This continues from Part I
Captain Booth immediately reported the escape to the Colonial Secretary and the Lieutenant Governor, Sir John Franklin. The Chief Police Magistrate was informed. Booth suggested that one of the Government vessels be dispatched from Hobart to begin searching.
The whale boat Walker and his men had taken was 33 feet long, painted black, with a red stripe around it and white up to the water line. It had a jib, a lug sail, a spirit sail and a mizzen mast.
It is believed that once the chase from Port Arthur was abandoned the escapees turned their boat towards land.
On 14th February they landed at Adventure Bay on Bruny Island. They spent a night in a hut and killed a pig. The event was reported by two sawyers and some fishermen to John Herbert, the fishery’s headsman.
“I went to the Hut and there was some Blood on a Table … a powder cask containing very coarse powder and a Clasp Knife had been left in the Hut. I saw the Knife.”
(John Herbert, in Brand).
The escapees had been overheard speaking of heading to Cloudy Bay on Bruny or Recherche Bay, but the next sighting was at Southport where the Police Magistrate reported a robbery at a whaling station owned by Mr Petchey. The men took clothing, flour, pork and one old musket. The hands of Mr Petchey’s employees had been tied. The men had been armed with clubs but had not used violence or threats.
By now, the Hobart Town Port Officer, George King, had begun following the trail of the men on the Government schooner, the “Eliza”.
King cautioned people working along the D’Entrecasteaux Channel to be on their guard and gave notice at the Constable Station at Birch’s Bay. At Recherche Bay he found the brig, “Isabella” from Port Arthur, also in pursuit of the escapees but hampered by strong SW winds and heavy seas.
After being robbed the man in charge of the Southport whaling station had managed to get to the water where he could “just discern [the boat] in the dark”. He reported it to be pulling out into the middle of the channel and heading westward.
By daylight, there was no sign of it.
A Fruitless Search
Confident that the escapees could have rounded South Cape (now South East Cape), with reports that they were hoping to find and seize a larger boat, “Mr Young’s cutter, then supposed to be at Port Davey” (remarks of Chief Police Magistrate, Josiah Spode), King initiated a full scale chase.
The Eliza reached the entrance to Port Davey on Saturday 16th February, “just as it came on to blow from the W.S.W. and very thick and preventing us from entering that night” (King’s report).
The “Eliza” entered the port the next day, anchoring in Bathurst Harbour, and King’s men began climbing hills and navigating rivers, looking for signs of the escaped boat. They searched New Harbour, Cox’s Bight, Garden Point, Kelley Bay, all without success. Then they left the harbour and searched De Witt Island and Lousy Bay, off the south coast.
Finally King returned eastwards.
“Feeling confident the boat was not in Port Davey, I thought it was likely she be holed up on some part of the coast between it and Recherche Bay or upon one of the islands.”
(King’s report, in Brand)
The “Isabella” had been searching Cloudy Bay on Bruny Island, and Recherche Bay. The “Eliza” went to Cloudy Bay to search the lagoon behind it, still with no success.
King decided the whale boat had either gone north from Port Davey to Macquarie Harbour or eastward. The “Eliza” returned to Hobart and the “Shamrock” was sent from Launceston to head southward down the west coast to intercept them.
While the authorities scrambled around, the escapees had been in Port Davey the whole time, huddled at Foxes Cove with their boat hauled out of sight. The Eliza had passed close enough for them to see the lookout perched on the crosstrees.
Later there emerged a report of another encounter.
Mr Henry Brooks and three other men were working at a boat building station at Port Davey. On 25th February, at 3 or 4 in the afternoon they saw a boat carrying eight men approaching the shore. The leader, who called himself Wilson, asked for the best landing place, saying their boat needed repair. Brooks gave “Wilson” a glass of rum but had begun to suspect these were the men escaped from Port Arthur. When asked, Walker and John Jones admitted who they were. Brooks was in no position to resist them and was keen to avoid violence. He said,
“You see what a place I have, we are in a place where we cannot get anything, and I hope you won’t distress us.”
Brooks’s deposition, Hobart Town Courier, 28th June, 1839.
Walker and Jones told him not to be alarmed, that they would not hurt anyone and they took only what they needed: some supplies (flour, pork, beef, clothing, rum, tea, sugar and tobacco), a small duck gun and an anchor. Then they went quietly away, “having offered no violence to anyone.”
For three weeks no one saw the men. It is assumed they hid, repairing the boat, somewhere north of Port Davey, possibly at the abandoned penal settlement at Macquarie Harbour.
Return. Shots Fired.
On 20th March around 8 pm Walker and his men appeared again at Port Davey. Now there were nine men working there, and this time Brooks intended to resist.
Brooks collected all the guns and hid in the trees, watching the huts and listening as the bushrangers challenged his servants and seized more food and supplies. Brooks and one of his party, Birkman, had agreed to wait until the men were back in their boats before challenging them. He watched them move down toward the water, laden with goods.
“I was at this time on some rising ground, standing at the foot of a hill, about 20ft from the level of the hut. There were rays of light issuing from the back of the chimney, which was partially open, and reflected above my head; I was completely in the dark.”
Finally as the escapees loaded their boat, Brooks acted.
“I said halloo, is that you, do you think I am going to stand this?”
He called his men to follow him down towards the boats. Birkman and Brooks fired and someone in the whale boat groaned and fell overboard. Brooks saw a gun aimed at him in the stern of the boat and a piece flashed near the bow. But the escapees pulled the fallen man back on board and fled. Brooks fired again and ran towards the shore. He and his eight men got in their own boat and pursued the escapees but, once again, they got away.
No news of these encounters reached Hobart until months later. (The details above were taken from witness statements given at the Hobart Town Police Office on Tuesday 25th June 1839 and reported in the Hobart Town Courier on Friday 28th.)
Continued in Part III.
References and Further Reading
Alexander, Alison (2010), Tasmania’s Convicts: How Felons Built a Free Society. Crow’s Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.
Brand, Ian (1991), Escape from Port Arthur. Launceston: Regal Publications.