Convict Histories

William James Fairleigh/Fairley (1823 – 1899) (Reg. No. 3847)

By Irma Walter, 2021.

No details have been found regarding William Fairleigh’s background prior to his arrest in 1853 at Bermuda as a soldier in the 56th Foot Regiment. He was convicted at a General Court Martial at Hamilton, Bermuda, on 31 December 1853, of stealing a box containing money and jewellery. Due to two previous Regimental Courts Martial [most likely trivial], and because of the harsh nature of military discipline, Fairleigh was sentenced to 21 years’ transportation.[1]

He was received at Millbank Prison from Bermuda Gaol on 13 February 1854, then transferred to Portsmouth Prison on 12 May 1855. He was taken from there to the convict ship William Hammond, which sailed on 23 January 1856, arriving at Fremantle on 29 March.[2]

On arrival in Western Australia his record describes him as aged 31, a single labourer, semi-literate, and a Protestant. His behaviour while in separate confinement was very good, and during the voyage, very good.[3]

His Record in Western Australia

William’s records are sparse. His conduct was recorded as excellent in the years 1856, ‘57, and ’58.[4]

3 January 1857 – To FWB (Fresh Water Bay) – One of 30 men discharged from Fremantle Prison.[5]

16 February 1857 – ME (Mount Eliza?)

1 October 1857 – Appointed as Constable of a work gang.

2 October 1857 – From Mt Eliza to CE (Convict Establishment)

17 October 1857 – To Bunbury.[6]

16 October 1858 – Received his Ticket of Leave.

25 September 1862 – Sent to Vasse.

2 October 1862 – Received his Conditional Pardon at Vasse.[7]

On 6 October 1864 William Fairley, Conditional Prisoner, was arrested in Bunbury for forgery. He was taken from the Perth Gaol to face the Supreme Court, where he was found guilty of forging and uttering a Promissory Note or Order and was sentenced to six calendar months with hard labour. No more details of the crime were given in the local press.[8] He was discharged from prison on 5 April 1865.[9]

He was in the Vasse district in 1870 when on 4 April, W Fairley, RC (?), aged 42, was re-convicted at Busselton by W Harris, RM, as Colonial Prisoner Reg. No. 3426, (formerly 3847), and sentenced to six weeks for absconding from service.[10]

Not a lot of information has been found regarding Fairleigh’s employers in Western Australia. [The Mid-west Convict Register gives some details of the time he spent in the Geraldton area.] It is said that he was promoted to 2nd Class Constable in the Guildford district in December 1857, and that he employed three ticket-of-leave men at Greenough in 1864.[11]

It appears that William James Fairleigh remained single and no names of friends or associates are known. No record of him owning property has been found. He was one of a number of former convicts who died a lonely death out in the Western Australian bush. How long he was there before his remains were found is not known. A brief report in the WA Police Gazette of April 1899 tells us the following:-

Vasse. — On the 19th inst., at the Court House, before L. M. Hungerford, R.M., Acting Coroner, on the body of William Fairley, exp., late No. 3847, who was found dead in the bush on the 17th inst. Verdict—” Death from exhaustion and exposure.”[12]

The 1899 WA Death Index has William Fairley, aged 76, place of death not recorded.[13]

The place of his burial is unknown.


[1] Convict Department Registers, Character Book (R19)

[2] England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770 – 1935, Millbank Prison Register, Series HO24, Piece  6,

[3] Convict Department Registers, Character Book (R19)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Convict Establishment, Receipts & Discharges (RD1-RD2)

[6] Convict Department Registers, Character Book (R19)

[7] Convict Department, General Register (R21B)

[8] Perth Gazette, 7 October 1864.

[9] Convict Establishment Miscellaneous, Record of Court Cases (V23)

[10] Convict Establishment Miscellaneous, Local Prisoners Registers, (V16A – V16C)

[11] Rica Erickson, The Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1987, p.1005.

[12] WA Police Gazette, 26 April 1899, p.132.

[13] WA Department of Justice, Death Index, Reg. No. 2204.