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Thomas (Tom) Hughes (1866–1944)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published:

Thomas (Tom) Hughes (1866-1944), outlaw, was born on 25 October 1866 at sea in the Corona, en route to Western Australia, eldest son of an enrolled pensioner guard Thomas Hughes and his wife Catherine, née McEvoy. After his father's death in 1880, Tom was employed on the government railways, possibly at Northampton. In 1884 he was indentured for two years to the Dempster family of Esperance as a pastoral worker, but broke his bond in 1885 and returned to Fremantle. Unemployed, he was suspected of several petty thefts.

On 17 April 1887 two policemen went to investigate the theft of tools and a case of dynamite from a quarry at North Fremantle. Encountering Hughes, they stopped him. He tried to escape and in the ensuing scuffle produced a revolver and wounded Constable Joseph O'Connell before decamping. When O'Connell died, a warrant was issued with a reward of £200 for the capture of Hughes who was described as 'rather stout and between 5 ft 10 inches and 5 ft 11 inches tall'. A capable bushman, Hughes remained at large in the country outside Perth for eleven weeks until finally caught by three policemen. After a gunfight, in which Hughes was wounded, he was captured, telling one constable that he would die like a man. On 5 October 1887, charged with manslaughter he was sentenced to penal servitude for life. Six weeks later he bashed a warder and absconded from Fremantle prison. He was soon caught and received thirty-six lashes for the assault and three years in irons for a burglary committed during his liberty.

Despite the disapproval of the press, Hughes won considerable sympathy among the Fremantle working class. His defiance of the authorities reminded some of Ned Kelly. Others saw tragedy because Hughes and O'Connell were schoolfellows and both sons of pensioner guards. The reduction of the charge against him to manslaughter may have been a reaction to popular opinion. He was released from prison on a ticket-of-leave in 1896, granted conditional release in April 1898 and was given permission to carry firearms later that month. He then moved to the Pinjarra district, where he remained for the rest of his life and stayed out of trouble. Old residents remember him as eccentric but harmless. He cultivated an orchard and on his regular visits to report to the local police station, sometimes brought in a little gold that he had panned at an unknown site in the Darling Range.

On 16 October 1902 Hughes married Alice McLevie at St John's Church of England, Pinjarra; they had a daughter and a son. Hughes was admitted into the Hospital for the Insane at Claremont in old age and died there on 10 December 1944; he was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery. Nobody remembered that he had figured for a brief period as Western Australia's most notorious outlaw in the generation between convict transportation and the 1890s gold rush.

Select Bibliography

  • Newsbeat (Perth), Dec 1993, p 9
  • West Australian, 20 Apr 1887, p 2, 22 Apr 1887, p 3, 5 May 1887, p 3, 18 July 1887, p 3
  • Western Australian Catholic Record, 21 Apr 1887, p 3
  • Fremantle Prison registers, CONS 1156/F3-F4 (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Hughes, Thomas (Tom) (1866–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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