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Billy Bogan (c. 1860–1900)

by Michael Bennett

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Billy Bogan (c. 1860–1900), tracker and fugitive, was born in the early 1860s in Wiradjuri Country at Dandaloo on the Bogan River west of Dubbo, New South Wales. The names of his parents and their specific clans and language groups are unknown. Unschooled, Billy, by the age of about ten, was living and working on Bumbaldry, a large pastoral property on the eastern slopes of the Warrumba Range near Cowra, with another Aboriginal boy named Stephen Field; later, he sometimes used Field’s surname. In October 1875 the Grenfell Bench issued a warrant for Billy’s and Stephen’s arrest for allegedly stealing two horses, a saddle, and a bridle belonging to the Bumbaldry owner W. R. Watt. The pair were arrested by Forbes police and faced court at Grenfell. In evidence given to the court, it became apparent that one of the horses belonged to William Ashmore, another local Aboriginal youth. Although convicted, Watt consented to their continuing employment and so they were sentenced to a few hours of imprisonment only.

The following year Billy and Stephen were again in trouble when Watt’s wife Mary ordered their storekeeper John Thomas Palmer to ‘correct’ their ‘disobedient’ (Mining Record and Grenfell General Advertiser 1876, 2) behaviour. Palmer grabbed Billy and locked him in a room while he went to look for Stephen. His exertions, however, brought on giddiness and vomiting, and he dropped dead from heart failure.

By 1882 Bogan had left Bumbaldry and was working as a police tracker at Warren on the Macquarie River. On 8 October he helped to arrest a European wood carter, Charles Robertson, who was charged with stealing fodder from the police station. Before the trial, which was set for Dubbo later that month with Bogan as the principal witness, Robertson, then out on bail, offered Bogan £10 to swear that he did not see the theft. Bogan refused the bribe. Next, Robertson invited Bogan for a drink. His suspicions raised, Bogan declined the offer, saying that he had to meet with Senior Constable Piggott, who was in charge of the station. Robertson offered to meet later, near the station, and Bogan agreed. Bogan told Piggott of his suspicions, and the senior constable agreed to observe the encounter from a hidden position. At the meeting Robertson said: ‘Have a drink, Billy, and let’s be friends’ (Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 1882, 838). Bogan took the bottle straight to Piggott and both noticed a white sediment settling at the bottom. Later testing in Sydney showed that the drink was laced with ten grains of strychnine, more than enough to kill several people. Robertson was later convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

Bogan resigned from the police soon after and moved to Nyngan on the Bogan River, thirty-seven miles (60 km) west of Warren. There he met an Aboriginal man named Colane Jimmy (Tarpot). In November 1884 the two were arrested for allegedly stealing goods valued at £5 from a Nyngan house. Tarpot was found guilty at the Dubbo trial and was sentenced to three months’ hard labour, but Bogan was found not guilty.

Work was difficult to come by during the 1890s economic depression, and Bogan, like many Aboriginal men, struggled to make a living. In July 1894, then using the name William Field, he was arrested on suspicion of having broken into a dwelling at Goobang near Parkes to steal clothes and money. He was also charged with abducting Kate Riley, the elder sister of Alec Riley, later a long-serving tracker at Dubbo. Bogan pleaded guilty to the stealing charge and was given two years in Bathurst gaol, but he contested the abduction charge and was found not guilty. Upon his release in July 1895, he headed west to familiar country on the Calare (Lachlan River), where, in October, he broke into a house, stole some goods, and was arrested by the Eugowra police. He stood trial at Cowra Quarter Sessions on 16 November. The jury convicted him of breaking, entering, and stealing from a dwelling, and sentenced him to two years’ hard labour in Bathurst gaol.

Loaded onto the train at Cowra for the journey to Bathurst, Bogan was leg-ironed to another prisoner, Albert Katz, who had also been convicted of a property crime; neither was handcuffed. Guarding the pair was Constable Patrick Healey. As the train slowed before entering the Carcoar tunnel, Bogan and Katz overpowered Healey, knocking him unconscious and grabbing the key to unlock the leg irons. Both then leapt from the carriage. Katz, unfamiliar with the local terrain, was soon recaptured, but Bogan headed west towards the Bogan River, beginning a dramatic pursuit that would last a year. The escapee was described as being five feet five inches (165 cm) tall and was said to be of medium build with a moustache and sideburns.

After skirting round Mount Canobolas (an important Wiradjuri ceremonial ground), Bogan was spotted near the village of Cargo on 20 November 1895. The following month police learned that he was passing himself off as a kangaroo shooter in the Herveys Range about thirty miles (50 km) east of the Bogan River. In his traditional country, Bogan was easily able to elude them. He later recounted that he never feared the local trackers that the New South Wales police sent to pursue him. This is probably because he was culturally related to most of them. At one point he sat in a tree and watched the police and tracker pass below him. The tracker likely knew that Bogan was hiding above but did not disclose his location.

Bogan crossed into Queensland and continued travelling north, eventually reaching Charleville on the Warrego River in Gunya (Kunja) Country. He was arrested by Charleville police and local trackers with no cultural affiliation to him in November 1896. A Carcoar constable travelled to Charleville to bring Bogan back to Bathurst for trial: he was put in leg irons and handcuffs for the 621 mile (1,000 km) return train journey.

A confident man, Bogan represented himself at the committal hearing on 25 November, cross-examining Healey and putting forward an alternative theory that implicated Katz as the violent aggressor. Those present were impressed by his performance, one journalist describing him as ‘wiry and athletic … with a determined air’ (National Advocate 1896, 2). Nevertheless, Bogan was committed to stand trial on the serious and exaggerated charge of intent to commit murder. The case was heard before Justice Henry Emanuel Cohen on 13 April 1897. A jury of eleven Bathurst men were impanelled but this time Bogan had legal representation. He pleaded not guilty to the charge and repeated his earlier testimony that it was Katz who had struck the constable. However, the crown prosecutor noted some inconsistencies. The jury found Bogan guilty, not of the original charge of intent to commit murder (which carried the death penalty), but of the lesser charges of malicious wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm, and wounding with intent to escape from custody. The judge handed down a sentence of seven years, the same as Katz had received.

At Parramatta gaol Bogan’s health deteriorated. Suffering from diseased lungs, probably tuberculosis, he was in and out of the gaol hospital. In late 1900 he contracted typhoid fever and died on 19 November. He was buried in Rookwood cemetery, leaving no known descendants. While he is not commemorated by his local community, his story nevertheless represents the marginalisation that many dispossessed Aboriginal people experienced within the new colonial economies, and the intense punitive treatment they faced from employers and police alike. Bogan faced many obstacles and few opportunities and, until his final imprisonment, got by through his wits and the compassion of his countrymen.


Michael Bennett is of English and Scottish descent. He was born on Gadigal (Eora) Country and grew up on Wiradjuri Country.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney). ‘Dastardly Attempt to Poison.’ 11 November 1882, 17
  • Mining Record and Grenfell General Advertiser (NSW). ‘Coroner’s Inquest.’ 8 January 1876, 2
  • National Advocate (Bathurst, NSW). ‘Bathurst Circuit Court.’ 14 April 1897, 2
  • National Advocate (Bathurst, NSW). ‘“Billy Bogan” before the Bathurst Bench.’ 16 November 1896, 2
  • New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime (Sydney). ‘Attempted Murder and Escape of Prisoners.’ 20 November 1895, 401
  • New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime (Sydney). ‘Horses and Cattle.’ 20 October 1875, 303
  • Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser. ‘Central Criminal Court.’ 11 November 1882, 838

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Bennett, 'Bogan, Billy (c. 1860–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Field, William

c. 1860
Dandaloo, New South Wales, Australia


19 November, 1900 (aged ~ 40)
Parramatta, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

typhoid fever

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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