Convict Histories

Arsonists on the Convict Ship Lord Dalhousie

By Irma Walter, 2023.

The Lord Dalhousie arrived at Fremantle Western Australia on 28 December 1863, with 270 convicts onboard. Of these, 25 men had been convicted of arson, with 23 of them guilty of setting fire to stacks of hay or grain. [See list attached at end of article.]

Three of the men were convicted of setting buildings on fire, rather than farm stacks. One was named John Hills, [alias Thomas Brooker], who was convicted of deliberately setting fire to a house he rented for his family which included his wife Maria and their seven children. The fire was put out by neighbours. It was found that Hills had recently taken out quite a high insurance policy for the contents of the house, and at his trial it was proved that the family owned very little furniture before the fire, with only one mattress for the seven children.

The second convict was named Henry Sherry, who was drunk when he set fire to some farm buildings and a house where his father and sister were sleeping. Luckily they woke and escaped the blaze.

A third arsonist was Alfred Corder, aged 25,who pleaded guilty in 1858 to setting fire to some farm buildings as well as several stacks for no obvious reason. He had a previous conviction at Chelmsford in 1857 for firing some farm buildings and a wheat stack at Gestingthorpe, for which he served a term of one year. He was transported for 15 years.

His name is included among the 23 guilty men, who were only a small proportion of convicts arriving on our shores convicted of stack burning. It has been calculated that around 5% of the nearly 10 000 men sent here from British prisons were convicted under the general term of arson.[1] Newspaper archives show that most of them were guilty of firing stacks.

One would think that WA authorities would have been quite concerned about the number of arsonists arriving in the Colony. However their arrival didn’t lead to an outbreak of stack burning, such as had been occurring in England over a number of years.

Firing of stacks in England in the early 19th century was mainly a form of protest against the social conditions being experienced by rural workers, brought about by a combination of events. The Enclosure Laws from the 1770s took away approximately six million acres of public open space, traditionally used by peasant farmers to supplement their low wages by keeping a cow, a few pigs or some poultry on the public land, but instead had been transferred to the ownership of the landowners who employed them.

The mechanisation of farming began around the same time, with seasonal workers no longer required in such large numbers to do the reaping and threshing of crops. Many of them, particularly the younger generation of rural workers, were forced to roam the countryside looking for work, sleeping wherever they could find a resting place, often on private property near hay stacks. They were frequently turned away by farm owners when asking for work or begging for food, and the temptation to take revenge by setting fire to grain stacks before moving out of the district was too hard to resist.

When arrested and charged with arson, it was not unusual for the culprits, often in tandem, to freely admit their guilt, the reason often given was lack of food, saying that a stretch in prison would be preferable to the conditions they were suffering ‘on the tramp’. Some had been turned away from relief at workhouses and expressed their wish to be transported, in the hope of starting a new life in Australia. Soldiers on the run, absconding from the harsh discipline and poor conditions they suffered in military service, pleaded to be transported. Not all were rewarded for their crimes by transportation to Australia. As a way of deterring others tempted to act in the same way, some of the former soldiers were sent to serve out their terms at hard labour in places such as Gibraltar.

Here are the names of arsonists onboard the Lord Dalhousie who set fire to stacks –

Anty (Auty), James, 7328

Adge, William, 7330

Bliss, George, 7344

Brown, Josiah, 7335

Corder, Alfred, 7368

Cox, James, 7369

Davis, George, 7387

Davis, William, 7391

Dunn, Thomas, 7385

Gibson, William, 7425

Gray, William, 7415

Greenwood, Charles, 7426

Horan, Henry, 7437

Horton, William, 7436

Mason, William, 7491

O’Neil, Peter, 7505

Robinson, John, 7529

Saunders, Edward, 7539

Shepherd, William, 7549

Thompson, William, 7566

Wicks, William, 7581

Wormsley, Charles, 7577

Young, William, 7596


[1] Sandra Taylor, “Who were the convicts? A statistical analysis of the convicts arriving in Western Australia 1850/51, 1861/62 and 1866/68” in Stannage CT (ed) Convictism in WA UWA, 1981, Fremantle Prison website, at