Introduction to Convict Histories

Convicts in the Wellington District

By Irma Walter, 2023

The Harvey History Online website features a number of convict stories, offering a picture of offenders and their crimes, ranging from highly educated fraudsters to illiterate labourers. Quite a number of them served time in the Wellington District, either in work gangs or in private employment under the Ticket of Leave system. Please note that stories of others who were never employed in this District have been included, as examples of the variety of crimes committed before their arrival in WA, and the degree of success or otherwise of their lives in the Swan River Colony.

By 1850 the transportation of convicts to the Eastern Colonies of Australia was coming to an end and the British Government was experiencing difficulty in finding another location willing to take their law-breakers. There was a growing realisation that the home country would have to deal with its own transgressors and changes to the penal system were gradually put in place, allowing more criminals to serve out their terms in British prisons, with some released early under License, similar to our Ticket of Leave system.

Conditions for the majority of people in 19th century Britain were atrocious. Cities were overcrowded with large families living in unsanitary and squalid quarters, with barely enough income to provide the necessities of life. No wonder, then, that petty crimes were the order of the day, with children often involved in pick-pocketing on the streets.

Harsh sentencing regimes resulted in seven-year terms of transportation being the standard punishment for repeat petty offenders. While awaiting transportation, prisoners served time in specially built prisons such as Pentonville and Millbank, with those fit enough being incarcerated in prison hulks anchored in various ports, labouring each day on shore.

The British Government was relieved when the Swan River Colony in Western Australia showed an interest in receiving convicts. This small colony was struggling financially, due to a severe shortage of labour and a lack of access to markets. The majority of settlers supported the proposed convict scheme, aware that the system would be financed from Imperial funds and would provide a ready market for local produce. However, they made it clear at a series of town meetings, including Bunbury, that only male convicts would be accepted, a decision based on the stories of the troubles experienced in New South Wales during the early years of transportation. The first shipload of 75 male convicts arrived at Fremantle on 1 June 1850, onboard the Scindian.

Once convicts acquired their Tickets of Leave they were permitted to seek employment with local employers, on condition that they regularly reported their whereabouts to Headquarters and sought permission before transferring out of their district. Any transgressions were dealt with by the local Resident Magistrate. In the early years a hiring depot operated from the Bunbury Convict Depot, but this proved inefficient because of the low numbers being sent to the Wellington District. By the mid-1850s the hiring of convicts was directed from Fremantle.

From 1851 small groups of convicts were sent down to the Wellington District to construct the convict infrastructure at Bunbury and undertake essential public works such as the construction of roads, jetties and bridges so desperately needed by the early settlers. They were sent out from the Bunbury Depot to camp for months in tents or brushwood huts, often with just one supervisor in charge, clearing trees and crushing stones for roadways. The work was arduous but relatively few escapes occurred, as most realised the difficulties they faced in attempting to leave the colony. The rations allocated to the men were of a reasonable standard, and at the end of their working day they were free to amuse themselves as best they could. Some would trap birds and animals to supplement their diets while others tamed them as pets. Travellers passing their camping grounds sometimes stopped to share a meal before going on their way.

Few details have been found regarding the Bunbury Convict Depot, which from 1851 was situated on a block of land between Stephen Street and Stirling Street, part of which is now occupied by the Bunbury Museum, facing Arthur Street. The following segment of a rare early map shows block 291, where the administration office stood, in a house previously owned by Mr Knight. As well as a jail, there was a small convict hospital on one section, with Thomas Bedingfield appointed as medical officer.

Part of an early map showing the Bunbury Convict Establishment (SROWA CONS 3850 15).

The hospital was later converted into a Girls’ School, conducted by Miss Eedle. An article published in 1939, entitled ‘Education in Bunbury’, gives us details of the Government buildings on the site:—

To Jas. Hislop must be given credit for starting the first school in Bunbury. In a w.b. building, built for the church on the present pro-Cathedral site, Hislop opened his school with a few scholars, and today there are men living who attended this school. The Educational Committee in Perth then decided to start a public school in the town, and selected the late G. R. Teede, who, at the time, was a junior master at the Bishop’s school in Perth. For a year or two the Church building was used, but on the decision to build the present building, the school was transferred to the site in Arthur-st. It is of interest to learn at that time there were three Government brick buildings on this site, one used and known as the Commissariat, another the military hospital and the other the jail, which faced the present railway bridge fronting the then lagoon. Mr. Teede, with his assistant, occupied the commissariat, and later as the school grew and a separate building was necessary for the girls, the hospital was taken, with a Miss Eedle, daughter of the chairman of the Wellington Roads Board, as head mistress. The hospital was transferred to the jail, the present jail buildings being used for the first time.[1]

The following letter, written anonymously in 1859 by a disgruntled resident of Busselton, describes some of the advancements made to the Bunbury townsite during the years after the arrival of convicts in the area, as compared to Busselton:—

Original Correspondence.

To the Editor of the “Perth Gazette.”

SIR, – I lately had two visitors from the North, and, on the eve of their departure, I said to one of them: “Sir, before you go, give me your candid opinion of the towns of Bunbury and Busselton.” “Well,” he replied, “I must say that Bunbury appears to have made a far greater progress than Busselton, but this may be superficial and due to extraneous causes, and not from any intrinsic energy, &c., on the part of its inhabitants.” I could not detain my visitor to reply, and as it is probable on his arrival home he has given his impressions of the Southward to his numerous friends, it will be necessary to disabuse their minds of the apparent shortcomings of the inhabitants of Busselton and the Vasse district.

During his visit he called my attention to the improved appearance of the approaches to the town of Bunbury. Sir, these roads were made by prison labour and Imperial funds, he must not imagine that the fine road from the Colley Bridge to Bunbury, was made by the settlers living on its line. It would be an interesting inquiry at the next meeting of Council to move for a return of men employed, duration of time, and the money spent upon the Australind road of some nine or ten miles during the last five years; the public mind would be astonished at the time and cost necessary to overcome the many engineering difficulties, especially in the neighbourhood of private residences. My visitor noticed the pretty and comfortable cottages in the suburbs of Bunbury and extending somewhat into the town, these are Pensioners cottages built by Government; he called my attention to the buildings and streets of Bunbury, with their raised side-walks, and to the fine straight street in course of formation to the north-west residences, all these, my observant Sir, are Government improvements; the streets of Bunbury would have remained as they were, a series of bogs and swamps, as far as the energy of its inhabitants was concerned; in short, my friend, take from Bunbury the pensioners’ cottages with their well-tilled gardens, take away the depot and warders quarters, push out of the landscape the convict hospital and the adjacent Commissariat buildings, remove, in imagination, the imposing court-house with the jail and handsome police quarters, crowned above on the brow of the hill by the Police and Commissariat stables and forage houses, and what remains of Bunbury?

Sir, I do not notice these things to the detriment of Bunbury, only that a comparison is not fair to the disparagement of Busselton and the Vasse; not only has there been a large outlay of convict labour and Government funds in the neighbourhood of Bunbury, but the salaries of the officers employed there during the period from ‘52 to ‘56, amounted to a very considerable sum, and since then to the present period has been a large amount, this alone would help that district to a great extent. At the Vasse, unaided as it has been, there is a very good and substantial stone church, but at Bunbury for this purpose there is a wooden building, but at the same time a handsome parsonage, the creature before the Creator.

Look again at the exports from the Vasse and Bunbury; it is true that efforts have been made at two different periods in the history of the Bunbury settlement to establish a timber trade, but both proved to be lamentable failures; on the contrary, view a similar trade from the Vasse steadily increasing from a few pairs of sawyers, to the constant employment of two steam sawmills, and a short time since, when a ship took a load of tuart from Bunbury, a Vasse man was contractor and shipper.

Mr. Editor, there are other defalcations than Establishment pecuniary ones, there are derelictions of public duty, and I contend that the authorities of this colony have been guilty in the highest degree in treating with such marked neglect the wants and requirements of this section of the country. A few months since, at the call of the Government, a public meeting of the inhabitants was held for the purpose of eliciting what works were most needed in the district, and I believe it was unanimously agreed that finishing the public road from the 24th mile to the town of Busselton and bridgeing the intervening rivers, was of the utmost importance; the winter has set in and no notice whatever has been taken of the request; it may be true that our veteran resident is somewhat remiss in not keeping the wants of this district more prominently before the Government, but we must equally give him credit, that, if he has neglected this, he has not been guilty of any venality in pressing public employment for the improvement of roads, &c, in the neighborhood of his own residence; and if the old Peninsula warrior is content to administer evenhanded justice in the wretched thatched hovel, called a court house, at Busselton, it reflects the more disgrace upon the Government that they treat him with so little respect. The Vasse district, in common with other parts of the colony, has a right to demand, not request, a fair share of convict labor and Imperial expenditure; and if the Governor was disgusted with his public reception there on a late horsedealing expedition, he should take measures to increase his popularity in that region, let him imitate the conduct of a late noble Governor in Canada, and let all parts of this colony alike feel the influence and benefit of his administration, and not localize all his smiles and favours for any particular district.

I am, Sir,

Your obedient servant,


Busselton, May 10, 1859.[2]

There were never enough convicts to carry out all the public works needed and to meet the labour requirements of local land-holders and business owners. Those who were available were often not physically or mentally suited for the tasks required of them.

Marshall Waller Clifton of Australind was one such employer, with the names of many convicts appearing in the pages of his journals. Their publication gives us a valuable insight into Clifton’s management of his convict workforce, not an easy task by any means.  Some remained in his employ for years and were supported in their efforts to take up land or start businesses of their own. Marriages were encouraged as the best way of maintaining a stable workforce, but females were in short supply in the colony.

Those who didn’t meet Clifton’s strict standards of behaviour were soon dismissed, although others were given more than one chance to redeem themselves after they misbehaved. Many of Clifton’s employees led lonely lives on out-stations, in charge of livestock. Permission to visit Bunbury was given on rare occasions and understandably this sometimes led to workers going on drinking binges and failing to return to their workplace as agreed. More serious events were recorded by Clifton when arguments broke out between the men, sometimes over females employed as housemaids by Mrs Clifton. Clifton wielded a high degree of authority over their lives, sitting as a Magistrate on the Bench of the local Court alongside his son-in-law George Eliot, Resident Magistrate for the Wellington District. Eliot was paid an extra allowance as the Visiting Magistrate to the Convict Depot. Waller Clifton’s son Charles at one stage was appointed as Assistant Superintendent of the Ticket of Leave Hiring Depot in Bunbury, serving under Superintendent Denzil Onslow.[3]

Official returns in 1864 compared the distribution of all the convicts in the colony in the years 1862 and 1864. On the 28th February 1862 there was a grand total of 944 convicts, and on the 13th June 1864, there were 1595 convicts. The number of ticket-of-leave holders earning their own livelihood on the 30th June 1862 was a surprising 1,085. On the 13th June 1864 there were 1,202.

Included was a breakdown of convict numbers in each District:-



Bunbury Depot. 0, 41

Blackwood Party.0, 10
Harvey Road Party. 0, 17

Ferguson Bridge. 0, 9

Total Wellington Dist. 9, 77

On the 28th February, 1862, 1 horse and 1 cart were employed at the Bunbury Depot
and on the 13th June, 1864, 1 horse and cart at ditto.

A brief notice in 1867 announced the arrival of a group of prisoners in Bunbury-

The Flying Foam arrived on the 30th ult. with a reinforcement of sixteen prisoners — another substantial proof that we are indebted to His Excellency for a liberal distribution of convict labour, to which may be attributable in a great measure, the progress of this district; the country having been opened up with good roads and bridges, making many routes now easy to travel which in days gone by would not have been attempted. We are also much indebted to our Resident Magistrate’s energetic supervision of the convict out-stations, the labour of the different parties having been directed to the utmost advantage. 1st April, 1867.[5]

The convict system which operated in Western Australia was generally more lenient than that which had operated in New South Wales and Tasmania. Men were mostly given their Tickets of Leave soon after arrival, and provided that they behaved themselves, were able to establish a foothold in the Colony. Employment was available and land was cheap for those prepared to work hard and avoid trouble. Many, however, succumbed to the temptation of alcohol as a way of coping with the trauma of being far from home and family. They led lonely lives, dying in huts out in the bush, or in the Old Men’s Home in Perth. Those who married usually did better than those who remained single, but there was a shortage of women in the Colony. Convicts, once they received their Conditional Pardons, often became employers themselves, able to employ ticket-of -leave men in their own right.

Many were keen to leave WA, determined to head for the Eastern Colonies as soon as they were able. This situation became unacceptable to those Colonies, which were determined to put their convict past behind them. Strict checks to curb the flood of convict migration from the West were put in place, especially by South Australia, determined to preserve its convict-free status.

Dependent on Imperial expenditure, Western Australia was reluctant to cease the convict trade, but due to pressure from the other Colonies, and the realisation back in England of the need to deal with its own law-breakers, the exportation of convicts came to an end in 1868.

Between 1850 and 1868, just under 10 000 convicts were sent to Western Australia.


[1] South Western Times, 23 June 1939.

[2] Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 27 May 1859.

[3] Anthony J. Barker & Maxine Laurie, Excellent Connections, Bunbury 1836-1990, South West Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd, Bunbury, W.A., p.70.

[4] Perth Gazette, 1 July 1864.

[5] Inquirer and Commercial News, 10 April 1867.