THESE days, one famous, now largely forgotten 19th century mass prison break might be labelled 'The Great Escape'.
Except that would be a mistake, as I'll explain.
I'm recalling another time and place, far from Newcastle.
Nudging my memory of this historic episode came from listening to ABC Radio's Classic FM Music in the movies - Re-screened during the Australia Day long weekend.
Up popped the stirring, unmistakable Elmer Bernstein theme from the popular 1963 American war movie The Great Escape, starringSteve McQueen and a large international cast.
Based generally on fact, the film involved 76 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) successfully fleeing from a supposedly 'escape-proof' German prison camp to tie up crucial enemy resources in World War II.
But the brazen act of being nuisances had tragic consequences for most of the POWs.
Fifty of the unarmed men rounded up were then brutally killed by the Gestapo in retaliation for their impudence.
There's no comparison with the prison tale I'm about to tell, except that it was bold and memorable, happened much earlier, no blood was spilled and it involved Newcastle at the height of its fame as a sailing ship port.
It was, as it were, a mini 'Great Escape', at least that's how the sympathetic locals here saw the situation back then.
The escape, by six revolutionary French activists from New Caledonia in March 1874, was political.
And the arrival of the former prisoners on board the three-masted ship P.C.E. (standing for peace, comfort and ease) commanded by a Captain Law, created a sensation in 1874, according to the Newcastle Chronicle soon after the escapees arrived in harbour here after a secret, six-day voyage from Noumea.
After their daring escape, the former political prisoners were stunned by the warmth of the crowd greeting their escape from captivity on French soil across the Pacific.
There was cheering at the jetty and all the ships in port seemed to have flags and bunting in abundance to celebrate their deliverance from their former French island prison.
In fairness, however, it should be pointed out the men did happen to arrive while all the vessels in harbour were conveniently decked in flags to celebrate the imminent arrival of colonial Governor Sir Hercules Robinson.
The most prominent of the six escapees was Henri Rochefort, a journalist and member of France's first provisional government.
The others included a foreign affairs minister and a former minister of finance.
All were serving time in exile for their roles in the French Revolution of 1870.
One of those campaigning back in France, pleading for the release of Rochefort, especially, was legendary author Victor Hugo, who believed the jailed Rochefort was one of the most famous writers of his day.
Henri Rochefort later wrote an autobiographical account of his adventures entitled, Noumea to Newcastle. The story of the escape, which was superbly translated (with valuable explanatory notes) by Newcastle's Emeritus Professor Ken Dutton several years ago.
Within his 60-page translation, Professor Dutton provides Rochefort's vivid descriptions of early
Newcastle at the time of their arrival, writing that "a dangerous belt of coral defends this harbour" and that he observed the town had been built "higgledy-piggledy" on the side of a hill to meet population demands of the fast-growing coal port.
Quoting contemporary reports, Professor Dutton found that the city was in a "state of excitement" at the arrival in Newcastle of six of the most prominent French exiles of the 4400 then detained in two sites at New Caledonia.
Times were changing, and so were attitudes to the French government's hard line towards dissidents.
A full report of the voyage to Newcastle and subsequent events can be found online inside the University of Newcastle's Hunter Living Histories pages.
The report also includes an invaluable engraving of Newcastle a year later. A sort of "the way we were" artwork (partly pictured here) which tells better than words what has disappeared over the decades.
Published in the Illustrated Sydney News of April 1875, the aerial map reveals a cluster of windjammers at the farewell buoys in mid-harbour, a 'new' Customs House (or at least the site) and a stack of steam cranes for loading coal in the city's East End foreshore at the then government wharf (near the present pilot station on Wharf Road).
The most striking feature of the Newcastle waterfront to modern eyes, however, is the absence today of a spider's web of coal staiths (elevated coal-loading platforms) extending west from present Market Street to past Darby Street to meet the demands of coal industry exports, pre-1900.
Professor Dutton reports that Rochefort and his companions were initially alarmed by the sudden approach by several tugs at the Newcastle port entrance.
They were momentarily frightened that "the entire French fleet was there to greet them and snatch them back".
It was an understandable mistake.
All during the journey from Noumea to Newcastle, their Captain Law was nervous and vigilant in case his 'stowaways' might be pursued by an armed French vessel.
The competitive Newcastle tugs, however, were simply intent in making money from one of them towing the ship into safe harbour.
Despite the rescue, Rochefort and his five companions, would still have to wait ages before they could step back on their native French soil.
After his 1874 stay in Australia, Rochefort went to the United States.
The political situation in France finally became more stable (in 1879) under the Third Republic.
It was the era in which the tune La Marseillaise became the national song.
But a total amnesty for France's prisoners had to wait until 1881. Rochefort (originally deported from France for life) finally returned home in 1895.
He died in 1913.
Perhaps, not so surprisingly, the Newcastle newspapers of 1874 failed to get anyone to admit how the prisoners escaped and were smuggled on board as everyone, including Captain Law, pleaded ignorance.
Every person on board ship, it seemed, had turned a blind eye, very conveniently.
At least it meant that, in the end, no one was executed.
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