Pawelka's last prison break

27 August 1911

Picture of Joseph Pawelka in the Evening Post, c. 1911
Picture of Joseph Pawelka in the Evening Post, c. 1911 (Alexander Turnbull Library, 114/356/01-G)

Joseph Pawelka’s escape from Wellington’s Terrace Gaol was the last of three bold but seemingly effortless prison escapes he made over a period of 18 months.

Pawelka’s first escape, on 12 March 1910, was from Palmerston North gaol, where he was being held on theft charges. Pawelka climbed over a wall with the assistance of two upturned buckets and an inattentive guard. He rode off on a stolen bicycle, ending up 13 km away at Awahuri, where he was recaptured two days later. Transferred to Wellington, he escaped again on 23 March from an unlocked police cell.

This led to what was then New Zealand’s biggest manhunt as Pawelka fled north, committing burglaries and arsons along the way. Police finally caught up with him at Ashhurst on 17 April.

Pawelka received a cumulative sentence of 21 years. In August 1911 he escaped from the Terrace Gaol by removing the grille from his cell window. He was never recaptured. While family lore suggests he fled to Canada, in 1913 New Zealand Truth published an unsourced account of his escape and alleged new life as a rebel in Mexico.