At 4:15 am on 11 March 1939, Tim Heggarty heard a noise in James Laurance’s shop at Bolgart. He lived in a home adjacent to the store with Mr and Mrs Coutts. He awoke John Coutts, and they both investigated, quietly walking to the rear of the building where they saw someone had forced a window open.
John entered through the window and into the office. He heard a person walk from the office into the store, and turning back to Tim, whispered to him to ask Mrs Coutts to wake James Laurance. Tim and John guarded the rear of the premises while James (armed with a stout jamwood stick) arrived at the front. He unlocked the door, walked in, and saw a figure dart out of the store into the street.
The man took off down the street and came face to face with three or four Bolgart residents, including John, armed with a shotgun. He brandished a revolver at them, yelling, “Stand back or I’ll shoot you…” There was no police station in town. Unperturbed, the group stayed in pursuit.
At the rear of the Bolgart Railway Station, they approached a car (later found to be stolen) parked in the shadows. The man was standing beside it and was about to get into the driver’s seat. He turned and shot at them. John felt the bullet pass by his ear. Without hesitation, he lifted the shotgun and returned fire, hoping to scare him by aiming at the sky. Abandoning the car, the man sprinted down the street towards Toodyay.
The group gave up the chase and awaited the arrival of Constable Clarke from Toodyay. While they could not catch that man, they did catch another man. He had hidden behind the counter, and when James switched the light on, he saw him. Holding the stick, he shouted, “Move and you’re gone!” The man gave up and sat quietly on the floor. A subsequent search revealed the men opened the safe (most likely with a skeleton key) and took the contents.
After an hour, Constable Clarke arrived and arrested William Mudgedeen. He brought him to Toodyay and charged him with breaking and entering and stealing cheques and money valued at £42.
That afternoon, detectives from Perth arrived in Bolgart and joined forces with Constable Clarke and other constables from Northam. They made inquiries at the store, took fingerprints, and searched for the armed man at nearby farms, camps, deserted sidings, and buildings. The Daily News noted that, “A squad of detectives has searched the country for miles around the town and all main highways and strategic towns are being watched by uniformed police.” For residents, it was an exciting moment in what was usually a quiet town.
It soon became apparent that the man was no longer in the area. Police knew who he was and set a trap at one of his haunts in North Perth. Barefoot and without a coat, they arrested William Bicknell (who struggled violently) and charged him with various crimes including breaking and entering and stealing from James Laurance.
On 23 March 1939, both men appeared before Police Magistrate Moseley in the Perth Police Court. After hearing the evidence, he committed them for trial at the Criminal Court. They appeared before the Criminal Court in early April and pleaded guilty. Both had poor records and a history of criminal activity. On 18 April, Justice Wolff sentenced Mudgedeen to imprisonment for two years and Bicknell to five years with hard labour. When passing the sentences, he remarked that “Western Australia is no place for the gunman…”
This story originally featured on ABC Mid West and Wheatbelt’s Saturday Breakfast with Nat on 23 January 2021. You can listen to that episode via the following link: https://ab.co/2C67gqO
- 1939 ‘Burglar, Pursuer Exchange Shots’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 11 March, p. 1. , viewed 17 Jan 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article83081019
- 1939 ‘”Move And You’re Gone”‘, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 11 March, p. 1. , viewed 17 Jan 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article83081018
- 1939 ‘Gun Battle Marks Sensational Sequel To Bolgart Robbery’, Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954), 12 March, p. 2. , viewed 17 Jan 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59002252
- 1939 ‘THEY FIGURED IN ALLEGED BOLGART ROBBERY’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 13 March, p. 1. , viewed 17 Jan 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article83079921
- 1939 ‘Store Robbery’, Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 – 1954), 14 March, p. 4. , viewed 17 Jan 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article94837297
- 1939 ‘This Is No Place For Gunman, Judge Tells Burglar’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 18 April, p. 9. , viewed 18 Jan 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article79238748
- 1939 ‘STOLEN CAR IN STORE YARD’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 11 March, p. 2. , viewed 19 Jan 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article83081121