Robbing the Bank: Australia’s First Bank Robbery

2017
CC BY-SA 2.0
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Sydney’s, and Australia’s, first bank robbery took place on 14 September 1828 when the Bank of Australia strongroom was breached by thieves entering through a sewer drain and stealing £14,000 mostly in notes but also some gold and silver coins, the equivalent of about $20 million in 2017.

The Bank

[media]The Bank of Australia was established in 1826 to compete with the Bank of New South Wales that had been founded in 1817. The managing director, merchant and magistrate Thomas Macvitie, lived with his family above the bank in the largest and northernmost of the row of two storey houses known as Underwood’s Buildings in lower George Street opposite Essex Street.

Macvitie employed convict stonemason Thomas Turner to convert the basement of the building into a strongroom for the bank. Turner thus became aware that a sewer drain he had also worked on and which ran into the Tank Stream adjoined the new bank strongroom.

The Robbery

Turner conceived the idea of breaking into the basement from the drain but knew that if he did so he would be an obvious suspect. He mentioned the idea to James Dingle, a shoemaker and ex-convict, who recruited other convicts and ex-convicts George Farrell, also a shoemaker, William Blackstone, a blacksmith, and John Creighton, a slater and plasterer who had laid the strongroom floor. Blackstone’s skills were put to use making specialised tools to remove bricks from the drain wall and stones from the strongroom floor. [1]

The thieves accessed the drain through a grating in the passageway between the bank’s premises and the Keep Within Compass Hotel. They made their way through the drain until they were under the strongroom and over the course of several Saturdays, worked with Blackstone’s tools to remove bricks and attack the five feet (1.5 metres) thick strongroom floor. On Sunday 14 September 1828 Farrell, Blackstone and Creighton, aided by a fourth recruit, ex-convict Valentine Rourke, broke through and removed notes and coins totalling approximately £14,000. In income or wage terms this is equivalent to over $20  million today. [2]

The Aftermath

When the bank opened for business on Monday 15 September and the theft was discovered the bank’s staff and directors were incredulous. [3] No bank in the colony had ever been robbed before and the scale of the theft was shocking. The directors offered a reward of £100 for information leading to the discovery and conviction of the thieves. Governor Darling offered something even more enticing – a free pardon to any of the gang who informed on his associates, and the bank then guaranteed the informer a free passage back to England.

The bank withdrew all its notes from circulation and its note printing machines worked overtime so that old notes could be exchanged for new. People surrendering old notes were required to explain how they had acquired them and several who were unable to give a satisfactory provenance were questioned by the police. There was a surreptitious trade in stolen old notes, at a heavy discount, and several people were subsequently charged with possession of stolen money and receiving stolen goods; most were sentenced to seven or fourteen years in the Moreton Bay penal colony.

Several hoards of stolen notes were subsequently discovered and handed to police. £140 was found hidden in the rafters of a public toilet in The Rocks, a bundle of £50 notes was found under a rock near Liverpool Street, and an orphan child playing near a well at Darling Harbour discovered £2,959 under a stone. Those who handed in such finds were rewarded by the bank with 5% of the value and the child received almost £148. Overall, though, the money recovered fell far short of the amount stolen.

Punishment

The police were initially unsuccessful in discovering the thieves. The breakthrough came in December 1830 when Blackstone confessed. Instead of keeping a low profile he had continued to commit other crimes and in 1829 was sentenced to 14 years on Norfolk Island for highway robbery. After nearly a year there he took up the Governor’s promise of a pardon and made a confession naming Dingle, Farrell, Rourke and Creighton as his accomplices and Thomas Woodward, a convict with a ticket-of-leave, as a receiver of some of the money. By then Creighton had died and Rourke had returned to Ireland.

In 1831 Dingle, Farrell and Woodward were tried.[4] Farrell was found guilty of breaking and entering Macvitie’s house and stealing money (theft from a dwelling house was punishable by death, a more severe penalty than theft from a bank). Dingle, who had organised the gang but who had prudently absented himself from the scene on the day of the robbery, and who had arranged for Farrell and Blackstone to be excused from the usual Sunday muster of prisoners, was found guilty of aiding and abetting and assisting Farrell. Woodward was found guilty of being an accessory. Farrell and Dingle were sentenced to life on Norfolk Island and Woodward to 14 years. [5]

Blackstone was awarded the promised £100 and a pardon but declined the passage to England. [6] He should have accepted, because in 1833 he was found guilty of other robberies and sentenced to life on Norfolk Island where he was reunited with his Bank of Australia associates. [7]

Thomas Turner, whose idea the others carried out, was never charged due to lack of evidence, and was exonerated by Blackstone in 1831. It seems he had been able to dispose of his share of the money before the authorities began to suspect his involvement.

Where Is the Rest of the Money?

The fact that the money recovered fell far short of the amount stolen encouraged speculation that the rest of the hoard must still be hidden somewhere. At the time it was rumoured that some of the coins were hidden submerged at Darling Harbour but none were ever found.

In 1893 a woman approached the then Premier, Sir George Dibbs, with information from her recently deceased husband that much of the bank’s gold and silver had been buried near Mrs Macquarie’s Chair in the Domain; the Premier authorised excavation of the area but again nothing was found.[8]

Another rumour arose from night fishermen seeing a mysterious rower slipping into Little Sirius Cove (near today’s Taronga Zoo) and other nearby coves at various times following the robbery, and treasure hunters in 2017 still claimed that several boxes of coins from the Bank of Australia robbery may lie buried near the water’s edge in one of the small bays on Sydney’s north shore. [9]

 

Reference

Carol Baxter. Breaking the Bank: an extraordinary colonial robbery (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2008)

Carol Baxter, The Bank of Australia Robbery, Australian Heritage Magazine: Summer 2008,p 48–52 http://www.heritageaustralia.com.au/downloads/pdfs/Heritage%200309_Bank%20Robbery.pdf

 

Notes

[1] Supreme Court, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 14 June 1831 p3 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2201024 viewed 14 August, 2017

[2] Measuring Worth website, estimate for income value, https://www.measuringworth.com/australiacompare/ viewed 14 August 2017

[3] Extensive Robbery at the Bank of Australia The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 17 September 1828, p3  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2191067 viewed 14 August 2017

[4] Supreme Court The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 14 June 1831, p3 from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2201024 viewed 14 August 2017

[5] Law Intelligence.The Sydney Herald, 25 July 1831, p3  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12843332 viewed 14 August 2017

[6] ADVANCE AUSTRALIA The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 3 September 1831, p2  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2202389 viewed 14 August 2017

[7] LAW INTELLIGENCE.The Sydney Herald 25 February 1833 ,p 2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12846290 viewed 14 August 2017

[8] Gold-Digging in the Domain. Newcastle Morning Herald, 17 August 1893, p5 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article136398644 viewed 14 August 2017

[9] Treasure Hunters of Australia website  http://www.treasureenterprises.com/treasure%20hunting%20information/treasure_hunting_tips.htm  and www.treasureenterprises.com/Treasure%20Hunting%20Information/beachcombing_tips.htm,  viewed 18 August 2017