The history of bushranging can be fairly accurately distinguished into eras based on various relevant factors including the modus operandi and societal factors. Below you can see a breakdown of what constitutes the different eras with examples of the bushrangers that operated within them.
This era is defined by the way that convict transportation influenced the colonisation of Australia – specifically the formation of New South Wales in 1788 and Van Diemen’s Land in 1803. As settlements were scarce during this time, most bushrangers were escaped convicts and their usual modus operandi was to raid farms and steal supplies. The lack of roads meant that highway robbery was almost non-existent in this era, though not unheard of. Crimes such as murder and arson were also part of the bushranger playbook of this era, but not as prevalent as they would be in later times.
These bushrangers almost always travelled on foot, and gangs could be as few as three or four members, or as large as fourteen to twenty four members. Occasionally there were instances of boats being used to transport bushrangers along waterways to facilitate faster movement, as well as allowing them to carry more booty and avoid leaving tracks to be followed. As most were convicts who had been transported from cities where they lived in poverty, the majority had no experience with horses and thus would have been unlikely to have succeeded in travelling on horseback.
Weaponry utilised by bushrangers in this time consisted mainly of stolen muskets and flintlock pistols, but cutlasses and axes were also popular. Weapons were stolen from either military or settlers whose farms were raided, and as some of the bushrangers had military or naval experience they were quite proficient with them. Most bushrangers of this era were transported to Australia for trivial offences or felonies as convicts, though there were instances of people taking to the bush to avoid debts or were free settlers that had committed other crimes. Aboriginal bushrangers were also reasonably common, however the key point of difference was that many of them could also be classed as warriors from indigenous nations that were involved with the frontier wars that were unfolding across the country.
The law was enforced by the military at this time, and the outbreak of bushranging in Van Diemen’s Land during the 1810s resulted in the institution of martial law. Prisons were not standardised, nor were the punishments, though flogging was the usual port of call for teaching convict offenders a lesson. 50 or more lashes from a cat-o-nine-tails would usually be administered by a “flagellator” to a convict strung up on a wooden tripod, known as a whipping triangle. A doctor was always in attendance to ensure the convict did not perish from the flogging, as the trauma sustained to the flesh was enough to reduce it to bloodied jelly. The convict would be thereafter taken to a cell, laid on his belly and his wounds washed with salt water. When the wounds had begun to close up they would be sent off to work. This was often enough motivation for some convicts to turn bushranger, and the practice would not be fully phased out until the 20th century.
Notable bushrangers of this era
John “Black” Caesar; Richard Lemon; Michael Howe; Musquito
Bushranging in this era evolved with the increase in settlement. Now there were more towns, more farms, and more people, which meant that even though bushranging remained primarily the occupation of escaped convicts it was no longer a hard and fast rule. Bushrangers in this era also began to assume folk hero status among the convict classes due to their defiance of colonial law and its enforcers. This came to a head in 1830 with the Bathurst rebellion, wherein a gang of bushrangers attempted an uprising of convicts against the ruling class and law enforcement. The convict element also meant that most bushranging took place in New South Wales and Tasmania where there was large convict populations due to probationary stations and penal settlements.
While bushrangers still predominantly travelled by foot, increasingly this era saw bushrangers that could ride horses and sail boats. The expansion of roads meant that these bushrangers also began to commit highway robbery more regularly, though it was usually the robbery of merchant wagons and lone travellers. As the social class of immigrants tended to be higher on the food chain in this time than previously, bushrangers now had the opportunity to steal much more precious and finer items. This is exemplified in the dress of bushrangers in this era, where the rough, ragged garb more often was replaced with fine coats, trousers and tall boots.
In this era technology began to shift, and this was reflected most notably in the weaponry used by law enfoprcement and bushrangers. The flintlock firearms began to give way to percussion weapons and even revolvers. Reliance on bladed weapons decreased as firearms became easier to procure, though were still a vital part of the toolbox. Knives, daggers, hatchets and even cudgels were often employed by bushrangers.
This period also began to see constables increasingly taking over law enforcement, though it was mostly confined to Tasmania (which was still known as Van Diemen’s Land). The primary occupation of police at this time was to recapture escaped convicts. Prisons at this time began to be made in the style of Pentonville Prison in London, utilising a central point with corridors extending away from it. This was known as the panopticon and meant it was easier to have a guard situated in the middle of the prison where they could see down every cell block. These “model” prisons enforced silence and isolation and only served to help brutalise many convicts or push some into mental illness. The systemic brutality of these prisons began to be much more regulated as well, which fuelled much of the hatred that motivated many bushrangers to abscond or even rise up against their overseers.
Notable bushrangers of this era
Matthew Brady; Thomas Jeffries; Alexander Pearce; Jack Donahoe; the Ribbon Boys; Edward Davis; William Westwood; Martin Cash.
Bushranging in this era took on a dramatically different character, and shaped what the conventional understanding of bushranging was. It was in this period that highway robbery became the normal modus operandi for bushrangers. Now the targets were not the merchants and individuals so much as the mail coaches and gold escorts.
The discovery of gold in 1851 led to a boom in immigration, and with it came opportunity for bushrangers to not merely operate outside of the law, stealing to survive, but to actually acquire riches to improve their wealth by stealing money from the mail and intercepting gold deliveries as they moved from the goldfields to the banks in the cities. This also saw bushrangers increasingly come from free settler or Australian-born backgrounds, not simply convicts. The gold rush, combined with the ending of convict transportation, was also what saw the decline in Tasmanian bushranging, while there was an increase in bushranging in the eastern colonies of New South Wales, Queensland and the newly formed Victoria.
The establishment of organised police forces in this time also dramatically changed the game, as there was now dedicated law enforcement that could track them down rather than relying on infantrymen whose primary training was in combat. This meant that towns increasingly had their own defence against the perpetrators of crime, though it would eventuate, in New South Wales in particular, that the extent of the bushranging problem meant that many towns were without their local police who were off in the bush tracking down bushrangers. This suited the bandits just fine as it allowed them to emerge from the bush into built up areas to continue their depredations where the pickings were better.
The increasing popularity of photography and illustrated newspapers saw many of the events and players immortalised in portraits and etchings. Artists were often employed in creating illustrations of bushrangers based on descriptions, or depicting events such as robberies or captures in order to excite the readers into buying papers. This had the knock-on effect of reducing the press’s reliance on detailed descriptions, though they did begin to print witness testimonies in more detail as the stories of bushrangers were a hit with the readership, who were eager to learn all the sordid tidbits about these bush brigands.
Notable bushrangers of this era
Captain Melville; Rocky Whelan; Frank Gardiner; Johnny Gilbert; Ben Hall; Captain Thunderbolt; Daniel Morgan; Harry Power
Though bushranging had been widely considered to be stamped out in 1870, there continued to be cases of bushranging throughout the remainder of the colonial period. Most of the bushrangers of this era were now men who had criminal records but were not convict transportees, though they were often the descendants of convicts. Many committed crimes as a response to the class system, racism or a belief in the tyrannical conduct of law enforcement. This period also saw the increased development of technology such as telegraphy and railways that allowed information and people to travel faster, as well as facilitating the growth of towns in rural places, while the cities had become metropolitan on the wealth of the gold rush. The rapid spread of information meant that news reporting was now occurring far more quickly and over far wider distribution, turning some of these bushrangers into celebrities through frequent, and often sensational, reporting.
Because farming had become far more advanced in the century or so since the arrival of the first fleet, it was now considered standard that people could ride horses, and indeed the majority of bushrangers of this ear could and did. However, this was not a blanket rule and those who had grown up in cities tended to have no idea about horses, relying on foot travel instead. This era also saw stock theft become the most typical crime committed by bushrangers, usually horses but sometimes cattle as well. Though this was a crime that was common in the previous era, it was not on the same scale as what was seen in the careers of bushrangers like the Kellys and Kenniffs. Beyond offences involving stock, the crimes committed by bushrangers of this era also tended to be more violent, with murder being particularly common among bushranging the exploits of bushrangers at the turn of the century and into Federation.
Many bushranger historians seem to hold that the hanging of Ned Kelly officially closed the book on bushrangers, but there were enough incidents around Australia to disprove such an assertion that it is almost certainly the result of lazy research or some form of snobbery. Major bushranging outbreaks in New South Wales and Queensland continued into the 20th century, and even minor ones occurred in Victoria and Tasmania, though it is fair to say that the faster travel of news and transportation made it far more difficult for bushrangers to operate effectively for a prolonged period.
Notable bushrangers of this era
Captain Midnight; Andrew George Scott; Ned Kelly; Johnny Campbell; Paddy Kenniff; Jimmy Governor
With the introduction of Federation in 1901, bushranging had finally lost its luster, except in the eyes of youths who were excited by stories of outlaws like Ben Hall and Ned Kelly. The advent of the Great WAr also saw a reduction in the number of cases of bushranging, as many of the sort of individuals likely to take to the bush instead signed up and were shipped off to the battlefront. By the end of the war the Australian landscape, especially in cities, had changed dramatically with factories, motor cars, and even inventions such as radio dragging the nation into modernity. In consequence, tales of the Australian bush seemed like a great escapist fantasy to those who felt trapped in the urban lifestyle. In this period it was typical for bushrangers to simply be juvenile delinquents, often escaping from reformatories or domestic abuse. These bushrangers, known typically as “boy bushrangers”, were usually around the ages of fifteen to eighteen years old, thus not old enough to have gone off to fight in the Great War but old enough to get themselves into mischief as they sought adventure. Their bushranging careers rarely lasted longer than a few days, and the crimes were usually highway robbery or burglary, though train robbery was also added to the playbook.
The last of the bushranging gangs was that of Jessie Hickman, the lady bushranger, who operated up to the 1930s. Their crimes were mostly stock theft, and Hickman resided in a cave in order to hide from the police. Acts of bushranging would pop up from time to time but Hickman was really the last to do so for a prolonged period.
Notable bushrangers of this era
Henry Maple; Norman Wilfred Baker; Frank Thomas; Claude Valentine Batson; Jessie Hickman