Joseph "Moondyne Joe" Johns. Houghton Wines

Prison break earns convict a pardon

OUR early colonial governors usually gave convicts a ticket of leave as a reward for good behaviour, not one for breaking out of prison.

But such was the case with notorious Western Australia bushranger and serial jail-breaker, Joseph "Moondyne Joe" Johns.

Joe earned himself 10 years in England for stealing some bread, bacon and cheese with another man in 1848, and after several years in prison was transported to the penal colony of Western Australia.

He was granted an immediate ticket of leave on arrival, but soon after was arrested for stealing an unbranded stallion and branding it with his own mark. He broke out of his police cell, stole the horse again, killed it and cut the brand off the body to destroy the evidence against him - earning three more years for his efforts.

Joe was released early but was soon charged - wrongly he maintained until his death - with pinching a steer, and after being given another 10 years absconded from a prison work party. After being re-captured once more, he was sentenced to 12 more months in irons - and after trying to cut the lock out of his cell door, yet another six months.

Joe then managed to slip his irons and with three other escapees staged numerous hold-ups on the roads around Perth and robbed a general store. When finally tracked down 300km north east of Perth, he got another five years on top of his many outstanding sentences.

And determined that he should not escape again, a special cell was built for him in Fremantle Prison - authorities showing it off to Perth's newspaper as "escape-proof, built of stone and lined with railway sleepers secured by 1000 nails."

So confident too was the-then State Governor, John Hampton that he jocularly told Joe in front of witnesses: "If you get out again, I'll pardon you."

But he'd underestimated Joe, who by now had been dubbed "Moondyne Joe" after a rugged bolt-hole he had to the north-east of Perth and where he collected occasional rewards for finding escaped cattle and horses.

To keep him occupied in Fremantle, he was put to work breaking a pile of stone next to the wall inside the prison grounds.

He worked assiduously under the watchful eye of a full-time guard, daily piling-up the broken stone until the guard could see only his head, chest, and swinging arms and sledgehammer and not realising that for every few blows at his rock pile, Joe was adding a blow at the prison wall. 

On March 7 1867 he made a last whack at the wall, dropped to his knees and crawled through a hole to freedom.

He remained free for almost two years, being re-captured in the most-bizarre circumstances: dressed in a wheat sack with two empty 9L wine barrels tied to his chest and back, sheepskin-covered boots to hide his tracks, and with a canvas bag around his neck containing skeleton keys, a brass tap and a lantern, Joe broke into the Swan Valley's Houghton Winery to fill his two barrels with wine.

Unbeknown to him a team of police were searching nearby for a suspected drowning victim, and in the early hours of the morning the winery's manager, Charles Ferguson invited them to his cellars for a rewarding drink.

Mistakenly thinking he'd been ambushed, Joe made a dash for the door but was immediately grabbed.

"You've got me at last," he shrugged, then asked Mr Ferguson: "Can you give me a drink, I've not had time to get one myself."

Mr Ferguson obliged before Joe was led away, a judge giving him yet another 12 months in irons on top of his earlier sentences.

But that was not the end for Moondyne Joe: he wrote a petition to new State Governor Frederick Weld, pointing-out Governor Hampton's promise to pardon him if he ever escaped again.

To his surprise - and the community's - Governor Weld granted him a ticket of leave.

Joe died of senile dementia in 1900, and to mark the night he was recaptured in their cellars, Houghton Wines have a range of wines called The Bandit with which to raise a glass to him.

They've also a function room and a gallery named after Moondyne Joe at their 175-year old (this November) Swan Valley winery.

>> Read more travel stories.

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