The Bank of Australia was established in 1826, in competition with the Bank of New South Wales. It was located in the Joseph Underwood buildings, in lower George Street.
On Sunday, September 15 1828 a cashier was horrified to discover a gaping hole in the bank’s vault and several cash boxes missing, The missing money amounted to around thirteen thousand pounds, an enormous sum at the time.
Further investigation revealed that the robbers had managed to tunnel their way in. Their picks and crowbars had been left behind, along with a tinder box, and several empty rum bottles.
It turned out that the bank had made a fatal mistake when constructing the basement strong room by employing a convict stonemason, Thomas Turner. Co-incidentally, Turner had also worked on a sewer drain, located between the bank and the Keep Within Compass Hotel. Knowing the drain ran below the bank’s basement, the temptation to plan a heist was impossible for him to resist.
Turner was well aware he would be a suspect, so he recruited a team of excons, including James Dingle, George Farrell, blacksmith William Blackstone, and John Creighton. Creighton also had inside knowledge, because he was a slater, and had laid the floor of the strong room. William Blackstone’s skills were used to forge special tools for the job.
Every Saturday for several weeks the men entered the drain, then hacked away at the five foot (1.5 metres) thick floor below the vault until they broke through on September 15.
The robbery had serious implications. Governor Darling feared it would undermine confidence in the financial security of the fledgling colony. He offered to pardon any convict who provided information leading to the conviction of those involved. A substantial reward was offered immediately by the bank, and increased shortly afterwards.
In addition to the reward already offered by the Bank of Australia, of One Hundred Pounds and a Free Passage to England, together with the Absolute Pardon , to any Prisoner of the Crown, promised by His EXCELLENCY the GOVERNOR, on the apprehension and Conviction of any Person or Persons concerned in the the Robbery of the Bank, the Directors further offer a Reward of Five Per Cent, on the Amount of all Notes or Coin recovered, and delivered up to the Managing Director, THOMAS McVITIE, Managing Director, Bank of Australia 23rd September, 1828
Numbers of the missing bank notes were published, which meant the robbers could really only spend coinage.
Some of the proceeds of the robbery were recovered from various ‘stashes’ in the months that followed , but although the authorities had their suspicious about various men, no arrests were made.
It would be two years before the promise of a pardon led to one of the conspirators informing on the others. Despite having received his share of the loot, the blacksmith William Blackstone eventually committed another offence (highway robbery) and was sent off to the hellish prison of Norfolk Island. He agreed to tell the whole story, and was returned to Sydney.
Farrell, Woodward and Dingle were tried and convicted. Creighton had already died and another gang member had left the country. Blackstone did not name the mastermind Thomas Turner, who was never charged.
And did the pardoned Blackstone go back to Mother England as a free man on a free ticket? Well, no. He passed on the passage ‘home’. That was unwise, as just before he was meant to collect the reward the silly fellow offended again and was sentenced to life in exile. Some crims are just incorrigible.
WHERE IS THE MISSING MONEY?
As is often the case, rumours lingered about what happened to the outstanding loot. In 1893 a woman came forward with information from her late husband that it had been buried near Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, in the Domain. Premier Sir George Dibbs authorized an excavation, but nothing was found.
The bank did recover from its losses in the robbery. However, during a worse crisis less than twenty years later the Bank of Australia went bust.