Western Australia with its harsh climate, unyielding vegetation and dangerous fauna, was for the early settlers and convicts a wild and forbidding place compared to the ‘tamed’ landscapes of England and Europe. Henderson regarded the Convict Establishment as a prison within a prison, and the Western Australian landscape a ‘vast natural gaol’ – he was not overly concerned with the risk of absconding convicts. As one settler observed:
The truth is, that the detention of prisoners, and consequently the safety of the free community in Western Australia, has depended mainly on the impassable and inhospitable character of the bush, which serves the purpose of a vast wall around a natural jail, the inmates of which, as a policeman once said to us, “may escape from the prison, but cannot get out of the prison yard”.
Regardless, many convicts attempted to escape the establishment. Once past the prison walls, an escaped convict had three options:
- they could remain in or near the settlements and survive by stealing from settlers (these convicts who escaped and became bushrangers were called ‘bolters’)
- they could attempt to escape the colony by land (which meant travelling across the desert)
- they could attempt to escape the colony by sea.
Because of the colony’s isolation, none of these were favourable options.
ESCAPE TO SHARK BAY
A desperate escape attempt occurred on 25 January 1859 soon after construction of the Convict Establishment was completed. Five convicts on a work party in Fremantle absconded into the bush and made their way up river to Melville Waters. With the aid of Aboriginal trackers, the police immediately followed in pursuit. At Point Walter the convicts seized a dingy and returned down river keeping to the cover of trees along the riverbank. Once reaching Fremantle they snuck past the harbour lookout and rowed out to open water.
The next morning they landed at Garden Island and robbed a family, taking money, provisions, firearms and a compass. They loaded up the family’s whaleboat and set out to sea once again, heading north. Meanwhile pursuit had been delayed. While the convicts were rowing out to Garden Island, the Water Police boat was busy ferrying Governor Kennedy to Rottnest Island where Comptroller-General Henderson was also on holiday. By the time the Water Police finally got their boat back and sailed to Garden Island, the convicts had gone.
Four days later the stolen whaleboat was sighted off Moore River and the Water Police took up the chase again. The convicts fled along the coast of Western Australia and what followed was an epic pursuit 800 kilometres north to Shark Bay. During the chase both police and convicts suffered many weeks of exposure to the sun, the wind, and the ocean waves.
Ultimately the convicts were captured and returned to Fremantle. However, the police found only four of the five escapees. Suspicion arose that his companions had murdered the missing convict. During questioning they admitted to killing their companion in a fit of anger because he had drunk more than his share of fresh water. Months later the body was found showing evidence of being brutally murdered. The convicts were tried, one was hanged and the others found guilty of robbery under arms.
DARK DAYS UNDER GOVERNOR HAMPTON
John Hampton was appointed Governor of Western Australia on 28 February 1862. He came with a controversial background – while employed as Comptroller-General of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land from 1846 to 1855 he was accused of corruption and profiteering from the employment of convict labour. During the 1850s Comptroller-General Henderson enjoyed relative autonomy over the affairs of the convicts and his management of the establishment. Prison policy had focussed on reform prisoners with the aim of delivering skilled and productive men into the workforce. Things changed dramatically in 1862 with the appointment of John Hampton as Governor of Western Australia and his period of stewardship of the colony came to be one of the darkest periods for prisoners in the prison’s history.
During his six year term as Governor of Western Australia he payed close attention to convict affairs, and his interference in convict management drew the hostility of Perth newspapers and many prominent citizens.
Edmund Henderson, perhaps sensing the change in the air, resigned his commission and departed the colony in December 1862. Before Henderson’s replacement arrived, Hampton assumed direct control of the Convict Establishment. When the new Comptroller-General Captain Newland arrived in 1863, Governor Hampton refused to relinquish control and he and Newland constantly bumped heads.
Hampton secured Newland’s resignation in 1866 and promptly appointed his own son George Hampton in the role of Acting Comptroller-General. George was an unlikable man and this blatant act of nepotism was extremely unpopular with the colonists.
ESCAPE ATTEMPTS AND PUNISHMENT
Hampton was ‘tyrannical and harsh, and partook more of the methods of the ‘white overseer’ of the slave plantation’. The years 1865 to 1867 were marked by a dramatic rise in the use of corporeal punishment at the establishment including the increased use of flogging, which had been used only sparingly during the preceding years. Hampton reintroduced the use of solitary confinement which had ceased three years earlier. A convict caught attempting to escape could receive 100 lashes from the cat of nine tails, and perhaps six to nine months solitary confinement beginning with 30 days on bread and water. Complaints levelled at Hampton were made both within the establishment by convicts and outside by the general community and the press. On 5 September 1866 the Inquirer referred to the ‘severity of punishment’ in the establishment and Hampton’s ‘repressive regime.’ In March 1867 Hampton abolished the board of visiting magistrates, effectively removing the prisoners’ only means of redress against unjust treatment.
Under the administration of the Hamptons, escape attempts became more numerous. In the nine-month period between June 1866 and March 1867, more than 90 convicts attempted to escape – three times the number of any other nine-month period. Of the 32 floggings during 1864, 25 were for escape attempts. Similarly, during 1865, 23 of the 40 floggings were for escape attempts.
A DISGRACEFUL AFFAIR
On 29 May 1867, three violent convicts named William Graham, Thomas Scott and George Morris made a daring escape. Graham used a duplicate key to unlock his cell. It is not known how he came across this key. As fierce storm swept over Fremantle the thundering rain muffled the sound of Graham’s footsteps as he freed his two friends from their cells. The three men snuck outside the main cell block and made their way to the East Workshops. There they stripped leather drive belts from the workshop machinery, tied the belts together and used them to scale the perimeter wall. Their escape was not discovered until muster the next morning.
The trio soon began bushranging activities to support themselves, stealing rifles and food as they moved through farmlands northeast of Perth. Police and Aboriginal trackers caught up with the trio two days after their escape and during a night time shoot out, George Morris was shot through the neck and killed. His companions escaped the settlement by crossing the Causeway and continued their crime spree through the southwest.
Finally, after a few weeks had passed a group of four police officers and three Aboriginal trackers discovered the fresh tracks Graham and Scott east of Kojonup. Sensing the convicts were close the police made camp and sent the trackers into the scrub to search for the men. The trackers found Graham standing sentry outside an abandoned hut. They returned to the police camp and reported their discovery, and here the police made a decision that was later said to ‘cast shame on the whole force’. The trackers were forced to return to the hut and open fire on the building ‘without challenge’. The trackers obeyed the command, fired on the hut and the two men inside, then returned once again to the police camp. In the morning the police found that both men had escaped albeit wounded. William Graham dragged himself twelve miles through the bush, bleeding from his right arm and foot. Fearing he was about to die he gave himself up to a shepherd. Scott was captured a few days later near the Blackwood River. Both were returned to the establishment. The police involved were dismissed from the force for what was described in the Perth Gazette as a ‘disgraceful affair’.
Although the escapees had all been recaptured or killed, the embarrassment for Governor Hampton and his son was not over as convicts continued to make bold escapes from the Establishment.
One of Fremantle Prison’s most famous inmates was Joseph Bolitho Johns, known as Moondyne Joe. Moondyne Joe was celebrated by Perth and Fremantle newspapers at the time for his many innovative escape attempts as well as his ability to embarrass Governor Hampton.
On arrival at Fremantle as a convict in 1853, Joseph Johns was immediately granted his ticket of leave. He worked as an animal tracker near Toodyay until 1861 when he was accused of stealing a horse. This earned him a three year sentence in the Convict Establishment. It was not long before he received a remission of his sentence and another ticket of leave. He returned to the Moondyne Springs area near Toodyay, but only four years later in 1865 he was returned to prison after stealing and killing an ox. He escaped from a work party in that year but was recaptured and another year added to his sentence. A year later he managed to escape once again but was again recaptured and a further five years added to his sentence. By this time the newspapers had picked up on Moondyne Joe’s story and were questioning the wisdom of adding more years to his now lengthy sentence.
Shamed by Joe’s escapes, Governor Hampton directed his son George to build an escape proof cell for Moondyne Joe. The cell was reinforced with wood panelling and long nails to prevent Joe from digging his way out. Inspecting this cell Governor Hampton told Moondyne Joe sarcastically, “If you get out again, I’ll forgive you.”
Joe’s health deteriorated. To give him fresh air and exercise, he was put to work breaking rocks in the Parade Ground in 1867. Under strict supervision Joe broke rocks daily until a large pile of rubble had built up near the front wall of the prison. Now, partially hidden behind the pile, Joe quickly dug a hole through the prison wall with his pickaxe and emerged into the Superintendent’s yard. He escaped through a gate and disappeared into nearby bushland.
Moondyne Joe was at large for the next two years. In 1869 he broke into the cellar of Houghton’s Vineyard in the Swan Valley intending to steal some wine. Bad timing saw a group of policemen led into the cellars for a social drink and Joe, attempting to flee, literally ran into their arms.
He was returned to the establishment. By this time George Hampton was no longer in charge and the new Comptroller General was more forgiving. Joe was given his ticket of leave in 1871 and became a free man in 1873. He stayed out of trouble for the rest of his life.
Another notorious escape artist, Joseph Ralph, was convicted of burglary and transported for twenty years, arriving at Fremantle in 1854. He was a mild mannered, non-violent man and became a favourite of Richard Alderson, the prison chaplain, who found him work in the prison library. The Chaplain described Ralph as a sincere man who had the potential to be reformed, as long as bad companions did not tempt him. However, bad companions were difficult to avoid in the establishment. On August 18 1857 Ralph received 75 lashes of the cat’o’nine tails for making clothes out of prison property and attempting to escape through a gate in the northern perimeter wall. This punishment did not dampen his enthusiasm for freedom and in 1864, after attempting to escape several times he was placed in solitary confinement for six months.
On August 21 1865 Ralph again attempted to escape from his cell. This was his ninth recorded escape attempt. A search of his cell revealed false keys and other prohibited articles. Ralph continued his escape attempts over the next few years. Finally in 1874 the Comptroller-General ordered Ralph’s cell to be reinforced similar to Moondyne Joe’s. Grating was fixed to the window, wood panelling covered the walls studded with clout nails and iron plating was fastened with headless screws to all parts of the cell that Ralph had tampered with. Additionally, prison guards were placed in the cells on either side and under the one occupied by Ralph. He was also strip searched twice a day.
Ralph did not escape again and died in the prison hospital in 1887.
MASS BREAKOUT 1867
While Graham, Scott and Morris, and Moondyne Joe were on the run in 1867, another sensational mass escape took place. The Perth Gazette described the escape as follows:
On the evening of the 8th of August, shortly after the working gangs of convicts had been marched into prison for the night, the door of one of the wards was opened and from it emerged a party of eight men apparently under the charge of a man in a warder’s uniform; he halted his party while he reclosed and locked the door, and then giving the order to march took them to the gate of the work yard, passing on the way a sentry just relieved, who seeing the apparent warder took no notice of the party. Unlocking the workshop yard gate and passing through it, it was re-locked, and the fellows having barricaded it were secure from observation; they then raised two ladders against the outer wall of the prison, and with ropes fastened to the upper rounds quickly let themselves down the other side.
Rain and darkness prevented an immediate pursuit and the convicts soon resorted to bushranging activities, robbing settlers’ houses for provisions and weapons. Four of the escapees were soon captured without a fight near Pinjarra. One convict was captured after a wild shootout with police. Another two were captured near Beverly attempting to make their way east towards the desert. One of these, Bernard Woottan, attacked a police officer with an iron bar and was sentenced to death for attempted murder and later executed.
The final two escapees headed south towards the ports of Bunbury and Busselton in the hopes of catching a boat to freedom. One was captured near the Murray River and the last, John Williams, drowned in the river trying to escape from the pursuing police.
THE CATALPA ESCAPE
Perhaps the most famous escape from Fremantle Prison was that of six Irish convicts in 1876. The Fenian movement or Irish Republican Brotherhood was a secret political society engaged in resistance against British rule in Ireland in the 1860s. A number of Fenians who had infiltrated the British military services were discovered, arrested and sentenced to transportation to Australia.
In 1868 the convict ship Hougoumont arrived at Fremantle carrying 279 convicts, including 62 Fenians. This was the last convict transport to arrive in Australia. The following year one of the Fenian prisoners, John Boyle O’Reilly, was sent to a convict depot in Bunbury. O’Reilly befriended a local Catholic priest who helped him escape aboard an American whaling vessel. O’Reilly sailed to America and settled in Boston, eventually becoming the editor of the Boston Pilot. Yet he never forgot the other Fenian prisoners back in Fremantle.
Two rounds of pardons in 1869 and 1871 saw most of the Fenians released. The American Brotherhood, including O’Reilly and another Irishman John Devoy, plotted to rescue the 6 remaining prisoners.
The Catalpa ship was purchased and in April 1875, disguised as a whaler, it left Massachusetts for Western Australia. Captained by George Anthony and crewed by 22 sailors, most of whom did not know their true mission, the Catalpa took 11 months to reach Australia.
Meanwhile two undercover Fenian agents John Breslin and Tom Desmond arrived in Fremantle in September 1875. Breslin masquerading as a wealthy American businessman, and Desmond as a wheelwright.
The Catalpa reached Bunbury in March 1876. Anthony and Breslin met to finalise the rescue. Coded messages were sent to the prisoners in the Convict Establishment and on Easter Monday the rescue plan was put into action.
Desmond cut the telegraph lines between Fremantle and Perth to hamper communications. The six Fenian prisoners left the prison in their morning work parties. Most of the convict garrison was out watching the Perth Regatta on the river and security was at a minimum. The six prisoners slipped away from their work parties and were met by Breslin and Desmond with two horse drawn carriages. A nervous two hours followed as the carriages raced south to Rockingham where a long boat waited to take them out to the Catalpa. A local worker saw the convicts as they arrived on the beach and raced to Fremantle to alert the authorities.
A fierce storm prevented the long boat from reaching the Catalpa. Forced to remain in the long boat overnight the Fenians feared for their lives. The next morning the Fenians once again rowed for the Catalpa. By this time the armed steamship Georgette commandeered by the Governor was making for the whaler. The long boat reached the Catalpa first. The convicts climbed aboard and the Catalpa set sail for the open seas. But the Georgette quickly overhauled them and fired a warning shot across the Catalpa’s bow! Anthony raised the American flag and brazenly claimed that if the Georgette fired on the Catalpa it would be firing on America itself. Wanting to avoid a diplomatic incident, the Georgette reluctantly allowed the Fenians to sail away.
The Catalpa arrived at its homeport of New Bedford, south of Boston on August 25 1876 to a heroes’ welcome. Back in Western Australia the Governor and authorities were severely shamed and a thorough inquiry was held.