20 December 2022

Riverina Rewind: The bushranger who wore shades

| Chris Roe
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Blue Cap

Blue Cap the bushranger wore an eyeshade to protect his sensitive eyes. Composite: Chris Roe.

One of the Riverina’s more unusual bushrangers was a wild colonial boy named Robert Cottrell, AKA ‘Blue Cap’.

Born around 1835, Cottrell worked on farms around the Murrumbidgee until he claimed mistreatment by a stingy boss drove him to take up a life of crime.

Cottrell suffered numerous ailments including acute ophthalmia, or inflammation of the eye, which made him extremely sensitive to light and necessitated wearing an eyeshade.

It’s thought that it was this distinctive piece of headwear that earned him the nickname Blue Cap.

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While usually green in colour, eyeshades were not uncommon in the Victorian era and consisted of a transparent visor that strapped around the head.

An alternative theory is that he may have worn a blue jockey’s cap pulled low to keep out the sun.

Either way, it clearly made for an unusual look in the Riverina bush in the 1860s.

Cottrell joined forces with a former convict named Jerry Duce, AKA ”White Chief”, and the pair formed a gang to terrorise farms and hotels around the region.

During a crime spree along the Murrumbidgee River, the Blue Cap Gang famously forced one station manager to play draughts with them, and at another property, the women were compelled to play the piano for them.

A notable victim of the gang was Thomas Alexander Browne, who went on to write the iconic Robbery Under Arms under the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood.

At the time, Browne was running Bundidgeree sheep station near Narrandera and was relieved of two watches by the outlaws.

In another of his stories, Browne created a character named ‘Redcap’ no doubt inspired by the encounter.


In his prison portrait, Robert Cottrell has his eyes closed due to a chronic condition. Photo: Edgar Penzig Collection.

Raiding liquor cabinets along the way became a recurring theme for the quarrelsome gang and on one occasion Blue Cap passed out drunk and was ferried by wheelbarrow to a dam and thrown in to help him sober up.

Following a raid on Brookong station near Lockhart, the gang was pursued by police and forced to ford the flooding Urangeline Creek. All made it across bar one and the dead horse and rider were later found downstream.

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The gang soon began to disintegrate and Cottrell is alleged to have taken up with a postman named Tom Doolan.

There are differing opinions over whether Doolan was in league with the bushrangers or was a genuinely brave protector of the mail who engaged in a one-man assault on Blue Cap and his gang as they held up Bolero Station.

According to police, the pair hatched a hare-brained scheme to stage a mock gunfight to steal firearms owned by Doolan’s boss and then rob a bank.

Whether real or staged, onlookers reported a spectacular mounted gunfight as Doolan, armed with three pistols, confronted the highwaymen and traded shots with Cottrell as they galloped side by side.

When police later arrested Doolan, they alleged that the battle had included firing blanks and faking wounds using horse blood. Both Doolan and Cottrell maintained that the battle was real and a ‘fair fight’ and the bushranger exhibited a wound on his wrist that he claimed was from Doolan’s pistol.

Doolan was convicted and Cottrell soon followed him to jail after attempting to rob a trio of policemen in plain clothes. As he stepped out to bail them up, one responded with “Hello, Bluey”, and the chase was on.

Shot and wounded in the pursuit, Cottrell was arrested and taken to Wagga to face trial.

Wearing his distinctive visor pulled low over his face, and suffering from seizures, Cottrell pleaded guilty to his crimes and was sentenced to 10 years hard labour.

After a well-behaved four years, Cottrell was released from Goulburn Gaol. He walked out the gates and neither he nor the notorious Blue Cap was ever heard from again.

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