Escape! The Cracow Robber – John Howard

Escape! The Cracow Robber – John Howard

John Howard – The Cracow Mail Car Robber was charged in May of 1936 of having held up the Cracow Mail Car.  The charge was highway robbery just like many bushrangers before him, it was a serious crime.  Howard was fortunate to only receive seven years with hard labour in Boggo Road Gaol.

Native Place:  Queensland

Age: 38

Height: 6 feet (183cm)

Weight: 12 Stone 6 oz (79kg)

Hair:  Sandy Brown

Eyes: Blue

Complexion: Ruddy

Marks:  Scar right cheek

John Howard – The Cracow Mail Car Robber was charged in May of 1936 of having held up the Cracow Mail Car.  The charge was highway robbery just like many bushrangers before him, it was a serious crime.  Howard was fortunate to only receive seven years with hard labour in Boggo Road Gaol.

Armed guard on the tower


Attempted Escape

Monday 7th August 1937, Officer Wyndibank was escorting John Howard from his cell shortly after 5am to the gaol kitchen for his breakfast shift.  While Wyndibank was bolting a side door to the kitchen Howard ran from the room by another door and just then a section of the wall lights fused.

The lights in the kitchen and nearest wall towers were not affected however Wyndibank immediately gave the alarm and began to search.

Warder McCarthy ran to the track that runs between the stockade fence and the prison wall, Howard, spotting him ran back towards the kitchen where he was challenged by Officer Wyndibank and taken into custody.

Once Howard was secured, the officers searched the area around the stockade fence and found a rope fashioned from unbleached hanging from the stockade fence and nearby was a pair of slippers.

The rope, about 25 feet long was made from material smuggled from the prison tailors shop and plaited into a thick rope. It was attached to the wall by a hook formed from a kitchen fire poker.

A second prisoner Patrick Naylor who was working in the blacksmiths shop was charged with having assisted in the attempted escape. Evidence at a subsequent inquiry would allege that Naylor had obtained a 3-foot length of galvanised iron water pipe and cut it into a section fifteen inches. It was wound around the kitchen poker to strengthen it.

Both Howard and Naylor were taken into custody and imprisoned in Number 1 division in solitary confinement.   Six other members of the kitchen staff were discharged from their position and replacements sought.  A conspiracy having been suspected.

Both Howard and Naylor were convicted on the escape attempt and sentenced to the maximum additional term of 6 months with hard labour.

Robbery Under Arms

Saturday March 28th, 1936;

The Cracow mail car left Eidsvold shortly after 3pm for the return trip to Cracow with the pay of the workers of the Golden Plateau No Limit gold mine.  The regular driver Alexander Miller being unavailable to drive that afternoon the job was left to 23-year-old Charles Walter Williams. Williams had along with him Mrs Violet Mc Dowell the wife of a tool sharpener engaged at the mine, fifty-two miles into the sixty-six-mile journey, around 5:45pm Mrs McDowell left the car to open the wire gate crossing the road when Howard leapt from his hiding spot and held a rifle to her chin.  Howard next pointed the rifle at Williams telling him to “get out of that seat” he did.  Howard told them both to get back, as he climbed into the driver’s seat and disappeared into the dust on the road to Cracow.

In the back of the car was the £1400 cash for the wages of the employees at the Golden Plateau, twelve registered packages belonging to the mine and eight sacks of mail.  The cash £1350 in notes and £50 in silver and copper.

Williams and McDowell raised the alarm after walking over ten miles before being picked up on the road to Cracow.  Local police at once set out in pursuit of Howard.  Described as 30 to 40 years old, six feet high and weighing around 12 to 13 stone.  He was dirty, wearing a Garbadine coat, dirty sand shoes and a dirty handkerchief tied on the lower half of his face.  He had sandy coloured hair and blue eyes.

Map of the route from Eidsvold to Cracow



Foolishly, Howard returned to Cracow a few days later and tried to purchased goods with some of the stolen cash.  Howard had been there some months before to purchase goods some of these items he were found by the police at his hide out back on the side of the road. Subsequently identified by the shopkeepers in Cracow, Howard was arrested and charged with Robbery under arms.

He was transported to Eidsvold, where he made an appearance in the Eidsvold police court. He was then remanded to appear in the Gayndah police court the same afternoon.   Where he admitted that he was the man they were after and deeply apologised to Mrs McDowell for having caused her significant distress.  He further assisted the police in locating the remainder of the missing money and the 22-caliber automatic rifle used in the hold up.

The Hudson motor car used to carry the mail from Eidsvold to Cracow had earlier been found by police.   Mrs. McDowell and Williams had identified it as the vehicle they were riding in and positively identified Howard as the one who had held them up on their journey.

It was the assistance the gave police and the subsequent apology that Howard would rely on as his grounds for appeal.

1934 Hudson Car similar to that owned by Mr Alexander Miller



Remanded to appear before the Rockhampton Circuit Court on the 12th of May 1936, Howard was subsequently found guilty of all charges.

  1. Engaged the successful hold up of the Cracow mail car.
  2. Robbery under arms of money intended to pay the workers of Golden Plateau Mine.
  3. Having stolen with actual violence a motor car.

Further evidence given at the trial would show that Howard was a returned solder with a good record. He was in the service for three years and had been shot in the right cheek during the war and gassed.

Judge Brennan in summing up said

“The crime for which you have been charged is a most serious one.  I have sentenced you to seven years with hard labour. I could have sentenced you for life.  If you feel the punishment is too harsh you can appeal to the full court.”

Rockhampton Courthouse

The Appeal

John Howard would attempt to appeal the decision.  As we said earlier on the grounds that he had been most helpful in assisting the police to locate the remainder of the stolen money, had lead them to the location of the missing rifle and had apologised for his actions.

Justice Henchman having none of this said “you only apologised because you were caught. You said yourself had you have been free you would not have apologised”

A modern-day bushranger.

Justice Henchman continued further “We thought that Ned Kelly and his gang had gone in Australia. Ned Kelly was kind to women too.  In this case you made careful preparation to hold up that coach. It was done in keeping with the greatest traditions of such robberies under arms, and you took the opportunity when you knew the wages were going to Cracow.   Your request for appeal is denied.”

So, it was, Howard was sent of to St Helena Island prison for seven years with hard labour.  Only that St Helena closed, John Howard would not have ever been in Boggo Road Gaol.  Howard was one of the prisoners moved across to number two division Boggo Road Gaol when the women’s prison was moved elsewhere on the block.

This escape attempt had a profound effect on the prison. The rules for the management of prisoners and how they would be punished will forever be changed as a result.  Prisoners lost privileges,  Officers were severely reprimanded; and the prison searched from top to toe.

This Sunday, you can see for yourself the section of wall that John Howard climbed over in our Escapes Tour.  Located directly behind D Wing. The Escapes tour is hosted by Director Jack Sim this is a rare treat! Don’t delay book your tickets today!

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

Boggo Road Gaol
Boggo Road Gaol