By March 1865 the Hall Gang were struggling. The murders of Sergeant Party and Constable Nelson had elevated these highwaymen to murderers and thus the hunt for them had ramped up. Because of the lowered success from highway robbery, the gang decided to take a crack at the big game: a gold escort.
In 1861 Frank Gardiner had successfully robbed the Orange gold escort at Eugowra Rocks. Among his gang were members of what would come to be popularly known as the Gilbert Gang, then later the Hall Gang. While Hall’s involvement in the heist is questionable, Gilbert’s was undeniable and thus it is possible that it was his idea to attempt another escort robbery in the bush at Araluen. Araluen, near Braidwood, was outside the gang’s usual beat, but its gold diggings were yielding much treasure even though most of the other goldfields had stopped rewarding diggers. The gang’s plan seemed to be as simple as ambushing the escort in the bush en route from the diggings. To achieve this they had to recruit at least one man more for the job.
Historians have debated over who the mysterious fourth gang member was, but there are two leading theories. The first is that it was up and coming bushranger Thomas Clarke, whose stomping ground encompassed the very spot where the heist was to happen. Clarke, despite being the popular suspect as far as the police were concerned, was not known to have worked with the gang on any other occasions, nor indeed with any of the other notable bushrangers in the region apart from those in his own gang. The second, most likely theory, is that it was Daniel Ryan, a friend of John Dunn with a criminal history of his own who went unaccounted for at the time of the robbery. While he wasn’t positively identified at the time, he was later arrested for his suspected involvement with the gang.
The gang descended upon Paul Burke’s Jinglemoney station on the Sunday night and swapped their horses for three of his. With fresh horses at the ready the gang headed for their point of attack at Major’s Creek. The hiding place the gang chose was a large, hollow tree at a bend where four paths converged. Two years previously a gold escort had been attacked in a similar fashion. The gang were equipped with a sledgehammer, an axe and a chisel to enable them to get the lockbox open once they had it in their possession.
Just after 8:00am on 13 March, 1865, the wagonette carrying the gold from the Araluen diggings left on it’s journey to Braidwood, rattling along the road. Riding ahead of the escort was a man named Payne who worked for a company called Rodd and bros. Unfortunately for Payne, he was bailed up by Gilbert who kept him covered with his Tranter revolving carbine. Payne was ordered to dismount and stay quiet as he was taken to the gang’s hiding place. With Payne’s being horse unrestrained, it naturally wandered off. Soon others were added to the collection of prisoners: a man named Nairn, another named Griffin, and a woman named Mrs. Jonas. The prisoners were restrained and kept on an embankment between the gang’s horses and the road. While held prisoner, the captives got a good look at their captors. Gilbert was in control, calling the shots to the other three and interrogating the captives regarding the escort. Hall remained, as always, quiet and subdued. Dunn concerned himself with preparing for the incoming escort while the mystery man kept well back from the group with his face hidden behind a red scarf or handkerchief. Gilbert declared to the captives that if the driver of the coach were to be unarmed he would not be targeted.
As the gang went about bailing up travellers, a local splitter noticed what they were up to and upon finding Payne’s horse, mounted up and went straight in to Major’s Creek to report the activity. This news quickly spread and within minutes a posse of thirty armed men had gathered and begun heading towards the scene of the crime. Unfortunately by the time they would reach the spot it would be too late, though they would gather more to their number as they passed through Araluen.
The wagonette bearing the gold was being driven by a man named John Blatchford, a gold buyer and owner of the vehicle, and was being escorted by constables MacEllicott, Byrne and Kelly, and Senior Constable Stapylton. Byrne rode abreast of the escort, acting as a kind of pilot. In the lockbox stored on the coach was 1,900oz, or £4000 worth, of gold.
At ten o’clock the escort descended into the bend. When the escort was within four yards of the gang, heading up to the ridge, Constable Byrne was allowed passage, however Gilbert ordered the others to open fire on Constable Kelly, who was shot in the chest above the heart. It was estimated that eight shots were fired, two striking the coach, two striking Stapylton’s horse in the rump. The firing spooked Kelly’s horse and it bucked the rider off before galloping away back the way the escort had come. Likewise, the coach horses became spooked and tore away from the escort. Blatchford lost his balance and tumbled from the vehicle, also receiving a bullet wound when one of the projectiles ricocheted off the wagonette. Constable Byrne managed to halt the coach as it climbed the rise. He then proceeded to set up a spot next to the wagonette from which to defend the gold.
Kelly remained wounded on the road as Blatchford attempted to fetch the fallen constable’s horse. Kelly used the strength he could muster to call out, “for God’s sake, Mr. Blatchford, don’t leave me here to die!” Blatchford helped drag Kelly to the embankment and propped him up before grabbing the terrified horse and riding it full pelt back towards Araluen.
With Constable Kelly down for the count, and Blatchford riding away, the remaining police dismounted and crept into the bush in an effort to flank their attackers. Gilbert ordered the gang to double back to their prisoners. Payne asked if anyone had been injured, which Gilbert responded to by stating that the gang were fine but the police were “bloody well licked”. The gang continued over the embankment and mounted their horses to pursue the runaway coach, one of Burke’s greys in exchange for Mr. Nairn’s horse. Gilbert barked at the gang to hurry but Hall’s stirrup leather had fallen out and he was attempting to fix it. As this was transpiring, Stapylton and MacEllicott had dismounted and come up behind the bushrangers. They opened fire and a shot from Stapylton nearly clipped Gilbert’s ear, to which he called out “That was a bloody fine shot, mark that man!”
The bushrangers locked on to Constable Byrne and rode furiously towards him but realised that the spot where the coach had come to rest was too open and would leave them vulnerable if they attempted to grab the lockbox. They cut their losses and bolted without the booty. They left behind their “safe-cracking” kit and a shotgun worth £30 with a broken stock.
Blatchford’s flight had not merely been a terrified escape. He stopped at Mr. Nelson’s and gave instructions on how to retrieve Constable Kelly, then continued into Redbank where he went straight to the telegraph office and reported the attack to the Braidwood police. It had only taken around twenty minutes for him to accomplish the task. As soon as the news reached Braidwood, the police geared up and took off with Superintendent Orridge leading the way.
Orridge and Dr. Pattison were the first to arrive in the scene and they retrieved Constable Kelly and rode him back to Norman’s. Pattison immediately went to work, noting that despite there being two bullet holes in Kelly’s waistcoat there was only one wound. The bullet that had struck Kelly passed through his body without hitting any organs before lodging at his back just below the skin. Dr. Pattison extracted the bullet straight away. The wound was, fortunately, not life-threatening but just in case Rev. O’Brien was sent for.
The community was up in arms over the affair and in particular over the shooting of Constable Kelly, who had been serving in the New South Wales police for three years. This was his first time on escort detail for the Araluen line and would have been his last action as a New South Wales trooper as he was due to head to Queensland to be with his parents.
As for the bushrangers, the failure seemed to do little to deter them from crime and very soon they would re-emerge to continue their nefarious trade. Little did they know that things were aligning to bring in new legislation that would be known as the “felons apprehension act”. This act would enable the government to declare certain individuals “outlaws” and deny them access to the protection of the law. Anyone could shoot them for the reward money and not suffer any negative consequences.
It was only a matter of time before their days on the run would come to an abrupt and violent end.