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Ben Hall was born in Maitland, in the Hunter Region of New South Wales, in May 1837. He started his working life on his father’s farm on the Pages River near Murrurundi. In the 1850s his father was charged with horse-stealing but was acquitted after the principal witness did not show up for the trial.
When Ben was old enough, he took a position as a stockman for Mr Hamilton on the Boyd Station near Wheogo and proved to be a popular man amongst the locals. Hall later worked as a stockman for Mr John Walsh of Wheogo and in 1858 he married his daughter Bridget ‘Bridie’ Walsh. The Hall's set up a farm on land they bought at Sandy Creek, adjacent to Wheogo, with Hall's brother-in-law John Maguire. A few years later Bridget began an affair with James Taylor and while Hall was away mustering, his wife left him to live with Taylor taking their two-year-old son, Henry, with her.
Around this time authorities started associating Hall with bushranging and in 1861 a warrant was issued for his arrest;
It has been decreed by His Excellency the Governor in Council, that anyone who shall, or shall be reasonably suspected to have harboured, fed, or in any way assisted bushrangers, the Police may without further notice, pull down, burn, or otherwise destroy their houses, out-houses, or other buildings. This is to inform you, Benjamin Hall, that as you are so suspected, This Warrant has been issued by me, Frederick Morringer, Inspector of Police, in the Colony of New South Wales, for the destruction of all buildings on your land at Sandy Creek. You are warned not to interfere with the execution of This Warrant at your peril.
Warrant for the destruction of all buildings in Ben Hall's land at Sandy Creek, 1861, Ah 72 Item 2
Shortly after this warrant was issued, he was arrested by Sir Frederick Pottinger and charged with highway robbery using arms. After spending four or five weeks in the lockup in Orange, he was acquitted and returned to his station at Sandy Creek in May 1862. After being arrested and acquitted a second time, he returned to his farm to find his horses either dead or lost and his property burnt to the ground. Around this time, a bushranger by the name of Patsey Daley robbed the police station at the Pinnacle of all their firearms and made his way to the house of Mr Allport on Lambing Flat Road. Ben Hall was staying at the house and after leaving with Daley was implicated in the theft. Daley joined Frank Gardiner’s gang and it seems Ben Hall followed suit and embarked on the life of a bushranger.
From 1863 to 1865, over 100 robberies are attributed to Ben Hall and his various associates, marking him as one of the most prolific bushrangers in the period. In one instance, Hall and his gang held up Robinson's Hotel in Canowindra, New South Wales and provided all the travellers and the townspeople with food and entertainment. Afterwards, Hall insisted on paying everyone's "expenses.” Soon after this event, his associate Micky Burke was killed at Dunns Plains, then John Vane surrendered to the police and O’Meally was shot dead in an attack on Goimbla station, near Eugowra.
On 2 January 1865 Ben Hall, John Gilbert and John Dunn went to the Flag Hotel at Binda. Instead of robbing the place, they joined in with the dancing and other amusements. Later that month, John Dunn shot and killed policeman Samuel Nelson outside a public house in Collector. The authorities had issued a 1000-pound reward for the capture of each member of the gang and Hall decided to leave the country. One of the other gang members, “Coobang Mick”, informed the police of Hall’s whereabouts and claimed the reward.
On the morning of 5 May, Sub-Inspector James Henry Davidson, with five other policemen and two Aboriginal trackers surrounded the bushranger at a billabong 10 miles north of the town of Forbes. Davidson shot Hall with a double-barrelled gun. When Davidson searched Hall’s body he found he was carrying 74 pounds in two leather bags, three gold chains, a gold watch, a portrait of his sister, bullets and three revolvers and a gold ring on his finger.
The medical officer at the inquest stated:
I have examined the body of the deceased, and find it perforated by several bullets. The shot between the shoulders, the two shots into the brain and the one through the body were severally sufficient to cause death.
On 13 May police cornered Gilbert and Dunn, the two remaining members of Hall’s gang, at Dunn’s grandfather’s house near Binalong. In the subsequent shoot-out, Gilbert was killed and Dunn escaped. On 18 December Dunn was captured near Coonamble in New South Wales and taken to trial in Sydney. On 19 January 1866, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang.
The Library holds letters (MLMSS 5518) written by Dunn to his father while he was awaiting execution in Darlinghurst Gaol.
Gaol, Sydney, 2 March 1866
My dear Father
I received your very welcome second letter a few days ago - I say welcome although it conveyed to me the death of my sister. I can sincerely condole with you on this bereavement coming too at such a time, but you will remember that I never sway my little sister and therefore it is why I state that any letter from you under my circumstances is welcome.
I have not yet heard what day is fixed for my execution but it cannot be far off as I was told by Father Dwyer last evening that he had an interview with the Prime Minister and that the law is to take its course.
Under the circumstances it will be advisable for you to come down with my brother without delay - Mother knows how gratified I would be to see her before I die, but don't let her come. It is best not. I can bid her goodbye to you for her, and send her a keepsake by you also. So reason with her about it and persuade her to remain at home.
I have no more to say in this letter. As soon as I hear of "the day" I will let you know.
With love to all believe me dear father, your affectionate Son,
John Dunn was hanged some two weeks after he wrote this letter, on 19 March 1866. Transcripts of John Dunn's other letters are available online.