Bard’s hanging question

Justin Walshe

THE winner of the Fremantle Round House ballad competition has joined calls for the Swan River Colony’s first execution to be revisited, saying he doesn’t believe the hanged boy was guilty of murder.

Local troubadour Justin Walshe wrote The Ballad of John Gavin after delving into the controversial circumstances behind the 15-year-old’s execution and burial in sand dunes near the Round House, saying he’s been “trying to get to the bottom of it … there’s a lot to it that hasn’t really been uncovered.”

Walshe performed his tune on the 177th anniversary of Gavin’s execution between Good Friday and Easter Sunday on April 6.

Gavin was a Parkhurst Reformatory Boy; “he was a convict, although they were never officially called convicts,” said Walshe.

In 1843 the youngster arrived aboard The Shepherd and was sent to work for the Pollard family on an isolated farm in North Dandalup, but five months later his employer’s son, 18-year-old George, was murdered with an adze.

After being detained in the Round House, Gavin produced a confusing confession and was executed a mere three days later.

Walshe says there appeared to be no rational motive or the physical ability to kill Pollard. 

“He was brutally hanged and doesn’t seem capable of the crime he was hanged for.”

Local playwright Peter Leonard Bibby has also delved into the mystery in his script Boy on a Rope and he names Pollard’s mother Jane as a more likely murderer. 

Bibby’s script reveals a more complicated story than those found in the few historic records available, and Walshe says it’s not implausible the death was actually filicide.


“Jane Pollard, a tall large woman, was pregnant at the time; she had just lost a daughter and she was more than clear about being more than annoyed at her son’s singing and laziness,” Bibby says.

He reckons the mother was the “accuser of John Gavin from the very first moment” reportedly manhandling the young boy into the barn, locking him in, and heading straight to the magistrate.

“Gavin was not present when he was accused, from the beginning it was illegal in the way a magistrate would work at the time,” says the playwright.

Forensic testing suggested the adze that killed Pollard came in from a high angle, a challenging action for someone of Gavin’s diminutive physical structure. He was so small weights were tied to his legs to ensure his hanging as successful.

Bibby says it’s more plausible the fatal injury was caused by a tall large individual, and only one person on the farm matched that description; the victim’s mother.

Jane Pollard also claimed to have found her son’s dead body only after noticing his incessant singing had stopped.

That conflicted with Gavin’s confession, with the youth telling police there was yelling and screaming during the murder.

There is also mystery surrounding the aftermath of the execution. An 

“excellent mask of his face and cast of the skull” were made and were reportedly sent to the British Museum where they were subsequently stolen, although some scholars dispute this. 

Walshe and Bibby believe Gavin’s story highlights the “great issue of law and order in the Swan River Colony”.


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