Some of the more obscure bushrangers have nicknames seemingly pilfered from Grimm’s fairytales. One of the most notable is Blue Cap, the alias of Robert Cottrell. Cottrell was not prolific or prodigious as a bushranger by any far stretch, but he and his gang caused their fair share of trouble along the Murrumbidgee River in the late 1860s.
Robert Cottrell was born around 1835 but next to nothing is known about his formative years. It is known that he took up bushranging when he absconded from the farm at Billabong where he was employed claiming he was being maltreated. Cottrell was not the greatest bushman or criminal due in part to his health. Cottrell suffered from acute Opthalmia – eye problems that made him extremely sensitive to light – so he was frequently seen wearing an eyeshade to protect his eyes from the sun. Cottrell claimed he was forced into crime by desperation, his employer not providing him with adequate accommodation or nutrition. One must presume that he was extremely malnourished indeed if he thought that bushranging would be better able to provide food.
Cottrell gained the moniker “Blue Cap” (sometimes recorded as “Captain Blue Cap”) very quickly during his criminal career though it is not known why exactly. It is possible that his eyeshade may have been mistaken for a blue cap, though usually they came in green. It may have also been a blue jockey’s cap. Regardless, Cottrell was one of many bushrangers operating in New South Wales during the mid to late 1860s, yet he managed to outlive the Hall Gang and was close to the end of Captain Thunderbolt’s time when his career as an outlaw ended.
As 1867 settled in Cottrell teamed up with a convict named Jerry Duce who complemented Blue Cap by adopting the nickname White Chief. Blue Cap and White Chief built up their gang over the course of the year. The strange monikers continued to be a trend as Scotch Jock (allegedly a former telegraph of John Dunn) and Jack the Devil signed up to join in the fun as well as a rogue known as King. Raids on farms were the core of their operation, the gang preferring to steal supplies rather than valuables.
The gang now had enough momentum to step things up and proceeded to perform a string of audacious raids, striking all of the stations and travellers they could along the Murrumbidgee River. At the first station they stole supplies and forced the station manager to play draughts with them while they sheltered and ate. At the next station they again took supplies and forced one of the women of the household to play piano for them. As the string of robberies went on the bushrangers started raiding the liquor cabinets of their victims. This predilection for alcohol would become a recurring problem.
It was at this time that a chap named T. A. Browne had his own experience of the gang. Browne was a well-known squatter in Wagga Wagga, owning the Bundidgaree Station near Narrandera. The Blue Cap gang had been reported as going about their depredations in the area and Browne, who was minding coach horses for his friend James Gormly, was keenly aware that he was likely to cross paths with the bushrangers and warned his friends to secrete any of their valuables until the threat had passed. The experience left a considerable impression on Browne who used it when crafting the character Redcap in his story The Squatter’s Dream, written under his better known nom de plume – Rolf Boldrewood.
At one station the gang stuck up they got so stuck into the booze that Blue Cap passed out. Scotch Jock bought a wheelbarrow from the superintendent with his loose change and used it to cart Blue Cap off the premises to a nearby dam and dropped him into the water to sober him up. Alcohol became the cause of major conflict in the gang with the men frequently having heated arguments after a little too much rum.
After one of their audacious raids on the station of a man named Featherstonhaugh the gang were hotly pursued by local police on horseback. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of the gang when they managed to shake off the police pursuit only to reach the flooded Urangeline Creek. Desperate times, as they say, call for desperate measures so the bushrangers took their mounts into the creek, all the time struggling against the waters that rushed downstream, foaming and gurgling, pushing the horses away. Cottrell led the group and a gang member named Hammond took the rear. With considerable difficulty all of the gang cleared the creek with the exception of Hammond, whose horse struggled to maintain a footing in the creek. As the rain pelted down in the dusky gloom, the gang could barely see as Hammond’s horse was bowled over into the torrent and Hammond dragged underneath. Rider and mount were washed away like flotsam and there was nothing anybody could do. After a failed search the gang continued on their journey. The drowned horse would be found washed up downstream the next day, still equipped with saddle and saddle bags and Hammond’s waterlogged corpse even further downstream two days later. The incident was too much and the gang, already starting to flake apart, decided to go their separate ways. The White Chief would go on to a reasonably successful run with a gang member named Brookman and new offsiders but not for long, the shadow of the gallows finally catching up with them at the beginning of 1868.
In October, Blue Cap fell in with a postman named Tom Doolan who had grown tired of the straight and narrow. He brought together Blue Cap and some other small time bushrangers and hatched a plan. Doolan had borrowed some pistols from his master William Flood on the pretense he was worried about bushrangers. Doolan proposed that they all stage a mock gunfight during which his accomplices could “steal” the firearms. They would later create a billiards tournament in town to create a distraction while they robbed the bank. Doolan met with confederates Scott and Smyth in town and rode to the station where he was employed. As they approached, Doolan took off and the others, now joined by Blue Cap, chased the postman. As Doolan rode he dropped two of the pistols in the grass for the bushrangers to collect. Doolan and the bushrangers engaged in a gunfight, shots going off everywhere. Staff at the station were baffled and terrified, not realising that the bushrangers were firing with pistols that were capped but not loaded. After a while firing ceased and Doolan was dragged to a spot barely visible to the staff. Doolan went on his knees before Blue Cap and they engaged in a discussion. Doolan provided Blue Cap with a clasp knife and instructed him to cut into his forearm and pretend he had been shot. Scott went to the homestead and grabbed a tablecloth. Blue Cap’s black mare was injured from a bullet wound to the chest. Blue Cap then took blood from the horse and spread it on himself to increase the goriness of his injury. That night he stayed at the station, refusing to let Doolan out of his sight. It wasn’t long before Doolan’s plan was foiled and he was arrested for stealing the firearms and put on trial.
Cottrell’s life on the run came to an end when he attempted to bail up three plain-clothes policemen. Crossing their path with the intention of bailing them up he was greeted with “Hello Bluey” from one of the troopers. Bluecap took off but was soon apprehended after being shot and promptly taken to Wagga Wagga.
Tried on 20 April, 1868, Cottrell pleaded guilty to three charges of robbery under arms and was sentenced to ten years hard labour. On the days leading up to the trial Cottrell had been in extremely poor health and in fact had suffered a series of seizures that required multiple men to hold him down. His face in court was covered by a green eyeshade and he was described as looking sickly, pale and thin.
Cottrell was not in prison anywhere near as long as expected as the New South Wales government issued a controversial amnesty that enabled many prisoners to be released in 1874. Having served almost four years of his sentence it was deemed that he had been a model prisoner and his lack of prior convictions made him a perfect candidate for release. When Cottrell walked out of the gates of Goulburn Gaol he walked out of the pages of history and what became of him has not been recorded.
“BLUE-CAP’S GANG.” Illustrated Sydney News (NSW : 1853 – 1872) 22 February 1868: 12.
“THE EARLY DAYS.” The Urana Independent and Clear Hills Standard (NSW : 1913 – 1921) 3 March 1916: 1.
“THE FAMILY CORNER.” Healesville Guardian (Vic. : 1893 – 1898) 12 November 1897: 3
“THE NEWS OF THE DAY.” The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954) 10 September 1867: 5.
“NEW SOUTH WALES.” The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) 27 August 1867: 3.
Boldrewood, Rolf. The Squatter’s Dream. Macmillan and Co., 1891. [ Available online: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/50411/50411-h/50411-h.htm ]