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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Johns, Joseph Bolitho (1827–1900)

by M. Tamblyn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Joseph Bolitho Johns (1827?-1900), bushranger known as 'MOONDYNE JOE', was born in Wales, son of Thomas Johns, blacksmith. He became an ironworker in Glamorganshire and on 23 March 1849 was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for larceny. He was transported to Western Australia and arrived at Fremantle on 1 May 1853.

Granted an immediate ticket-of-leave and in 1855 a conditional pardon, Johns by 1860 was living in the Toodyay district. Suspected of rounding up and branding cleanskin horses, working from an isolated gorge on the Avon River known as Moondyne Springs, he was arrested on a charge of horse stealing in 1861. While awaiting trial he escaped from Toodyay gaol but was recaptured to serve three years' imprisonment. Released, he was again sentenced in 1865 to ten years for killing an ox with the intent of stealing the carcass. Determined not to serve this long sentence and protesting his innocence, Johns from November 1865 to March 1867 made four attempts to escape, three of them successful. With two companions, he was once at large for two months in the unsettled Darling Range. Recaptured he was placed in irons in solitary confinement in a specially reinforced cell with triple-barred windows at Fremantle gaol. Allowed out for exercise on medical advice, he escaped again in 1867 through a clever trick and for two years roamed the hill country east of Perth. He was recaptured while raiding a wine cellar and sentenced to a further term in Fremantle prison. He was released in 1871 and gained his conditional pardon in 1873.

After his release Johns became respectable and worked in the Vasse district as stockman and timber-feller and at Fremantle as carpenter and shipwright. He is reputed to be the discoverer of one of the Margaret River caves named after him. In 1879 he married a widow Louisa Frances Hearn, née Braddick, who died in 1893. In 1900 Johns was finally ordered to the Mount Eliza depot for the destitute and because of increasing senility was transferred to the Fremantle asylum where he died on 13 August.

Moondyne Joe is popularly described as Western Australia's only bushranger of note. No Ned Kelly, he neither held up mail coaches nor attacked banks; he raided poultry runs, visited half-way houses and perhaps stole horses. Yet through his determined bids for freedom against the harsh prison discipline of the convict period he became a romantic figure in the eyes of the public. His small triumphs over authority inspired John Boyle O'Reilly, a Fenian convict who escaped from Western Australia to the United States, to write in 1887 a novel on convict life in Western Australia featuring a fictitious and highly romantic Moondyne as central character. The twentieth century has seen further romantic legends grow around his name.

Select Bibliography

  • Welshman, 30 Mar 1849
  • Herald (Fremantle), 27 Feb 1869
  • M. C. Carroll, Behind the Lighthouse, a Study of J. B. O'Reilly's Sojourn in Australia (Ph.D. thesis, University of Iowa, 1954)
  • Fremantle register, 1900 (Fremantle Gaol)
  • Fremantle prison records, convict register 1853 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Police Court records, Mar 1900 (Perth Police Court)
  • Police Department records, 12, 19 Aug, 2 Sept 1861, 20 Nov 1865, 14 Mar 1868 (State Library of Western Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

M. Tamblyn, 'Johns, Joseph Bolitho (1827–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 28 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Moondyne Joe
  • Moondyne Joe



13 August 1900
Fremantle, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Passenger Ship