This well-known photograph is purported to portray the bushrangers Frank Gardiner and Johnny Gilbert. There is, however some controversy about the identity of the subjects which we will endeavour to resolve here.
Assuming for a moment that it is Gardiner and Gilbert, the photograph would in all likelihood have been taken in the temporary studio of a travelling photographer in late 1861 or early 1862. Photography was the new technology to be embraced in the 1860s when such services were offered by professional photographers who set up a temporary studios in all the gold rush towns; newspaper advertisements for such photographers can be found in the Lachlan Observer from mid-1862 and The Miner and General Advertiser until late 1861 at Lambing Flat and then at Forbes until November 1862 (FFHG records, Forbes).
Apart from photographers and thousands of diggers, gold rushes in Australia attracted all types of merchants, tradesmen, publicans, storekeepers and of course the bushrangers. Easy money, exciting lifestyle!
Gold was discovered at Lambing Flat (renamed Young 1862) in 1860 and by late 1861 had become a thriving gold town with a population of more than 10000 people.
Frank Gardiner was drawn to this boom town and made good money in supplying stolen cattle for the butchers shop run by William Fogg in Lambing Flat, another who flirted with the law on many occasions by dealing in stolen stock with Gardiner.
Gardiner was known on the diggings by his real name, Francis Christie and in mid-1861 he was arrested for stock theft. Somehow he managed to be released on bail but failed to appear in court to answer those charges in May 1861. No surprise there.
From then on Gardiner took to the roads in company with such unsavoury characters as John Piesley, John O’Meally and the ‘Three Jacks’ – Davis, Connor and McGuinness.
Gardiner was fortunate to avoid a series of violent confrontations with the police and by early 1862 most of his former companions were arrested (Piesley was hanged in April 1862 for murder) or killed.
However, there was no shortage of recruits and one of the more enthusiastic was a young Johnny Gilbert, originally from Kilmore in Victoria. During 1860-61 he had been working as a stockman near Murringo but by early 1862 he was associating with Gardiner on the roads around Young and Forbes.
Gilbert had the mind of a professional criminal but the look of a village parson. A dangerous combination. Of course there could be no mistaking Gardiner’s proclivities.
So we can definitely place the travelling photographers and both Gardiner and Gilbert at Young and Forbes in early 1862. So no reason at all why the boys wouldn’t slip into town and have their pictures taken.
Now as regards the photograph itself, much has been made about the garb that Gilbert is wearing in an attempt to discredit the conclusion (by Edgar Penzig and myself, amongst others) that this is in fact Gardiner and Gilbert.
- The appearance of these two men certainly matches the police descriptions – Gardiner swarthy with dark hair, about 5ft 9inches, Gilbert youthful looking and slightly shorter.
- It is not known whether the photograph was printed in reverse but the buttons on Gilbert’s waistcoat are on the right-hand side which would be wrong for a man’s waistcoat. Their coats, however, appear to have buttons on the left side.
- However, if the photo is not reversed he’s wearing a woman’s coat! Well, the fallacy here is that those critics fail to understand that the bushrangers didn’t shop at David Jones for their summer and winter outfits, all their clothing was stolen from drays they’d bailed up on the roads and sometimes robbed from isolated country stores. So if in need of a new coat, they’d take whatever came their way – if it’s a woman’s coat that fitted and was warm, well who cares? They certainly weren’t fussy.
- Comment has been made about Gilbert wearing what at first glance looks like a dress, so if it’s a dress it’s a woman, not Gilbert! However it is difficult to discern exactly what he has but it could be bulky and loose trousers or perhaps a rug over his legs.
The original photograph was kept in the Mitchell Library in Sydney but was stolen in the 1980s. However, I have done some work on its fate and in tracking down the culprit.
Now, one half of the original photograph appears in the book A History of Bigga compiled by Ian Chudleigh and a committee in 1983. At that time an amateur NSW south coast historian “donated” a photograph for the book – it is the image of Gilbert which has been cut out of the original photograph! (see page 188, A History of Bigga).
The donor made the dubious and completely illogical claim that the image was not that of John Gilbert but was in fact one Elizabeth Mary Mitchell who was the daughter of William Fogg from Reids Flat (and the same Fogg the butcher from the diggings)
I spoke to Ian, who still lives in Bigga and he advised that no evidence of the provenance of the donated image was provided.
The amateur historian has cut out the Gilbert image in an oval shape, thus permanently desecrating the original stolen photograph. There is no information as to the fate of the Gardiner remnant.
Unfortunately there are some people who make the nonsensical claim that the Bigga remnant is from a second photograph and that the original is still in the Mitchell but simply misplaced.
A second photograph? The process for taking a single image in the 1860s was relatively laborious and time consuming so it seems logical to assume that only one photograph was taken. Were multiple copies made? Unknown, but what is known is that the original from the Mitchell was last seen in the early 1980s then a cut-out remnant appeared in 1983.
The amateur’s name was Bale and at one stage he worked at Lennons(?) Hardware in Goulburn. He apparently has family in Goulburn and Bigga.