Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Auckland’s 19th century desperado: Isaac Robinson

Image from Wiki.

(Updated 8 September 2020)

Isaac Robinson was, in 1865, 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. Nothing at the moment is known of his early life, but there is a first trace of Private Isaac Robinson of the 40th regiment, based at Birr, County Offaly, in Ireland (possibly the Crinkle Barracks) having deserted four years after enlistment, and been recaptured and sentenced on 23 August 1858 to 84 days imprisonment, stopped pay, and the brand of “D” for deserter seared into his flesh. 

On 29 May 1860, another trial for Robinson, for being absent without leave, “losing the necessaries” (his uniform, and other kit), and another charge which is hard to read on the record. For this, stopped pay, and 112 days in gaol.

If this is our man Isaac Robinson, the authorities clearly thought that although he clearly didn’t fit in with the military life, they were going to keep him on anyway, and so – he shipped out with the regiment to Victoria barracks in Melbourne, Australia in 1861. The 40th Regiment was the military unit who had suppressed the Eureka Rebellion of 1854 in Victoria, and also saw service in Taranaki and Waikato from 1860. Isaac Robinson tried to desert, but was captured, and court martialled yet again on 12 December 1861. Desertion, and losing his necessaries yet again, earned him 160 days in prison. (Source: Various UK naval and military courts martial registers, including records from Naval, Field General, Military, District and General Courts, via Fold3 online.) 

There is also a report from Melbourne that an “Isaac Robertson” of the 40th regiment “was remanded to headquarters,” in July 1862, “to be dealt with for breaking windows, being disorderly, and assaulting James Kelly and a constable.” (Melbourne Age, 8 July 1862) 

It is possible that he was shipped out to New Zealand sometime during 1863, and was based at Te Awamutu by 1864. There is a report of a “John Robinson” of the “14th regiment” being charged with desertion in November 1864 (NZ Herald, 21 November 1864) which could be him, but with details muddled by the newspaper. Indeed, Isaac Robinson does show up again in the military disciplinary hearing records – on trial at Te Awamutu 22 November 1864, for desertion and loss of necessaries. He was sentenced to stopped pay and 112 days in gaol, the prison stay likely at the Mt Eden stockade in Auckland. Robinson was by no means the only deserter from the 40th while in New Zealand. 

After this, it looks like the army had had enough of him. Probably after dishonourable discharge, Robinson was cast out on his own in the colony. In 1865, he was working on trial for Adam Chisholm on Waiheke 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 was to demand £8 in wages: Chisholm had paid him a sum equal to 2s 6d per day for the three days’ work, and his response was 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 Mt Eden stockade. 

On 3 January 1866, he escaped, and entered Auckland and Waikato history. 

"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." 
(Southern Cross, 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." 
(Southern Cross, 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.” Robinson was sentenced to 6 years’ penal servitude on 1 March 1866. 

During this period, it appears Robinson had issues with a former Melbourne policeman, then superintendent of Mt Eden Stockade, Joseph Tuckwell. In September 1866, Tuckwell (according to Robinson) took away his tea and tobacco privileges, and had him gagged with a horse’s bit as a punishment for being too loud. Robinson later claimed that Tuckwell had been corrupt in Melbourne. After an inquiry, the Auckland Provincial superintendent sacked Tuckwell in April 1867, and he returned to Melbourne, setting himself up as a private investigator.

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 his best behaviour, and so was relieved of the irons by order of the Visiting Justice. 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 said 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."
(Southern Cross, 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 he veered south, to the Harp of Erin Hotel (where he somehow obtained a glass of water), reaching the Tamaki Road near Panmure Bridge by 11.30 am. 

From there, he doubled back out west on 19 October, on the road from Big Muddy Creek to the Whau district, 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. It is possible that he got a ride on a boat to Maraetai, and headed south from there. 

He was finally recaptured in November in Ngaruawahia, and was quite keen to relate the excitement of his bid for freedom to the newspapers. (Southern Cross, 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, and by 21 March it was thought he was sighted in the Waitakere Ranges. 

"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, if 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."

 (Southern Cross 1 April 1872) 

Indeed he would. Which was why the stories of sightings of Robinson sprang up again in August 1872, when the Thames Guardian is said to have reported “on very reliable authority” that Robinson was still very much alive, and had made it to Hokianga. (NZ Herald, 19 August 1872) 

Perhaps, but in April 1873, a somewhat more credible report by the Auckland Star related that instead of heading west, Robinson actually had found refuge at the hotel at Maraetai (the publican knew him) and when two Howick-based constables heard that he was back in the locality, they were put off the scent by the proprietor telling Robinson off for being slack in his duties around the hotel, and for being drunk. After that, he headed back to the Auckland wharves, and boarded the Bella Mary bound for Tasmania, pretending to be a seaman with American whalers. His identity, the report went on, was fairly well confirmed by his visible tattoos. 

"It is satisfactory to know that the province has been relieved of one useless unit of its population, and has been saved the expense of his keep."

(Star, 1 April 1873) 

So, either he lies somewhere in the expanse of the Waitakeres, or ended his days somewhere in the wilds of colonial Australia. Here one minute, gone the next, Isaac Robinson is now just a faded memory in our history.

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