of the scull and the bumps on the cranium.  Each bump, lump and indentation corresponded to a characteristic that built a picture of the individual’s personality.