Goodbye Chaps, I’m Off

Having already escaped from Coolgardie Gaol in January, police kept a close watch on George Thompson when they loaded him onto a train on 17 March 1897. He was to serve three sentences at Fremantle Prison; 12 months for stealing, four months for breaking out of gaol and three months for giving a false name to the police. Thompson was one of 14 prisoners being transported from Coolgardie to Fremantle on the midday train.

Special precautions were taken and Sergeant Sellinger personally inspected all the handcuffs to ensure that they were fastened securely. The men were split up and placed in three compartments on the train. Constables Craddock and Goodrich were in charge of five prisoners each. Constable Bailey was in charge of four, including Thompson.

Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (Call Number: 001974D).

At Southern Cross the train stopped and picked up a female prisoner who was added to Constable Bailey’s group. Everything was under control up until after they left Merredin.

The Constables had strict instructions not to remove the handcuffs under any circumstances. Thompson however decided to take a chance and asked if the handcuffs which joined him to another prisoner (Reginald Bleckley) could be removed. Constable Bailey considered the locked doors and the moving train and figured there was no option for escape. Confident everything was secure, he removed the handcuffs connecting Thompson to Bleckley and placed both on Thompson’s wrists.

Day became night and the train continued travelling in a westerly direction towards Tammin. At 2 am, Thompson got up as if to stretch. He then supposedly said, “Goodbye chaps, I’m off,” and dived out the open window.

In shock, Constable Bailey “felt powerless to do anything“. The train was moving at approximately 20 to 25 miles per hour (32 to 40 kilometres per hour) and he expected that Thompson would either be seriously injured or killed from the fall. Remarkably, he wasn’t, and he escaped into the bush.

George Thompson is a gentleman who deserves a great deal of credit. He has escaped from goal twice, and successfully got away from his police escort on the trip from Coolgardie to Fremantle.

Coolgardie Mining Review (WA : 1895 – 1897); 20 March 1897; Page 11; Plain Australian

When the train arrived at Northam, the escape was reported to the police. Constables Fee and Stewart and an Aboriginal tracker were immediately instructed to carry out a search at the spot where Thompson jumped. Once they arrived they followed his tracks and about three miles (nearly five kilometres) away from Merredin they came across his discarded handcuffs. They had not fit him properly and Thompson had simply slipped them off his wrists.

According to the Coolgardie Miner, ill-fitting handcuffs was a common problem. At the time the cuffs used by the majority of the Western Australian Police Force were ‘one size fits all’ and were not the up-to-date type that were adjustable and lockable. It was hoped that Thompson’s escape would serve as a warning to the Government that all the handcuffs needed to be updated immediately.

Free from his handcuffs Thompson continued westward on foot towards Northam. On the way he stopped at a farmhouse and asked for a drink of water. The occupants willingly obliged and, in good country hospitality, also offered him food. Thompson refused, stating that he was in a hurry to catch the train at York.

By 20 March Thompson was still on the run. Constable Stewart returned to Northam while Constable Fee and the Aboriginal tracker continued searching. The Constables on duty during the escape also returned to Coolgardie. With their arrival, more of the story was told and the possibility that another prisoner could have escaped (if he had the chance) came to light.

One of the prisoners in another compartment was Frederick Nelson. He was being guarded by Constable Goodrich and during the journey he begged to be released from his handcuffs as he claimed they were cutting off circulation. He tried to reassure him that there was no means of escape but the Constable refused to listen. He stuck to his orders and kept everyone locked up. It was later realised that Thompson and Nelson were good mates and that they had likely concocted the escape plan together.

Constable Fee and the Aboriginal tracker followed Thompson’s tracks for 52 miles (over 80 kilometres). Despite having received a substantial headstart, the police were gaining on him.

By Saturday morning the escapee had been tracked to within 30 miles of York, and the police expected to come up with him either that day or the next.

Coolgardie Miner (WA : 1894 – 1911); 22 March 1897; Page 7; The Escape of Thomson

Just before midnight on 21 March (after only five days liberty) Constable Fee and the Aboriginal tracker arrived in York and found Thompson rolled up in blankets (which he had begged from Reverend Gibney) and sleeping opposite Frank Craig’s orchard by the banks of the Avon River. He was arrested with the help of Corporal English and, accompanied by Constables Don and Fee, was conveyed to Fremantle on the next train.

Considering his tremendous leap for freedom, it was a rather anticlimactic turn of events. It seems even a reporter for the Coolgardie Miner was hoping for some other outcome when they stated somewhat mournfully:

Such daring and enterprise as has been shown by the prisoner, though in misdirected channels, almost deserved a better fate.

Coolgardie Miner (WA : 1894 – 1911); 23 March 1897; Page 4; Local and General

George Thompson appeared before the Fremantle Police Court on 31 March 1897. When questioned as to why he had jumped out the window of the train, Thompson explained to the Magistrate that Constable Bailey had fallen asleep and that “such a splendid opportunity for an escape was to him irresistible.” As far as Thompson was concerned, the opportunity was there and he grasped it with both hands.

The Accused: The constable was asleep when I escaped from the window, and I had every opportunity to get away.

The Magistrate: Well; I don’t think that improves your case.

Accused: Well, your Worship, it was a great encouragement for me to escape.

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 1 April 1897; Page 5; Escaping from Custody

Found guilty of escaping custody for a second time, he was sentenced to a further six months imprisonment with hard labour, cumulative upon his original sentence. All up, for those crimes, he was incarcerated for just over two years in Fremantle Prison; a place he did not attempt to escape from.

Sources:

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