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Early Days of Fremantle:

Some notable convicts

J.K. Hitchcock

Hitchcock, J.K. 1921, 'Some notable convicts', Fremantle Times, Friday 18 February 1921: 2.

The transportation of convicts to Western Australia began with the despatch of the first batch from England by the Scindian in 1850,and ceased with the arrival of the Fenian prisoners by the Hougoumont early in 1868. Between those dates a total of nearly 10,000 convicts landed on our shores, and of these the number now surviving could probably be counted on one's fingers. Many of these exiles were men of culture and refinement, who, in the old country, had occupied high positions in various walks of life. I shall give a brief review of a few of them, but my list of notable characters must necessarily be restricted, as I do not desire to wound the susceptibilities of any one, and must therefore eliminate the names of all who left descendants, or even remote relatives, whose feelings would naturally be hurt if I touched, however lightly, on matters which might reflect upon their family escutcheon. True, there are a few supercilious ones who do not deserve this consideration, but we will let it go at that.

Amongst the aristocracy of convictism who formed part of the commercial life of Fremantle in the '60's and early '70's, the names of the following will be familiar to old residents:—

Leopold Redpath.

This clever criminal was one of the batch of compulsory sojourners in Western Australia who arrived by the Edwin Fox in 1858. He began life as a lawyer's clerk in London, but afterwards joined the staff of the P. and O. Co. Leaving that office he entered upon business as a broker, but his free and easy methods of dealing with his clients' money soon ended his career in that direction. We next find him as clerk in the Great Northern Railway Co., rising to the position of registrar, in which capacity he controlled the share register. This he did to such effect that for ten years he was able to pose as a social magnate, and lavish dispenser of charity. A trifling incident brought about an examination of his books, when it was found that the share registers had been manipulated and false stock issued to the value of nearly a quarter of a million. Redpath was arrested, and, after trial, sentenced to transportation for life. He was considered to have lived at the rate of £20,000 a year during the period of his magnificence, and possessed on his conviction property to the value of £50,000. Soon after his arrival here he received his ticketof-leave, and later, his conditional pardon. He was a tall man of good address, and always maintained a position above the ordinary class of "ticketers." Even in prison he never made his own bed, nor cleaned out his cell, obsequious convicts being always ready to perform those offices for him. His brother "ticketers" touched their hats to him in token of their respect, but by the free classes he was shunned as a dangerous man and social agitator. He wrote clever letters to the Press and founded a Working Men's Association. During his term in prison he was employed in the Commissariat Stores, and by his ability and industry effected considerable saving therein. In 1871 he left Fremantle for the Eastern States, and was afterwards understood to have secured a lucrative appointment in Sydney. When in Fremantle he lived in style at the "Crown and Thistle" hotel, which was then kept by Mr. J. J. Harwood, and occupied the site of the present Cleopatra. He spent money freely, but from what source it was derived no one seemed to know.

William Robson.

In the same ship there arrived Robson another criminal of much the same type of character, but lacking the charm and attractiveness of Redpath. Starting life as a lawyer's clerk, he ultimately became manager of the share transfer department of the Crystal Palace Co, and in that capacity defrauded the company of about £27,000. Having fled from arrest he was captured in Sweden, and subsequently sentenced to two terms of transportation of 14 years respectively. In Western Australia he was employed with Redpath in the Commissariat Department, and speedily secured his ticket-of-leave, as good conduct prisoners usually did. Apparently he left his good conduct behind when he was released from prison, as, soon after obtaining obtaining his liberty, he was found guilty of embezzlement, and reincarcerated. On again being released he gained a precarious livelihood by conducting a school and dabbling in literary work, but dissipation in the company of kindred spirits constituted his chief employment.

Rev. William Beresford.

Another compulsory passenger by the Edwin Fox who achieved something more, than local notoriety, was the Rev. William Beresford, one time Anglican Dean of Cork. He was an uncle of the late Lord Charles Beresford, and being convicted of forging the endorsement to a bill of exchange, was sentenced to transportation for life. When Lord Charles visited Fremantle in 1869, as a midshipman under H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh, in H.M.S. Galatea, he was not too proud to look up his erring relative, and afford him financial assistance. How the young midshipman's kindness to the old ex-cleric was requitted will be known to those who have read Lord Charles' book of reminiscences. Released on ticket-of-leave Beresford was for som years editor of the Fremantle Herald, a position for which his ripe scholarship and personal prediticions [predilections?] eminently fitted him. He was well posted up in European and colonial politics, and as a writer on general topics he was unsurpassed. Being so thoroughly equipped for the journalistic arena it is not surprising that his contributions to the Press met with much acceptance. As editor of the Herald he always advocated a progressive policy, and strenuously urged the need of harbour works in Fremantle, the construction of railways, and the introduction of responsible government. In journalism the ex-clergyman found surcease from remembrance of the past. His had been a blighted career, but with all his failings he laboured incessantly to advance the best interests of the colony, and of Fremantle in particular. Unfortunately his declining years were spent in penury and want, and as he advanced in age his cynicism became quite pronounced. He regarded the world with bitterness, and, breaking away from all conventonalities, he ended his days a confirmed misanthrope, alienated from his few remaining friends who, in other circumstances, would gladly have helped him in his extremity. He lived to a very old age, and died in the Old Men's Home in 1881. As the end approached, remorse for a mis spent life must have been his portion:
For of all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
Alas! how different it might have been in this case.

John Boyle O'Reilly.

Among the Fenian prisoners who arrived by the Hougoumont in 1868, the most notable of the band was J. B. O'Reilly, who made his escape from Bunbury in 1869—seven years before six of his compatriots made their memorable escape by the Catalpa in 1876. In his bold bid for liberty he was aided by a priest named Father McCabe, and a settler named Maguire. Father McCabe had arranged with Captain Baker, of the American whaler Vigilant, to take O'Reilly on board his vessel. To effect this the assistance of Maguire was secured, but before the vessel put in an appearance at the appointed place, O'Reilly was being hotly pursued by the police. They, however, were put upon the wrong track, and at last the Vigilant hove in sight. O'Reilly was rowed out to sea in a small boat, but to his bitter disappointment the long looked for craft passed on without noticing the boat with the fugitive. O'Reilly had to return to the mainland and secrete himself in the bush, where, for over a week he endured great hardships. His friends however, came to his rescue, and after most exciting experiences he was it length taken on board the American barque Gazelle. From this vessel he was subsequently transferred to the American ship Sapphire of the Cape of Good Hope, and eventually landed in Liverpool under the name of John Saule. From Liverpool O'Reilly obtained a passage to America, where his great literary ability secured him a leading position in the journalistic world As editor of the Boston Pilot he made his mark, and as a writer on political, social, and industrial topics he acquired a deserved reputation. He published a work of fiction, treating of convict life in Western Australia under the title of Moondyne Joe, and his poetical efforts included the "Dukite Snake," "The Monster Diamond," and "The Dog Guard at Rottnest," all being stories of the penal colony of Western Australia. He died in 1890, at the early age of 46.

George Barrow.

I do not know what offence earned for this gentleman his free passage to Australia, but he was undoubtedly a man of conspicuous ability, and probably had used some of his many talents in a wrong direction in the Old Country. His versatility marked him as one of the most accomplished of the broadarrow brigade, and he possessed a very attractive personality. During his stay in Fremantle. which was not long, he owned and published a newspaper called the Era. In the day time he worked as an accountant to Mr. Lionel Samson, and in the evenings on the production of his paper. It was a small affair, printed in lithograph, and the caligraphy was a marvel of neatness. It was published once a week at the price of sixpence, and dealt mainly, with social topics. Barrow eventually left the colony, and obtained an important government appointment in Mauritius, but on its becoming known there that he was an ex-convict from Western Australia he lost his position—another illustration of the aptness of the old adage, "Give a dog a bad name and hang him."

Dr. William Lemon Oliver.

Everyone who knew this kindly, and genial old soul must have wondered what possible crime he could have been guilty of to earn him a life sentence. He was not the type of man one would expect to see figuring in the annals of crime, but possibly he was the victim of circumstances, or was too weak to stand against some sudden temptation. His wife evidently did not lose faith in him, as she followed him into exile, and established a ladies seminary in a house which stood on the present site of the Hotel Fremantle. The doctor himself kept a little chemist's shop close by, and was well liked by everyone. He was reputed to be very skilful in his profession, and none appealed to him in vain for medicine or treatment; if they could not pay he never worried. Up to the year 1868, when the Medical Registration Act came into force, anyone who liked could practice medicine. The Act permitted the registration of all who had previously been practising, whether they held a diploma or not, consequently every chemist in the place registered, and among them Dr. Oliver. He, however, was a really qualified man, having taken the degree of M.B. in England, but on being transported to Western Australia he lost the privileges attaching to that qualification. He died in 1873, and his widow returned to England shortly afterwards.

John McGibbon.

A Scotchman by birth, this clever figure-faker was a public accountant in the city of London at the time of his conviction, and he always declared that his presence here was due to his having been transported for a crime which a name-sake of his had committed. His devious career here, however, led most people to take this statement "cum grano salis." Like Bret Harte's heathen Chinee his business methods were "peculiar," but with all his chicanery, success never seemed to attend his undertakings, which were many and diversified. He was always in financial difficulties, and was in his element when engaged in litigation. In the witness box he was ready-witted and plausible, and seemed to delight in a verbal encounter with a cross-examining attorney. The late George Leake described him as "a man within a man," and some people credited him with having forgotten more about law than some of the letral luminaries of that day ever knew. Owing to his loquacity the lawyers always sought to pin him down to answering a question with a simple "yes" or "no," but none ever succeeded. He would enter into a long harangue and protest that it was as unreasonable to expect him to answer with a "yes" or "no" without explanation as it would be to expect his interrogator to similarly answer the question: "Have you left off beating your wife yet?" Sometime in the 80's, when he was a very old man, McGibbon left this State for Canada in quest of "fresh fields and pastures new." He was a brainy man, and might have attained to opulence if his activities had been pursued with a due regard to the ethics of commercial morality, the elasticity of which ought to satisfy even the most unscrupulous.

"Moondyne Joe.''

This noted bushranger, whose real name was Joseph Johns, hardly comes in the same category as the notable characters previously mentioned. He was a very ordinary kind of criminal, and his fame lies chiefly in his record for successful prison-breaking, and his wonderful elusiveness in baffling the police. His escapades would make an interesting story, but he was anything but the hero depicted in J. B. O'Reilly's novel. He never did anything very heroic, or very desperate—never even shot a policeman—nor did he ever do anvone any greater harm than was involved in raiding a larder or stealing a horse. He, however, gave the police an immensity of trouble, and it was found impossible to keep him within the four walls of the prison and so difficult to catch him when he escaped, that at length they ceased to chase him. After his last escape from durance he remained out back for a year or two, then gradually edged his way back to civilisation, domiciled himself within a stone's throw of the police station, and became a decent law-abiding citizen. His tall, gaunt, sinewy figure betokened the typical bushman, but after his reformation the of the wild, and the lure of the Moondyne Hills, had no further charm for him.

References and links

J.K. Hitchcock page


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