Convict Histories

William Holmes (c1830 – 1888?) (Reg. No. 4561)

By Irma Walter, 2020.

William Holmes, a soldier aged 28, was convicted of desertion on 18 February 1856 at the Wellington Barracks in London. As a deterrent, punishments for this crime were severe and Holmes was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation. While on the run he used a number of different aliases including Duncan, Brown, Fife, Jackson, Able, Aaron and Moore, indicating that it took quite a while for the military police to chase him down.[1] He was a sawyer by trade and single.

Following his conviction Holmes was received at Portland Prison from Pentonville before being taken on board the Nile, sailing for Western Australia on 23 September 1857. His conduct when in Separate Confinement was good, and at Public Works was very good. He was able to read and write.[2] The ship arrived at Fremantle on 1 January 1858.

His WA medical records are quite detailed:

8 March 1858 – William Holmes, aged 31, P/P [Provisional Prisoner]. Arrived January 1858. Spent 11 months at Pentonville and 5 days at Portland. Admitted to hospital from Guildford with diarrhea. Complains of debility, purging. Sk cool, P small & soft, T pale, clean & moist, slight nausea, occasional griping pains in lower part of abdomen, general aspect debilitated. Has had a dysenteric diarrhea on him for two weeks has been treated as an out-patient & had “pudding diet”. Yesterday he reported himself quite recovered, today after breakfast a relapse occurred. Has always enjoyed good health. Twelve years in the army without reporting himself sick – feels quite well today. Discharged on 10 March 1858.[3]

Another medical report written on 30 May 1859 after he was treated for diarrhea gives us some background detail of his life prior to his Court Martial:

A healthy-looking man, always been in the enjoyment of good health previous to his arrival in the Colony a year since, during which time he has had two attacks of Diarrhea, the neither of them sufficiently severe as to compel him to go into Hospital. Before he was sent out he was serving in the Artillery in which Corp he has been for 11 years, never out of England.[4]

A third report tells us of an accident which resulted in dire consequences for his health:

27 August 1862 – Sent from Guildford being subject to epilepsy. States that four years ago he received a severe blow to the head by a chain and has felt it more or less ever since. Employed at thatching in February last in the sun and was taken ill with a fit, since that time they have recurred about once a week, had two severe fits last night. Rather a weakly looking man, very deaf and has been 3½ years, has difficulty in utterance, which he says came upon him only ten days ago. States that he suffers constantly from pain on left side of head and that he has had seven or eight blisters applied without much effect.[5] Has been scarcely conscious since 10 pm yesterday having had a succession of fits, skin warm, face pale, pulse feeble, sordes about a month. Urine and faeces passed involuntarily.[6]

Holmes’s employment record in WA reveals frequent changes of employers, probably due to the poor state of his health:

10 January 1863 – Transferred to Swan District.

12 Jan 1863 – Labourer with Wm. Brockman at 4/- per day. Discharged 20 May.

17 January 1863 – Received his Ticket of Leave at Swan District.

31 May 1863 – Entered T. Mansfield’s service. Left 30 July.

3 August 1863 – Went to Mr Likely. Left 18 August.

19 August 1863 – Went to William Harry (Harris?) at 3/- per day. Discharged 5 November.

5 November 1863 – Employed by Mr Meagher at 30/- per month. Discharged 19 December 1863.

22 December 1863 – Employed by W. B. Robins at 3/6 per day. Left on 26 May 1864.

30 May 1864 – E. Shaw at 25/-. Left 21 June.

22 June 1864 – W. B. Robins – thatching at 7d a bunch. Contract renewed at 4/- per day with returns. Discharged 30 August.

24 December 1864 – H. Dickson Upper Swan – to reap 14/- per acre. Afterwards 30/- monthly as general servant. Discharged.

9 January 1865 – T. York, at Gin Gin – clearing land at £2 per acre. Discharged.

16 January 1865 – Service of A. Marsden(?) Meade at 30/- per month.

Date (?) – Service of W. Brockman as general servant at 35/- per month.[7]

Holmes received his Conditional Pardon on 2 July 1870 and his Certificate of Freedom was sent to the Resident Magistrate at Bunbury 10 March 1871.[8] Where he was employed in Bunbury is not known.

[The Journals of Marshall Waller Clifton record a William Holmes employed at his Australind property between 15 November 1860 and 21 March 1861 as a hut keeper, looking after stock at a remote location.[9] He was probably still there at the time of Clifton’s death on 10 April 1861. The editors suggest that this was William Holmes (Reg. No.4561), a former soldier who deserted. There is a possibility that this was another convict of the same name, a shepherd named William Holmes born in 1832 and convicted as a pickpocket in Middlesex in 1848.[10]]

As his health deteriorated, Holmes was regularly fined or jailed on drunk & disorderly charges. He received sympathetic treatment from one magistrate:

William Holmes, an old offender, charged with stealing a pewter pot the property of Mr. Dearden of the Freemason’s Hotel, was sent to prison for six months, Mr. Leake remarking that as he was evidently in a bad state of health, he was to receive every attention from the prison’ officials.[11]

On 23 May 1888 he was discharged from prison to the Pauper Class, then later that year he was discharged again to the Invalid Depot.[12]

The death of a William Holmes was registered in 1888. (Reg. No. 331) It is likely that this was our former soldier.


[1] Convict Department Registers (128/38-39)

[2] Convict Department Registers, Convicts Transported per Nile (R32)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Convict Establishment Medical Registers by Patient (M4 – M6)

[5] Note: Medical blistering required applications of a fine powder usually composed of cantharides (a powerful-blistering substance often obtained from blister beetles, sometimes called Spanish Fly). Sometimes other stimulant ingredients, such as “pepper, mustard-seed, and verdigris,” were also added. The fine powder and stimulants were then mixed with plasters or other compositions of the same consistency and spread on the skin’s surface to produce a blister. This concoction was left on the skin from a few hours to many hours, depending on the extent of medical blistering required. (

[6] Convict Establishment, Medical Registers by Patient (M4-M6)

[7] Miscellaneous, Tickets of Leave Swan District 1859 – 1866.

[8] Convict Department Registers, General Register (R21B)

[9] P Barnes, JM Cameron, HA Willis, The Australind Journals of Marshall Waller Clifton 1840-1861, Hesperian Press, Carlyle, WA, 2010, pp 641 – 656.

[10] Fremantle Prison website,

[11] West Australian, 18 Nov 1886.

[12] Fremantle Prison website,