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William Strutt's Bushrangers on the St Kilda Road, painted in 1887, depicts what Strutt described as "one of the most daring robberies attempted in Victoria" in 1852.[1] The road was the scene of frequent hold-ups during the Victorian gold rush by bushrangers, mostly former convicts from Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania), which collectively became known as the St Kilda Road robberies.

Bushrangers originally referred to escaped convicts in the early years of the British settlement of Australia who had the survival skills necessary to use the Australian bush as a refuge to hide from the authorities. By the 1820s, the term "bushranger" had evolved to refer to those who abandoned social rights and privileges to take up "robbery under arms" as a way of life, using the bush as their base.[2] These bushrangers, mostly colonial-born sons of convicts, were roughly analogous to British "highwaymen" and outlaws of the American Old West, and their crimes typically included robbing small-town banks and coach services; in more infamous cases, such as that of Dan Morgan, the Clarke brothers, and Australia's most well-known bushranger, Ned Kelly, numerous policemen were murdered. Kelly's execution in 1880 effectively represented the end of the bushranging era.


Convict Joseph Lycett's View upon the Napean (1825) shows a party of bushrangers with guns.
Captain Thunderbolt's death in 1870 marked the end of the bushranging epidemic in New South Wales.

More than 2000 bushrangers are believed to have roamed the Australian countryside, beginning with the convict bolters and drawing to a close after Ned Kelly's last stand at Glenrowan.[3]

1850s: gold rush era

The bushrangers' heyday was the Gold Rush years of the 1850s and 1860s as the discovery of gold gave bushrangers access to great wealth that was portable and easily converted to cash. Their task was assisted by the isolated location of the goldfields and a police force decimated by troopers abandoning their duties to join the gold rush.[3]

George Melville was hanged in front of a large crowd for robbing the McIvor gold escort near Castlemaine in 1853.[3]


Bushranging numbers flourished in New South Wales with the rise of the colonial-born sons of poor, often ex-convict squatters who were drawn to a more glamorous life than mining or farming.[3]

Much of the activity in this era was in the Lachlan Valley, around Forbes, Yass and Cowra.[3]

Frank Gardiner, John Gilbert and Ben Hall led the most notorious gangs of the period. Other active bushrangers included Dan Morgan, based in the Murray River, and Captain Thunderbolt.[3] Thunderbolt was the most successful Australian bushranger, if bushranging longevity is the benchmark, as he bushranged across northern New South Wales for six-and-a-half years until shot near Uralla in 1870.[4] With his death, the New South Wales bushranging epidemic of the 1860s officially ended.[5]

1870s to 1900s

The increasing push of settlement, increased police efficiency, improvements in rail transport and communications technology, such as telegraphy, made it increasingly difficult for bushrangers to evade capture.

Among the last bushrangers was the Kelly Gang led by Ned Kelly, who were captured at Glenrowan in 1880, two years after they were outlawed.

In 1900 the indigenous Governor Brothers terrorised much of northern New South Wales.[3]

Public perception

Tom Roberts' 1895 painting Bailed Up depicts a Cobb & Co hold up from the 1860s. Rather than appear threatening, the bushrangers are "casual, almost laconic"–characteristics regarded as quintessentially Australian.

In Australia, bushrangers often attract public sympathy (cf. the concept of social bandits). In Australian history and iconography bushrangers are held in some esteem in some quarters due to the harshness and anti-Catholicism of the colonial authorities whom they embarrassed, and the romanticism of the lawlessness they represented. Some bushrangers, most notably Ned Kelly in his Jerilderie letter, and in his final raid on Glenrowan, explicitly represented themselves as political rebels. Attitudes to Kelly, by far the most well-known bushranger, exemplify the ambivalent views of Australians regarding bushranging. Victoria's state cricket team adopted 'Bushrangers' as their team nickname in honour of those such as the Kelly Gang, who lived in the Victorian bush.

In popular culture

Actor playing Ned Kelly in The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), the world's first feature-length narrative film

Tom Roberts, one of the leading figures of the Heidelberg School (also known as Australian Impressionism), depicted bushrangers in some of his historical paintings, including In a corner on the Macintyre (1894) and Bailed Up (1895), both set in Inverell, the area where Captain Thunderbolt was once active.

Although not the first Australian film with a bushranging theme, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)—the world's first feature-length narrative film—is regarded as having set the template for the genre. On the back of the film's success, its producers released one of two 1907 film adaptations of Boldrewood's Robbery Under Arms (the other being Charles MacMahon's version). Entering the first "golden age" of Australian cinema (1910–12), director John Gavin released two fictionalised accounts of real-life bushrangers: Moonlite (1910) and Thunderbolt (1910). The genre's popularity with audiences led to a spike of production unprecedented in world cinema.[6] Dan Morgan (1911) is notable for portraying its title character as an insane villain rather than a figure of romance. Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner, Captain Starlight, and numerous other bushrangers also received cinematic treatments at this time. Alarmed by what they saw as the glorification of outlawery, state governments imposed a ban on bushranger films in 1912, effectively removing "the entire folklore relating to bushrangers ... from the most popular form of cultural expression."[7] It is seen as a major reason for the collapse of a booming Australian film industry.[8] One of the few Australian films to escape the ban before it was lifted in the 1940s is the 1920 adaptation of Robbery Under Arms.[6] Also during this lull appeared American takes on the bushranger genre, including The Bushranger (1928) and Captain Fury (1939).

Anticipating the Australian New Wave of the early 1970s, Ned Kelly starred Mick Jagger in the title role. Dennis Hopper portrayed Dan Morgan in Mad Dog Morgan (1976).

Notable bushrangers

Joe Byrne
John Dunn
Ben Hall
Moondyne Joe
Name Lived Area of activity Fate
Matthew Brady 1799–1826 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
Mary Ann Bugg 1834–1905 Northern New South Wales Died of old age
Joe Byrne 1857–1880 North East Victoria Shot by police
John Caesar 1764–1796 Sydney area Shot
Captain Moonlite 1842–1880 New South Wales Hanged
Captain Starlight 1841–1901 Queensland Imprisoned, died a free man
Captain Thunderbolt 1835–1870 New South Wales Shot by police
Martin Cash c. 1808–1877 Van Diemen's Land Imprisoned, died a free man
Clarke brothers 1840/1846-1867 New South Wales Hanged
Patrick Daley 1844–? New South Wales Imprisoned, died a free man
Edward Davis ?–1841 Northern New South Wales Hanged
Jack Donahue c. 1806–1830 Sydney area Shot by police
Jack the Rammer ?–1834 South Eastern New South Wales Shot
John Dunn 1846–1866 Western New South Wales Hanged
John Francis c. 1825–? Goldfields region of Victoria Imprisoned, cause of death unknown
Frank Gardiner c. 1829–c. 1904 Western New South Wales Imprisoned, died a free man
John Gilbert 1842–1865 Western New South Wales Shot by police
Jimmy Governor 1875–1901 New South Wales Hanged
Ben Hall 1837–1865 Western New South Wales Shot by police
Steve Hart 1859–1880 North East Victoria Possible suicide
Michael Howe 1787–1818 Van Diemen's Land Captured and killed
Thomas Jeffries ?–1826 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
Lawrence Kavenagh c. 1805–1846 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
Dan Kelly c. 1861–1880 North East Victoria Possible suicide
Ned Kelly c. 1854–1880 North East Victoria Hanged
Patrick Kenniff 1865–1903 Queensland Hanged
John Kerney c. 1844–1892 South Australia Imprisoned, died a free man
Frank McCallum c. 1823–1857 Goldfields region of Victoria Hanged
James Alpin McPherson 1842–1895 Queensland Imprisoned, died a free man
Moondyne Joe c. 1828–1900 Western Australia Imprisoned numerous times, died a free man
Dan Morgan c. 1830–1865 New South Wales Shot by police
Musquito c. 1780–1825 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
Alexander Pearce 1790–1824 Van Diemen's Land Hanged
Sam Poo ?–1865 New South Wales Hanged
Harry Power 1819–1891 North East Victoria Imprisoned, died a free man
Owen Suffolk 1829–? Victoria Shot in prison
John Vane 1842–1906 New South Wales Imprisoned, died a free man
William Westwood 1820–1846 New South Wales Hanged


  1. Ian Potter Museum collection: Bushrangers, u21museums.unimelb.edu.au. Retrieved on 9 January 2011.
  2. "AUSTRALIAN BUSH RANGERS". Stand and Deliver, Highwaymen & Highway Robbery. Archived from the original on 18 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 "BUSHRANGERS OF AUSTRALIA" (PDF). National Museum of Australia. Retrieved 2007-04-16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Bushranger Thunderbolt and Mary Ann Bugg". Accessed 9 October 2011.
  5. Baxter, Carol. Captain Thunderbolt and his Lady: the true story of bushrangers Frederick Ward and Mary Ann Bugg. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2011. ISBN 978-1-74237-287-7
  6. 6.0 6.1 Australian film and television chronology: The 1910s, Australian Screen. Retrieved 8 October 2015.
  7. Cooper, Ross; Pike, Andrew. Australian Film, 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production. Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780195507843.
  8. Reade, Eric (1970) Australian Silent Films: A Pictorial History of Silent Films from 1896 to 1926. Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 59. See also Routt, William D. More Australian than Aristotelian:The Australian Bushranger Film,1904-1914. Senses of Cinema 18 (January-February), 2002. The banning of bushranger films in NSW is fictionalised in Kathryn Heyman's 2006 novel, Captain Starlight's Apprentice.
  9. "Old Windsor Road and Windsor Road Heritage Precincts". Heritage and conservation register. New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority. Retrieved 2007-04-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Robbery Under Arms". Australian Scholarly Editions Centre. Retrieved 2007-04-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Rolf Boldrewood". Internet Movie Database.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Graulich, Melody; Tatum, Stephen. Reading the Virginian in the New West. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8032-7104-2

External links