Memories of the Wild West

The Perth of my youth was a friendly West Australian town, half asleep by the bays and reaches of the Swan. We called ourselves the “Wildflower State”. Perhaps the “Flogging and Hanging State” would be more apt. First, I’ll reminisce about the hangings, then the floggings.

In 1964 when I was a reporter and part-time UWA student, there were three death sentences, and two were carried out. Perth’s Anglican Archbishop, the Most Rev George Appleton, protested but added that if the death penalty had to stay, the State should switch to lethal injections. To be fair to my home state, the October 1964 hanging of random sniper Eric Edgar Cooke was WA’s last; Victoria’s Liberal premier, Henry Bolte, hanged escapee/murderer Robert Ryan in 1967, the last man to go to the gallows in Australia.

Perth hanged Brian William Robinson in January of the same year, 1964, that saw Cooke hanged.The Robinson preliminaries were so off-the-wall that I don’t expect to be believed. It wasn’t like the Wild West, it was the Wild West. Thousands of viewers of Channel 7 Perth armed themselves to help the police capture the desperado in a pine plantation, at extreme risk of death by friendly fire. One might reflect on how far the policing culture has changed since those rough-hewn days by noting the Victoria Police’s sensitive handling of Dimitrious Gargasoulas before his 2017 car rampage down Bourke Street Mall.

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On Saturday morning, February 9, 1963, Robinson, 23, ran amok after hearing a rumor that his mother was also his sister. (A milder version maintains that the catalyst was father George, 70, chipping him for dole-bludging). Constable Noel Iles was called to the fracas at the family’s Belmont home as the Robinsons were fighting for the son’s shotgun. Getting control of the weapon, Brian Robinson turned it on Iles and shot him in the face from a front window. Then he went outside, kicked the kneeling Iles over and shot him in the head, fatally. A pair in a passing Goggomobile Dart convertible (a 300cc microcar) stopped to look. Robinson tried for a Goggomobile getaway and shot the passenger dead when he resisted. The woman driver stayed in the car and was filmed by Channel 7’s crew, hot on the scene, smoking a cigarette in a holder with the body in a blanket slumped behind her.[1]

Robinson then commandeered a Swan taxi by whacking the driver Arthur Smith with his gun-butt. The army-trained driver got out a may-day call. He drove Robinson to the Gnangara pine plantation and deliberately bogged the taxi a couple of kilometres inside. They made off on foot and the Smith got away when Robinson hid from a police spotter plane.

When night fell the police manhunters relied on an RAAF searchlight truck and a Channel 7 Outside Broadcast Van’s studio lights and microwave communications. In this fraternal atmosphere police asked young Seven reporter Bob Cribb to broadcast a call for all available personnel to come to the plantation, armed. The police meant “off-duty police” but newsreader Lloyd Lawson called on armed citizens of every description.[2] Incredibly, the police directed  Cribb to enter the plantation with the Seven van only if he had a gun. He borrowed a shotgun from his local greengrocer, additional to pen, pad and mike.

Sniper Eric Edgar Cooke, “The Night Caller”, was at large after shooting five residents in the previous five weeks Multitudes of Perth men had weapons handy to defend hearth and home. Posses arrived at the plantations in their thousands, by car, truck, motorbike, bicycle and horseback, with shotguns, rifles and pistols. The estimate was a 5000-strong force, police included and a few Amazonian women. Many police were out of uniform and none of the crowd knew what Robinson looked like. TV footage shows one street crammed end-to-end for a kilometre with armed Perth-ites. Some were in cowboy hats with rifle in one hand and pistol in the other.

Policeman Bob Masters was on the front line. “I was just astounded when I came on the back of Robbie Drew’s motorbike [was that Drew the future novelist?]. We went the full length of the road, people were right alongside each other, they had guns, it really worried me, it was terrible.” Nonetheless the police were not averse to helpers. One high-ranking officer addressed the crowd about the danger, “and if we felt uncomfortable, we were given permission to leave,” says reporter Colin Gorey.

The makeshift army “proceeded with daring abandon through deep undergrowth,” the Seven newsreader intoned. Long lines of manhunters strode forward, filmed by Channel 7’s crew in the spirit of Damien Parer on the Kokoda Track. Live outside TV in 1963 was in its infancy, so the the black and white action footage was stunning. Reporter Cribb ad-libbed for three hours, including such sub-judice gems as “The mad dog killer is holed up in this bush”.[3]

The most solid account is by retired WA Police Commissioner Brian Bull, who as a young detective helped organise the manhunt. He recounts that as they approached the abandoned taxi a shot rang out – but from a fumbling policeman. During the night the perimeter was cordoned and by daylight police brought in a “native tracker” Mick Wilson, who had been holidaying, from Port Hedland. Bull’s job was to closely protect the tracker from the gunman, with six police 200m in reserve behind: “I admired the courage of Mick who was completely exposed if we came close to the offender and he was the one most likely to be fired upon.” I find no report that Mick got an award. After many hours Mick said the killer was near. Everyone closed up and then several shots rang out. But they were from the blocking line of police ahead who brought down the fleeing Robinson.

In his understated police way, Bull said his group hadn’t realised they were walking into the path of the massed public and police gunnies. “It became evident that we had been exposed to considerable risk from ‘friendly fire’ and it was fortunate that the offender was shot before many police and armed members of the public opened fire,” he concluded. Policeman Bob Masters fired that final shot: ”If I hadn’t, I believe a lot of other people would have been badly injured.”

Robinson was convicted in May 1963 and hanged on January 20, 1964.

Reporter Cribb, a colourful and likeable guy, was later fired by Seven three or four times and re-instated, doubtless thanks to the channel’s scoop of the century. Cameraman Peter Goodall wrote: ”It was crazy. We all got back to Seven and were elated. Even invited to the board room for champagne. Some crazy memories….mmm!”

This might all whet your appetite for Fremantle’s history of floggings, the western city today being one of the country’s most woke.

Flogging was on the WA statutes until 1992, but the last thrashing involved a 19-year-old shop assistant in 1962. He got two years and 12 strokes of the birch for consensual sex with a 14-year-old, aka “unlawful carnal knowledge”. He appealed the sentence but the aptly named Chief Justice Mr Justice Wolff said it was “richly deserved”. A QC, Tom Percy, commented, “He wasn’t old enough to vote, or even have a drink, but in the eyes of the law he was old enough to be flogged.” Who did the flogging and how it was carried out remains a state secret, although we do know the Brand Liberal government imported the birch rod specially from England. The previous birching was said to have been in the late 1950s.

The last full-on flogging with a cat-o-nine tails in Fremantle Gaol involved robber Sydney Sutton 43, for escaping gaol (he made a key in the workshop) and raping a 12-year-old schoolgirl. That flogging took place on June 22, 1943, not 1843.[4] He’d also committed rape during an escape from the lower-security Barton’s Mill. Sutton was inside Fremantle since 1937 for housebreaking, robbery with violence and for a movie-style shoot-out with detectives on Canning Bridge. His terms totalled 81 years. Not lacking initiative, he briefly enjoyed three weeks’ freedom in 1939-40 as well, by escaping in a brown felt hat from a working party that was burning off grass outside. Gaol was “a hell of a life”, he complained to the beak, Mr H.J. Craig.

For the 1943 escape and rape, Sutton was sentenced to life and 25 lashes of the cat. Fear immediately sent him into a medical collapse. Perth lacked a hangman/flogger but scores of Perth and Eastern States police, warders and amateurs clamoured for the job. Newspapers printed letters from volunteers pressing their case.

Sutton was tied to the triangle with hands above his head and ankles secured. The Mirrorreported,

Though he has shown contempt for every other form of punishment, a flogging was more than even a hardened criminal of Sutton’s type could stand. And by the time the cat had bitten into his back 17 times, a doctor examined the writhing, moaning man and decided that was all he could bear for the present. His back, streaked with the marks of the lashes, was carefully tended by the doctor and Sutton was taken away. [I hope the doctor bulk-billed].

As news of the flogging seeped through the prison, the effect on the other prisoners was profound. Of all jail punishments, none has a greater effect on a man’s fellow prisoners – and presumably his former associates outside – than a flogging. It is intended as a deterrent, grisly and fear-impelling, but not sadistic.

After a public outcry, Sutton was let off the remaining eight lashes. In fact, undeterred by that ‘non-sadistic’ experience, he was caught hiding in the prison roof space on July 22, exactly a month later.

Perth people in the 1960s had few degrees of separation, and even now you need to watch what you say and to whom. As a reporter, I knew Labor Deputy Opposition Leader Herb Graham a bit. He was not only an anti-hanging and anti-flogging crusader in the Assembly, but had actually seen Sutton in gaol a few months after the flogging. (Graham was truly a political veteran, having entered State Parliament in early 1943). After seeing Sutton, Graham brought a cat o’ nine tails into the Assembly “for the edification of members”, much like Prime Minister Morrison arriving in the House three years ago with a lump of coal.

In a 1965 Assembly debate, Graham said, “That person [Sutton] had the look of a mad animal. I could almost see him snarl as we approached him. I suggest that was brought about by what he had to suffer in the way of the lashing.”[5]

Flogging was not an abstruse issue in 1965. Perth gays, for example, were liable not merely to a maximum 14 years hard labor for buggery, but a whipping. “Gross indecency” involved only three years, but also with a whipping. Buggery convictions occurred from time to time — a former high-school classmate of mine was charged after a gay fancy-dress party where revellers dressed like nuns. Sentences were fairly token but the public disgrace was severe.

Deputy Premier Charlie Court brought in a Bill to tone down the words using in sentencing murderers. Judges heretofore used to say that the “prisoner be returned to his former custody, and that at a time and place to be appointed by the Governor, he be hanged by the neck until he is dead.”

But thanks to Liberal compassion, the wording was to be changed to “suffer death in the manner prescribed by law”. No change ensued to isolation, hangman imported from interstate, a padre’s supplications, calculation of drops, noose, and greased trapdoor hinge. The 1965 Bill also varied the whippings procedure, to substitute a cane or leather strap for the hard-to-procure birch rods.

Charlie Court didn’t take Graham seriously, saying the Bill was just legislative tidying-up:

Court: We have heard the member with this standard speech of his so often.

Graham: No, it is different every time I make it.

Court chided that in the election earlier that year, hardly a constituent had raised the issue of hanging. Moreover, parents of young girls were keen on rapists getting whipped.

Court continued, “It is easy to get emotionally worked up over these matters but the Government feels they have to be considered and decided in a calmer atmosphere. The Government is keeping this matter constantly under review in a sensible and responsible way.” In the event, WA’s capital punishment law lingered for 19 years, including the eight years of Court’s premiership, until Labor’s WA Inc. Premier Brian Burke grasped the nettle in 1984. Corporal punishment stayed on the books till 1992.

Tony Thomas has a new book published this month, Come to think of it – essays to tickle the brain. Get your copy on-line here from Connor Court.

[1] A bystander took offence and police had to break up his fist-fight with the cameraman.

[2] Cribb was originally a cadet at The West Australian, as I was, but I was some years older and don’t remember much about him.

[3] Cribb and Channel 7 were sued for defamation and contempt of court over the comment, and Robinson’s defence lawyer tried to use such quotes to secure a mistrial.

[4] The previous WA flogging with the cat was in 1933 and the flogger was a policeman.

[5] 25/11/65.

  • loudone1

    Bring them both back (hanging and flogging), televise them and you will soon see a decline of the applicably relevant crimes. I speak with some knowledge having received 6 of the best with a police cane on a couple of occasions while at school – the blood fades quicker than the memory!

  • pgang

    What a great story. I’d never heard of this before. Mind you I think we could use a little more Corporal punishment and public involvement these days, and a liitle less nannying.

  • lloveday

    The 25 lashes with the cat, of which but 17 were effected, makes me wonder about the realism of the book we read at school, For the Term of his Natural Life, where 100 seemed to be the norm.

  • lloveday

    I have long said that getting rid of graffiti is simple – make the penalty 8 whacks of the rattan across the bare backside, do the first lot at half time of a Crows-Power showdown and make sure it’s televised. There would be no need for a second public show.
    I’ve never seen graffiti in Singapore, so it works, even without the public show.

  • pgang

    Lloveday, the book was very loose with the facts and prone to melodrama. It tended to pick out the worst of the myths and exaggerate them. At least that’s my understanding.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Speaking of graffiti (from the graffiti-rich capital of Australia, where it actively encouraged by ratbag leftists in government), I recently had cause to make several trips to and around Bathurst in rural NSW. Travelling around the city two things impressed me. First was the general cleanliness and neatness that reflected an enormous degree of civic pride. Second, obviously a result of the first, was the almost total absence of graffiti. I noticed the absence on my first trip, and paid particular attention on subsequent trips as I was being driven around large areas. I saw one, repeat ONE, tag on the back of a street speed limit sign.
    The contrast with Canberra, once a justifiably proud example to the nation as a spotlessly clean, meticulously maintained national Capital, is startling. We here in the ACT should shrivel up and die of shame.

  • Tony Thomas

    From a reader:
    Disturbing account, Tony. Incidentally my husband used to take services at the gaol in the mid 60s. Sutton used to give out and collect the hymn books, making the comment that you had to be diligent as there were a few thieves around.


  1. Almost 26 years ago (6th of june 1994 to be exact) I stayed in the Burswood hotel in Perth for a Rio Tinto business trip (still flying business class in those days). Every morning before breakfast I witnessed the money transport at the next door casino, they always came to collect money, never to bring money.


  2. From Perth reader George Williams:
    That was a ramble down Memory Lane… which we all know has many potholes and is impossible to confirm. I can add a little close-up. I was 20 and the first reporter on the bloody scene at Epsom Avenue Belmont that Saturday afternoon in 1963.
    Johnno Johnston, switchboard operator at St John’s Ambulance, rang me at our manual switchboard 23-1711 and said, “Hey George -Get to Epsom Ave… it’s effing big!”
    Wow! Johnno was not a man for exaggeration.
    I had shared many quiet Saturday night beers with him when we were both on duty Saturday nights — I as the lad who went to the Shaftesbury Hotel to get king browns for the ambulance drivers to enjoy at work between mercy dashes.
    I boldly asked my boss, John Allan, Editor at The Sunday Times, for a taxi chit. Very rare – editor’s were tight on expenses.
    Swan Taxis delivered me in the afternoon sun with my little Spirax notebook bulging in the hip pocket of my Anthony Squires suit.
    Robinson’s father in a singlet was standing on the dusty verge in front of their home with blood running down his face (Later I found out he had been a policeman).
    The woman in the Goggomobile sat stunned. Not stupid, but in deep shock. She had wet herself and was unable to leave her terrible seat alongside the corpse of her man who was draped over the side of their little Goggomobile where he fell after Robinson shot him.
    The ambulance blokes were working on the policeman Iles lying on the path to the Robinson house. Heaps of neighbours stood around yarning and pointing. The detectives arrived a few minutes after me.
    Then Leo Johnson the West reporter cruised up in his police rounds Falcon. I used to attend the 11 am daily CIB [Criminal Investigation Bureau] conference because in those days The Sunday Times provided a crime story service from Perth to the Sydney Daily Mirror. It was my job to deliver the cream of Perth crime to them. Leo Johnson was always there too as West rep. We decided to follow the cops to Gnangara. Leo offering me a lift… amazing an employee from The Sunday Times travelling in a car owned by its rival The West!
    It had no seat belts, but it had a two-way radio. We somehow stumbled across the taxi bogged down a fire trail. Cops were surrounding it, including Bill Nielsen.
    They lumbered in the grey sand calling, “Come on out with your hands up!” Nothing happened.
    Leo and I had picked up a small rock each… perhaps to throw at the maniac with the gun?
    Eventually Nielsen ordered. ”Stand back fellers. We’ll look for footprints.”
    They found plenty. Most were ripple soles. He lined up his comrades and four of them had ripple soles — they were newly fashionable. Wish I’d had some of them instead of my school brogues.
    I got a page 1 byline ( rare) for the story.
    On Tuesday next week Leo rang or met me to say he’d been hauled up over the carpet in Mahogany Row (The West’s executive hang-out) and chastised heavily for carrying an opposition reporter in a West staff car.
    In the bloody Saturday afternoon heat of the moment, we’d thought it was a matter of life and death and our odds would be better if we stuck together. Leo was a hero thinking of me, yet days later some pr—k in a suit tried to whip his arse. Maybe that started to form my view of men in suits.


  3. Tony, that article seemed a bit off topic, but thanks anyway – it makes a pleasant change to read about crazy times in the past, rather than crazy times today.


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