By Irma Walter, 2021.
Executions were carried out in the prisoners’ yard at the Perth Gaol up until the late 1870s, in view of curious onlookers, including women and children. For years objections were expressed as to the public nature of these events, considered to act as a deterrent to other inmates and to any would-be offenders.
On 14 October 1869 a triple hanging took place in the prisoners’ yard. The three offenders were:
James Garner, aged 38, an expiree, guilty of the attempted murder of Thomas Davis by means of strychnine at his property on the Blackwood Road.
Thomas Baker, aged 28, convicted of murdering Mary Maria Kenny near Bibra Lake.
James McLaren, aged 33, found guilty of murdering Margaret Regan at Bunbury.
The following day the editor of the Perth Gazette voiced his disapproval of the public nature of the event –
Execution.—Yesterday morning the three condemned men M’Laren, Baker, and Garner, suffered the extreme penalty of the law at the usual place of execution. We hope the authorities will take measures for passing an enactment providing that the infliction of capital punishment may take place in private, as is now the case in most other British possessions.
All three were buried at the East Perth Cemetery.
Old Perth Gaol, designed by Richard Roach Jewell, built by convict labour and completed by 1856.
James Garner (alias McKelvie) (c1830 – 1869) (Reg. No. 6304)
James Garner, (an expiree, Convict No. 6304), was convicted of attempting to murder Thomas Davis, (former Convict No. 3685), a farmer and blacksmith, who share-farmed with John Holmwood (former Convict No. 1427) on the Blackwood Road, 42 miles south of Bunbury. Garner was found guilty of placing strychnine into Davis’s tea-cup, and into a cake mixture that Davis had been preparing. Davis was vomiting in the yards after drinking from the cup that he had left on the table near Garner. White crystals were later found on the bench-top and were placed in a box to be taken to the police in Bunbury, along with the cake, which no-one had eaten, but one cat died after being fed a small piece of it after suspicions were raised that Davis had swallowed poison. Enough crystals were found in the cake to kill a man.
At the time of the offence Garner was employed at Capel by Charles Properjohn as a shepherd. Evidence was given that he regularly carried a bottle of crystallised strychnine in his pocket. [It was said to be common for shepherds to carry strychnine for the purpose of baiting wild dogs. They knew that they would be in trouble if the number of sheep in their care was reduced.]
Davis’s property appears to have been an unofficial stop-over place for passers-by, especially former convicts. Other ex-convicts who were present on that day, Thomas Castle, John Mottram and John Flynn, gave evidence to the Court. There appeared to be no apparent reason for the attempt against the life of Davis. The two men had known each other for some time and had been on friendly terms.
James Garner’s life of crime began at an early age, when on 4 May 1853, at the age of 17, under the name of James McKelvie, a cooper by trade, he pleaded guilty in the Glasgow Circuit Court to the charge of assault and robbery in the company of Bernard Leonard (aged 22), on 14 December the previous year. The Court was told that the two men had violently attacked engineer Matt. Hervey in a lane-way in the Gorbals district, by seizing him by the throat, compressing it so as to render him insensible, before stealing his watch, guard chain and key. They also pleaded guilty to another crime, that of having, on 16 December, on a common stairway of a tenement in Hutchesontown, garrotted shoe-maker Robert McLaren in the same manner, before stealing 15 shillings from his pocket. Garrotting was a common method of restraint used by thieves in those days. Authorities were keen to stamp it out by means of harsh sentencing, and as a consequence the two men were each sentenced to 14 years’ transportation.
For some reason it appears that only Bernard Leonard was sent to Western Australia, arriving on the convict ship Adelaide in 1857. Perhaps it was James McKelvie’s age that led to him being confined in Britain. He was released for good behaviour on Ticket of Leave before his 14-year sentence had been served, the term used being ‘Discharged with License’ from Dartmoor Prison on 3 June 1859. However a few months later he was in an English Court at Salford, Manchester, for having stolen 11/9d from one Smith Hudson of Skipton, this time as ‘James Garner’, although his previous name James McKelvie and his previous conviction were also recorded. He was sentenced to a term of eight years’ penal servitude. Evidence was given in the Court by the Police Officer in charge of escorting him from Salford Prison to Wakefield Prison, that Garner had attacked him in the railway carriage while passing through a tunnel, by biting him and seizing him by the privates, although he had his hands and legs shackled in irons. He continued to fight with the officer until their arrival at Wakefield Station, in a violent attempt to get his hands on the keys of the irons and make good his escape.
It is possible that James may have found time to get married, as his prison record in England shows his next-of-kin was his wife Ann Garner. He spent 21 days in Separate Confinement at Salford Prison where his conduct was Good, and was then sent to Wakefield Prison on 14 November 1859, where he spent a further 8 weeks and 80 days of close confinement at Wakefield, before being put to Public Works for 1 year 9 months and 20 days, when his conduct was recorded as Bad. Finally he was transferred to Portsmouth Prison on 14 August 1860, where he spent a further six months and 19 days on Public Works while awaiting transportation to Western Australia on the convict ship Norwood.
On arrival at Fremantle James was described as single, a cook by trade, 29 (?) years of age, height 5’6”, with black hair, hazel eyes, a long face, fair complexion, and middling stout in build. He had a burn on his left arm and a scar on the second finger of his left hand.
His convict records in WA are sparse. It is of significance that James Garner, alias McKelvie, aged 29, cook, Roman Catholic, spent 19 days in hospital, admitted into the lunatic Asylum on 18 July 1862, and was then released back to the Convict Establishment on 5 November that year. He was again admitted to the Asylum a couple of weeks later, on 27 November, remaining there for some time before his release from prison on 19 January 1863. He gained his Ticket of Leave on 18 January 1863 and on 26 March he was discharged to the Murray District.
He is said to have been employed variously as a labourer, cook and general servant. He spent six months with hard labour in Fremantle Prison for stealing clothes from his lodging house in 1863. He employed a ticket-of-leave man in the Preston District in 1866.
On 9 May 1868 he received his Certificate of Freedom. While employed as a shepherd by Charles Properjohn at the Capel River, James Garner (formerly James McKelvie), was arrested in August 1869 and charged with the attempted murder of Thomas Davis. He was hanged on 14 October 1869 at the Perth Gaol, along with two others.
Thomas Baker (1835 – 1869) (Reg. No. 7941)
Thomas Baker, aged 27, bootmaker, was one of three men found guilty in 1863 of firing a hay stack, the property of George Busby of Ducklington in Oxfordshire. All three pleaded guilty. One of Thomas’s companions, an attorney’s clerk named John Evans, admitted that he had been going down the wrong path and asked the judge to send him out of the country. The Judge replied that it appeared that the three men had committed the offence for the purpose of being transported, and told them that since they had committed a very serious crime, they would not find the punishment so pleasant as they had imagined. They were each sentenced to eight years’ transportation. John Evans said ‘Thank you, my Lord’. Evans and Baker were transported, but the third man, Edward Lewis, was not.
The Judge was correct in his summing up. Thomas Baker and his co-offender John Evans arrived in Western Australia together onboard the Merchantman (2nd voyage) on 12 September 1864, but neither lived here for long. Thomas Baker was hanged in Perth on the 14 October 1869 for attempted murder. By coincidence, John Evans had died earlier that same year in the Champion Bay District, after absconding from his employment, his body being found in the bush –
Michael Barber, c.p., and John Evans, t.l., started from Champion Bay to walk to Perth, and were found dead by Mr. Walcott at a place named “Nurabung,” about 40 miles north of the Moore River. The poor fellows had evidently given up from thirst and exhaustion and laid themselves down to die wrapped up in their rugs.
Thomas Baker’s Short Life in WA
Before coming to WA Thomas Baker spent time in Millbank and Chatham Prisons. His character while incarcerated was ‘Good’. His next of kin was listed as his mother, Mary Ann Clays (or Clay), employed as housekeeper at No. 4 Grosvenor Square, London. Thomas had previously received a sentence of three years in the Westminster Court for stealing goods from a furnished lodging house in February 1860. He was released early on License on 8 August 1862 for good behaviour.
Upon arrival at Fremantle in 1864 he was described as a shoemaker, single, aged 28, height 5’4½”, with light brown hair, blue eyes, an oval face, fair complexion, middling stout in build. He had a small mole on his chest. Soon afterwards he was in trouble, charged on 1 August 1864 with absconding and robbery from the Warren Road worksite, for which crime he received a prison term of 12 months’ hard labour, with six months in irons.
He received his Ticket of Leave on 10 June 1867 and was employed in the Fremantle area as a general labourer by Messrs Lefroy, S. Game, and then by James Brown as a cook and a sawyer. In 1868 he was employed as a general servant by James Barker and Thomas Kenny.
While working for Thomas Kenny, Baker was given responsibility for managing a team of bullocks. The Kennys were generally satisfied with his work and Mrs Maria Mary Kenny had no qualms about deciding to accompany him on a trip to Fremantle so that she could visit her daughter and presumably do some shopping, as she wore a cloth bag containing money around her neck. They set off on foot behind the oxen, which were said to be very docile animals. When they arrived at her daughter’s house in Perth Thomas Baker asked Mrs Kenny for some spending money, and she gave him a shilling. Her daughter later gave evidence that her mother appeared a bit nervous of him, saying that he was bad-tempered. They left the next morning and continued on their way to Fremantle, staying at George Savage’s premises overnight. Baker was instructed to release the oxen into the bush near Bibra Lake to graze. He again asked for money the following morning, and Mrs Kenny promised to give him a little more spending money, providing that he rounded up the oxen promptly, telling him that he was already overdrawn on his wages.
He hadn’t returned by the afternoon so Mrs Kenny went off to look for him and the missing stock. Savage was worried when they didn’t return and decided that he should report them missing to the police. On his way to the police station he met Baker, who told him that they had rounded up the animals all right, and that Mrs Kenny had decided to go back to visit her daughter in Perth. Baker then bought a round of drinks for Savage and his men and offered to pay Mrs Kenny’s bill. He stayed on with the Savages, spending money freely from a cloth bag.
His conscience must have troubled him, because a few days later he went to the police station, saying that he had done something for which he would be detained. He touched his head and said that there was something in there that he couldn’t keep any longer, and that he knew he would hang for it. He said that Mrs Kenny was dead in the bush, between Bibra Lake’s Road and Thompson’s Road and that he had told a man he’d met named Sweatman that she had been gored by a young bullock. Sgt Regan suspected him of murder and locked him up, then went out into the bush with a native tracker. They searched until dark and returned the following morning to continue the search. They found Mrs Kenny’s body in a saw-pit, covered up with branches. She had been badly beaten over the head, and an attempt had been made to burn her dress, umbrella and hat. The case became known as the Serpentine murder.
Thomas Baker was found guilty of her murder and was sentenced to death. He was hanged at Perth Gaol on 14 October 1869, along with James Garner and James McLaren.
James McLaren (1823 – 1869) (Reg. No. 7200)
James McLaren, tailor, was convicted at the Clerkenwell Court in Middlesex for housebreaking and receiving goods, knowing them to have been stolen. Due to previous convictions his sentence was 10 years’ transportation. His previous convictions were listed as follows –
8 November 1850 – A rogue and vagabond – Three months.
3 July 1854 – Convicted at Middlesex – Sentenced to one year.
1 May 1856 – Convicted of felony as James Harrigan – Sentenced to six years.
No details have been found regarding James McLaren’s birthplace or family. He arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia, on 29 May 1863 onboard the Clyde, received from Portsmouth Prison. The name of his next-of-kin was his wife, Mrs Bull, with her address given as 6 Salvation Place, Cornwall Road, Lambeth.
His character was described as ‘Indifferent’, his religion Protestant. His physical description was – aged 38, married with one child, height 5’5”, with dark brown hair, light blue eyes, a long face, dark complexion, middling stout, with a fracture of his left shin bone.
His record in Western Australia reads as follows –
5 June 1863 – Signed for his personal possessions – a book, a photo and a manual.
11 June 1863 – Discharged to Gingin.
22 December 1863 – Acting Constable.
1 July 1864 – 2nd C.C.
24 January 1865 – Having a bottle of rum – sentence 12 months.
19 February 1865 – Fighting – one day bread & water.
27 January 1866 – Received at Fremantle Prison from Guildford – sentence 12 months.
1 May 1866 – Ticket of Leave sent to Fremantle.
16 July 1866 – Discharged to Point Resolution.
24 September 1866 – Discharged back to Point Walter.
At some stage after this he was in Bunbury, working as a tailor. There he became involved with a woman named Margaret Regan, formerly a well-known prostitute in Perth.
A Violent Murder at Bunbury
In 1869 Margaret Regan, said to be a ‘comely woman’ and well-educated, was staying in Bunbury at the home of Mary Weston, whose mother Mary Holgate was also residing there. Mrs Holgate later gave evidence at McLaren’s trial that there had been an argument when Margaret Regan told James McLaren that she didn’t want to have anything more to do with him. He was a tailor and she had worked for him. At one stage he took her clothes away from the house, saying that he had paid for them and intended burning them, but later brought them back. The argument between the two continued, with her saying that she was finished with him, and intended going into service.
After he left, Margaret Regan went off in the dark to get some beer and the others rushed outside when they heard her scream. She was found by John Kelly, a friend of McLaren’s, lying with her throat cut and other serious wounds. He ran off to find a policeman. When he returned with Police Sergeant Dyer, Margaret Regan was lying in a pool of blood inside the house, with her lips still quivering. Dr Sampson and Doctor Lovegrove arrived, but by that time she was dead.
She was a well-known prostitute, previously known around Perth as Margaret Barry, later the wife of John ‘Butcher’ Regan, whom she had married in 1861. She had told the other women that she was more afraid of McLaren than she was of her husband Regan. [Described as a notorious character, ‘Butcher’ Regan was later killed in a drunken brawl by pensioner guard Francis Taafe at Fremantle in 1874.]
In the Supreme Court trial on 6 October, Sergeant Dyer said that he had known Mrs Regan back in Perth ten years earlier, where she had a reputation as a prostitute, known as ‘Mog Barry’, a woman with a violent temper.
James McLaren was said to have shown little reaction to his verdict of murder. He was hanged along with Thomas Baker and James Garner at the Perth Gaol on 14 October 1869.
 West Australian, 28 April 1951.
 Perth Gazette, 15 October 1869.
East Perth Cemeteries, eastperthcemeteries.com.au
 Museum of Perth website, https://www.museumofperth.com.au/old-perth-gaol
 Inquirer, 13 October 1869.
 Glasgow Free Press, 7 May 1853.
 Portsmouth Prison, Hampshire, Registers of Prisoners, PCOM2, Piece No. 109.
 Norward Shipping List.
 Convict Department, Probationer Prisoners Register (R7)
 Convict Establishment, Receipts & Discharges (RD3-RD4)
 Fremantle Prison Convict Database, fremantleprison.com.au
 Inquirer, 1 April 1863.
 Rica Erickson, Dictionary of Western Australians, p.1158.
 Perth Gazette and West Australian Times, 12 March 1869.
 UK National Archives. Prison Registers, Quarterly Returns of Prisoners, Series HO8, Piece Nos. 158 & 159.
 Convict Department Registers, Distribution Book for Nos. 7608 – 8107.
 UK National Archives, Quarterly Returns of Prisoners, HO8, Piece No.153.
 Convict Department Registers, Distribution Book for Nos. 7608-8107.
 Herald, 18 September 1869.
 National Archives, Criminal Convictions, England & Wales, HO27, Piece No. 132.
 Convict Department, General Register (R26)
 Convict Department Registers (128/40-43)
 Convict Department, Miscellaneous, Prisoners Property Book (V14)
 Convict Department, Receipts & Discharges (RD3-RD4)
 Convict Department, General Register (R26)
 Convict Department, Receipts & Discharges (RD5-RD7)
 Convict Establishment, Medical, Register of Admission to Hospital (M32)
 Convict Establishment Medical, Registers of Admission to Hospital (M32)
 Herald, 9 October 1869.
 Department of Justice, Marriage Register, Reg. No 1712.
 Herald, 9 October 1869.
 Inquirer, 9 September 1874.
 Herald, 9 October 1869.