1827 - 1900





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Moondyne Joe
Moondyne Joe



Moondyne Joe's major claim to fame is that he was Western Australia's most famous bush ranger. His real name was Joseph Bolitho Johns. He was the son of a Welsh blacksmith and was imprisoned in March 1849 for the theft of foodstuffs from the home of Richard Price in Pentwyn Clydach. Johns was 'in company' with John Williams (a.k.a. William Cross) who was already 'known to the police'.

Johns apparently conducted his own defence at his trial and was probably not such a good 'lawyer', as in 1853 he was transported to W.A. for 10 years. Johns was luckier than his companion as he came to the relatively enlightened colony of Swan River while William Cross was sent to Tasmania!

Joe arrived in Fremantle aboard the Pyrenees on the 30th of April 1853. Johns was convict number 1790 and for a while nothing is known of his initial time in the state but it is thought he may have been sent to Guildford and then Toodyay. One source says he was a 'ticket of leave' man working at the tiny settlement of Moondyne.

Two years later he was granted a conditional pardon on March 10th 1855.

Joe appeared on the record again at Toodyay in 1862. One story says that he branded an unmarked horse without trying to find the owner and was gaoled in Toodyay for the 'felony'. He then escaped by unscrewing the hinges from his cell door.

Joe took the 'evidence' with him - the dead horse minus its skin and incriminating brand being found later in the bush. In the process of the first escape it is said that he stole the Resident Magistrate's saddle and bridle but this may just be romantic myth. It is certain that he took the horse he was accused of stealing to get rid of the evidence.


Another story is that he trapped strayed horses and returned them for the reward but that he was suspected of setting some of the horses loose himself and was therefore charged with horse theft.

Had Joe waited for the trial instead of escaping, he would have been much better off as he was acquitted of horse theft but charged with escaping custody and was sentenced to three years hard labour and became colonial prisoner 5889.

When recaptured, he seems to have served the next three years without incident and was released on a ticket of leave on January 5th 1864.

On March 29th 1865 he was convicted of shooting a steer (ox) and was sentenced to ten years. Joe was adamant that he was innocent of this crime. This was the beginning of a cat and mouse game which 'Joe' and the law played for the next forty years.

Joe was now colonial prisoner 8189 but while on a work party in the Canning River area, Joe absconded. He was recaptured at Doodenanning and was given a further 12 month sentence. After a petition to the governor in April 1866, Joe was awarded a 4 year remission on his sentence. Obviously Joe was not impressed and attempted to escape in July. The result was a sentence of 6 months in chains.

Only weeks later he was off again. This time he was with other escapees, John James, Thomas Bugg and John Bassett. The group were on the run for seven weeks.

There are tales that at this stage of Joe and his 'gang' robbing stores in the Avon Valley with a view to building up supplies to make an attempt to cross from Western Australia to the eastern colonies. On 17 September 1866 he is said to have robbed Everett's Store in Toodyay while Governor Hampton was staying in town. The robbery was notable for the fact that Joe and his compatriots managed to escape with guns, supplies, clothing, ammunition and of all things, thirty-six fancy ladies handkerchiefs. How they intended to use the handkerchiefs on their journey across Australia was never explained. This daring and successful robbery helped create a legend that Joe had cut off the Governor's beard.

All of this part of the story is probably just be romantic myth as other sources state that Joe never had a firearm and never actually held anyone up. In fact the local population appeared to be amused by Joe's antics, with the possible exception of Governor Hampton who was made to look quite the fool by Joe's continued escapes.

A popular ditty at the time went:


'The Governor's son has got the pip
The Governor's got the measles
For Moondyne Joe has give 'em the slip
Pop goes the weasel'


Hearing this sung by urchins in the streets of Fremantle must have irked the Governor no end.

Whatever the truth, he was captured once more at Bodallin Soak on the 29th of September. As the soak is some 200 miles east of Perth there may be some truth to the story about Joe attempting to leave Western Australia.

Joe was sent back to Fremantle where he was chained by the neck to a post in the prison yard as an example to other prisoners.

George Hampton (comptroller general of convicts and Governor Hampton's son) had a special cell constructed for Joe. George boasted that it was 'escape proof' and that if Joe managed to escape from such a strong cell he would be given him his freedom. Joe remained in the cell for only four months.

Due to ill health he was allowed into the exercise yard where he was given stones to break. In one of the most extraordinary escapes ever to occur at Fremantle Gaol, he built the stones up against the wall so that a space behind was hidden from the guard, dug through the wall, left his clothes hanging near the wall giving the impression that he was still inside the prison. On March 7th 1867 Joe made his getaway in his underwear and boots.

This time his escape was more successful and he remained free for nearly two years. Governor Hampton, already despised by most of the population, was held to ridicule by the press. The following appeared in one of the newspapers at the time:

'Probably no event in the colony ever tickled the risible fancies of the public than the escape of the notorious convict, Moondyne Joe, on the afternoon of Thursday last week. Much of the amusement felt arose from the remembrance of the theatrical exhibition made of Joe by the Acting Comptroller General when he was last captured... ...Joe's ingenuity in making his escape from his apparently hopeless condition has gained him many sympathisers who express an opinion that he has earned his freedom...'

The Hampton's were not amused and a warrant was said to be issued for Joe to be taken "Dead or alive". Joe was still 'at large' when the Hamptons left Western Australia in 1868. Needless to say that George Hampton did not hold true to his promise to free Joe if he escaped again.

He was recaptured at Houghton's wine cellar on February 25th 1869. Joe had gone there for a drink to celebrate his two years of freedom.

Joe broke in to the cellar while the owner was away but was unlucky as when C.W. Ferguson (the owner at the time) returned he was accompanied by two policemen who were in the area on an unrelated matter.

At the time Joe had long flowing hair, was wearing a wheat sack and had a large stick as his only form of protection. He returned to Fremantle where he remained for the next two years until he was once again given a ticket of leave in 1871.

Joe is credited with being the first man to cross the newly completed bridge across the Swan River in Fremantle (beating Governor Hampton to it) but this is most likely just folklore inspired by a fictional book titled 'Moondyne' by John Boyle O'Reilly

Joe was gaoled yet again in 1872 but the offence must have been minor as he only served one month. Joe finally became a free man in 1873 (another source says 1879 but this was the year he got married). He subsequently married a widow, Louisa Hearn, and became something of a celebrated dandy living in the south west of the state.

In 1880 he worked at Witchcliffe and Karridale and although some sources say he discovered Moondyne Cave, it was actually discovered in 1879 by Fred Grange. The story goes that Moondyne Joe was lowered into the cave after a bet that he couldn't escape. Whether he got out again without assistance isn't recorded. He left the area in 1883.

In 1887 he returned to Toodyay and from there he travelled to the goldfields where, although he was now 60 years old (on our calculations he was 56 years old), he prospected for some years.

His wife contracted one of the many diseases rife on the goldfields at the time and died in 1893. Joe was heartbroken and apparently never recovered from her loss. He returned to the coast and lived in Kelmscott where he gained a reputation for insanity being known as Old Mad Moondyne Joe. He died in the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum on 13 August 1900. (Another source says he may have died in the Old Men's Home in Claremont in 1920, which if true, would have made him about 89 years old but it fairly certain that he died in 1900. Records indicate he was 72 years old.)

Sources quote Joe's final resting place as being pauper's grave No. 580a in Fremantle cemetery. The grave is said to bear his name and the names of the men he shares the grave with, a pair of handcuffs and the Welsh word "rhyddid" meaning freedom.

This is the story, as far as the facts can be ascertained, of the state's most famous bushranger. Time and legend have conspired to make him a far more adventurous and daredevil character than this portrayal suggests. There is an account of the legend and the history of the man by Ian Elliot titled Moondyne Joe: The Man and the Myth. (Hesperian Press) Another useful reference is The Life and Times of Moondyne Joe by W.J. Edgar.




1827 - Born.

1849 - Convicted of burglary and theft in March. Sentenced to 10 years transportation

1853 - Arrived in Fremantle on April 30th.

1855 - Conditional pardon granted on March 10th.

1862 - Charged with horse theft but was acquitted but convicted with escape from legal custody.

1864 - Granted a ticket of leave on January 5th.

1865 - Convicted of shooting a steer (ox) and was sentenced to ten years on 29th of March.

1865 - Absconded from a work party and was on the run for a month.

1865 - Recaptured and sentenced for a further 12 months.

1866 - Petitioned for a remission in sentence and was awarded 4 years off.

1866 - Attempted escape on July 6th resulted in a sentence of 6 months in chains.

1866 - Escaped again and on the run for 7 weeks.

1866 - Captured once more at Bodallin Soak on the 29th of September.

1867 - Joe escaped from Fremantle prison on March 7th.

1869 - Recaptured at Houghton's wine cellar on February 25th.

1871 - Granted a ticket of leave.

1872 - Minor conviction resulting in a 1 month sentence.

1879 - Married widow, Louisa Hearn née Braddick.

1880 - Worked at Witchcliffe and Karridale.

1887 - Returned to Toodyay then moved on to the goldfields.

1893 - Louisa Hearn died.

1900 - Died on August 13th.


Links to more information:


Moondyne Joe

Johns, Joseph Bolitho (1827-1900)

Moondyne Festival




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