In November 1863, during the height of the Australian bushranger period, the Melbourne Age reported that “the hitherto quite village of Dalton, on Jerrawa Creek has become the theatre of as daring an act of bush ranging as the already famed Canowindra”.
Only a handful of accounts exist that detail the incident which involved three men riding into Dalton and bailing up a large portion of the population in the local public house, the Dalton Arms Hotel (sometimes referred to as Townsend’s Arms owing to its proprietor, William Townsend).
The following is piece of short historical fiction, written by myself, based on the two reports of the incident that appeared in the Melbourne Age and the Queanbeyan Golden Age in November 1863. These two articles sometimes differ in the information given and the order of events. It must be remembered that the following in an interpretation based of secondary sources and not a factual account.
Dalton: bailed up
The ride to Sydney was an arduous one, but best to do it now, mid-November than wait until the end of the month. There was plenty of feed along the roadsides now to keep the bellies of the horses full. John Wheatley stepped out onto the veranda of his corner store which also served as the family home, with living quarters out back. He hung his swag over the railing, giving it a last-minute airing before the long trip north. The earlier breeze had subsided and the small village of Dalton, of which John served as store-keep and postmaster, was quite as it always was this late in the week. The clouds had lifted in the west and the afternoon light was beginning is transition to the soft orange hues of early evening. From his privileged position, on the corner of the crossroads of town, John could hear the sounds of people gathered at the Dalton Arms Hotel, a small public house along the road to the north. William Townsend was the local licensee and he, no doubt, would be in house serving his regulars now, or perhaps leaning against the veranda post, talking to a ‘blow in’, getting the latest news from out of town. John’s sister steeped out onto the porch, placing a small rucksack of food with John’s things, awaiting his departure. As she turns to go inside John grabs her wrist gently, staring intently down the road.
“Careful now, who’s this?”, he asks nodding his head in the direction of three strangers riding down the middle of the road. The three men rode slowly towards the crossroads. Something about the manner of the gentlemen had alerted John and he slyly slipped his coin pouch, containing several pounds for his trip, into the hand of his sister, “here, take this inside, quickly now”. John busied himself, packing the rucksack of food and a few last minuet items into a larger bag. Kneeling behind this hung swag, he had lost sight of the men. He heard a foot crunch on the gravel not more than two yards away. As he rose from behind his swag something was thrust against his forehead. For a moment he had lost his bearings but had enough sense to stay still. Standing in front of him was one of the riders, now dismounted, smiling on the top step of his porch, holding a revolver against John’s head. Out of the corner of his eye John noticed a second man, mounted nearby on the road. The third man was missing.
“Who’s inside?”, askes the smiling man, indicating to the door.
“No one sir”, lies John, “just closing up shop for the day. If you’re looking for the mail coach you’re too late, it has just left”. The two men laughed and the revolver was removed from John’s forehead.
“Come on now”, and the smiling man pointed his gun up the road in the direction of the Dalton Arms, “come with us, let’s have a little drink”. Not wanting to give away the presence of his family inside, John agreed and after the man remounted his horse he led them up the road. The hotel comes into view and it looks like John was right, Townsend was indeed leaning against a post on the veranda, talking to a local landholder, William Medway. John flashed them an alarming glance as they approach and he sees that Medway got the message. Medway quickly stashes a handful of one pound notes under the saddle of his horse, which is tethered to the hitching rail; no highway men are getting hold of his cash today!
“Evening lads”, shouts one of John’s captors from the road, “this is what you might call a stick-up!”, and at this the bushman drew his revolver once more and gestured to the door, “lets all go inside for a drink hey?”.
As Medway and Townsend slowly backed towards the hotel doors the third man in the bushranger party, as quick as a flash, comes around the corner of the building and bailed up Medway, his arm against the back of the local’s head.
“Got any spare change, Gov?”, he asks with a slight Irish accent. As quick as he had appeared, his hands were in Medway’s coat pockets; but they came out empty. The Irishmen looked at him quizzically, “who comes to a hotel with no cash, I ask you?”.
“A man who does not intend to drink, that is who”, replies the quick-witted Medway. The three highwaymen laugh and push their prisoners inside. The Irishman disappeared across the street again as the handful of regulars inside were forced to join John and Medway in a small room off the main bar. One of the remaining robbers shakes his revolver at Townsend and orders him to serve a round of drinks to all present. He cracks his crooked smile again; “a round of drinks, on my friend Mr. Wheatley here”, he laughs, slapping John on the back. The regulars crack into laughter themselves and drinks are swiftly delivered. After several minuets the sounds of heavy footsteps come from the front veranda. The Irish robber had returned and was struggling to push Bill Brown through the door. Although 51 years of age Bill still cuts an imposing figure, standing almost 6 feet, hands darkened from years of blacksmithing and hard work. The Irishman looks at his companions who were fully enjoying their drink and exclaims; “Mr. Brown here has just contributed seven pounds to cause, cheers lads”, and with that he was gone again. This routine, the Irishman bringing in the townsfolk one or two at a time, continues for almost an hour. By seven o’clock the little anti-room at the Dalton Arms was cramped with near on thirty of the towns people, men, women and children. Many were drunk by now but none more so than the bushranger guards who were really putting on a show. Finally, John’s sister was pushed into the room by the Irishman; now it was standing room only.
“John, this foul man has taken your swag and revolver!”, she exclaims. John attempts to move from the back of the room, but his path is blocked by the crush of people and the wide shoulders of Bill Brown.
“Settle down John” Bill tells him, “you’ll cause yourself mischief if you are not careful”, he leans closer to John, “don’t you worry, I sent out one of my young fellas to fetch help”.
The Irish robber, who was obviously the one in charge of this caper made an attempt to hush the crowd and the tensions which had been rising in the small room; “now, now everyone, don’t you worry yourselves, we will be out of here presently. But know this, you have been lucky today to be served by me, the famous John Gilbert!”, he paused one hand in the air, one struck against his chest. All at once the room burst into laughter and the inn keeper, William Townsend stepped forward.
“I’m sorry sir”, says Townsend laughing, “but if you are John Gilbert then I am Ben Hall”. To this the room erupted into more laughter, as most in the room knew, Gilbert was Canadian born and this rascal could not disguise his Irish accent.
“Believe what you will”, smiles the man “but you know what to tell the authorities, now Mr. Townsend, one more round perhaps?”. William Townsend complied but as he returned to the small makeshift holding room, full of the town’s people, he witnessed the three bushrangers fleecing the pockets of those gathered, extracting money and valuables when they could find them.
“Okay you lot”, says a brave Townsend, “I think this has gone on much too far, it is time for you to finish your drinks and be off. The authorities will be here any moment, you can bet on that”. The robbers were non-the-wiser that word had already left town, via one of Bill Brown’s younger sons. However, Mr. Townsend’s hope of official reprieve would not be forthcoming, as what none of those present could have known was the local police force had recently left the nearby town of Gunning, where the young Brown boy had been sent, to the more distant town of Yass. There would be a long wait yet until word was received of the events happening in the small village. The three bushrangers sensed however that it was probably time to leave town. The sun had dropped below the hills and some cover in darkness was now assured. The three highwaymen looked to each other for agreement and, having decided that their duffle bags were plenty full enough, they moved towards the exit, a little unsteady owing to the drink that all three now had on board.
“What a pleasant evening we have had ladies and gentlemen”, exclaimed the Irishman who had tried to convince the party that his name was John Gilbert, “but Mr. Townsend your drink is much to stale”. And with that, the trio bustled out the front door, watching the crowd nervously. When their footsteps on the front veranda could be heard no more, Townsend and Bill Brown rushed to the window to witness their escape and observe in which direction they left town. They were surprised to see the booty that the three had managed to gather while they had been held in the hotel. Slung across the back of one horse was John Wheatley’s swag and other bags of stolen goods, no doubt from John’s store or the shop Townsend owned across the road. All three riders also dragged a stolen horse along behind them, on which were stacked a number of saddles, as they headed west out of town.
“They’ll be headed Blakney Creek way, that’s for sure”, says Bill, watching them leave. Hearing this, William Medway pushed to the front of the crowd.
“I’ll go for help then. The police will be at Gunning”, says Medway, but Bill grabbed him before he could get to the door.
“No you won’t lad” Bill tells his son-in-law.
“And why not” Medway protested.
“Because, my boy”, replies Bill, “they have taken your horse!”.
Medway cursed and run out of the hotel. His horse, which had been tethered just outside the door, had gone. It has been an unfortunate evening from him indeed, losing his horse and the money he had stashed under its saddle.
Now the towns people began flowing out of the hotel and onto the gravel street. Townsend was not surprised to see that his store, across the road, had been entered and he raced across to conduct a quick stocktake. Townsend had certainty lost a lot more than Medway had this evening. Not only had he tapped into his stored liquor to keep the bushrangers watered, he had supplied drink to those who had decided it a lark to join in on the fun. He noted those who had partaken in the drink and would be sure to charge them extra the next time they showed face in his establishment. Besides the alcohol, Townsend was also missing a number of items from his store as well and the little cash he had left in the shop at closing. He carefully noted all his losses in his little tally book under the counter and tore off the piece of paper, for when the police eventually did arrive.
Medway was furious at his loss, as was his father-in-law, Bill Brown. Bill had lost a sum on money tonight also, and more expense was probably expected finding carriage for Medway and his daughter back to their property out of town.
“Come lad” said Bill to Medway, “let’s get back to the house and check on things”. They had not far to travel as Bill lived next-door, hence why he was so quickly fleeced during tonights events.
John Wheatley and his sister stepped out into the cooling night air. Many of the towns people were milling around, chatting with excitement and concern. Some were returning to their houses to check for missing property.
“Oh John”, says his sister, “I’m afraid you won’t be off to Sydney this evening. We have been most properly robbed”. John led his sister back to the store where they had first encountered the highwaymen. Johns swag had gone, the contents of his bags spread in an awful mess across the front veranda. John’s sister quickly ran inside to discover that the sum of money that John had given her to stash safely was still in its hiding place, inside a pillow cover on an armchair. As she returned to the veranda to tell John the good news, she found him cursing and striking out at the wall with his foot.
“Damn this!”, says John, containing his anger in the presence of his sister, “those fools have taken off with my saddle as well!”.
Johns departure to Sydney would indeed be delayed. If he couldn’t loan a saddle from one of the town’s people, his ride to Sydney would be a lot more uncomfortable then it need be; at least until he got to Gunning, where he could call on family to help resupply him. All in all, although a lot had been lost, John and the people of Dalton could probably call themselves lucky that they had not lost more. John rubbed the spot on his forehead, where the revolver had been pressed firmly, took a last look at the dark, quite street, went inside and locked the door…twice.
As well as money and three horses, the Bushrangers also stole five saddles. It is estimated that the total of goods stolen added up to £180. It is claimed that the Saddles that were stolen were later found roadside by John Wheatley, on his way to Sydney.
A claim was made that the bushranger responsible for the robbery was John Gilbert, but the papers and local tradition suggest this is unlikely. In the same edition of the Queanbeyan Golden Age that this story appears, another article claims that the three responsible were men by the names of Frank Stanley, William Dickenson and Charles Jones.
An account of this same bushranger incident in Rhonda Preston’s ‘Bevendale’ publication differs slightly from those reported in the press, in that she puts William Medway at John Wheatley’s Store when the bushrangers rode into town, and not at Townsend’s Dalton Arms Hotel. She also adds to the story claiming that a young boy named Dawes (page 40) was shot at, but not injured, during the holdup.
It is not known which “young Mr Brown” rode for help. There were many Browns living in and around the town. Owning to the close proximity to William (Bill) Brown’s house to the Dalton Arms Hotel, it is quite possible that it was one of his sons or nephews.
The reports of the day do not indicate which of John Wheatley’s sisters was present during the robbery. He had only two sisters, Ann Avery and Loanna Gale. It is also possible the sister mentioned could have been one of his many step-sisters.