by Michael Shelford © 2017
In December 1913, notorious burglar and safe breaker, John Clarke, mystified Victoria Police by disappearing from the holding cell at the Melbourne City Court. Clarke was there to face trial after having been arrested by the famous Detective Sergeant Michael ‘Joe’ Bannon for the theft of two bales of wool valued at £30. On the morning of his hearing he was taken from gaol to the courthouse in the prison van known as the ‘Black Maria’. From the Black Maria, he and his fellow prisoners were transferred to the holding cell within the court complex. There were five male prisoners in all, each awaiting their turn to be called. Orders were that they be kept under constant supervision by uniformed police.
The following excerpt from a report by Inspector Patrick Canty helps to shed some light on what occurred that day:
“On 22nd December 1913, five male prisoners, including John Clarke, were placed in a cell at the Temporary City Court and the key to the cell was then given to Constable Loughnan, Assistant Watchhouse Keeper, whose duty was to keep them safe until they were handed over to the arresting constable to take them to the court. Four of the male prisoners were thus properly dealt with but the fifth, John Clarke, when called by Detective Sergeant Bannon who arrested him, was nowhere to be seen. Ample evidence was given that Clarke was allowed to remain in the cell after the other four prisoners had been taken from it and that he was not taken into the waiting room leading to the court… evidence was given by a young man named Rose that about 10am that day he saw a man of Clarke’s description jumping down from a wall adjoining the cell and walking into the Law Courts opposite”. (Inspector Patrick Canty, 29th December 1913)
The only way out of the City Court was through the courtroom itself. Clarke had apparently managed to scale an inner wall and then jump to the floor in full view. He had then composed himself enough to walk coolly through the court room, past detectives, uniformed police, barristers, solicitors, court attendants, members of the public and the judge himself, before breezing through the front gate and into freedom.
One can only imagine the chaos that ensued after it was discovered that he was missing. The Undersecretary was demanding answers from the Chief Commissioner, the Chief Commissioner was demanding answers from his Superintendent, the Superintendent was letting fly at anyone within earshot, the Superintendent’s subordinates were pointing the finger at each other and the newspapers were having fun poking ridicule at the lot of them. He needed catching and he needed catching fast.
In the days before modern forensics, security cameras etc. , police detectives relied heavily on intelligence from informants in the underworld. They were encouraged to mix with the criminal community and to make allies of sorts. Sometimes the detectives paid bribes but there were also a lot of crooks who quickly developed loose lips when the alternative was being charged with vagrancy. Word on the movements of John Clarke inevitably made it back to the Criminal Investigation Branch and in this particular case the news was so unique that the detectives were able to formulate a seemingly faultless plan for his recapture. The source had informed them that John Clarke was planning to marry his de facto, Minnie Clarke, at a chapel in Fitzroy. It was to be a Saturday night wedding, set for 9pm. Minnie, a Carlton brothel keeper, had been charged over the same robbery and was out on bail awaiting her trial for receiving the stolen bales of wool.
On the night of the wedding, Detective Sergeant Joe Bannon and Detective Mercer secreted themselves behind pews in the chapel and awaited the arrival of the bridal party. Detective Bannon had been the investigating officer in the wool theft case and had a special interest in recapturing his man. Right on 9pm, two figures entered the darkened chapel: the bride to be Minnie, and on her arm a well-dressed gentleman whom the two detectives assumed to be Clarke. Detective Mercer raced for the chapel door and bolted it shut whilst Bannon rushed at Minnie’s partner exclaiming “we’ve got you this time Clarke!” To their surprise the gentleman sidestepped the rushing detective, and giving a wide grin, said “I’m afraid you’ve been had, I’m not Clarke, I’m the best man.”
Suspecting that Clarke might turn up anyway, the detectives decided that they were all going to sit and wait for him. After 15 minutes had elapsed, they got tired of waiting and ventured outside to have a look around. Seeing two men leaning against the wall of a house further up the street, they pulled their hats down low and walked as casually as possible toward them. When they got within a few feet they recognised one as John Clarke and leapt upon him. Bannon got him in a headlock and Mercer gripped him tightly by the coat. Clarke, who was a wharfie when he wasn’t breaking into shops, was strong and athletic and these qualities proved more than a match for the two burly policemen. They thought they had their man but he suddenly bucked into reverse, smashed them against a fence, then dragged them to the opposite side of the footpath and into a telegraph pole. He then shrugged out of his suit coat and disappeared at speed into the backstreets of Fitzroy. Mercer was left holding Clarke’s coat and Bannon his hat.
John Clarke was eventually recaptured in Freemantle, Western Australia, after Detective Sergeant Bannon paid an informant £5 for information on his whereabouts. Bannon was then sent from Melbourne, along with Constable White, to escort him back. They booked a return passage on SS Zealandia, collected their prisoner and boarded the vessel. During the journey the ship docked at Adelaide for 28 hours and so it was thought best to lock Clarke up in the Port Adelaide watchhouse for the night. Bannon and White delivered him, made sure he was locked up, warned the Adelaide police that he was a slippery customer and then left for the evening. Shortly after his Melbourne escort had bid adieu, Clarke feigned stomach cramps and began to desperately undo the buttons at the back of his trousers as if he were about to explode. He was hastily admitted to the lavatory, from where he accessed the yard, scaled a 12 foot wall and was once again in freedom. Port Adelaide police later reported that the escape was only possible through ”very exceptional agility and unforeseen acrobatic strength”.
Though the Melbourne detectives received the assistance of Adelaide’s entire police force, Clarke could not be found and they returned from their long journey tired and empty-handed. Adelaide police captured him 3 weeks later, however, and Bannon once again set out to collect his man, this time returning from Adelaide with the prize.
Constable Loughman of the City Court was suspended without pay for 7 days, fined £3, made to pay for the costs of witnesses and transferred to another division.
John Clarke was sentenced to 12 months hard labour and his fiancé Minnie got 6 months as well.
On the 13th August 1916, John Clarke alias Dean alias Williamson alias Morse married Minnie Clarke alias Dean alias McKillop alias Burgin. They were hitched in the same Fitzroy chapel and by the same Reverend who had allowed the police to mount their ambush two and a half years previously. The detectives were not invited on this occasion – but they would meet the married couple again.
Michael Shelford is a writer who specialises in Australian true crime. He is currently completing a book on Melbourne's crime scene c1890's to 1920's. He is also the creator and guide for the walking tour company Melbourne Historical Crime Tours.