Escape! – Percy Lee

Escape! Percy Lee

Percy was a ‘dip artist’ (pickpocket) and a good one. Percy served numerous short sentences in gaols’ all over New South Wales; all for theft in one way or another. Escaping the heat from his crime, Percy ventured over the border into Queensland.

Escape! Percy Lee


Age: 28

Height: 5ft 10 inches

Weight: 12stone 8lb

Hair: Dark Brown

Eyes: Brown

Complexion: Sallow

Build: Proportionate

Marks: Four vaccination marks on Left forearm.

Cut right side of forehead. Scar left forehead, scar on each knee.

Occupation: Tailor

Native Place: New South Wales

Aliases: James Lee, Percy John Lee.

Percy Lee was born into a large family living in Merriwa, New South Wales. His father, a farmer, and his mother, who worked home duties, raised him in a good catholic family. Percy was well educated and worked the family farm from a young age and later as a jockey riding in the local race meetings. In 1914 war broke out and the losses were heavy. As war entered its second year, reinforcements were called for. Percy lied about his age so that he could enlist. He was only sixteen when he was sent to France. Twice wounded in action, he returned home at the end of 1918.

Back home, the great depression had hit. There were no jobs, especially for young men with war wounds that were unable to work doing physical labour.  This was when Percy first had his run in with the law.

Percy was a ‘dip artist’ (pickpocket) and a good one. Percy served numerous short sentences in gaols’ all over New South Wales all for theft in one way or another. Escaping the heat from his crime, Percy ventured over the border into Queensland.

It wasn’t long until the arm of the law reached Percy. Percy Lee was charged on the 8th of May 1926 with two counts of stealing. The police magistrate sentenced him to six months for each charge to be served cumulatively.  Off in the black maria to her majesty’s prison (Boggo Road Gaol) he went.  Just two short weeks later, he would meet John James Roberts, also in for stealing. Roberts was in for six months, however, he could reduce his sentence by paying a fine if he could get the money together. In the meantime, Percy and Roberts put their heads down and were of best behaviour. They became good pals. Thick as thieves, so they say.

Their friendship didn’t long get started when Roberts was released on the 19th of June; he had raised the funds to pay the fine. To Percy, all was lost. His mate was gone, but he knew what he had to do. He had to keep his head down and be on his best behaviour. He had to get out of there.

The Escape

At 10:40 am on Monday the 16th of August, 1926 Percy was engaged in repairing a fence outside of the gaol walls under the supervision of an armed warder. Just then, a speeding dark yellow motor car was driven up and swerved around as Lee sprang to his feet and onto the footboard and slid into the car. The car sped away in the direction of the city carrying its four occupants. The warder, realising what has happened fired his revolver, the bullets struck the car twice, but without much effect. Percy had escaped.  The alarm was sounded, and the area was quickly swarming with police and warders from the prison.

The next afternoon, a pair of prison trousers, a black vest and leather braces that the prisoner was wearing at the time of his escape, were found in Grey street, South Brisbane.

Over the coming months, it would become clear that Percy was gone. He certainly wasn’t in Queensland and the authorities have not found trace of him in his home state of New South Wales. Where had he gone?

The Investigation

The investigations were continuing in Brisbane; how had he got a message out from inside the prison? How had he set up the escape at that exact time? The police put out a request for information. Weighing heavily on his mind, a taxi driver of Russian heritage named Alexander Douglas stepped forward. He admitted that he was the driver of the car that aided the escape of Percy Lee.

Detectives badgered Douglas for hours; he explained that he was threatened into driving the car by another man, John Roberts. He explained how Roberts wound cloth over the number plate of his cab so it wasn’t seen. Roberts had arranged everything, even clothing for Percy to change into.

A patrol car was sent to collect John James Roberts. He was charged with having aided and abetted Percy Lee, however, not before he had named the fourth man in the vehicle, Joseph William Living, a friend of his. A wharf labourer residing at New Farm, Living was sent for. However, he denied he knew anything at all about the plan. The first he knew of it was at the moment it was happening.

Living protested his innocence. Finally, Roberts confessed that he had cooked up the plan with Percy Lee while he was inside Boggo Road. He had received a message over the weekend that the work on the fence would be completed soon… and Monday was the day.

Just how that message got out of the Gaol is a matter that is lost with time. Roberts and Living were charged with having aided and abetted Percy Lee. Roberts pled guilty, adding the statement that Living had nothing whatsoever to do with the escape, he had just been in the car at the time. Living was released. Roberts gained another year in Boggo Road.


Seven long months later, in March 1927, a police officer in New Zealand spied a man that looked familiar. It was the escaped prisoner from Australia, Percy Lee.

Percy was returned to Australia. Though not to Brisbane; Percy had an outstanding warrant for his arrest in Sydney on the charge of serious assault and robbery. Percy was to be lodged in Long Bay Gaol for the next twenty three months, with the Queensland authorities waiting to bring him back to finish his seven months in Boggo Road. He never did return to Queensland. Instead, he married and spent the rest of his life with a sickly, emotionally tormented wife and no work. He loved her, but she needed help that he could not afford to give her. Consequently, Percy was in and out of prison. His wife died tragically young. Percy was in and out of prison into the forties, before finally disappearing from the records forever.

Want to see where Percy Lee escaped?   You can!  Join us for our Escapes tour this Sunday! Hosted by Director Jack Sim, you will hear of some of the greatest escape stories from the history of Boggo Road Gaol.   To book click here

This article was contributed by Research Coordinator Sue Olsen as part of the ongoing research program for Boggo Road Gaol Pty Ltd. The aim of the program is to bring to light and share articles relating to Boggo Road for the purposes of review and study. Do you have a story to share or something you would like us to know about? You can contact the research team here

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