On this day in history: Australia’s biggest gold robbery

By Courtenay Rule 7 November 2013
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Today marks the anniversary of the biggest gold heist in the nation’s history.

In 1862, the Lachlan River gold rush in central New South Wales was at its height. Thousands flocked to the town of Forbes and surrounding districts seeking a fortune – by legal means or otherwise.

On 15 June, the gold escort coach left Forbes for its weekly run eastward to Bathurst and then Sydney, laden with gold and banknotes. But this load was never to reach its destination. Along the road, just north of the town of Eugowra, bushranger Frank Gardiner and his gang were lying in wait.

The gang had picked a site where boulders and a narrow gully by the road would slow their target down. They had also forced two passing bullock teams to stop in the middle of the road, blocking the coach’s path. As the coach came into view when it stopped to deal with the bullock teams, Gardiner and his men sprang out from behind a huge boulder, guns blazing, shouting “Bail up!”

The coach driver and his accompanying police troopers fled under gunfire as the horses reared and the coach tipped over. The bushrangers helped themselves to 14,000 pounds in gold and cash – the biggest-ever gold robbery in Australia’s history (equivalent to some $4 million today), at a time when the average working man received about one pound per week.

A local squatter, hearing the gunshots, came to investigate and found the coach driver and troopers. He rode to Forbes to alert the authorities and soon the police were on Gardiner’s trail. But the gang had made for their camp in the hills to the southwest, where they had a good view of the countryside and a lookout post. They escaped with the banknotes, abandoning the gold, which the police found and recovered.

None of the eight gang members was captured at the time. One of them, Ben Hall, went on to become one of Australia’s most notorious bushrangers in his own right, until he was gunned down by the police in 1865.

Gardiner himself made his way to Queensland, where he was arrested in 1864 and sentenced to 32 years’ hard labour in Sydney. He was released on appeal after ten years, conditional on his leaving Australia, and spent the remainder of his life as a saloon owner in San Francisco.

Today, Eugowra still prides itself on its bushranger heritage, and has a Museum and Bushranger Centre to commemorate the gold escort robbery and other aspects of the town’s pioneer past. Just north of the town, a plaque marks Escort Rock, where the gang ambushed the coach.