Spotlight: The Escort Robbery – Examination of the Prisoners (26/08/1853)

Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), Friday 26 August 1853, page 5



Yesterday, at the District Police Court, the following prisoners charged with being concerned in the robbery of the Private Escort Company, were brought up handcuffed for examination:— George Elston, Robert Harding, Edward McEvoy, George Wilson, George Melville, and William Atkyns. Agnes Atkyns, his wife, was also accused of being an accessary after the fact. The female prisoner was greatly excited, and was accommodated with a seat under the Bench. She frequently interrupted the proceedings by her sobs, when the evidence was such as to affect her husband.

Mr. Read appeared for the prisoners, and applied to have their handcuffs removed, which was immediately done. He then stated that he had been refused all intercourse with his clients, and prayed for permission to put himself in communication with them, which was granted.

The first witness called was Chief Detective Ashley, who, being sworn, deposed as follows:— From information received, I proceeded on the 11th instant with Sergeant Simcock and Detective Murray on board the barque Collooney, then lying in Hobson’s Bay, and having made search, found a leather trunk in one of the cabins, containing two parcels of sovereigns, one a small bag containing £403 10s., the other a reticule, containing £720; the trunk also contained several papers and receipts bearing the name of George Melville. I took possession of the whole. On the day following I went with the same officers and George Francis to the house of John Harris, hay and corn dealer in Little Bourke Street, where I saw the prisoner William Atkyns, who was immediately pointed out by Francis as one of the robbers of the escort. I arrested him, and on his person found £3 10s in gold, and a draft on the Sydney branch of the Bank of Australasia in favor of Atkyns for £100. He said nothing. In an adjoining room I found the female prisoner, who said she was the wife of Atkyns. On my telling her I should arrest her on suspicion, and asking if she had any money, she said she had, and took from her pocket a parcel containing £81 10s in gold. She said she had no more money, but having left her alone with Francis for a few minutes, Francis came out to me and told me to go in and search a plaid dress, which was hanging in the room. On my taking hold of it the female prisoner snatched it from me, saying, that there was nothing in it. On searching it I found in the lining a draft on the Sydney Branch of the Bank of New South Wales, in favor of Agnes McLachlan for £700. On Atkyns I found also two cabin passage receipts for £24 for Mr. and Mrs. Atkyns, per Hellespont, for Sydney. I conveyed both prisoners to the watchhouse. On the same evening, at about eight o’clock, I went with the same officers and George Francis to the North Star Hotel, and arrested George Melville, telling him he was suspected of being concerned in the escort robbery. I found on him £100 10s. in gold, silver, and notes; also a silver watch and guard, a six-barrel revolver, and an American gold dollar. I conveyed him to the watchhouse.

Mr. Read inquired of the witness whether it was from Francis he had received the information, but the question was disallowed.

Cross-examined by Mr. Read:— I arrested three men on the information of Francis, after taking Atkyns; two are now before the Court, and the other was discharged yesterday. Melville’s wife had property before she was married to Melville. They kept a fruit and oyster shop in Little Bourke-street opposite to my late residence. They have been married about twelve months.

The second witness was Hindle Thomson, who deposed as follows:— I am a constable in the detective force. On the 11th inst. I went on board the ship Madagascar, in Hobson’s Bay, where I arrested the prisoner, George Wilson, on suspicion of being one of the escort robbers. I took him into the captain’s cabin, and, on searching him, found £302 in gold on his person. I then took him into his own cabin, where he took hold of a pair of trousers in which I found 88 sovereigns. I brought him to Melbourne and confined him.

Samuel Beauchamp Davis was then called and gave evidence as follows:— I was a trooper in the Melbourne Private Escort Company’s service. On the 20th of July last, I left the McIvor diggings at about nine o’clock in the morning, in company with one superintendent, one sergeant, two troopers, and a driver, six in all. We were escorting gold and specie to Kyneton. When we had got within about four miles of the Mia Mia Inn, I saw Seargent Duins who was in advance motion with his hand towards the right side of the road, and immmediately we received a volley of shot and bullets from a mia-mia on the side of the road. I drew my pistol and fired at a man, who fired at me at the same time. The shot took effect in my neck, jaw, and nose. I fell from my horse. When lying on the ground, I saw two men, one at each wheel of our cart, from which they drew out the boxes containing the gold and specie. Other men came and carried away the boxes into the bush. On looking round I saw Fookes the driver and trooper Prosswetter lying on the ground. I asked them whether they were hurt. Fookes said he was a dead man. Prosswetter asked me to get a knife to cut his trousers off, as he was shot through the thigh. Not having one, I looked round and saw a blue coat lying on the ground, not belonging to our party, in the pocket of which I found the knife now produced. Before cutting the trousers, I saw Morton, the other trooper, lying on the ground, with his horse dead, lying upon him; he begged me to get the horse off him. I tried, but could not. Reflecting what was to be done, I walked a little way along the road and met a man going towards McIvor. I asked him to assist us, which he did by helping the wounded men into the cart. I mounted one horse myself, leading two others, and proceeded towards McIvor. After going about a quarter of a mile, I met the Superintendent, Mr. Warner, coming towards the scene of the attack, in company with others. He took my horse, and gave it to one of those who were with him. I then walked on as far as Patterson’s station, where a horse was given to me, and I went to the Government camp at McIvor. On the 24th instant I went to the Melbourne Gaol, where a number of men (about fifteen) were shown to me, and I recognised two, whom I believe to have been among the robbers. I see one now in court; that is the man (pointing to Melville). I do not see the other.

Cross examined by Mr. Read:— I can’t say exactly how many men there were in the party who attacked us. I should think about nine or ten.

Captain McMahon here enquired whether the Bench would wish to hear what had passed between himself and George Francis before his death, as it had been taken down in writing.

Mr. Read objected, but after some discussion it was decided to hear the statement of Captain McMahon, who deposed as follows:— I am Chief Inspector of Police. On or about the 12th of August I sent for the younger Francis, then a prisoner in the Swanston-Street watchhouse, in order to have some private conversation with him. I told him that, as he might see by the notice posted on the gates, any one of the party concerned in the outrage would receive a free pardon, a passage out of the colony, and [£500], if he would consent to become an approver. After considerable hesitation, he admitted —

Mr. Read here interrupted objecting that as the prisoners were not present during the conversation, the evidence could not be allowed: such testimony was only admissible in extremis.

The Bench again overruled the objection.

The witness continued:— Francis admitted that he was one of the party that attacked the private escort. He also gave me the names of his companions on that occasion, and assisted in their apprehension. The names were John Francis, George Francis —

Mr. Read again interposed, and said that whether the Bench agreed with him or not, he was bound to object to the reception of such evidence. The witness was, however, desired to go on, and proceeded as follows:—

Joe Gray, alias Nutty, to be found at Tommy Condon’s, in Little Bourke street; one named Billy, boarding at the house of the brother of the proprietor of the Bush Inn; Bob Harding, at McEvoy’s tent, opposite the commissioner’s, at McIvor ; Neil McEvoy, opposite the Private Escort Company, at McIvor; George Elston, a fighting man, with one tooth out, keeper of a grog shop at the McIvor; George Melville, Wilson, and two others, names unknown; one very much pock-marked, dark brown hair, 5 feet 7 or 8 inches, about 30 years of age; the other man light brown hair, 5 feet 6 inches, about 27 years of age, goes by the name of Little Billy, living with a woman called Kitty, down the road on the left hand side, near the Bald Hill, at McIvor. I then handed Francis over to the chief detective officer, and desired him to take him about with him to assist in the apprehension of the remainder. I also promised him that I would not use his evidence against his brother, but would exert myself to have them both included in the pardon.

At the close of Captain McMahon’s evidence there was a pause in the proceedings for the production of John Francis, the approver, and brother of George Francis, the first approver, who lately committed suicide after a vain attempt to escape. This witness looked exceedingly pale on coming into Court, but he gave his evidence in a clear manner, though not showing a disposition to say anything more than was necessary to the questions put to him by Captain McMahon who elicited the following evidence:—

I was sent as a prisoner of the Crown to Van Diemen’s land for ten years: the time will expire next December. On the 20th July last I left McIvor in company with George Francis, George Wilson, George Melville, William Atkyns, and Joseph Gray. The prisoners Melville, Atkyns, and Wilson, now in the dock, are three of the men. We went through the bush towards the Mia Mia Inn, and stopped on the side of the road at a few miles distance from the inn. We heard the escort coming up at about ten or eleven o’clock, from the direction of McIvor towards Kyneton. We arranged a few branches of trees to put two men behind: the rest of us went about thirty yards higher up the road, and hid behind some trees. I heard some person in charge of the escort cry Halt! and saw some of the troopers firing at the two men behind the branches. We rushed to their assistance, and challenged the troop to stand; they refused, and fired on us, when we fired and a general fight com-menced. I saw four of the troop wounded, and found that two had escaped. Two of us (myself and Wilson) followed them, and told them to surrender; they shot at us and galloped away. Wilson and I went down the road and picked up all the firearms we could see, and then followed Francis, Melville, Atkyns, and Gray into the bush. I did not see the gold taken out of the cart. We went about two hundred yards into the bush, and took the gold out of the boxes. We went about seven miles through the bush that day, and the day after continued in the same direction, keeping off the road, and stopped that night on a riverside, I believe on Mollison’s run. Next morning we divided the gold, and started again, going in the same direction, and arrived near Kilmore, stopping in the bush. On Sunday we started all together for Melbourne, and on coming near the Rocky Water Holes we separated, Francis and Gray accompanying me to Melbourne, which we reached that night. We went to my house in Collingwood Flat, where I found Wilson and Atkyns, having previously arranged to meet them there. They remained all night. On the Tuesday following, Atkyns left for the diggings, Gray and Wilson staying with me. I saw Melville in town two or three days before I was apprehended; he told me he was going to the Mauritius. I saw Atkyns in town again about a week after he had left for the diggings; he said he had been to McIvor, and was going back again. The last time I saw Gray, he said he was going to Adelaide. Wilson was going to England with me and George Francis: we took our passages in the Madagascar. My wife and the wife of George Francis were going with us: our things were all on board. I gave my share of the gold to George Francis, who put it in his box. While on board the ship I was apprehended for stealing a pistol, and was discharged. I was arrested again on a charge of robbing the escort. I last saw George Francis in this room; have had no communication with him since. I sent a message to Capt McMahon from the gaol. —

Mr. Read again interposed, and was again overruled. He requested the objection to be written on the margin of the deposition. The same thing occurred several times afterwards.

Examination continued: I sent to Capt. McMahon to say I would tell all I knew. I did do so. The prisoners were not present. My confession was voluntary. No inducement was held out by Capt. McMahon. After my confession he told me he would send me a free man out of the colony with my wife. Our party had determined before the attack not to take human life if it could be avoided. We expected to get the gold without firing. I did not see any of our party shoot at a fallen man. The firing commenced on the part of the escort.

Samuel Beauchamp Davis, recalled. —I now see the second man I recognised in the gaol. That is he (pointing to Francis). Our troop did not fire until we had received a volley from the attacking party. Three of our men were lying in the road when the first shot from us was fired, I believe by myself.

John Francis, recalled. — I believe the firing of the escort troop was caused by seeing two of our party behind the branches. Those two men were put there to let the troop pass, and then close in and prevent their retreat. They made no attempt to attack, nor did they raise their guns.

Alexander Eason, being sworn, deposed as follows:— I am a constable in the Detective force. On Wednesday, 10th August, I accompanied detective Thomson on board the ship Madagascar, lying in Hobson’s Bay, to apprehend two prisoners named Francis on warrant, charged with stealing a pistol. I arrested John Francis. George Francis was not there. Coming from the ship to the beach, John Francis requested me to allow him to steer the boat. I did so. He brought us alongside the barque Collooney, his wife being in the boat with us. When we were alongside, the prisoner Melville came from the vessel into the boat and sat down. He offered to come and bail Francis out, but Francis objected, and told him to stay on board, and take care of his (Francis’s) win. I brought Francis ashore, and confined him. He was tried and discharged. He was again apprehended on the charge of robbing the Private Escort.

William Symons was then called, and deposed. — I am a cadet in the mounted police, stationed at Heathcote, near McIvor. On or about the 19th instant, I arrested George Francis, on Mr. Jeffrey’s station, on the Campaspie. I saw him last at the Rocky Water Holes — dead.

This closed the case for the Crown, and Mr. Read, having declined to ask any questions, applied for the discharge of the four prisoners Harding, McEvoy, Elston, and Agnes, saying that there was no evidence against them. He suspected that the draft found in the plaid dress must have been put there by George Francis himself, and that its presence there could not possibly be accounted for on any other supposition; but the Bench were of a different opinion, and could not think of listening to the application, as far as the female prisoner was concerned. They seemed disposed to discharge the other three, when Capt. McMahon stated that he had just heard a report that the other man mentioned by John Francis, namely, Joseph Gray, had been taken near Portland, and had confirmed his crime. He said that he did not attach much weight to the rumor, but that it was just possible such an apprehension might be the means of implicating the three prisoners. He would not apply for a further remand, but merely threw out the suggestion. The Bench, under the circumstances, remanded the three prisoners Harding, McEvoy, and Elston, for one week, but would allow bail, themselves in £300, and two sureties in £100 each. The rest of the prisoners the Bench did not feel the least hesitation in committing to take their trial in a higher Court.

When the prisoners were about to be removed, the wretched woman made an attempt to reach her husband, but was prevented by the constables. She pleaded hard to be allowed to speak to him for one moment, saying she would then go where they liked, but the indulgence was not allowed her.

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