Abercrombie Caves – the bushrangers tale

Most people have heard of Jenolan Caves, a few have heard of Wombeyan Caves, and fewer still have heard of Abercrombie Caves. Some may wish to debate the last point but that’s for another day.

My personal view is this; for the 75 km you’ll drive from Bathurst to get to Abercrombie Caves, it’s unquestionably a great day out. With self guided tours on weekdays and guided tours on weekends with knowledgeable and experienced NSW National Parks Guides on weekends, you’ll want for nothing.

Apart from learning about the wonderful and at times colourful history of the caves, there are picnic tables under shady trees, camp sites with amenities, accommodation to rent and without the crowds of some of the other caves, you’ll leave thinking you’ve discovered a gem. No question.

However………. lets cast our minds back to September 1830. Just out of winter, things were starting to thaw in the area and the ‘Ribbon Gang’ of bushrangers were busy fellows.

Remembering that Bathurst was founded as Australia’s first inland city in 1815, one of it’s goals was not only to open up the west but to accommodate the ever growing population of convicts. Sydney, Norfolk Island and other convict settlements were bulging at the seams. Governor Macquarie needed a solution. Bathurst was the answer. There were a huge number of convicts housed in convict accommodation and/or put onto Bathurst farms as workers until granted leave. And not all were happy about it.

Pictured below is recent photo of an example of convict accommodation built in about 1840. This particular structure was built by a fellow called Richard Jones. With it’s narrow windows to minimise the chances of escape it would have been dark and drafty. Hot in summer and unbearably cold in winter. The doors were solid timber and permanently closed.

IMG_5785[1] Convict ‘Accommodation’

An good example of a bad decision in convicting a person from Ireland and sentencing him to life in the colony was the story of Patrick Cullen.

In 1837 at the age of 51, poor old Pat was convicted of stealing a cow and banished to Australia…. for life, leaving behind a wife and 10 children.

Pat was given his ticket of leave in 1844 and lived out his days at Long Swamp, on the way to Abercrombie Caves. Five of his children came to Australia and lived out there days here too. He never saw his wife again, nor his other 5 children.  Pat died on the 22nd January 1871 at the age of 85 from “exhaustion from old age“.

In 1988 some 117 years after Pat’s death, it was discovered that Patrick Cullen never actually stole the cow and was wrongly convicted and deported. It is noted on the plaque in the photo below that his relatives today are thankful of his sacrifice which gave them a life in Australia that they wouldn’t have otherwise received.

Here are some Cullen graves in the Long Swamp cemetery.

IMG_5807[1] Cullen Graves

But back to the main story……….. Bushrangers.

Back in about the late 1820’s Governor Darling was worried about the growing discontent amongst convicts in the Bathurst area. Absconders frequently became bushrangers and terrorised the free settling farming community stealing fire arms, cattle and food.

As a result, the Bushranging Act of 1830 became law. And what a law it was.

Anyone who was suspected of being a bushranger found carrying a gun could be arrested (with a warrant) and once searched were then taken into police custody without bail. When found guilty at a court hearing, the convict was then hanged in Bathurst within 3 days. Appeals were not permitted. Tough justice indeed.

Enter Ralph Entwhistle.

Ralph Entwhistle was possibly not the best convict citizen in the community to start with but he worked hard. One particularly hot summer day, he was returning his bullock team to Bathurst when he stopped for a cool dip in the Macquarie River. Unfortunately, Governor Darling’s party went past at the same time and upon seeing Entwhistle and a mate in the river without clothes the officers became deeply offended. The two men were taken into custody and flogged before being released.

Ralph wasn’t happy that he was treated so unfairly and plotted a revenge over the ensuing months. He started an uprising and gathered around him up to 80 men (at the peak). With stolen guns his gang’s reign of terror upon the farming community earned this group the title “The Ribbon Gang” reportedly because Entwhistle wore a ribbon in his hair.

By November 1831, the free settlers were fed up with the Ribbon gang and took it upon themselves to capture the bushrangers. Led by local free settler Mr William Suttor and local mounted police, Entwhistle and his men were finally trapped on a hill near Abercrombie Caves now known as Bushrangers Hill.

The gun battle that lasted a little over an hour left two men and five horses dead but the gang were victorious. Some of the gang split up and headed well out of the area. Entwhistle and his remaining gang members retreated to hide in Abercrombie Caves. After more gunfire and deaths over the next few days, the local police, along with back up from Sydney police, finally captured the Ribbon Gang.

Entwhistle and nine of his gang were found guilty of bushranging and hanged publically in Bathurst in February 1832. This was Bathurst’s first public hanging and the message was clear. Justice will be swiftly dealt out and the consequences were terminal.


The current site of the public hangings, now Ribbon Gang Lane

While little is known today about Ralph Entwhistle and the Ribbon Gang, the more ‘popular’ bushrangers Ben Hall and Frank Gardiner along with John Gilbert, John Vane and John O’Meally some thirty years later also used Abercrombie Caves as a hideout from around 1863-1865 or so.

The caves provided safe refuge and shelter from the elements, privacy and many exit points that allowed them to move freely and escape at short notice. Horses were well catered for too. It is said that the horses were houses in what is called today “The Stable Cave”.

IMG_5859[1] Stable Cave

By the late 1800’s, the Caves became the destination of tourists. A beautiful dance floor was erected which is still in perfect condition today thanks to the stable environment in the caves.

IMG_5873[1] Abercrombie Caves dance floor

Today, Abercrombie Caves is a more peaceful place. It is well worth a visit. Enjoy the country drive, the lack of crowds and imagine the history of gold discovery, bushranging and tourism in the area over a century ago.

Cheers, Ian

You can enjoy a tour to Abercrombie Caves and the surrounding area taking in the gold mining history and bushranging activity with Detour Adventures. Visit www.detouradventures.com.au  









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