Spotlight: Ben Hall’s Bizarre Bushranging Battle

Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), Sunday 20 August 1989, page 18


Ben Hall’s bizarre bushranging battle

By ROBERT WILLSON

IT WAS late afternoon on October 24, 1863, when Commissioner Henry Keightley of Dunn’s Plains, south of Bathurst, saw five men riding along a fence line towards his homestead.

At first he thought the armed riders were police hunting the bush for the Ben Hall gang.

With him was his guest Dr Pechey, the medical officer from the nearby village of Rockley.

But Keightley, who was assistant gold commissioner in the district, discovered his mistake when the five riders fanned out, shouted “Bail Up!” and opened fire. The five were Hall, Gilbert, O’Meally, Vane and Burke.

Keightley and Pechey dived for cover in the doorway of the homestead while bullets splintered the woodwork around them. These were the opening shots in what became one of the most dramatic and bizarre battles in the history of NSW bushranging.

Keightley was said to be a handsome man of great courage and the basis of the character “Mr Knightly” in Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms. He had served as an officer in the First Sydney Rifles and had strongly supported the police in the war against the Hall gang, declaring that if he encountered them he would fight them to the death, without mercy.

The evening before the battle he had entertained a party of police at dinner and, as the bushrangers later admitted, they had been watching his Dunn’s Plains property from a hideout during the night. Apparently they decided to accept his challenge and make war on Keightley.

With Keightley in his home that night was his wife, Caroline, the attractive daughter of Henry Rotton, a wealthy local landowner and member of Parliament. Also there was Dr Pechey, Lily Rotton aged four years, (Mrs Keightley’s half-sister), and Mrs Baldock who was a general household servant.

Keightley had been half expecting such an attack and had taken care to have loaded weapons ready. But the bushrangers caught him by surprise and most of the weapons were in an outhouse, approachable only under fire. In the crisis he could only get hold of a revolver and a double-barrelled gun of which only one barrel was loaded.

As the battle raged the family locked and barricaded the homestead as best they could. In the excitement no one missed little Lily and the little girl found herself locked out. She wandered about among the bushrangers while the firing continued but came to no harm.

Fire briskly returned

Keightley and Pechey briskly returned the fire while the attackers formed a circle around the homestead and kept under cover as much as possible.

As the siege settled down young Micky Burke showed more courage than the others. He crept up at the side of the house and, using a large barrel for cover, would swing his arm out and loose a shot at the doorway from time to time.

Sheltering in the doorway Keightley saw this action and waited his chance. He had one barrel of his shotgun ready and, when Burke, growing overconfident, exposed his body for a moment, Keightley fired.

Micky Burke took the blast in the stomach. Those inside caught a glimpse of him as he reeled and staggered and then slumped against the house. Keightley heard him groan: “I’m done for. I won’t be taken alive.” With the last of his waning strength he levelled a revolver at his own head and fired twice. He fell to the ground, critically wounded but still alive.

Keightley and Pechey continued to return the attacking fire, but without much luck. From their various hideouts some of the other members of the gang may not have been aware that Burke was critically wounded and dying.

By now darkness was closing in and Keightley apparently decided that he would have a better chance of seeing his targets from a fortified observation post he had built on the roof of the homestead.

He and Pechey raced outside and scrambled up a ladder, while exposed to a wave of shots, one of which pierced his hat. The bushrangers fired about 20 shots at the loft. Gilbert yelled to the two men to come down and Hall shouted that the gang would fire the homestead and burn them out.

Keightley must have believed them and he had a horrifying vision of his wife and family trapped inside the burning house. It must have been a bitter decision for him but he called out that he would surrender if they did not harm his family.

When the two men reached the ground the bushrangers emerged from their hiding places.

Now they discovered the body of Burke, lying near the corner of the homestead. Vane, who was Burke’s mate, rushed up to Dr Pechey and apparently mistook him for Keightley. In a fit of rage at the shooting of his mate he struck the doctor on the head with the butt of his revolver and felled him to the ground.

At this moment there was a sudden distraction when some men from the neighbouring property, attracted by the sounds of gunfire, rode up to the homestead. Hall rode up to them and bailed them up at gunpoint, and escorted them to the house.

In the half light a dramatic sight confronted them. On the ground was the body of Burke, critically wounded but still showing signs of life. Keightley was sitting on the well frame under sentence of execution. Vane was standing over him with the weapon that had been used to shoot Burke. He was saying doggedly that the gun that had shot his mate must now be used to take the life of the man who had shot him.

When Vane finished reloading he threw the weapon over his arm and ordered Keightley to follow him down to the paddock out of sight of the others.

At this point Caroline Keightley, in frantic fear, rushed up to Ben Hall and grabbed him by the coat collar.

In her anguish she cried out to Hall: “I know you are Hall and they say you are the most humane, respectable and best of them all. for God’s sake don’t let them murder my husband — save his life!” Hall and Gilbert appeared to be moved by this plea and Hall called out to Vane to desist.

A bitter and emotional parley followed. Vane, supported by O’Meally, wanted to execute Keightley. Hall and Gilbert pointed out that Keightley would be able to claim the £500 reward for the shooting of Burke.

Deadline for ransom

So they decided to set a ransom on Keightley and to ask that amount for sparing his life. They set a deadline of 2pm on the following day, Sunday, for payment of the ransom.

At this point Dr Pechey, stalling for time, examined the body of Burke and detected signs of life, though he was critically wounded. Eventually the rest of the gang allowed him to ride into Rockley to get his instruments and see if he could do anything for their mate.

While they waited Pechey’s return the rest of the gang went into the homestead and Caroline Keightley served them spirits and wine which they forced her to taste first to show that it was not drugged. They admitted in conversation that they had been twitting Burke with want of courage and had driven him to prove himself.

When the doctor returned he pronounced Burke dead. Arrangements were now completed for the first ransom demand in Australian history.

The gang took Keightley to a rocky outcrop called Dog Rocks, nearby. From this strong position they could watch and wait the return of Caroline Keightley and the doctor with the ransom money. They said that they would shoot Keightley if any rescue attempt was made.

Pechey and Caroline Keightley now set off on the long buggy ride in the darkness to Bathurst, taking little Lily with them.

About 3am they reached the sleeping town and Caroline desperately hammered on the door of her father’s home.

She told Henry Rotton what had happened and that her husband’s life depended on the ransom being paid.

As it happened Henry Rotton was one of the few men with the influence to obtain such a large sum early on a Sunday morning. About 4am the manager of the Commercial Bank was dragged from his bed and the business of assembling the necessary banknotes was undertaken.

Rotton carefully marked and recorded the numbers of the notes in case they later turned up. Caroline Keightley remained in Bathurst but the exhausted doctor and Henry Rotton returned in the buggy to Dunn’s Plains with the ransom money. The money was handed over and Henry Keightley was finally released after his long ordeal.

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