Bushranging in the Grenfell/Forbes region owed much to the emergence of Frank Gardiner. Gardiner had been jailed along with two others in 1851 for stealing a herd of horses from William Morton’s station in the Loddon Valley. They planned to sell the horses in Portland. However, on 20 March 1851, Gardiner was part of a Pentridge work party which rushed the guards and escaped. While inevitably most were caught, Gardiner returned to New South Wales. He then teamed up with Prior and stole some more horses. However, in February 1854 Gardiner and Prior were captured in Yass as they sought to sell their horses. Despite being sentenced to fourteen years, he was paroled in 1860. He then joined Peisley, a highwayman who he had met in prison, and stole some cattle. His career as a noted bushranger had begun.
This gang was like a revolving franchise with many notable bushrangers of the day, such as John Gilbert and Ben Hall, being closely associated it or running it as they members fled or were killed. John Dunn became prominent after the death of Ben Hall although he is less well know today.
Ben Hall was born on 9 May 1837, at Maitland, New South Wales, Australia. In 1863 he owned the property Wheogeo, which was close to the 26,000 acre Arramagong property which was run by Patrick O’Malley and John Daley. The two families were initially very close because the two patriarchs married the Downey sisters, Julia and Ellen. This set the background for close relationships between cousins and the development of superb horse and bush skills just right for a life of crime in the face of the sudden wealth from the goldfields.
John O’Malley was born in New South Wales June 1840. His cousin Patsy Daley, or P.B. Daley as he was known as a businessman later in life, was born in July 1844 at Black Range in New South Wales. The spelling of his name varied but he was generally referred to in the press of the day as John O’Meally. Curiously the family name was fractured into 4 variations in the first generation because of the lack of literacy skills when registering births.
James Downey, who was born in Tipperary in 1834, also lived in the area. While he was an Uncle to John and Patsy, he was not that much older.
As an aside, John Dunn is best known for the brutal murder of policeman Nelson near Canberra. John Dunn joined Hall and Gilbert in October 1864, with Gilbert having been a bushranger for two years and a half years at that time. As reported at the time (The Kiama Independent, and Shoalhaven Advertise, 25 January 1846), the ‘firm of Hall, Gilbert and Dunn’ went ahead with a series in that year which was typical of the flowing and opportunistic operational style of the day. Known robberies committed by the trio include one on 24 October (robbed Mr. Chisholm and others on the highway near Goulburn); 27 October (robbed Mr. Macansh’s station; 28 October (robbed the Albury Mail near Jugiong Creek); 8 November (robbed Mr. Rossi’s station, near Goulburn); 9 November (robbed the Goulburn mail); 11 November (robbed the Yass mail on the Brandalbane Plains: 15 November (robbed the Gundagai mail near Jugiong, after a desperate fight with the armed escort where Gilbert killed Sergeant Parry); 10 November (stuck-up the Clark station, Bolero); 19 December (robbed the Goulburn mail near Towrang): 27 December (robbed the Morris store, Binda, forcing the proprietor and his wife to attend a ball at the neighbouring tavern, then adjourning to the Morris store and burning it to the ground); 30 December 30 (robbed Mr. Davidson on the Murrumburrah Plains). It must have been a short Christmas break because on 10 January 1865 they started again by robbing James Christie’s store, followed on 25 January robbing John Ross ‘on the Gap road.
27 January 1865 the trio stuck-up several carriers near Collector and bailed up the hotel in Collector, Hall. It was reported that while ‘Gilbert (was) ransacking the premises, leaving Dunn “outside on guard, who seeing constable Nelson approaching, shot him dead without a challenge’. Gunfights of the time seldom resulted in deaths because they were often conducted with unreliable firearms and on horseback. This killing was unusual in that it was calculated and Dunn had time to steady and aim. It was unfortunate that most police were away chasing the gang and there was only Constable Samuel Nelson, the lock-up keeper. He was said to have taken his bayoneted police carbine, remarking to his wife that he would simply ‘have to do his best’ against the gang. Dunn hid behind a fence post and called upon him to stand, firing at the same instant. Nelson cried out “stop,” and fell. Dunn fired again. Both shots took effect, one on the head or neck, the other in the heart. Nelson never spoke after receiving the second wound. He had 8 children and his death was witnessed by some of them.
The rampage continued, mainly around Forbes but also Binalong and Cowra. In early May Ben Hall was caught by surprise near Forbes by a party of police black troopers who inflicted about 20 wound killing him. Gilbert and Dunn then encountered four police on 13 May 1865 near Binalong. Gilbert too was shot dead but the wounded Dunn managed to escape. Two days later Dunn stuck-up the Julian station in Binalong to obtain fresh horses flesh and disappeared from view for nearly seven months. On 18 November he was recognised and pursued by the police near Walgett but was not captured until ten days later after a gunfight with police which left him wounded in three places. His trial took place in March 1866 and the jury reached a verdict in 10 minutes and he was executed later that morning, not yet having reached 20 years of age.