Best known as Frank Gardiner’s accomplice, John Peisley was a bushranger determined to lord over Lambing Flat and the Abercrombie region but whose vices brought him unstuck. Oddly, for such a well-known bushranger, many of the accounts of his life and career are light on details and plagued with inconsistencies. In the early 1860s, Peisley’s was a name regarded with fear, but was he a mere thug or a wayward youth brutalised by the prisons and victim to an alcohol addiction that impaired his judgement with fatal consequences?
Peisley (variously spelled Piesley, Paisley and Peasley also) was born in Bathurst, New South Wales in 1834. His parents were of the convict class, his father Thomas Peasland arrived as a convict on the Agamemnon in 1820 and was a ticket of leave man who took up a cattle farm on the Iceley property in Cooming Park, near Carcoar. John’s mother Sarah arrived as an infant with her convict mother aboard the Minstrel in 1812. They had six children, including John.
Peisley’s father was arrested when it was found he had in his possession a bull branded T.P, but Iceley, whose cattle often mingled with that of the Peisleys, claimed it to be a crude reworking of his own brand: T.1. A jury of local shopkeepers, unaware of the fact that the cattle mingling from the Iceleys’ prize stock with the less impressive animals owned by the Peisleys would have resulted in the Peisleys’ cattle improving in quality, thereby making it difficult to prove that the quality of the animal was proof of its provenance. Peisley was sent to Cockatoo Island for seven years but died in prison before the sentence was up. Furthermore, all of his property was claimed by the government and bought by Iceley at an agreeable price. This rendered the Peisleys homeless and young John fell into a life of crime.
Peisley fell in with a gang of stock thieves and horse planters and was arrested at 20 for stealing horses. Tried on 13 September, 1854 at the Bathurst Quarter Sessions he was sentenced to five years on the roads and sent to Darlinghurst Gaol. It would appear that Peisley managed to escape custody shortly afterwards during probation and was removed to Parramatta Gaol and again tried at the Bathurst Quarter Sessions on 18 February 1855, where he was sentenced to an additional month to be commenced at the end of the previous sentence.
For Peisley the compulsion to steal stock seemed to be an itch that he couldn’t help scratch and he found himself in the Supreme Court in Sydney on 8 December 1857 on a charge of stealing a mob of horses during probation. This offence saw him sent to Cockatoo Island for a portion of his sentence where he met a fellow stock thief, Frank Christie. Being stuck on an island prison was not a deterrent to Peisley’s desire for liberation and he was captured attempting to make his way across the water from the prison. For this he was given an extra nine months on top of his existing sentence. Peisley was lucky enough to have his Ticket of Leave granted on 23 November 1860 despite his apparent inability to demonstrate any meaningful reform of character. It was around this time that a fellow Cockatoo inmate, Frederick Britten, successfully swam across Sydney Harbour with his accomplice Frederick Wordsworth Ward who would later gain popularity when he assumed the moniker “Captain Thunderbolt”.
Almost as soon as he had gained his liberty, Peisley sought out his prison buddy Christie, who was at that time in Lambing Flat under the name Frank Gardiner, on the run after violating his own Ticket of Leave. The pair decided to take to bushranging together and roamed the district with surprising impunity.
On 16 July 1861, Gardiner was involved in a horrific fight with police at the home of his friend William Fogg at Fish River. Gardiner was captured, Sergeant Middleton badly injured after being shot by Gardiner, and Trooper Hosie apparently being bribed to release Gardiner. Peisley was implicated in the escape but always denied involvement even to his dying moments.
Nevertheless, a reward of £100 was offered for Peisley on 23 July 1861. However, so indignant was Peisley at the suggestion of his supposed involvement in the incident that he took to writing to the Bathurst Free Press to clear his name.
Sir, You will no doubt be surprised to receive a note from the (now by all account) noted Piesley; but, sir, through your valuable paper I must make it known that if it be my lot to be taken, whether dead or alive, I will never be tried for the rescue of Gardiner, in the light in which it is represented, nor did I ever fire at Trooper Hosie. Aud such I wish to be known, that it is in my power to prove what I here assert, and that beyond a doubt. I am no doubt a desperado in the eyes of the law, but never, in no instance, did I ever use violence, nor did I ever use rudeness to any of the fair sex, and I must certainly be the Invisible Prince to commit one tenth of what is laid to my charge. And, sir, I beg to state that it is through persons in high positions that I now make this assertion, and I trust I may never have to allude to it again. I love my native hills, I love freedom, and detest cruelty to man or beast. Trusting you will publish this, my bold letter no doubt, but you can be assured it comes from the real John Piesley, and not any of his many representatives,
I am, Mr. Editor, your much harassed writer,
After the incident at Fogg’s shanty, Peisley took his leave of Gardiner, striking out on his own in the Abercrombie Ranges. He visited the superintendent at Lawson, who many years earlier had given Peisley’s father his ticket of leave. He had a meal there before stealing two plough horses, which he sold near Goulburn, before heading to Bigga where he stayed overnight in a pub getting drunk. The next day he rode out to see a farmer named Benton.
Peisley was not a prolific bushranger like many of his contemporaries, though he had a lot of incidents linked to him. On 14 September 1861 he robbed a Mr. O’Sullivan between Marrugo and Cowra, later forcibly entering a hut near Marrugo and robbing John Dawkins. On 30 October Peisley robbed James Eldridge, J. Laverty and Catherine Vardy near Binda and committed another robbery on December 28 of the same year. One of the less savoury incidents of Peisley’s career was when he was claimed to have robbed a woman who recognised him from their youth. According to the woman, Peisley had once sold her brother a stolen horse at Bigga and hoped that her previous association with him would compel him not to mistreat her. Her faith was ill-founded as he proceeded to strike her across the face, kicking her while she was on the ground which gave her two black eyes and severe bruising on her nose. The terrified woman attempted to get to her feet and Peisley fired a shot at her, which grazed her cheek, leaving a scar. Peisley always maintained that he had never mistreated a woman with particular vehemence, so there are questions about this incident. Regardless of Peisley’s assertions such alleged actions did nothing to endear him to the locals and Peisley was frequently referred to as a “terror”, the mere mention of his name putting people on edge.
Of all the incidents of Peisley’s life, the most infamous was that which occurred at the home of William Benyon. On 27 December, Peisley joined James Wilson, an Abercrombie storekeeper, at McGuinness’ Inn, Bigga, where they drank excessively. The pair then headed to the Benyons’ place where they asked after William Benyon and gained a bottle of porter from his wife, Martha. Peisley stayed at Benyon’s place eating and drinking himself into an awful, cantankerous state of mind. He challenged Benyon to run, jump or fight him for £10 but when Benyon refused Peisley continued to goad him into a confrontation. He accused Benyon of swapping a horse of his when they were boys, taking off his waistcoat and rolling his pistols up in it before a scuffle erupted in the yard. Martha Benyon hid Peisley’s guns in the garden as a precaution. During the conflict Peisley proceeded to ram William Benyon’s head repeatedly into a fence and Stephen Benyon, William’s brother, intervened. Peisley ran into the house for a knife with which he attempted to stab William in the breast. Martha interjected and begged for her husband and Stephen Benyon took the opportunity to strike Peisley with a spade. After this Peisley made a point of shaking everyone’s hands before demanding his guns and riding away.
In Peisley’s absence William Benyon set about loading a revolver which he gave to his brother, believing that Peisley meant to return and shoot Stephen. When the bushranger returned, he questioned Stephen:
Surely you don’t mean to shoot me?
He convinced Stephen to put down the revolver, stating that he was not guilty of any cowardly action and would not do one now and shaking his hand. As soon as Stephen put the firearm down, Peisley snatched it up and shot Stephen in the shoulder. Peisley then bailed up a number of the family and staff in the barn and upon William Benyon making a lunge at the bushranger he was shot in the throat, the bullet passing through his windpipe and lodging in his spine paralysing him and leading to his death seven days later.
In January 1862, a description of Peisley was published in the Police Gazette:
About 28 years of age, about 5 ft. 10 ins. high, stout and well made, fresh complexion, very small light whiskers, quite bald on top of head and forehead, several recent marks on face, and a mark from a blow of a spade on top of head; puffed and dissipated-looking from hard drinking; invariably wears fashionable Napoleon boots, dark cloth breeches, dark vest buttoned up the front, large Albert gold guard, cabbage-tree hat and duck coat. Sometimes wears a dark wig and always carries a brace of revolvers.
That same month Peisley found himself in a clash with police. Spotted near Bigga by Constables Morris, Murphy and Simpson, Peisley rode up to the mounted troopers and introduced himself. Peisley challenged Morris to a bout of fisticuffs but when the trooper dismounted Peisley laughed and rode off. Morris drew his pistol and fired at the retreating bushranger, the shot passing along the neck of Peisley’s horse.
Peisley turned and grinned, “That was a good one, try again!” he said mockingly. The police gave chase but their horses were no match and Peisley escaped. Constable Edward Morris would later retire from police work and open a store at Binda, which would be burned down by Ben Hall in an act of vengeance for trying to set the Hall Gang’s horses loose.
Peisley was spotted shortly after by Corporal John Carroll of the Southern Gold Escort near Tarcutta riding a fine mount and leading a pack horse. Carroll seemed to recognise Peisley and rode up to question him.
“Have you any arms?” Carroll queried.
“Just my two.” replied Peisley, seemingly misinterpreting the question. When Carroll clarified that he meant firearms, Peisley then intimated that he had his brace of revolvers on his pack horse. When presented with a single-shot pistol aimed at his head and a demand to remove his hat to demonstrate whether he was bald, Peisley instead took off after failing to grab his pack horse, dodging his way up a hill and then upon gaining the high ground drawing a colt revolver from a valise with which he threatened Carroll. The beleaguered corporal fired at the bushranger but the shot took no effect. Peisley escaped, but lost his packhorse. Carroll promptly rode to the Tarcutta Inn and procured a revolver and assistance before riding back to the spot of the encounter and seizing Peisley’s packhorse and swag. Thereafter Carroll led a group of men to watch the camp of a man whose horse closely resembled that of Peisley, resulting in a rude awakening the next morning for an innocent man.
Days later, Peisley was captured at Boothea’s Hotel, Mundarlo, by Murdoch McKenzie of Mundarlo, Mr. Stephen of Tarcutta and James Beveridge of Wantabadgery Station. Peisley had been at Tarcutta Inn having a meal when word got out about the infamous visitor. McKenzie informed Beveridge, who had been riding past, that the bushranger was in the hotel. When Beveridge rode to Tarcutta police station he found the troopers had all gone looking for Peisley, and managed to procure a set of handcuffs and rode back to the the inn where Peisley was still eating. Beveridge blocked the doorway and as Peisley went to leave, McKenzie and Beveridge leaped on top of him and secured him. The bushranger was kept secured overnight then taken into Gundagai the next morning. Beveridge would later become involved in the story of Captain Moonlite in 1879.
On 12 February 1862, Peisley was committed for trial on the charge of murdering William Benyon. He seemed not to have any concerns while in court and was described by a press correspondent thus:
At a distance he has a pleasing countenance, but upon closer inspection his features appear more hardened and determined.
Seven witnesses appeared to give evidence and Peisley’s fate was seemingly set. On 13 April, 1862, Peisley was tried for murder at Bathurst and found guilty. On 25 March Peisley was hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol. His last words came after a lengthy explanation of his own account of the crimes that had led him there:
Good bye gentlemen; God bless you.
Peisley’s death was instantaneous, however an Aboriginal man hanged with him named Jacky Bullfrog was not afforded the same swift end, the hangman clearly having botched the job as the man struggled on the end of the rope for several minutes before death took hold.
“Peisley the Bushranger” Wellington Times (NSW : 1899 – 1954) 9 March 1936: 4.
“THE BUSHRANGER PEISLEY.” Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (NSW : 1851 – 1904) 12 February 1862: 2.
“THE MEETING OF PEISLEY AND CARROLL.” The Golden Age (Queanbeyan, NSW : 1860 – 1864) 20 February 1862: 3.
“COMMITTAL OF PEISLEY, THE BUSHRANGER FOR WILFUL MURDER.” Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld. : 1861 – 1908) 28 February 1862: 4.
“JACK PIESLEY.” Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW : 1881 – 1940) 20 September 1902: 6.
“PEISLEY THE BUSHRANGER—MURDER OF BENYON.” Geelong Advertiser (Vic. : 1859 – 1929) 26 February 1862: 3.
“HOW PEISLEY WAS SHOT” The Gundagai Independent and Pastoral, Agricultural and Mining Advocate (NSW : 1898 – 1928) 22 November 1926: 1.
“BUSHRANGER and BLACKGUARD” The World’s News (Sydney, NSW : 1901 – 1955) 8 October 1930: 27.
Greene, S. (2017). A BUSHRANGER IN THE FAMILY John Peisley c.1834-1862. Ghostbuster, 26(1), pp.11 – 13. [https://www.cdfhs.org.au/images/pdf/gbuster/GhostMain_March17.pdf]