Few names stand out in bushranging history quite like the self proclaimed “Prince of Tobeymen” himself – Frank Gardiner. Often considered the godfather of bushranging, he was responsible for the largest gold heist in colonial Australian history and introduced many of the big names to bushranging.
Gardiner was born in Rosshire, Scotland in 1830 as Francis Christie. He had a brother and two sisters who accompanied he and his parents on board the ship James to New South Wales in 1834. Settling at Boro Creek near Goulburn, the family kept a low profile until Frank hit adolescence.
Young Frank Christie first veered from the straight and narrow path when he began adopting false names to engage in stock theft. Teaming up with Jack Newton he stole two racehorses from Jugiong Station and took them across the border into Victoria. Adding William Troy to the cohort, they stole more horses and accrued a mob of thirty they planned to sell in Adelaide. The plans were scuppered, however, when police nabbed the offenders near Geelong. Christie was given five years for horse stealing. He was first accommodated in Melbourne Gaol before being transferred to the stockade at Pentridge. On 27 March 1851 Frank Christie escaped from Pentridge and went bush.
Christie assumed the name Clarke and teamed up with Ted Prior and spent a couple of years stealing stock in the Abercrombie Ranges. When he was finally nabbed, “Clarke” was sentenced to fourteen years on Cockatoo Island. In March 1854 he began his sentence and while inside he met John Peisley and the two gelled immediately. It is possible that he may also have encountered Frederick Wordsworth Ward (later known as Captain Thunderbolt) while he was there. On New Year’s Eve of 1859 Frank Christie gained a ticket of leave for the Carcoar district but as soon as he raised freedom he stole a horse and headed for the Kiandra Goldfields where he became a butcher and called himself Frank Gardiner.
Adding William Fogg to his business, Gardiner’s butcher shop was a source of high quality meat of dubious origin. It was widely believed that the animals he was slaughtering were stolen, but nobody could pin him for it until Sir Frederick Pottinger arrived in town. Gardiner and Fogg were arrested on suspicion of cattle theft but were released on bail. On 3 May 1861 Gardiner vanished into the bush. Gardiner became the self-proclaimed “Prince of Tobeymen” with John Peisley and a flash Canadian named Johnny Gilbert as his sidekicks. Gardiner was a well dressed and groomed gentleman of the road – a far cry from the balding and bloated Peisley and the impish Gilbert.
Things became serious when Gardiner took shelter at Fogg’s residence due to suffering from exposure in July 1861. It wasn’t long before police arrived and there was a scuffle. In the fracas Sergeant Middleton and Constable Hosie were shot and wounded, and Gardiner was savagely beaten and captured. What happened next is not known for certain. Some say Peisley helped rescue Gardiner, others say Gardiner bribed the police to free him. Whatever the means, Gardiner once more gained his liberty. From this time on bushranging would never be the same.
Gardiner wrote to the press to disclose his own narrative of the incident with Middleton and Hosie and talked himself up in the process. His reputation was beginning to become part of the popular culture of the day as he began recruiting more offsiders. He roamed the Lachlan with the “Three Jacks” – John Davis, John Connors and John McGuinness – in early 1862. When John Connors was shot and captured by the police at Lambing Flat in April the other two Jacks fled. Gardiner was outraged and turned them away. When John McGuinness was found dead days later it was believed that Gardiner had killed him in his rage.
It was at this time Gardiner took on Ben Hall as an accomplice. Gilbert also became Gardiner’s sidekick, accompanying him on various robberies presumably because of his competence when it came to criminal activities as much as his loyalty. Gardiner now had his eyes clapped on a far bigger prize. He was aware of the route the gold escort took from the Araluen diggings through to Orange and decided to rob it as it took the gold from the diggings to the town at a place called Eugowra Rocks. He recruited John Bow, Alex Fordyce, Henry Manns, Johnny Gilbert, Dan Charters, Ben Hall, John O’Meally and Charles Darcy to help him make the score. The gang hid in the rocks and on 15 June 1862 they blocked the road with a bullock train then as the escort came around the bend Gardiner launched his attack. The coach toppled as the horses bolted and the cabin was riddled with bullets. Some of the troopers were badly injured but no lives were lost on the day and the bushrangers got away with around £6000 worth of gold as well as almost £4000 cash and other goods. Unfortunately Gardiner lost his share of the gold when the gang was intercepted by the police and he was forced to abandon his packhorse.
Gardiner had been wooing Kitty Brown, younger sister of Ben Hall’s wife Biddy, and the two were conducting a secret affair. After the robbery Gardiner took Kitty with him to Victoria where they aimed to make a new start on the Goldfields but when this didn’t work they headed to Apis Creek in Queensland. Here they bought a pub and ran it very effectively until one of Kitty’s letters was intercepted and a detachment from the New South Wales police led by Detective Pye headed north to nab the most wanted man in the empire. Gardiner was dragged out of the pub into the street and forcefully apprehended. He was taken back to New South Wales despite the police having not received permission to go outside their jurisdiction.
Gardiner was put on trial for his crimes and after much anticipation was found guilty and sentenced to thirty four years imprisonment. He was sent to Darlinghurst Gaol but meanwhile Kitty and Gardiner’s sisters were fighting tooth and nail to get him out. All was for nil and Kitty Brown eventually moved to New Zealand with her brother-in-law and committed suicide after months of living in dire poverty.
In 1874 Gardiner was released from Gaol after a movement was passed allowing a number of criminals who had been given longer sentences than were the current norm at that time to be freed. However for Gardiner there was a catch and he was exiled, never to return to Australia. He spent time in Hong Kong before moving to San Francisco where he ran a saloon. When and how he died is a mystery. Some claimed that he was killed in a bar room brawl, others that he married a rich widow and had two sons before dying of old age. The most likely scenario is that he turned to alcoholism and died in a poor house in 1892. Hardly a romantic death for the great Frank Gardiner, Prince of Tobeymen and King of the Road.