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The Hunt For Moondyne Joe

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The Hunt For Moondyne Joe

Distance: 207 km Approx. Travel Time: 5.5 hours

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Travelling circuit judge Sir William Erle heard several cases for burglary and petty theft in Chepstow, Wales, on March 23 1849. The sentences he gave varied from three weeks to three months. On the count of burglary and the stealing of three loaves of bread, one piece of bacon, several cheeses and other goods, Joseph Bolitho Johns and his friend John Williams were sentenced to ten years.

Newspaper reports say the pair gave an 'unexpectedly spirited defence' in court. It seems that, even back then, Moondyne Joe might have had a bit of a chip on his shoulder towards authority.

Following the six months mandatory solitary confinement that began every jail sentence at the time, Johns was transferred to Dartmoor Prison. He only lasted a few weeks before he was moved to a prison hulk. The explanation for this transfer to what must have been the 19th century's version of a living hell was 'disciplinary reasons'.

In 1853 he was transported to the penal colony of Western Australia to serve-out his sentence. Sharing a disease-ridden prison ship with rats, fleas and hundreds of other inmates seemed to correct Johns' attitude though. By the time he arrived in Fremantle he received a ticket of leave for good behaviour.

Johns had started working in the Cornwall copper mines before he was ten years old. He was mining iron ore in Wales when he was arrested. He then spent five years shackled and confined in depravity that can barely be imagined. So with his first taste of freedom under the big skies of his new home, his next move was understandable - he went bush. Settling in the Avon Valley in the area the Whadjuk Nyoongars called 'Moondyne'.

On this journey we'll pass through the country that must have seemed like heaven to the newly free man. Let's take the long way though. Head out of Northam towards the south west on Wellington Street to where it turns into Spencers Brook Road. About eight kilometres out of town on your left you may notice some strange cylindrical structures. These are the remains of a fuel storage depot that was built in 1942. After the fall of Singapore, the prospect of an attack on Perth became more real. Plans were made for Northam to be used as an evacuation centre. The fuel storage was created for the American submarines operating out of Fremantle.

Just after we cross the Avon River we come to Spencers Brook, which was once the rail junction between the Great Southern and Eastern Goldfields Railway lines. It was also the location of the Australian Army 7th Supply Depot In World War Two. Remains of this supply depot can be found across the road from Spencers Brook Tavern. The tavern was built by Thomas Wilding as the Brookton Hotel there in 1884.

Continuing on to Clackline, we turn right just before we reach Great Eastern Highway and take Eadine Road which passes under the highway. We then take the Clackline Toodyay Road towards Toodyay. This road skirts the edge of some of the deep valleys in the eastern foothills of the Darling Ranges and passes between the Clackline Nature Reserve and the Bobakine Nature Reserve. We pass by Hoddy's Well, which was a camp used by railway construction workers in 1886 and was a popular spot for travellers to stop in the many years since.

After receiving his ticket of leave when reaching Fremantle, Johns settled into a quiet life in an isolated gorge on the Avon River known as Moondyne Springs. He quickly became an adept bushman despite having never been in the wilderness before. He made a living building fences and rounding up escaped horses for the reward. Until the day that he decided to not give one horse back and branded it as his own. He was arrested for horse stealing and locked up in Toodyay. During the night he unscrewed the hinges on his cell door, stole the same horse a second time, helping himself to the magistrates brand new saddle as he fled. To avoid the ten year sentence for horse stealing he killed the horse, then removed his brand and any evidence with it. He received a three-year sentence for jail breaking instead.

Johns was again a well-behaved prisoner during his second jail sentence and was released early in 1864. He worked for a year on a farm in Kelmscott before he was accused of killing a prize steer. A crime for which he was to protest his innocence for the rest of his life. The sentence was ten years. It was then that Johns decided that being a model prisoner wasn't the way to go. He absconded from a work party then he and an accomplice committed several small robberies while on the run. His fame spread during this time. This was when he adopted the name 'Moondyne Joe'.

Famous Njakinjaki tracker, Tommy Windich, was called on by the police in York to find Joe. He was impressed by the former Cornishman's bush skills. 'That Joe was a clever one. He was very good at hiding his tracks for a Wadjela (white fella). They were sticking to hard rock on their walk so as not to leave any marks. He had sheepskin wrapped around his boots, with the wool on the outside. Makes no tracks.'

Tommy Windich eventually led the police party to Joe's camp near Doodenanning and surprised the fugitives while they slept. Joe was sentenced to twelve months in irons and transferred from York down to Fremantle Prison. He tried a similar trick of cutting the lock out of his door there and received another six months. In August 1866 he escaped again after cutting off his leg irons and formed a gang with John James, Thomas Bugg and John Bassett. They robbed the store of James Everett in Toodyay and stole guns, ammunition, clothing and other items that included thirty-six ladies handkerchiefs. James Everett had been a fellow convict transported on the same ship as Moondyne Joe. He never reopened the business after the robbery.

Moondyne Joe and his gang had decided to flee Western Australia by travelling overland to South Australia. They set off along the line of wells in the route charted by Charles Hunt. Joe knew that Hunt and his party were somewhere out there, working on building the track and reinforcing wells.

The plan was to catch up with them, steal fresh horses and rations at gunpoint and be well over the border in the weeks it would have taken Hunts party to walk back and raise the alarm. The gang were spotted by sandalwood cutters near Boodalin Soak though, and word was sent to the police. The troopers rode out and joined with Hunts party to capture Joe and his gang. They made Joe walk all the way back to Fremantle and then chained him by the neck to a post in the prison yard as an example to other prisoners. He received five years hard labour on top of his existing sentence.

Governor John Hampton was not a popular figure in the colony at the time and the romantic legend of Moondyne Joe grew in the public perception because his repeated escapes were making the Governor look like a fool. A special stone-walled cell lined with jarrah sleepers was built to house Joe. He was kept in this dark and airless space on a diet of bread and water for months before his health started to fail. His jailers showed some compassion by allowing him to break rocks in the open air for two hours per day. But rather than risk him leaving the prison, they had a pile of rocks brought into the yard specially for Joe. He was supervised constantly as he swung his sledgehammer.

We follow the the coastal plain north on Great Northern Highway as we pass through Upper Swan and Ellenbrook. On your right hand side, to the east, you can see the Darling Ranges as we pass Walyunga National Park, which is where the Avon River cuts its way through the hills to join the Swan River. At Bullsbrook we turn towards the Chittering Valley on Chittering Road. We follow this road as it climbs and winds with the Brockman River, gradually bending north. At Lower Chittering we turn right into Chittering Valley Road and continue following the Brockman River. We re-join Chittering Road before turning right into Julimar Road and begin heading east towards Toodyay through the Julimar State Forrest. To our right, the whole way, is the country where Moondyne Joe first roamed after his release in Fremantle.

One can only wonder how he'd have felt, wandering through bush like this after the deprivations of the first twenty-seven years of his life. Moondyne Joe's camp can be found deep in the bush. A fence that he built still remains. However, it's on a track that even experienced off-road drivers find daunting, so let's just imagine where it is and make sure we get back in time for dinner.

We pass the Rugged Hills Nature Reserve as we enter West Toodyay, where Moondyne Joe was first arrested. Then we cross the Avon River again and enter the town that started its life as Newcastle - Toodyay. Julimar Road becomes Harper Road which becomes Anzac Avenue which becomes Clinton Street, which will take you right past the Newcastle Jail precinct, where Moondyne Joe was first held. The design of the cells you can view here are the result of changes made following his first escape. Old jails, like old cemeteries, tend to hold many dark memories. The curators here have added to that effect with a different audio-visual display in each cell that is triggered by motion sensors as you enter the tiny, claustrophobic spaces. The last cell in the row, in the darkest corner of the courtyard, is especially haunting. Back down Anzac Avenue a little way, turn onto Harper Terrace and on Stirling Terrace you'll find the main street of Toodyay. On the way we pass Duidgee Park. Nyoongar people believe that birds call out their own name. For example, we've just passed through the Chittering Valley, home of the 'Chitty-Chitty' - what Europeans called the Willy Wagtail. 'Duidgee' mimics the call of Messenger Birds found down by the river. After deciding to rename Newcastle in 1910 to avoid confusion with the town of the same name in New South Wales, Toodyay was chosen as the anglicised spelling of Duidgee.

On Stirling Terrace you'll find Connor's Mill, which was a steam driven flour mill built in 1870 by George Hasell. Like the Northam Flour Mill, it was also used to generate electricity for the town. Saved from demolition 100 years later, it now forms a museum attached to the Toodyay Visitors Centre. Toodyay has retained much of its Federation era street frontage. The main street is an ideal place to wander in the late afternoon.

Leaving Toodyay and heading towards Northam, we follow the Avon River upstream, first on the Toodyay Road again, before turning on the Northam Toodyay Road. Ten kilometres along this road we'll take the scenic way back to Northam. Turn left onto Katrine Road and, after we cross the Avon at the Katrine Bridge, we follow the road that the first settlers travelled between the two towns. You can see ruins of one of the original homesteads, Glenfield Ruins, on your right. Then, just out of Northam, we pass the original settler's cottage, built by John Morrell in 1836 and one of Australia's oldest surviving colonial residences.

As we finish the journey, we need to finish the story. Whatever became of Moondyne Joe?

Despite his many transgressions he was dealt with humanely in the end. After building his special 'Moondyne Joe Proof' cell in Fremantle Prison in 1867, Governor Hampton had been overheard saying to Joe "If you get out again, I'II forgive you". Hampton wasn't re-elected in 1868 and returned to England. Moondyne Joe mentioned Hamptons promise to the new governor Frederick Weld who agreed that further punishment was unfair. Joe was given a ticket of leave in May 1871. That mouth that got him into trouble in Wales twenty-two years earlier was what set him free in the end. Moondyne Joe had talked his way out of prison.