Fatal Night in Fremantle


tags: Homicide, Western Australia, Police,

discussion: 0 comments

By Noel Johnson

From the September 2013 issue of the APJ.

In Western Australia, where the Swan River meets the Indian Ocean, lies one of Australia’s most vibrant cities: Fremantle. It is a place where colonial history meets modern living. First settled in 1829, Fremantle has developed into a city full of charm. But this wasn’t always so. Like any colonial town it has had its share of problems.

This is the story of a dark shadow that cut short the life of a young West Australian police officer, Constable Joseph O’Connell. He should never be forgotten!

Joseph O’Connell was just 18 years old when he joined the West Australian Police Force and he had been ‘in the job’ for less than a year when disaster struck. His father, DanielO’Connell, was the sergeant in the town of York, a prosperous farming area some 120 kilometres inland.

Sunday Night, 17 April 1887

At 8:15pm Constable O’Connell and his senior partner Constable Charles Franklin left Fremantle Police Station for the start of their evening shift. These two officers were under instructions to search for a prison escapee named George Birrell who was believed to be hiding in the caves area to the north. Both officers were unarmed and wearing plain clothes. The night was clear when they began their shift. Endless stars gleamed in the great southern sky and gas lamps lit the main streets. Fremantle appeared serene but as every police officer knows, looks can be very deceiving.

Shadowy Figure

Their route that night took them along the Cantonment Road (now Queen Victoria Street).As they walked toward the NorthFremantle Bridge, the figure of a man emerged from the shadows. He approached the two from the direction of the stone quarry which was situated some 50 metres to the east of the bridge. The man appeared to be carrying something under his left arm. He passed within a couple of metres of the officers, keeping his head down and his eyes lowered.

O’Connell turned to his offsider and whispered, “That’s Tom Hughes.”

Franklin nodded and said “Yes, and he’s got a bundle under his arm. I vow he’s been up to something.”

Thomas Hughes was a well-known thief with whom both police officers had had dealings (Hughes had been arrested for burglary at the upmarket ‘Freemason’s Hotel’ some months earlier but had somehow escaped conviction).

Knowing that the quarry had been subjected to a number of ‘break and enters’ recently and that tools, dynamite, detonators and fuses had been stolen, the police officers decided to question Hughes.

Upon turning, they saw that Hughes had quickened his pace and was now some distance away. He made a furtive glance back at them. That was enough for Franklin who called on him to stop! Hughes ignored the command and kept going. When Franklin again gave the order to stop, Hughes suddenly broke into a run.

The Shooting

At this time a number of people were walking up Cantonment Road. They were parishioners who had attended the night service at St. Patrick’s Church in nearby Adelaide Street. Hughes quickly darted into a vacant lot to avoid the police. The load he was carrying slowed him down though, so he secreted it beneath the flowing leaves of a peppermint bush.He then scrambled over a fence with the officers now in hot pursuit.

Hoping the parishioners might be of assistance, Franklin blew his whistle and called out to them in a loud voice, “Stop Tom Hughes!” But Hughes was in full flight now and leapt over a stone wall and ran back across the road. He found his way to a dirt track which was used as a shortcut to the nearby asylum grounds. In desperation, Hughes tried to squeeze through a small gap in a fence. It was here that Franklin caught up with him and grabbed him by a protruding foot. O’Connell, who had been close behind, managed to grab hold of the suspect’s other leg.

Kicking and screaming, Hughes twisted on the ground trying to regain his footing, causing Franklin’s grip to weaken and he yelled out to O’Connell to pull Hughes back through the fence. At this point it seemed that an arrest was imminent, but unbeknown to these officers, Hughes was armed with a gun. The suspect then somehow managed to get his hand into his left trouser pocket and pulled out a Webley ‘Bulldog’ revolver! Raising his head he lifted his gun hand and screamed out: “I’ll blow your b----y brains out, you b-------s!” 

All too late the constables saw the flash and heard the blast. O’Connell staggered and fell against Franklin, knocking him over. The second officer smashed his head against the stump of a tree. The last words he heard before he lost consciousness were that of O’Connell crying out: “Oh God! I've been shot.”

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