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Forbes, NSW

An elegant rural service centre famed for its connections with the bushranger, Ben Hall.

Forbes is a remarkably elegant and substantial inland town. Famous for its connections with the bushranger, Ben Hall (he was killed and buried near the town), today it is an important rural service centre noted for its fine parks and gardens and its large and gracious public buildings. The rural economy in the district is based around a major cattle sale yards complex, beef and hay exports, wool, wheat, grain seed crops, oil seed crops, fruit and vegetables.

Location

Forbes is located on the Lachlan River 245 m above sea-level and 374 km west of Sydney via Bathurst and Orange.

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Origin of Name

The settlement was first named by Surveyor General John Oxley who called it simply Camp Hill. Oxley subsequently renamed the settlement Forbes after Francis Forbes, later Sir Francis Forbes, who became the first Chief Justice of New South Wales in the Supreme Court.

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Things to See and Do

Victoria Park
Forbes is unusual for an Australian country town in the way so many of the town's significant buildings are located around a park which looks like a town square. Not only does Victoria Park have a fine band rotunda, an impressive fountain and a modern war memorial but it is also edged by the Court House, the huge Vandenberg Hotel, the Town Hall and both St Andrew's Presbyterian Church and St John's Anglican Church. Just beyond is the town's impressive Post Office and the charming main street.

Court House
On one side of Victoria Park is the local Court House, a handsome Victorian Classical Revival building designed by Colonial Architect James Barnet in 1880. The signage outside notes: "There were two earlier Court Houses before this building was erected in 1880 ... The building has had no major change since the public gallery was added in 1884. Early records document Ben Hall's highway robbery charge in 1862, Henry Lawson's birth at Grenfell in 1867, and Kate Foster's (Ned Kelly's sister) death by misadventure in 1898. The Court House was classified by the National Trust in 1975." To which can be added that the "arched fenestration to street is given interest by Doric pilasters and a balustraded parapet surmounted by a fine coat of arms. The front fence is of pikes and rails with sandstone base and gate posts."

Vandenberg Hotel
Located on the other side of Victoria Park is the Vandenberg Hotel, formerly the Court House Hotel, with its large timber veranda, slender cast-iron columns and iron lace balustrading. This two-storey, stuccoed brick building was erected in 1863. Some sources simply say c.1865.

Mayor Thomas's Grecian Fountain
Victoria Park is notable for its formal gardens and mature eucalypts, pepperinas, jacarandas, palms and wattles. The Grecian design fountain, donated by William Thomas in 1891 when he was Town Mayor, combines shallow dishes with cast-iron statuary.

The Band Rotunda
The Band Rotunda (1891) offers excellent 360° views over Victoria Park. It is an ideal place for an elevated view of the Court House, the fountain and the Town Hall. It is a delicate cast-iron octagonal structure with iron balustrading.

St Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St Andrew's Presbyterian Church replaced an earlier timber church. It was built of rough stone with smooth dressed quoins in 1877. The church has an impressive octagonal bell tower and spire, a steeply sloping slate roof and some fine stained-glass windows.

Town Hall
The Heritage of Australia describes this magnificent Town Hall (surely one of the finest in rural Australia) as "a two-storey stuccoed brick Classical Revival building designed by George McKinnon and built in 1890-91 by T.F. Rowe. It has a central three-storey octagonal tower with dome, ornately balustraded parapets and balcony."

St John's Anglican Church
St John's Anglican Church is a majestic rough-stone Gothic Revival church designed by B. Backhouse, built in 1874-77, and extended in 1969. The rough stone walls are relieved by smooth stone quoins and inside there is an arched wooden ceiling. The land upon which the church stands was donated by Josiah Strickland.

Post Office
Located at the corner of Court and Lachlan Streets, and forming a major part of the town's main streetscape, the elegant two-storey stuccoed brick post office (1879-81) was designed in the office of the Colonial Architect, James Barnet. The ground-floor colonnade and arched first-floor windows are capped by an unusual three-storey clock tower which is sheeted with zinc shingles.

Lachlan Street
There are a number of impressive buildings on Lachlan Street (the town's main street) including the Post Office (see above), St John's Anglican Church, the ANZ Bank, the CBC Bank (now National) Bank building, erected in 1884 it is "a two storey Victorian Classical bank with a fine two level veranda. The balustrades are cast iron and it has an elegant arched portico".

Less than a block off the main street are two buildings of interest:

Anglesey House
In Templar Street is Anglesey House (1884) which was originally the residence of a former mayor. A stuccoed brick and stone mansion, it features some fine floral lacework and a tiled mosaic walkway. There are stone stables at the rear.

Forbes Museum
At 11 Cross Street, around the corner from Lachlan Street, is the Forbes Museum which is housed in the old Osborne Hall, a dance hall built around 1878. It has an interesting Ben Hall section (Ben Hall - The Myths Behind the Legend) with relics from the bushranging days and items of local European and Aboriginal history. The museum is open from 2.00 pm to 4.00 pm daily or by appointment, tel: (02) 6851 6600. For more information check out http://home.westserv.net.au/~fbsmuseum/.

McFeeters Motor Museum
Located on the Newell Highway on the corner of Oxford Street, the McFeeters Motor Museum is an ideal place for petrol heads. It has a veteran car display; a vintage - from T models to Rolls Royce - display; a classic collection (Jaguar, MGs, Bentleys et al); and a collection of custom built street rods. It is open from 9.00 am - 5.00 pm and has a cafe and a cellar door. For more information check out http://www.motormuseum.com.au or tel: (02) 6852 3001.

Lake Forbes
There is no more delightful place to stretch your legs than the natural lagoon that is Lake Forbes. There is a 4.8 km walk around the lake where you can pause and admire the Rotary Club sundial (a sundial designed using the Rotary Club logo); the old Vampire Jet which was given to the town by the RAAF; and, amazingly, the swans and pelicans who enjoy the waters of the lagoon. The lake has excellent picnic and barbecue locations around its shores.

Forbes Cemetery
Forbes Cemetery offers a rare double for people interested in the history of bushrangers. It contains the grave of bushranger Ben Hall, killed in a hail of gunfire to the north-west of town in May 1865, as well as the grave of Ned Kelly's sister, Kate.

Ben Hall (if it wasn't for Ned Kelly he would definitely be the most famous of all the bushrangers - he was serious, deadly and efficient) arrived in the area when he was twelve. He bought a station in the Weddin Mountains in 1860. He was tried for armed robbery in 1862 (the record of the trial is still held in the Forbes Court House) but acquitted.

It is easy to romanticise Hall but, in fairness, when he returned from his trial he found that his house had been burned down, his cattle had been killed and his wife had run off with a former policeman. It is hardly surprising that he saw this confluence of events as a police vendetta and probably took up bushranging as an act of revenge. It is this portrayal as a revenging outlaw that has helped to turn him into a romantic figure.

Later in 1862 Frank Gardiner's gang, of which Hall had become a member, pulled off the largest Australian gold robbery near Eugowra when they successfully robbed a gold escort of 84.56 kg of gold and £3,700 in cash. Hall was arrested but released when gang member, Dan Charters, refused to implicate his best friend. Hall moved across towards Goulburn where he robbed people on the Sydney to Melbourne road with relative impunity. He was eventually killed in a hail of gunfire about 20 km to the north-west of Forbes on May 5, 1865. His simple grave in the Forbes cemetery is a place of homage for bushranging enthusiasts.

Nearby is the grave of Ned Kelly's sister Kate, who married William Foster at Forbes in 1888 and drowned in the Lachlan River in 1898 when she was only 36. There is an excellent brochure on her life and her suspicious death. It is available from the Visitor Information Centre.

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Other Attractions in the Area

The Place Where Ben Hall Was Killed
It is just a clump of trees in a very flat paddock and is worth visiting as it has a large sign with a painting and explanation which has been installed by the Forbes Historical Society. Located 21 km west of Forbes on Ben Hall Road at Yarragong, it is helpful to have a good map or instructions which can be obtained from the Forbes Visitor Information Centre. The sign explains: "Hall started work as a stockman. However, after twice being arrested on robbery charges, then released, he probably decided that if he was going to be charged with such offences, he might as well carry them out. So he became a bushranger.
"The gangs Hall led were well organised, with good equipment and well-behaved men. [Let me interrupt here: this is clearly not true. John Dunn, who shot Samuel Nelson in front of his children at Collector, was clearly a dangerous psychopath.] They robbed wealthy travellers and were able to rely on the support of poorer people to hide them. As a result, Hall's gangs were able to avoid capture by the police. In some ways Hall was an Australian version of Robin Hood.
"Hall was very active along the Melbourne-Sydney road near Goulburn. On one occasion, he robbed 60 travellers in one hold-up. However his days were numbered when a large reward was offered for his capture. Someone gave his location to police, who ambushed him and shot him dead. It happened right here, 50 m from the road in the trees, on 5th May 1865."
Peter Bradley, who has written The Judas Covenant and Stories from the Hard Road, both about Ben Hall, has researched Hall (Bradley is a descendant of the Hall family) and has contributed this piece of additional information about the bushranger:
“In May 1862 Ben Hall was charged with being an accomplice to Frank Gardiner in the robbery of Bill Bacon's drays near Forbes. The trial was at Orange and Hall was discharged (not acquitted) after one of the Crown witnesses inexplicably changed his story.
"He then participated in the Escort robbery, mid-June 1862, was arrested in late July and held in the Forbes lockup on remand for 5 weeks.  Eventually he was released after the Crown witness, Dan Charters, refused to implicate (his good mate) Ben Hall.
"After his release from the lockup Hall returned to Sandy Creek but by that time he and his partner John Maguire had transferred the lease to a Forbes publican, John Wilson.
"Nothing much happened until Feb, 1863 when there was a confrontation between Hall, O'Meally and Patsy Daley against sub-Inspector Norton.  The upshot was that Insp. Pottinger decided enough was enough and went to Sandy Creek where the police burnt down Hall’s hut after evicting the women and children.
So the timeline is as follows: 
(i) early 1862, his wife Biddy left Hall to live with one James Taylor, a stockman from Wheogo (definitely not a policeman!).  We have no idea what the reasons were.
(ii)  May 1862 charges dismissed at Orange (not an acquittal)
(iii)  June 1862 … the Escort robbery;
(iv)  July – August 1862 ... arrested and released, sold the lease on Sandy Creek but continued to live on the property;
(v)   March 1863 …police burnt down Hall’s hut.
The original story ..... "returned from his trial to find his wife gone, the house burnt down and all the cattle dead" originated with Frank Clune who was a master at compressing chronology and was somewhat prone to exaggeration.”

Hall and The Streets of Forbes
There is a very famous Australian folk song about the adventures, capture and killing of Ben Hall.

The Streets of Forbes
Come all you Lachlan men, and a sorrowful tale I'll tell
Concerning of a hero bold who through misfortune fell
His name it was Ben Hall, a man of good renown
Who was hunted from his station, and like a dog shot down.

Three years he roamed the roads, and he showed the traps some fun
A thousand pounds was on his head, with Gilbert and John Dunn
Ben parted from his comrades, the outlaws did agree
To give away bushranging and to cross the briny sea.

Ben went to Goobang Creek, and that was his downfall
For riddled like a sieve was valiant Ben Hall
'Twas early in the morning upon the fifth of May
When seven police surrounded him as fast asleep he lay.

Bill Dargin he was chosen to shoot the outlaw dead
The troopers then fired madly, and filled him full of lead
They rolled him in a blanket and strapped him to his prad
And led him through the streets of Forbes to show the prize they had."

That last line is not strictly true although it is true that the body of Hall was inspected by large numbers of locals who cut off pieces of his hair for souvenirs. It is also true that Will Ogilvie, a much better poet than "anon" who wrote The Streets of Forbes, wrote a touching ballad titled The Saplings about Hall's death.
The Forbes Visitor Centre has an excellent and detailed brochure on Ben Hall titled 'I'm wounded, shoot me dead.'

Gum Swamp
The Gum Swamp Bird Hide is located 4 km south of Forbes on the Newell Highway and is a wetland sanctuary for at least 158 bird species. It is a breeding and nesting area and a refuge in drought conditions. There is a hide at the edge of the swamp. Not surprisingly, the best viewing times are at sunrise and sunset.

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History

* The area was occupied by the Wiradjuri Aboriginal people prior to white settlement.

* In 1817 a party led by the Surveyor General, John Oxley, camped near the town. Oxley named the site 'Camp Hill'. He was unimpressed with the clay soil, poor timber and swamps. He described the land as 'it is impossible to imagine a worse country'.

* A run named 'Bogabigal' was occupied in the district around 1834 but settlement was slow.

* Gold was discovered by Harry Stephens in June, 1861 at what is now named King George V Park.

* By 1862 there were 30,000 people on the Lachlan goldfields. The tent city was initially known as 'Black Ridge', after the ironbarks in the area, but by 1861 it had been  renamed 'Forbes'.

* The town's first hotel was the Albion which was reputed to have sold the greatest quantity of alcohol in Australia through the 1860s.

* Between 1861-1863 an estimated 8100 kg of gold was mined in the district.

* By 1863 the goldrush was over. The population had declined to 3,500 as miners moved away due to the small returns from alluvial claims and seepage into mine shafts from the Lachlan River.

* Between 1862-1865 bushrangers, including Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall and Johnnie Gilbert, ranged through the area harassing the gold escorts and wealthy miners.

* On 5 May, 1865 Ben Hall was shot and killed near Forbes.

* By the mid-1860s French settlers J.B. Reymond and Auguste Nicolas had developed a weir and irrigation system, established the town's first sawmill (1861) and the first vineyard and winery.

* Forbes was declared a municipality in 1870.

* It is claimed that the first sheepdog trial in Australia, and possibly the world, was held in Forbes in 1872.

* The railway reached the town in 1893.

* The Wyangala Dam was completed in 1935.

* Today Forbes has a population of nearly 10,000 in the shire.

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Visitor Information

Forbes Railway Arts & Visitor Centre, Railway Station, Union Street, tel: (02) 6852 4155. Open daily from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm.

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Useful Websites

There is a good local website. Check out http://www.forbes.nsw.gov.au for additional information about the town.

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Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

4 suggestions
  • Where was, or is, the Miners Arms, Bushmans Lead, Forbes district. One of my ancestors was the licencee in 1871, Thomas Hand. He was transported in 1836 for stealing a barrel of beer!!!

    Mike Leonard
    • My ancestor was married at “The South Lead, Forbes” by William Fox Parker, Registrar, according to the Registration Act. Was this in one of the earlier courthouses?

      David Keppie
      • Hi David Keppie,

        I also have an ancestor married in South Lead Forbes in 1862. When was your ancestor married? Also, was the Registrar’s name found on the certificate or did you find that through other sources?
        Any help would be greatly appreciated.

        Maree Langburne
  • What happened to the Royal Hotel? Does it have another name or been upgraded?

    Elizabeth Maher-Hedges