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John Gavin (or Gaven) (1829 – 6 April 1844) was the first European settler to be legally executed in Western Australia. He was executed for murder at the age of fifteen.
Born in 1829, John Gavin was convicted of an offence while still a juvenile, and was transported to Western Australia as a Parkhurst apprentice, arriving on board the Shepherd in October 1843.
On 3 April 1844, he was tried for the murder of his employer's son, 18-year-old George Pollard. He confessed to killing the sleeping victim with an adze, but he seemed unaware of a rational motive. Three days later he was publicly hanged outside the Round House in Fremantle. After a death mask had been taken and his brain studied for "scientific purposes" he was buried in the sand hills to the south without a ceremony.
The first execution was that of a boy from the Parkhurst Reformatory (see 1848) named John Gavin, who was employed at Pollard's farm at Dandalup. There, on February 21, he murdered George Pollard, aged 18, while he slept. Gavin was tried on April 3 and sentenced to be hanged and suspended in chains. At the trial he confessed his guilt and said the murder was the result of an uncontrollable homicidal impulse. He was hanged three days later, the place of execution being about ten yards to the north of the Round House. Hitchcock: 31.
Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal:
CONFESSION OF THE MURDER OF GEORGE POLLARD.
To all parties it must be most consolatory to know that, on Friday night and Saturday morning the unfortunate criminal confessed his guilt, and this in so ample and sincere a manner as to leave not a doubt on the mind of Mr. Schoales, who received that confession, that anything remained behind. The substance of the confession was that, the first thoughts of committing the crime arose in his mind within five minutes of the execution of the deed, that it was a sudden instigation, one which had been paralleled, but not frequently. The boy sat down to dinner with his victim without a thought harboured in his mind of harm towards him. He had made up his mind to murder the mother of the family that afternoon, and as he commenced his work about the farm while the lad Pollard was sleeping, the thought flashed across the mind of the prisoner, that, if he murdered the woman first, then a lad stronger than himself remained on the premises able to take him prisoner, and that, to secure the fate of the woman, and his own safety, he must first kill the lad. In explanation of the circumstance of his clothes being wet, the unfortunate lad stated that he went to the river, not to drink, nor to wash the blood from his clothes, but to drown himself, but that his courage failed him, such was his feeling and remorse at the act he had committed. He could state no possible reason why he compassed the death of Mrs. Pollard.
The convict was transferred to Fremantle Jail on Thursday afternoon, where he was attended with the utmost attention by the Rev. George King. On Good Friday the Rev. gentleman was in prayer with the lad before the hours of service, and again in the afternoon, and to an advanced hour of the evening. On the same evening, Mr. Schoales placed himself in communication with the boy, remaining with him during the time that the clergyman was affording the consolations of the Church. Extreme penitence, the utmost contrition, and the fullest confession, marked his behaviour. At daylight Mr. Schoales was again in attendance, and Mr. King attended at an early hour.
At eight o'clock, A.M, the preparations were complete, which were made with every attention to the proper execution of the sentence, at the same time ensuring the least possible suffering to the unfortunate lad. The prison bell then began to toll, and the melancholy procession set out from the condemned cell to the scaffold: the Sheriff and his deputies and constables, the Rev. G. King, reading appropriate passages of Scripture, the prisoner, supported by Mr. Schoales, and lastly, more constables closed the train. The boy was deeply affected, and was assisted up the steps to the platform. From this time the proceedings were rapid, and at ten minutes after eight the cart moved forward, and the criminal was launched into eternity. So light was the body, that with a humane attention, heavy weights were attached to the legs of the sufferer, a precaution the propriety of which was evinced in the fact, that apparently the pangs of the unhappy boy were very few. Having hung for an hour, the Sheriff resigned the custody of the body to Mr. Schoales, who had it cut down, placed in a decent shell, and removed for the purpose of interment.
The place of execution was about ten yards on the left of the jail, looking towards the Church. The assemblage of people was not very great, and proper precautions for decent behaviour on such a solemn occasion were taken and provided for, by the presence of the Constables and a detachment of Her Majesty's 51st LI., who kept the ground.
After death, an excellent mask of his face and cast of the skull were taken, for the purpose of furthering the ends of science. The head we understand is of extraordinary formation ; the anterior organs being very deficiently developed, while the posterior organs are of an enormous size.
At 4 o'clock P. M. the body was committed to the earth, in the sand hills a little to the southwest of the Court-house, accompanied by Mr. Schoales alone, and carried by a fatigue party of the prisoners of the jail. There, without rite or ceremony, the remains of this miserable lad were inhumed, but though the place of his sepulchure be unknown to all yet may God grant that the awful example made on so young a lad, may ever be before the minds of all of us young or old.
Many idle reports are in circulation with the usual rapidity and volubility of public rumour. It has not been hesitated to be said, that he had confessed previous murders in England. We do, on good authority, contradict this most positively. The whole of his previous life was fully detailed, and although it shewed a sad catalogue of guilt, yet we unhesitatingly say that this was the first and only time of shedding blood; the crime for which he has suffered is bad indeed, why then indulge in the vain, silly, and false insinuation of imaginary guilt? Why belie the memory of one who has departed from among us by the gossiping retailment of every invention that rises in the minds of foolish people, who seek to raise themselves to some temporary importance by asserting a more peculiar knowledge of the "facts" than is possessed by the public at large. We may say in a few words, the boy's faults were many—let them sleep in his grave.
Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, Saturday 6 April 1844, p. 3.
Report of the trial in The Inquirer, Wednesday 10 April 1844, p, 2:
The General Quarter Sessions of the Peace for the colony was held on Wednesday last, before W. H. Mackie, Esq., Chairman, and a full Bench of Magistrates. The calendar only contained four cases, but of these one was for wilful murder, and another for manslaughter.
John Gavin, one of the lads recently sent out from the Parkhurst establishment, was indicted for the wilful murder of George Pollard, the son of a highly respectable settler on the Murray, to whom, he was apprenticed, by striking him with an adze. The prisoner was defended by R. W. Nash, Esq., assisted by J. Schoales, Esq., Guardian of a certain class of Juvenile Emigrants to which the prisoner belonged, and, being placed at the bar, pleaded not guilty.
The Advocate-General stated the case for the prosecution, which rested entirely on circumstantial evidence. Jane Pollard, mother of the deceased, being sworn, deposed as follows :—
Jane Pollard, mother of the deceased : I remember Ash Wednesday, 21st Feb. last. About the middle of that day, between 12 and 1 o'clock, prisoner came in to dinner, and my son, the deceased, sent him for a gimblet to the carpenter's shop. I recollect then telling my son that I felt very unwell and could not sit up, and I told prisoner to get up the dinner. I felt as if there was something very heavy over my heart. Deceased recommended me to go to bed, and after prisoner and deceased sat down to dinner I did go to bed. There was no one else in the house then. When I went into my bedroom I left prisoner and deceased in the kitchen. I fell asleep and was awakened by prisoner coming into my room with a piece of board in his hand. He said deceased had sent him to me with that piece of board, which had been broken off a door. There is no door to my bedroom, nor to my son's. I told him to leave the board there till his master came home. He had been checked twice that day for slamming a door behind him. Prisoner was not a minute in my room. I then tried to sleep again, but was disturbed by the deceased beginning to sing ; he was then in his room, a lean-to, next to my bed-room, and the partition wall has not been filled, so that I could hear partly what he said, but not all. The last words I heard him sing were—
" And when we close these gates again
We will be all true blue."
The sound of singing then suddenly ceased. I lay a little longer, but I was aroused by some feeling I could not account for, and I leapt out of bed. I exclaimed, " good God, is there no peace for my afflicted heart," and that I could find no relief but in prayer. I went to the door of my room leading into the kitchen, and as I passed through the doorway I saw the prisoner in the act of drinking out of a basin. Be laid the basin on a shelf, and was leaving the kitchen, when I asked him what be was doing ; he said he was filling a barrow with straw at deceased's door. I went to the kitchen door to see what he was doing, and saw him lifting up straws in a lazy manner, dropping almost as much as he raised. I asked him if he did not mean to fasten the straw down, and he said he would do so with a string. I went into the kitchen to prepare my dinner, and while doing so, the prisoner came in and stooped under the dresser, but did not take or ask for any thing ; I asked what had become of a jug of milk ; as he raised himself I observed his lips were very white, and I thought he had been drinking the cream. He went out of the kitchen, and I went on with preparing my dinner, and was making some batter, when I thought of going to see what deceased was doing, as I did not hear the sound of his flail at the bars. I went out of the kitchen towards the deceased's door, when I saw the prisoner rush out of that door looking wild as if in distraction. He began to stoop, and look down and about him, I asked him what he was looking for, he said nothing ; I said he could not look for less. He continued walking about in the same way for a minute or so, when I said, " Why Gaven, you are like one losing your senses; are you losing your reason, or what ails you, boy?' he made no answer that I heard. He was then going towards the carpenter's shop. I then went to the door of deceased's room, and saw him lying on his bed, with his back to me. I called him two or three times, and no answer was given. I went in and shook him and was surprised at his being so fast asleep in so short a time. There was a coat over, and tucked under his head, I removed the coat, and saw him in a gore of blood, and thought it might have been from bleeding at tbe nose. I put my left hand under his face, and my right hand under the back of his bead, to raise it up, and my hand sunk into the back of his head. I raised his face a little, and he breathed a few times. I clapped my hands and said " my child is smothered in his own blood." I screamed, " George, my jewel, tell me your murderer." I am sure he was not dead when I first raised his head. I called out, George, George, and Johnny Gavin, Johnny Gaven. My son Michael came immediately to me, and asked what ailed me, I said Johnny Gaven was after murdering his brother. He asked if he should go for Mr. Singleton, I said yes, and he immediately went. Michael had been in the barn picking out drake. The barn may be 20 yards from the house, I cannot tell exactly. My son Thomas next called to me. I kept going in and out of the deceased's room, and saw an adze lying on she floor, and found it covered with hair, and blood and brains. I found it lying on the floor half-way between the bed and door. It might be about a half, or a quarter of an hour before Thomas came in. He came up screeching to know what ailed me, and I told him his brother George had been murdered, and I showed him the bloody adze. He went by my desire to his sister and brother-in-law, who live at a place called Corolayup. Prisoner came next. By that time I suppose my son Thomas had reached Corolayup, which is four miles off by the road, but, as I have heard, about two miles through the bush. All the time I had kept calling out, " murder ! murder ! Johnny Gaven ! Johnny Gaven !" I saw him come up in a direction from the piggery. When I last saw him, he was going from the house in the direction of the carpenter's shop. I said to him , Johnny Gaven, Johnny Gaven ; he replied, do you want me, ma'am ; I said, do I want you ? where have you been to, or why did you not come to me. When he came up to me he said he had been to the river for a drink. When I saw him drinking in the kitchen the bucket was just filled. I said I wondered he was thirsty again so soon after drinking in the kitchen ; he said he had not drunk then. I asked why he had not done so, when he had brought in the bucket for his own use, he said he had forgotten it. I said, if you forgot the water you did not forget to murder my poor child. This passed outside the house. He said he did not, and why did I lay it on him, or any other person. I asked who I could lay it on but him, there being no other person on the premises that day but my three children and he. I told him I had seen him coming out of deceased's room, and had every reason to suspect him. I asked him several times why he did not come to me when I kept schreeching for him ; he said he did not hear me. He then said, perhaps a native might have killed the deceased, I replied that there had been no natives there that day, or several days before. He then said, perhaps he had murdered himself; I said, " you murdering villian, why should you belie my dead child — he could not take an adze and murder himself on the back of the head." He then went into deceased's room and said, George won't say I murdered him ; I answered, you did not give him leave to breathe. He then called out " George, George," and I went to push him away from the bed, he said " don't put a drop of blood on me ; you said I murdered your child, don't put a drop of blood on me." I then took notice of his shirt being wet, and said, " you villain, did you go and wash the blood of my dear child off your clothes ; " He said he had fallen into the river. I do not recollect that I put my hand actually on him, as he stood back and put up his hands to keep me off. I said I would have the shirt off him. I put my apron round my hand, and seized him by the shirt collar, and pulled the shirt off him in order to let Mr. Singleton see the shirt was wet. I used the apron to prevent the blood on my hands staining his shirt. He wanted another shirt from me, and went with me into the kitchen, and I shut both the front and back door upon him. I saw a cord lying on a chest, and tied his left hand, which he let me do without resistance, but he struggled much against my tying his right hand, but I got stronger as he got weaker, and I tied both his hands at last. There were two large rooms in the kitchen, and he began to look about, and I was afraid he would escape, so I took him into deceased's room, because there was only on door to guard, and only one window, too small to get through. I had a stick in my hand which I took up to guard him, and, somehow or other he got hold of the stick, and I had a hard struggle to get it back. He said he would swear against me for making him a prisoner, and hurting his hands. After this he came out of the deceased's room, I retreating before him, and he then knelt down and said, "do forgive me, ma'am, and don't say I murdered your son, and I'll pray for George." He said so several times. I said he had not given George time to pray. After that, he said at different times, "do ma'am, blow my brains out." I said I would not imbrue my hands in his blood, as he had done his in my son's, and that I would deliver him to the law. After this he became more case hardened, and said he did not regard what I could do, as I did not see him do it. He kept coming up to me, and placing his hands against me, and saying "I didn't, " in an impertinent way. He kept doing so till the soldier Longworth came up to me, followed by another person and Corporal Alcock. I knew deceased had borrowed a book of songs. I found the book of songs in the deceased's bed at the time I went to his bedside. The next day I looked into the book to find the words I had heard him singing, but could not. Afterwards my daughter found the words in a page glued to another page by blood. I did not see any stains of blood on prisoner's clothes. The adze now produced is the one I found in the deceased's bedroom. The trousers produced are those the prisoner had on the day in question. The adze is my husband's. The handle was not loose as it now is when I found the adze in deceased's room. The handle was then in the iron socket. I lifted it by the handle. The prisoner was an apprentice of my husband. The river opposite our house was half the depth of a pork barrel in the deepest part. Prisoner told me be had fallen into the river at a spot where there were two or three pork barrels in the river, and near the bank. They were so close that a person could not fall into the river between them and the bank.
Cross-examined : I did not see anything particular in the conduct of prisoner and deceased to each other at dinner. I took no notice of their conversation. Deceased did not tell prisoner to go for the gimblet in an angry manner. I never knew any quarrel between them. I recollect deceased saying to prisoner, come away, don't stand to be blowed up in this manner. Sometimes I had reproved deceased and prisoner, but not repeatedly. Whenever prisoner was reproved by any one, deceased took his part, and he seemed to be attached to deceased. I never saw anything hostile in the prisoner's manner towards the deceased — up to the time of my lying down on the day aforesaid, I saw no signs of any misunderstanding between prisoner and deceased. I never saw the prionser reading out of the book produced. I have heard him humming a tune at different times, but I never remember to have heard him sing any words. The tunes prisoner hummed were not psalm tunes to my knowledge. Gaven called me twice a lttle louder than usual, when he brought me in the piece of wood. When the sound of deceased's singing suddenly ceased, I did not hear any other sounds. The uneasiness I felt had nothing to do with prisoner. I observed prisoner's lips look white as soon as he came into the kitchen, and before he stooped under the dresser. He must have known that I was then in the kitchen. I did not suppose that he meant to hide himself. He came in quickly, stooped down under the dresser, and was going out as quickly, when I asked him who had drank the milk, he then turned partly round to me, and then I observed his lips. Deceased was a good deal taller and larger than the prisoner. When I saw prisoner coming up from the river, he was coming very slowly. I could not tell at first whether he was moving or standing. I saw his face was clean as if just washed, but did not notice whether his head was wet. He did not say anything about a dog drinking out of the bucket in the kitchen. I did not observe any marks of blows about deceased's mouth. I have often heard deceased singing out of the book produced. I never heard prisoner express any dislike to any song in the book. I do not know that any one had told prisoner to carry away straw. There had not been any pig killed about the premises for three weeks before I do think that fresh blood stains can be effaced by washin. I remember a dish of blood being in my room from a Saturday to a Monday, on a chest. That was from a fortnight to three weeks before Ash Wednesday. The prisoner was not present at my examination before Mr. Singleton.
By the Court : From the time I got up out of bed till the time I saw him lifeless, was about five or six minutes. No creature was on the premises that day except myself, the deceased, my sons Michael and Thomas, and prisoner. Thomas is between 10 and 11, and Michael between 7 and 8. When prisoner came he said his age was 14. I neither saw or heard of any natives about the premises that day, except what prisoner spoke of.
Thomas Pollard, I am a son of last witness. I recollect the day my brother was killed, I was then out in the bush with the cattle. I heard my mother cry out Johnny Gaven ; I was at a distance since measured of 800 yards from my father's house. I ran up to my mother, and asked what was the matter, she said Johnny Gaven had murdered my brother George. I went into the room to see my brother, but I could not tell whether he was dead or alive. I went off to my brother-in-law's. I ran there. As I approached the dwelling house when my mother called out, I saw prisoner going round the carpenter's shop as if he was going into it. The carpenter's shop is close to the house. He ought to have heard my mother calling out much more plainly than I did.
Cross-examined : I never heard prisoner sing or read out of the book produced. I have heard deceased sing songs out of it in prisoner's hearing, who did not appear at all annoyed at the songs, but continued with whatever he was about.
F. C. Singleton, Esq.: I am the committing magistrate. Mrs. Pollard gave me in substance the same account she has given in court to-day. She told me far more, but I took down only so much as I considered necessary. I was at Pollard's the evening of the murder, and examined the body. It was lying on and across a straw bed, about the height of this court table, in a lean-to. The bed was across the lean-to. I found the head cleft to pieces, a continuation of wounds, quite a mash of skull, brains, and hair. I gave directions for the body to be washed. Early next morning I returned to Pollard's, and, with Sergt. Burrell, examined the body again. I found two wounds on face, one across the cheek bone and nose, the other across the temple, part of three fingers severed, one cut behind left ear, several blows on back of head, smashing the skull into a number of pieces, in a slanting direction, 9 inches long. I measured the several distances referred to. I saw no appearance on the banks of the river as if any one had fallen. The river there is only 18 feet wide, 2 feet 3 or 4 inches deep six feet from the bank. The carpenter's shop is 22 yards from the house. Where Thomas Pollard was herding the cattle when he heard his mother call, was 800 yards from the house. The spot at which prisoner said he fell in was 48 yards from the house, and the spot at which he said he came out 15 yards. During Mrs. Pollard's examination the prisoner was kept outside in the custody of two soldiers. Afterwards, and while she was present, I read over her deposition to him, and asked her if it was all right, and she said yes, but I did not re-swear her in his presence. He put questions to her. I saw a pork barrel in the river just opposite the part of the bank at which prisoner said he had drank. Prisoner was examined by me two or three hours after deceased was found dead, he was then stripped of his trousers, now produced, which were quite wet, and they were left in the keeping of a soldier. The next morning I examined the trousers, when dry, and discovered what I conceive spots of blood, which I now point out. Joseph Harris, Esq., acting Colonial Surgeon : I have heard the description given by Mr. Singleton of the wounds received by deceased. I am of opinion such wounds are sufficient to cause instant death. I am surprised to hear that deceased breathed at all after them. I think such wounds were likely to be inflicted by such an instrument as the adze produced. I think a boy like prisoner capable of inflicting such wounds with such an instrument.
The prisoner, in his statement to the committing magistrate, denied all knowledge of the deed, and accounted for the wet state of his clothes by having fallen into the river ; and for the blood upon them by Mrs. Pollard touching him when tying his hands. It was also stated that he and the deceased were on very good terms; the deceased always taking prisoner's part, and having on one occasion saved his life while bathing.
A long and able defence was made for the prisoner by Mr. Nash. Counsel commenced by stating the very high character, in every respect, borne by the witness Mrs. Pollard, on whose evidence the case mainly rested ; but argued that her memory and temper had been much shaken by several previous family afflictions ; and that viewing her previous dislike to the boy, and her prejudice against him as a convict, it was likely that she would at once satisfy herself that he was the murderer, without stopping to inquire much into the circumstances. The learned gentleman also entered into an able analysis of Mrs. Pollard's evidence, tending to show that all the actions and expressions of the accused, viewed and stated by a person so prejudiced, and whose mind was so fully made up, would be indications of guilt, while viewed in the manner stated by the learned Counsel they might be taken as evidence of innocence. The total absence of any ill-feeling, and of any motive to give probability to the commission of the murder by the prisoner, was put forward in a very strong manner ; and the argument was summed up by instances of the danger of relying upon circumstantial evidence.
A point was also raised by Counsel in favour of prisoner, that it appeared in evidence that he had not been present when the depositions were taken by the committing magistrate; and that consequently he had been wrongly sent to prison ; he was therefore illegally here, in fact, in the eye of the law — he ought not to be considered as being on his trial at all. In support of this point, Counsel entered into a long and very able argument, the gist of which is as follows : The right to inquire and commit was given by statute; and on a case occurring as to the use of depositions as evidence, reference was made to this statute for essentials, and the statute, which applied to all inquiries, was construed to require the presence of the accused. The necessity of this presence having been derived from a statute directing depositions generally, all depositions must be so taken ; and if not so taken, were not to be viewed as depositions at all. The committal consequently was illegal ; a writ of habeas corpus would have discharged the prisoner, and if so, the Court could in like manner direct his discharge when the point was discovered by evidence. Counsel was not aware that the point had ever been ruled, but that was no reason why it should not be. Formerly, if the objection had been raised in the Courts at home, it would have been, most likely, over-ruled, because the practice had been, formerly, very harsh against a prisoner ; but it was not so now, there being a strong tendency at home to assimilate criminal to civil cases, as to all points of benefit to the accused. Counsel contended that technical objections which would not have been listened to 20 years ago, were now favourably received by the Courts at home, that the principle of affording every benefit to accused persons was daily extending. As instances of the increasing humanity with which the law acted, he quoted the passing of the "Prisoners' Counsel Bill," and the reversal of the sentence of that Court in the case of Lovett, so well remembered here. He looked upon that case as another new step in justice; it had been so ruled because there had not been the fullest fair play, and every opportunity given ; there had been a defect, and because of that defect, all subsequent to it was void.
The Court was very decidedly of opinion that the objection was not valid ; all the witnesses being present, the depositions might be dispensed with altogether.
The Chairman having summed up, the jury retired, and having consulted together for about half an hour, returned a verdict of guilty. Sentence of death was passed upon the prisoner, the Court observing that although the conviction was on circumstantial evidence, it was nevertheless of so satisfactory a nature, and the crime itself so utterly wanting in any palliating circumstances, that it could hold out no hope of any remission of the sentence. [It will be seen that the prisoner has since made full confession of the dreadful crime.]
Buddee, Paul 1984, The Fate of the Artful Dodger: Parkhurst boys transported to Australia and New Zealand, 1842-1852, St George Books, Fremantle.
Errington, Steve 2022, The Round House 1831-1856, Hesperian.
Gill, Andrew 1997, Forced Labour for the West: Parkhurst Convicts 'Apprenticed' in Western Australia 1842-1851, Blatellae Books, Maylands WA.
Hitchcock J.K. 1919, 'Early days of Fremantle: High Street 50 years ago', published in 12 parts in the Fremantle Times 21 March - 20 June 1919.
Hitchcock, JK 1929, The History of Fremantle, The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council.
Hutchison, David 2007, Many Years a Thief, Wakefield Press, Adelaide [fictionalised version of the Gavin story].
Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, Saturday 6 April 1844, p. 3.
Report of the trial in The Inquirer, Wednesday 10 April 1844, p, 2.
John Gavin writing competition @ www.fremantleroundhouse.com.au/competitions/
Garry Gillard | New: 23 November, 2014 | Now: 22 November, 2022