The Real Moondyne Joe

History of Moondyne Joe

1826 - 1900


Joseph Bolitho Johns, better known as Moondyne Joe, was an English convict and Western Australia's best known bushranger.

February 1853

Joseph Bolitho JOHNS arrived in Australia aboard the convict ship Pyrenees, facing ten years imprisonment at the Convict Establishment. He had been arrested in Wales and proven guilty of stealing several cheeses, 3 loaves of bread 2 pieces of bacon, part of a shoulder of mutton and a piece of suet. Johns’ good behaviour on the ship meant he was offered his ticket-of-leave upon arrival in Fremantle.

What is ticket-of-leave? A convict would receive a ticket of leave if they passed a period of probation with good behaviour. The ticket allowed the prisoner the freedom to seek employment, acquire land, marry, and bring family from overseas to join them. They were not allowed to leave a district without permission, carry firearms or board a ship. Once a ticket of leave prisoner completed half their sentence under these conditions they were entitled to a conditional pardon. This removed all restrictions except the right to leave the colony.


Johns was arrested in Newcastle for illegally branding a brumby and jailed in the Newcastle Convict Hiring Depot. The building was old and dilapidated and he easily escaped taking the horse and the Resident Magistrate’s saddle and bridle.

Johns worked in Fremantle until the end of 1854 before receiving his conditional pardon. Sometime prior to 1860 he moved to the Avon Valley district, west of Newcastle (now known as Toodyay). The area was known as Moondyne by the Aboriginal people.

He was re-captured days later, and sentenced to “three years penal servitude”, to be served at the forbidding Convict Establishment (now known as Fremantle Prison).


Receives a Certificate of Freedom and released.


Johns is arrested again for “killing an ox with felonious intent” and sentenced to ten years imprisonment back at Fremantle Prison. He escaped three times in four months, on the last attempt breaking into Everett’s Store in Newcastle to obtain supplies for a trip to South Australia. He was recaptured only 300kms from Perth.


On his return to Fremantle Prison, Johns was subjected to one of Governor Hampton’s “escape proof” cells.

This was a 4′ x 7’ cell lined with jarrah planks nailed to the walls with hundreds of metal studs. Three layers of bars were put on the windows and he was handcuffed, wore leg irons and was chained to the floor. Governor Hampton is reputed to have said to Johns on inspection “If you get out again, I’ll forgive you.” In this tiny cell Johns began to suffer physically and was assigned to “exercise”; breaking stones in the main parade ground of the prison.

The name “Moondyne Joe” appeared in the press for the first time on 8 August in relation to this escape, cementing Johns into Western Australian history and folklore. Governor Hampton described Joe as an “immense scoundrel” .

The name “Moondyne” is thought to have originated from Joe’s hiding spot in the Moondyne Hills near Toodyay. Many of the settlers who knew him from this area regarded him as something of a hero for his ability to continuously evade the authorities. It is thought that people like this helped hide and feed him whilst he was on the run.

Fremantle Prison


The guards were foolishly relaxed in overseeing this work and didn’t realise, until it was too late, that Johns had chipped his way through the wall one day, escaping once again. This time, “Moondyne Joe” was on the run for nearly two years, his most successful escape yet.

25 February 1869

It was bad timing that saw him caught again when he broke into the Houghton’s Winery in the Swan Valley for supplies. Unbeknownst to Johns the police had been investigating a drowning nearby and literally walked into him as he ran out of the winery. Upon his re-imprisonment he petitioned to see the Governor, asking him to uphold his promise of release for escaping again.

27 June 1873

To avoid losing face the Governor was forced to honour Governor Hampton’s words and Joe was released. Joe went on to marry Louisa Hearn in Fremantle and together they travelled around the state from Geraldton to Augusta, York to Southern Cross searching for work. Joe continued to be a scoundrel until his final imprisonment at Fremantle Lunatic Asylum where he died of “senile dementia” on 13 August 1900, aged 71.

Moondyne Joe's gravestone

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