The Fremantle Conspiracy

  • Associate Producer: Richard Dennison

Perhaps the most famous escape from Fremantle Prison was that of six Irish convicts in 1876. The Fenian movement or Irish Republican Brotherhood was a secret political society engaged in resistance against British rule in Ireland in the 1860s. A number of Fenians who had infiltrated the British military services were discovered, arrested and sentenced to transportation to Australia.

In 1868 the convict ship Hougoumont arrived at Fremantle carrying 279 convicts, including 62 Fenians. This was the last convict transport to arrive in Australia. The American Brotherhood, plotted to rescue the 6 remaining prisoners. The Catalpa ship was purchased and in April 1875, disguised as a whaler, it left Massachusetts for Western Australia.

Meanwhile two undercover Fenian agents John Breslin and Tom Desmond arrived in Fremantle in September 1875. The Catalpa reached Bunbury in March 1876. Anthony and Breslin met to finalise the rescue. Coded messages were sent to the prisoners in the Convict Establishment and on Easter Monday the rescue plan was put into action.
The six Fenian prisoners left the prison in their morning work parties. Most of the convict garrison was out watching the Perth Regatta on the river and security was at a minimum. The six prisoners slipped away from their work parties and raced south to Rockingham where a long boat waited to take them out to the Catalpa. A local worker saw the convicts as they arrived on the beach and raced to Fremantle to alert the authorities.

An armed steamship Georgette was commandeered by the Governor and was making for the whaler. The long boat reached the Catalpa first. The convicts climbed aboard and the Catalpa set sail for the open seas. But the Georgette quickly overhauled them and fired a warning shot across the Catalpa’s bow! Anthony raised the American flag and brazenly claimed that if the Georgette fired on the Catalpa it would be firing on America itself. Wanting to avoid a diplomatic incident, the Georgette reluctantly allowed the Fenians to sail away.

The Catalpa arrived at its homeport of New Bedford, south of Boston on August 25 1876 to a heroes’ welcome. Back in Western Australia the Governor and authorities were severely shamed and a thorough inquiry was held.

For 7 Network and Portman U.K.
Duration: 4 x 60 mins
Released: 1988