Convict Histories

‘The Bolters’ – Robbery Under Arms

By Irma Walter, 2021.

On Tuesday 27 January 1859 five convicts absconded from a quarry near Fremantle. Their names were Peter Campbell, John Williams, Stephen Lacey, Henry Stevens and John Haynes. They made their way to the Canning River and then walked along the water’s edge towards Point Walter. By the time the break-out was discovered it was too late to send out a search party that day.[1]

Meanwhile the miscreants stole a small boat and rowed their way down to Fremantle port, where they crossed the bar and headed off towards Garden Island. There they tied up the local farmer, James Reid, his wife and son and an employee named John Grant. They demanded that the boy prepare them some food and were said to be in high spirits, eating, singing and drinking before ransacking the house.[2] They set about provisioning Reid’s whaleboat for a long trip up the coast, taking food, clothing, six old guns, three pistols and a sword, as well as Reid’s savings. They also stole two watches, a spy glass, sextant, and a compass which were hanging on a wall.[3] They left in Reid’s whaleboat at about one o’clock in the morning, after threatening that no-one should leave the house for at least an hour.

The group was well-disciplined under the leadership of Peter Campbell, an experienced seaman. They headed north and next raided the home of Edward Downes at the mouth of the Irwin River, taking food, clothing and a double-barrelled gun.[4] As soon as they left, Downes’ employee Speedy rode into Geraldton to report the theft.[5]

By this time the authorities had sent the schooner Les Trois Amis after them, with Superintendent of the Water Police George Clifton aboard. The whaleboat bypassed Champion Bay and it was predicted that Port Gregory would be their next port of call. The police hoped to ambush them there, but just as the convicts were about to disembark from the whaleboat they were alarmed when someone on land foolishly fired shots at some birds, so they quickly cleared the port.

They headed further north towards Shark Bay, but ended up beached when attempting to avoid their pursuers. There was a brief exchange of fire before the convicts fled inland, enabling Clifton’s men to take possession of their boat. After a day of fruitless searching on land and running short of supplies, Clifton decided to leave the convicts stranded for the time being and to return later to pick them up when they became desperate for food and water. The schooner took onboard a load of guano from Egg Island and headed back to Fremantle.[6]

Knowing the tough conditions which faced the stranded men, Clifton suspected that the strict discipline enforced by Campbell during the voyage north would probably fall apart by the time he returned, and this proved to be the case. When Clifton arrived back at Shark Bay on Les Trois Amis, the escapees offered little resistance. The condition of the men had deteriorated after weeks of surviving on shellfish and a few berries. Some of the supplies which they had buried were stolen by local Aboriginals and the only water they found was brackish and only suitable for cooking purposes, so they were forced to drink their own urine.

Clifton found only four survivors, Campbell, Williams, Haynes and Stevens, looking thin and haggard. When asked about the whereabouts of Stephen Lacey, they were told that he had perished and was buried some 25 miles away. All four men spoke of Lacey in such highly disparaging terms, blaming him for having stranded the whaleboat on the beach and for eating and drinking more than his fair share of their dwindling supplies. Clifton suspected that there was more to the story than he had been told. He pressed Peter Campbell over the matter and he eventually broke down and confessed that Lacey had been buried not far from their camp.

Campbell later told the story of Lacey being increasingly bullied by the others and was driven away when he begged for a share of their supplies. Campbell eventually ignored Williams’ order not to feed Lacey and attempted to give him some of the gruel they had prepared, but by that stage he was unable to swallow it. The next morning they found him dead near their camp. Campbell claimed that as Lacey was being buried he had seen a gun-shot wound on his abdomen and that Williams had quickly made an attempt to cover it up.[7]

The four men were taken aboard Les Trois Amis, but Campbell had to be isolated from the other three, once they suspected that he had given evidence against them. They arrived back at Fremantle on 12 April and were placed in the prison, awaiting trial.

At the end of March 1859 Campbell was taken back to Shark Bay on board the Favorite with Clifton and Dr Arden in order to locate Lacey’s body. After examination the body was re-buried at the site.

In July, Peter Campbell, Henry Stephens, John Williams, and John Haynes, convicts, were found guilty of being illegally at large, and feloniously robbing with violence James Reid of Garden Island. Then Stevens, Williams and Haynes were further charged and found guilty of a similar offence against the goods and person of Edward Downes, at the Irwin River.[8]

John Williams and John Haynes were also charged with the murder of Stephen Lacey. Campbell gave evidence at the trial of the circumstances leading up to his death. (At this stage he was being described as ‘an approver’, a term defined as ‘one who confesses his guilt and gives evidence against his confederates’.[9])

Campbell admitted that on one occasion he had kicked Lacey in the head for stealing sugar, but that it was Williams who denied him food and water and had eventually hit him with the butt of his gun, breaking it in the process. The said broken weapon had been retrieved from the ocean to be used as evidence.[10]

Campbell remained convinced that there was a bullet wound on the body, and stated that the bruises had been inflicted by Williams. However, Dr Arden’s evidence revealed that he could find no evidence of a gun-shot wound, but that the mark on the side of the neck could have been caused by a blow from a clubbed gun.[11]

Following the judge’s summing up at the end of the trial, the jury was absent for an hour before returning with a verdict that the blow with the gun did not kill the deceased, but that it did accelerate the death, and that John Haynes did not aid and abet. This was a verdict of not guilty as to Haynes, and guilty as to Williams.[12]

For their part in this escapade Henry Stevens and John Haynes received two life sentences each, later commuted to five years.[13] Williams earned three life sentences. Peter Campbell seems to have escaped punishment altogether. A newspaper report a month later confirmed this –

We understand that Peter Campbell, who gave evidence for the Crown in the late murder case among the escaped convicts at Shark’s Bay, has, or will shortly obtain, a ticket-of-leave, as an indulgence.[14]


In order to better understand the part played by each of the five men and how their relationships evolved during their time on the run, it is of interest to investigate their background stories and to find out what happened to them after the trials.

Peter Campbell (c1829 – ?) (Reg. No. 5123)

Peter Campbell was recognised as the group’s leader, but displayed feelings of guilt and regret at the way the saga unfolded. When giving evidence at the trial of Haynes and Williams for the murder of Lacey, he attempted to justify having turned witness against them, saying – ‘I have before got into a scrape from assisting a comrade, and therefore I rather not do so. I am now serving a life transportation for doing so.’[15]

The details of his sentencing at the Chester Assizes back in 1857 give a different version of the circumstances that resulted in Campbell’s transportation to WA. At the time of his arrest he was employed as second mate onboard the James L. Bogart, an American trading ship. The ship was lying in the Mersey at Liverpool, taking on cargo for its return trip to Mobile, Alabama, and was experiencing difficulties in recruiting a crew for the voyage. The practice of ‘shanghaiing’ being common at that time, a boat was sent ashore to round up men in the local taverns to fill the vacancies. Evidence was later given that when the men were brought alongside the ship in the dark and asked its name, Campbell stated that it was the Robin Hood.

When the men (described as mostly coloured), awoke the next morning they found that they were on the wrong ship. Campbell ordered them to work, but two of them, Robinson and Chrystie (or Christie), objected to the way in which they had been duped and refused to obey orders. It was revealed later that the men were fearful that the destination of the ship was Mobile, Alabama, where they could be sold as slaves.[16] This resulted in a confrontation between the crew and the two mates, who armed themselves with guns. The captain and officers were ashore at the time and the situation got out of hand when Campbell threatened to shoot anyone who refused to work. He fired shots at the crew, hitting James Chrystie in the thigh. One of the crew then hit the chief mate on the head with a handspike. By this time the captain had arrived and the two injured men were taken to hospital in a serious condition.

As a result of his head wounds the chief mate Charles Ferber later died in hospital. Evidence was given at the trial of the perpetrator that Campbell and Ferber had previously treated crew members in an extremely cruel fashion.[17] The jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide, the wounds being inflicted in self-defence.[18]

At Peter Campbell’s trial for wounding James Chrystie, he was described as an American who was well-known in Whitechapel and Paradise Street in the town as an ‘unprincipled duffer’. Police gave evidence that when arrested Campbell declared, ‘I am only _____ sorry that I didn’t blow his black brains out, the black son of a ____ !’[19]

On 10 April 1857 Peter Campbell was found guilty and was sentenced to transportation for life.[20] He was held in the Portsmouth Prison where his behaviour was good before he was taken aboard the Edwin Fox, arriving at Fremantle on 20 November 1858.[21]

Campbell was an imposing figure, over six feet in height. He was 28 years of age, a married man with a child. [No details of his birthplace have been found. Note also that in the WA convict records he is wrongly described as a ‘tailor’, instead of ‘sailor’.[22]]

It wasn’t long after his arrival in WA that the plan was hatched to attempt an escape by sea. On 25 January 1859 Campbell was employed in a work gang at a quarry near Fremantle when he absconded with four others and headed north. Months later they were apprehended at Shark Bay and were brought back to face trial on a number of offences. One man had died and the other three received harsh sentences. Peter Campbell gave evidence against the others and was treated leniently. He received his Ticket of Leave on 12 August 1859 and his Conditional Pardon on 20 September 1860.[23]

It is not known what happened to Peter Campbell after his release, as his convict records are sparse. He would not have been popular amongst the former convicts in the colony, so may have left as soon as he was able.

An anonymous contributor to the Daily News wrote in 1882 –

I remember a case some years ago when the ‘Black Harry’ absconders were tried; the man Campbell, who gave evidence for the Crown, had a Certificate of Freedom issued to him to save him from being maltreated.[24]


Henry Stevens (1813 – 1890) (Reg. No. 4902)

Henry Stevens, sometimes known as ‘Black Harry’, had arrived in WA on the Lord Raglan in 1858, transferred to the ship from Dartmoor Prison. He was described as aged 45, height 5’3”, dark brown hair, dark hazel eyes, a round face, stout, strong, a plasterer by trade, with no markings. He was a widower with two (or three) children, illiterate and a Protestant.[25]

There have been suggestions that Henry Stevens served time in Tasmania prior to coming to WA.[26] As yet no confirmation of this has been found. He was born in London around 1813 and had at least three convictions, one in 1853 which resulted in a one-year sentence, and a second one which earned him three months. The third in 1856 was more serious, involving threatening behaviour and violence against a jeweller named Cockayne, before absconding with 8 chains, 1 bracelet, 2 watches, and 3 rings, to the value of £63. Stevens pleaded guilty when he appeared at the Central Criminal Court in London on 7 July 1856. His associate in the crime James Hunter was set free at a separate trial when Stevens gave evidence of his non-involvement in the crime.[27]

Henry Stevens hadn’t been in the WA colony long when he took part in the escape up the coast in 1859 with four other convicts, Lacey, Williams, Haynes and Campbell. For his part in this escapade he received two life sentences, later commuted to five years.

On 7 April 1860 Haynes, Stevens and Williams were released from solitary confinement.[28]

When released at the end of his five-year term Stevens was in Albany in 1864, where he met up with his old friend Haynes. Soon they were in trouble again –

Stevens and Haynes, two men who escaped some years since to Shark’s Bay, and in July 1859 were tried for robbery under arms, found guilty and sentence of death recorded, have been lately returned to the establishment, for a lengthened period, for burglary.[29]

On 23 April 1867 the unexpired portion of Stevens’ sentence was remitted and he received his Ticket of Leave. In 1872 authorities considered allowing him a Certificate of Freedom, as soon as he could make arrangements to leave the colony. This memorandum was cancelled when he was reconvicted in 1875 at the age of 64, charged in the Supreme Court with larceny after he and two others broke into the Williams Courthouse, a crime which earned him a three-year sentence.[30]

At the time of his appearance in court the names of his children were recorded – Henry 38, Mary 36, and Elizabeth 34. His next of kin was listed as Henry (his son?) in Melbourne.[31] At the time of his arrest Henry (snr) was employed as a builder at 125-mile Albany Rd, Williams River.[32]

Once again in 1877 Henry was given an assurance that he would be permitted to leave WA, providing his behaviour was satisfactory. He finally won his freedom in June 1877 at Bunbury, but decided against leaving WA at this time. He appears to have been a steady worker, sometimes self-employed as a builder or a plasterer when not in prison. On occasions he employed thirteen ticket-of-leave men between 1861 and 1876.[33]

It is recorded that Henry had a wife named Emma and two children, born in WA in 1881 and 1883.[34] [No official record has been found of a marriage or the birth of the children.] Henry was in his late sixties by this time. Unfortunately he suffered a bad accident while working on Government House in Perth, falling off a ladder. His wife was granted temporary outdoor poor relief on 24 June 1885.[35]

On 19 December 1888 he received a term of 12 months for burglary. The trial in the Supreme Court was described as follows –

Henry Stevens, alias Black Harry, pleaded guilty to a charge of breaking and entering into the premises of Dr. Jameson. Prisoner handed to his Honor a written statement and was remanded for sentence. His Honor in subsequently sentencing the prisoner said: I have read the paper you have sent up to me, and I feel myself justified in taking into consideration your great age and the good character your employers have given you. Although this is a very serious case, and I much regret to say that you have had some very bad cases brought against you in the past, under the circumstances I have mentioned, I think I shall be justified in giving you 12 months’ imprisonment with hard labor.[36]

In May 1889 he was sent from Fremantle Prison to Rottnest.[37] In August 1890 an announcement of Henry Stevens’ sudden death appeared in a local paper –

A sudden death occurred at what are known as ‘Yule’s Cottages,’ near the Barracks, this morning, when an old man named Henry Stevens, but better known as ‘ Black Harry,’ expired, after being ill only a few hours. Deceased leaves two young children totally unprovided for, but it is understood arrangements are being made for their admission into one of the Orphanages. We understand that the police authorities have decided to hold an inquest, with a view to ascertaining, if possible, the cause of Steven’s sudden death.[38]

It was later reported that his wife had died also. No confirmation has been found –

Old Harry died in a cottage, at the top of the Terrace. He left a wife and some children, who were, fortunately, too young to remember either their father or their mother, who was a dissolute creature, and who, one morning, was found dead under a bush on Mount Eliza, now King’s Park. Thanks to some of our benevolent institutions, the children were respectably brought up and educated. They are now prosperous residents in various portions of the Commonwealth.[39]


John Williams (1811 – 1875) (Reg. No. 4265)

Of the five escapees, John Williams could be described as a hardened criminal. He arrived in WA on the Clara on 3 July 1857, described as a smith, aged 44, single, no children, 5′ 5¼” tall, illiterate, dark brown hair, light blue eyes, oval visage, sallow, middling stout, his left arm broken and useless, both arms covered with blue marks, a broken thumbnail.[40]

Together with a Samuel Wells, Williams had been charged in August 1855 at the Central Criminal Court in London and sentenced to a 20-year term of penal servitude, for having feloniously uttered a forged Bank of England note, with intent to defraud.[41] Evidence was given that John Williams, dressed as a seaman, had attempted to purchase a variety of clothing and other items, offering £5 notes as payment, each time getting currency as change. He spent some time at each of the stores, putting the shopkeepers at ease with stories about his past, using various aliases and several different ships as his current address. When questioned in the Court he gave a long defence, claiming to have arrived in England on 13 May in the William Brown from Sydney, bringing with him a quantity of gold and money, having done quite well on the Victorian goldfields. On arrival in London he claimed to have exchanged the gold for a number of coins and notes, including the fraudulent ones, which were all printed from the same plate.[42]

For the crime of forgery John Williams received a 20-year term of imprisonment, but the trial revealed a whole different aspect to his background. He was charged with the added offence of having previously been convicted under a different name. Evidence was given by John Young, a turnkey at the Warwick Jail, who produced a certificate which certified the conviction of a John Twitty, at the Quarter Sessions, Birmingham, on 21 October 1842, of housebreaking after a previous conviction, and that he was sentenced to fifteen years’ transportation. Young declared that he had been present at that trial, and identified the prisoner, John Williams, as the person to whom the certificate referred.[43]

John Williams as John Twitty

Further investigation reveals that John Twitty (Reg. No. 9455) arrived in Tasmania on 19 August 1843 on the Gilmore (Third Voyage). A local newspaper described him as follows –

JOHN TWITTY, 9455, on Gilmore 3, tried Birmingham 21st October, 1843, 15 years; again Hobart Town Supreme Court 19th October, 1853, blacksmith, 5 feet 5 3/4, age 24 in 1843, complexion fresh, hair dark brown, eyes hazel, native place Birmingham, S B man with flag, deck of a ship, monument man on top right arm, Hope and anchorman flag schoonerman with hat and a bottle, a flower-pot and E-/-R Britannia on left arm.[44]

Twitty, aged 33, was put to work as a blacksmith at the Royal Engineers’ Department in Hobart.[45] It wasn’t long however before he escaped custody and set out on a life of crime in the Huon Valley, with two other men and a woman, Bridget Stokes. A report of Twitty’s arrest appeared in a Launceston newspaper –

BUSHRANGER.- On Monday night, Mr. Chief district-constable Brown apprehended at a house in Brisbane-street, a notoriously bad character, named John Twitty. He is one of three who have committed various robberies under arms in the Huon District. He was brought up at the Police Court on Tuesday, and remanded for a week to obtain further evidence.[46]

As a result Brewer and Quinn were sentenced to death for the crime of robbery under arms, but with a recommendation for mercy. The woman was released and Twitty, as a receiver of stolen goods, was sentenced to another 14 years’ transportation.[47] The following year the three men were part of a group of around twenty troublesome convicts who were put behind bars on the barque Lady Franklin in December 1853, for the purpose of sending them to Norfolk Island to serve out their sentences. Twitty was one of a group of three who led a mutiny aboard the ship at night, escaping through the floor of the ship’s prison before overpowering Captain Willett in his cabin and seizing some old firearms.[48]

The guards were said to have cowered below deck, in fear of their lives. The vessel’s crew was ordered to launch a long-boat and a cutter, which were then loaded with provisions. Sixteen of the mutineers then headed north in the long-boat, after cutting the mainsails of the Lady Franklin to prevent the injured Captain Willett from sailing his vessel on to Norfolk Island. His vessel limped into Spring Bay on Tasmania’s east coast about a month later to report the mutiny.

Rumours about the fate of the escapees were rife. The long-boat was said to have headed to the Australian east coast, landing at Moreton Bay in Queensland, where they stole supplies from the few residents and were described as ‘the plague of north east Australia’.[49] Some reached the Fijian Islands, where they quarrelled amongst themselves and with the local natives.[50] One of the leaders William Merry gave himself up to a ship’s captain on Kantaon Island and reported that terrible atrocities had taken place, with the crew of a Dutch barque being murdered.[51] About nine of the sixteen men were finally captured and returned to Tasmania, but John Twitty somehow made his way back to England, only to face trial under the name of John Williams, before serving a lengthy sentence in WA.

Once in Western Australia, John Williams (formerly Twitty), showed the same defiance against authority and a determination to secure his freedom as he had demonstrated in Tasmania. His part in the escape by boat to Shark Bay in 1859 earned him three terms of life imprisonment, which in 1860 were commuted to one life term, then reduced further to five years in 1862.

The following year Williams was found guilty of receiving stolen goods, which earned him a term of two years. In 1864 he served two 12-month terms, one for refusing to work and fighting, and the second for making iron articles for trafficking. At the end of the same year he was given three years’ hard labour for robbery with violence. Another three years were added when he absconded from the Harvey Road party in 1867. In 1871 the Resident Magistrate in Bunbury sentenced him to three months’ hard labour at the Depot.

In 1874-5 he worked as a labourer for three different employers at the Williams River.[52] One of them was H. Stevens, his co-conspirator in the Shark Bay affair. He was issued his Conditional Pardon on 14 January, 1875.[53]

A few months later John Williams (formerly John Twitty) died in the Colonial Hospital, Perth, on 14 May 1875.[54] He was aged around 64 years.


John Haynes (c1832-1885) (Reg. No. 3990)

John Haynes arrived in Fremantle on the Runnymede on 7 September 1856. He was described as 24 years old, 5’5¾” tall, light brown hair, grey eyes, a sallow complexion and middling stout. He was a single man, a stone cutter, with a bad reputation. He had been convicted on 15 May 1855 while serving time at Gibraltar, of stabbing, cutting and wounding a person with intent, for which he received a life sentence. His previous crime was of breaking into the shop of Thomas Sheldon at Smethwick in Staffordshire and stealing thirty pairs of boots and shoes, in the company of Samuel Baker, aged 17.[55] Haynes was aged 16 at the time, but both boys had criminal records. They were given 10-year terms of transportation.[56]

John Haynes was sent to Gibraltar, where conditions were punitive, with most convicts employed either in the quarry or at the Royal Naval Dockyards. While there Haynes was convicted on 15 May 1855 of stabbing and wounding with intent to murder and sentenced to transportation for life. His partner in this crime was Edward Maher, (Reg. No. 3992), aged 23, who had been transferred there from Waterford in 1850 for burglary. Haynes was given a life sentence, while Maher was sentenced to a lesser term of 15 years. It was decided that they should serve their terms in Western Australia. On the passage from Gibraltar to England their behaviour was recorded as violent and desperate.[57] They were held at Millbank Prison while awaiting passage on the Runnymede to WA.[58]

Haynes’ behaviour did not improve once in WA. While in Fremantle Prison he was often placed on a diet of bread and water. In January 1859 he absconded by boat, along with Henry Stevens, John Williams, Peter Campbell and Stephen Lacey, before being re-captured at Shark Bay.[59]

As a result of this escapade Haynes was convicted at Perth on 8 September 1859 to two life terms of penal servitude on two separate indictments. On 22 July 1860 the sentences were commuted to one term of life imprisonment. On 6 February 1862 it was further reduced to 5 years.[60]

Haynes was given his Ticket of Leave on 25 January 1864, yet by the end of the year he was in trouble again, this time with Henry Stevens –


Stevens and Haynes, two men who escaped some years since to Shark’s Bay, and in July 1859 were tried for robbery under arms, found guilty and sentence of death recorded, have been lately returned to the establishment, for a lengthened period, for burglary.[61]

His misdemeanors continued. On 23 August 1872 Haynes was charged with absconding from Perth, with a sentence of three months’ hard labour in Fremantle Prison. In March of the following year a charge of burglary earned him five years at Fremantle Prison. Remissions set him free again, only to be found guilty on 6 November 1873 of breaking into the storeroom of the brig Emmiline, resulting in another two-year term to be served at Fremantle.[62]

Haynes was then transferred to Champion Bay. On the night of 2 June1865, in the company of five other probation prisoners, Haynes absconded from the Convict Depot there and attempted to take control of the schooner, Lass of Geraldton. Considering his previous unsuccessful attempt to flee the colony, one wonders at Haynes’ decision to take part in another such scheme.

This time the ship’s crew was more than a match for the six escapees, firing their weapons and driving them off. The invaders were hoping to get back into the Depot without being detected, but Deputy Superintendent Snowden had got wind that something was going on and called a muster. Their wet clothes proved a giveaway, and two of the men were missing, one possibly being shot by the ship’s crew during the escapade, and the other had disappeared.[63]

Back in Fremantle Prison, Haynes’ displays of insubordination continued. During almost 30 years in WA he spent more time in prison than in employment. During the ‘70s and early ‘80s he was employed in Perth, Fremantle and at Jarrahdale, either as a mason or as a general labourer. In 1880 he was gaoled for eighteen months for stealing a half-chest of tea from the South Jetty at Fremantle.[64]

At the end of 1884 he was back in Geraldton (Champion Bay), but the following year, while employed by pastoralist F. Wittenoom, Haynes was diagnosed with facial cancer and was sent to the Fremantle Prison Hospital for an operation.[65] He died there at the age of 53, on the 18th of December 1885.[66]


Stephen Lacey (c1834 – 1859) (Reg. No. 2357)

The life of this young man was brutally cut short at Shark Bay on the northwest coast in 1859, some 500 miles from Fremantle, when making a failed attempt to leave the colony of Western Australia. On the voyage he had been increasingly ostracised by the other four men involved in the venture and was in fear of his life if they left him stranded on the barren shore, with Aborigines roaming in the area.

The other convicts were critical of Stephen’s lack of seamanship when steering the course northwards, and although his prison records described him as a sailor, one can only wonder how much should have been expected of a young man imprisoned from around 14 years of age. The so-called leader of the gang of escapees, Peter Campbell, was an experienced seaman, having risen to the class of 2nd mate of an American trading ship and John Williams (born John Twitty) also had navigational experience. Stephen Lacey, on the other hand, was a weak young man with serious health issues, ill-equipped to undertake such a hazardous journey.

Back in 1853, Stephen was only 19 years old when he boarded the Phoebe Dunbar for Western Australia, yet he already had a considerable prison record behind him. He was born in Limerick, Ireland, around 1834, growing up through the period of the potato famine from 1845 until 1848, when he was convicted of an unknown crime.[67]

With very high unemployment in Ireland it is not surprising that petty thieving was common. Hungry children were arrested for stealing food and incarcerated in places like the notorious Spike Island Prison in Cork Harbour, said to have been the largest convict establishment in the British Isles. Stephen spent four years there and sixteen months in the Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, after being arrested at the age of fourteen.[68]

Spike Island had a special dormitory for underage prisoners. Up to one hundred children as young as twelve were housed there and whippings were routinely administered. Many of these poor little wretches, weak from malnourishment, died and were buried on the Island.[69] Others were sent from there to convict establishments in Australia, mostly to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) or New South Wales. However these sources had dried up as convict destinations and only Western Australia remained willing to accept prisoners. It was only a matter of time before this source too would be closed.

Changes were made to the penal system in Britain. In 1853 the Penal Servitude Act was passed by the British Government, whereby the most common term of transportation, seven years, would be abolished.[70] As a consequence the prisons were overflowing. Health issues were a serious concern, with diseases such as pthisis (tuberculosis) and scrofula rife among prisoners. It was decided to move juveniles and seriously ill prisoners out of Spike Island Prison.[71]

Juveniles like Stephen Lacey were moved to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. Towards the end of his 7-year term Stephen was placed aboard the Phoebe Dunbar and was brought to Western Australia, arriving on 30 August 1853. The convict ship Robert Small had arrived a few days earlier. Authorities in Western Australia needed men who were fit for hard labour and voiced their concern over the quality of the Irish prisoners on these two ships, describing them as ‘in bad health, idle, insolent and irreverent’.[72]

At the time of his arrival Stephen was described as 19 years of age, height 5’5”, brown hair, grey eyes, swarthy complexion and middling stout. He had multiple tattoos, the sun and stars, a cross and a heart on the left arm, his initials ‘S.L.’ with an anchor, a heart and a cross on his right arm, and a scar on his left cheek.[73]

Once in WA Stephen Lacey was set to work in the quarries. He became a regular visitor to the medical centre at the Fremantle Prison, once for badly injuring his thumb at work, at other times for conditions such as neuralgia, ringworms, constipation and bladder problems. Sometimes he was turned away with no visible medical conditions. His main affliction however was epilepsy, for which he was admitted to the hospital for observation, though no treatment was available for the condition. During the period between 4 and 24 April 1855, the surgeon recorded that he had been on a diet of bread and water as punishment for having absconded and as a result was weak and unresponsive. Multiple seizures were recorded during this time.[74] On 17 May 1855 the surgeon recommended that he should have his irons struck off.[75] In 1856 a petition was written on Stephen’s behalf, possibly on medical grounds.[76]

In January 1857 Stephen Lacey was charged with having stolen a watch, the property of Christopher Huredyne, probably his employer, on Christmas Day 1856.[77] He was found guilty and was sentenced to four years’ penal servitude. He was then issued with a new number as a colonial prisoner, described from that time as Stephen Lacey, (Reg. No. 4235) aged 22, single, a carver and gilder.[78]

On 25 January 1859 a much more serious offence was recorded – colonial prisoner Stephen Lacey (4235), had absconded.[79] It must have been desperation that led him to join the crazy plan to escape from his situation in WA and head north with the other four men.

The story of this misadventure and its disastrous consequences has been told. Some weeks later it was officially recorded that Stephen had been murdered after absenting at Shark Bay in 1859, vide captive of John Williams (4265).[80] His remains lie buried in the beach sands at Shark Bay, a forgotten relic of a brutal system of incarceration inflicted by the British Government.


[1] Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 28 January 1859.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 8 July 1859.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Inquirer and Commercial News, 23 February 1859.

[6] Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 4 March 1859.

[7] Inquirer and Commercial News, 13 July 1859.

[8] Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 8 July 1859.


[10] Inquirer and Commercial News, 13 July 1859.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 15 July 1859.

[13] Convict Department Registers, General Register for Various Nos. 1553-8146 (R31).

[14] Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 19 Aug 1859.

[15] Ibid. 8 July 1859.

[16] Liverpool Mercury, 23 January 1857.

[17] Ibid.,31 January 1857.

[18] Bolton Chronicle, 21 February 1857.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Greenoch Advertiser, 14 April 1857.

[21] Convict Department Registers, General Registers for Numbers 4679 – 5166 (R1).

[22] Convicts to Australia, at

[23] Convict Department. Registers, General Registers for Numbers 4679 – 5166 (R1).

[24] Daily News, 23 October 1882.

[25] Convict Department Registers, General Register for Various Nos. 1553-8146 (R31).

[26]Western Mail, 23 October 1919.

[27] Central Criminal Court, 18 August 1856, at

[28] Convict Department Registers, 128/38-39.

[29] Inquirer and Commercial News, 9 November 1864.

[30] Herald, 10 April 1875.

[31] Fremantle Prison Registers, for Nos. 10133 – 10602, 1874-1902 (F2).


[33] Rica Erickson, Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians, Pre 1829 to 1888, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1987 p.2936.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Inquirer and Commercial News, 19 December 1888.

[37] Convict Department Receipts and Discharges from Fremantle, 1886-1892, 1896-98 (RD10A-RD13).

[38] Daily News, 2 August 1890.

[39] Western Mail, 23 October 1919.

[40] WA Convict shipping lists,

[41] Note: Samuel Wells (4264), aged 36, was sentenced to 20 years for his part in the forgery and arrived in WA on board the Clara with John Williams in 1857.



[44] Courier, Hobart, 28 Jan 1854.

[45] Tasmanian Convict Records, Pardons, Leave & Discharges, Convicts Memorial for Indulgences (1852-53).

[46] Colonial Times, Hobart, 15 Sept 1853.

[47] Courier, Hobart, 22 October 1853.

[48] Colonial Times, Hobart, 9 March 1854.

[49] South Australian Register, 21 Feb 1854.

[50] Daily Telegraph, Launceston, 17 Aug 1895.

[51] Colonial Times, Hobart, 15 March 1855

[52] Convict Department Registers, General Register for Various Nos. 1553 – 8146 (R31).

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Staffordshire Advertiser, 23 March 1850.


[57] Convict Dept. Registers, Character Book for Nos. 3640-4432 (R19).

[58] Convict Department Registers (128/138-39).

[59] Convict Establishment, Receipts & Discharges, (RD3 and RD4).

[60] Convict Department Registers, General registers for Various numbers 1553-8146 (R31).

[61] Inquirer and Commercial News, 9 November 1864.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Perth Gazette and West Australian Times, 10 November 1865.

[64] West Australian 13 July 1880.

[65] Convict Dept. Registers, General registers for Various numbers 1553-8146 (R31).

[66] Convict Establishment Medical, Daily Medical Journals 1884-1887 (M23).

[67] WA Convict Shipping Lists, at,

[68] WA Convict Establishment, Medical Registers by Patient, 1857-1872 (M4-M6).

[69] Spike Island Children’s Prison, at

[70] Cal McCarthy & Barra O’Donnabhain, Too beautiful for thieves and pickpockets: a history of the Victorian convict prison on Spike Island, 2016, pp.109-112.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

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

[74] Convict Establishment, Medical Registers by patient, 1855-56 (M3).

[75] Convict Establishment, Medical, Hospital Occurrences, 1855-56, and Medical Comforts 1857-62 (M1).

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

[77] Perth Gazette, 9 January 1857.

[78] Convict Department Registers (128/38-39) and Character Book for No’s. 2640-4432 (R19).

[79] Convict Establishment, Receipts and Discharges, 1855-1859 (RD1-RD2).

[80] Convict Dept. Registers, Character Book for Numbers 3640-4432 (R19).