Convict Histories

A Wasted Life – The Story of Martin Griffin (c1830 – ?) (Reg. Nos. 1324 and 9701)

By Irma Walter, 2021.

Martin Griffin has a rather dubious claim to fame. He received two terms of transportation to Western Australia, and only evaded a third because the transportation of convicts to Western Australia ceased in 1868. He was a colourful character who earned a reputation as an accomplished escape artist, whether from a gaol in England or from work parties in Western Australia, leading the life of a bushranger though never carrying arms, roaming around the countryside and stealing supplies from settlers’ homesteads. During his lifetime he used a number of different aliases, including George Cowper, (…..) McKinley, George Norman and Charles Brown.

Due to his regular change of names, tracking his life of crime has not been easy. Whether Martin Griffin was his birth name is not known. He was an Irishman, probably one of many who left their homeland due to the effects of the potato famine. He was designated as single when he first arrived in Western Australia, where there is no record of a marriage.

Later, during his trial back in England in 1866 under the alias ‘George Cowper’, he was described as ‘a married man with one child’, but when and under what name a marriage might have occurred is not known.

The following British newspaper article gives a summary of his early crimes in England, followed by his transportation and convictions in Western Australia, his escape back to England by 1866, and his re-arrest there in 1872, at that time under the alias ‘George Cowper’

1872 – EXTRAORDINARY CAREER OF CRIME. – At Winchester Assizes on Saturday, George Cowper, alias Norman, alias Griffin, alias Brown, who was convicted of Feloniously and without lawful excuse being at large within the United Kingdom, his former sentence of seven years’ penal servitude being then unexpired, was brought up to receive sentence. Mr. Justice Lush, in passing sentence, said that it appeared that in 1851 the prisoner was taken up on a charge of burglary. Before trial he escaped from custody, but was re-taken and sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude.

Having been sent to Western Australia, he received in 1854 a ticket-of-leave. Within one month from the granting of this ticket-of-leave he was convicted of theft, and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. At the end of that time he received another ticket-of-leave, but shortly afterwards forged a cheque, was apprehended and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. A year afterwards he absconded, but was taken, and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. In 1861 he was once more released with a ticket-of-leave, and a few months after, received a sentence of two years’ imprisonment for being unlawfully out of his district.

While on his way from Albany to Perth to undergo that sentence, he absconded, and was next met with in England, where in February, 1866, he received a sentence of seven years’ penal servitude for larceny in a dwelling house. He attempted to escape from Millbank Prison, and was again sent to Western Australia, where he arrived in 1868. He was recognised, tried again for absconding, and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment.

After some time he received his ticket-of-leave and was next found again in England, and taken up on a charge of obtaining good by false pretences; he was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for vagrancy. The sentences, added together, amounted to thirty-five years, and this was the ninth conviction known against him. The prisoner’s age was forty-two years. He was now sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude.[1]

While in Western Australia Griffin was a troublesome prisoner, frequently placed in Solitary Confinement employed as a tailor, or on hard labour, manually operating the prison’s water pump. Possibly as a distraction from the boredom of being locked up, he frequently sought medical treatment for minor ailments, such as loss of hair (21/3/54), general debility (12/7/57), dyspepsia, etc. He had his head shaved at least twice in 1854.[2] He was sometimes turned away from the medical centre without treatment, such as when he demanded ‘more diet’ (25/2/58), or was seeking to be removed from Solitary Confinement (17/11/58), or asking to be excused from the pump (2/18/58). On 27/2/60 he requested a change of discipline.[3]

His First Term of Transportation

In January 1850 Martin Griffin, aged 20, and able to read well, was imprisoned for three months as a rogue and a vagabond.[4] In 1851, already an accomplished thief, he was using the alias ‘McKinley’ when arrested  after stealing money, jewellery and a basket from the room of a Jewish hawker named Mark Burnstone at Dartmouth in Devonshire. He was removed from a train and identified as Martin Griffin during a hearing at the Guildhall, but was sent back to Dartmouth for his trial. He was placed in the small Dartmouth prison, despite a warning that it was likely that his gang of associates might assist his escape. Within days he had single-handedly dug his way out through a square hole in the wall of the prison cell, gaining access to the street outside and was soon heading back to his lodgings in Plymouth. He was arrested a month later, boasting that he had several times seen the officers who were trying to track him down, but had easily managed to outsmart them. He faced several other charges, of stealing wearing apparel at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and money from the Lord Nelson Inn at Wareham in Dorset.[5] On 10 April 1851 he was convicted and sentenced to ten years’ transportation.

Martin Griffin first arrived in Western Australia on 1 August 1852 onboard one of the early convict ships, the William Jardine. He was described as a hawker, aged 24, single, 5’7½” tall, with light brown hair, grey eyes, an oval face, of slight build, already bald, with a cut on his head and small-pox marks.[6]

His prison record in WA indicates a rebellious temperament –

10/2/54 – Discharged from Fremantle Prison – Probationary Prisoner.[7]

6/3/54 – Hard Labour No. 1 – 12 months’ Hard Labour. Discharged 26/3/55.

2/3/55 – Admitted to hospital with bowel problems after 21 days Bread and Water.[8]

10/6/55 – Convicted by Police Magistrate, Perth.[9]

10/6/56 – Having several forged cheques – sentence seven years.

11/6/56 – Reconvicted prisoner from Perth, convicted by Chas. Symmons.

30/4/57 – Absconded. Brought back on 16/5/57.

19/5/57 – Sentenced to four years Hard Labour and three weeks Bread & Water.

17/12/57 – Two days Bread & Water.

5/4/58 – Absconded. Brought back on 22/6/58.

25/6/58 – Three years Hard Labour and three weeks Bread and Water.

20/3/59 – Three days Dark Cells.

14/5/59 – Petitioned. Reply – To be sent to Road Party for four months, and conduct to be reported on.

21/10/59 – Transferred to Prob. Ward.

3/11/59 – Forfeit dinner.

10/5/60 – Ditto.

Sept. ‘60 – Petition received by Comptroller General.[10]

20/10/60 – His Excellency has no grounds for forwarding the petition to the Secretary of State – his original sentence ten years, date of conviction 7 April 1851.

10/1/61 – Forfeit dinner.[11]

9/4/61 – Discharged on Ticket of Leave.[12]

14/10/61 – RM directed to grant 28 days pass.[13]

11/11/61 – Cannot entertain petition.[14]

He was out on Ticket of Leave from Fremantle Prison in 1854 when he was charged with burglary, after stealing clothes belonging to S [or G?] Holder. He was found guilty and sentenced to a further 12 months in Fremantle Prison.[15] In April 1857 he was doing hard labour in a quarry.[16] He must have escaped from there, because on 16 May that year he was re-captured after escaping from custody.[17]

In 1858 he was on the run for several weeks, plundering settlers’ homes for supplies. The Perth Gazette expressed the general dissatisfaction felt by the local community in regard to the laxity of supervision by prison authorities

FRIDAY. APRIL 23, 1858.

A reward of £10 is offered for the apprehension of Martin Griffin, a convict who, with another, escaped while employed on some work without the walls of the Convict Establishment. This Mr Griffin is an old offender in the way of absconding, and committing robberies of provisions while hiding in the Bush. It is not many months since he levanted and succeeded in eluding pursuit for several weeks, his haunts being about the Wanaroo district, where he plundered several settler’s houses, and was at last captured while asleep upon Mount Eliza. We cannot but consider it very strange conduct on the part of the authorities of the Convict Establishment, and certainly very unjust to the public, that this man only so lately re-captured, should again be afforded an opportunity of making off and recommencing his bushranging, by being employed upon work outside the walls of the Establishment, especially when it is considered that little or no precaution is taken to prevent escape from working gangs. We are no advocates for undue severity in the treatment of criminals, but we do think, that some consideration should be given to the unprotected property of the country settler, and when such a character as Griffin manifests itself some little care should be taken to prevent his escaping a second time, even if it is only so far as to keeping him at work within the walls. It is little consolation to the plundered settler, to know that his visitor cannot ultimately escape, while at the same time he is equally aware he will be afforded an opportunity of paying him another visit, after the lapse of a month or two has given him time to replenish his harness cask, and his bag of flour. We think that at least the settler is entitled to quite as much consideration as the convict even at the hands of the Convict authorities.[18]

Later that year Martin was eventually captured and charged again as a runaway convict who had escaped in April that year while working outside the walls of Fremantle Prison

July 1858 The runaway convict, Martin Griffin, was captured by police constable Wisly, who is stationed at Northam, and was lodged by him in Toodyay Gaol, after a ride of upwards of one hundred and fifty miles, in four days.[19]

Back in prison Martin seems to have spent most of his time either in solitary confinement or outside the prison walls in a work gang. No record has been found of him being employed privately during this period.

How he managed to get back to England is not known, but by 1866 he once again faced an English Court, after being arrested for stealing from a private dwelling.

His Second Term of Transportation

Back in England in 1866, as George Cooper (or Cowper), alias Brown, Griffin broke into a house and stole £5, plus boots and a hawker’s licence belonging to a man named William Deacon, afterwards using it to ply his trade. When he was captured and identified as Martin Griffin, with a previous incomplete sentence of ten years’ transportation, he was sentenced to a further seven years. At Millbank Prison, his description was ‘George Cowper, alias Brown, aged 36, religion RC, married with one child, next of kin unknown. Convicted at Winchester Assizes on 27 February 1866 of burglary. Previously sentenced on 10 April 1851 and back from transportation.  Has attempted to escape. Sent to Portland on 21 November 1866.’[20]

Arriving back in WA on the Hougoumont on 10 January 1868, his identification as Martin Griffin was confirmed. He was sent out to join one of the work gangs on the Albany Road, but escaped from there, only to be re-captured much later north of Perth, as reported in the Perth Gazette in 1868 –

The runaway convict, Griffin, has at length been captured. It appears the continual hunting up of his haunts round Perth by the Police, both night and day, made this part of the country too hot for him, and he then made tracks northward, first being heard of at Walleroo,[21] and ultimately captured at the Victoria Plains by the police stationed there. In the published description of Griffin, he is described as having no marks upon his person, but since he has been at large, he has contrived to get both his arms tattooed, and this led to his getting off when first questioned by the police at the Plains, who, finding he did not answer to the description given, let him go again. He was followed up and re-captured, without offering any resistance, owing probably to his not having any weapons upon him. We trust the Convict authorities will not give master Griffin another chance to escape.[22]

How long Griffin remained in custody after his re-capture in 1868 is not known.

By 1872 this wily criminal had escaped once again from the Colony of Western Australia and was back in Winchester in England, using the alias ‘George Norman’. He was arrested and identified as Martin Griffin, feloniously on the run from Western Australia.

Convicted Again in England

The following entry after his arrest at Winchester in 1872 gives some idea of Griffin’s use of various aliases

George Norman, alias Martin Griffin, alias Cowper, alias Brown, aged 42, shepherd, able to read and write imperfectly, was charged at Winchester Assizes on 28 May 1872 with feloniously being at large in the United Kingdom on 27 April 1872, his former sentence of seven years’ penal servitude on 27 February 1866 for feloniously being then unexpired. At his trial on 9 July 1872 he was found guilty of being feloniously at large and was sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude.[23]

Details of his past convictions were also recorded

Calendar of Prisoners tried at Winchester Assizes, 1872, Series HO140, Piece No. 18.

Griffin’s Pentonville Prison records –

George Cowper, alias Martin Griffin, Brown, Norman – four previous terms

8 April 1851 – ten years’ penal servitude.

27 February 1866 – Dartmouth – seven years.

8 July 1872 – Hants, Winchester – ten years.

8 April 1873 – His religion changed from RC to Protestant.[24]

In 1873 Martin Griffin was sent from Pentonville to Brixton Gaol. Whether he served out his ten-year term there, or whether he died in prison, is not known.


[1] Dundee Courier, 18 July 1872.

[2] Convict Establishment, Medical Journals (M14-M16)

[3] Convict Establishment, Casual Sick Registers (Cs8 – Cs10)

[4] UK Prison Commission Records, Winchester Gaol Calendar of Trials, 4 January 1850.

[5] Exeter Flying Post, 23 January 1851.

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

[7] Convict Establishment, Receipts & Discharges (128/38-39)

[8] Convict Establishment, Medical Registers by Patient (M3)

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

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

[11] Convict Department Registers, Re-convicted Prisoners’ Register (R10)

[12] Ibid.

[13] Convict Establishment Stamp Books (S1-S3)

[14] Ibid.

[15] Inquirer, 8 March 1854.

[16] Fremantle Prison Casual Sick Registers (Cs1-Cs3)

[17] Convict Establishment, Receipts and Discharges (Rd1 – Rd2)

[18] Perth Gazette, 23 April 1858.

[19] Perth Gazette, 2 July 1858.

[20] UK National Archives, Millbank Prison Register of Prisoners, Item PCOM2, Piece No. 50.

[21] Note: Walleroo is situated 360 kms east-northeast of Perth, 68 kms from Coolgardie,

[22] Perth Gazette, 18 June 1868.

[23] UK National Archives, Prison Registers, Winchester Gaol, Calendar of Trials at Assizes for the County of Southampton, Item PCOM2, Piece No. 420.