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An interesting reminiscence has come to light regarding the late 1800s Tui Glen farm that was located in the Kaituna valley on the Packhorse Hut Track, and its relation to one of Canterbury’s most renowned gaol breakers, the once infamous Jonathan Roberts. In this document, the unnamed author, owner of the old photograph of “Jack’s Hut” now in the Museum’s possession, recounts how their grandfather and great uncle would take food up to the hut, which he claims was built by Roberts while on the run after breaking out of the Rīpapa Island gaol. The document reads:
"Jonoathan [sic] Roberts according to the police was a horse stealer and was arrested for stealing a horse but in fact he sold his horse and the purchaser did not pay for it so Roberts stole it back again and was arrested. Jonoathan Roberts escaped from the police from Ripper Island and got to Purau and walked to the Top of Port Levy then across the hills to Kaituna Valley to Tui Glen. (Tui Glen farm is on the track to the Pack Horse and in those days there was a lot of bush) there he built himself a hut made of Supplejack and camped himself there for a long time ultimately crossing to Teddington and then to Lyttelton where he got on board a boat to America and thus got away.”
The kindness shown to ‘Jack’, to the extent of harbouring an escaped prisoner, and the ready belief in his innocence was typical of the wider public sympathy for the young man and his daring exploits in defiance of the law. Jonathan Roberts was born in 1861 in Cornwall, UK, his parents moving to Canterbury, New Zealand to take up farming when he was a child. His father was a well respected ‘gentleman farmer’ in the Timaru District when Jonathan, aged 17 years, settled on a banking career and was gainfully employed as a bank clerk at the Temuka branch of the Bank of New Zealand in December 1877. Just eight years later in April 1885, after banking positions in Timaru, Christchurch, Akaroa and finally Wellington, at the venerable age of 25, he resigned. By late 1886 Roberts was residing in Christchurch, ‘between jobs’, and looking to make something of his life beyond banking.
This new career apparently led to him making use of his excellent technical writing skills in the forging of a Ballantyne and Co. cheque that was subsequently cashed out for £76 17s 6d. More or less caught in the act, the former bank clerk strongly protested his innocence but eventually pleaded guilty so as not to make a fuss, and was sentenced to 12 months hard labour in September 1886. It has been suggested that Jonathan was actually innocent and nobly covering for his wayward brother, James Henry Roberts, who was subsequently also caught forging various cheques and sentenced to four years penal servitude in January 1887.
After serving his time, Jonathan Roberts then made his way back to Timaru but again ran afoul of the law in January 1888 when he was charged with horse stealing and subsequently sentenced to five years hard labour. Various accounts of this stolen horse, similar to the Tui Glen account above, were in circulation at the time of his trial. One account suggests Jonathan sold what he believed to be his father’s farm horse, but which was actually a neighbour's horse that had strayed onto the family’s farm. The neighbour being vindictive had pressed charges and the Court upheld them.
The account of the actual trial given in the Timaru Herald of 25 April 1888, however, makes no mention of any potentially exonerating circumstances. The charge before Justice Ward of the Timaru Supreme Court concerned Roberts allegedly stealing a horse from Hood’s Hotel in Peel Forest north of Geraldine, then riding to Timaru and engaging a young man to present the horse and a forged letter of ownership to the auctioneers. The former convict Roberts was convicted on the basis that his handwriting apparently matched that of the incriminating letter. While again protesting his innocence, and somewhat taken aback at the severity of the sentence, Jonathan Roberts promptly bolted from the Timaru gaol at his first opportunity, and was at liberty from April 28 to May 30, 1888 – and thus the legend of the free spirited gaol breaker was born.
While on the run there were numerous reports of sightings, including one of Roberts working at a threshing mill in the Waimate district and frequenting shops with his savings. Police north and south of Timaru were kept busy for a month, much to the amusement of the local populace and the newspapers, with reports that the women of Timaru ‘prayed for his escape’ every night that he was a free man. Given refuge by a doctor in Temuka, and apparently helped along the way by various well wishers, he was eventually caught in Killinchy just south of Dunsandel where he had been working as a farm labourer for a Mrs Crowe. He was taken to the Christchurch gaol and on June 6 was sentenced to a further year for the escape, then sent to the prisoner work gang at Fort Jervois on the infamous Rīpapa Island.
Once a Ngāi Tahu Pā, then quarantine station, and latterly a gaol for the ‘Māori war prisoners’ of Parihaka, Rīpapa Island could not hold the irrepressible Roberts. He again bolted at the first opportunity, which came just two days after his sentencing on 8 June 1888! Breaking through a tin wall and crossing the narrow channel at high tide while his fellow prisoners were loudly eating lunch, he made his way up the Purau valley to the heights overlooking the Māori settlement of Koukourarata Port Levy. Turning towards the slopes of Te Ahu Patiki Mount Herbert, he tramped over and down the other side to the Kaituna Valley where he surprised a party of fellows in a hut who fed him in exchange for some tall tales.
While staying low in the Supplejack hut he built in the bush near the Packhorse track, and with the kind help of his Tui Glen farm friends, he evaded the search parties for several months or more. On news of his escape the colony’s newspapers went ballistic as the ‘Timaru gaol-breaker’ Jonathan Roberts became once more the talk of Canterbury. The government offered a £50 reward for his capture as the police and volunteer artillery scoured the Port Hills for the fugitive. Meanwhile, he was feted at the Christchurch Skating Carnival, with drunken hooligans chanting his name in the city streets. A sixpence pamphlet was published titled “Adventures of Jonathan Roberts”, along with a good trade in photograph keepsakes of the felon, while the nationally acclaimed Mohawk Minstrels theatre company performed the farce “The Escape of Jonathan Roberts” to much applause.
Considered a common criminal by the government, Jonathan Roberts stirred popular passions amongst the people, and it was the kindness of the people he met along the way that saved him from gaol. By late August 1888, two or more months after his escape from Rīpapa, rumours began circulating that Roberts had escaped via Lyttelton on a sailing ship bound for either Chile in South America, or somewhere in North America, or perhaps Victoria, Australia. Jonathan Roberts had simply disappeared and eventually his name faded away into Canterbury history. That is, until an August 1924 article published in the NZ Truth purported to interview the old Jonathan Roberts, then 63, who was living ‘in domestic bliss’ on his own farm in Virginia, US, having lived a life free of crime thanks to the kindness of strangers.
Postscript: In an August 1919 issue of The Press, a Mr W. F. Parkinson of Kaituna Valley told how Jonathan Robertson “after escaping from the police, built himself a Supplejack hut, and camped for a long time, ultimately crossing over to Teddington, and thence getting to Lyttelton, where he got on board a ship bound for America, and thus got clear away.” Might this be our Museum’s mystery author? If you know, please do contact us!
On the twenty-fourth of April,
Young Roberts broke from jail,
And making for Saltwater Creek,
He gave them all leg-bail,
He took his Sunday clothes with him,
And changed them on the track,
and laughing up his sleeve, he said,
"They'll never get me back."
—Denis Glover, excerpt from Since Then, 1957