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WA's Convict Transportation Experience
contributed by GerryRyder
(contact GerryRyder about this story | see more stories from GerryRyder)
When the colony of Western Australia - known as the Swan River Colony - was founded in 1829, there was no intention to be involved in Britain's system of transportation of convicts to far flung outposts of its empire. But when settlers arrived at Swan River, they were shocked and disappointed to find that glowing reports of excellent conditions for settlement and agriculture had been exaggerated. In fact vast parts of the Swan Coastal Plain consisted of poor sandy soils punctuated with small plots of good country near rivers and swamps. The situation was not helped when the colony's patron and first governor, James Stirling, made sure he allocated a fair proportion of the available good land to himself. Many of the settlers had invested life savings into the move and were stuck with the status quo.
Early exploration inland revealed good possibilities in the Avon River Valley about 80 kilometres east of Perth, and a number of settlers moved there, establishing the village of York. Even so, matters were complicated by the tough country, terrible track back to the capital and WA's isolation from the markets of the world as well as a general labour shortage. Soon disillusioned settlers who could, were leaving the colony for better climes. By the 1840s the population was decreasing. There seemed to be torpor, inertia and helplessness among those who stayed. The dynamism of the later State of WA was a long way off.
The severe labour shortage prompted York Agricultural Society members and others to call for the then colonial governor to request Britain to set up a convict transportation scheme with the colony as a possible cure for the problem. After much to-ing and fro-ing, the British Government agreed and the first shipment of convicts was sent, arriving in 1850. From then until the last convict transport arrived at Gage Roads off Fremantle, in 1868 around 9000 prisoners were sent to the colony, along with their 'pensioner guards' and their families.
In the beginning, the only facility available to house the early arrivals was the small 'Roundhouse' prison in Fremantle, totally inadequate for the job. So transportees were sheltered in rented quarters. Some were given over to construction of the large 'Convict Establishment' starting from the year after the scheme began. The stark yet imposing building was sited on a high point in the sleepy port town. The task was to last from 1851 to completion in 1859. Limestone for the job was quarried nearby. One female settler commented that the first building she could see on arrival at the port was the ominous white stone structure overlooking all; not a great introduction to the colony. Full control of the prison and all convicts would be handed over to WA's colonial government in 1886. By then, many occupants were locally convicted felons. Now a museum, Fremantle Prison is said to be the best preserved transportation-era gaol in Australia.
The majority of early transportees were minor offenders who were shortly granted ticket-of-leave to be free to accept paid work in town and country, with conditions. Later, more serious criminals and political prisoners were sent from crowded British gaols and even prison hulks in Jamaica. These were detained for longer and set to building extensive infrastructure in the form of roads, bridges and culverts etc. Without this labour, the settlement would have been many years longer in the development and at times before the scheme, was at risk of folding.
Many ex-convicts made a life for themselves in their new home, viewing transportation as a virtual blessing. Opportunities were available that they could never hope for in the 'old country'. They became shepherds (a skilled vocation in those days), farmers and tradesmen. Some of the so-called 'old lags' saw out their days squatting on isolated small plots in remote bush country near where the Avon becomes the Swan River above the Darling Scarp. The last convict veteran was reported to have died in 1906. For the Swan River Colony, the system proved a boon, with convicts being made available to help establish settlements in the south-west and central west of WA. From then on, Western Australia has never looked back!
This story was uploaded into the Bonzle Digital Atlas of Australia entry for the Suburb/Regional Area 'Fremantle'.
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