On 14 September 1828, the strongroom of the Bank of Australia on lower George Street was breached by thieves who had tunnelled into the vault underneath the bank via a nearby sewer that ran into the Tank Stream.
The convict stonemason, Thomas Turner, who had worked on both the strongroom and the drain, told a fellow convict, James Dingle, that the two adjoined. Dingle recruited other convicts and ex-convicts including George Farrell, William Blackstone, John Creighton and Valentine Rourke.
Over a number of weeks the thieves spent every Sunday, when they were supposed to be at church, removing the bricks to the strongroom. When they finally broke through, they stole about £14,000 — mostly in notes but also some gold and silver coins. That's estimated to be equivalent to about $20 million today.
The next day, bank staff were horrified by the discovery in the strongroom. The bank’s directors offered a reward of £100 for information and Governor Darling offered a free pardon to any of the perpetrators who would come forward with information. The bank also guaranteed the informer free passage back to England.
Over time, a very small portion of the money was recovered, for example, £140 was found hidden in a public toilet in The Rocks and a bundle of £50 notes were found under a rock near Liverpool Street.
In 1830, Blackstone, who had been sent to Norfolk Island after committing other crimes, took up the offer of the Governor's offer of a pardon and confessed, naming his accomplices.
The following year, Dingle and Farrell were tried alongside Thomas Woodward, who had received some of the spoils. Farrell and Dingle were transported to Norfolk Island and Woodward sentenced to 14 years. The other conspirators had either died or left the country. Blackstone was awarded the promised £100 but turned down the passage to England. He ended up back at Norfolk Island in 1833 after he was convicted of other robberies.
The loot, meanwhile, was never fully recovered. Rumours abound that coins were submerged in Darling Harbour, though none were found. In 1893 a woman claimed the bank’s gold and silver were buried near Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, but excavations proved fruitless. So the mystery remains!
Neil Radford, Robbing the Bank: Australia's First Bank Robbery, on the Dictionary of Sydney here
Carol Baxter, The Bank of Australia Robbery, Australian Heritage Magazine: Summer 2008, p 48–52 here
Carol Baxter. Breaking the Bank: an extraordinary colonial robbery, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008
This is the Dictionary of Sydney's last segment with Nic as he is moving to Perth to take up a new position with the ABC. We all wanted to say thank you to him for all of the great early morning chats over the last couple of years, and to wish him well in his new radio adventures! The Dictionary of Sydney segment will return to 2SER Breakfast with the new host.Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator, and the Executive Officer of the History Council of NSW. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.Listen to the podcast with Nicole & Nic here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.The Dictionary of Sydney has no ongoing operational funding and needs your help. Make a tax-deductible donation to the Dictionary of Sydney today!