Catalpa twist

A COMMEMORATION of the 141st anniversary of the Catalpa rescue will have special poignance in Fremantle this year, with American consul general Rachel Cooke booked in to attend.

The event will be held on the gun deck of the Round House on April 24 from 12.40, with volunteer Les Green itching to tell the tale of the escape of six Irish political prisoners and a tantalising clue that puts one of his relatives in the thick of the action.

Mr Green says the Catalpa rescue is fascinating and still reverberates through Perth today, but it’s not known widely and needs to be retold so a new generation can keep it alive.

• Round House volunteer and Catalpa expert Les Green. Photo by
Steve Grant

The story starts a world away in Ireland, where British authorities rounded up 62 supporters of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and after convicting them of various crimes of treason and rebellion, transported them to Western Australia in 1868 aboard the convict ship Hougomont.

While many of the prisoner, known as Fenians, were eventually pardoned and released, a small group of militants remained in Fremantle Prison.

One of them, James Wilson, smuggled a letter to a former comrade now living in America, urging him to organise a rescue.

An American whaler agreed to help and offered up his son-in-law George Anthony as captain, and the conspirators bought the bark Catalpa, which sailed for WA on April 29, 1875 — many of the crew unaware of the real reason for their voyage.

Once the Catalpa anchored off Rockingham, the plan was set in motion.

The convicts escaped and met the Catalpa’s whaleboat but an eagle-eyed local spotted them and called the authorities, who dispatched the SS Georgette and a police cutter.

And that’s where Mr Green’s tantalising clue fits in.

He knows he’s related to enrolled Pensioner Guard Thomas Butler, who was aboard the Georgette.

Butler, who’d arrived in WA aboard the Corona in 1866, was a veteran of the Crimean War, where he serviced as a gunner.

Mr Green says with that background, it’s entirely possible his ancestor was the person who lit the fuse on the cannon.

by STEVE GRANT

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