Escape from Ballarat Gaol

In April 1872, Andrew George Scott was released from Parramatta Gaol. He had just finished a sentence for buying a yacht he called Why-Not with valueless cheques. Unfortunately for Scott, his liberty would be comically short lived. As soon as he was released he was re-arrested and extradited to Victoria to stand trial, accused of robbing the Second London Bank in Mount Egerton back in 1869.

Scott had long before declared his innocence of the crime, and in fact had been a witness in the original court case for the prosecution of the two leading suspects: Julius Bruun and John Simpson. After a committal hearing at Gordon police court, Scott was remanded in Ballarat, where he was due to be tried before Sir Redmond Barry. Barry was one of the most senior and respected judges in Victoria, known for his philanthropy as much as his lack of patience for criminals. He was a perfect foil for the verbose Scott, who was accruing quite a reputation as a man with the gift of the gab.

Ballarat Gaol

Ballarat Gaol was a sadly ill-prepared, brick and mortar structure when Andrew Scott was brought within its walls. The brick and mortar construction had been completed quickly and cheaply in an effort to deal with the ballooning lawlessness in the area due in large part to the gold rush. This flimsiness would be a crucial point in what followed. Scott was a trained civil engineer and deviously clever. He was always analysing his surrounds in order to find any weaknesses that could be exploited. While in prison in New South Wales he had convinced prison authorities that he was insane in a bid to be transferred to the Parramatta Lunatic Asylum; a low security facility he thought he could easily escape. His plan fell apart when he was caught recruiting inmates to help him escape as well as attempting to craft a weighted rope he could toss over the perimeter wall.

Remanded in Ballarat for weeks to await his trial, Scott had plenty of time to scheme. He formed an alliance with four other prisoners: James Plunkett, alias Roach, up on three charges of burglary and larceny; John Harris, alias Dermoody, alias Williams, an American butcher doing three months for stealing a coat and about to stand trial on a charge of stealing a watch; James Stapleton, alias Fitzpatrick, an illiterate Irishman up on four charges of burglary and larceny; and William Taylor, a carpenter who was doing 12 months for stealing two silver cups. His plan was almost identical to the one he had attempted in Parramatta. Scott had very quickly discovered major weaknesses in his cell; notably the extremely weak mortar around the bricks and the thin, soft, sheet tin covering the inside of the soft wooden door and the lock mechanism. Herein lay the crucial first steps of his plan.

Ballarat Gaol in 1861 [Source: State Library of Victoria]

On Monday 10 June, 1872, Scott put his plan into motion. The previous day the gang had ironed out the details of the plan before being returned to their cells at 1pm. After the final inspection at 10pm, using a piece of iron he had procured outside of the prison, Scott dug out the mortar around a set of bricks, two lengths wide and five rows tall, allowing a hole big enough for Plunkett to squeeze through. The work was harder than he had expected and he had worn a shallow hole into his palm from the digging. The noise in the cell had alerted the warder, a man named Irwin. When asked what the noise was about, Scott said that he had been experiencing severe discomfort from his bowels and was only using the facility in his cell to relieve himself. With the two men sharing Scott’s cell, they peeled back the tin on the door, which was barely thicker than paper, and using a knife Plunkett had stolen they chipped away at the wood to reveal the lock. Scott managed to unlock the door from inside, then tied a string to the bolt to allow them to yank it open at the right moment. Scott rang a bell to alert the unarmed warder that he required assistance as warders were forbidden from going into cells after dark except in an emergency. As the warder reached the cell Scott and Plunkett forced open the door and the pair flew out like startled pigeons and tackled Irwin. Scott attempted to restrain Irwin while Plunkett roughed him up. The warder managed to bite Plunkett’s thumb hard enough to draw blood and leave his teeth marks behind. Irwin screamed “murder” in order to gain attention, but was gagged by Scott shoving a blanket into his mouth and restrained. Irwin was secured to a dining table in the kitchen and the escapees took an iron bar to break their mates out as the keys were being kept by the Governor in an office at the front of the building.


Door lock and key from Ballarat Gaol [Source: Gold Museum Ballarat]

Scott and Plunkett then proceeded to locate the others and release them, using the bar to break the locks. Scott asked the men if there was anyone else they wanted freed, which led to William Marshall, a London tailor doing time for stealing a cash box, being the last to be released upon Dermoody’s request as the pair were mates. Scott went up to Marshall’s cell and told him to get ready, but Marshall refused as he only had one month of his sentence left. Scott replied “O, Dermoody says you’re to come, so come on.” and freed Marshall. Scott also tried to free another inmate named Jones who also refused, but this time he was allowed to stay. There was an argument between the men who wanted to steal Irwin’s watch and Scott who refused. In the end Scott prevailed.

They ran to the south yard where the cell block met the west wall. They had with them knives and benches stolen from the kitchen, a large rope used for raising the prisoners’ dinners to the upper levels of the cell block, and a lock from the north-eastern yard. Scott stood against the bricks, the benches helping his height, while the other men climbed on his shoulders. Once Dermoody reached the top he hitched a rope to the bars on the window of a cell. By holding onto the rope and getting a purchase on the water spout, the others were able to scale the wall after him, Scott being the last to climb. Once they were on top of the wall, then came the riddle of how to get down, which Scott solved by reclaiming the rope and hitching it through a window on the guard tower. The men then absailed down the wall. They ran along Skipton Street, then went down Sebastopol Road to the intersection of Smythesdale Road. It was here that the gang decided to split up. Plunkett was furious with Scott for having broken out so many when his understanding was that there would only be two or three accompanying them. This clash of personalities saw Scott, Dermoody and Marshall take Smythesdale Road while Plunkett led Taylor and Stapleton in the opposite direction. The escape was not discovered until 6am, by which time the enormous search that followed was fruitless.

Scott would later claim that the cause of the split was due to members of the gang refusing to fall in with his plan, which was to bail up the Soldiers’ Hill police station and procure firearms and ammunition. Thence they were to cut the telegraph wires, head for the coast at Geelong or Williamstown, steal a boat and seize a larger craft for the purpose of heading for Fiji. The back-up plan was to sail down the Murray in a canoe and make for South Australia or head north into New South Wales.

When Scott’s gang reached Haddon the following day, they bailed up a boy named Alfred King and robbed him of 5 shillings and a box of matches after hitting him across the head. After trekking a bit further, Marshall was sent to buy supplies where he was spotted by none other than the gang’s victim. The boy alerted some men that this was one of the bushrangers that had robbed him and Marshall was quickly captured and secured. Scott and Dermoody managed to escape unseen. Marshall was locked up in Smythesdale overnight before being sent back to Ballarat.

William Marshall [Source: PROV]

According to Marshall, Scott had decided to rob a bank at Linton, but Scott would claim his intention was simply to get out of the colony, even the country. Scott and Dermoody remained at large, doubling back to Ballarat and making their way into the rugged Dead Horse Ranges. The pair hid in the bush and gathering necessary items as they went, which included a shotgun and a Bowie knife. The police in the district were on high alert, with troopers from Ballarat, Smythesdale, Rokewood and Piggoreet looking for the escapees.

James Plunkett [Source: PROV]

On 12 June, Plunkett was arrested near Sydney Gully, 8 miles from Rokewood. Senior Constables Harding and Hayes of Rokewood met up with a party of police from Ballarat at Kangaroo Jack’s near Grassy Gully, then split up to scour the area, the two Senior Constables each taking a division. Meanwhile, Stapleton and Taylor had instructed Plunkett to head to a nearby shepherd’s hut to procure firearms and food. It was the division led by Hayes that located Plunkett cowering behind a tree shortly thereafter. The bushranger tried to make a break but realised he was trapped. Plunkett was visibly trembling and bemoaned that he’d have had no problem escaping if he had a firearm. The following day he was returned to Ballarat Gaol via train under the watchful eye of Senior Constable Harding. After he was arrested, Plunkett was very forthcoming with telling his version of events. He described Taylor as the worst kind of coward and thief and went on to describe the plans they had. He claimed their intention was to bail up a taxidermist called Bungaree Jack, take firearms and two stores and the Rokewood bank. Funnily enough, while searching for Taylor and Stapleton, the police accidentally found a man named Collins who had a warrant out on him for stealing harnesses.

John Harris, aka Dermoody [Source: PROV]

On 14 June, a reward of £50 each was offered for the remaining escapees. Descriptions of the men at large were supplied in the press to aid recapture:

“l. Andrew George Scott, native of Cos. Tyrone, Ireland, with a strong north of Ireland accent, aged 27 years, 5 feet 8 3/4 inches high, medium and well built, round face, long sharp pointed nose, dark eyes, with a keen and determined expression, dark whiskers and moustache, shaven chin, drags the left leg and foot slightly in walking; wore light tweed coat, black cloth cap with peak; and appearance of a sailor. Was under committal for trial to the next sittings of the Ballarat Circuit Court for the Egerton bank robbery.

2. William Taylor, a Londoner, a carpenter, aged 50 years, 5 feet 4 3/4 inches high, stout build, sallow complexion, brown hair and eyes.

3. James Stapleton alias Fitzpatrick. Irish, aged 61 years, 5 feet 4 inches high, sallow complexion, grey hair and beard, brown eyes, arms freckled, scar corner left eyebrow, and has lost upper front teeth.

4. John Dermoody alias Harris, an American, aged 21 years, 5 feet 8 1/4 inches high, stout build, fresh complexion, light brown hair, blue eyes, nose inclined to the left, three warts on knuckles of left hand, and anchor tatooed on left wrist.”

Dermoody had reached the end of his tether and decided to go alone. Scott was glad to be rid of him, considering him a “cur”, and was undeterred. Using the sun and stars to guide him in a northeast direction, always travelling along the upper ridges of the ranges, he passed Creswick and went through Smeaton, coming close to Castlemaine. The journey was incredibly tough and his supplies ran out. Having been without food for two days he resorted to chewing gum leaves in an effort to procure some form of sustenance. During a wet night he lit a fire in a hollow log but the heat attracted a snake that he quickly dispatched with his Bowie knife. Scott’s desperation was temporarily relieved when he emerged from the ranges near Lockwood and was given food and shelter by a woman there.

He continued on his way with renewed energy, swapping clothes with a traveller along the way. Scott would later indicate that the swap was mutually agreeable, but the likelihood of someone wanting to willingly swap their clothes for the dirty, beaten outfit of a bushranger is slim at best. Using the tools to hand, Scott reshaped his facial hair. Thus with new clothes and a new beard he found it far easier to go unrecognised as he headed towards New South Wales.

It was a Tuesday evening, 18 June, when Scott appeared in the vicinity of Marong Road where he found a miner’s hut tucked away in dense scrub in New Zealand Gully. The hut was occupied by a boy and as Scott made his way inside he requested a bed. The boy permitted this but, feeling uncomfortable about the desperate looking stranger, quickly informed two nearby miners who came to the house to check out the new arrival. The miners were suspicious of this shabby, long-bearded gentleman armed with a shotgun and a revolver and promptly went to the police.

Detectives Alexander and Brown, Sergeant Drought and Constable Bradley responded straight away, riding out in the dead of night with a horse and cart. The police arrived at Specimen Hill where they left the cart before heading for the hut. Crawling through the scrub, they found it locked from the inside. They retreated to a machine workshop nearby where they found the boy working the night shift. They convinced him to lure the bushranger out and he returned to the hut and knocked on the door. Inside, Scott grumbled. The police waited by the door – Brown and Bradley on one side, Drought and Alexander on the other – and found a chink in the wall that allowed them to see the sleeping bandit. By his side were his shotgun and Bowie knife, the revolver was capped but unloaded. The boy knocked again. “What is it?” Scott snapped. “Mate, give me my Billy.” came the reply. Scott was unimpressed to have his slumber interrupted over such a triviality. “What Billy?” Scott asked. “The black Billy in the chimney,” answered the boy. “Why do you need it?” “It’s our tea time.” By now Scott was out of bed and would have noticed the pitch blackness. “What time is it?” “Twelve o’clock,” the boy answered. Scott was displeased but seeing no alternative to allow him a decent rest he got up and located the Billy can. When he opened the door and passed out the can, Sergeant Drought grabbed his wrist. Scott yanked himself free and tried to make for his gun but the troopers pinned him to the ground. They had finally nabbed the notorious Captain Moonlite. Scott was still willing and able to shoot his mouth off and proceeded to say, “I am Scott. It is all up a tree with me. I am glad there were no lives lost; my intention was not to be taken alive. No one man in the country could arrest me; numbers might have done so. If it were not that you took me so suddenly I would have shot the first man that entered, and if I saw a chance of escape every other would be done the same to. I have suffered much misery since I escaped. If it was in daylight when you came to arrest me, I would have cautioned you to come only a certain distance, and if you ventured to approach then I would have shot you and then destroyed myself.”

Once securely in custody and en route back to prison, Scott was happy to talk about his exploits. He explained that it was actually Plunkett, Stapleton and Taylor that had intended on robbing a bank and they had split off for Rokewood for that purpose. Crowds flooded the train stations in the hope of catching a glimpse of Scott, which irked him greatly. The leering crowds prompted him to state, “It is enough to make one believe in the Darwinian theory to see such a lot of grinning monkeys.”

Andrew George Scott [Source: PROV]

On 19 July, Stapleton was captured while sleeping in a mia-mia on the summit of Mount Bolton. Constable Kennedy of Coghill’s Creek had been searching the area on foot after a tip-off from two local boys who had spotted a fire there as well as some sportsmen whose dog had found a sheep Stapleton had duffed, and scaled the summit backed up by a man named William Morrison. There he found Stapleton’s resting place nestled between two rocks. Stapleton was rudely awakened by the arrest and armed himself with a tomahawk. There was a struggle wherein Kennedy’s revolver was wrenched out of his hand but the cumulative effect of starvation, exposure and rheumatism made resistance impossible for Stapleton. When Kennedy inspected Stapleton’s stronghold, he noted a bed comprising of an empty mattress, along with a myriad of supplies: half a bag of flour, potatoes, a straight knife and one with a jagged edge for sawing, three linen shirts with “James Fry” written inside, gimlets, stubby candles, matches and a black crepe face mask. Before being sent to the Ballarat Gaol, Stapleton was given tea to warm him up and closely monitored due to his seemingly frail condition. The bushranger seemed almost grateful to be back in custody and was forthcoming with details of his adventures. He stated that within the first three days after the escape he had nothing to eat and took his leave of the others. He headed to Little Hard Hills, then on to Egerton and Bullarook. All of his food and supplies were stolen as he could find nobody that would help him. On one occasion he managed to pass by a policeman without being recognised, but soon after decided not to risk being so close to civilisation and took refuge on Mount Bolton.

James Fitzpatrick, aka Stapleton [Source: PROV]

Scott was returned to Ballarat and was tried, as planned, defending himself in court. In the end, despite performing admirably as a lawyer, Scott was found guilty of the Egerton bank robbery and given ten years to be served at Pentridge Prison. This would be a major turning point for Scott as he wrestled with what he saw as the injustices and corruption of the prison system. This sense of moral outrage would define the remainder of his life, eventually resulting in the infamous trip to Wantabadgery that cemented his name in history.

The final escapee to be captured was Dermoody, the American butcher. After parting with Scott, he had stayed briefly at Sandhurst before crossing the New South Wales border and heading to Wagga Wagga. Here he found work as a butcher and lived quietly until, by chance, done former associates of his arrived in town. When they found him they asked for money, but fearing they would dob him in Dermoody bolted and hid in an abandoned hut on the outskirts of town where he was found by police and arrested in March 1873, over a year after the escape. He was extradited and returned to Ballarat where he was tried for larceny and sentenced to 2 years and given an additional year for absconding. Like Scott, he was transferred to Pentridge Prison where he racked up an impressive list of infractions ranging from quarrelling and attacking a warder to having a hat band and throwing hominy at another prisoner. After his release he would wind up in and out of gaol for essentially the rest of his life. In his later years he would try to use his connection to the infamous Captain Moonlite to gain recognition while living as a tramp.

An extract from William Taylor’s prison record [Source: PROV]

Perhaps the only real mystery left to solve was what became of William Taylor. While reports on the capture of the others are easy to find, there appears to be nothing to verify that Taylor was ever recaptured. Certainly, if he had been there would have been something in his prison record to indicate as much, but the last entry is in relation to the charge that had him in Ballarat Gaol to begin with: a conviction on 6 May, 1872, for larceny with a sentence of 12 months hard labour. Most texts neglect to account for the fates of all of the Ballarat bolters so it may just be that Taylor was the luckiest man in the bunch and he managed to make good his escape. However, a bit of digging suggests that Taylor may not have been able to keep quiet for long, with reports of a William Taylor in and out of gaol in New South Wales then Queensland in the late 1870s. Old habits, it seems, are hard to break.

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