Friday, October 11, 2013


....he received only a 3 year sentence, whereas a typical sentence for horse stealing was more than 10 years.

While Johns was serving his sentence, there was a rash of convict escapes and attempted escapes, but Johns remained well behaved.  His good behaviour earned him a remission on his sentence and he was released on a ticket of leave in February, 1864.  He then found work on a farm in Kelmscott (this is an old Perth suburb and my daughter and one of my granddaughters live in Kelmscott now), but in January 1865 a neighbour's steer was killed and eaten, and Johns was accused of having done the deed. Johns was to protest his innocence of this crime for the rest of his life, but was nonetheless found guilty and sentenced to ten years' penal servitude.  Johns was determined not to serve what he felt was an unjust sentence, and in early November he and another prisoner absconded from a work party.  They were on the run for nearly a month, during which time they committed a number of small robberies.  It was during this time that Johns first adopted the nickname Moondyne Joe.  The pair were finally caught 37 kilometres east of York (this town is not far from Toodyay) by a party of policemen that included Aboriginal tracker Tommy Windich.  For absconding and for being in possession of a firearm, Moondyne Joe was sentenced to twelve months in irons.

In April, 1865, Joe sent a petition to the Chief Justice and received four years off his total sentence. This was apparently unsatisfactory to him, for later that month he received a further six months in irons for trying to cut the lock of his prison door.  Early in August, he succeeded in escaping again.  After cutting off his irons, he met up with three other escapees, and together they roamed the bush around Perth, committing a number of robberies and narrowly escaping capture on a number of occasions. Near the end of the month, one of the gang was captured by police.  Realising that the gang could not elude the police forever, Moondyne Joe formulated a plan to escape the colony by travelling overland to the colony of South Australia.  This would be a long and arduous journey through extremely arid land, and would have to be very well equipped if it were to stand any chance of success.  On 5 September, Moondyne Joe equipped his company by committing the biggest robbery of his career, stealing supplies and equipment from the Toodyay store of an old enemy, James Everett.  The gang then started travelling east along the explorer Charles Hutt's established route..  Their tracks were discovered by police on 26 September near the present-day site of the town of Westonia, about 300 kilometres east of Perth.

As punishment for escaping and for the robberies committed while on the run, Moondyne Joe received five years of hard labour on top of his remaining sentences.  Extraordinary measures were taken to ensue that he did not escape again.  He was transferred to Fremantle Prison where a special "escape-proof" cell was made for hi built from stone, lined with jarrah sleepers and over 1,000 nails:

He was set to work breaking stone, but rather than permit him to leave the prison, the stone was brought in and dumped in a corner of the prison yard, where Johns worked under constant supervision of a warder.  Governor John Hampton was so confident of the arrangements he was heard to say to Johns: "If you get out again, I'll forgive you".  (I love this part of the story)  The rock broken by Johns, was not removed regularly and eventually a pile grew up until it obscured the guard's view of Joe below the waist.  Partially hidden behind the pile of rocks, Johns occasionally swung his sledgehammer at the limestone wall of the prison.  On 7 March, 1867 Moondyne Joe escaped through a hole he had made in the prison wall.  Despite an extensive manhunt, no sign of him was found. and he would not be recaptured for nearly two years.  He did not return to any of his old haunts, and he committed no crimes, so the authorities received very little information about him.  Also, many convicts were encouraged by Moondyne Joe's audacious escape, and a number of escapes were attempted in the following months, so that he was quickly forgotten.

A few days before the second anniversary of his escape, Moondyne Joe tried to steal some wine from the cellars at Houghton Winery (in the Swan Valley).   By chance, the owner, CW. Ferguson, had been helping with a police search, and afterwards invited a group of police back to the vineyard for refreshments.  When the owner entered the cellar, Joe assumed that he was discovered, and made dash for the door into the arms of the police.  He was returned to prison, and on 22 March, 1869, was sentenced to an additional four years in irons.  He made at least one more attempt to escape, but was unsuccessful.  Eventually, Governor Weld heard of his predecessor Hampton's promise, and decided that further punishment would be unfair.  Moondyne Joe was given a ticket of leave in April, 1871.

The remainder of Moondyne Joe's life consisted of periods of good behaviour punctuated by occasional minor misdemeanors and brief jail terms.  In January 1879, he married a widow named Louisa Hearn, and they spent some time prospecting for gold near Southern Cross.  In 1880 he worked at Withcliffe and Karridale (in south-west W.A.), and it was said that while exploring the countryside around Karridale he discovered Moondyne Cave. Actually this cave was discovered by Fred Grange in 1879. (I feel there are several stories attributed to Moondyne Joe as he was a larger than life character.  Not all these stories were officially verified as being true.  I am sure though that the stories of his various escapes are very true as they are on record,  and he led the authorities a merry dance for many years.)

In his later years, Joe began acting strangely, and was eventually found to be mentally ill.  He died of senile dementia in the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum (now the Fremantle Arts Centre building) on 13 August, 1900, was was buried in the Fremantle Cemetery.  The cemetery records show that Joseph Bolitho Johns (aka Moondyne Joe) died in Fremantle on 16 August, 1900 at the age of 72.  He is buried in the Anglican section MON A, Gravesite 0580.  Grant # FOO13594.  Grantee W.J.Edgar. Application #FB000000265.

Moondyne Joe is popularly described as Western Australia's only bushranger of note.  No Ned Kelly, he neither held up mail coaches nor attacked banks; he raided poultry runs, visited half-way houses and stole horses and other items.  Through his determined bids for freedom against the harsh prison discipline of the convict period he became a romantic figure in the eyes of the public. His small triumphs over authority inspired John Boyle O'Reilly, a convict who escaped from W.A. to the United States, to write a novel in 1887 on convict life in Western Australia featuring a fictitious and highly romantic 'Moondyne' as central character.

On the first Sunday of May, the township of Toodyay celebrates life and times of Moondyne Joe by holding the Moondyne Joe Festival.  This festival takes place in the main street with street theatre, market stalls, demonstrations and the entire town is generally transported back to earlier years.

In the Darling Ranges ............ many years ago
There lived a daring outlaw, by the name of 'Moondyne Joe'.
He stole the squatter's horses, and a sheep or two or three.
He loved to roam the countryside, and swore he would be free.
The troopers said "We'll catch him, but we know it's all in vain;
Every time we lock him up he breaks right out again.
'Cause in he goes, and out he goes, and off again he'll go,
There's not a gaol in W.A. can keep in Moondyne Joe".

Once again I called on Wikipedia for nearly all this information.


  1. I do find myself feeling a bit sorry for him. It does sound as if he was innocent of killing the steer. And, while I still don't approve of his killing the horse - at least his other crimes were crimes against property. Unlike many of our other bushrangers he didn't appear to be a killer.

    1. I felt the same way EC about all your comments. I don't think he really had a BAD bone in his body (except for that horse). Just misunderstood and some of the authorities back then weren't so well behaved themselves.

  2. I like the breaking rock part of the story, what an ingenious way to escape.
    The poem at the end is a good one.
    I agree with EC, he doesn't appear to have been a killer.

    1. I had read about the rock breaking years ago and that's one reason I decided to research his entire story. He certainly couldn't stand being incarcerated and I can understand that. I doubt he meant any person any real harm.

  3. What a colourful character...and so determined to be a 'free spirit'.

  4. I think that was his problem...he had to be free and when he fell on hard times he took what he needed and then paid for it the hard way. He was quite ingenious the way he escaped from custody.

  5. Hari Om
    The quintessential larrikin, it seems to me! Thanks for the tale, Mimsie. Cheers, from Mumbai airport --- &*> YAMxx

  6. I think you've hit the nail on the head and nobody was ever going to tell him what to do!!! Hope the flight was a good one with a smooth landing. Glad you enjoyed the yarn. xx