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October 2012

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Good On Yer, Moondyne Joe


Joseph Bolitho Johns was born in 1831, depending on which book you read as some put his year of birth at 1826. That is the same for where he was born, it is debateable some maintain that he was born in Cornwall, based on the origins of his middle name of Bolitho being a Cornish name. Others have it that he is of Welsh heritage, as you can tell his place of birth was not noted. Later in his life he became an iron ore miner, and possibly due to his ability to read and write, being the fairly eloquent man that he was, he came into contact with John Williams. Now John Williams worked as a boatman on the Brecon to Monmouth canal serving the Clydach Iron Works in Monmouth, Wales.

Together the friends Johns and Williams were arrested near Monmouth due to a suspect behaviour, and latterly because of a search and a subsequent report of the same items having been stolen from a nearby house they were charged with stealing those three loaves of bread, several cheeses, a shoulder of mutton, a piece of bacon and a hunk of suet.

At the Brecon Assizes in March 1849 where it should be said that they pleaded not guilty and defended themselves of the charges. Had they pleaded guilty to the charges the chances are they would have received shorter sentences, as others that day who were charged with similar offences and pleaded guilty were given three month labour. The defence conducted by Joseph B. Johns took a long time and involved several mistakes of law, all of which became rather irksome to the judge, hence, John Williams and Joseph B. Johns received ten years transportation each.

John Williams being transported to Hobart in 1852.

Joseph B. Johns was transported in February 1853, after serving four years in various English prisons. Such as Shorncliffe army camp, Dartmoor prison and Pentonville prison. On the 2nd of February 1853 he was put on the convict ship Pyrenees bound for the Swan River settlement in Western Australia ship Pyrenees. Setting sail with 294 convicts it landed in Australia with 291 convicts, 3 had died. And on April the 30th of 1853 Joseph Bolitho Johns arrived in Fremantle.

Regarded as a ‘ticket of leave’ convict Joseph B. Johns (Imperial Convict number 1790). He quickly became regarded as someone who’d get the work done, also gaining a reputation where he that he was a happy person, and a nice person to be near. Several years later though he was arrested and charged with stealing a horse. But he quickly escaped, on the horse he was charged with stealing, and, the horse had the Toodyay magistrates saddle and bridle. When he was caught he was given another 3 years and he was given the Colonial Convict number 5889. That was followed by the number 8189.

According to historical data Joseph B. Johns became somewhat loose in mind during his latter years of life and was housed in a home for the ’disorientated’ of mind. That home was one of the many places that he had once escaped from. At the time the authorities said he was taken there for his own good it wasn’t a prison, they were being truthful. Makes you wonder though, did he know that? Did he realize what was happening? If so, what a game he was playing, proving to all that he really was of a ’disorientated’ mind. Because several times he did ‘escape’ from there.

The day came when he had to eventually hand in his ‘get out of jail free card’ he was buried in Fremantle Cemetery in a paupers grave (number 580A) according to a book his date of death has been established as the 13th of August. Another source put his burial at the 15th of August 1900. Some sources have him as 69 years old when he died, some as 72.

So much disparity between the dates prompted my story delving into fictitious events.

One such escape has been promoted for this story, an escape which is ironic. As Joseph B. Johns broke the rocks of the prison wall instead of breaking the rocks that were placed there for him.

Please note though, that this story is not entirely true. A lot of known facts of his life have been twisted to enable this story to be written.

And so, the story begins:


On the7th of March in 1867.

A lone convict was despondently looking out of his prison cell window at Fremantle Prison, dreaming of the day he would once again be a part of the outside world, wondering if he could ever be accepted into it again. The prison governor was sat in his nice comfortable office, relaxing at his desk he is reading the days newspaper. Trying not to be disturbed he casually looked up to see the prison warder at attention, waiting to speak to him.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Sir, following the doctors orders, that Moondyne Joe character has been taken to the exercise yard. You said you wanted to be told sir.”

The prison governor smiled, he felt good knowing where that escapee was. He hated that all mention of Moondyne Joe, his name was only slightly better. But hearing his convict number; that was good. As it was though he’d felt so good before, having that habitual escapee in his prison that he even said if that prisoner escaped he could have his freedom, but now he wasn’t so sure. Keeping abreast of the prisoners movements at all times though, that appeased him.

“Next time you tell me that, use his proper name,” he told the warder. Looking down at his newspaper he had a second thought. “I hate it when I hear that name, you had better make sure he is kept busy, I want the guards to watch his every movement.”

“Yes sir,” replied the prison warder, “The two best prison guards will be in attendance sir. There is a good pile of rocks in the yard, more have been added so there are plenty of them for him to break, sir.”

“Good,” replied the prison governor, he smiled to himself. “I won’t be happy if I hear he doesn’t get enough fresh air and exercise.”

Outside in the exercise yard two prison guards had escorted Joseph B. Johns to the pile of rocks after making sure that no other convict would be in the yard.

“You should get enough fresh air into your lungs out here, ready for when you are put back in your cell,” said one of the guards to our Joe.

Joseph began breaking the rocks, occasionally sneakily looking at where the guards were standing, he was happy that the guards were becoming increasingly lax. To start with they replaced all the rocks he had broken and gave him a new pile of rocks to be broken each day.

Joe had brought out a length of wire so that he could put his shirt, jacket and hat on, and pretend to be busy breaking the correct rocks. As it was he was breaking other rocks, the rocks that were collectively known as the prison wall. Carefully placing the broken rocks from the wall he managed to keep his endeavours secret. After breaking rocks for thirty minutes that day, and starting to sweat from the heat of the day and from his exertion he sneakily looked to make sure the prison guards were not watching him, he relaxed against the rocks. Making sure the guards were talking too each other, he cheekily listened in to what they were saying.

“What name should we call him?”

“That depends,” the guard looked about, “if it is just us, call him what you like. But if the governor can hear you, well, do you want the governor to be nice to you or not.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“If you want the governor to be respectful to you, you just use his prison number, or if you prefer you can refer to him as Joseph B. Johns.”

“What if I don’t care what the governor thinks of me?”

“More fool you, he can make your life a misery. But it’s your choice, if you want to refer to the prisoner as Moondyne Joe you can. I’d prefer if you didn’t while I am near you, I don’t want to get any of the guilty by association stuff. You call him by what he is known as if you want to, I’m sure the Governor will love you,” he laughed at his own sense of humour, “Yeah, that’d give the governor the pip alright.”

They both laughed then looked at the pile of rocks, seeing the hat and jacket of the prisoner.

“I know that he is not allowed to be near other convicts. But to be kept separate from them for every minute of every day?”

“That was the governor’s order, I hear the governor designed the cell himself. And it serves the prisoner right for escaping.”

The prison guard faced the rocks, “Those will give him something to think about for a while yet, that‘ll teach him to keep escaping.”

“A pile of rocks all to himself. How many times has he escaped, so far?

“WHAT?” the guard exclaimed, “What do you mean, so far!” Quickly they both turned and looked at the pile of rocks. They saw the prisoners clothes. Thinking it was the prisoner the prison guards settled. Joseph grinned to himself.

“Are you in for a surprise later.”

He crept over to the hole he had made in the wall. The rocks he’d removed from the wall he had broken them and put the bits onto the pile. Knowing that when the prison guard had looked, all that they’d seen were his prison issue cap, shirt and jacket he had carefully placed on the spade.

He smiled to himself, he could see that the prison guards thought that they could see him.

Now though Joseph was standing in his prison issue underwear, looking to the clothes on the washing line, in the garden of the prison governor’s house. He looked back to the hole in the prison wall.

“If those guards only knew which rocks I’ve been breaking.” Satisfied at what he’d done, he’d even thought of waving to the guards (a passing thought) from the hole in the wall. The air seemed fresher on the freedom side of the wall. He went into the garden, to the washing line, putting on the governor’s clothes. Going towards the governors house, he adjusted the clothes attempting to make them comfortable. Standing outside the house, looking through an open window, he thanked his lucky stars. Because the open window was for the kitchen and that no one was in the room. He helped himself to a couple of cakes that had been left on the windowsill to cool. Not bothering to look around he clambered through the open window into the room. A quick look about told him everything he needed to know. Going to the pantry door, opening it he picked up a bag, feeling the weight of the bag he looked inside.

“A gun? that‘s an odd place to leave a gun, still. The prison governor is an idiot.” He put some pots of herbs into the bag, looking at the shelves he saw some carrots and potatoes. “They’ll do as well.” Going to the sink, he saw some clean forks, spoons and a couple of bowls so he placed them in the bag. Testing it for weight, he decided that more could be put into it he helped himself to the freshly cleaned cooking pot near the sink. About to leave he saw a pair of boots by a leg of

the kitchen table.

“Well this is my lucky day,” he said to himself. Taking comfort in a chair as he put on the prison governor’s boots. “And only a little to big for me,” he smiled to himself, “I must remember to send a letter of thanks to him.” Joseph looked about for a pen and paper.

Leaving by the front door he walked along the garden path to the road. Whistling a jaunty, happy tune he followed the path around the prison walls to a nearby park. In the park he found a good sturdy tree, placing the bag at its base he started to climb the tree until he could see over the wall, to the wall of the prison cells and to the windows of those cells. Perched high in the tree he waved to a prisoner who was sat at his cell window. The prisoner saw him, recognising him he waved back.

“I’d best let the other prisoners know.” About to begin whistling he thought better of it. Smiling to himself, wishing him well. “I’ll give him some time to get clear of this place.” Beginning to start counting the time. “One, one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand.”

Joseph climbed down the tree, until he stood on the ground once more. The feeling of freedom clutched at him, he picked up his bag. As he was about to leave a young boy startled him. The boy looked at him then at the tree. Facing Joe he said.

“If I was to climb a tree in my good clothes my mother would really tell me off, I’d have to go to my bedroom without any tea.”

Joseph looked to the boy then looked at the tree.

“Then you’d best not tell your mother you saw me, I wouldn’t want to be told off for climbing a tree in my good clothes.” The boy smiled to him.

Joseph gently patted the boys head, then walked away.

Standing in his cell, the prisoner had almost finished counting. “Nine hundred and ninety eight, one thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine one thousand, one thousand, one thousand.”

Looking to the tree. “I hope that he has managed to get far enough away,” said the prisoner.

He went to his cell window and began to whistle the song written for Moondyne Joe. Several other prisoners, sat in their cells, dreaming of the day they would be free. They heard the lone whistler, as they heard what the tune was, they knew what it meant.

“He has done it, he has done it again! He has escaped again, good on yer Moondyne Joe.” Those prisoners went to their cell window they joined the lone whistler, more and more prisoners joined in.

The joyous sound of the whistling that tune carried through the prison, seemingly calling for other prisoners to join in, some began to sing the words.

That Freo jail, it’s not gonna hold yer,

That Freo jail, it’s not gonna hold yer,

That Freo jail, it’s not gonna hold yer,

oo oo (POP). There goes, our Moondyne Joe.

The guv’nor sits, cringing in his office chair,

The guv’nor sits, cringing in his office chair,

The guv’nor sits, cringing in his office chair,

Now’t for him to do, just sit an’ whistle along.

The Prison Governor heard the tune, locking the door to his office he covered his ears trying to block out the sound. He knew what his father would say to him, he knew what the people in the street would say, he knew what the newspapers would say of him. Oh, how he disliked that man.

Joseph was walking through the streets on the outskirts of Fremantle heading into the streets of Perth, knowing that he should keep to the side streets. He heard people walking by him whistling his song. He smiled.

It wasn’t until he stood on top of a hill, looking back towards Perth that he truly began to relax. Looking at the fresh brown soil beneath the boots. “This is the type of land I like, this is where I prefer to be known as Moondyne Joe.” He looked at the nearby trees, he looked down into the valley at the trees by the rivers edge. Breathing in the fresh air he smiled. Watching a bird fly from tree to tree his eyes glazed. “It wasn’t that I wanted to show the prison governor that I am better than him, I didn’t want the people in the street to see me as a hero. I do not want young children to see me as their role model I merely wanted to be here, to play my part in this world. The world of nature not the world of man.

“And if I need to, there are plenty of places for me to hide here.” Taking in one last look at the city. “Goodbye Perth, I hope I never see you again,” he said to himself, “How many how many times have I escaped from you? From your Fremantle prison?” he shook his head, “You are one place that I need to stay away from. This time I need to stay hidden.”

Walking, running in the quiet valley. “This could be a nice area for me to stay, for a while at least.” He looked at the sharply rising tree covered hills that rose from the banks of the river.

At the rivers edge he saw a group of large boulders, not too far from where he was stood, going to them. Climbing up them, he pulled himself up to the top. Stood upright, he looked as far as he could through the trees. “Good, I can’t see anyone coming from Perth,” he looked the other way, “I’d best keep going though.”

Jumping from rock to rock down to the path he looked at the rocks. “How many of you have I had to break in jail? I do like them out here, they seem at home here.”

Looking to the river, walking a few paces along the track he turned to look at where he just run down.

“That was the first bit of fun I’ve had since I escaped.” He began to hum the tune that had been written for him. He laughed aloud, only stopping to hear his echo bouncing of the hills. “A true echo, not like the ones I used to hear in Fremantle jail.”