For months Frank Gardiner had been plotting a big heist. He knew that the key to a big haul was to attack one of the gold escorts from the diggings but they would be heavily guarded so he would need to be able to overwhelm the security. So, as 1862 trundled along Gardiner built up a gang for his heist that could hardly be rivaled by any police escort. Among his men were Gardiner’s wingman Johnny Gilbert and his brother Charlie, Ben Hall, John O’Meally, Henry Manns, Alexander Fordyce, Daniel Charters, and John Bow. In that time Gardiner had been bouncing ideas around with Gilbert and O’Meally, finally devising a plan as winter set in.
The first stage of the plan was simple – create a blockade. Choosing a sparsely forested area along the coach route dotted with cypress, myrtle and gums with rocks jutting out of the soil near Eugowra Station, the coach would be stopped in its tracks and made vulnerable. To this end the gang bailed up two bullock teams and took the teamsters prisoner. Placing their drays across the road near a granite boulder on the slope just around the bend, the bushrangers proceeded to ensure the prisoners were tied up and placed out of sight. The gang bristled with nervous energy, nothing on this scale had been executed successfully. Gardiner geared himself up, checking his watch, running the ends of his waxed moustache through his fingertips. His men had blackened their faces with boot polish or black crepe to obscure their identities. Gardiner tugged the brim of his cabbage tree hat low over his eyes to block the sun and gazed out over the vista, the road winding down through the bush into Araluen toward the diggings. Suddenly he heard hooves…
As the afternoon settled in on Sunday 15 June, the Ford & Co. coach departed for Bathurst with an impressive cargo. Within the coach was 2067oz of gold and £700 from the Oriental Bank; 521oz of gold from the Bank of New South Wales; and 129oz of gold and £3000 from the Commercial Banking Company. At 3.30pm, with two mounted troopers riding as escorts for the coach they took the road up through the rocks. Here they discovered the bullock drays blocking the road. The driver, Jack Fagan, was ropeable!
“Get your bloody drays off the road, you cretins!” he shouted as he tried to take the horses around the obstacle. The coach drove close to the rocks and all Hell broke loose.
Gardiner signalled to his men from behind the rock. The crack of gunfire lacerated the tranquillity of the bush and bullets tore through the wooden coach hitting Constable Moran in the groin, the unfortunate policeman overwhelmed with confusion, pain, and terror. A bullet whipped Fagan’s hat off his head. As the bushrangers who had fired the first volley reloaded the next lot took shots at the coach. Sergeant Condell was shot in the ribs and the escort horses tried to bolt. The bullet riddled coach lurched and snagged on the rocks, overturning in spectacular fashion and tossing the occupants and driver across the road like rag dolls. As Fagan and Haviland collected themselves, spitting out the mouthfuls of dust they had collected on landing, they took up their rifles and let off a shot as the bushrangers descended upon the stricken vehicle. The constables were no match for these devils with red shirts and black faces. Frank Gardiner had led his men like a true captain, cool under pressure and giving directions with clarity and precision that left the police totally blind-sided. As the police scurried away the gang descended like carrion birds and the coach was picked clean. The gang knew that they had struck it rich, but little did they know the extent of their haul. Within half an hour the Gardiner gang had made history.
The distressed troopers were found by a squatter named Hanbury Clements, who had been roused by the gunfire and ridden towards the commotion. Seeing Condell and Moran struggling and bleeding, propped up by their colleagues, he immediately assisted them in getting to the Eugowra homestead where his wife Edith was entrusted with attending the injuries, to her great trepidation – after all, she was no doctor.
The victors secured the coach horses and secured the loot to them before they retrieved their horses from the scrub and allowed the teamsters to go free. They rode to Noble’s Lagoon and redistributed the booty and sent Charters off to gather food supplies before heading to their camp north of the Lachlan River. At camp the bushrangers regrouped and had a proper look over the spoils. The elation of the men was not shared by Alex Fordyce, however, who had been far too overcome by nerves and downed a bottle of gin and passed out. Fordyce, a craggy faced stockman and bartender, was not well-suited to the high risk undertaking of robbing a gold escort. When Gardiner tried to revive the forty two year old he noticed that Fordyce had a fully loaded revolver – he had not fired a single shot. The Darkie was furious and shook the man into a terrified awakening.
“You bloody coward! You were too much afraid to fire. I’ll cut your rations for that!” Gardiner roared with his distinctive burr. True to his word, Gardiner ensured that Fordyce would only receive a cut of the cash and not the gold. The others took little notice of the outburst, far more involved with their own afterglow. Gardiner was a man with the temper of Zeus and you didn’t want to get on his bad side.
Night closed in tight in the winter and as darkness closed its grip on the world Hanbury Clements mounted and rode the almost 30 mile journey into Forbes to alert the police. The response was immediate and the police and a team of civilians set out under Sir Frederick Pottinger with trackers Billy Dargin and Jimmy the Dealer to find the bushrangers while the trail was fresh. All night the men scoured the country for the robbers, finally locating a lead at daybreak when they discovered the gang’s tracks separating, indicating that they had split to baffle pursuit. The pursuers also split, one group headed by Sub-Inspector Sanderson who headed straight for Ben Hall’s run on Sandy Creek. This would prove to be a fateful move for the wily Sanderson.
While the gang had been moving through the district towards the Weddin Mountains, Fordyce, Gilbert and Manns had taken their cuts and gone home while Dan Charters had stopped by Sandy Creek to visit Ben Hall’s brother and sister-in-law. The moment he heard the dogs barking to signify an unexpected arrival he went outside and sensed the impending arrival of police. He mounted his horse and galloped away towards his comrades. Sanderson saw this and immediately knew that was his man and directed his team to pursue Charters like hounds. The police kept on Charters’ like the angel of death shadowing a starving man, following him right into the Terrible Hollow. At camp, Gardiner sat with O’Meally, Bow, Hall and Hall’s brother-in-law “Warrigal” Walsh, a sinewy eighteen year old who idolised The Darkie as a highwayman hero and had been acting as his telegraph. Their peace was disturbed by Charters riding up and bellowing,
“Here come the police, boys!”
The men scattered, Gardiner attempting to escape with “Warrigal” Walsh and the pack horse carrying Gardiner’s and O’Meally’s cut of the gold. Hall split from the group and planted his haul before returning home. The others all took off on horseback while The Darkie and The Warrigal tried to push the pack horse on, prodding it with sticks to make it move faster. The thunder of police hooves became apparent and Gardiner could feel his heart in his throat as his prodding became more urgent.
“Go you blasted thing! GO!”
Sanderson peered down from the saddle at the bushrangers’ camp fire and sensed that his target was near and pressed on. Ahead of him the pack horse huffed and puffed with the strain of carrying the gold and Gardiner climbed in the saddle of his mount – Walsh doing the same – and spurred it on leaving his valuable prize behind where it was found by the police. Gardiner had narrowly avoided capture at the cost of his and O’Meally’s gold.
But it was not over yet…