Not quite a bushranger in the family

My maternal family background is Irish, mostly potato famine emigrants who came to Australia as assisted passengers. They were all free settlers, except for Patrick McDonnell who was a convict, but like many Irish settlers, they had a dislike for the English authority. My maternal great-grandparents were law-abiding citizens who were fervent Catholics and were well-respected citizens in each of the communities in which they lived. However, having experienced the harsh English rule in Ireland it is little surprise that they felt no allegiance to the police and were sympathetic to bushrangers, like Ben Hall and Ned Kelly.

My mother recalls a story her father, Horace, told her of his great-grandmother. Catherine Byrne had ten children. Her husband Thomas was working in Gooloogong and Catherine travelled from Grenfell, across the Grawlin Plain, a journey of 50 kilometres, to take food to him. She travelled by horse and cart and on this particular journey, she had taken some of her children with her. “When she was travelling between Grenfell and Gooloogong the wheel fell off or broke, on her horse and cart which was carrying her two children. They were on the road for quite some time before somebody rode up on a horse. He stopped and offered to help them”. He repaired the wheel and got it back onto the cart.

“By this time night was coming on to them and he suggested she not travel any further at night, because there were no lights, to make camp and leave first thing in the morning. And he volunteered that he would do the same because he didn’t want to travel at night either. He’d go into the trees, back a couple of hundred yards away from where she was camped. She offered him supper of cold meat and bread and tea, which he took, then when he left he said, now my dog will alert me if there’s anyone around that we’re not expecting so you’ll be perfectly safe”.

“The great-grandmother asked him his name and he said, oh no don’t worry, you know, I’m alright. And she said, oh but my husband will want to thank you if ever he happens to meet up with you. And he said, oh well alright. My name is Ben Hall, but I don’t want you to be frightened of all the stories you’ve heard, you’ll be perfectly safe, and I will stay for the night and see that you are safe. When she awoke the next morning to boil the billy to make a cup of tea she called out to him and he was gone. She didn’t hear him leaving earlier, he must have left before she woke”.

The above is a transcript of an interview with Maureen Falk.

My maternal great grandfather John Flinn was, according to my mother, a quiet man with piercing blue eyes, who didn’t raise his voice. Except for one occasion when she remembers a visitor, a drover looking for work and board, who began to criticise the bushranger, Ned Kelly. My mother remembers her grandfather forcing the visitor to leave stating no one speaks that way about bushrangers in my home. As it was raining John Flinn told the man he could still sleep in the shearer’s hut but needed to be off the property before John saw him in the morning.

John retained an allegiance apparently to his godmother, Ellen Quinn, Ned Kelly’s mother. John was born in Kilmore in September 1854 and Ned Kelly was born in June 1855 in Beveridge, a small farming community close to the regional centre that Kilmore was, due to its prominent position on the main road between Melbourne and Sydney, via the goldfields.

John Flinn raised his family on a property named ‘Bellevue’ in Grenfell. Ben Hall lived on a nearby property at Sandy Creek before he began his bushranging career. In her early teens, Mum visited her school friend Marina Butler, on whose family property Ben Hall had once lived, and they walked across the paddocks of the Butler’s farm to the small bark hut that was Ben Hall’s home. “It was a small hut and we began imagining, talking to each other, where his bed would have been and where he might have had a table and other things”.

Ben Hall died in 1865 many years before John and Margaret Flinn settled in Grenfell in 1886, and thus they did not know him. Their daughter Bridget, however, married Thomas O’Meally in Grenfell in 1922. The O’Meally’s had settled in Grenfell during the gold rush of the 1850’s and had land in the Piney Range district, adjacent to the Weddin Mountains. Thomas O’Meally’s uncle, Johnny O’Meally, was in the company of Ben Hall and Frank Gardiner when they robbed the gold escort coach at Eugowra Rock in June 1862. Paddy O’Meally, Johnny’s father, allowed the bushrangers to meet in his shanty on the Wheogo Mountain, a long way from the eyes of the police.

A coincidence then that Margaret Flinn’s family, the Cleary’s, had also lived in Kilmore and also had bushranger connections. When her parents Thomas and Bridget arrived from County Clare in 1848, they were sponsored by Henry Morris, the owner of the Kilmore Inn. They worked for him in his boarding house and would certainly have known the quiet, but sometimes reckless, stableboy, John Gilbert, who, in 1854, also worked at the Inn. Gilbert didn’t stay long in Kilmore, however, as the lure of gold drew him to Grenfell. But it was the gold of the escort coach, in the company of Frank Gardiner, Johnny O’Meally and Ben Hall, that was the only gold John Gilbert saw. The bushrangers stole 14,000 pounds of gold and money from the coach.

Mum and her numerous cousins spent many of their teenage days searching the nearby Weddin Mountains for Ben’s Cave and the gold that the bushrangers were believed to have hidden. Their hopes of finding the gold, however, were dashed by ‘the arrival of some American’s on a walking tour’. The gossip in town was that the visitors were Frank Gardiner’s sons, come back to get the gold. Unlike his comrades, Frank Gardiner escaped death and after serving a custodial sentence was released and exiled from Australia, eventually settling in San Francisco.

Fact or fiction the gold was never recovered by the authorities.