William Suttor, Ralph Entwistle and the Ribbon Boys
Author Michael Adams
Australia’s strangest convict uprising began with a skinny dip — and ended with a mass hanging that would go down in the history books.
Our white colonial history is richly embroidered with romantic stories of good-hearted bushrangers who aspired to be Robin Hood-style figures leading rebellions against unjust authority.
But while numerous outlaws have been celebrated this way, the antihero actually deserving of this status has been all but forgotten: Ralph Entwistle.
Entwistle was born in 1804 in Bolton, a mill town near Manchester, England.
In his early adolescence, he was apprenticed to a bricklayer, likely for a period of seven years. Given the modest skill involved in the trade, this was little more than lowly paid indentured servitude.
In 1826, now a tall 22-year-old with sandy hair and grey eyes, Entwistle and a mate broke into a house and stole some clothes. Chances are, they hoped to sell them. Instead, they were caught.
Though they’d allegedly committed the crime together, the mate was found not guilty for lack of evidence. Entwistle wasn’t so lucky; he was convicted. And luck really wasn’t on his side when it came to sentencing.
Entwistle was transported for life to the penal colony of New South Wales.
But first, like his fellow convicts, he’d await this journey on one of the rotting hulks anchored in the Thames.
These privately run prison ships were hell on water.
By day, ill-nourished and often diseased convicts did hard and dangerous dock and river work.
By night, they lived in dark, cramped, cold and wet conditions in which they brutalised each other and were brutalised by guards.
After spending four months on a hulk, Entwistle was assigned to the convict ship John, which sailed on July 22, 1827 carrying 188 convicts. John spent four months at sea enduring harsh conditions before he landed in Sydney on the November 25.
Entwistle was assigned to John Lipscombe, a prosperous grazier with a property near Bathurst. Now the newly arrived convict faced another daunting journey.
Bathurst was 225 kilometres away, across the rugged Blue Mountains, which had only been crossed by white men some 15 years earlier.
It’d be a tough journey, but Entwistle had actually struck it lucky. Land owners like Lipscombe depended on the convict labourers assigned to them and, generally speaking, treated them better than other masters whose livelihoods weren’t so tied to the wellbeing of their servants.
Journeying to Bathurst, Entwistle saw the enormity of his new home.
The bush, ridges and valleys stretched forbiddingly in all directions. Step into it and it’d swallow you up. Try to escape and you’d likely starve, die of thirst, fall from one of the many precipices, succumb to the poison of a deadly snake or perhaps be speared by Aborigines.
Back then Bathurst was a small cluster of huts around government buildings arranged near on the east side of the Macquarie River. Lipscombe’s property was 19km southwest from this hardscrabble village.
While it was blazing hot in summer, freezing in winter and the work was hard, compared with a prison hulk or the abysmal conditions at sea, Entwistle’s new life was good.
He could even see a future for himself. While he’d been sentenced to life, the colony needed free men to tame the land and make it productive. Incentive came in the form of ticket-of-leave. This was a form of parole — including the freedom to work, marry and own property — granted to convicts who’d proved themselves with good behaviour. The rule for lifers like Entwistle was he’d have to serve 12 to 14 years before he was eligible for a ticket-of-leave. But the reality in the Bathurst region appeared to be very different.
The story goes that by September 1829, Entwistle was under the impression he was about to earn his ticket-of-leave. Before he got his freedom, Liscombe asked him to do one last job. Entwistle and another convict were to take a bullock dray (a truck or cart without sides) loaded with wool bales over the Blue Mountains to Sydney.
There they would sell the produce, buy supplies for the station and make the return trip.
The journey wouldn’t be an easy one.
It was close to a 483km return trip, much of it on dusty, rocky or muddy tracks over mountains. There, a bullock dray could easily go out of control and over a cliff. They might also be bailed up by bushrangers. Any one of dozens of things might go wrong. Yet fulfilling this mission was part of Entwistle proving himself worthy of freedom, worthy of a place in society.
He set out on a hot day in early November. On the track east, Entwistle and his partner were joined by another pair of convicts taking another dray loaded with wool bales to Sydney.
The Skinny Dip and Governor Darling
As the sun sank behind them on this hot afternoon, these men reached the Macquarie River. The water was cool and inviting and the men decided to have a swim before they made camp and had their supper. They stripped off and plunged into the river. But as they splashed about, they heard voices and the clutter of hoofs and the creak of carriage wheels.
About 91 metres away, at a Little River crossing, they saw Lieutenant-General Governor Sir Ralph Darling’s convoy, escorted by uniformed soldiers, making its way to Bathurst.
The naked men ducked and dived and hid themselves in the reeds and shadows of trees on the river bank.
Governor Darling — the colony’s ruler and representative of His Majesty King George the Fourth — appeared to pass by without him or his soldiers spotting the skinny dippers. Yet another official had also converged on that spot on the river at that very moment.
Thomas Evernden, Bathurst’s police magistrate, had ridden out to greet the governor. Yet even this man of fearful reputation appeared untroubled by the swimmers, concentrating instead on greeting His Excellency and escorting him along the road to Bathurst.
Relieved, Entwistle and his men got out of the water, donned their clothes, made camp and set about making themselves dinner. But it wasn’t long before constables arrived from Bathurst. Sent by Evernden, they put Entwistle and his three companions under arrest. The men were bewildered. They had committed no crime, given no actual offence.
Yet they were taken to Bathurst’s tiny jail, where men were piled in on each other in squalid darkness. Evernden sentenced each man to 50 lashes.
Entwistle — who had never before been flogged — was tied with his hands so high above his head that his feet only just reached the ground. This was so the skin on his bare back was taut, all the better to receive the lashes.
Flogging was a barbaric punishment. Lashes were administered at about 12-second intervals and with such exhausting ferocity that often a second flogger usually had to take over to inflict the final 25 lashes.
By the fifth lash, a prisoner’s blood was usually flowing so freely it’d soon fill his shoes. Sometimes by the 50th lash the victim’s spine was visible through flesh, so lacerated that it was said to resemble ox liver.
Medical care comprised brine (a high-concentration solution of salt, usually sodium chloride, in water) thrown over his wounds and this was an agonising disinfectant. Men died of infection, shock and blood loss, though most survived with terrible mental and physical scars.
Entwistle might have accepted his unfair and brutal flogging if that had been his only punishment. But Evernden did more than have this convict’s wounds splashed with brine.
He rubbed figurative salt into the man’s psychic wounds by also cancelling his ticket-of-leave.
For the next 10 months, Entwistle, again in servitude to Lipscombe and with no hope of ever being free, brooded on the injustice done to him.
The Gang is Formed
On September 23, 1830, he took action.
Entwistle and four other men absconded from Liscombe’s farm and went east to another property, where they enlisted a handful of convicts and stole all the firearms they could get their hands on.
The gang repeated this process at several other farms, strengthening their numbers to as many as 80 as they collected horses, food and spirits.
Then they approached their real target: the property owned by Evernden. The hated police magistrate was about to pay for what he’d done.
Entwistle called him out. But Evernden wasn’t there.
The rebel leader ordered all of Everden’s convict servants to join the gang. They all did — except John Greenwood who worked as Evernden’s overseer. He came from his hut and cockily refused. Entwistle said he’d shoot him if he didn’t submit. Tearing open his shirt to bare his chest, Greenwood said he “would not be game enough to shoot”.
He was wrong.
Entwistle and another man fired simultaneously, their bullets hitting Greenwood in the chest. “Oh, Lord,” he cried as he stumbled and tried to escape. Another man shot him in the back, finishing him off.
As Evernden’s overseer, Greenwood was reportedly hated by other convicts, and some men present reckoned he’d gotten what he deserved. But there was no getting around the fact Entwistle and two of his most trusted men had just committed cold-blooded murder.
For this trio, there was no going back. If they were captured, they would hang. Anyone else who stayed with them risked the same fate.
For the rest of that day, the gang continued politely plundering properties on Kings Plain, with Entwistle insisting no one else be hurt.
During one of these raids, a man escaped unseen and made for Bathurst to alert the authorities.
Entwistle’s gang may have numbered 80 or more. But he was smart enough to know many had joined for fear they might suffer Greenwood’s fate if they refused. So he offered freedom to any not prepared to stay with him to the bitter end.
Most of the gang at this point dispersed, leaving a dozen comrades who vowed to fight to the death.
Yet even as the rebel numbers dwindled, in Bathurst the gang’s size was inflated, with one report insisting the gang was 134-strong, while other rumours said there were 500 outlaws on the rampage.
Reports of three other convict uprisings in nearby areas led to serious concern law and order across the central west region might be under threat.
William Suttor Heads up a Posse
On September 27, 1830, magistrates and civilians met at the Bathurst Court House to decide what to do about this threat. A dozen men volunteered to be led by William Suttor, the young son of revered Australian pioneer George Suttor.
As this posse prepared to begin their pursuit, a rider arrived with the latest news.
Thomas Arkell’s farm had just been robbed by Entwistle and his gang. The Suttor men rode there as fast as they could.
George Suttor wrote a vivid letter to another of his sons, which as published in the Sydney Gazette.
“Fortunately,” he wrote, they met “two natives who knew him, and on whom he prevailed to go with him as guides to track the banditti, and they soon came upon their tracks, and kept them till they saw the bushrangers encamped in a rocky glen near the Warrngambe River.”
As William Suttor positioned his men to attack, one dislodged a rock, Entwistle’s men opened fire and the battle was on. Over the next hour, more than 300 shots would be fired. Above the cacophony, Entwistle was heard calmly giving orders.
He believed the shadowy leader of the posse was none other than Evernden and he and his men shouted death warrants as they shot at him. They were actually aiming at William Suttor — and they nearly got him.
“One ball passed through his hair on the side of his face,” wrote his father.
When not coming within a literal whisker of being killed, William Suttor got glimpses of Entwistle with his hat decorated with ribbons — and his description would soon after lead to the gang being dubbed “The Ribbon Boys”. While there was a lot of fire and fury, the irregular terrain and dwindling light meant it wasn’t a particularly brutal encounter, with just two gang members wounded.
As darkness settled, the posse was in trouble because they were out of ammunition. Even though their weapons were empty, William Suttor and a handful of his men charged and their bravado scattered the rebels. This gave them time to retreat, which they did hastily.
Enwistle and his rebels had decisively won the first round.
A Second Posse
A second posse arrived in the area, commanded by a Lieutenant Brown, and it followed the trail to a spot near the Abercrombie Caves. Here they encountered Entwistle and his Ribbon Boys and a shorter but far bloodier battle ensued.
Entwistle and his men had chosen a strong defensive position and they poured fire on the police. As George Suttor wrote in his letter: “Two of Lieutenant Brown’s men were shot, and five horses lost. Lieut. Brown did all that a brave officer could do to save the lives of his men, even carried off two on the back of his own horse; in ten minutes the whole of his party might have been shot, the banditti had taken their ground so well. They have abundance of ammunition, arms, and horses. Their number is supposed to be, at this time, from 14 to 20.”
With Lieutenant Brown and his wounded men retreating to Bathurst, the Ribbon Boys had scored another decisive victory. It’s not certain if both troopers died, but it seems that they did, with Evernden later referring to the “murders” the Ribbon Gang had committed.
In Sydney in early October, Governor Darling ordered that men of the 39th Regiment were to march on Bathurst. If the police couldn’t put down the convict rebellion, then his red-coated soldiers would.
Through early October, the Ribbon Boys raided properties in the southwest towards Cowra, building up their numbers again as their success emboldened convicts with little to lose.
It was near Boorowa in mid-October that mounted police, who’d ridden from Goulburn under the command of Lieutenant McAllister, next caught up with them. A fierce gunbattle ensued. Several of the mounted police were wounded. So were three of the rebels.
Lieutenant McAlister took a bullet in the left wrist and dropped.
“That’s number one, boys!” shouted Entwistle.
“Take ’em steady!”
But McAlister wasn’t done. Resting his gun on his shattered arm, he fired and hit Entwistle, inflicting a minor wound.
“That makes number two!” McAlister called.
It was a gutsy moment, but the troopers were again out of ammunition.
Defeated, they retreated to the Southern Highlands town of Bong Bong, where Macalister and his men had their injuries tended.
The Redcoats of the 39th Regiment Arrive and The Final Showdown
Now Captain Walpole and his men from the 39th Regiment arrived from Sydney to reinforce McAlister. They were joined by other men from previous posses until their number reached as many as 200.
This massive force marched on the rebels’ position on October 13. That day, the three wounded rebels were caught and taken to Bong Bong for medical treatment. As hard as they had fought, Entwistle now saw the Ribbon Boys’ predicament was hopeless. Further resistance was useless.
Entwistle and his six remaining men surrendered the following day.
The 10 core members of the gang — including the three who had been wounded and caught — were tried in Bathurst at the first sitting of the Supreme Court outside Sydney.
Multiple witnesses testified in graphic detail as to the cold-blooded murder of Evernden’s convict overseer John Greenwood.
The jury — whose members comprised some of the men Entwistle had beaten and embarrassed on the battlefield — found all 10 men guilty of murder.
Under the Bushranger Act, which had passed earlier that year, such sentences had to be carried out as soon as possible.
A big scaffold was erected in the centre of Bathurst for what was to be the town’s first public execution — and the largest mass hanging in the history of the colony.
On November 2, 1830, the men received the last rites.
Newspaper reports from the late 19th and early 20th century have Entwistle’s last words as being as cockily defiant as Ned Kelly’s.
“My old mother said I would die like a brave soldier with my boots on,” he said.
“But I’ll make a liar of her.”
With that he kicked off his boots.
Six men were hanged in the first batch. Four in the next.
The story of Ralph Entwistle and the Ribbon Boys was retold occasionally in newspapers through the late 1800s and early 1900s, with some of these reports even quoting old-timers passing on oral history about encounters with Entwistle, Evernden and William Suttor.
Unlike the exploits of Ned Kelly or Ben Hall, Entwistle and his Bathurst Rebellion faded from memory.
But they did at least leave a mark on the landscape.
Today, the spot in Bathurst where Entwistle and his men were hanged is known as Ribbon Gang Lane, and the Bushrangers Cave in the Abercrombie Ranges is named after them.
Michael Adams is the author of Australia’s Sweetheart and is the creator of the podcast Forgotten Australia, where you can hear more unknown Australian true stories.