Convict Histories

Bernard Wootton (1835-1867) (Reg. Nos. 4002 and 6802)

By Irma Walter, 2018 (Published 2020)

Bernard Wootton (or Wotton, alias McNulty) was convicted in 1854, along with Henry Martin, of stealing a handkerchief and a purse containing seven shillings from the pocket of Mrs Mary Gee at the Stafford railway station. Wootton and his companion Martin were described as ‘two ill-favoured individuals’ when they faced the Court. A turnkey from Warwick Gaol gave evidence of two previous convictions against Wootton, who in 1849 had been sentenced to 7 years’ transportation, probably spent in England. Having previous form, in 1854 he was sentenced to 15 years and Martin to 4 years’ penal servitude.[1]

Wootton arrived in WA on the Runnymede on 7 September 1856. He was described as 22 years old, height 5’4½”, brown hair, grey eyes, round visage, fresh complexion, freckled and middling stout. He was a single man, a Roman Catholic and a mason by trade.[2] His behaviour while on board ship was recorded as Very Good and his reading and writing skills were good.[3]

While a prisoner in Fremantle his name appeared several times on the sick list, usually seeking medication for indigestion and constipation, common complaints in those days. On the 26 December 1856 the medical staff recorded him as living in a tent at the quarry.[4] In 1857 he was working as a labourer in the prison yard when treated for ophthalmia.[5]

Wootton sometimes used the alias ‘McNulty’. An Irishman and rebellious by nature, he was discharged from prison on 2 February 1859 on his Ticket of Leave, but was cautioned and reprimanded four days later.[6] He was re-convicted on 15 October 1859 at Fremantle for perjury and on suspicion of having committed a robbery, for which he was detained at His Excellency’s pleasure.[7] He submitted a petition on 8 November 1859.[8]

His periods of work release were of short duration. On 19 June 1860 he was given a pass from the Swan and a week later was engaged by Jos. Walton on piece work. On 25 June that year he received his Ticket of Leave for the Toodyay District. On 17 July 1860 he was allowed 14 days at York in the service of Thomas Mead.[9] Between 20 October and 3 December1862 he was at York.

He was soon back in Fremantle Prison, after being convicted as a Colonial Prisoner of larceny at Perth on 7 January 1863. Bernard Wootton, James Thompson and George Morton were convicted of stealing a watch from Edward Treasure while he was drunk and incapable at Craig’s Hotel. For this crime Wootton and Morton were sentenced to nine years’ penal servitude and Thompson five years.

Facing a lengthy term of imprisonment, Wootton escaped on 23 April 1863, along with James Holmes and Henry Davis, from a gang of 60 prisoners working on the new Lunatic Asylum site at Fremantle. The following day they entered the home of Mrs Martin on the Canning and demanded food and guns. They showed no resistance when recaptured by Constable Buck, laying down their arms when ordered. They were charged with robbery with violence while illegally at large. During their trial they insisted that they had not committed any violence on the two women at the house, although Davis admitted that he had placed his hands on Mrs Martin’s shoulders while questioning her about the guns. The jury reached a verdict of not guilty of violence.[10]

Back in prison, Wootton’s behaviour did not improve. He spent 12 months in irons from 20 May 1864. On 26 May 1865 he was put to work in the bridge party, but was placed in solitary confinement on 5 September that year. On 3 September 1866, following an incident where he seized a gun and ‘snapped’ at the Warder, the question of his subsequent treatment was put on hold until his period of solitary confinement and ‘Iron Class’ had expired.[11]

On 8 August 1867 another daring escape was planned at the prison, this time involving nine men, including Wootton. This occurred just a few months after the escape of that notorious escapee, JB Johns, alias ‘Moondyne Joe’ from Fremantle Prison in March, who had made the guards a laughing stock by leaving behind a dummy figure dressed in his prison coat and hat near the pile of rocks he had been assigned to break up, before making his escape by way of a hole in the wall which gave him access to Superintendent Lefroy’s backyard.[12] Then in June of the same year three others, named William Graham, Thomas Scott and George Morris had also absconded, by scaling the wall using strips of leather and a ladder. During an attempt to re-capture them, Morris was shot and killed during an exchange of gunfire. The public, understandably, was questioning the ability of the Convict Department to secure the prisoners within the prison walls.

A graphic description of this latest breakout appeared in the Fremantle Herald, along with criticism of the police for their lack of success in locating the runaways –

…The particulars are as follows: Somewhere about ½ past 5 in the evening, after the prisoners had come in from the works, and the sentries had left the platforms on the prison walls, a person dressed in the uniform of a Warder passed out of the division in charge of eight men, deliberately unlocks the gates of the inner yard and passes through. He halts his men, and commands them, in the authoritative tones of an officer ‘not to be in such a hurry.’ The warder coolly turns round, locks the gates, gives the word of command to his men and marches them into the workshop yard.

A sentry notices them, but the uniform deceives him and they pass unchallenged. Once in the yard, they strongly barricade the gates, get out two ladders that had been carefully concealed in one of the shops, rear them against the wall; a rope is attached to the top rung of the ladder and let fall on the other side. The party mount the ladder one by one, and with the assistance of the rope drop outside and are off; while getting over the wall a warder’s wife living near observes them and gives the alarm; her husband who happens to be in, discharges a pistol at them but without effect; they get clear off and up to this time nothing has been heard of them.

The pretended Warder was the notorious convict John Smith, alias Williams, who escaped some years ago from the colony, went to England and receiving another sentence came back in the Corona, was identified as an escaped prisoner and received an additional sentence. The names of the men who accompanied him are:— James Billings, Edward Onions, Roderick O’Lacklon, William Sewart, Bernard Wootton, Walter Walker, William Watkins and James Sline (Slim). They have made tracks Southward and the police are upon their heels. Unless they have the good fortune of Moondyne Joe, Graham & his companion, they will soon be captured. There can be no doubt that the successful evasion of the police by these men tends to encourage escapes. It certainly does not give us a high opinion of the efficiency of the police for these men, unarmed and half-starved perhaps, to remain so long at large. The supposition that they are harbored by companions does not in any way account satisfactorily for their non-capture. Let us hope that by the speedy capture of these nine runaways the police will endeavour to restore confidence in their activity and intelligence, which we can assure them is becoming somewhat shaken.[13]

The escapees were on the run for a couple of weeks. Wootton and Walker had bolted away when Watkins, Seward [sic] and Onions were apprehended earlier by Sergt. Moye and Constable Barron, but they were finally tracked down by a native policeman and were being held by Constable Edward Barron at Beverley, awaiting the arrival of Sergt. Moye. James Slim was recaptured at Prinsep’s place at Australind.[14] Williams alone had not been captured, the two prisoners claiming that he had drowned when crossing a running stream.[15] Some doubted the truth of this story.

Following their capture they spent the night at Chadwicke’s place, where the two prisoners were given a blanket to sleep on. During the night Sergeant Moye was persuaded to release one hand of each prisoner to allow them to turn onto their sides to sleep. The following morning Wootton asked to have his right hand released so that he could eat his breakfast. The prisoners had been docile since their arrest, so Moye agreed to this request. The two policemen were rolling up the rug on the floor when Wootton suddenly picked up a hot iron bar from the open fireplace and struck the Sergeant over the head. The native policeman sprang into action, grabbing the iron bar from Wootton and hitting him with it. During the trial this man gave evidence as follows:

…Jack Bousher, a very intelligent aboriginal native, having affirmed to speak the truth, through the official interpreter, said – I remember being present at the arrest of the prisoner with another, and my going with them and Moye and Barron to Chadwicke’s, at Beverley, where we stopped that night and breakfasted next morning; after breakfast I saw Moye and Barron rolling up a rug; the prisoner was sitting close to the fireplace, at one side of Moye; the table was not near, and certainly not between the prisoner and Moye and Barron; I was filling my pipe near the fireplace when I saw the prisoner Wootton stoop down and take the bar of iron produced, with which he knocked Barron down, and then struck Moye a blow on the head with; Moye fell down also; he hit him once only, and it was on the left side of the head; I then seized the prisoner, and wrenching the bar of iron from him struck him with it; Moye got up, and the prisoners were handcuffed together…

Moye had a serious wound on his head and Wootton’s hand was quite badly burned by the iron bar. At the trial Walter Walker gave evidence in Wootton’s favour, denying having seen Wootton strike the blow against the Sergeant. In vain Wootton also protested his innocence.

The jury found Bernard Wootton, still a relatively young man at the age of 32, guilty of attempted murder and he was sentenced to death. His execution took place soon afterwards at Perth Prison. Defiant to the end, his death was reported as follows:

EXECUTION OF THE CONVICT WOOTTON — The convict Wootton, alias MacNulty, upon whom sentence of death was passed at the last Sessions, on conviction of attempting to murder Sergeant Moye near York, was executed at Perth Prison yesterday morning.

The culprit retained his inflexibility to the last, refusing to receive the ministrations of his spiritual adviser.[16]

An added touch was reported in the Perth Gazette:

EXECUTION The condemned convict Bernard Wooton [sic] suffered the penalty of his crimes on Tuesday morning. This man was undoubtedly one of the most desperate and dangerous characters we have been indebted for to the mother country, and continued hardened to the last, rejecting all offers of religious ministrations. On the scaffold his last words were a shout for the Irish republic.[17]


[1] Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser, 9 August 1854.

[2] Convict Department Registers (128/40-43)

[3] Convict Department Registers (128/38-39)

[4] Convict Establishment Fremantle, Casual Sick Registers (CS1 – CS3)

[5] Convict Establishment Registers, Daily Medical Journal, 1854-1865 (M14 – M16)

[6] Convict Department Registers, Re-convicted prisoners Registers 1856-59 (R10)

[7] Convict Department Registers (128/38-39)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Convict Department Ticket-of-leave Registers, 1857 – 1861 (R6)

[10] Inquirer, 8 July 1863.

[11] Convict Department Registers, Probationer Prisons Register for Nos. 5586-6999 (R7).

[12] Inquirer, 13 March 1867.

[13] Herald, 24 August 1867.

[14] Inquirer, 4 September 1867.

[15] Herald, 31 August 1867.

[16] Inquirer, 9 October 1867.

[17] Perth Gazette, 11 October 1867.