Australian History, WA History

Harry Waters and the Lightning Gang

Harry Waters

Harry Waters was broke. As he sat drinking in the billiard saloon of the Geraldton R.S.L., a criminal acquaintance appeared. James Henry Hawkins was in the same financial position. The two men sat together, nursed their drinks, and spoke of their lack of money and how they could rectify the situation. Waters had an idea. One he had been considering for some time. He suggested they join forces, travel to country towns, and rob the co-operative stores.

Hawkins liked the scheme and was on board. They began carrying out the plan and found themselves in need of transportation. John Dalton’s black and green BSA motorcycle and sidecar sat temptingly at Bluff Point. On 4 February 1930, they stole it and rode back to Perth.

Their arrival in Perth was fleeting. They immediately set out again, returning “up the line” to Northam. Just outside the town, a chain on the motorcycle broke. Unable to fix it, they abandoned it in the bush and returned to the city.

George Sadler was a farmer from Goomalling and was on a coastal holiday at Cottesloe. At night, on 12 February, he parked his light green Austin Six on Barrack Street and spent some time in Perth. When he returned at 10:30 pm, his car was gone. The culprits were Waters and Hawkins. They had stolen it, changed the number plates to ‘MD 30’ and then drove straight to Pithara.

Waters and Hawkins arrived at Pithara on the following day. They hid the car half a mile outside the town, climbed a wheat stack, and acquainted themselves with the town’s layout. Satisfied that the co-operative store was “admirably situated for their purpose,” at midnight, they used a crowbar to force open the door, filled three suitcases with £50 worth of clothes and other items, and took £5 in cash. By dawn, they were driving back to Perth.

A wheat stack at Pithara circa 1928. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (029299PD).

In Perth, Waters began looking for a third person to join them. Thomas Pitcher had not long arrived in Western Australia from the eastern states. He was unemployed and joined the pair upon hearing Waters’ spiel of “blandishments and airy promises.” Waters was elated and dubbed the group the ‘Lightning Gang.’ He even gave everyone nicknames. Hawkins was ‘Lofty’ due to his height, Pitcher was ‘Buster,’ and he called himself ‘Nugget.’

Before they continued with their nefarious plans, they needed another vehicle. At 9 pm on 18 February, Walter Lee Steere left his fawn-coloured Buick on Swanbourne Terrace at Cottesloe. When he returned an hour later, it was gone. In the car and driving straight to Morawa was the Lightning Gang.

The arsenal used by the Lightning Gang, including the number plates MD 30. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (050103PD).

At Morawa, they followed a similar M.O. On 20 February, the car was parked outside town, and Pitcher was sent to fill his water bag at the back of the co-operative store. While doing so, he observed the store’s layout and reported to the others that no one was living there. Again, they climbed a wheat stack and waited until midnight.

When all was quiet, they made their way to the store, forced open the double doors at the front, and stole £15 as well as clothing and cigarettes. They left the offices in disarray after ransacking them for cash and keys and departed for Geraldton.

The gang camped in the bush near Geraldton and spent some time reorganising their loot. They repacked the suitcases and hid some of the goods at the rear of the convent. Afterwards, they drove the car to Northampton for repairs.

Once they returned to Geraldton, they decided to rob the safe at the Geraldton Train Station. Pitcher, again, observed the premises. When he deemed it okay, they approached the building. The office door was open, and the key was in the safe. Upon opening it, they found there was nothing inside. They took the key as well as several other bunches of keys.

They decided to leave Geraldton on the following day and spent the night camping on the beach near Southgate Dunes. On the morning of 23 February, the car was bogged, and the axle broke. A group of men helped them out, but the gang grew concerned when they realised their faces could be identified.

That night, Hawkins went into town to find a mechanic, but when that proved difficult, he stole Samuel Shearing’s grey-coloured Willy’s Knight car parked on Marine Terrace.

The car had Kalgoorlie number plates, making it stand out to people in the area. Samuel immediately notified the police, and they began searching for it. While they were driving on the Eastern Road, another driver informed them they saw the car on the Greenough Road. Several other witnesses confirmed having seen it travelling at “terrific speed” towards Greenough. They continued following it until they reached the town. By then, it was 2 am, and the search was abandoned.

The next stop for the Lightning Gang was at a service station in Mingenew. The attendant took a while to find the right key and, while doing so, noticed the Kalgoorlie number plates. He commented, “You’re a long way from home.” Murmuring an agreement, Waters sped away as soon as the tank was filled. Perhaps, after that encounter, they changed the number plates to ‘MD 30.’

From Mingenew, they drove to Mukinbudin. Leaving the car outside the town, Waters ordered Hawkins and Pitcher to have a few drinks at the hotel to “get the layout of likely jobs.” When they returned, they told him the hotel itself was worth robbing.

At night on 26 February, they attempted to force open the front doors. When that proved too difficult, they went to the back of the hotel and opened the back door, which was unlocked. Inside, they raided the till and stole £33 in cash. Before they left, they helped themselves to six bottles of whisky and over sixty packets of cigarettes.

Bruce Rock was their next stop, but the car broke down when they neared Kellerberrin. Hawkins got a lift to town and returned with a mechanic who towed the car back to his garage. As soon as it was fixed, they drove off, camping at Korbel before resuming their journey to Bruce Rock.

Like flashes of lightening it darted here, there and everywhere trying to “clean-up” sometimes successfully, sometimes not, every store and every safe found along its haphazard route.

Truth (Perth, WA : 1903 – 1931); 6 April 1930; Page 7; The “Lightning Gang” Gaoled At Last

At Bruce Rock, they left the car behind the Shell Oil Depot. They went into town separately to get something to eat, then acquainted themselves with the layout of the co-operative store. That night, on 28 February, they stole £80 worth of clothing from the store. Before leaving, they also stole four cases of petrol from the Shell Depot.

The Bruce Rock Co-Operative Store circa 1938.

After robbing the Bruce Rock co-operative store and Shell Depot, the Lightning Gang travelled back to Perth. They camped at Mundaring, and Pitcher was sent to town to buy ammunition. The plan was to meet at 8 pm at the Victoria Park end of the Causeway, where they would afterwards travel to Fremantle, have dinner, and then retrieve some of the hidden property.

Back on the road again, they faced increasing issues with Samuel Shearing’s car. At Queens Park, Waters saw an old mate named Steven Cocking and braggingly told him about how they “raided the country and cleaned up the stores.” He boasted, “This is the best gang I’ve ever had. We call it the Lightning Gang and we stop at nothing!”

He wanted Steven to hold onto the stolen loot, but Steven refused, stating that he wanted nothing to do with it. Unperturbed, Waters insisted that he was going to use Steven’s Coolup house as a base. It was not a request; it was an order. Waters warned him, “If you split on me, I’ll blow your brains out.” Understandably intimidated, Steven gave them directions to the property.

The car continued to have issues and needed replacing. On 8 March 1930, Hawkins and Pitcher stole Thomas McDonald’s Buick from Cantonment Street in Fremantle. They picked up Waters, drove straight to Coolup, and dumped the car’s belongings. They then returned to Samuel Shearing’s car, still fitted with their choice of plates. They removed them and, as they did each time they stole a car, they changed the Buick’s number plates from ‘BE 302’ to ‘MD 30.’ It was not their cleverest move. As one newspaper noted, “The same number on so many different cars was naturally sure to arouse suspicion.

That night and the following day were spent ‘trying their luck.’ They drove to Picton Junction and attempted to rob the safe at the Railway Station. Unsuccessful, they stole a portmanteau from the cloakroom. They briefly returned to Coolup and then immediately left for Midland. The plan was to rob the Midland Butchery, but they found it unsuitable. They instead focused on a garage at Victoria Park, but when that seemed too risky, they started driving back to Coolup.

Early in the morning, on 10 March, Detective Reid, Constable O’Brien, and Constable Turner (part of the police night patrol known as the ‘Flying Squad’) were patrolling Victoria Park when they stopped in a shadowy area near the tram terminus. As part of their duties, they were carefully observing number plates. At about 1:15 am, the Buick containing the Lightning Gang approached, driving east along Albany Highway. Noticing the number plate ‘MD 30,’ they drove out from the shadows and started following them.

This marked the beginning of the end of the Lightning Gang – the three criminals who had the entire country districts at their mercy for over a month.

Truth (Perth, WA : 1903 – 1931); 6 April 1930; Page 7; The “Lightning Gang” Gaoled At Last
The Armstrong-Siddeley “Chaser” used by the Police Patrol circa 1930. This was the car following the Lightning Gang. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (050101PD).

It did not take long for the Lightning Gang’s driver to realise they were being followed. He increased their speed, and the police raced after them, travelling about 60 miles per hour. Zooming along Albany Highway, the fugitives found that the road was closed. Not missing a beat, they swung right, ending up on two wheels. The dirt track they traversed proved to be to their advantage. There was so much dust that it obscured the view of the police.

Residents along Albany-road and Welshpool-road who were disturbed in their slumbers early this morning by the sound of two high-powered motor cars tearing along at break-neck speed might have had reason for wondering if the thoroughfares had been converted into a speedway overnight.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1955); 10 March 1930; Page 1; Over 60 M.P.H.

The cars roared through the streets of Victoria Park in the early hours of the morning. The Buick went left, left again, crossed the railway line, and ended up on Welshpool Road. The police started to lose sight of them but continued to tail them. Constable Turner swerved the car unexpectedly. Right in front of them was the Buick. Unable to drive it, the Lightning Gang had placed it across the road as an obstacle. The police missed it by inches.

As soon as possible, Detective-Inspector Purdue organised a search in the area where the Buick was abandoned. Mounted Constables Patterson and Johnston and Aboriginal trackers scoured the bush. They eventually found Thomas Pitcher, curled up under a bush, apparently asleep.

Having received information relating to the Coolup property, Detectives Findlay and Johnson and Constable Munro drove there on 11 March and found it abandoned. They saw enough at the house to assume that it was recently used and decided to stay there and keep vigil. Each man took turns watching. It was a tedious business that required patience. Finally, at 2:30 am on 12 March, a car was heard approaching the property.

Poised to strike, the detectives waited by the front door as the two men approached. It was Waters and Hawkins. To their dismay, they changed their minds and walked to the back door. That decision made it awkward for the police. Nevertheless, they rushed at the men and attempted to arrest them. Both took off into a paddock with the police hot on their heels.

During the chase, in the darkness, Detective Johnson tripped over a log. Luckily, so did Hawkins. They promptly arrested him and brought him to Perth. Waters managed to get back to the car and drove away. They later found it run into a wire fence. Waters was gone.

For weeks, Waters remained on the run. Then, police received a tip-off. He was rumoured to be walking east of Kalgoorlie and was following the Trans-Australian Railway. Disguising themselves, and using an old car, Detective Parker, Constable McEwan, and Constable Munro left Kalgoorlie and drove east. On 26 March, they came across a bearded man. It was Waters.

They passed him, and Waters called out for a lift. The police made a show of reluctantly pulling over. Waters willingly got into the car. As soon as he did, Detective Parker arrested him. While Waters initially denied his identity, he eventually admitted that he was the wanted man. All police had to do was check his pockets. In his possession were newspaper clippings detailing his exploits across the state.

On 4 April 1930, Waters, Hawkins, and Pitcher were reunited in the Perth Police Court. While a Magistrate had already sentenced them for their other crimes, on that day, they were charged with breaking and entering and stealing from the Bruce Rock co-operative store. They each pleaded guilty and were sentenced to two years’ hard labour cumulative on their other sentences. In total, each man’s sentence was close to five years’ imprisonment at Fremantle Prison. Residents of country towns could heave a sigh of relief. The Lightning Gang, who once boasted of stopping at nothing, was no more.

One of the cars stolen by the Lightning Gang. Photographed in the police yard, written on the top are the words: “Don’t touch Fingerprints.”



2 thoughts on “Harry Waters and the Lightning Gang”

Share your story...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s