The Battle of Goimbla

In November 1863 the Gilbert-Hall gang were at the apex of their infamy. Raids on Canowindra and Bathurst had elevated them beyond the run-of-the-mill farm raiders, stock thieves and highwaymen that the pantheon of bushrangers mostly comprised of. Things had started falling apart however with the gruesome death of Mickey Burke during a siege and the subsequent split from the group by John Vane who had decided that prison was preferable to bushranging. The remaining members were Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert and John O’Meally, all of whom had been working together since 1861 when they were united under the leadership of Frank Gardiner.

The trio were determined not to let the sudden decrease in the size of their gang impact on their notoriety and the intimidation factor that came with it. With this in mind they decided to target the Campbells at Goimbla Station near Forbes.

Word had reached the gang that David Henry Campbell, a police magistrate, had been boasting of how well prepared he was to fend off an attack by the bushrangers. Campbell was known to have spoken very openly about his desire to see the bushrangers brought to justice and was even known to have gone hunting for them. Such an avowed enemy, it seemed, could not be left unmolested.

At around 9pm, on 19 November, 1863, David Campbell was in his drawing room when he heard footsteps near the verandah. He immediately fetched a double-barrelled shotgun and headed for the bedroom. He went to the back door of his dressing room where he was met by the indistinct figure of one of the armed bushrangers, likely O’Meally, who promptly fired two barrels from a shotgun near Campbell’s face, but missed. Campbell returned the gesture and the man fled, joining the rest of the gang at the front door of the house. Campbell followed, staying out of sight, and observed the bushrangers as they began firing into the house.

Roused by the sudden bursts of gunfire, William Campbell, David’s brother, went out to the verandah where he saw one of the bushrangers. Immediately the bandit fired at him, striking him in the chest. A second shot proved ineffective. William, in pain from his wound, struggled to his feet and ran to an oat crop for cover. Concealed in the vegetation, he tried to gauge the situation so he could mount a return to the house.

David Campbell and his wife Amelia, taken from a lantern slide. [Source: National Museum of Australia]

David Campbell retreated into the house and raised the alarm. His wife Amelia ran into the drawing room, which was lit up by lamps with the blinds still open, leaving her exposed. The bushrangers fired at her as she fetched a shotgun that was resting against the fireplace and the necessary ammunition. Shots zipped past her as she boldly made her way back through the room to safety. Campbell reloaded his shotgun and the couple took cover between two slab walls that led to the kitchen. From here they had a decent field of view and were able to catch their breath in relative safety. After fifteen minutes of relentless firing, the gang ceased long enough to threaten the occupants of the fortified house verbally.

“If you don’t immediately surrender, we’ll burn your place down!”

Campbell was game and hollered back, “Come on; I’m ready for you!”

Clearly this was not the desired response and one of the bushrangers was heard to exclaim “Oh, that is it!”

Within moments the bandits set about gathering incendiary tools. Fire was something they believed had great persuasive power, and if it did not force their prey to bow to the demands it would teach a valuable lesson about dealing with the bushrangers. They set fire to the barn and it went up quickly. From inside his house, Campbell screamed at the bushrangers to free his horses. Spitefully, they refused to comply. As the flames leaped into the night sky, illuminating the house, the horrific cries of the horses emanated from the barn as they were burned alive. Not satisfied with such wanton cruelty, the bandits proceeded to set fire to a shed opposite the burning barn. Hall, Gilbert and O’Meally must have taken no small amount of joy from the terror they were inflicting upon the Campbells and they continued to mock them as they fired into the house.

Mrs. Campbell ran out of the safety of the house to rouse the workmen for assistance 150 yards away. She was unsuccessful and returned to her husband with a servant girl.

Outside, the gang moved behind a fence to admire their handiwork as the fires raged, the heat incredible and the glow brilliant. Hall and Gilbert continued to fire at the front door and taunt the Campbells, keeping low to avoid being targeted. O’Meally was seemingly entranced by the gang’s handiwork and stood up, watching the fire. Mrs. Campbell spotted him by his cabbage-tree hat, reflecting the glow of the flames. David Campbell ran to the end of the house and aimed at O’Meally then fired. While Campbell reloaded O’Meally fell, blood gushing from a wound in his neck. As the vicious brigand lay dying, blood spurting from the bullet hole, his companions dragged him to the cover of some oak trees. Gilbert and Hall, who only weeks earlier had been willing to brutalise the Keightleys and hold them ransom for hours in retaliation for Mickey Burke’s death, seemed unwilling to show any degree of loyalty to O’Meally. They rifled through his pockets, taking anything valuable, and even took a ring from his right pinky finger. The neck was rested on a comforter, the body was then covered in a towel and a woolpack (sleeping bag) and abandoned.

O’Meally’s death as portrayed by Patrick Maroney [Source: National Library of Australia]

With the firing having ceased, William Campbell headed off on foot to procure police. In the morning he returned with a constable and the scene was investigated. They found O’Meally’s cabbage-tree hat and carbine by the fence where he fell, then a trail of blood led them to O’Meally’s corpse. He was dressed in a corduroy jacket, buckskin, tall boots with long spurs, and three Crimean shirts. Inspecting the fatal wound, it was seen that there was a gaping wound in O’Meally’s neck where the shot had ripped through and smashed his vertebra. Blood was all over O’Meally’s neck and face. It was a grim sight, but a welcome one as far as the broader community was concerned. The body was examined then buried in an unmarked grave in Gooloogong Cemetery as it had not been claimed.

As much of a menace as the Hall Gang were, O’Meally was widely considered to be the worst of the bunch. To that point, O’Meally was the only member of the gang that was believed to have committed murder, that being the shooting of John Barnes near Wallendbeen. His aggressive and intimidating manner held many of his victims in a state of terror. The news of his death was welcomed by many in the Forbes district, with members of the community even coming together to write a letter of commiseration and thanks to the Campbells. Amelia also received a silver tea urn and silk cloth as gifts from the grateful people of Adelong.

Meanwhile, Hall and Gilbert were licking their proverbial wounds. They had not been injured in the fight but had been most resoundingly defeated. Yet, like the mythical Hydra, where one head was lopped off, two grew in its place. It did not take long for Hall and Gilbert to find replacements for O’Meally in the forms of John Dunleavy and Jim Gordon, nicknamed “Old Man”. This new outfit would be very short lived with Gilbert splitting off from the group after another gun fight, this time at the Bang Bang Hotel.

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