The song concerns one of Australia’s noted and fascinating bushrangers, Ben Hall (1837 – 1865).
The only known photograph of Ben Hall
Streets of Forbes is usually listed as traditional or anonymous, but noted Australian folkie Gary Shearston writes that "there are reasons for thinking John McGuire, (Ben Hall's brother in law), may well have been the original author". McGuire was an eye-witness to the parading of Hall's bullet ridden body through the town of Forbes in NSW.
Hear the song by clicking on:
June Tabor’s version:
Marian Henderson’s version:
Come all you Lachlan men and a sorrowful tale I'll tell
Concerning of a hero bold who through misfortune fell
His name it was Ben Hall a man of good renown
Who was hunted from his station and like a dog shot down
Three years he roamed the roads and he showed the traps some fun
A thousand pound was on his head with Gilbert and John Dunn
Ben parted from his comrades the outlaws did agree
To give away bushranging and cross the briney sea
Ben went to Goobang Creek and that was his downfall
For riddled like a sieve was valiant Ben Hall
Twas early in the morning upon the fifth of May
When the seven police surrounded him as fast asleep he lay
Bill Dargin he was chosen to shoot the outlaw dead
The troopers then fired madly and filled him full of lead
They rolled him in his blanket and strapped him to his prad
And they led him through the streets of Forbes to show the prize they had
Persons living near the Lachlan River, which runs through Forbes
Large Australian livestock farm
Australian term for police
a thousand pound
The bounty on Hall, the currency then being pounds, shillings and pence
Bushranger is the Australian term for outlaw.
Archaic Australian term for mounted police
Informal archaic Australian term for horse
Town in central NSW
Gilbert and John Dunn
Two other bushrangers who were members of Ben Hall's gang.
A small tributary of the Lachlan River.
An Australian aboriginal tracker employed by the police to find Ben Hall.
The Ben Hall story:
Hall was born in Maitland in 1837 of an English father and Irish mother who were transported to NSW as convicts and who met on board the transporting ship.
In 1856, at the age of 19, Ben married Bridget Walsh at Bathurst. During the summer of 1861–62, his wife left with their young son Henry to live with a young stockman named James Taylor.
Despondent and struggling to make a go of his farm, which was taken from him, Hall became involved with bushranger Frank Gardiner and committed a number of robberies and holdups with him. This led to his turning to a life of crime as a bushranger.
Similar to interaction with the public by the Kelly Gang, in one instance, Hall and his gang bailed up Robinson's Hotel in Canowindra, New South Wales. All travellers and the townspeople were required to remain at the hotel, but they were not mistreated and were provided with food and entertainment. The local policeman was subjected to some humiliation by being locked in his own cell. When the hostages were set free, the gang insisted on paying the hotelier and giving the townspeople "expenses".
Shortly afterwards two of the Gardiner gang were shot dead and one was captured, leaving just two – Hall and Gilbert. John Dunn subsequently joined.
In November 1864, during the robbery of a mail coach at Black Springs Creek near Jugiong, John Gilbert shot and killed Sgt. Parry.
In January 1865 Constable Nelson was shot and killed by John Dunn when the gang raided a hotel in Collector (now the Bushranger Hotel). If you happen to drive to Canberra, stop at Collector on the way and pause a moment to look at the memorial to Constable Nelson. Here is what happened:
Shortly before 6pm on 26 January, 1865 bushrangers Hall, Dunn and Gilbert attacked and were robbing Kimberley`s Inn at Collector. The local police at the time were out searching the area for the bushrangers, and the only man on duty in town was the Lockup keeper, Constable Nelson. Nelson was alerted and armed with his carbine with attached bayonet he remarked to his wife that he would simply have to do his best. Upon reaching the inn, the Constable was shot by Dunn who had hidden behind a fence post . The blast struck the Constable to the chest. Dunn fired again, striking the Constable in the head, killing him. The entire incident was witnessed by two of the Constable`s sons. Dunn was later hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol for the murder of Constable Nelson.
Hall and his associates carried out numerous raids across New South Wales, from Bathurst to Forbes, south to Gundagai and east to Goulburn.
From 1863 to 1865, over 100 robberies are attributed to Ben Hall and his various associates, making them some of the most prolific bushrangers in the period of bushranging in the colony. These included the holding up of several villages, dozens of mail coach robberies and the regular theft of prized racehorses.
In early 1865, the authorities undertook legislation to bring an end to the careers of the three. The Felons Apprehension Act was pushed through the Parliament of New South Wales for the specific purpose of declaring Hall and his comrades outlaws, meaning that they would be "outside the law" and could be killed by anyone at any time without warning
After Hall, who had never killed anyone, was shot dead by police (more on that below), the police claimed that they were acting under the protection of the Felons Apprehension Act 1865. At the time of Hall's death, the Act had not come into force, resulting in considerable controversy over the legality of his killing.
In May 1865, Hall and the others realised that to survive they would have to leave New South Wales. They first retreated to an isolated area on the Goobang Creek, northwest of Forbes, intending to gather fresh horses and provisions for a long journey northwards. Their whereabouts were reported to the police by 'Goobang Mick' Coneley, a man who had earlier promised to give the gang assistance and protection. In late April Hall temporarily separated from his companions, intending to meet them again a few days later at the Goobang Creek. But this time there were police waiting, hidden in the bush. At dawn on 5 May, Hall was ambushed by eight well-armed policemen who shot him at least thirty times as he attempted to run away. He fell and, as he held himself up by a sapling, cried, "I am wounded; shoot me dead." He died seconds later.
"I ran after him a considerable distance, calling on him to stand, several times, gradually gaining on him, and when within about forty yards, fired. The shot taking effect in the left shoulder, he looked around. I thought with the intention of firing at me, I put up the gun again to fire but did not. Condell and Dargin then fired two shots each which seemed to have a slight effect. The four men and Charley now showed up. Hall, seeing them, turned to the right and made for a small clump of saplings on the plain. He still had the revolver in his hand. He caught a sapling with his left hand with the intention of trying to shoot round it. This he continued to hold until he fell. At this time I noticed Hipkiss firing with a revolving rifle, the bullet from which struck Hall on the belt and cut it, his revolver falling to the ground. Hall then seemed to be badly hit and appeared to me to be about to fall. At this time the whole of the remaining shots were fired; he fell back saying “I am wounded, I am dying, shoot me dead” and after a few convulsive shudders he moved no more..."Inspector James Henry Davidson,Police Report, Forbes, Saturday, May 12th 1865
Hall's body, after being searched, was strapped to the back of one of his horses and taken to the Forbes police station. Davidson had hoped to keep Hall's death a secret in the hope of trapping Gilbert and Dunn, but it could not be done - there was too much excitement over Hall's death and reportedly his body attracted 400-500 people.
Hall was buried in the Forbes cemetery on Sunday 7 May 1865. A headstone was erected in the 1920s. On 5 May 1957, the Forbes Historical Society dedicated a plaque at Goobang Creek, where Hall had been shot.
He was 4 days short of his 28th birthday when killed.
Ben Hall, 1863
Hall’s wife, Bridget
Ben Hall’s grave, Forbes
Monument to Constable Nelson at Collector, NSW
An oil painting by Patrick William Marony, depicting the death of Ben Hall near Forbes, New South Wales. Hall sprawls in the foreground, his revolver on the ground in front of him and his rifle leaning against a tree. Behind him, across a broad clearing in a forest, seven policemen are firing at him. Flour is spilt on the ground beside a saddle in the bottom left-hand corner, and Hall clutches a bridle and reins. Hall never fired a shot, was struck by bullets at least 30 times, 2 bullets being to his brain.
A final thought:
Ben Hall, a notorious outlaw who terrorised and intimidated; a thief and a thug? Or a gentleman bushranger driven to the wrong side of the law by circumstance? There are layers of truth in his story no doubt that are much more complex than we know but what is certain is that the character Ben Hall captured the imaginations of the people of NSW to such an extent there are commemorative events in his honour even today. Through festivals, poetry, songs, books and websites the story in all its versions lives on.
- Heritage Council of NSW