Tragedy at Collector: John Dunn and Constable Nelson

At the beginning of 1865 the Ben Hall Gang were the most wanted men in Australia. Their success on the roads was problematic and they were nigh on untouchable. However, after a failed coach robbery in Black Springs resulting in Johnny Gilbert killing Sergeant Edmund Parry, the gang now had to tread carefully. The new recruit John Dunn was working out splendidly, taking to his role with a natural gift that saw him very quickly gain equal notoriety to his colleagues. Things were about to become far more serious as the gang descended upon Thomas Kimberly’s Inn in Collector on the outskirts of their usual beat on January 26, 1865.

Hall and company had held up some drays earlier that day and had been helping themselves to the grog when John Dunn spotted young Harry Nelson on his way back home from Taradale. Dunn stuck up the hapless boy and took him to join the other victims once he had been searched. The gang were informed that Harry was the son of Constable Nelson and then proceeded towards Collector gathering more prisoners as they went. In the early afternoon, Hall, Gilbert and Dunn arrived at Kimberly’s Inn on horseback and forced Harry Nelson to hold their horses. Harry was told in no uncertain terms that he was to hold the horses or have his brains blown out, likely by Gilbert whose taste for the dramatic was well known by this point. When Thomas Kimberly was roused he went to the door and was greeted by the not-so-cheery sight of a pepperbox revolver aimed at his chest. The gang proceeded to round up the occupants of the building and add them to the existing number of victims. Hall and Gilbert went inside to ransack the rooms while Dunn emptied the pockets and purses of the captives outside and kept watch. Inside the inn Hall searched the rooms upstairs with a servant named Eliza Mensey who was equipped with the keys while Gilbert raided the stores. The bushranger and the servant girl conversed for a time and Hall procured Kimberly’s gun stash and between himself and Gilbert took £26 worth of items consisting mostly of men’s and boy’s clothes and boots.

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John Dunn

Unfortunately for the bushrangers word slipped out about what was happening at the hotel and worked its way into town where it reached thirty eight year old Constable Samuel Nelson, the lock-up keeper and solitary officer in town formerly of Moreton Bay. Nelson had been repeatedly frustrated in his duties by the refusal of the police force to provide him with reinforcements in an attempt to nail the Hall gang, thus had avowed to do his best to fulfill the duty of capturing the bandits alone. Nelson had served in the New South Wales police force for just over seven years after arriving from England in 1855. His dedication to his civic duty was never more conspicuous as it was on this day. With his colleagues out of town searching for the bandits, Nelson took it upon himself to sort out the happenings at the inn. Fetching up his carbine with bayonet attached, he marched to the inn telling his wife Elizabeth “Now, I’m just going to do my best”.

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Kimberly’s Inn still exists now as the Bushranger Hotel and has changed little since that fateful day in 1865 (Source)

Meanwhile at Kimberly’s Inn, John Dunn was acting as a sentry. He had already scared off Mr. Edwards the clerk of Petty Sessions with a few parting shots and was feeling on edge. He hollered for his companions to come downstairs as police were coming but when Ben Hall appeared, armed with two revolvers, he dismissed Dunn’s worries and said “You can manage it, Jack” before returning to his business upstairs. Much younger than his colleagues in crime, Dunn was slight and spry, qualities that had served him well as a jockey and bush telegraph for Gilbert previously. Unfortunately on this day he was also unusually agitated and his nervousness showed in his erratic behaviour. He mounted his horse and roamed the perimeter before returning to Harry Nelson and ordering him to hold the horses. Dismounting, Dunn crouched behind the fence with a shotgun and revolver.

Constable Nelson

On the way to the inn Constable Nelson crossed paths with his eighteen year old son Frederick who followed a short distance behind. Just before dusk Nelson arrived at the inn and upon sighting Dunn presented his rifle. Dunn ordered Nelson to stand or be shot. Nelson was not about to be cowed by bushrangers on this day and continued on, cocking the rifle. As he aimed at Dunn, the bushranger fired at him with a shotgun, twenty odd pieces of hot lead hitting Nelson in the chest lacerating the heart and perforating the liver and causing a hideous wound down to his stomach, which was visible through the hole. The constable staggered onto the road dropping his carbine with an exclamation of “Oh!” whereupon Dunn fired again with his pistol and the bullet hit Nelson in the left side of the face killing him instantly. Spotting Frederick Nelson near the fence Dunn hollered for him to stand but the boy, still in shock, bolted. Dunn reeled off a shot at the retreating lad but missed.

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Constable Nelson (Gerrard Woodward) with his son Frederick (Caleb McClure) as portrayed in The Legend of Ben Hall

Roused by the gunfire, Hall and Gilbert emerged from the inn and saw Nelson’s body on the path in a pool of blood and gore. Dunn darted back to the inn, greatly agitated and told Hall and Gilbert “I’ve shot one of the bloody traps, the other has bolted.” Hall and Gilbert went over to investigate the fallen officer. The bushrangers searched Nelson, Gilbert stripping him of his belt stating “It’s just what I wanted, I’ve burst mine”. Dunn took up Nelson’s carbine leaving the body on the road. Once the bandits had left the body was taken inside the inn where an inquest was held. While on the run the bushrangers discarded two of the shotguns stolen from the inn under a tree where they were soon retrieved.

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A monument to the tragedy at Collector (Source)

It wasn’t long before John Dunn too had a price on his head. This dreadful turn of events would lead Dunn to the scaffold the following year thus closing the epic saga of the Lachlan bushrangers.

When Dunn was finally brought to justice, his judge Sir Alfred Stephen, stated:

Was it nothing to you to shoot brutally, and murder a poor man like that? Talk of bravery- I know no greater bravery than was displayed on this occasion by Constable Nelson. The town was deserted by the police, who had been put upon a wrong scent, and he was left alone. A little girl tells him the bushrangers are at Kimberley’s and what does he do? ‘I will go down and see what I can do alone’, such a sentiment can only be equaled by his namesake, who expected ‘every man to do his duty.’ Nelson went to do his duty, and met his death; it was a most brutal murder, and it is impossible for anyone to sympathize with you. The unhappy man is not only shot dead, but you at once return to your companions, and the others who were at your peril and made use of the most filthy expressions, you talk in this beastly and insulting way to men whom you had covered by revolvers, and firearms pointed at their heads, spoke to them insultingly when they were helpless- That was your courage and here is your bravery.


Selected Sources:

“INQUEST ON CONSTABLE NELSON.” Sydney Mail (NSW : 1860 – 1871) 4 February 1865: 6.

“BUSHRANGING DAYS” The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal (NSW : 1888 – 1954) 29 January 1932: 1.

“COMMITTAL OF DUNN THE OUTLAW FOR THE MURDER OF CONSTABLE NELSON.” Empire (Sydney, NSW : 1850 – 1875) 13 February 1866: 3.

4 thoughts on “Tragedy at Collector: John Dunn and Constable Nelson

  1. Not quite the story I was told in 1959 by the constables at Collector nor does it tally with the day book. Had further discussion with the single constable who was resident at Collector in 1967. Not prepared to go into this further here but you can reach me by email if you are interested. It gives a different twist which is very plausible . I was researching some of the Ben Hall/Frank Gardiner history at the time.

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    1. True, perhaps “on the outskirts of Ben Hall country” would have been a more apt statement as the centre of the gang’s operations was around Forbes and Collector actually sits closer to Clarke territory north of Braidwood.

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