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Close up of a chain on Cockatoo Island.

William Smith: The escapee in leg irons

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5 min read
One of the prisoners incarcerated at Cockatoo Island during the convict era (1839 to 1869) was William Smith. Volunteer researcher Michele shares the story of a man whose prison sentence was cut short by an ill-fated gaol break involving a swim in leg irons.

The escape

Smith arrived at the island in June 1846 to serve out a ten years sentence and, during his imprisonment, was kept in irons. Little over one year later, in August of 1847, Smith and two other prisoners attempted to escape from the Island.

Smith and his fellow would-be escapees broke through the roof of their hut and, according to witnesses, were seen attempting to flee to Spectacle Island. A muster was called, and the three missing prisoners were quickly identified. Two of the escapees were apprehended on the Island. One was shot at and wounded by a sentinel, and the other gave himself up. Smith, however,  remained unaccounted for. 


Smith’s demise

Acting Corporal Christopher Armstrong, saw Smith in the water accompanied by a dog, leaving the shoreline. Armstrong fired twice at Smith, who has been reported as saying “Don’t shoot, I am coming back”. Smith was seen returning to shore, before he then disappeared into the water. Prisoners observed that Smith had cut his irons but was still wearing them when he entered the water.


The final capture

The next evening, Smith’s body was recovered between Cockatoo Island and the northern shore of the mainland, with his leg irons still attached.  An inquest was conducted at the Three Tuns Tavern in Elizbeth street.  Evidence given by Dr Silver who examined the body, attested that there were no gunshot wounds on the body and no marks showing violence.  It was the opinion of Dr Silver that Smith’s death was caused by suffocation from drowning. The jury at the inquest returned a verdict of accidental death by drowning.



  • The Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 23 August 1847, page 2.
  • The Sydney Chronicle, Saturday 21 August 1847, page 3.
  • The Australian, Tuesday 24 August 1847, page 3.

Article was originally published on 28 June 2022.


Armstrong fired twice at Smith, who has been reported as saying “Don’t shoot, I am coming back


– Michele

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