Perth’s inner suburbs are filled with history and stories from the colonisation era of Western Australia. In South Perth, just a few kilometres from the CBD, there’s a tiny plaque commemorating the story of Edward Bishop and William Voss. The story is short and cruel and experts say it ends with a wrongful execution.
A stone’s throw from a Hungry Jacks and a gym rests the final chapter of this legal injustice.
Edward Bishop was a convict. Born in 1831 in Bristol, England, to a poor family, his early life was sadly typical of working-class people at the time. From the age of eight he worked in the local iron ore mines, a strange twist that mirrored the future of his soon to be Australian home.
In 1852 he was accused of stealing from a house. He denied the allegations but was convicted and sentenced to 10 years transportation in WA. The journey on the Dudbrook from England to Australia was a terrible three-month test of endurance. Conditions on convict ships were harsh and many died of diseases like Typhus.
When he arrived in Fremantle in February 1853, he got his ticket of leave, a kind of 19th Century parole. Museum of Perth historian Shannon Lovelady says most convicts in WA got a ticket of leave, because it allowed them to work in the brand-new colony.
She explains: “Ticket of leave men were always able to work for themselves and move around the state.”
After spending some time in Fremantle, Bishop moved east to York in 1854, to work on a farm owned by the wealthy Meares family. The Avon River flows through York, the town’s streets are rich with Western Australia’s history. It’s almost as old as Perth, founded in 1835 by British colonisers.
This is where the 23-year-old Bishop met William Voss, and it’s where a chain of events began which ultimately led to what experts say was his unfair and untimely death.
The first event was the arrival of two Chinese men on the estate, the Chong brothers. Ms Lovelady says the arrival of the brothers was met with tension and hostility from Bishop and Voss, who had become very close in their time living and working in the same hut.
“They were split up, because the Chinese men didn’t want to be together, they were afraid to be in the hut (alone) together, so they split them and put one with Voss and one with Bishop,” she says.
“Voss did not like being separated from Bishop.”
This tension seems to have boiled over in August 1854 when Ah Chong was brutally murdered and dumped in the Avon. Bishop was instantly treated with suspicion, even though he insisted he was innocent. His pleas didn’t matter though as the magistrate determined to find the killer, relied on the testimony of local residents, and Bishop was arrested, tried and hung from a jarrah tree in South Perth.
This was the official story, reported by the newspapers at the time. But Ms Lovelady says a deeper look at the story reveals a different truth. She says the authorities got the wrong man and Bishop was innocent.
A dodgy magistrate and a big reward
The evidence used to convict Bishop of murder was flimsy at best. This is according to York writer and historian Rob Garton-Smith. He says the local law enforcement was led by Richard Meares, who owned the farm where Ah Chong was murdered.
“He represented the government in York and Beverley, it was ironic that it happened on a farm owned by him,” he says.
Mr Garton-Smith says Meares was not a good person to trust with justice. Meares had a poor track record in the legal system before the Bishop case. Records show he even acted as magistrate in a case his son Seymour was involved in.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his son ended up winning the case.
Mr Garton-Smith says Meares didn’t have enough evidence to arrest anyone for Ah Chong’s death and had to resort to offering a reward for information which would help the investigation.
He explained that Meares asked all the farmers and members of the grand jury to put up 50 pounds, 50 pounds for evidence which would lead to the conviction of someone, Meares then matched that from the Government because he was Government.”
The legal system was different at the time and a type of jury was involved in investigations as well as trials.
Newspaper reports from 1854 in the Perth Gazette show the reward for evidence relating to Ah Chong’s murder was well publicised around the colony.
Mr Garton-Smith says this was when the investigation turned against Bishop. Motivated by a huge reward of 100 pounds, local residents started changing their stories and accusing him of the murder. This led to his arrest, trial and execution.
“You could buy a block of land for 100 pounds,” he says.
“Witnesses then changed their stories when it went to trial, Edward Bishop was clearly going to get convicted.”
Mr Garton-Smith says evidence from a local boy called Jamie was especially important in the lead up to Bishop’s arrest. Jamie originally said he heard screams coming from the river’s edge close to where Ah Chong’s body was found.
The young man said he went to investigate and saw Bishop. Jamie claimed he noticed Bishop looked pale and had a tear in his straw hat before he asked if Bishop heard the screams. Ah Chong’s body was discovered later in the day.
However, after the reward was offered, he added an extra detail about Bishop’s shirt being stained with blood. Mr Garton-Smith says Jamie changed his story to get a hold of the reward.
“You have to compare the evidence … Blood on the shirt only appeared later, there’s no evidence of blood on shirt prior to the hundred-pound reward,” he says.
The details of the investigation and trial were covered in detail by the media at the time, with reporters detailing how even people far away in Perth were shocked by the gruesome crime.
Bishop was transported to Perth for the trial and found guilty in October 1854, and he was executed on October 12.
He always claimed he was innocent. In a final letter released by the press after his death, he insisted Jamie’s evidence was wrong.
Ms Lovelady agrees the evidence against Bishop was weak. She believes it was actually William Voss who killed Ah Chong.
“I definitely think he was innocent,” she says.
“I think that Voss definitely did it.”
This might seem far fetched, but Mr Garton-Smith agrees. The evidence against Bishop is clearly in doubt, and Voss actually confessed to the crime years later. This confession holds weight because in 1862 Voss murdered his wife with the same brutal method which killed Ah Chong, blows with an axe to the head and body.
But why did Bishop protect Voss? Throughout the trial, the newspapers described him as calm, composed and indifferent, even though he claimed they arrested the wrong man. Why didn’t he accuse Voss to prove his innocence?
Ms Lovelady says she believes the two were in a secret relationship and unwilling to lay the blame on each other.
“Reading between the lines I think there was something going on there,” she says. “You protect the people you love.”
Secret relationships were common
There is no clear evidence to prove Voss and Bishop were partners. However, it was common for same-sex couples to keep their relationship secret according to the Centre for WA History associate director Bruce Baskerville.
“From everything I can read and put together, men who were in a relationship like that would have kept it secret,” he says.
Dr Baskerville has written about convicts and the history of the LGBTI community in Australia. He says just because Voss went on to be married, doesn’t mean he wasn’t in a relationship with Bishop in earlier years. He says if Voss was keeping his sexuality a secret, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him explode into violence.
“A number of them married later and had families but when you actually drill down into the relationships as much as you can, they’re not particularly happy relationships and there’s a lot of drinking and violence involved,” he says.
“That’s coming from them repressing a part of themselves.”
It wasn’t just the individuals repressing themselves, society was highly prejudiced to gay men in the 19th Century. Homosexuality or ‘buggery’ as it was called then, was illegal and understood in different ways to modern times according to Dr Baskerville.
“There’s not really concepts and ideas that men could have relationships like this with each other, it relates back to old ideas about the unnaturalness of sexual relationships outside marriage that do not produce children,” he says.
“The idea that men could live together and have a sexual relationship and a fulfilling emotional life as partners is a much more recent idea … It’s important not to put 21st Century values on these men.”
Newspaper articles from the time seem to suggest something secretive was happening between Bishop and Voss behind closed doors. One article in The Inquirer from 1862 describes them as “intimates”.
Ms Lovelady says this is a very suggestive choice of words, but it’s important to keep in mind modern readers see it with 2020 eyes and could be attaching a different meaning to it.
“This is the article that made me think they were more than just hut-mates,” she says.
“Note use of the word ‘affair’ within a few words after ‘intimates’, which was subtle, and in typical florid language of the day, but not particularly sensational. Of course, we possibly read more into it today, than was meant then.”
Dr Baskerville says journalists often included hidden messages about same-sex relationships in their articles, which could only be understood by more progressive, forward thinking readers.
“When it says they’re intimates, I mean definitely he’s meaning they’re in a close relationship,” he says.
“I think it’s intended to be read in a number of different ways by whoever the audience is and read it in the way that they understand it to mean.”
He agrees with Ms Lovelady, saying it’s important to remember we’re reading with a modern point of view.
“Now whether the reader takes that to mean a physical relationship or just they’re really, really best friends is difficult to know from our perspective.”
A forgotten history
Whether or not Edward Bishop was protecting Voss, or speculation about whether or not he was innocent didn’t stop the inevitable outcome. The final hours of his life were recorded in striking detail by the local journalists. Just days after the guilty verdict and death sentence, Bishop was paraded through Perth’s familiar city streets in a horse drawn cart, as the church bells at St George’s Cathedral rang.
His final journey started at the Perth Gaol, now site of the WA museum. It continued down St George’s and Adelaide Terrace, past the still-standing state governor’s residence at Government House and across the Swan River on the causeway. The short trip finished a few kilometres down the road to Fremantle, now called Canning Highway.
The final stop was where the modern suburb of South Perth sits now. At the time the area was dominated by the bush and the road would have been little more than a dirt track.
According to reports in the newspapers, Bishop used his final words to once again claim his innocence. After this, a bolt was struck in a tall jarrah tree, and he was hanged.
The ‘Hanging Tree’ as it was called by local residents, is no longer there, and the area has been overrun by modern development. Where the tree stood has been replaced by suburban streets, and while the iconic river still flows nearby, now it plays host to a steady stream of cyclists and joggers along its edge. Nearby the public have a bounty of fast-food shops to choose from, ironically positioned next to a gym.
As was normal for executed criminals, Edward Bishop was buried in an unmarked grave. His story, along with the stories of William Voss and Ah Chong, remembered by a small plaque on the South Perth foreshore, easily overlooked in a modern city.