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A View of the Cove and Part of Sydney, New South Wales, ca. 1818. Photo: The Wallis Album.

A View of the Cove and Part of Sydney, New South Wales, ca. 1818. Photo: The Wallis Album.

The First Bank Robbery in Australia

In 1828, £14,000 in Notes and Cash – the equivalent of about$20 Million in today’s currency – was Stolen from Sydney’s Bank of Australia, making it the Biggest Bank Robbery in Australia’s history

Somewhere on the shores of north Sydney, the proceeds of one of the most spectacular Australian robberies are supposed to be buried.

This was the robbing of the Bank of Australia in 1828.
Near the foundation of the bank was a large drain, one of the openings of which was on a plot of ground on the opposite side of the street to that in which the bank stood.  The burglars entered the drain, a drain that was too deep underground for the strokes of their picks to be heard. How they disposed of the earth is not known, but it was suggested that they carried it away in bags. They took the bricks out of the side of the drain facing the bank, and then dislodged a stone at the corner of the foundations.
Having gained an entrance into the strong room, they took two boxes containing dollars and seven containing British silver; also some bundles of bank notes between about £14,000.

On 14 September 1828, a gang of five robbers, William Blackstone, George Farrell, James Dingle, John Creighton and Valentine Rourke – tunnelled through a sewage drain into the vault of the Bank of Australia and stole some £14,000 in notes and coins. The crime was discovered the following day. Although suspicions immediately fell on Blackstone, Farrell and Dingle, they escaped an indictment until Blackstone turned informer two years later. By then Creighton was dead and Rourke had left the country. Only Dingle and Farrell faced the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 10 June 1831. Both were found guilty but escaped the gallows because of convict attaint: that is, legal concerns as to whether Blackstone’s evidence was admissible because of a previous death sentence.

Sydney in 1828 was a very different place from today. Half the people living there were convicts. Not all convicts were kept locked up as prisoners are today. Many could walk around where they wanted as long as they went to work and turned up for church on Sunday mornings. Church was important. Any convict who didn’t come to pray could be locked up.

While many people were sent to Australia for crimes that would get them only a fine today, there were others who just kept on doing things they shouldn’t. The problem with keeping all those criminals in one place was that if anyone wanted to pull off a big heist it was easy enough to find experts.

bank-of-australia-1828

If you were a Bank Director in need of a vault, would you employ a paroled prisoner to construct it? Thomas Macvitie had little choice. It was the year 1826 and prisoners were everywhere. Gangs of fettered convicts in their garish yellow-and-black uniforms trudged along Sydney’s earthen streets heading towards the lumberyard or dockyard or wherever else their bellowing guards ordered them. Convict clerks perching on stools inked their nibs and scrawled notes in the massive ledgers that tracked the servitude of their delinquent friends.

Even convict constables ordered free people to stand and deliver evidence of their freedom, rather than their worldly possessions. And among the thousands of convicts who filled most positions in Sydney was the town’s best stonemason, a man named Thomas Turner.

Surely a warning bell jangled in Macvitie’s mind before he made his decision! Evidently he ignored it. He employed Turner to construct the stone vault in the basement underneath his bank’s premises in Sydney’s George Street. It was a decision that would come back to haunt him.

Macvitie’s Bank of Australia was Sydney’s second bank. The Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac) had been founded in 1817 to meet the colony’s need for credit facilities to support local businesses. By the mid-1820s, however, it was meeting neither the needs nor the wishes of Sydney’s self-anointed nobility – ex-military, officials and wealthy free settlers. They began muttering among themselves that the bank had not been active enough in promoting colonial expansion particularly when the colony was riding the crest of an economic boom.

When the Board was infiltrated by ‘convicts’, as the gentry derisively called the wealthy emancipists recently elected to the bank’s Board of Directors, it was the final straw. They took their wads of cash and established their own bank, which soon acquired the derogatory nickname, the ‘gentlemen’s’ bank, to distinguish it from the ‘people’s’ bank as the Bank of New South Wales was affectionately known.

Macvitie and his colleagues leased premises on the east side of George Street, in the same location as the building now known as Essex House. After Thomas Turner and his men finished constructing the vault, doubling the thickness of the original stone walls so that five feet of large stone blocks secured it from intruders, the bank opened its doors to the public. Perhaps Macvitie was unaware that his bank’s newly constructed vault abutted a sewerage drain that ran from Essex Street underneath George Street and across to Sydney Cove, or that his prize stonemason had also overseen the construction of the drain. Perhaps he was also unaware of quite how handy with a tape measure his clever stonemason was. Nothing happened for a couple of years. Turner was shrewd enough to know that suspicious eyes would immediately focus on him if the vault was robbed. But he had lots of friends and, naturally, in a penal settlement, many were opportunistic thieves. It was only a matter of time.

Irish shoemakers, James Dingle and George Farrell, were those Turner chose to bless with his ‘treasure map’, the plan he had spent two years devising. He knew that the robbers would need the services of a blacksmith, a man capable of forging the tools necessary to complete the job and, most importantly, to do it quietly.

The man they chose for the job, a particularly skilled and criminally inclined transportee named William Blackstone, would later boast, “My tools made no more noise than a mouse gnawing.” Although Dingle was a time expired convict, both Farrell and Blackstone were still serving out their sentences. Saturday was their only free day. So at 4 am on Saturday 29 August 1828, the three men slipped through Sydney’s dark streets to an alleyway next to the bank. Turner had advised them to use a piece of string and a broomstick to mark out the distance from a drain grating to the front of ex-Chief Constable Redman’s neighbouring cottage.

The men then continued along the alleyway and down to Sydney Cove where they clambered into the mouth of the brick-built sewerage and storm water drain. Shuffling back up the drain, through the five or six inches of fetid sludge carpeting the floor, the men reached the drain grating again. They measured out the distance, added a bit extra for good measure, and began prying bricks from the wall, laying them along the drain floor to make a causeway. Behind the brick wall was a layer of rubble which they scooped out.

They carried the bulkier rubble down the drain and deposited it against the drain walls, working until the dimming light began to blind them. It took another two Saturdays of tunnelling before the men were ready to remove the cornerstone and enter the vault. In the meantime, Dingle had sought the assistance of two other ex-convicts, much to Blackstone’s annoyance.

Furthermore, Dingle didn’t help with any of the hard work, instead hanging around outside performing guard duty. Then greed led Dingle to make a foolish decision. The bank operated six days a week, so Sunday was the only day the robbers could raid the vault. Yet Blackstone and Farrell had to attend church muster on Sundays and risked their freedom being curtailed if they missed it. Dingle assured them that all would be fine, that he knew one of the muster clerks and would bribe him.

Opportunism, however, wasn’t just the bailiwick of the bank robbers. On Sunday 14 September 1828, while Dingle was weaselling his way into the muster clerk’s good graces, the other four robbers lifted out the vault’s cornerstone. Farrell, the skinniest of the men, slid through the aperture. Tins, bags and wooden boxes were pushed out and the robbers smashed them open and eagerly began pouring out coins and piling up notes.

They set aside the newly plated uncirculated notes, not wanting to be caught with such incriminating spoils, and burnt the distinctively damaged notes. But a few slipped through unnoticed. With piles of notes stuffed under their hats, the robbers crept out of the drain after dark, leaving behind empty rum bottles and Blackstone’s cleverly crafted tools. They returned in the wee hours clutching bags to carry away the remainder of the coins and notes. It was drizzling as they left the drain and Dingle led the way, unencumbered by loot and acting as a scout. “Who are you and where are you going?” Dingle had almost collided with three constables as he rounded a corner.

“I am going to get a dram,” he responded loudly, alerting the others to the danger. One of the constables asked why he was looking for a dram at such an hour on such a miserable morning. Dingle parried their questions. The constable eventually told the others, “I know him and believe him to be an honest man.” They allowed him to pass but didn’t forget the encounter. The theft was discovered the following morning: £14,000 in notes and cash, the equivalent in today’s money of about $20 million. The gentlemen of Sydney were irate; the convicts and emancipists delighted. The government and bank directors offered rewards for information leading to the conviction of the robbers. No one came forward.

The rewards increased; still the were met with silence. The bank directors ordered those in the community holding Bank of Australia notes to bring them in to be exchanged, and to account for how and when they had acquired them. But in a community of thieves, it wasn’t just the bank robbers who would struggle to account for certain notes in their possession.

A black market in Bank of Australia notes soon developed, with some of the stolen notes circulating among them. Those who were foolhardy enough to bring stolen notes into the bank to be exchanged found themselves in gaol, the damaged notes in particular proving their Achilles heel. But the bank robbers weren’t among them. Meanwhile, the cunning muster clerk had realised that he possessed valuable information.

He told the authorities that Blackstone and Farrell had missed the church muster, and claimed to have heard from Farrell’s workmate that they were involved in the robbery. As serving convicts, Blackstone and Farrell had few rights. When the authorities couldn’t prove their complicity, they sent the two robbers to the Hyde Park Barracks then transferred them to the Phoenix hulk. Dingle, an expiree, was questioned but failed to disclose anything and couldn’t be kept in custody when the authorities lacked the evidence to bring him to trial. Blackstone was released from the hulk when his original sentence of transportation expired a year later.

He approached receiver, Thomas Woodward, to whom he had given his own bundle of notes to exchange immediately after the robbery, and ringleader James Dingle and demanded his share of the loot. To his fury and frustration, both fobbed him off. A year later, the authorities had Blackstone in their sights again after he committed another crime. Convinced that he was responsible for making the tools left in the drain, they began pestering him, offering him the tempting rewards while threatening him with a quick trip to the gallows if he refused to help and they could lay the crime against him. Cheated by his colleagues, hounded by the authorities, Blackstone caved in.

The case came to trial in the Supreme Court on 10 June 1831, three years after the robbery. Only Dingle and Farrell had been charged, one of the remaining robbers having escaped prosecution through an untimely death, the other through a timely departure. Woodward, the receiver, was also facing the court. For hours Blackstone testified, describing the invitation to join the robbery, the tunnelling operation, the robbery itself and its dramatic aftermath, his term in the hulk, his attempts to recoup some of the money, and the dramas of his intervening crime, conviction, and servitude. Sydney lapped it up.

The courts were the theatres for the masses and this was the most exciting drama they had experienced in a long time. Would Blackstone’s testimony send his mates to the gallows? The theft of goods worth five pounds was enough to tighten the noose, and the robbers had stolen considerably more than that. A death sentence was a certainty. But the law is a strange creature: one moment an enemy, the next a friend. Under British law, Blackstone was ineligible to testify. He had previously been sentenced to death and as a ‘felon attaint’ the law deemed that his felonious activities had disgraced him, that he could not be trusted to tell the truth in a court of law. Yet the peculiar nature of the penal settlement had meant that expediency was often required in adapting the law to suit its particular circumstances, to the extent that felon attaints like Blackstone were regularly allowed to testify.

In this case, without Blackstone’s testimony, the evidence would be too weak to convict the robbers. The law would be forced to dismiss the case or acquit them. The court tried to push aside the ‘felony attaint’ objection but the defence lawyers suggested that, as lives were at stake, the court should seek the advice of the King in Council. The Supreme Court justices were alarmed at such a suggestion, well aware that England’s legislators and pampered government lawyers struggled to grasp the difficulties faced by colonial judges in implementing British laws in the penal settlements. They didn’t want the King in Council to rule in such a way that it would be impossible to mete out justice through the colonial courts. They decided to bypass the problem by sentencing the robbers to ‘death recorded’ rather than death then commuted their sentences to life transportation to Norfolk Island.

With his blacksmithing skills and a pocketful of rewards – a pardon, money and a free passage to England – Blackstone had the world at his feet. But ever the reckless opportunist, he would never learn from his mistakes, never be constrained by society’s rules. Blackstone just couldn’t resist stealing from a shop before he went. So much for going home. Blackstone was sentenced to life on Norfolk Island, but somehow managed to get back to Sydney.

He soon found himself among the three men his testimony had sent to the hellhole of the Norfolk Island penal settlement. And there the dramas would continue: shipwreck, mutiny and escapes; treachery and betrayal.

However, somebody wasn’t happy with him. In 1844, his body was found in a swamp in what is now the Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo.

The Bank of Australia struggled on for several years after the robbery, but closed in 1843. The thieves had wiped it out.

As for the bank robbery proceeds: no-one knows for sure what happened to them. But there were many, many rumours.

Bank Cheque from 1832.

Bank Cheque from 1832.

Today, Norfolk Island is a beautiful place with only a small population. To keep the island clean and unspoiled, the number of tourists is restricted.

In 1846, nobody wanted to go there. It was a prison for Australia’s toughest convicts, the ones no other prison could break. The idea was that Norfolk Island would break them. It was in that year that Norfolk Island penal colony got the perfect Commandant.

John Giles Price looked like a kindly vicar. He was the sort of man you could imagine having a cup of tea at the church bazaar, chatting with old ladies about their gardens.

However, if you were a convict, you would find out very quickly that you were wrong. Horribly wrong. John Price was a sadist, a person who enjoyed giving pain. He loved his job because it gave him huge power over others. It was said that even his wife and five children were terrified of him.

Flogging was a normal punishment in penal colonies. Sometimes those who did the flogging were convicts themselves. But John Price made sure that his floggers had training. He wanted to make sure that being whipped wasn’t just something you had to put up with. You had to be terrified that it might happen to you. Convicts who had been beaten couldn’t clean their wounds. Flies and maggots crawled all over them. And you could be flogged for anything. Talking back to a guard. Complaining. Helping a friend. Anything. Commandant Price wasn’t fussy.

There were other punishments, of course. In one case, Price punished two men by putting extra time on their sentences. Their crime? One of them had shared food with the other. Prisoners were chained, beaten and gagged. One man who was in the hospital was chained to the floor for weeks because he had climbed to the window for fresh air.

In 1853, after several years of enjoying himself on Norfolk Island, John Price retired to a farm in Tasmania. If he’d stayed there, he might have lived to a ripe old age. But soon afterwards, he was offered a job as Inspector-General of prisons in Victoria and simply couldn’t resist it. He accepted.

In 1857, he was at the prison hulks in Williamstown, Victoria. The hulks were ships used as cells. Prisoners went from there to work at the quarries nearby, but the cells were also useful to chain up convicts. You couldn’t sit or stand properly in them and you might also be gagged. If you had a gag in your mouth, of course, you couldn’t eat, which didn’t stop the guards from throwing in bread and then taking it away, commenting that you obviously weren’t hungry. When one convict protested about this to Price, the commandant ordered that the punishment should continue.

Finally, the convicts couldn’t take it any more. They knew they would die for what they were going to do, but it seemed worth the price. One afternoon, when he was out in the quarries, the men attacked, trying to drag him to a tent made of bits of dismantled ship. There they had prepared a noose with which to hang him.

John Price was a strong man. He managed to break away from them and run. However, there were a hundred men around that quarry. As he tried to avoid the different gangs, someone managed to hit him with a heavy stone, knocking him over. After that, he was finished. The convicts hit him with anything they had in their hands at the time – hammers, stones, crowbars. There wasn’t much left of him by the time they were finished, but he survived for another day before finally dying.

That was the end of John Giles Price. He had showed that you don’t have to be on the wrong side of the law to be evil.

The Bank of Australia failed on 2nd March 1843 and the liquidation resulted in remaining assets of the bank in the form of land holdings being disposed of by lottery. Despite being disallowed by the British government, on 19 October 1848, 11,247 tickets were printed, numbered by hand, signed by four directors and issued to shareholders in proportion to their holdings. Shareholders had the right to resell (or assign) their tickets at £4 each which many did. The probably illegal draw took place over 1-3 January 1849 amid great public excitement. The full numerical list of prizes won was later published in the Sydney Herald.

The Bank of Australia failed on 2nd March 1843 and the liquidation resulted in remaining assets of the bank in the form of land holdings being disposed of by lottery. Despite being disallowed by the British government, on 19 October 1848, 11,247 tickets were printed, numbered by hand, signed by four directors and issued to shareholders in proportion to their holdings. Shareholders had the right to resell (or assign) their tickets at £4 each which many did. The probably illegal draw took place over 1-3 January 1849 amid great public excitement. The full numerical list of prizes won was later published in the Sydney Herald.

In 1803, convict Joseph Samuels was condemned to hang for murder. Three times, the rope being used to hang him broke or unravelled, so he was allowed to live. It wasn’t much help to him, though – soon afterwards, he drowned while trying to escape in a boat.

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AUSTRALIA’S FIRST BANK ROBBERY

[Biographical cuttings on William Blackstone, bank robber, containing …

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