Catalpa rescue

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Catalpa under sail with escapees approaching in whaleboat

The Catalpa rescue involved the escape, on 17–19 April 1876, of six Irish Fenian prisoners from the then British penal colony of Western Australia. They were sent on the convict ship Hougoumont, arriving at Fremantle on 9 January 1868, at the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison) In 1869, pardons had been issued to many of the imprisoned Fenians. Another round of pardons were issued in 1871, after which only a small group of "military" Fenians remained in Western Australia's penal system. In 1874 one of them managed to smuggle out a letter to America where it came into the hands of John Boyle O'Reilly, who had escaped earlier. He mounted a rescue operation involving the purchase of the merchant bark Catalpa. It dropped anchor in international waters off Rockingham and dispatched a whaleboat to shore. At 8:30 am, six Fenians who were working in work parties outside the prison walls, Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston and James Wilson, all successfully absconded and made it back to America.

Fenians and plans to escape[edit]

John Devoy
The main cellblock of Fremantle Prison

From 1865 to 1867, British authorities rounded up supporters of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an Irish independence movement, and transported sixty-two of them to the penal colony of Western Australia. They were convicted of crimes ranging from treason-felony to outright rebellion. Sixteen were soldiers who were court-martialled for failing to report or stop the treason and mutinous acts of the others. Among them was John Boyle O'Reilly, later to become the editor of the Boston newspaper The Pilot. They were sent on the convict ship Hougoumont, arriving at Fremantle on 9 January 1868, at the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison).[1][2]

In 1869, O'Reilly escaped on the whaling ship Gazelle in Bunbury with assistance of the local Catholic priest, Father Patrick McCabe, and settled in Boston. Soon after his arrival, O'Reilly found work with The Pilot newspaper and eventually became editor. In 1871, another Fenian, John Devoy, was granted amnesty in England on condition that he settle outside Ireland. He sailed to New York City and became a newspaperman for the New York Herald. He joined the Clan na Gael, an organization that supported armed insurrection in Ireland.[3]

In 1869, pardons had been issued to many of the imprisoned Fenians. Another round of pardons were issued in 1871, after which only a small group of "military" Fenians remained in Western Australia's penal system. In 1874, Devoy received a smuggled letter from imprisoned Fenian James Wilson, who was among those the British had not released.

Captain George Anthony, circa 1897

Dear Friend, remember this is a voice from the tomb. For is not this a living tomb? In the tomb it is only a man’s body that is good for worms, but in the living tomb the canker worm of care enters the very soul. Think that we have been nearly nine years in this living tomb since our first arrest and that it is impossible for mind or body to withstand the continual strain that is upon them. One or the other must give way. It is in this sad strait that I now, in the name of my comrades and myself, ask you to aid us in the manner pointed out… We ask you to aid us with your tongue and pen, with your brain and intellect, with your ability and influence, and God will bless your efforts, and we will repay you with all the gratitude of our natures… our faith in you is unbound. We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.

James Wilson

Devoy discussed the matter with O'Reilly and Thomas McCarthy Fennell, and Fennell suggested that a ship be purchased, laden with a legitimate cargo, and sailed to Western Australia, where it would not be expected to arouse suspicion. The Fenian prisoners would then be rescued by stealth rather than force of arms. Devoy approached the 1874 convention of the Clan na Gael and got the Clan to agree to fund a rescue of the men. He then approached whaling agent John T. Richardson, who told them to contact his son-in-law, whaling captain George Smith Anthony, who agreed to help.[1][4]:71

The Catalpa[edit]

The Catalpa in dock. Note whale-oil barrels in the foreground

The Clan's committee purchased (in the name of their member James Reynolds) the 1844[5] three-masted merchant bark Catalpa for $5,500 ($128 thousand in 2019 dollars[6]). She displaced 202.05 tons and was 90 feet long, 25 feet in breadth and 12.2 feet deep. She had earlier been a whaleship, sailing out of New Bedford, but had been converted to merchant service with an open hold. Under Captain Anthony's direction, the Catalpa was carefully restored to the fitting and rigging of a whaleship "ostensibly for a voyage of eighteen months or two years in the North and South Atlantic".[4]:76–78 Anthony's recruited crew of twenty-three included a highly qualified first mate, Samuel P. Smith, and a representative of the conspirators, Dennis Duggan, who shipped as a carpenter. The remainder were mostly Kanakas, Malays and Africans, some with invented names.[4]:78–9

Departure and voyage[edit]

On 29 April 1875, Catalpa sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts. At first, most of the crew was unaware of their real mission. Anthony noticed too late that the ship's marine chronometer was broken, so he had to rely on his personal skills for navigation. They hunted whales in the Atlantic for five months before sailing to Fayal Island in the Azores, where they offloaded 210 barrels of sperm whale oil in late October. Unfortunately, much of the crew deserted the ship and they also had to leave behind three sick men. Anthony recruited replacement crew members and set sail for Western Australia on 6 November.[4]:89–90

Undercover operatives[edit]

To manage the "land end" of the rescue operation, John Devoy signed up Fenian agents John J. Breslin and Thomas Desmond to go to Western Australia. Breslin masqueraded as American businessman "James Collins", with suitable letter of introduction, while Desmond adopted the alias of Johnson. They departed the US in September 1875 and arrived in Fremantle in November 1875, after which "they separated and became ostensible strangers."[4]:114

John Breslin, while under the guise of James Collins, lodged in the Emerald Isle Hotel in Fremantle, while Thomas Desmond took a job as a wheelwright and recruited five local Irishmen who were to cut the telegraph lines connecting Perth to Albany on the day of escape (there was no link to the eastern colonies of Australia until 1877). Breslin became acquainted with Sir William Cleaver Robinson, the Governor of Western Australia. Robinson took Breslin on a tour of the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison) where he secretly informed the prisoners that an escape was due. While staying at the hotel, Breslin engaged in a love affair with 22-year-old chamber maid, Mary Tondut. She became pregnant and Anthony paid for her to go to Sydney but never saw her again. In December 1876, Tondut gave birth to Breslin's only child, John Joseph Tondut.[7][8]

Rescue preparations[edit]

Catalpa fell behind the intended schedule owing to weather conditions. After 11 months at sea, she dropped anchor off Bunbury on 28 March 1876. Anthony and Breslin met and began to prepare for the rescue.[4]:116

While in Bunbury, Breslin (a.k.a. Collins) stayed in Spencer's Hotel[4]:117 (operated by William Spencer). Anthony and Breslin briefly travelled back together to Fremantle on SS Georgette on 1 April, arriving the next day[9] and were horrified to find the Royal Navy gunboat HMS Conflict in port, necessitating postponement of their plan.[4]:121 Breslin and Anthony travelled to the intended escape departure point in Rockingham. A couple of days later, Anthony and Breslin were invited to a party at the governor's residence. Anthony returned to Bunbury via mail coach on 6 April[4]:126 and discovered that the crew had stowed away another ticket-of-leave convict. Anthony informed the authorities and they took the man ashore.[4]:129 Anthony departed for Rockingham on 15 April.[4]:131

Fenians escape by whaleboat to the Catalpa

The escape had been planned for 6 April, but the appearance of HMS Conflict and other Royal Navy ships and customs officers led to a postponement. The escape was rearranged for 17 April, when most of the Convict Establishment garrison was watching the Perth Yacht Club regatta.

Escape and pursuit[edit]

Catalpa dropped anchor in international waters off Rockingham and dispatched a whaleboat to shore. At 8:30 am, six Fenians who were working in work parties outside the prison walls, absconded—Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston and James Wilson. They were met by Breslin and Desmond and picked up in horse traps. A seventh Fenian, James Kiely, was intentionally left behind because during his trial he had offered to divulge the names of comrades in an effort to obtain a reduced sentence for himself.[4]:140 (Kiely was released on licence in 1878 and pardoned in 1905.)[10] The men raced 20 kilometres (12 mi) south to Rockingham pier where Anthony awaited them with the whaleboat. A local named James Bell[11] he had spoken to earlier saw the men and quickly alerted the authorities.[1]

As they rowed to the Catalpa, a fierce squall struck, breaking the whaleboat's mast. The storm lasted till dawn on 18 April and was so intense that Anthony later stated that he did not expect the small boat to survive. At 7 am, with the storm over, they again made for the Catalpa but an hour later spotted the screw steamer Georgette, which had been commandeered by the colonial governor, making for the whaler. The men lay down in the whaleboat and it was not seen by the Georgette. The Georgette found the Catalpa but, in Captain Anthony's absence, the first mate refused to allow the colonial police to board as the ship was outside the colony's three-mile limit. The steamer was forced to return to Fremantle for coal after following the Catalpa for several hours.[1]

As the whaleboat again made for the ship, a police cutter with 30 to 40 armed men was spotted. The two boats raced to reach the Catalpa first, with the whaleboat winning, and the men climbing aboard as the police cutter passed by. The cutter turned, lingered briefly beside the Catalpa, and then headed to shore.

Saved by the US flag[edit]

Early on 19 April the refuelled and now armed Georgette returned and came alongside the whaler, demanding the surrender of the prisoners and attempting to herd the ship back into Australian waters. They fired a warning shot with a 12-pounder (5 kg) cannon that had been installed the night before. Ignoring the demand to surrender, Anthony hoisted and pointed towards the U.S. flag, warning that an attack on the Catalpa would be considered an act of war against the U.S., and proceeded westward. This was well recognised by Captain O'Grady of the Georgette, who had sailed out of New York, was friendly toward Anthony and had, on 1 April, unwittingly entertained him in the steamer's pilot house, closely briefing him on the coast between Fremantle and Rockingham.[4]:120

Governor Robinson had ordered the police on the Georgette not to create an incident outside territorial waters. After steaming around threateningly for about an hour, the Georgette headed back to Fremantle and Catalpa slipped away into the Indian Ocean.[1]


The Catalpa six after their arrival in the US

The Catalpa did its best to avoid Royal Navy ships on its way back to the USA. O'Reilly received the news of the escape on 6 June[12] and released the news to the press. The news sparked celebrations in the United States and Ireland and anger in Britain and Australia (although there was also sympathy for the cause within the Australian population). The Catalpa returned to New York on 19 August 1876.[13]

In November 1876, seven months after the escape, the Georgette sank near Busselton.

George Smith Anthony remained in New Bedford with his wife and children, never returning to sea. He was appointed New Bedford Port Inspector in 1886. With the help of a journalist, Z. W. Pease, he published an account of his journey, The Catalpa Expedition, in 1897.[14] He died in 1913.

Thomas Desmond went on to become Sheriff of San Francisco from 1880-81[15]

John Breslin returned as a hero. He continued contact with the Clan na Gael and Devoy, and died in 1887.[16]

The Catalpa was presented as a gift to Captain Anthony, John Richardson and Henry Hathaway. It was eventually sold and turned into a coal barge. Not of great value in this capacity, Catalpa was finally condemned at the port of Belize, British Honduras.[17]

Catalpa Memorial.


On 9 September 2005 a memorial was unveiled in Rockingham to commemorate the escape. The memorial, a large statue of six wild geese, was created by Western Australian artists Charlie Smith and Joan Walsh Smith. The geese refer to the phrase "The Wild Geese" which was a name given to Irish soldiers who served in European armies after being exiled from Ireland. The Fenians transported to Western Australia adopted the phrase for themselves during their voyage on board the Hougoumont, even publishing a shipboard newspaper entitled The Wild Goose.

In 1976 a memorial stone was erected in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the rescue. New Bedford was the home port of Catalpa.[18]


From 22 September 2006 to 3 December 2006 an exhibition, called "Escape: Fremantle to Freedom," opened at Fremantle Prison displaying many artefacts relating to the Catalpa rescue. The exhibition received over 20,000 visitors.

In popular culture[edit]

So come all you screw warders and jailers
Remember Perth regatta day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
Or the Yankees will steal them away.

Traditional Lyrics and guitar chords

On the seventeenth of April last the Stars and Stripes did fly
On board the bark Catalpa, waving proudly to the sky;
She showed the green above the red as she did calmly lay
Prepared to take the Fenian boys in safety o'er the sea.

Traditional Full lyrics

  • Musician and local historian Brendan Woods authored a theatrical production about the breakout titled The Catalpa directed by Gerry Atkinson with a cast of 22. On 15 November 2006 The Catalpa premiered at the Fremantle Town Hall and ran until 25 November. The play was based on the diaries of Denis Cashman, with the poetry of John Boyle O'Reilly set to music and dance supported by a five-part Musical ensemble. The show sold out on three of its four night run.[19]
  • Irish rebel music band The Wolfe Tones recorded a song about the Catalpa incident called The Fenians' Escape.
  • The Real McKenzies, a Celtic punk band from British Columbia, Canada, included their rendition of the song "The Catalpa" on the 2005 Fat Wreck Chords album "10,000 Shots".
  • Donal O'Kelly's one man play Catalpa was an international success, winning a Scotsman Fringe First Award at the 1996 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Critic's Prize at the Melbourne International Festival in 1997.[20]
  • Western Australian folk music band, The Settlers released the album Bound For Western Australia in 1978 that included the song The Catalpa[21]
  • Australian folk band, The Bushwackers featured the song The Catalpa on the album Beneath the Southern Cross.[22]
  • An Australian Broadcasting Corporation production, The Catalpa Rescue, was shown on ABC Television on 25 October 2007.[23]
  • Fenian Park, Catalpa Park and O'Reilly Park, in Glen Iris, Bunbury.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Reid, Richard (17 March 2011). "'A noble whale ship and commander'—The Catalpa rescue, April 1876" (PDF). Not Just Ned: A true history of the Irish in Australia. National Museum of Australia. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  2. ^ "Hougoumont – arrived in WA in 1868". Convicts to Australia. Perth, WA: Perth Dead Persons' Society. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  3. ^ Birman, Wendy (1974). "O'Reilly, John Boyle (1844–1890)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Press. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Pease, Zephaniah Walter (1897). "The Catalpa expedition". New Bedford, MA: George S. Anthony. Retrieved 19 July 2020.
  5. ^ Fennell, Philip A. (2005). "History into Myth: The Catalpa's Long Voyage". New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua. 9 (1 Spring, 2005): 77–94. doi:10.1353/nhr.2005.0022. JSTOR 20557987. S2CID 144608525. (At page 88:) "...the ship was originally built as a freighter in 1844 by Waterman and Elwell of Medford, Massachusetts. She was converted to a whaler in 1852 and continued in that use until 1871, when she reverted back to a cargo vessel owing to the decline of the whaling industry. When purchased by the clan in 1875, the Catalpa required a significant amount of work and money to again be fitted as a whaler." [This work is described in detail by Pease at pp.77-78]
  6. ^ Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  7. ^ Lefroy, Mike and Joy (2006). Catalpa Escape. Fremantle Press.
  8. ^ "FS 5". Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  9. ^ "Shipping Report". Herald (Fremantle, WA : 1867–1886). 8 April 1876. p. 2. Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  10. ^ "The King's Pardon". The West Australian (6, 143). Western Australia. 24 November 1905. p. 7. Retrieved 5 August 2020 – via National Library of Australia.
  11. ^ "Bell Cottage (ruin), Rockingham Assessment Documentation". State Register of Heritage Places. Retrieved 10 May 2020.
  12. ^ Stevens, Peter (2003). The Voyage of the Catalpa. p. 352.
  13. ^ King, Gilbert (12 March 2013). "The Most Audacious Australian Prison Break of 1876". Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 22 August 2016.
  14. ^ Fennell, Philip; King, Marie; Golway, Terry (2008). John Devoy's Catalpa Expedition. New York: NYU Press. p. 172. ISBN 9780814727744. Retrieved 22 August 2016.
  15. ^ "Sheriff Tom Desmond, Irish Republican Hero | History of the San Francisco Sheriff's Department". Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  16. ^ "John James Breslin (1833–1887)". Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  17. ^ Laws, John; Stewart, Christopher (2007). It Doesn't End There. Macmillan. p. 166. ISBN 9781742625645. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  18. ^ "Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick". New Bedford, MA. 1976. Retrieved 16 February 2016.
  19. ^ Catalpa Productions[permanent dead link]
  20. ^ White, Victoria (24 August 1996). "Irish actor's one man show gets Fringe First award". Irish Times. Retrieved 12 February 2020.
  21. ^ "The Settlers – Bound For Western Australia". Discogs. 1978. Retrieved 18 February 2016.
  22. ^ "The Bushwackers – Beneath The Southern Cross". Discogs. 1981. Retrieved 18 February 2016.
  23. ^ Gallacher, Lyn (28 July 2013). "The Catalpa escape". Hindsight. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 18 February 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • John Devoy – John Devoy's Catalpa Expedition (ISBN 0-8147-2748-4)
  • John Devoy – Recollections of an Irish Rebel
  • Laubenstein, William J – "The Emerald Whaler" London : Deutsch, 1961.
  • Seán O'Luing – "Fremantle Mission"
  • Stevens, Peter F. (2003). The Voyage of the Catalpa. Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7867-1130-7. Retrieved 22 September 2010.
  • View the Memorial Launch Video
  • Vincent McDonnell - The Catalpa Adventure - Escape to Freedom Cork: The Collins Press, 2010.
  • Richard Cowan – "Mary Tondut – The Woman in the Catalpa Story" , Sydney, June 2008 ISBN 9780646494203.
  • FitzSimons, Peter (2019). The Catalpa Rescue: The gripping story of the most dramatic and successful prison break in Australian history. Hachette Australia. ISBN 978-0-7336-4124-4.

Video and media[edit]