Ettie Benn: Escapologist

Ethel Violet May Benn, Special photograph number 1188, 9 April 1923, probably Central Police Court, Sydney

Ethel Violet May Benn, Special photograph number 1188, 9 April 1923, probably Central Police Court, Sydney NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice and Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums

Ethel ‘Ettie’ Benn was an extraordinarily athletic thief who never learned from her mistakes.

She was just 16 – and pregnant – when her first arrest was noted in police records. She had been picked up for theft but escaped police custody. More than 50 residents chased her through the streets of Cowra in central New South Wales; she managed to elude them all, but was arrested at a railway station shortly afterwards. This became a pattern in Benn’s criminal career: she would commit intrepid thefts and outrun police but then return to her known haunts, where she was arrested.

Benn was also a very fertile woman. She had at least six children, and the older ones would sometimes attend court hearings and wail pitifully when she was sentenced. Benn gave birth to at least three children while in jail. In 1921, she was taken to a maternity home, to save the baby from the disgrace of having Long Bay jail listed as its place of birth. Unfortunately for prison authorities, Benn managed to escape from the home; this led to a temporary ban on the practice of allowing inmates to deliver their babies outside prison.

Benn’s pregnancies did not seem to hamper her criminal activities or lessen her daring. A renowned ‘drainpiper’, she scaled drainpipes to enter homes through open windows on the second storey or above, even when heavily pregnant.

One police officer tells of giving chase to the pregnant Benn. Seeing her run into a house with a backyard terminating in a 6-metre drop, he believed he had the ‘human hare’ trapped, but Benn leapt down the embankment, landed lightly on her feet and scarpered. The officer decided not to follow.

In 1923, Benn – again pregnant – caused a sensation when she escaped from Long Bay jail with a friend. 

The pair scaled prison walls before jumping from the high perimeter wall. However, this time Benn’s luck had run out, and she broke her leg when she landed. Authorities found her and returned her to her cell. When the time came for her to give birth her leg had not healed, and so it was decided to risk letting her go to a hospital. On this occasion, kept under heavy guard, she did not escape. 

Benn had a long criminal record; as early as 1920 she told police she had committed so many robberies that she could no longer keep track of where she had pawned the stolen goods. Eventually police asked that she be declared a habitual criminal, which would mean a harsher sentence for her if she was convicted in the future. A woman had never received this designation, and the court declined the application, even though Benn’s record was longer than those of many male habitual criminals. Benn continued thieving, and by the 1940s it took almost ten minutes to read out her record to the court.

Had she been born in a later era, Benn might have been an Olympic athlete. Instead, her tenacity, agility and phenomenal physical fitness made her one of Sydney’s fastest and most fearless criminals.

Find out more about Sydney’s 1920s underworld in our exhibition and accompanying book.

About the author

Nerida Campbell

Curator

Nerida’s passion for history was influenced by childhood holidays spent at her grandmother’s farm, happily rifling through chests brimming with family photographs, generations of clothing and things she still can’t identify.