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 Western Australian Convicts 1850-1868

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Western Australia began its life as a free colony in 1829 and it was not until its 21st birthday in 1850 that the convict labour it sought to bolster its flagging economy finally arrived. The 18 year history of its convict past between 1850 and 1868 may be given most attention by historians, but it is important to note that its first taste of convict life was really in 1827 when a small party of soldiers and convicts arrived from Sydney to establish a British presence in the region amidst fears of French occupation. It is even possible that some of the New South Wales convicts found themselves further north in the Swan River Settlement in the years that followed.

As with Tasmania, New Zealand and Victoria, Western Australia also received a number of convict boys from Parkhurst Prison during the 1840s. They had been rehabilitated in England and arrived as free settlers destined for apprenticeships with local settlers and their convict past is often forgotten.

Rottnest Island to the west of Fremantle, had been used for local colonial offenders since 1838, but 1850 marked a major change in policy when the first 75 convicts arrived from England aboard the Scindian.

In all, around 9,720 British convicts were sent directly to the colony in 43 ships between 1850-1868. Thirty seven of the voyages carried large numbers of prisoners from England, although one voyage actually collected her load in Bermuda. The remaining six ships brought smaller cargoes of military prisoners from amongst the ranks of British troops serving in India.

Modern historians are now putting forward alternative theories, but the traditional reason why Western Australia elected to change its status from a free colony to a penal colony was that local settlers needed a supply of cheap labour to help develop the region. The decision also came at a time when the eastern states were shutting down their penal settlements and once again Britain found herself without an offshore dumping ground for her convicts, just as had happened 65 years earlier after the American War of Independence.

Interestingly though, and possibly out of necessity, Britain was also re-assessing her criminal system and beginning to keep more of her lesser offenders at home. That being the case, it is not surprising to find that many of Western Australia's convicts were the more hardened criminals who were convicted for more serious crimes than stealing sheep and picking pockets, especially as the Western Australian chapter drew to a close.

Western Australia's convicts were sentenced to terms of 6, 7, 10, 14 and 15 years and some reports suggest that their literacy rate was around 75% as opposed to 50% for those sent to the eastern states. About a third of the convicts left the Swan River Colony after serving their time but many were also re-convicted locally for later offences. There are also four instances of prisoners escaping and being sent out again after being re-captured.

The following series of pages contain passenger lists for the 43 convict transports sent to Western Australia. They are an amalgum of information extracted from several sources and in the process every attempt has been made to correct the various anomalies, omissions and typographical errors which were encountered.

This presentation has been compiled in good faith, but as always, cyber-tourists are urged to treat the information with caution and refer to primary sources for confirmation and further research. Some readily available secondary sources are listed at the foot of each page and they will provide much more information about individual convicts, their pensioner guards and the ships which brought them to Western Australia.

A more recent resource which has yet to be fully transcribed is a series of lists compiled and published by the original Convict Establishment of Western Australia. It lists convicts in registration number order, not only as they arrived, but also as various prisoners were re-convicted locally, or as local offenders joined their ranks.

This new resource primarily deals with the convicts' physical appearance but full trial dates are also given on the later lists. Unfortunately the listings only exist in the form of a photocopy of a rather tattered original document held in the Battye Library in Perth, Western Australia, but a sample of what can be found on them can be seen on this sample page for the first voyage of the Pyrenees in 1851. We plan to transcribe the rest as time goes on.

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