Between Gundagai and Jugiong in New South Wales lies Black Springs, an area with rolling hills and girt by dense scrub. It was here that Johnny Gilbert, the flash Canadian bushranger, would cement his reputation as a violent criminal. The Ben Hall Gang, consisting of Gilbert, Hall, and John Dunn, were at the peak of their success at the end of 1864. Always game to push the limits of their capabilities they chose Black Springs to perform their most audacious robbery yet.
On 18 November the gang were ruling the roost, having taken a number of men and women captive on the outskirts of Jugiong at a place known as the Black Springs. Among the growing collective were Mr. And Mrs. Hayes, Mr. Body, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Whitton, and thirty Chinese men and ten European men. Earlier in the day there was a brief clash with Constable McLoughlin who was escorting a pack horse along the road in advance of the mail coach. Without warning Hall and his confederates charged down the hill and attempted to bail the policeman up. McLoughlin was no pushover and immediately let go of the pack horse and went for his colt revolver. McLoughlin unloaded every chamber of his revolver in the ensuing skirmish, the bushrangers hardly knowing what hit them. When his ammunition was expended Dunn closed in on the constable as he retreated into the scrub to reload. With his horse wounded and his revolver unloaded, McLoughlin surrendered and was added to the throng on the other side of the hill. Gilbert proclaimed McLoughlin to have been the finest man in the shape of a constable he’d ever encountered.
As the morning rolled on Ben Hall kept watch over his growing collection of captives, pacing slowly and lordly with his horse with Gilbert and Dunn keeping the group covered with their revolvers. In the afternoon heat came the soft clomping of hooves in the dry earth and the rattle of coach wheels. The mail coach on its way from Gundagai to Yass rattled along with two police, Sergeant Edmund Parry and Sub-Inspector William O’Neill, a safe distance behind as escorts. Inside police magistrate Alfred Rose sweltered in the heat and up top Constable William Roche sat with the driver. Hearing the arrival Hall spurred his men into action and they rode up to the crest of a hill overlooking the track. No doubt Gilbert flashed his trademark grin as he clapped eyes on their quarry. The bandits cocked their revolvers and pounded down the hill to the coach. Blocking the road, Hall bellowed “Bail up!” while training his weapon on the coach driver. Constable Roche was encouraged not to use his rifle with the expert persuasion of Gilbert and the presentation to his person of six chambers of instant death. Rose wasn’t quite so ready to let the coach be plundered and with a cry of “Bushrangers!” he signaled to Parry and O’Neill by waving his hat out the window of the coach. Digging their spurs into their mounts the escorts thundered towards the coach.
“There’s a bloody lot of traps,” said Hall as he spotted the incoming lawmen and the gang quickly turned tail and galloped back up the hill as if retreating. Any relief the lawmen and the coach driver must have felt was short lived as the gang paused and Gilbert was heard to say “There are only two of them; Come on, let’s rush the bastards!” turned back and charged like cavalry at the mounted policemen screaming “Fight us like men!” with a revolver in each hand, their supreme horsemanship on show as they steered their mounts with their bodies like fearsome centaurs. The police were game and began to reel of shots at their opponents and calling on them to surrender. Constable Roche leaped from his perch and scurried into the scrub with his rifle. The police escorts were separated with Dunn aiming for O’Neill who fought like the devil firing a shot at Ben Hall who effortlessly dodged the bullet. O’Neill’s horse, spooked by the gunfire careened into a tree, the branch striking O’Neill and injuring his hip. Reeling in pain two shots struck him, one in the right shoulder, the other tearing at the left flap of his tunic. In desperate pain, an impotent click from his revolver informing him that he was out of bullets, O’Neill drew his carbine and tried to aim it at the approaching bushrangers. Hall unwisely came in close to O’Neill and received a bash on the skull with O’Neill’s carbine almost pushing the bandit out of the saddle. Dunn then attempted to wrestle the carbine away from O’Neill. Dunn and Hall finally cornered the sub-inspector and leveled their guns a him.
Meanwhile Gilbert had drawn Sergeant Parry away from the others and the two dueled on horseback spitting curses at each other until a blast from Gilbert found its mark. The shot struck Parry across the back of the head, but was not enough to subdue him. Bleeding from the head Parry came at Gilbert to entreated him to surrender. Parry screamed over the thunderous din of his horse’s hooves “I’ll never surrender to a bushranger, not while I have a shot left!” Gilbert was impressed by the recklessness of this lawman, which is why, in Gilbert’s mind, it was so unfortunate that he had to shoot him. Gilbert raised his pistol and fired. The bullet struck Parry in the breast and perforated his body straight through. He slumped in the saddle and tumbled lifeless to the ground. Riding over to his fallen foe Gilbert turned the body over and examined his handy work. “He’s got it in the cobra…” he said to nobody in particular. Dunn and Hall took Sub-Inspector O’Neill back downhill to the coach and demanded the mailbags from the driver. Not in a position to argue, the driver complied. Tearing the bags open Dunn and Gilbert rifled through the letters and took all they desired. As the others worked Ben Hall dragged magistrate Rose out of the coach and threatened to shoot him for signalling the police. Rose, O’Neill and the coach driver were added to the gang’s collection of captives over the hill. Gilbert sauntered up to Constable McLaughlin and scowled “How would you like a cove like me after you?” McLaughlin was unimpressed. Gilbert pressed the point, “See what that bloody fool has got for not standing? He’s the first man I ever shot; I don’t like to shoot a man, but I can’t help the unfortunate man now.” McLaughlin asked if he could attend to Parry and see if anything was to be done and Gilbert allowed him to go, fully aware that it was pointless.
Constable Roche was soon uncovered by the gang, cowering in the undergrowth nearby. His carbine was confiscated and he was forced to walk back to Yass. Before the gang left Hall proclaimed that the police would need a bigger troop than what they’d mustered that day for the gang planned to stick up an escort the next day. The gang shot off into the expanse leaving behind their bewildered captives and the body of Sergeant Parry. Parry’s body was taken into town and buried in Gundagai cemetery the next day.
“INQUEST ON SERGEANT PARRY.” The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle (NSW : 1864 – 1881) 23 November 1864: 3.
“GILBERT, HALL, AND DUNN AT JUGIONG.” Queanbeyan Age and General Advertiser (NSW : 1864 – 1867) 24 November 1864: 4
“THE STIRRING DAYS OF YORE.” The Gundagai Times and Tumut, Adelong and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser (NSW : 1868 – 1931) 12 September 1899: 4.
“JOHNNY GILBERT like lightning with a gun” The World’s News (Sydney, NSW : 1901 – 1955) 6 June 1953: 24.
“The battle of Black Springs” The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995) 24 August 1988: 27.
“STICKING UP OF THE GUNDAGAI MAIL.” The Australian News for Home Readers (Vic. : 1864 – 1867) 24 December 1864: 10.
“MORE MAIL ROBBERIES.— ENCOUNTER WITH THE BUSHRANGERS.—SERGEANT PARRY, OF THE GUNDAGAI POLICE, SHOT DEAD.” The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle (NSW : 1864 – 1881) 19 November 1864: 3
“Bushranging near Gundagai” The Gundagai Independent (NSW : 1928 – 1939) 9 October 1930: 5.