Moondyne Joe – Toodyay’s most infamous character

Joseph Bolitho Johns aka Moondyne Joe seemed to have been the Artful Dodger of Western Australia. His life resembled a character in a Charles Dickens novel.

Joe seems to have spent the better part of his life captured and then escaping nimbly from various prisons. Legend has it the then Governor found him to be a painful and irritating thorn in his side.

Slippery fish or a man who disliked authority? Local legend has portrayed his defiance and cheeky contempt against the law in a rosy light.

Born in the UK, Joe spent four years in different English prisons before arriving in Fremantle where he received a ticket of leave. From 1853 onwards, Joe worked at various jobs in the colony, including stock trapping near Moondyne Springs in the district.

It took just eight years on the straight and narrow before Joe got up to his old tricks again. Accused and charged for stealing a horse near Toodyay, Joe broke out of prison using the same horse and the local judge’s new saddle and bridle.

Annoyed authorities spent the next two days looking for him, as the enraged magistrate likely breathed down their necks! He was caught and brought back to be charged with the extremely serious offence of horse stealing (breaking out of prison was seen as a lesser charge at that time because so many convicts did it).

He was transferred to Convict Establishment at Fremantle and released eventually. Records show that Joe even took up an off-the-cuff challenge from Governor Hampton in 1871 who promised him that if he could escape from the special cell built for prisoners like him, he would be granted freedom. Authorities were thoroughly tired of his escapades and sending him to trial by this point.

The Newcastle Gaol Museum in Toodyay has a cell dedicated to his memory (ironic much for the man who craved freedom?). Authorities commissioned the cell to stop other prisoners after Joe’s dramatic escape from The Toodyay Convict Depot lock up.

Whilst Fremantle Prison have the cell where Moondyne Joe spent hours thinking of freedom and how to hoodwink those who wanted him locked up, it’s Toodyay who celebrates Moondyne Joe in style – with a free, family-friendly (and very enthusiastic) Moondyne Festival midyear and you can visit the Newcastle Gaol Museum in Clinton Street throughout the year. Drop in for the day tour and experience the convict era in all its infamous glory.