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Bushrangers in Colonial Queensland: The Capture of Frank Gardiner (Rockhampton District, March 1864)

Gardiner's House and scene of his Capture at Apis Creek

An artist’s impression of the capture of Frank Gardiner

The notorious Australian bushranger, Frank Gardiner, and his common-law wife Kittie made their way to Queensland in 1862 via the New England District of New South Wales. After passing through the Darling Downs, they made their way north to the Rockhampton District where they would settle under new identities. Prior to this time, Gardiner and his gang were considered by many to be folk-heroes in New South Wales. The boldness of their feats inspired many others to take to the bush and try their hands as highwaymen. Gardiner’s background and reputation is noteworthy as an example of the mythologising of Australian bushrangers.

About 1858, a ticket of leave man named Frank Gardiner, took to the roads in New South Wales, and, by the boldness of his conduct yet absence of roughness or brutality to those he robbed, and not infrequently gifts to the poor, soon became regarded as an Australian Dick Turpin. (Bird, 1904, p.255)

Bird would argue that it is easy to understand the appeal of the Gardiner legend. His reputation held appeal for many in New South Wales and on the Queensland frontier who embraced a certain lawlessness of life and held antipathy to the newly formed colonial police forces. As a bushranger, Gardiner, riding “Darkie” – a distinctive black horse of outstanding quality, was reputed to show “no fear whatever” (Brid, 1904, p.225). Embracing the romance surrounding him, a squatter’s wife, Catherine “Kittie” Brown, in fact left her husband in Forbes NSW to become his “mistress” and was widely regarded as his wife. G

Frank Gardiner

Frank Gardiner

iven Gardiner’s reputation, Bird argues that “it is not difficult to understand that such a man would soon be regarded by a certain class as a hero, and that considerable sympathy for him” was felt throughout the regions in which he frequented (Bird, 1904, p.225).


After a reward of £1000 was offered for his capture, Gardiner evaded NSW police and left his gang who continued under the leadership of Ben Hall and Johnny Gilbert. With Kittie Brown accompanying him, Gardiner crossed from New South Wales vanished into the jurisdiction of Queensland whilst the public speculated as to his whereabouts. At the time, reports were “very contradictory. Sometimes it was said that he had gone to new Zealand. Then that he had made his way to California or to South America” (Boxall, 1899, p.217).

A reward of £1000 was offered for the capture of Gardiner, dead or alive, but all at once his depredations ceased and, for a considerable time, people were wondering what had become of him. It was surmised that he was hidden away ill, or that he was meditating some big robbery. By degrees the opinion gained ground that Gardiner had escaped from Australia and that he would be heard of in America or some foreign country. At length the bushranger was almost forgotten in the depredations of other outlaws. (Bird, 1904, p.247)

The reality was somewhat different to the common speculation. By September 1863, Mr and Mrs Frank “Christie” had settled in the Rockhampton district after travelling via New England, the Darling Downs and Burnett. The Christies are reputed to have stayed overnight along their journey in “popular wayside inns, able to pay for their comfort with the spoils of former escapades” (Grabs, 1983, p.106). At Gracemere, on the outskirts of Rockhampton, Gardiner’s mount was noted, admired, and the subject much frontier conversation but it seems no-one connected the horse and the mysterious “Frank Christie” with the relatively recent disappearance from public view of Frank Gardiner who rode a similar distinctive mount. It’s understood that Gardiner, himself steered the conversation to the exploits of the Gardiner Gang when people noted his horse and given name. Perhaps this “disconnect” can be understood easily when one considers that nature of the frontier in Queensland, the type of people who moved there, and the opportunity the Queensland bush offered to those wishing to start new lives unencumbered by their past miscreants. The further north Gardiner traveller it appears, for some time, the less people cared about his background. It appears that on no occasion during Gardiner’s journey did anyone publicly recognise Frank Christie as Frank Gardiner. In the Rockhampton region, “even local policemen were friendly enough and offered him advice on the difficulties of the Old Peak Road” (Grabs, 1983, p.106).

In June 1863, is found the first recorded and confirmed meeting of a local with Gardiner and Kittie approximately 9 km west of modern Rockhampton. The local, John Jacobs, is reported to have, one evening, met a man and women camped with a dray near the Gracemere Station gate not far from Scrubby Creek. He engaged the couple in conversation as was customary. It would appear that Jacobs was one of the few in the area not to have been aware of whom the “mysterious” traveller he had met actually was.

The traveller said he had come across from new South Wales with his wife. he had a very fine looking black horse which struck Mr Jacobs’ fancy. The traveller  said the horse had brought the dray the whole journey. The horse was in capital fettle, and eventually Jacobs offered to exchange a heavy draught horse he had for the black stating the the heavier horse was more suitable for the dray… (Bird, 1904, p248)

Perhaps  growing weary of the attention of Jacobs was giving his distinctive horse, “Christie”

… expressed regret at the trouble he had given, but stated his wife was adverse to parting with the horse which was an old favourite. After yarning on several subjects, which included Gardiner’s career, Mr Jacobs left. The next year, he found out that the man and woman he had been interviewing were Frank Gardiner and Mrs brown, and the black horse was the celebrated thoroughbred Darkie… (Bird, 1904, p.248).

Bird continues to point out that after this meeting, Gardiner/Christie and Kittie Brown/Christie moved camp to Deep Creek from where he would routinely ride to the residences of selectors of the district, often ‘yarning with the young fellows, asking if they ever heard anything about Frank Gardiner in the papers” (Bird, 1904, p248). The bushranger, in these conversations, would often “express the opinion that Gardiner was not so bad as many people thought because, though he robbed the rich, he always gave to the poor” (Bird 1904, p248).

Gardiner’s chance meeting with a fellow traveller, Archibald Craig, led to the pair building and opening a public house and store in partnership at Apis Creek some “hundred miles” west from Rockhampton not far from the Fitzroy River. Craig held the liquor licence while Frank Christie ran the store. Both Craig and Christie were well-known and well-liked by travellers on the Peak Downs road and quickly developed a reputation for honesty and fair dealing. Their “shanty establishment gained a good reputation”. The Craigs and Christies were, reportedly, “honest in their dealings, and many down-on-his-luck traveller received a free feed and accommodation and took away a bit of tea, sugar and flour in his pack when he left” (Grabs, 1983, p108). Such was their esteem in the community that “Christie had been frequently entrusted with the escort gold as it came from peak Downs whilst private persons with a big parcel of gold gave it all to Christie for safe keeping when stopping at the hotel” (Bird, 1904, p.247).

Towards the end of 1883, Gardiner travelled west to Peak Downs to explore the possibility of opening another business. In Clermont, he formed a friendship with the Gold Commissioner, Thomas John Griffin, who was considered one of the most trustworthy men of the area.

Gold Commissioner Griffin (seated front right)

Gold Commissioner Griffin (seated front right)

He also became a confidante of the manager of the local Australian Joint Stocks Bank. At one meeting with these gentlemen the incognito bushranger was left in sole charge of “six or seven hundred ounces of gold”(Grabs, 1983, p.110). Gardiner would later point to this incident as an example of his reformed character when on trial. Such esteem in the community would end not long after with his arrest in March 1864 by Sydney detectives and local police troopers.

Bird reports that in March 1864, Rockhampton was ‘thrown into a state of excitement” with news of Christie/Gardiner’s arrest. Although many in the town disbelieved the reports of the arrest at first, indeed, Gardiner was placed into the Rockhampton lock-up. Sydney based police detectives McClone and Pye took primary responsibility for the arrest. They were assisted by Queensland police Lieutenant Brown, a trooper named Wells and a number of black troopers – probably of the infamous frontier militia, the Queensland Native Mounted Police. A full account of the arrest of both Gardiner, Kittie Brown and Archibald Craig is given in the Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser of Tuesday 8 March 1864 (Click HERE). Gardiner’s arrest was swift and brutal.

Mr. Larnarch JP: Did he offer any resistance?    Witness: Not the slightest.

Mr. Bellas: How did you arrest him?    

Witness: In the usual way; the same as any  other man, I arrested him fairly.

Mr. Bellas: Was he knocked down senseless?

Witness: Not senseless.  

Mr. Bellas: Was he knocked down ?

Witness: Yes. He was laid down on his back quietly, and secured.

Gardiner was widely believed betrayed to police by a Rockhampton auctioneer who Bird refers to as “Mr Smith”. Smith and Gardiner were connected many years previously when horses and cattle were stolen by Gardiner then sold by Smith as a auctioneer in Lambing Flat, New South Wales. It’s said that when Smith stumbled upon Gardiner in the bar of the Apis Creek hotel, he recognised him instantly. After some reminiscences, Gardiner warned Smith not to reveal his identity and “gave him a large sum of money for his silence… Smith could never keep money and when her was again penniless the reward which had only to open his  mouth to receive, no doubt tempted him sorely” (Bird, 1904, p250).

After his chance meeting with Gardiner, Smith was noted in Rockhampton “spending money freely in hotels”. This was noted by many as unusual in that Smith was usually one short of money and not “flush” – relying on others to buy him drinks not the reverse. After a day or two in Rockhampton, Smith departed for Sydney. A short time later Detectives McClone (sometimes recorded as McGlone) and Pye of the Sydney Police arrived in Rockhampton from Sydney and traveled to Apis Creek. McClone testified:

I came up here  from Sydney, from information which I received some time ago, in company with Detective Pye and Mounted Police Constable Wells. From Rockhampton we proceeded to Apis Creek, a place a hundred miles or thereabouts from here, on the Peak Downs Road.Here, at Apis Creek, I saw the prisoner in a store; I saw him when I arrived; I believe the store belongs to him; it was on the 2nd instant that I first saw him; I did not then arrest him, but on the following morning I saw him again, and with the assistance of Detective Pye,Constable Wells, and Lieutenant Brown, of the Queensland Native Police, I took him into custody; I apprehended the prisoner on the road  outside his own store; I did not then charge  him with any offence; I took him to Mr. McLennan’s station, which is about a mile from the place where I apprehended him, and here, at the station, I informed him of the charge against him; I confined the prisoner at the station, and have secured him safely until I could bring him down to Rockhampton, where I delivered him over into the custody of the last witness; I charged him with the commission of various robberies, and also with the escort robbery at Eugowra Creek in June, 186?; I believe it was in June last that the escort was robbed at Eugowra Creek, but do not recollect the exact date. (Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, Tuesday 8 March 1864, p2)

Taken by surprise, Gardiner stood little chance of resisting or escaping the detective and trooper. The police had come prepared in disguise as gold diggers and were armed with “a handy little pistol known as Sharp’s Repeater” – probably actually the Sharp’s Pepperbox pistol – “only about four inches in length and [with] four barrels which formed a sort  of square. After committal proceedings in Rockhampton, Gardiner was sent on the SS Queensland for trial in the NSW Supreme Court before Sir Alfred Stephen. On July 6, 1864, Gardiner was sentenced to 32 years “hard labour on the roads” (Bird, 1904, p248). His sentence was received in silence.

Sir Alfred Stephen no doubt thought that such a sentence would deter others but if so he was mistaken for bushranging was worse than ever after Gardiner’s conviction. Gardiner, by his reckless daring and absence of cruelty, had thrown a halo of romance over bushranging which no doubt led to the flash young fellows of those days to think that robbing coaches, mails and gold escorts was something to be proud of. (Bird, 1904, p248)

Gardiner's trial in Sydney

Gardiner’s trial in Sydney

Gardiner’s pleas for mercy went unheard. His documentary statements of reformed character went without sympathetic hearing. Kittie Brown committed suicide in 1868 in New Zealand after trying in vain to influence authorities to grant Frank an early release. Gardiner himself was released in July 1874 and exiled.

In 1872 William Bede Dalley, who had defended Gardiner, organized petitions to the governor to use his prerogative of mercy. Sir Hercules Robinson decided that Gardiner had been harshly sentenced and in 1874 released him subject to his exile. This decision provoked a public controversy with petitions, counter-petitions and violent debates in the Legislative Assembly, and led to the fall of Parkes’s government. (Penzig, 2015)

Gardiner  travelled via Hong Kong to the United States and is “said to have afterwards kept a drinking saloon in San Francisco where, many years later, he was killed in a drunken row among his customers” (Bird, 1904, p253) although the precise date and circumstances of his death are unknown. His life in America is subject to some conjecture and speculation.

During Gardiner’s arrest, several horse were impounded by police and brought to Rockhampton. One of these horses, Darkie, was identified as a property of a magistrate Beveridge of Swan Hill, NSW. The thoroughbred was taken to Sydney with Gardiner on the SS Queensland. “What became of the animal is not known” (Bird, 1904, p253).

The SS Queensland was owned by the Eastern & Australian Mail Steam Company and sank off the coast of Wilson’s Promontory on the 3rd August 1876 after a collision with the SS Barrabool.



  1. Bird, J.T.S. (1904), The Early History of Rockhampton, The Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton.
  2. Boxall, G. (1899), The Story of the Australian Bushrangers, Swan Sonnenschein and Co, Paternoster Square.
  3. Grabs, C (1983), Queensland Desperadoes, Angus and Roberston, Sydney.
  4. Penzig, E.F. Gardiner, Francis (Frank) (1830–1903), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gardiner-francis-frank-3589/text5561, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 29 December 2015.
  5. Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, Tuesday 8 March 1864, p2, Available at: http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/51561008, 28/12/2015.



Bushranging comes to Colonial Queensland (1864)

Bush Inn

Bush Inn, Ipswich area, Queensland 1800s

While there exist some early reports of “highway robbery” in colonial Queensland prior to 1864, such as during the “arranged stick-up” at Bundamba Creek in January 1851, the first clearly documented case of bushranging in Queensland appears to have been in May 1864 when the mail was held up on the Darling Downs’ Bodumba – Leyburn Road. The Brisbane Courier of the day recorded this as the “first case of bushranging in Queensland” (Boxall, 1899, p336).

This 1864 robbery of the mailman (now known only as “Harry”) became the first of a series of such raids in the new colony. The “old man” and “boy” who stopped the mailman caused an outrage . few today appreciate just how important the mailman was in nineteeth century Queensland.  The mailmen were the connecting links between ‘civilisation’, often centred around railway junctions, and the settlers in the remote parts of Queensland – and most of Queensland at the time could be considered remote! The mailmen were, and had to be, “tough, hardy horsemen who rode hardy horses” (O’Sullivan, 1947, p265).

For some reason or other those men were not armed, which perhaps was their greatest protection, as the knowledge that they were unarmed no doubt restrained the bushranger from firing on them at sight (O’Sullivan, 1947, p265) .

In a hold up, the Queensland mailman was typically bound and his mail “plundered” for items of value. His horse was often taken by the bushranger as a matter of course. This was the “indignity” inflicted upon Harry in 1864 (O’Sullivan, 1947, p265). Rumours circulated that the Bodumba – Leyburn Road hold-up was carried out by John Gilbert, one of Ben Hall’s gang, but the descriptions of the perpetrators given showed that such a conclusion was “absurd” (Boxall, 1899, 336). Regardless of who the perpetrators were, bushranging had come to Queensland with this act.

Despite the boasts of authorities in the early 1860s that “it was not possible for bushranging to thrive” in Queensland, within a relatively short time reports of bushranging were made across the colony. A hotbed of these early reports were from the Rockhampton district.

A good many miscreants have taken to the roads at one time or another, but their careers were mostly cut short ending in long terms of imprisonment… Occasionally there were reports of depredations on the southern border of the colony from those who had crossed over from New South Wales but with few exceptions these robbers did not penetrate far into this state.

Queensland’s own bushrangers were a motley crew at times and were not limited to acts of highway robbery. In addition to cattle-duffing and horse theft, forgery and uttering were common crimes at their hands.


  1. Boxall, G. (1899), The Story of the Australian Bushrangers, Swan Sonnenschein and Co, Paternoster Square.
  2. O’Sullivan, M. (1947), Cameos of Crime, Jackson and O’Sullivan, Brisbane.

An Overview of Bushranging in Colonial Queensland


Queensland Bushranger James Alpin McPherson

The term “bushranging” is perhaps best defined by the 1830 Bushranging Act of New South Wales. It is this piece of colonial legislation that defines the “bushranger” as a person “who shall be found on the roads or in other parts of the colony, with firearms or other instruments of a violent nature in his possession, under circumstances affording reasonable ground for suspecting that such a person may be or intend to be a robber”. (White, 1900, p143-4)

This is a broad legal definition which allowed the authorities much scope for prosecution. It also allowed members of the public to use the term very loosely indeed. As such it comfortably fits with notions of the concept of “bushranger” that have been been popularly adopted in the imagination of Australians. A bushranger in the Australian imagination is similar to English conceptualisations, folklore and mythology around “the highwayman” (such as Dick Turpin) or perhaps to similar mythologies growing around American “outlaws” (such as Jesse James). the mythology and folk-ish hero worship that has grown up around Australian bushranging can trace its anti-authoritarian origins back, via the rebellious history of working class British and republican Irish, as far as characters such as Robin Hood.

The broad definition of bushranger is particularly useful in studying the Queensland colonial experience of bushranging. Bushranging, as it was experienced in other Australian colonies during the 1800s, was not a common occurrence in Queensland. Given the context of law enforcement at the time, this is perhaps surprising. It’s worth noting that George Bowall’s 1899 classic, The Story of the Australian Bushrangers, identified only one Queensland bushranger (Boxall, 1899, p.340) stating that “Queensland was not troubled by bushranging to the extent that it occurred in the south” during firstly the 1830s and then during the New South Welsh and Victorian Gold Rushes. While other sources are generally supportive of Boxall’s conclusions, some identify a distinct number of Queensland bushrangers. Most notable among these was James Alpin McPherson – “the Wild Scotchman”- but in 1865 alone, five “bushrangers were recorded as being captured in Queensland (Johnston, 1992, p54).

Perhaps Boxall’s conclusion is a result of a differing conceptualisation of the “bushranger” archetype. The style of bushranging in colonial Queensland was somewhat distinct from that experienced in other colonies of Australia. Only McPherspon seems to have followed in the mold of his more illustrious southern contemporaries (such as Ben Hall). Many of Queensland’s bushrangers were less dramatic, less likely to capture public imagination, less “folklore worthy”. For example, men such as Peter Fagan, Daniel Webster, Thomas Howson and John Wright were all active in criminal circle sin and near Rockhampton in 1864 and revelled in the notoriety of being considered by locals to be bushrangers but they were far from the imagery of the highwayman of folklore. None of these criminals really matched the legends of Ben Hall, Ned Kelly, Thunderbolt, or the fictitious Captain Starlight. Queensland appears as a footnote to the story of Frank Gardiner, and is a very real part of Australian bushranging history for this reason but it is, alas, a footnote to a story growing into the rural mythology of NSW and Victoria. Sydney and Melbourne’s publishing houses were far from the vast expanses of Queensland’s frontier. The escapades of the Queensland bushrangers were therefore often unheralded and unreported.

The Queensland crimes of Henry Readford, Thomas Griffin, George Palmer (and associates), and the Kenniff brothers, too, are part of the stroy of Queensland bushranging but they do not fit with the popularised imaginings of the bushranger archetype emerging from Sydney and Melbourne. Most of Queensland’s bushrangers only loosely fit with Boxall’s conceptualisation of the term and are far from the imagining of the wider populace.

To gain a true understanding of the scope and nature of bushranging in colonial Queensland, it’s best to survey the careers of those most commonly identified as the most notorious bushrangers. Frank Gardiner, James Alpin mcPherson, the Fagan gang (who haunted the surrounds of Rockhampton) are perhaps the best examples of these.

Also of note are “bushrangers” Edward (The Snob) Hartigan, Henry (Harry) Readford, and the Kenniff brothers – all examples of horse thieves and cattle-duffers. This is a crime is a significant variation on the bushranging theme that makes the Queensland cohort distinct from their southern couterparts.

Finally, of note is the Clermont Gold Escort Robbery and murder of Patrick Halligan. These events give a clear insight into the nature of bushranging in Queensland prior to 1901.


  1. Boxall, G. (1899), The Story of the Australian Bushrangers, Swan Sonnenschein and Co, Paternoster Square.
  2. Johnstone, W.R. (1992), The Long Blue Line: A History of the Queensland Police, Boolarong, Brisbane.
  3. White, C (1900), History of Australian Bushranging: Volume 1: The Early Days to 1862, Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Crime in Colonial Queensland: A Context for Studies in Queensland Bushranging (Part 3)


In colonial Queensland, some stock-stealers (such as Henry Readford) achieved the folklore status and notoriety of bushrangers.


On January 15, 1859, the Queensland Commissioner for Police commented on the difficult situation facing those who wanted to enforce more effectively law and order in the colony. Of particular concern was mail robbery in the vastness of the Queensland bush where police were at a distinct disadvantage in protecting the communities thatw ere develping around pastoral holdings and goldfields from almost any who chose to accost them. Throughout the 1860s, Queensland remained a rapidly expanding colony rich in opportunity for those prepared to face the many risks. In the early years of the colony’s existence, European expansion and settlement on the Queensland frontier expanded far more quickly than the ability of the colonial government to provide adequate services. A core service lacking was an effective police force. The force that existed was scattered in small posts across a vast pastoral frontier territory. The small groups of officers were hopelessly under-resourced, faced community antipathy, and were often demoralised. In this context what is surprising is just how little bushranging occurred in Queensland during the late 1800s.

Given the vast territory and the rapid growth in pastoral industries, what is not surprising is that the incidence of stock stealing – in particular, cattle duffing – was especially widespread in Queensland. in 1866, Commissioner of Police David Thompson Seymour “named horse and cattle stealing as the prevalent crimes” on the frontier (Johnston, 1992, p55).

One criminal activity which received disproportionate attention on the part of the police was stock stealing – disproportionate, that is, in respect of the number of arrests or convictions… it should be noted that there was considerably more stealing that the number of arrests indicated. Accordingly these offences were regarded with great alarm in Queensland (Johnston, 1992, p55) .

Stock stealing was regarded by the police as very difficult to “detect and suppress” (Johnston, 1992, p55). Interestingly, it’s worth noting that many poorer members of rural communities were arrested for exactly this difficult offence – perhaps this is suggestive of the influence that wealthy pastoralists held over the limited number of police officers that were stationed on the frontier.

The key difficulty for colonial Queensland police in attempting to “suppress” cattle-duffing and horse stealing was logistical. The capture of offenders was at times a seemingly impossible task while getting a jury to convict a defendant was more difficult again. Police often found “it was hard to provide convincing evidence” for some rural juries who had more empathy for the defendant than the prosecution (or the well-healed pastoralist “victim”) might have hoped (Johnston, 1992, p56). Despite the large number of arrests, stock stealing was “one of the great unrecorded offences” in colonial Queensland. Its more notorious proponents in Queensland acquired the folklore status that was reserved for bushrangers in other colonial jurisdictions of Australia. It is worth noting at this point that the similarities between Henry (Harry) Readford, a Queensland stock-thief, and the fictitious bushranger Captain Starlight of the novel Robbery Under Arms are striking.


Crime in Colonial Queensland: A Context for Studies in Queensland Bushranging (Part 2)

During the 1860s, Queensland was a rapidly expanding colony rich in opportunity (and sources of wealth) for those prepared to face the many risks. In the early years of the colony’s existence, European expansion and settlement on the Queensland frontier expanded far more quickly than the ability of the youthful Brisbane colonial government to provide adequate services – especially policing. The colonial government began to grapple with these issues at the very time that an urgent need for frontier law enforcement became obvious.

Between 1850 and 1900 has become known as the wild colonial days, as it embraced the goldfield and bushranging period. That time spawned not only local born criminals but inflicted [upon the colony] imported ones as well… There were bushrangers and other thieves who preyed upon those who survived by honest toil. Not for them the labour of tending stock, digging in a mine, or performing other work when it was much easier to rob at the point of a gun, or steal from the home or person or take what they wanted by physical assault. (Penzig, 1992, p.xv)

Law enforcement in Queensland during this period was rudimentary at best and violence was accepted by many in the new pioneering society as legitimate as a means by which wealth was secured. Fortunes were amassed as private wars were waged against indigenous peoples. Petty crimes went unnoticed. Some major crimes went unreported. In the combined context of…

  • a developing heritage of both officially sanctioned and other violence,
  • a societal mentality of equating of material gains in wealth (regardless of its source) with social success
  • an ethos of pursuit of wealth through individualism
  • an antipathy towards police (and even for the need for policing in the eyes of some)
  • the logistical difficulties facing police in a large colonial territory
  • increasing opportunity to commit (and get away with) crimes

… it seems surprising that bushranging, as experienced on the scale of other colonies in Australia in the same period, was so uncommon in Queensland!

On January 15, 1859, the Queensland Commissioner for Police commented on the difficult situation facing those who wanted to enforce more effectively law and order in the colony. Of particular concern was mail robbery in the vastness of the Queensland bush where police were at a distinct disadvantage in protecting the vulnerable from almost any who chose to accost them.

The police stations being so far very far apart, and the men generally so badly horsed, that it was not difficult for a good bushman, well-supplied with information, to continue to “stick up” with impunity for some time the solitary mailman… (in Johnston, 1992, p54)


The Commissioner continued:

I am sorry t say that the opinion so confidently expressed some time back that bushrangers would meet with no sympathy in the Colony turns out to be incorrect. The criminal can gain plenty of assistance and information – the police but little. (in Johnston, 1992, p54)

Johnston states that given this situation “the wonder is that more bushranging (and other crimes of violence) did not occur” (1992, p54) – especially in and around the gold districts of colonial Queensland such as Gympie.



  1. Johnstone, W.R. (1992), The Long Blue Line: A History of the Queensland Police, Boolarong, Brisbane.
  2. Penzig, E. (1992), Rogues, Vagabonds and Bloody Thieves: An Illustrated History of Colonial Crime 1850-1900, Tranter Press, Katoomba.

Crime in Colonial Queensland: A Context for Studies in Queensland Bushranging (Part 1)


Queensland Native Mounted Police, Rockhampton 1864 (Queensland Police Museum).

An understanding of the patterns of development of Queensland is important if the context of the major bushranging crimes on the Queensland frontier are to be understood. Frontier life was one of hardship and was characterised by institutionalised and other forms of violence. Bushranging in Queensland needs to be seen against this backdrop. Within this context, especially when viewed in comparison with the crimes of the frontier wars against indigenous Australians during the same period, the crimes by Queensland bushrangers pale into insignificance. In the nineteenth century, much of the non-indigenous population of Queensland was motivated by the pursuit of wealth. Most had accepted that what law enforcement existed was often distant. Many saw the colonial government’s efforts at developing across Queensland a police force as little more than tokenism and certainly something far short of an effective deterrent to crime. The early policing of Queensland can be viewed as more a tool of the wealthy or as a weapon in suppressing indigenous resistance rather than a significance means by which laws were effectively enforced across the new colony.


Queensland had, by December 1859, at the time of separation from New South Wales, begun to develop pride in a robust frontier ethos based upon “white civilisation” and revelled in a heritage of links to the penal settlement of Moreton Bay – where the colony was being built through “the sweat of the chain gangs, through the toil of the human refuse of Britain and New South Wales” (Johnston, 1982, p.20).

The white settlement of Queensland was spawned by the growing evils of industrial Britain. The growing cities (of Britain) seemed to harbour growing numbers of criminals, many of them hardened by the environment.

… New South Wales became home for many of these people convicted of a variety of offences, mainly of a criminal nature… Moreton bay began as a by-product of this situation. it was intended as a place for the very hardened and “worst class” of offenders. (Johnston, 1982, p.22)

Much of colonial Queensland’s early white population had quickly accepted that society would contain a significant criminal element. Many, it seems, held an almost instictive antipathy of the enforcers of law and order. The concept of policing was still a relatively new one (on a worldwide basis) and even law abiding citizens were known to harbour, and even on occasion express,some suspicion of the motives of police. Police departments in colonial Australia were much maligned and generally reviled. In 1847, comments characteristic of this position were expressed by Sydneysiders.

No public department in the the colonial service has been so well-abused as the Police… and certainly no department so richly deserves it… That the police of the colony is a very useless and inefficient body has been so often asserted by its own heads, that we shall scarcely be obnoxious to a prosecution for libel in repeating so obvious a proposition. (in Phillips and Davies (eds) 1994, p.36)

The views of early Queenslanders mirrored such a view.

In the formative years of the colonial police, the Queensland government sought to adapt both the British Metropolitan model and the Irish model of policing to the new colonial context – at a time when the very rationale of policing itself was still being questioned by some members of the community ( Phillips and Davies (eds) 1994, p.9). Many of those not overtly outspoken against policing saw the infant Queensland police as an irrelevance or an obstacle to their activities on their new pastoral frontier. (Often early pastoralists saw the police as little more than adjunct to their own employees in their wars to subdue indigenous resistance to European expansion.)


Coupled with a perverse loyalty to a convict heritage and a widespread antipathy to police, prevalent in the new colony of Queensland was an embryonic pioneering and pastoral tradition. In Queensland during the 1830s and 1840s was “a boom almost like a gold rush in land… squatters eagerly awaited the return of explorers, and they themselves often deliberately undertook exploration to be the first to choose grazing lands (Johnston, 1982, p.25). Willing to ride roughshod over the interests of indigenous peoples who had occupied the lands for millennia, European pioneers came to the Queensland frontier with firmly established concepts of private ownership and an ethos of acquisition. Many of these free settlers came in search of fast and easy wealth. “Individual success was adulated” and success was measured almost entirely in therms of the “possession of private wealth” (Johnston, 1982, p.4). As the pastoral frontier expanded (and indigenous sovereignty contracted), there were few constraints upon the unscrupulous in their pursuit of wealth. In many areas, wealth was measured in terms of head of livestock or acres. The centres of “law and order” could seem, and often were, very far away from those willing to secure their success financially through criminal action. Respectability on the Queensland frontier during the early decades of the colony was often linked to financial success through ruthless ambition. There was often only a very thin veneer separating respectability and what would be considered criminality today.


The discovery of gold in Queensland created further lucrative opportunity for criminality in the colony. During the 1860s, towns constructed of shanties, tents and rudimentary buildings grew around areas in which gold had been discovered. “Motley collections of bark and slab” were found around the gold digs “as and where the owners had felt inclined” (Johnston, 1982, p.68-9). These towns were separated by intermittently policed open spaces through which fortunes in gold were transported. Thus new opportunities for the unscrupulous seekers of wealth emerged. Mining districts became magnets for the seekers of fortune – either legal or otherwise. Individualism, hardship, ambition and disillusionment, always underpinned by a desire for financial gain, characterised the miners’ mindset.

Many diggers failed in the wild searches… many were destitute, most were disheartened. The authorities feared riots… For the diggers there [were] rowdy nights and drunken brawls… (Johnston, 1982, p.69)

Disputes and violence were common on the goldfields of the new colony. On the diggings, new opportunities for criminal acts were rife. The discovery of gold brought a new dimension to the criminal history of Queensland. Despite this, however, there exists some historical dispute as to whether or not the mining centres were in fact the “seed-beds of crime and violence” that many believed they were at the time (Johnston, 1982, p.69). Common assaults, larceny and drunkenness were common offences in these areas until the 1880s and 1890s.


This experience was not, however, limited to mining areas. On the Gulf of Carpentaria, in Burketown, the situation was similar during the same period. Within the months after settlement (in 1865), a few “shanty-pubs” had sprung up along with:

O’Connor’s store, a butcher shop and a blacksmith’s, and some rough shack homes of bark and slabs… bushmen who had not had a spree for years really let their hair down in late 1865 and ‘thoroughly enjoyed themselves in bush fashion – a fight every half hour, horse-racing on the plain and strong rum for everyone”… With no police, the only law in the frontier was that of the fist and the revolver. (Pike, 1978, p.167).


While it’s disputed as to whether or not mining districts were any different to others in terms of the degree of the prevalence lawless behaviour, what is not in dispute is that crime and violence were part of the wallpaper of colonial Queensland society. few structures were in place for the adequate maintenance of law and order in Queensland. In 1847, a local bench of magistrates observed that crime had “passed unpunished” in Queensland because of insufficient policing and a lack of judicial facilities (Johnston, 1992, p. 54). By the 1880s, little had changed in some areas of the very large colony. Even Brisbane, with its sprawling river centre, proved a difficult area to police.

… the very geography of Brisbane stretched police resources since the river was such a divide. In 159-60, police operations mainly centred on maintaining the peace in a few small urban centres. (Johnston, 1992, p. 2-3)


Governor Sir George Fergusson Bowen and Colonial Secretary Robert Herbert would be the first to try to develop the extent of police reach in Queensland society in the 1860s but Queensland was very much a lawless frontier for many years after their work began. In a context where many of the populace saw the colonial government’s efforts at developing a Queensland a police service as little more than tokenism, the efforts of those such as a Bowen and Herbert initially fell far short of an effective deterrent to crime. Early policing on the Queensland frontier was more often than not a tool of the wealthy pastoralists or the weapon of indigenous dispossession than a significant means by which laws were effectively enforced across the new colony. Many colonial Queenslanders viewed the police with antipathy, suspicion or disdain – if they viewed them at all. Miners and settlers alike were often allowed to settle their disputes with the fist in the absence of a legal alternative. The absence of law enforcement was the rule rather than the exception across the colony and it was against this background that Queensland bushranging took place during the nineteenth century.


  1. Pike, G. (1978), The Queensland Frontier, Rigby, Brisbane.
  2. Johnstone, W.R. (1982), Call of the Land, Jacaranda, Brisbane.
  3. Johnstone, W.R. (1992), The Long Blue Line: A History of the Queensland Police, Boolarong, Brisbane.
  4. Phillips, D. and Davies, S. (eds) (1994), A nation of Rogues? Crime, law and Punishment in Colonial Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
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