Remembering the Past Australia

Attempted Escape of Prisoners from Darlinghurst Gaol

November 1864

As published in the Illustrated Sydney News, 16 November 1864.

AT about two o’clock on the 1st November 1864, a number of prisoners, who were in a large yard where carpentering and stone mason’s work is done seized some ladders from the painters’ shop, hurried across the yard and attempted to scale the northern wall. Several of them managed to get on the top of the wall, and were only prevented from descending outside by the warders on duty there. On the alarm being given, Mr. Read, the governor of the gaol, went outside, and ordered the warders to fire at the prisoners who were on the wall; but Mr. Birrell, J.P., who was passing, interposed by crying out that the warders were not to fire, and insisted that life should not be taken unless they attempted to get down on the outside of the wall.

Meantime a body of police which had been sent for, arrived, and the prisoners on the wall, finding they were outnumbered, got down from the wall, and retreated into the schoolhouse, which adjoins a room used for the storage of cocoa fibre matting. They then possessed themselves of this floor of the building, and barricaded the entrance from the stairs with bales of matting, forms, &c. They lowered the schoolmaster out of the window, and effected the destruction of everything within their reach, and, for the time; obstinately resisted all attempts at capture.

Attempted Escape from Darlinghurst Gaol 1864

One of the rioters named Parsons had armed himself with a razor, which was fastened to the end of a pole, and, shielded behind the bales of matting, he attempted to stab the warders and constables who were forcing their way up the stairs. One of the constables, seeing the fellow’s shoulder exposed, fired, and Parsons fell as if dead. This for an instant caused a panic amongst his companions, of which the police took advantage, and rushing in, secured them; Parsons was shot through the shoulders, but his wound was not of a dangerous character.

The other rioters, twelve in number William Stanley, William Mackie, James Johnson, Peter Drynob, Jas. Hill, George Ashley, James Feeley, Michael Lawlor, Patrick Daly, Peter McManus, William Perry, and Geo. Birmingham, were ironed, and placed in solitary confinement. They were long-sentence men, and with two exceptions have all been convicted of mail robberies and bushranging offences. Constable Whitmore had his collar-bone broken by a bale of matting, which was thrown down the stairs by the rioters, whom he was helping to subdue.

The disturbance was very quickly quelled, and quiet was restored in about an hour. An investigation was commenced next morning, before Dr. Douglass, and, from the evidence given, it appears that some of the ruffians were only prevented from murdering the schoolmaster and another by the entreaties of their companions. After the attempted escape there were 434 prisoners lodged in Darlinghurst gaol, and 102 of these were under what is called ‘ road ‘ sentences. 

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