Born Richard Hill in West London in 1829, reputedly the illegitimate son of a guards officer and a lady's companion He became involved in petty street crime at age 14 and was soon jailed and flogged for pickpocketing. Two years later he was sentenced to 15 years transportation for burglary. After 20 months' solitary he was shipped to Melbourne Australia, arriving in September 1847.
In 1852 he was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for armed highway robbery, and was released in October 1861. he was calling himself Burgess, the name of a New South Wales runholder he had attempted to steal from. He left Australia in January 1862 for New Zealand and the Central Otago Gold Rush. On 12 June 1866 James Battle was murdered on the Maungatapu track, south-east of Nelson by Burgess and four others, known as the 'Burgess gang' The following day four other men were killed nearby. In Court Burgess boasted of committing nine murders; he wrote his memoirs while awaiting trial. He was executed in Nelson Gaol on 5 October 1866.