Almanac Poetry: The Wilful Murder of Constable Samuel Nelson

Orpheus in the Undershirt by Kevin Densley, Ginninderra Press, 2018. Cover painting by Terry Matassoni.


The Wilful Murder of Constable Samuel Nelson by Johnny Dunn of Ben Hall’s Gang, Main Street, Collector, New South Wales, January 26, 1865


In the gloaming,
suddenly gunfire.
A hold-up at Kimberley’s Inn.
‘Hall’s Gang,’ Nelson declared.
He leapt up from the table.
‘I was told they’d pay a visit.’
Mrs Nelson begged, implored her husband,
‘No! Don’t go!’
She tugged at the constable’s sleeve
as he buttoned up his tunic.
‘I must, and will, do my duty.’
He disappeared out the door,
her arms flailing in his wake.
Gamely, he hurried up Main Street,
fixed a bayonet to his carbine.
Johnny Dunn, on the hotel verandah,
look-out for Gilbert and Hall,
saw Nelson approach
and stage-whispered: ‘Police!’
Inside, Hall:
‘You can handle it, Jack!’
Unseen by the constable,
Dunn disappeared
behind the pub’s side fence.
‘Stand!’ he yelled, jumping up
as Nelson
drew within ten yards,
at the same time firing his revolver.
The policeman fell
— a gaping wound
to the side of the head.
Blood mingled with the dust.
Dunn ran into the open,
pumped another bullet
into the dying man.
Gilbert and Hall, hearing the shots,
ran outside to see.
A whispered conversation
between the three gang members.
Gilbert removed the policeman’s belt.
‘I need one of these,’ he smirked.
The bushrangers galloped away,
soon pursued by a party
of troopers scouting nearby.
Shots were exchanged.
But the Hall Gang’s horses were faster
and the night was very dark.
The policemen returned to Collector,
their quarry as elusive
and wild as the wind.


Acknowledgements: first published in Southerly journal, Volume 72, Issue 2, 2013; then in my third poetry collection, Orpheus in the Undershirt, Ginninderra Press, 2018.)


(Johnny Dunn, 1866. Source: Wikipedia.)


The latest review of Orpheus in the Undershirt can be found it in Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian/New Zealand Literature (The Publication of the American Association of Australian Literary Studies), Volume 33, Number 1, 2019. (USA). This review can be read HERE.


More from Kevin Densley HERE


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Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, was published in late 2020 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.


  1. G’day Kevin. I recall reading that Nelson’s son was actually holding the bushrangers horses, thus viewed the shooting of his father by John Dunn.

    Dunn lasted little more than 12 months after this, though he outlived his colleagues Ben Hall & John Gilbert.

    1865, not a great year being a bushranger in NSW .


  2. Kevin Densley says

    Hi Glen! Certainly, what you’ve just said about Dunn, Hall, Gilbert and being a bushranger in 1865 in NSW is on the money.

    The letters nineteen-year-old Dunn wrote to family while awaiting the gallows are something well worth reading, too.

  3. Packed with tension this one Kevin. A cracker.

    The word “game” used to describe a brave person, isn’t used enough anymore. My old man used to describe people as being “as game as Ned Kelly” .

  4. Kevin Densley says

    Many thanks, Dips. Very pleased you liked this one a lot. You know, these historical narrative poems that I write are ones I can see very clearly in my head as I’m writing them (usually after much research on the particular subject) – to such an extent that I feel a bit like I’m channelling the material and simply writing down what’s in my mind’s eye.

    And yes, I like the word “game” too – it does have a particular, nuanced meaning, and doesn’t just mean “brave”, though, does it? It also has connotations such as being ready to “throw oneself into the fray”, for example, which is a slightly different thing.

  5. G’day Kevin. Dan ‘Mad Dog’ Morgan was killed in 1865.

    A mate of mine is a descendant of John Dunn. The family retained a lock of his hair.

    John Gilbert is an interesting character in the annals of bushranging. Not just were he, and his brother Charlie, the only two Canadian born bushrangers, he’s also the only bushranger never to have seen the inside of a police cell in his lifetime.


  6. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Glen. I’m aware of this interesting material (except for the bit about Dunn’s hair, of course) – but some Almanac readers will not be, so it’s good that you’ve added it to the picture.

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