WA History

Escape to Shark Bay

In the afternoon, on Tuesday, 25 January 1859, the warders mustered in the convicts working in quarry gangs just outside Fremantle Prison’s walls. As they checked the numbers, they found that five men were missing from three different groups. John Williams, John Haynes, Henry Stevens, Peter Campbell, and Stephen Lacey were presumed to have absconded an hour before the warders noticed they were missing.

Fremantle Prison circa 1866. Courtesy of State Library New South Wales (Call Number: V5B / Frem / 4)

From Fremantle, the five men travelled east on foot to the Canning River and then waded in the river along the shore until they reached Point Walter. At Point Walter, they stole a boat and proceeded to row it west along the Swan River. Helping themselves to a keg of water from the convict station at North Fremantle, they then slipped across Fremantle Harbour undetected and rowed north.

While the men were enacting their getaway, officials delayed searching for them due to the lateness of the day. On the following morning, Aboriginal trackers followed their tracks, and showed authorities their movements. The delay, however, attracted criticism. Described as “convicts of the most desperate character,” one newspaper blamed the escape on the negligence of both the convict authorities as well as the police stationed at North Fremantle and the Harbour.

The circumstances connected with the escape of five convicts last week, have afforded a fertile source of conversation…

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (WA : 1848 – 1864); 4 February 1859; Page 2; The Independent Journal

Further delaying the search, on the same day, Governor Kennedy chose to use the water police boat (knowing full well there were escaped convicts) to transport him to Rottnest Island for a picnic. When the water police finally got underway on 27 January, they went to Garden Island, where they found James Read and his worker, John Grant, tied up. They had missed the convicts by three hours.

The reason a recapture was not effected on that day, was simply because the force and means organised for such a purpose, was wrongfully engaged by the Governor in conveying himself and party to Rottnest.

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (WA : 1848 – 1864); 4 February 1859; Page 2; The Independent Journal

The convicts had actually arrived at the north end of Garden Island at 6 am on the previous day and came across James’s home at 3 pm. After tying up James and John, they ransacked the house. They stole James’s whaleboat, firearms, ammunition, various supplies, £150, and then departed for the north at 1 am.

One was always on guard on the beach, and one over me and my wife.

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (WA : 1848 – 1864); 8 July 1859; Page 2; Quarter Sessions

In the afternoon, on 28 January, the water police left to search the northern coastline. Along with the search by sea, a police force under Inspector Hogan was sent north on foot. At Moore River, they found the remnants of a fire presumably made by the convicts. Authorities expanded the search; they sent pensioner guards south on the ‘Zillah’ and north on the ‘Trois Amis.’

News was slow and scarce. By 16 February, The Inquirer and Commercial News reported they were seen at the Irwin River and had robbed Edward Downes at Dongara. They took everything he had and continued sailing north. After they left, John Speedy took off on horseback, riding furiously to warn the people at Champion Bay. Near Allanooka, he saw Thomas and Isabella Duncan and passed on the news that pirates (perhaps he did not realise they were convicts) had landed at Dongara.

The convicts were seen at Champion Bay at 5:30 pm on 31 January. They landed at Port Grey, received some water from a settler, and stated their intention to land. They were steered through the passage inside the reef at Champion Bay, and anchored alongside Mr Drummond’s place. Early on 1 February, they departed for Port Gregory and arrived at 1 pm on the same day.

If the fact of their escape had been known at Champion Bay, the Police might have taken them as they were passing the inner channel.

The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901); 23 February 1859; Page 2; Local and Domestic Intelligence

While the convicts were making their way to Port Gregory, Speedy arrived and shared the news with the people at Champion Bay. Sergeant Walsh and the police immediately left for Port Gregory and arrived before the convicts. They intended to lie in wait for the men to land. However, once they did, they were startled by a man shooting seagulls. Back in the boat, they sailed in the direction of Shark Bay.

Shark Bay courtesy of the National Library of Australia (MAP RM 1188)

The water police were not far behind. They also arrived at Champion Bay on 1 February and then left for Port Gregory. When they arrived, the convicts had already departed. Due to severe winds, they waited at Port Gregory for several days. When the ‘Trois Amis’ eventually arrived, they decided to work together. Both left for Shark Bay on 3 February.

On 4 February, the police boat suffered damage and was no longer of use. The ‘Trois Amis’ continued along the channel between Dirk Hartog Island and the mainland. As they approached, they saw a fire on the land and a boat at anchor. The crew landed ashore while the police stayed on the ship out of sight. Hopes that the convicts would try to take the ship leading to their capture were dashed. They did not move from their position, and “all remained quiet until the following morning.

At 6 am on 5 February, the ‘Trois Amis’ sailed closer. From the ship, authorities watched as the convicts emerged from behind rocks, jumped into their boat, and sailed towards Egg Island. The ‘Trois Amis’ followed in close pursuit. Another ship, the ‘Preston,’ approached from the opposite direction. The convicts made for the land and abandoned the boat on the shore.

During this time a good deal of firing on the part of the Police and Pensioners took place, Mr Clifton and two or three of his men making excellent practice…

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (WA : 1848 – 1864); 4 March 1859; Page 2; Recapture of the Escaped Convicts

Officials seized the boat, and with their means of transportation by water taken away, a land chase began. Despite their best efforts, Mr Clifton and his party were unsuccessful. They boarded the ‘Trois Amis’ and opted to stay in the area. From 6 until 13 February, they loaded guano from Egg Island onto the ship.

On 14 February, police again saw a fire on the mainland. They landed, and four of the convicts surrendered. Without any supplies, they were starved out. When questioned regarding the fifth convict, Lacey, they claimed he died of dysentery. However, their constant negative talk about him drew the suspicions of the police. In the afternoon on 1 March, ‘Trois Amis’ returned to Fremantle from Shark Bay.

During the wanderings on the main they found the skeleton of a man with a double-barrelled gun beside him, and it seems this convinced them of the hopelessness of their case…

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (WA : 1848 – 1864); 4 March 1859; Page 3; Recapture of the Escaped Convicts

By 25 March 1859, a reporter revealed that Campbell was talking to the police. The suspicions with regards to Lacey were correct. Angry that Lacey had claimed to be a skilled sailor and that he had eaten and drank more than his share, Williams and Haynes killed him. Determined to investigate the claims, the Superintendent of the Water Police, Dr Arden and Campbell sailed for Shark Bay in the ‘Favorite.’

They found the body in a well-preserved state, buried in the sand not far from the beach. Still wearing some of his prison clothes, Lacey had a broken neck caused by “a heavy blow.” They examined his stomach and found the meagre contents of his last meal: oysters and berries. With their investigation complete, they reburied him and returned to Fremantle.

Campbell, Stevens, Williams, and Haynes appeared before the Quarter Sessions on 6 July 1859. They were charged with being illegally at large and feloniously robbing James Read with violence. James provided most of the evidence, corroborated by his wife, Ruth, and worker John. The jury found the men guilty and recommended them for mercy.

Stevens, Williams, and Haynes were also charged with a similar offence against Edward Downes at Dongara. With Edward too unwell to travel to Perth, John Speedy was the main witness. He recalled, “They took all there was of Downes’s property, put it into sacks, and made me fetch a horse and carry it to the beach; there was clothing, cheese, butter, and pork.” The jury again found them guilty.

The Quarter Sessions continued on 7 July with John Williams and John Haynes charged with the murder of Stephen Lacey. Overcome with Roman Catholic guilt, Campbell provided most of the evidence of what occurred. From the outset, Stephen Lacey was unpopular. He was blamed as the instigator of the escape, misrepresented his skills as a sailor, ate and drank more than his share, and “showed the white feather” by lying down in the whaleboat during a chase with the ‘Trois Amis.

When on Cervantes Island a quarrel took place between Lacey and Williams, all of us quarrelled at times with Lacey.

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (WA : 1848 – 1864); 8 July 1859; Page 3; Thursday, July 7.

Campbell also told a tale of desperation: of gathering crabs, oysters, and berries and attempting to fish with a hook and line made from a pair of scissors and a handkerchief. With only brackish water at Shark Bay, they were forced to drink their own urine.

As the days passed, Williams became increasingly angry at Lacey, stating on one occasion, “You wretch you have been trouble enough to us, it was you that brought us here.” Williams struck him several times and often drove him away from their camp. Lacey had nowhere to go and returned. They lost their patience when Lacey again crawled back to the hut. Williams and Haynes ran over to him, and Williams struck him on the side of the neck with the butt of a single-barrelled gun. They dragged him around to the back of the hut and left him there. In the afternoon on the following day, he was dead.

On 8 July, the defence addressed the jury and urged them not to rely “upon the unsubstantiated statement of one person.” He also argued there was not enough evidence to show that the blow had killed Lacey. The Judge put three questions to the jury: 1) Did they believe Lacey’s death was caused by the blow on the neck? 2) If they believed death was not caused by the blow on the neck, did they believe that blow accelerated death? 3) Was Haynes aiding and abetting that blow. After retiring for an hour, the jury returned and found Haynes not guilty and Williams guilty.

Initially, The Inquirer and Commercial News printed that the Judge recorded a sentence of death for each convict. Either they were incorrect, or the sentences were commuted. Each convict received additional prison sentences, except for Peter Campbell. For his part in providing information to the police, he was granted a Ticket of Leave on 12 August and a Conditional Pardon on 20 September 1860.

The failed attempt to escape life as a convict did not result in improved behaviour. Most of the convicts involved continued to commit crimes. Stevens and Haynes eventually reconnected in Albany and were convicted of burglary in 1864. By 1865, Haynes was at Geraldton and was one of six convicts who attempted to take over the ship ‘Geraldton Lass.’ It, too, failed, and he was sentenced to imprisonment in irons. Only Peter Campbell appeared to do well, but that was because he disappeared from Western Australian records after 1860. For the others, escape was impossible. They remained in Western Australia until their deaths years later. As for Stephen Lacey, he is still buried somewhere at Shark Bay, one of many lonely graves that exist in Western Australia.



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