Moondyne Joe has been immortalized in both fact and fiction and if it were not for him being sent to the Western Australian Penal colony instead of the Eastern States, Moondyne would have probably become as infamous as Ned Kelly. What little is known of Moondyne Joe is still steeped in mystery, folklore and urban myth.

The Man

Born Joseph Bolitho Johns around the 1820’s he is thought to be of Welsh descent. Joseph spent his early years working in ore mines in Wales until the 15th of November 1848 when he and a mate decided to break into the house of a Mr Richard Price, Esquire, of Pentwyn Clydach. Joseph and John Williams (aka William Cross), stole three loaves of bread, bacon, cheese and some salt.

His Own Defence

Joseph, never one to admit defeat, conducted his own defense and for his trouble, they both received the sentence of ten years penal servitude, in other words, they were off to Australia as convicts. Joseph boarded the ship ‘Pyrenees’ bound for Western Australia’s penal colony and William Cross was sent to Tasmania.

A Legend is Born

The ship arrived in Fremantle on the 30th of April, 1853 and on arrival Joseph was granted a ticket-of-leave for good behaviour. Two years later he would receive a conditional pardon. Following his pardon, Joseph lived throughout the Avon Valley before settling in an area the Aboriginals called Moondyne (near Toodyay ). Joseph made a living fencing and rounding up wayward stock and horses. Things were going pretty well for Joseph (or maybe it was he never got caught before!) but in 1861 he caught an unbranded stallion and proceeded to brand his own mark on it. This was a pretty big “no-no” in the colony and normally resulted in harsh penalties. The police eventually caught Joseph and threw him into the Toodyay lock up. By morning Joseph was gone. Sometime in the middle of the night he had managed to escape the cell, take his horseback and steal the magistrate’s new saddle and bridle. The legend was born. When he was eventually caught the following day the horse was dead, the brand was gone and he denied any knowledge of the charges. The court had no option but to sentence him for the lesser charge of gaol breaking in which he received a three-year sentence (horse-stealing carried over a ten-year sentence).

The Ox Bright Incident

He served his time at the Convict Establishment at Fremantle. Again Joseph was released early for good behaviour but in 1865 he was accused of killing and eating a neighbours ox, a charge he vigorously denied throughout his life. Found guilty Joseph was sentenced to 10 years. This time he would escape with another prisoner whilst in a work party at the Canning Flats. For nearly a month he and his fellow prisoner ran amuck in the area, committing small robberies. It was also around this time that Joseph began using the nickname ‘Moondyne Joe’. Moondyne Joe was eventually caught near York and was charged with absconding and possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to twelve months in irons. But not even irons could hold this man.

The Long Run

He eventually cut through the irons and was again on the run. Before long he had teamed up with another group of escapees and formed a gang which roamed the rugged bushland around Perth committing robberies once again. Following the capture of one of the gang members, Moondyne Joe decided to cut his losses and head to South Australia. In order to make the long and treacherous journey, he needed to be well equipped. He set his sights on his arch-enemy James Everett, the owner of the Toodyay store and an ex-convict that had also arrived in Fremantle on the Pyrenees. The gang virtually stripped the store bare taking guns, ammunition, blankets and rations. Unfortunately, the gang had left a trail and it wasn’t long before the police had tracked down the gang at Bodallin Soak near the site of the present-day town of Westonia. This would mark the first but not the last time that his nickname Moondyne Joe would appear in public print.

Housing Houdini

Moondyne Joe had become notorious and the police were determined that they would no longer put up with his antics. Extraordinary measures were put in place to stop him from escaping again. Following his sentencing of an additional five years hard labour, a special “escape-proof” cell was made for him at Fremantle Prison where he was to serve out his sentence. The cell was built from stone and lined with railway sleepers. As part of hard labour, Moondyne Joe spent most of his days breaking stone and piling it in the corner of the prison yard whilst under the constant supervision of a prison warder. Governor John Hampton was believed to have taunted Moondyne with the statement “If you get out again I will forgive you”. A statement that he would live to regret. Like something out of the “Shawshank Redemption” Moondyne planned his next escape with precision. He noticed that the rocks he was breaking and piling were not moved on any regular basis so they began to pile up. They piled up enough for him to be obscured (from below the waist) from the guards view. This enables him to take the occasional swing with his sledgehammer at the limestone prison wall behind him. On the 7th of March 1867, Moondyne Joe disappeared through the hole he made in the wall and out to freedom via an unlocked side door, leaving a few red faces in his wake. After an extensive manhunt, no sign of Moondyne was found, he had simply vanished.

As Luck Would Have It

Nearly two years later, Moondyne was rummaging in the Houghtons vineyard cellar in the Swan Valley looking to steal some wine, when the owner walked in. Unbeknown to Moondyne the owner had invited a group of police to the vineyard for a little food and wine tasting. When Moondyne made a dash for it, he ran straight into the arms of the law. This time he was sentenced to a further four years in irons.

Promise Kept

Whilst Moondyne was working in the carpenter’s workshop rumours spread that he was secretly filing a key for his cell. When a search was conducted a quick-thinking Moondyne hurled all the evidence over the prison wall. It is rumoured that more escape attempts were made before Governor Weld gave Moondyne Joe a ticket of leave in 1871. It is believed Governor Weld made the decision after hearing of the previous Governor’s promise to Moondyne Joe. By then Joseph Bolitho Johns was middle-aged. On receiving his ticket-of-leave he was also promised a conditional pardon if he could stay out of trouble for the next four years (I know what your thinking!).

A Free Man?

Moondyne sailed to Busselton to join the convict depot in the Vasse district and then later moved to Karridale, where he worked as a carpenter for M.C Davies Karri and Jarrah Company. It didn’t take long for Moondyne to get involved in a little mischief. As the story goes, the Karridale mill was having a little trouble with a rival mill in Busselton. A rumour soon spread that the rivals were going to cut some poor quality jarrah timbers from Karridale and display them in a timber exhibition as the best from the mill. When Moondyne got wind of the story he rode off and followed the rival cutters into the forest. There he hid and quietly waited while they cut a few poor timbers and loaded them on their wagon. When they went off to cut a new tree, Moondyne quietly removed the timbers from the wagon and lay in wait. It didn’t take long for the cutters to realise their scheme had been discovered. They jumped on the wagon to make a quick getaway, but before they could get very far the wagon collapsed, Moondyne had cut through the wooden spokes of the wheels. The larrikin had become a legend in the south-west too.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Moondyne found himself back inside Fremantle Prison for a month, following some minor offense. Once released he found a fulfilling job as a carpenter in Fremantle and was given his certificate of freedom on the 27th June 1873. In 1879 he married a 26-year-old widow Louisa Hearn. By now you are probably thinking great he has got a life and his exploits are over. Far from.

His Final Escape

The remainder of his life was spent in and out of trouble, though not enough to find him behind bars. In the early 1900s, a disheveled man was found wandering the streets of South Perth. It was none other than Moondyne Joe. He was taken into custody and ordered to serve time at the Mount Eliza Invalid Depot (a place he had once escaped from earlier in his life when it was a convict depot). Ironically the 70-year-old Moondyne snuck out of the depot, not just once but three times and you guessed it he was sentenced to serve a month inside Fremantle prison for absconding. Following his sentence, he would spend another five months at the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum before his greatest escape. On the 13th of August 1900, Western Australia’s most famed bushranger passed away from senile dementia. You can find his paupers grave at the Fremantle Cemetery it is number 580A.

Moondyne Joe must have been the most luckiest and unluckiest bushranger in Australian History. He was also probably Australia’s only Welsh bushranger.

His Imperial Convict number was 1790 and his Colonial Convict numbers were 5889 and 8189.

The Legend Lives On

In 1887 John Boyle O’Reilly a Fenian convict who fled from Western Australia to America used a fictitious Moondyne in a novel he wrote about convict life.

The town of Toodyay celebrates the myth, folklore and antics of Moondyne Joe every year at the Moondyne Festival.

A cave-in Margaret River was named in his honour after it was reputed he discovered it.