Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 6, 2009

Robbery Under Arms (1882), by Rolf Boldrewood

Robbery Under ArmsRobbery Under Arms, described by author Rolf Boldrewood as ‘ Australian romance’ , was written in 1888 and I’m reading it as an all Australian classic for the Classics Challenge.  My copy for reading comes thanks to Project Gutenberg Australia.  It reads surprisingly well for its age.

It’s  interesting, right from the start.  Dick Marston, 29 years old,  is due to die in 29 days, for shooting a policeman and robbery under arms.

Why should I curse the day?  Why do I lie here, groaning; yes, crying like a child, and beating my head against the stone floor? I am not mad, though I am shut up in a cell.  No.  Better for me if I was. But it’s all up now; there’s no get away this time; and I, Dick Marston, as strong as a bullock, as active as a rock-wallaby, chock-full of life and spirits and health, have been tried for bush-ranging — robbery under arms they call it — and though the blood runs through my veins like the water in the mountain creeks, and every bit of bone and sinew is as sound as the day I was born, I must die on the gallows this day month. (Chapter 1)

He likens his plight to bullocks awaiting slaughter, with the crucial difference that he knows his fate beforehand.  This has always seemed to me to be one of the most appalling aspects of capital punishment to which I am implacably opposed, in all circumstances.

Would he have felt his regrets had he not been sentenced to death?  C19th literature is often didactic, and Dick – while more than a little proud of his exploits  – recognises the folly of the choices he made.

There’s no saying it isn’t; no, nor thinking what a fool, what a blind, stupid, thundering idiot a fellow’s been, to laugh at the steady working life that would have helped him up, bit by bit, to a good farm, a good wife, and innocent little kids about him, like that chap, George Storefield, that came to see me last week. He was real rightdown sorry for me, I could tell, though Jim and I used to laugh at him, and call him a regular old crawler of a milker’s calf in the old days.  The tears came into his eyes reg’lar like a woman as he gave my hand a squeeze and turned his head away.  (Chapter 1)

Yet even when he is told to prepare to meet his maker, he’s not willing to repent:

Prepare!  How was a man like me to prepare?  I’d done everything I’d a mind to for years and years.  Some good things — some bad — mostly bad. How was I to repent?  Just to say I was sorry for them. I wasn’t that particular sorry either — that was the worst of it. A deal of the old life was dashed good fun, and I’d not say, if I had the chance, that I wouldn’t do just the same over again. (Chapter 51)

Reading is no solace for Dick, for he would ‘run [his] head against the wall, or do something like a madman’ at descriptions of places and people he would never see again, and the authorities had to take the books away.  A kindly gaoler lets him have some paper to record his story instead, in circumstances entirely different to McIvor in Rules for Old Men Waiting but with the same sense of time running out.

What follows, however, shows little sense of repentance or empathy with those he had wronged.

Dick’s thesis for his life of crime is that it was his fate, and once embroiled, it  was impossible to escape.  His father Ben Marston was a poacher transported from England, and with his emigrant wife set up a small farm.  He seems to have been industrious at first, but hardship got the better of him, and he is determined on revenge – for it broke his mother’s heart when he was transported.  (This attitute prefigures Dick’s: crime and the associated broken hearts are the fault of the authorities, not the individual who committed the crime. )  The Marston marriage was a ‘mixed’ one in the days when there was tension between Catholics and Protestant, but Dick doesn’t think that one form of religion or another has anything to do with a propensity for crime.   He knows both Protestants and Catholics who were hung for murder.    He thinks he was fated to the life he has led.

What chance the boys had to make a better life died when their teacher Mr Howard was found dead in his bed one morning.  Before long they had joined their father in cattle-duffing, much to the dismay of their mother.    They, along with the Dalys and the Jacksons, become the talk of the district, though the Storefields see the good in him when Dick rescues their child from drowning.  Mrs Storefield promises to be ‘a friend and a mother to you as long as I live, even if you turn out bad’ and George offers the boys steady work, though Dick sneers at this.  He’s more interested in having ‘fun’ and brother Jim, out of loyalty rejects the offer too.   There is a crucial moment when Dick’s sister Aileen almost ‘turns him’ over this – she even offers to convert to Protestantism if he will stand up to his father and go straight – but Jim comes rushing in with exciting news of cattle in the distance, the moment passes and his course is set.  (Chapter 3)

Their first major crime was to join the notorious ‘Starlight’ in the theft of a huge mob of calves from the local squatters. Once they lead the cattle down a perilous hidden track to Terrible Hollow  there’s no turning back, even for Jim who’s beginning to think he would rather lead an honest life.  Just knowing about the location is perilous: a man was killed when he talked of telling.   But when a colt foaled from one of Mr Maxwell’s stolen thoroughbreds is offered as a lure, impulsive Jim can’t resist, even though that instantly recognisable horse is risky.  Dick is more astute about the company he now keeps: he sees a lock of woman’s hair and a bloodstained dress, and knows that the ‘name of Terrible Hollow might not have been given to this lonely, wonderful glen for nothing’. (Chapter 6)

Dick feels no sense of repentance, but neither does he blame anyone but himself, although he recognises his father’s role in his folly.  (Even Starlight wonders why Ben Marston has involved his sons in such a risky endeavour.)  But Dick seems to think that there is a kind of inevitability in his actions, as if they are predetermined by fate or heredity.

Some people can work away day after day, and year after year, like a bullock in a team or a horse in a chaff-cutting machine.  It’s all the better for them if they can, though I suppose they never enjoy themselves except in a cold-blooded sort of way.  But there’s other men that can’t do that sort of thing, and it’s no use talking.  They must have life and liberty and a free range. There’s some birds, and animals too, that either pine in a cage or kill themselves, and I suppose it’s the same way with some men. They can’t stand the cage of what’s called honest labour, which means working for some one else for twenty or thirty years, never having a day to yourself, or doing anything you like, and saving up a trifle for your old age when you can’t enjoy it. I don’t wonder youngsters break traces and gallop off like a colt out of a team. (Chapter 9)

and later on

But after all I’ve a notion that men and women grow up as they are intended to from the beginning.  All the same as a tree from seed. You may twist it this road or that, make it a bit bigger or smaller according to the soil or the way it’s pruned and cut down when it’s young, but you won’t alter the nature of that tree or the fruit that it bears.  (chapter 33)


Whereas Jim, the youngest,  had ‘that kind of big, frolicsome, loving way with him, like a Newfoundland pup about half-grown,’  Dick grows sulky and sullen, with a resentment against rich squatters that is exacerbated by the coming drought and the hardships it portends.  There are many who try to set him straight, from George Storefield to Herbert Falkland, but once the boys get involved in gambling at the shearing, they have little choice when their father sends five pounds and instructions to be on the lookout for him.  Jim’s horse symbolises both the noose around their necks and a chance of redemption … it raises suspicions at the shearing shed, but it’s on that horse that Jim rescues Herbert Falkland’s daughter on a runaway mare and their gratitude offers hope of a new start.   Then the summons comes from the boys’ father, and although they hesitate, torn between wanting to continue with honest work and the prospect of a good cheque at Christmas, they toss a coin to determine their fate, and their doom is inevitable.

The heist is completed, and the men go their separate ways, the boys hiding out in Adelaide first, and then Melbourne where they have a jolly good time with their newfound riches and ‘fall for’ their landlady’s daughters.  Before long, however news gets into the papers and they leave for home in a panic.  There they learn that Starlight is in New Zealand, and that they themselves have little to fear from the police.  Once again the contrast between a steady life and the life they lead is obvious: Dick is miffed to see that George has expanded his farm and improved his house while despite the money they’ve got from their part in the crime, their own property has deteriorated.  As ever Dick is wracked by doubts about the path he has chosen, not out of any sense of morality but because it impacts on his family and their sense of safety and security – even to the extent that Aileen dare not accept the love of George out of shame.  This love is not enough to make them give up the game, but time and again it is love of their mother and sister that makes the boys risk capture…

Despite the ambiguity of Dick’s remorse, it is hard not to feel for him in gaol…

What I suffered in that first time no tongue can tell.  I can’t bear now to think of it and put it down.  The solitary part of it was enough to drive any man mad that had been used to a free life.  Day after day, night after night, the same and the same and the same over again.

 Then the dark cells.  I got into them for a bit.  I wasn’t always as cool as I might be — more times that mad with myself that I could have smashed my own skull against the wall, let alone any one else’s. There was one of the warders I took a dislike to from the first, and he to me, I don’t doubt.  I thought he was rough and surly.  He thought I wanted to have my own way, and he made it up to take it out of me, and run me every way he could.  We had a goodish spell of fighting over it, but he gave in at last.  Not but what I’d had a lot to bear, and took a deal of punishment before he jacked up.  I needn’t have had it. It was all my own obstinacy and a sort of dogged feeling that made me feel I couldn’t give in.  I believe it done me good, though.  I do really think I should have gone mad else, thinking of the dreadful long months and years that lay before me without a chance of getting out.

Sometimes I’d take a low fit and refuse my food, and very near give up living altogether.  The least bit more, and I’d have died outright.(Chapter 19)

His sentence is only five years, but he can’t bear it and so takes the first opportunity to escape.  It’s not giving anything away to tell you this, because he tells us in the first chapter that he has killed a policeman. In fact he does quite a bit of foreshadowing of events which all adds to the tension of the tale.

Rolf Boldrewood There are racist remarks made here and there (and not just about indigenous people) which grate on a modern sensibility.  Whether Boldrewood used them intentionally as his characters would have or in irony or whether it was his normal view of the world I am not sure.  Warrigal the Aboriginal is a nasty piece of work, but so are the others.  He is loyal to his friend and mentor Starlight, and his mean streak seems no worse than anyone else’s.  The characterisation of the most of the women betrays the book’s period too, for they are idealised into near-sainthood, especially Aileen who is intelligent, educated and hard-working, but always good.  This gets to be a bit tiresome after a while, especially when we see her exclaim ‘Why, oh why, didn’t we all die when we were little children!’ (Chapter 21) as if she is responsible for her brothers’ crimes.  (Kate Morrison, on the other hand, is a real termagant.)

Robbery Under Arms filmIt’s interesting to see that while Boldrewood is clearly interested in exploring ideas about remorse, repentance and regret, modern adaptations for film and TV seem to project this story as an adventure.  The ABC Shop trailer describes it as ‘the classic tale of Australia’s most colourful outlaw!’ –  and lavish adventure tale set in the rugged Australian outback.  Ben Masterton has metamorphosed into a ‘bush larrikin’  and the boys have apparently lost their doubts to become ‘two adventure-hungry sons’ .[1]  I haven’t seen these films, but I wonder if they also portray the boys’ dawning realisation that Terrible Hollow is a false Eden, and that the men become bored, drinking too much of Father’s brandy and abandoning their prudent plans to lie low.  I suspect that the films focus on the excitement of the gold rush and the opportunities it brought for bushrangers when the rules of normal life were suspended.   Boldrewood, writing about the diggings at Turon near Bathurst some years after Eureka in 1854, comments on unrest over mining licences, and his character rejoices in the general lawlessness, the huge influx of prospectors who make it easier for him to hide from the police and the authorities’ fear of losing control.

The Government was afraid of there being tremendous fights and riots at the diggings, because there was all sorts of people there, English and French, Spaniards and Italians, natives and Americans, Greeks and Germans, Swedes and negroes, every sort and kind of man from every country in the world seemed to come after a bit. But they needn’t have been frightened at the diggers.  As far as we saw they were the sensiblest lot of working men we ever laid eyes on; not at all inclined to make a row for nothing — quite the other way. But the shutting off of public-houses led to sly grog tents, where they made the digger pay a pound a bottle for his grog, and didn’t keep it very good either. (Chapter 24)

Starlight, the leader of the gang, it seems, is the father figure that Dick would like to have.  He admires Starlight’s cleverness in planning raids, his bravado as an impostor selling other men’s horses, and his courtesy with women.   He takes pride in being part of this successful gang, likes making a fool of the hapless police,  and enjoys the notoriety of being involved in the biggest bank robbery in the district.  It’s is Starlight’s opinion that matters – not his father’s – when the idea of Melbourne, now also rich with gold from the diggings, is first mooted.  Ben Marston is against it, because the Hollow is secure, but Dick is restless, and wants to be somewhere where he can spend his money.  It is Dick’s admiration for Starlight as much as any other kind of jealousy that makes Ben Marston take risks that put the gang in peril, as if in a macabre competition to be the more brazen of the two.   The risks pile up when the boys  – making money in a honest way at the diggings on the Turon and hobnobbing with all and sundry because new police don’t know them – are recognised by Kate Morrison, an old flame from Melbourne.  In the same way that they fear Warrigal’s animosity, they fear betrayal by Kate, for she has good reason to be angry with them.

But Jeannie has come up from Melbourne too and before long she and Jim have had a grand wedding and settle down in a little cottage. Old dreams of living a settled life blinding Dick and Jim to the reality that they are still wanted men.  Indeed, Dick compares himself and his brother most favourably to some of the ruffians on the diggings, overlooking the fact that the gang has caused terror and heartbreak in every robbery.  He blames temptation for their behaviour:

We were not what might be called highly respectable people ourselves — still, men like us are only half-and-half bad, like a good many more in this world. They’re partly tempted into doing wrong by opportunity, and kept back by circumstances from getting into the straight track afterwards. But on every goldfield there’s scores and scores of men that always hurry off there like crows and eagles to a carcass to see what they can rend and tear and fatten upon.  They ain’t very particular whether it’s the living or the dead, so as they can gorge their fill. There was a good many of this lot at the Turon, and though the diggers gave them a wide berth, and helped to run them down when they’d committed any crime, they couldn’t be kept out of sight and society altogether. (Chapter 29)

And all the while George Storefield who they used to mock as a dull fellow has been making steady progress up the social ladder.  He’s now sitting as a magistrate and is best mates with the Commissioner…

Betrayal, and constant fear of it, is part of the life of a criminal.  On the one hand Dick tells us that he has plenty of friends who will help him avoid the authorities, but women give him trouble – not least of all Kate when she discovers that Dick’s heart lies with Gracey Storefield.  (Chapter 30)  Love doesn’t serve them any better, though, because it’s Jim’s love of his woman that makes him take one risk too many, and it’s Dick’s love for his brother that leads to the fatal shot.  The escalation in violence after that is inevitable, and there’s a hollowness about Dick’s claim that the gang did its best for the wounded after the holdup of the gold coach.  From this point on – though they were as much imprisoned at the Hollow as they would have been in gaol, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for any of them, especially when Dick likens their life of crime to a war, as if there were some kind of honour about it.

We were all sorry for Sergeant Hawkins, and would have been better pleased if he’d been only wounded like the others. But these sorts of things couldn’t be helped.  It was the fortune of war; his luck this time, ours next.  (Chapter 35)

Is this Boldrewood’s point of view too?  Ours is a country that has lionised Ned Kelly as a kind of hero, as if the murder of policemen can be legitimised by faults in a justice system or inequity of some other kind.  It bothers me when I hear children at school say that Ned Kelly was a good man because he stole from the rich to give to the poor, as if he were an antipodean Robin Hood…

Although there is loyalty within in the gang, Ben Marston’s jealousy of Starlight is toxic, and his crimes shock even the gang, especially when they realise they’ll be blamed for it.  Nevertheless, the lure of a normal life – attending Bella Barnes’ wedding and a day at the races – brings them out of hiding, albeit in disguise.  The plot begins to strain credulity a bit as they get away with one ruse after another, everybody behaves in a very gentlemanly way, they are welcomed wherever they go as if they were just lads undertaking larks and even Gracie Storefield agrees to marry Dick if only they have ‘ a chance, a reasonable chance, of living peaceably and happily’. (Chapter 47)

Perhaps Boldrewood was a campaigner for penal reform?  The denouement seems to suggest so.  His character Aileen puts it thus:

Oh! how dreadful it seems to think that when once a man has sinned in some ways in this world there’s no turning back — no hope — no mercy — only long bitter years of prison life — worse than death; or, if anything can be worse, a felon’s death; a doom dark and terrible, dishonouring to those that die and to those that live.

Robbery Under Arms is a beaut read that stands the test of time.  I really enjoyed this book!

Author: Rolf Boldrewood
TitleRobbery Under Arms
First published in serialised form by The Sydney Mail between July 1882 and August 1883, then in three volumes in London in 1888. It was abridged into a single volume in 1889 as part of Macmillan‘s one-volume Colonial Library series. (Source: Wikipedia).
Source:  Project Gutenberg Australia.



  1. […] I haven’t given up, I’ve just been been busy reading Robbery Under Arms for the Classics Reading Challenge.  I have 140 Daily Lit episodes to go and I’m going to […]


  2. […] work narrated from a prison cell, is Robbery Under Arms, by Rolf Boldrewood.  Written in colonial Australia in 1888, the novel tells the story of Dick […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: