Richard Burgess: career criminal
The gang's ringleader, originally known as Richard Hill, had been transported from London to Melbourne for theft at the age of 16, arriving in 1847. After his release he resumed a life of crime and served several prison terms. By October 1861 he was calling himself Burgess, the name of a New South Wales runholder he had attempted to rob. In January 1862 he left Australia for the Otago goldfields, where he teamed up with Thomas Noon, an acquaintance from his prison days in Australia. They specialised in attacking and robbing lone prospectors.
Burgess and Garrett
In October 1861 the Garrett gang, under the leadership of Henry Garrett, robbed 15 men in succession at the foot of the Maungatua range, on the track between Gabriels Gully and Dunedin. None of the victims were harmed, but there was panic in Dunedin. In May 1862, Garrett was captured and imprisoned in Dunedin, where he and Richard Burgess attempted a break-out. Garrett too had been transported to Australia in the 1840s for theft and worked on the Victorian goldfields before coming to Otago.
In March 1862, Sergeant-Major Bracken and members of the Otago Mounted Police tried to bring Burgess and Noon in for questioning over a robbery at Weatherstons on the Otago goldfields. Gunfire broke out and the pair fled, but were eventually captured. They claimed Noon's gun had gone off accidentally but were sentenced to 3½ years' hard labour in Dunedin Gaol, to Burgess’s outrage. After receiving 36 lashes for his role in another escape bid, he vowed to exact revenge on society by taking a life for every lash.
On their release in September 1865, Burgess and Noon were escorted by the Otago police to the border with Canterbury Province, the Waitaki River. They headed for the West Coast goldfields and arrived in Hokitika in early October.
The gang comes together
Finding that Bracken was now stationed in Hokitika, they assured the policeman that they were on the straight and narrow and would work honestly as miners. They staked a claim at Kaniere, inland from Hokitika, and Noon took the name Thomas Kelly. They worked their claim until just before Christmas, when they carried out a series of robberies. Burgess was now living with a woman named Carrie who was pregnant with his child. His plan was to rob the bank at Ōkārito, south of Hokitika, and move back to Australia with her.
In the meantime, William (alias Philip) Levy arrived in Hokitika. He had emigrated to Victoria in the 1850s and established himself as a gold buyer. He also worked as a 'fence' (a seller of stolen goods) and passed on information about possible targets for robbery. Levy had moved to Otago before following the gold to the West Coast. In Hokitika he helped Burgess and Kelly plan robberies.
In April 1866 the gang was completed by another recent arrival from Victoria. Joseph Sullivan had been transported from England in 1840 for robbery, but by 1853 had established himself as a prizefighter and publican.