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Ben Hall was born near Maitland, New South Wales, on May 9th 1837, the fourth of eight children. His parents were Benjamin and Eliza (nee Somers). At that time, Benjamin senior was an overseer on the Doona run, located on the Liverpool Plains north of where the village of Murrurundi would later be founded. Severe drought forced Benjamin to leave Doona and in 1839 he moved his family north from Maitland to live in a small, isolated valley high in the Liverpool Ranges, a place still known today as Ben Halls Gap. It was here that the young Ben spent his early childhood. In 1842 Benjamin bought a block of land near Murrurundi, where he operated a butcher shop and sold fresh produce. Over the years, he developed something of a reputation as a horse and cattle thief, but was never convicted.
In the early 1850s Ben accompanied his father to the Lachlan, where he soon found work as a stockman. He was an excellent horseman and gained a reputation as a reliable and hard-working young man, well regarded by his peers and the neighbouring squatters.
On February 29th, 1856, Ben married Bridget "Biddy" Walsh in the Church of St. Michael at Bathurst. He was 19 years old, and Biddy was just 16. On 7 th August 1859 a son was born, whom they named Henry. In 1860, in partnership with his brother in law, John McGuire, Ben took the up the lease of 10,000 acres of Crown land, which became known as Sandy Creek Station. The partners made a steady income from breeding cattle and horses and when gold was discovered at nearby Lambing Flat in mid-1860, they sold their cattle to the butchers on the diggings.
But Ben Hall’s life was about to take a disastrous turn. In early 1862 Biddy left him, and went with young Henry to live with a flash young local stockman named James Taylor. Ben was extremely upset at this turn of events; he lost interest in running the property and soon developed an attitude of irresponsibility which would eventually seal his fate.
About this time he became associated with the notorious bushranger, Frank Gardiner, and was soon in trouble with the law. In April he was charged with assisting Gardiner in the robbery of a teamster named William Bacon on the road to Forbes. However, the Crown case failed after a key witness changed his story, and Ben Hall was released.
Shortly afterwards, Gardiner recruited Hall, along with a number of other young stockmen, to carry out an audacious robbery of the gold escort coach, which carried a fortune in gold and cash from the diggings at Forbes to Orange each week. The hold-up, on 15 th June 1862, caused a sensation in the Colony, and the gang got away with some ₤14,000 in gold and used banknotes. In July Ben Hall and a number of other men, included his brother Bill and partner John McGuire, were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the robbery. But once again, the police were unable to prove his guilt and he was released at the end of August.
By this time, he and McGuire had incurred very heavy legal expenses, so they transferred the lease of Sandy Creek to a Forbes publican named John Wilson. Without his wife and child, and with Sandy Creek gone, Ben Hall’s life lost all direction. Frank Gardiner, meanwhile, had escaped to Queensland with a substantial share of the loot from the Escort robbery, together with Biddy’s younger sister, Kitty.
In early 1863 Ben Hall became involved with a gang of bushrangers which included Johnny Gilbert and John O’Meally. For the next two and a half years, the police unsuccessfully pursued the gang and during that time they were involved in a large number of robberies of coaches, inns and travellers. There were some sensational episodes; in 1863 they bailed up the village of Canowindra for three days, having captured and locked up the local police. Then, in October, the gang carried out what became known as “The Raid on Bathurst”, when they rode into town on a Saturday night, bailed up the Sportsman’s Arms hotel, then escaped unharmed into the night, robbing a series of inns and stores along the way, with the police trailing behind.
Soon after, two members of the gang were killed in shootouts with settlers – Mickey Burke died at Rockley and John O’Meally was killed at Goimbla, near Eugowra.
There were a number of gunfights between the gang and the police, during which men on both sides, including Ben Hall, were wounded, and two police died. In late 1864, John Gilbert killed Sgt. Parry during an unsuccessful attack on the Gundagai mail coach and in January 1865 Const. Nelson was shot by John Dunn at Collector. From then on the police were able to mount more pressure on the gang as their tactics and weapons improved, and the gang’s supporters drifted away.
By early 1865 the reward for the capture of Hall, Gilbert and Dunn was ₤1000 for each man, a considerable sum of money. Further, the imminent implementation of the Felons Apprehension Act meant that any bushranger named in the legislation would be “outlawed” and could be shot and killed by any person at any time, without warning. It was time to get away, and Hall, Gilbert and Dunn made plans to quit the Colony while they could.
In mid-April of 1865, the gang were at a place on the Billabong Creek near Forbes, where one of their supporters lived. With an eye on the huge rewards available, this person informed the police in Forbes of the gang’s plans to return to his place in a few days time. When they did so, the police would be waiting. As it happened, the gang had split up and on 4 th May, 1865 the police found Ben Hall’s hiding place in the bush near the Billabong Creek.
At dawn on 5th May, an unsuspecting Ben Hall walked out of the scrub into a clearing to collect his horses. Eight police opened fire and when he fell to the ground he had more than 30 wounds from rifle and shotgun fire. At the inquest held in Forbes the next day, the verdict of the Police Magistrate was that his death was “justifiable homicide”.
He was buried on Sunday 7 th May at the Forbes Cemetery. It was two days before his 28 th birthday. His grave, marked with a white headstone, can still be found there; it is near the grave of Ned Kelly's sister, Kate Foster.
Several hundred people attended his funeral, and there was considerable sympathy for this young man whose life had taken such a disastrous turn. The legend of Ben Hall has endured well and there is now an increasing interest in his life and the places of interest associated with him.
And Biddy? She had became a widow at twenty-five. She and James Taylor had three children and were finally married in 1876. But a year later she became a widow for the second time. She then lived at Fords Bridge, near Bourke for many years, where she was known by the locals as "Granny Taylor", well known and respected in the district. She died in 1923 aged well over 80.
(Update - Peter Bradley, 2007)
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