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The convicts are coming - what capital sport
The road to the gallows made easy and short
And long will the Swanites remember the day
When the convicts were sent to their shores by Earl Grey.

Perth Gazette


It is not known by many that before the official transportation of convicts there was a system of sending juvenile 'settlers' to the colony from Parkhurst prison.


A group of about 100 arrived aboard the Simon Taylor in 1842 and of these, one unfortunate was to be the first white person executed in the colony. John Gavin was a 15 year old convicted of the murder of his employer's son (George Pollard). Gavin had actually planned to kill Mrs. Pollard after being told off a number of times by her. He thought that George (as an 18 year old) would be able to stop him from carrying out the planned attack so waiting until the afternoon break when George was resting Gavin attacked and killed him first. For some reason his plan to kill Mrs. Pollard then fell through and she was able to summon help. Gavin was hanged on a gallows outside the Round House in Fremantle on April 6th 1844.


Convicts were first transported aboard the Scindian in 1850 and transportation was stopped in 1868. During this time over 9600 (one source says 9718, another says 9721 but most sources quote 9668) convicts were brought to W.A. The final ship to arrive carrying convicts was the Hougomont that arrived on January 10th 1868. No female convicts were ever sent to W.A.


The Swan River Colony started out as a free settlement and unlike other settlements in the eastern states, the need for convict labour only arose some 20 years after the colony was founded.


Popular legend would have us believe that all the convicts were poor misunderstood creatures whose worst offence was to steal a loaf of bread for their starving families. Records show that no-one was transported for that offence. This is a load of nonsense as some of the most violent and intractable criminals in England were transported to the colonies for the 'term of their natural life'. Some people suggest that the results of this policy can be seen today in some of our politicians. Others would suggest that this is an insult to the convicts.


The colonists originally insisted that if convicts were to be sent to the Swan River Colony that there should be none with a violent history, no women and no Irish. Of course these conditions were eventually ignored. In the end fully 20% of the convicts transported to Western Australia were serious criminals who had committed either murder, manslaughter or robbery with violence.


As the convicts sent to W.A. were to be exclusively men, the British Government agreed to subsidise an equal number of free settlers to redress the population imbalance that this would generate. This support also extended to the wives and children of the convicts but this was largely unsuccessful. A high proportion of the single women that began to arrive were from Ireland and this led Governor Hampton to demand that more Scottish and English women be sent instead. These women preferred to migrate to Victoria and New South Wales so Hampton's demands went unheeded.


It has to be said that convicts sent to W.A. faced a far brighter future and much more enlightened treatment than those sent to the Eastern States. The brutality of convict settlements in the east with daily floggings was never instituted here.


Convicts were encouraged to improve their own situation and under the leadership of Captain E.Y. Henderson they were able to earn good behaviour points which were converted into money when a ticket of leave was granted. Due to this more enlightened treatment many prisoners were able to find work and even buy property soon after they had finished their sentences.


The English authorities were of course aware of this situation and the transportation of a convict to Western Australia was seen as doing the convict a favour. This favour came at a price; until 1856 no convict could gain a pardon until they had repaid the cost of their passage to W.A. The cost was based on the length of the sentence and varied from 7 to 25 pounds.


Convicts made a huge difference to the Swan River Colony. Their buildings, roads and bridges were vital in the continuing development of the state and many fine examples still survive to this day. One way to spot a building constructed by convicts is to look for a date. Most are displayed prominently and those built by convicts have a dash at each side of the date. I.e. - 1855 -


Before the convicts arrived there were only 10 bridges over various rivers in the state. Just 12 years after the arrival of convicts there were 239 bridges.


Many of those transported went on to become wealthy land owners and businessmen but the stigma of having once been a convict was to remain with them and they were never admitted into 'polite society'.


Western Australia was never a penal colony in the way New South Wales and Tasmania were. They had been established by Britain purely with the thought of ridding England of unwanted felons. The convicts who came to W.A. benefited the colony in many ways and although their legacy (in the form of public works) is evident to this day, for a very long time there was a great stigma attached to having a convict in the family tree.


With less than 10,000 convicts sent to W.A. the numbers were relatively insignificant compared to around 80,000 sent to N.S.W. and about 65,000 sent to Tasmania. This didn't stop the eastern colonies demanding a system of certificates being established so that anyone going to the east from W.A. had to have a document declaring that they were not and had never been a prisoner of the Crown.


Note: The total number of convicts sent to Australia was about 157,000. The number sent to America was seven times this figure.


Further reading :
Convicts to Australia
Pensioner Guards
Fremantle Prison
Convict Database
State Records Office
Executions in W.A.
State library




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