Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Ben Hall and the Streets of Forbes

Ben Hall

Martyn Wyndham-Read sung this song on his 1966 album Australian Songs. Here is a recent YouTube recording. Martin Carthy recorded the song in 1968 and indicates that he learned it from Trevor Lucas (of Fairport Convention).

Trevor left Australia for the UK in 1964, and most likely took this song with him.  Danny Spooner also made this fabulous recording in 1974.

Several of the folk revival recordings indicate that the song may have been written by Ben Hall’s brother-in-law, John McGuire. There is also mention that John Manifold may have been involved in the collection of the song.  Here are the lyrics as sung in most versions (variance in brackets):


Come all of you Lachlan men and a sorrowful tale I’ll tell,

Concerning of a bushranger (hero bold) who through misfortune fell.

His name it was Ben Hall, a man of good renown,

Who was hunted from his homestead and like a dog shot down.


For 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

For to give away bushrangin’ and cross the raging 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 all on the fifth of May,

When the seven police surrounded him as in his sleep he lay.


Bill Dungan he was chosen for to shoot the outlaw dead.

All the others fired madly as though they were afraid,

Then they rolled (bundled) him in the blanket and strapped him to his prad,

And they led him through the streets of Forbes for to show the prize they had.


Thanks to the searchability of the newspaper catalogue, I was able to find this version, published in the Truth, Sydney, in April 1911. It appears to be a printing of part of a larger work called A Wild Colonial Boy by John McGuire. There are manuscripts in the NSW State Library, which indicate that McGuire possibly died before the full book could be published.



I will now give my readers a true account of Ben Hall and the shooting of him, and a few verses which I now give upon the episode of poor Ben: —


Come all you highwaymen, a sorrowful tale I’ll tell,

Concerning of a hero, who through misfortune fell;

His name it was Ben Hall, a chap of great renown,

He was hunted from his station, like a native dog shot down.


On the fifth of May, when parting from

His comrades all along the highway,

It was at the Wedding Mountains those three outlaws did agree

Too give up bushranging, and cross the briny sea.


Then going to the billabong,

which was his cruel downfall,

And riddled like a sieve was that hero, Ben Hall;


It was early in the morning, before the break of day,

The police, they surrounded him as fast asleep he lay.

The tracker, he was chosen to fire the fatal shot,

The rest then they rounded him to secure the prize they got;


They threw him on his horse, and strapped him like a swag,

And led him through the streets of Forbes, to show the prize they had.


Undoubtably this 1911 song is the origin of the one picked up in the 1960s. I have had a go at singing it here, only needing to shuffle a bit of the ‘Fifth of May’ verse to make it singable.

So the question now, is who messed with the words between 1911 and 1966? John Manifold was born in Australia, but joined the Communist Party while at Cambridge in the UK before WWII. He returned to Australia in 1949 and published a number of books on Australian Folk song. Possibly ironically, one of them was called ‘Who Wrote the Ballads’.

Did John Manifold find the 1911 words in his research and then clean it up a bit and then pass it off as something he heard from a girl in a pub? Or maybe the collection story is true, and it was just the folk process that added some very specific detail about places, names and dates that were missing from the original ballad.

The notes to the publication in the 1976 Bushwackers songbook suggest that naming Billy Dargin (Bill Dugan) might have even led to his death.  This blog gives more background on the facts of the death of Ben Hall as they relate to the ballad, and also repeats the claim that John Meredith heard the song from a girl called Ewell in the back room of a Brisbane pub.

Part of this 1978 biography of John Manifold indicates that he was listening to pub ballads in Brisbane in 1951. This source says that Mrs Ewell was from Bathurst.


This part of the additional lines is interesting:

For 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.

In his blog here, David Lewell fills in the gap by lining Franke Clune to a 1948 version that includes the additional verse above (but without the reference to ‘traps’ (police)). There is also some of the usual excellent discourse on the song and its origins on Mudcat. In that thread, Bob Bolton, points out that some of the ‘added facts’ are actually incorrect, at least in the case of Goobang Creek.

So ultimately no clear answer, except that it is likely that Franke Clune is responsible for the bulk of the ‘polishing’ of John McGuire’s original.









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