Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Auckland’s 19th century desperado: Isaac Robinson

Image from Wiki.

The story began with violence on a Waiheke Island farm. It ended, perhaps, in the broad sweep of the Waitakere Ranges.

Isaac Robinson was a 25-year-old (or 31 years old, the accounts vary) 5’ 8” tall Irish (County Tyrone) Roman Catholic ex-soldier, a twice-deserter from the 40th regiment, illiterate, with blond hair and blue-eyes. The 40th Regiment was the military unit who suppressed the Eureka Rebellion of 1854 in Victoria, and also saw service in Taranaki and Waikato from 1860. -- and Robinson was by no means the only deserter from that unit. In 1865, he was working on trial for Adam Chisholm on the island, looking after the latter’s cattle and horses. After just three days, Chisholm apparently found Robinson wanting as an employee, especially considering Robinson had no experience around stock. On 2 September, he told Robinson that he’d better go.

Robinson’s reaction to demand £8 in wages: Chisholm had paid him a sum equal to 2s 6d per day for the three days’ work, and told him that was all he’d pay. Robinson reacted by knocking Chisholm down with a stick, demanding that Chisholm hand over £14 that Chisholm had in his pockets at the time. Robinson took the money, a gun, pair of pistols, two powder-flasks and a box of caps, threatened one Charles Vinning that he’d shoot him if he didn’t clear out, and made his escape. A local Maori, Wiremu Marino, took off in pursuit of the robber, and located Chisholm’s gun at another house on the island. Robinson was caught by Constable Lane of Howick, still carrying most of the items taken from Chisholm’s house. He was sentenced in early December 1865 to three years’ hard labour in the stockade.

On 3 January 1866, he escaped from the stockade.
“On the roll being called at the Stockade yesterday, when the prisoners were leaving the works at dinner-time, it was found that a man named Robinson was missing. Strict search was immediately made about the place where the prisoners had been working, as it was thought that Robinson might have concealed himself amongst the stones, possibly with the assistance of others of the gang. He was not, however, found, so that he must have got off unobserved by the warders, and very likely had had two or three hours' start before being missed.”
(SC, 4 January 1866)

Reports came in of sightings of him at Mt Albert, going over towards the Whau. At this point, it was fairly easy to spot him – his only clothes were prison gear, boldly marked “M.E.G.” for Mt Eden Gaol. This, however, he soon remedied.
“ … yesterday morning Mrs. Griffiths, wife of James Griffiths, residing at Little Muddy Creek, walked in from that place and stated that her husband had been knocked down and severely injured, and that his clothes had been stripped off him. It appears that on Thursday evening Mr. Griffiths was returning from Onehunga to Little Muddy Creek, when, near the Whau blockhouse, he met Robinson, who suddenly struck him a severe blow on the head, which felled him to the ground. Robinson then stripped off Griffiths' clothes, even to his white shirt, and quietly dressed himself in them, first throwing off the prison dress. After he was completely attired he walked briskly away. Mr. Griffiths describes his clothes as consisting of a lavender-coloured coat, moth-eaten at the back, dark trousers, and a round felt hat. After recovering himself, Mr. Griffiths put on the gaol clothes considerately left for him by Robinson, and managed to walk home, where he is now confined to his bed. Policemen have been despatched by land and water in pursuit of Robinson.”
(SC, 6 January 1866)

Robinson then doubled back, walking along the Manukau coastline. He passed through Onehunga at night, and headed for South Auckland. At Flat Bush, among settlers who were none the wiser, he found work with a man named Clow – all while Auckland’s constables were searching the Titirangi bush looking for him far to the west, and towards the Kaipara District. Later in the month, two constables, King and McCaffrey, on their usual duties went to Flat Bush, having no idea Robinson might be in their neighbourhood. They recognised him though, at a house belonging to a Mrs. Coyle, and immediately seized him. He was returned to the city on 16 January 1866. At the trial, as Griffiths gave his testimony about the attack with his head still bound up, Robinson was reported to have “laughed very heartily at his lugubrious appearance.” He was sentenced to 6 years’ penal servitude on 1 March 1866.

On 17 October 1866, Robinson escaped again. From March up until a few days before his escape, he had been kept under heavy irons, the authorities careful not to just let him walk out of the prison as had happened last time. But, Robinson promised he would be on best behaviour, and was relieved of the irons by order of the Visiting Justice. So, at around 8.30am, while he was working in the mason’s department of the prison work detail, Robinson just slipped away, taking a stone-breaker’s hammer handle with him. In his own words:
“I was told by Mr. Saunders (overseer of labour) to go and split a stone. I went over, and with one blow knocked the head off my hammer. I held it up, and laid to one of the keepers that I would have to go to the smith's shop to get another handle. He said, "All right," and I went. I slipped between two lines of clothes that were hanging to dry, and passed beside the prisoners that were washing the clothes. They, of course, made no noise about it. “
(SC, 12 November 1866)

He hid by an officers’ quarters to the right of the gate, got to the wall, dropped from a height of 10 feet, and legged it out across the paddocks at Khyber Pass. The guards then spotted him – but with women and children nearby, and as Robinson ran close to surrounding houses, only one shot could be fired. The chase was on.

Several warders took off after him, heading for the Domain. There, Robinson took off his hat and coat, and turned his prison shirt inside out, to conceal the tell-tale marks. He then reached Parnell Road, and began to head for Orakei Bay. Then, south, to the Harp of Erin (where he somehow obtained a glass of water), reaching the Tamaki Road by 11.30 am.

From there, he doubled back, sighted at Remuera in 18 October. The next day, however, seemingly moving as quick as lightning, he was back out west, on the road from Big Muddy Creek to the Whau district (today’s Avondale), chatting to a young man and telling him all about who he was, what he’d done to be put in prison the first time, and that he’d like “to get clear of the country”. Swearing the young man to silence, Robinson moved on. The constables found out the following day, and began to track him.

Robinson met up with a former prisoner from the stockade, and walked with him along the road for a while, chatting – before knocking his companion to the ground and stealing his boots and jacket. These boots, however, didn’t fit – Robinson therefore needed another source of footwear.

Four miles from Henderson’s Mill, Robinson came upon a house owned by John Lawson, at Lawson’s Creek. After asking a young boy there for bread, he asked where the master of the house was. On being told Lawson was at the stockyard, Robinson headed for that building. A short while later, the boy found his master lying senseless on the ground, bludgeoned about the head. Boots and trousers had been stripped off. The young boy raced to raise the alarm at the nearby saw mill, and Mr Bishop who worked there rode into town to inform the authorities. By the end of October, however, Robinson was still on the loose, last seen heading for bush 12 miles to the south of the city.

He was finally recaptured in November in Ngaruawahia, and was quite keen to relate the excitement of his bid for freedom to the newspapers. (SC, 12 November 1866) By now, notorious, Robinson was compared in the press to Jack Sheppard, the 18th century English robber and five-times prison escapee. The public gallery at the court was packed for the 3 December Supreme Court hearing. He was sentenced to four years prison for escaping, and six years for assault and robbery. So far, he had totted up 19 years’ prison sentence in total.

It wasn’t until 20 March 1872 that Auckland came to hear about Isaac Robinson again. With 16 years to go on his cumulative sentences, he escaped again. Yet again, bizarrely, all the best circumstances for him to flee the prison were offered to him. He was placed at a new part of the gaol, where the securities against escape were slightest and incomplete. He was employed as cleaner-up, with greater liberties – and simply left the prison behind. This time, he was armed with a six-barrelled revolver which had belonged to one of the warders. Within a few hours of his escape, he was sighted at the Whau.

The end of the saga could have been a mere whimper compared to the astounding details of Robinson’s career as Auckland’s serial prison escapee and desperado. He may simply have just never been seen again. He may have fled the country, as he wanted, to attempt to disappear utterly elsewhere, most likely Australia.

But, instead, it appears likely the end came with a bang.
“A new surmise has arisen with respect to the mysterious disappearance of the escaped convict Robinson.

“It was between three and four o'clock on Thursday afternoon of the 21st ultimo that Detective Jeffery came upon Robinson on a track leading to a gorge which comes down from the Waitakere range. At this time Robinson was about 35 yards in advance, but seeing the detective on him he turned off in the direction of the bush. Before however he had moved many feet Jeffery raised his revolver, and, taking a deliberate aim, fired at Robinson's body. The next instant Robinson had plunged into the bush, which is here very high, dense, and overgrown with scrub and creepers. Jeffery immediately followed, but was unable to trace the direction which Robinson had taken.

“From that hour to the present Robinson has never been seen by any one. It is now inferred that the shot fired by the detective took effect, and that after struggling for some time the escaped convict has fallen and died. Any person who is at all acquainted with the character of the Waitakere bush where Robinson was shot will be well able to understand that, lf he has crawled into the bush and there died, it would be next to impossible to discover where his body lies.

“The solution of affairs is a very melancholy one but there is every reason to think it is the correct one. Although not taken, had Robinson been alive he certainly would have been seen and spoken to by some-one as his person is peculiar, and his features strongly marked.”
(SC, 1 April 1872)

Did he complete his last escape, finally victorious in his bid for freedom? Or did his bones become part of the impenetrable bush of the Waitakere Ranges? We’ll probably never know for sure.

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