Escape from Rangitoto Island

For nearly 3 months in early 1926 a party of 12 short-sentence “good conduct” prisoners from Mount Eden Prison had been on Rangitoto Island engaged in a work-party forming roads on the island.

Rangitoto Island, in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf

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Two warders oversaw the men who returned each night to accommodation near Rangitoto Wharf settlement. Little did these warders know, nor the rest of the party for that matter, that 2 prisoners, Charles William Wahle, aged 22, and Samuel Rattray, 33, were planning to escape despite the daunting circumstances – they were on an island in the middle of Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf.

Part of the construction camp on Rangitoto Island, late 1920s

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Getaway would not be easy. Both men were serving terms of imprisonment for forgery.

Well Planned

Wahle and Rattray greased the hinges of the hut where they slept with 2 others so that, on the night chosen to make their getaway, they could leave silently. And, as planned, they did not wake their room-mates as they left… somehow managing to slip the security bolt on the outside of the hut’s only door sometime after midnight.  They made their way to the waterline where they knew there would be a boat moored, complete with outboard motor. Dismayed to find there was no battery to start the motor they searched around and found one in a nearby shed. They paddled the boat until out of islanders’ earshot, started the motor and headed out into the Gulf: free men.

Subsequent enquiries revealed that news of the escape was not received by authorities in Auckland until late morning by which time the pair had a good head-start. The fugitives disappeared:  prison officials and police started an immediate search but had no idea where the pair had ventured. As New Zealand Truth said at the time “waves leave no tracks and police were left guessing which direction the men were heading”.

On the Run

Their small boat had, in fact, made it to Motuihe Island by the morning of their first day of freedom. Heartened, they realised they were on their way towards the mainland and after resting they resumed their voyage next day but found the weather turning. High winds were soon churning up a heavy sea. They shipped water, wave after wave breaking over the bow. Tide and wind drove their craft towards Waiheke Island, the makeshift sail, made out of a blanket, offering little control. The boat was dashed on to rocks at Church Bay. Realising further escape using the boat was now impossible they tried to take other craft in Awaroa Bay, including a well-known motor launch. (Police had warned all boat-owners to immobilise their craft). Failing to start the launch and finding its pantry empty, they set off across the island, walking by night and hiding by day.

By now, somehow, they had a shot gun and ammunition.  Once on more remote farmland they shot a lamb, prepared it and cooked it over their open camp fire in bush behind Connell’s Bay. That afternoon, from close quarters they watched Mrs Connell milk the family cow and that night they slept in Connell’s boatshed.

Their luck held that night… after dark it turned quite stormy. The farm dogs barked incessantly to signal intruders but the Connell family must have attributed the dogs’ restlessness to the rough weather. The escapers slept fitfully yet uninterrupted and, in fact, overslept – and had to make a bid for food in daylight.

 Spotted

Mrs Connell realised someone had been in the storeroom near the house. Food was missing. She mentioned this to her husband, William Connell, storekeeper /postmaster, and he spotted the wanted men at the rear of his store. They carried a bag of biscuits and food taken from the storeroom.  Constables Butler and Yeoward, summoned, were soon on the scene and with a party of locals, one of them armed, they pursued Wahle and Rattray into bush and scrub behind Connell’s Bay. They had with them a farm dog and after a two hour trek police realised they were closing in when the hound got increasingly excited. Resident Sydney Weir was the first to see the outlaws, police joined him and they moved in to arrest the pair. It was a quiet surrender. Despite the fact they’d been on the run for several days they were not hungry, nor unkempt. A shaving outfit was part of the kit they carried! Both wore civilian clothes having discarded their prison garb somewhere along the trail.

“A Bad Time”

They told police that, they eventually got the boat they took from Rangitoto to Waiheke Island, landing near Church Bay but the craft was wrecked on rocks. The motor must have developed a fault or it ran out of fuel, because they said they tried to use a blanket as a sail. They had hoped to make it to the mainland, but being shipwrecked curtailed these plans… they were some 20 miles (15 km) from their objective. That’s when they took off across the island on foot. Police found their camp inland from Connells … the fugitives had an open fireplace and there were the remains of the lamb they had killed. To their captors they stated “we have had experienced a bad time since making our escape on Tuesday morning last”. All they wanted was a hot cup of tea which was given to them once back at Connells’ place. The two were escorted to Auckland aboard the Waiuku arriving Saturday evening.

Facing Up

On Monday morning, just a week after their escape, they appeared in court charged “with being incorrigible rogues” and “escaping custody”. Remanded, they re-appeared after police had time to add to the charge-sheet the thefts on Waiheke Island. Mr W. Culpan was missing a pair of binoculars, fish hooks, a pack of playing cards and a knife. Otto Minchen’s cottage had been damaged to the value of £6 and food, blankets and an automatic shotgun had been stolen. Clothing was taken from Amy Green’s batch and food items and a box of shotgun cartridges had been stolen from the Connells. Dawson S. Donaldson, of Rangitoto Island, was missing his dinghy, its motor, grappling iron and winch… the craft the two used for their getaway, now smashed on the rocks at Church Bay, Waiheke Island.

The two prisoners were committed to the Supreme Court for sentence.  They told the Court that they escaped from the Rangitoto Island prison camp not for their liberty, but to return to Mount Eden Jail because the 2 warders on the island were unbearable, always at loggerheads.  But Mr Justice Herdman would hear no more about warders’ squabbles and added 2 years’ jail with hard labour to Wahle’s and Rattray’s existing sentences. “There have been too many escapes from prison lately”, he said, “and I must make an example”.  Each got another year’s prison for the thefts and breaking and entering committed during their escape, but these terms were to be served concurrently.

New Zealand Truth had been running a campaign in its columns about the failure of the prison system to keep inmates behind bars and consequently the high costs incurred by the public purse when police were diverted to pursuing escaped convicts. After the sentencing Truth said: “…it’s just as well that some observation has been made from the Bench on the matter of the frequent escapes from imprisonment, especially in the Auckland prison district. Of late these have been all too common an occurrence”.

Charles Wahle and Samuel Rattray may have chosen an inopportune time to escape… and, perhaps, were more harshly penalised for it. But their daring, to attempt an escape from custody on Rangitoto Island, must be acknowledged.

Footnote 1

When Charles William Wahle was released from jail, having served his additional sentence of 2 years for escaping from custody on Rangitoto Island, he re-offended in the Manawatu and Taranaki Districts. He faced multiple charges of breaking and entering, theft and fraud – and one of escaping from the Opunake Police lock-up. The Judge gave him a lengthy jail sentence and declared he was “An Habitual Criminal”.

Footnote 2

Construction of roads on Rangitoto Island was completed in the early 1930s. In 1931 members of the Rangitoto Island Domain Board made an inspection of the project, travelling from Rangitoto Wharf to the summit road then across to Islington Bay and return to the Wharf, some 14 miles (22.5kms) .

Procession of dignitaries inspecting Rangitoto’s new roads 1931

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Griffiths, Devonport Borough’s engineer, said the work had taken about 5 years by prisoners at a cost of £3,000, ten times cheaper than had contractors been used. A road, with an elevated kerbing, had been constructed out of scoria (locally mined), together with a large tennis court at both Islington Bay and Rangitoto Wharf. He had plans for construction of a swimming pool and a shop with tearooms, all made from local stone. These facilities were complete and survive today.

The roads came into their own when the island was the base for military operations during World War 2 and today they are used by tourists who prefer a drive around the island and to the summit, rather than the trek along walking tracks.

Sources:

Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

New Zealand Herald,

The Auckland Star,

New Zealand Truth.

MOTAT Inventory

RCC, August 2013/June 2019 .

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