How the West protected gold from bushrangers

Aug 27, 2020

Have you ever wondered why Australia’s most infamous bushrangers were active across goldfields in Victoria and New South Wales despite the fact that Western Australia is the country’s most abundant source of gold?

Although gold was unearthed much later in the West, Paddy Hannan’s remarkable find at what is now Kalgoorlie in 1893 began an avalanche of gold discoveries that quickly began to outpace the rest of the continent.

One observer at ‘Hannan’s Goldfield’ in 1895 recorded his amazement as a miner knocked out ‘at least a hundred pounds’ worth of ore during the few minutes I had been watching him, and it was all round like Aladdin’s Cave’.

These rich finds created potential logistical and security headaches for prospectors.

To secure the best price for their gold, they would have to deliver it safely to Perth, hundreds of kilometres to the west. But this meant leaving their claims and risking holdups on the road.

Gold escorts

Banks and licensed dealers learned from the experience of New South Wales and Victoria where countless attempts to steal gold by notorious bushrangers prompted the establishment of an armed escort service.

Western Australia’s official gold escort was attached to scheduled trains from Kalgoorlie to Perth on a fortnightly basis.

Part of this special carriage was a strongroom for the gold, often containing upwards of 15,000oz, while the remainder provided quarters for the police or bank officers who were locked inside with a supply of beer and sandwiches for the journey.

People loading gold onto a horse drawn cart at The Perth Mint.A gold escort arrives at The Perth Mint, circa 1900

The escorts arrived in the capital mid-week, at about 8:30am. A horse-drawn cart met the train at Perth Station where the gold was accompanied by armed police the few blocks to The Perth Mint, where most Western Australian gold has been refined since 1899.

By 1907 a special policing body known as the Gold Stealing Detection Unit had been established. Originally funded by the Chamber of Minerals and Energy for the specific purpose of tracking down gold thieves, traffickers and illegal smugglers, it still exists today and is the only specialised unit in the Australian police force dedicated to gold-related crime.

An extensive record of successful investigations throughout the state, nationally and even internationally, has firmly established the reputation of the ‘Gold Squad’ which continues to serve the Western Australian mining industry.

The biggest heist in Australian history

A measure of the problems they faced occurred in New South Wales on 15 June 1862 during the transportation of more than £14,000 worth of gold and banknotes from the Lachlan goldfields to Bathurst.

In one of Australia’s most notorious gold robberies, a gang of eight men held up the gold escort at a gully known as Eugowra Rocks – a steep ravine dotted with large granite boulders.

Led by infamous Australian bushranger Frank Gardiner, the gang sprang upon the coach with guns blazing – as portrayed in this wood engraving by Frederick Grosse.

drawing of a group of gold miners fightingRobbery of the gold escort from the Lachlan, New South Wales, by Frederick Grosse, 1892. (Image courtesy of State Library Victoria).

Seizing 2,719oz of gold and £3,700 in cash (a multi-million dollar haul by today’s standards), they retreated to their Wheogo Hill hideout several kilometres away.

Much of the haul has never been accounted for despite a detachment of police setting out on a long chase the following day.