27 October, 2012

Jail break!

As I alluded to in my post A model prison there were numerous escape attempts at the Geelong Gaol over the years, several of which were at least for a time, successful. One of the most daring - and which conveniently had at least a little relevance to the Barwon - happened at 1:30am on Tuesday 8th October, 1889 when Frederick "Josh" Clark and Christopher "Christie" Farrell made their getaway. This was no spur of the moment decision, but an escape which was months, possibly years in the planning. Both men had arrived in Tasmania as convicts under the old transportation system and with the arrival of the gold rush had made their way to Victoria where both are separately documented as preying upon those returning from the gold fields. By 1889 both were recidivist criminals with extensive records. Farrell was over 60 and Clark was of a similar age. By 1888, both men were serving 14 year sentences in Pentridge Gaol in Melbourne - Farrell for the attempted murder of a police officer during his arrest at Fitzroy in 1887.
Through what the media of the day referred to as "systematic malingering" both prisoners had convinced authorities that they were frail enough to warrant transferring them to Geelong Gaol which at that time was being used as a hospital facility for aged and infirm prisoners. Once there, the pair appeared to behave in an exemplary fashion for some months with Clark working in the blacksmith's shop and neither attracting any untoward attention. Until that was, they made their bid for freedom.
The west wing, ground floor. Farrell's cell was at the far end, second from the left.
Clark's was third from the end on the right
In the early hours of the morning, with only two warders on duty and only one of those on watch, Clark called out to Warder Cain that he needed a drink of water. Cain brought the requested water and passed it through the bars to Clark who occupied cell 13. As he did so, he was grabbed from behind by Farrell who had escaped from his cell - number 7 - which stood almost directly across the hall. Clarke quickly emerged from his cell then Cain was pushed inside and restrained. They then took the warder to the cook's room where they left him gagged and bound to a bed, awaiting discovery by his sleeping workmate and the morning shift.

Cell 13 from which Josh Clark escaped. Without the iron bar
across the trapdoor it is easy enough to reach the exterior lock
Authorities later suspected that a key had been passed to Clark from outside - possibly via his window - or as suggested by the media, Clark himself may have produced the key during his time in the smithy in anticipation of their escape.* When the opportunity arose, he called the warder, then whilst Cain was getting the requested water, Clark secured his own release by the simple expedient of opening the trapdoor in his cell's main door, reaching through and using the key on the lock. Once free he quickly unlocked Farrell's cell before returning to his own and waiting for Cain to return.
Christie Farrell occupied cell 7 at the time of the escape
In any case, with the warder out of the way, the pair headed for what the papers described as a partially completed wing (presumably some renovations or an extension were underway but I can find no mention of such). There, they climbed an unfinished wall and made their escape and despite the feverish attempts of the police to recapture the pair, it seems that Farrell and Clark managed to slip through the net of those searching for them.
However, whilst their escape from the gaol had been planned in detail, neither seemed too sure of what to do next - or that is what Farrell wanted the police to think. Realising that every road out of town was being closely watched they travelled by night and hid during daylight. Not having been free in the town for the last 36 years, Farrell later stated he struggled to gain his bearings, but by daylight, they found the Barwon and followed its bank. They struggled up and down hills and stayed out of sight - not an easy task if the photos below are an accurate depiction. At some point they decided to head for Ballarat.

The view from Queen's Park in 1880
 There is no mention of exactly how far they followed the river, but it would be reasonable to assume that they stayed on the north bank at least as far as Fyansford as this was the easiest point to cross the Moorabool and leave the district in the direction of their intended travel. However, progress was slow and by Wednesday evening they were still near Geelong.

Near Queen's Park, 1882. It is easy to see why the escapees felt they travelled
constantly up and down hill
Prior to Clark's recapture but after his own, Farrell claimed to have left Clark at this time on the Barwon Flats "in a moribund state" and headed to Ballarat alone to look for some old mates. (As far as I can ascertain, the Barwon Flats were the low-lying area of land near today's Moorabool Street Bridge and including Belmont Common and surrounds).
Meanwhile, the search for the pair continued unsuccessfully throughout the rest of the week, despite reported sightings. Information concerning a pair of suspicious travellers at Meredith on the 13th October, proved false when the "suspicious looking men" reported to police were found to be "a pair of Indian hawkers".
However things were not quite as Farrell would later have had the authorities believe. Clark was anything but moribund and had not been left on the banks of the Barwon gasping his last. In truth, the pair had travelled as far as Buninyong together, presumably living rough and avoiding the main road. At this point, they had a falling out over the fact that Farrell refused to exchange his prison clothing for less incriminating civilian attire - a decision which was ultimately responsible for his downfall. Understandably, he did not have a change of clothes available and was reluctant to draw attention to their whereabouts by stealing some as suggested by Clark.
A depiction of the well-known bushranger Harry Power in 1880. This prison
uniform would be similar to that worn by Clark and Farrell. Note the
button-up legs for ease of use when in irons and the arrow
stamp on the leg with the letters P and D, marking the wearer as a felon
As a result they went their separate ways, Farrell to Lake Wendouree to look for his old mates and Clark to Ballarat where he was given food by an ex-prison mate who worked in a bakery. Still not trusting Farrell, Clark made haste to get out of the district and headed north west out of town.
Farrell meanwhile, discovered that his mates had moved on in the 12 years since he had last seen them and like Geelong, found Ballarat much changed. His next move was to head for New South Wales. His first attempt to locate the road which would take him towards the border in fact saw him heading back towards Geelong! Realising his mistake, he returned to Lake Wendouree hoping to pick up the correct road and to get back into the bush. At this point he was soaking wet from recent rain and had not eaten in four days being, he later claimed, too proud to beg and not into petty theft.
Regardless of their intentions, neither man remained at large for long. Farrell was the first to be recaptured at Lake Wendouree on that morning of 16th October. As he tried to make his way out of town, two young men saw him and became suspicious. He had found an old overcoat but was still wearing his uniform. He had attempted to disguise his pants by covering the broad arrow insignia with cloth. In the end, it was the distinctive cabbage tree hat marking him as a prisoner which gave him away.
Example of a cabbage tree hat. These were made by prisoners from
palm fronds and could be sold to earn money. Worn by the working class
across the country, a black band on Farrell's hat marked him out as an
escaped prisoner.

The men quickly informed Police Constable Muldarry who approached Farrell and questioned him as to his identity. Farrell gave a false name, denied being one of the escaped prisoners and refused to accompany the constable to the station, at which point he produced a knife stolen from the gaol. Muldarry was wounded in the ensuing struggle, but with the help of the two informants was able to subdue Farrell who at the time stated: "I wish I had done for you, and then I would be hung, and then it would be all over; I am tired of my life." He was taken back into custody where he had his first meal in four days, was interviewed and returned to Geelong by train.
Farrell's statements to the contrary notwithstanding, the authorities thought it likely that Clark was also somewhere in the Ballarat area and in this they proved correct. His re-arrest however, took a further two days by which time he had travelled some 20km or so north west of Ballarat and had holed up in an unoccupied hut near Mount Boulton. Like Farrell, he was spotted by a pair of boys who felt that something was not right and, all too well aware of the reward on Clark's head, made haste to tell the authorities in the form of Mounted Constable Tobin (or Loton depending on which newspaper report you believe).
Under cover of darkness, Tobin and a young man from the locality approached the hut where the constable forced his way through the locked front door. On his own, with the young recruit slow to appear on the scene, he forced a second door and struck a match. On seeing a figure he believed to be Clark on the bed, he quickly attempted to restrain him. This resulted in a struggle during which Clark tried desperately to reach the mantle piece where he had placed the second knife from the gaol. Tobin however, managed to handcuff Clark and had subdued him before his assistant arrived on the scene. Once restrained, Clark denied he was the escaped prisoner from Geelong but was forced to admit his identity when Tobin pointed out his identifying tattoos.
He too was taken back to Geelong where both men received an extra two years on their sentences as a reward for their efforts.
A subsequent inquiry into the escape was held on 31st October, 1889 which saw the governor of the gaol reprimanded and the warders on duty demoted - this despite Farrell's saying that the warder Cain had fought like a lion and should not be punished for is failure to prevent their escape. The whole affair was a litany of lax procedures, poor maintenance and general ignorance stretching all the way to the top with the warders claiming that requests for maintenance were ignored and the governor blaming a lack of staff and worn facilities capable only of containing infirm prisoners, not dangerous criminals such as Farrell and Clark. The external walls of the gaol were not manned at all during the night and only two warders shared night duty inside the building.
In a classic case of stable doors and absconding horses, thirteen prisoners sentenced to long terms were transferred to Pentridge and the cells were immediately fitted with external metal bars which would have prevented the prisoners from opening their outward-swinging doors even if they had managed to obtain a key. In fact, Clark's cell was already fitted with an external bolt but it was not standard practise to use it.
By the time of his death in Geelong Gaol on 4th August, 1904, Clark who had arrived in Tasmania in 1847 at the age of 18, had amassed sentences equating to 85 years and 7 months and had spent more than half his life in gaol. He was 75 years old. When inside, he was generally a model prisoner. Outside he was a known sneak-thief, burglar and receiver of stolen goods. He also went by the names of Josh Clark and Joseph Clark, but was most commonly known as Josh. In 1891 whilst occupying a cell on the top floor of Geelong Gaol, Clark made one last, unsuccessful escape attempt, but was discovered when he or a cellmate dropped a brick as they were attempting to cut their way through the exterior wall.
Like Clark, Farrell was also transported to Tasmania, arriving in 1848. By 1851 he was in Victoria and had turned bushranger at which time he and the well-born Owen Suffolk (aka George Mason and known as the Convict Poet) teamed up to form the "Suffolk Gang". They held up two mail coaches including the Portland-Geelong coach which they bailed up near Bruce's Creek in May, 1851.

Depiction of Farrell and Suffolk waiting to hold up a mail coach, by GD Bruny
Of the 48 years he spent in New South Wales and Victoria, he was at liberty only for about two years in total. More than half of the years he spent in custody were served in irons. After the escape attempt in 1889 he remained in Geelong Gaol, dying at the age of 70 on 1st September, 1895. Like Clark, he also used a number of aliases including Thomas Connors, Charles Farrow and Charles Shaw, the latter being the name he gave to Constable Muldarry at the time of his arrest in Ballarat.

*In 1923 a large brass key which proved to be a master key from the era of Clark and Farrell's escape was found when grounds west of the Geelong Supreme Court were being cleared. Its rough-cut appearance suggested that it was an illegal copy and it was widely believed that this was the key used by Clark and Farrell in their escape. A version of events described in the gaol display has an elderly Clark claiming that he threw the key into the grounds on his way to court however, it seems highly unlikely that having been found in possession of such a key, Clark would have been allowed to keep it. A report in the paper a few days after his arrest indicated that he was found with a skeleton key on his person which had been cut from a penny. At the time the authorities were quick to point out that the make of the key was not such as could have been made in the gaol.
UPDATE: on 2nd September, 2016 the Geelong Indy newspaper published an article indicating that what appeared to be a ball and chain worn by 19th century prisoners had recently been discovered on a farm near Bannockburn during an excavation. The article speculated that it could have been shed by Clark or Farrell as they made their escape from the Geelong Gaol and headed towards Ballarat.

1 comment: