A History of Fremantle, between 1850 and 1860, with particular reference to convicts.
Chapter 2. “Speculation and an Establishment”
When the convicts did arrive what was to be done with them? They were left almost on the beaches as were the early settlers, without a roof over their heads. Captain Scott came to the rescue and the first reports about the establishment are told in this chapter. The question of how it was conceived the convicts would and did effect the morals of the community, but in particular the morals of the town of Fremantle, is also discussed.
On the 1st of June 1851, just twenty-one years after the settlement had been founded, Western Australia received her first consignment of convicts. Captain Henderson was aboard the “Scindian” during the voyage. Throughout the eighteen years of convictism in Western Australia, Captain Henderson settled as the Comptroller-General of Convicts. He was one of the outstanding figures during the convict system in Western Australia. With a usual lack of efficiency, the colonists neglected to provide a place for the convicts to stay. The old roundhouse in Fremantle, which had been built some years earlier to house the people convicted in the colony, proved far too small for such a large number. Finally Captain Dan Scott's hotel, not greatly removed from the jetty where the ships berthed, was hired at a cost of £250 per annum. A short time after this Fitzgerald reported to Earl Grey that the hotel was capable of housing 600 men.
Western Australia had the message some six months earlier that two ships, the “Scindian” and “Hatchway” were sailing with 150 convicts and yet with another 30 guards they still failed to do anything about the situation.
Immediately the convicts arrived reports on their conduct became the outstanding topic of conversation. From the very beginning the authorities had little or no trouble controlling the convicts. In a reply to favourable dispatches from the Western Australian Authorities, Earl Grey had this to say:-
“It is satisfactory to hear that the conduct of the convicts has been very good both during their voyage and since their disembarkation”
One factor had a great influence upon this. Many of the convicts were young and not hardened criminals. They had been convicted in many cases for “crimes” which we today would consider too paltry to worry about, but the British Government of the time did worry, so many of these young men were convicted and transported. An outstanding feature of the system from its commencement was the lack of severe discipline. Fitzgerald points out to the Duke of Newcastle in a dispatch that there were two reasons for good behavior among the convicts. First the amount of liberty given to ticket-of-leave men, would be highly desired. Secondly the firmness with which the law deals with crime. These were considered two of the main inducers for good conduct but there were several others. The death rate on ships to Tasmania and the eastern colonies was much higher than on ships going to Western Australia, giving an indication that living conditions and consequently discipline were more humane on ships to Western Australia than to other parts of Australia. A feature of the system was that during the first half of the year only two men out of a total of ninety-five holding tickets-of-leave went up before a magistrate. This gives an indication that at the start of the system, at least, the ticket-of-leave man had a chance to live an honest live. Later on he became, on many instances, a scapegoat for a free man's offense.
A public meeting held in Perth on the 10th of June 1850 passed the resolution that if more convicts were to be sent to Western Australia then more protection was needed for the citizens. In the colony at this time men were still doubtful as to the value of the convict system. Some fancied that the morals of the community would collapse if the system continued. Possibly a result of this meeting was the decision to send the main section of the 99th regiment from Perth to Fremantle. Fremantle being the area to where the new arrivals had come and also the area where they were sorted out before being sent to various parts of the state for service, was considered to be the danger point as regards convict. The 99th Regiment consisted of 93 individuals of these 36 were sent to various parts of the state. The remainder, fifty-seven, were stationed at Perth and Fremantle, the latter being the greatest danger point received the majority of the guards.
Naturally the premises of Captain Scott could not be used indefinitely as a goal for the convicts. As the numbers grew and began to swell with more ships arriving the prospect of deciding upon a suitable suite became more critical. Governor Fitzgerald was able to report that a site for a gaol had been selected when he reported on the 23rd August, 1851. Fitzgerald said that the prison would be built to accommodate 882 prisoners but in the case of an emergency they could house 1000. The estimate cost of the prison was worked out exactly to £27,278.3.1½. The site was to be on a limestone hill overlooking Fremantle. It was to be built of limestone, quarried from nearby deposits. The buildings, with a few alterations, is essentially the same as it stands today. Obviously the Governor knew that to build such an establishment would take a lengthy period of time, as he continued to make alterations to the temporary establishment of Captain Scott. Fitzgerald reported to Grey in a dispatch that the temporary establishment was now capable of housing 600 men. This work naturally held up any immediate work of, say, simply clearing the land for the new establishment. Most of the convict force was working on the provincial establishment at Fremantle. A little later a tramline was built from the gaol site to Fremantle to assist in the transport of limestone up the hill to the prison.
Fremantle, being the principle port of the settlement and consequently the place to where convicts would first be deposited, would feel any “convict wave” more quickly than any other part of the state. This fact showed up when Fremantle showed signs of lifting from lethargy which had kept her stagnant for the past few years at least, to a thriving prosperous community. A “wave” did start. It proved to be a wave of prosperity which began in the Fremantle area, for that was where the money was being spent, and gradually drifted out to the other centres as convicts moved away from the centre of the system, Fremantle. The value of prosperity was Governor Fitzgerald's chief concern when he wrote the following to Earl Grey:-
“increased value of every kind of property, more especially at Fremantle since this has been made a penal settlement”.Property was not the only thing to rise. In Fremantle the wages, much to the delight of the workers, rose in a short time. Captain Henderson points this out. He said that wages were higher in Fremantle than in any other part of the country. Thus most people wanted to live in Fremantle. Governor Fitzgerald pointed out that there was a shortage of housing in both Perth and Fremantle. This was a healthy sign for both the towns mentioned but not very hopeful for country areas. They had to wait a time until this “convict wave” would effect them just as it had so profitably effected the town of Fremantle. Governor Fitzgerald in the following statement discusses the other towns in the colony as compared with Fremantle. In this description he also throws some light onto the type of town Fremantle was turning into.
“I would observe that our towns (with the exception of Fremantle) are more properly rural villages. Fremantle has a great number of sailors from every port in the world, therefore ticket-of-leave men could not work there”.From this report it seems fairly obvious that quite a degree of vice was creeping into Fremantle. The prospect of Fremantle becoming one of the world's ports did not offer a very happy prospect for its morals. Thus it was not the convicts who were directly endangering the morals of the community, but the sailors and others who came in and then drifted again. It is interesting to note that the principle vice in Fremantle was still drunkedness. Captain Henderson states this in his half-yearly report for the first half of 1952. He stated that drunkedness was very prevalent, without it there would be little vice at all. To illustrate how the convicts influenced the prosperity of the colony an extract from a letter to the Bishop of Adelaide to Captain Henderson is quoted.
“Fremantle has already sprung up into a neat and thriving town, and throughout the colony, where ever convicts have been place signs of industry and prosperity are apparent.”Even though these signs of prosperity showed that Western Australia had generally taken the first step to becoming prosperous there was still a long way to go. Earl Grey illustrates this when he asks Western Australia to produce more food in the way of cereals. Men were, in some cases, content to sit back and demand a high price for what was produced. They did not make any effort to increase the production to meet the needs of a growing population. These men practiced the idea of selling scarce foods for a high price.
By the end of 1850 the convicts had been firmly planted in Fremantle. They had shown that with only six months behind them the colony that they could help Western Australia to recover from its lethargic state. The year 1851 broke full of promise.