A History of Fremantle, between 1850 and 1860, with particular reference to convicts.
Chapter 4. “Building An Establishment”
Governors Fitzgerald and Kennedy had much in common, in that they were both the sole commanders of the small colony; their difference lies in their respective treatment of the convicts, mainly in disciplinary matters. This illustrates the power of the Governor in commanding the policy, and it shows how a man lacking in foresight can particularly ruin the work of a broad-minded man. Here the reasons why the convict establishment at Fremantle did not progress as rapidly as possible are dealt with. A rumour developed during the period which worried all from the farmer to the Governor. This is discussed later in the chapter.
In June 1855, Governor Fitzgerald vacated office and Mr. Arthur Kennedy succeeded him. Immediately the discipline changed. Convicts were not given the freedom they had previously experienced. Mr. Kennedy had tried to put Western Australia on the same lines as the other colonies, as regards convict discipline. Governor Kennedy became the governor in the middle of a crisis among the convicts. The Roman Catholic prisoners, mainly the Irish ones, were pressing the authorities to give certain privileges to them. Towards the end of 1853, the Roman Catholic prisoners out numbered the Protestant prisoners in the colony. The Bishop of Perth, Bishop Serra, asked that a convict chaplain be approved and appointed to cope with these Catholic prisoners.
A little later in the year Governor Kennedy asked Earl Grey whether Roman Catholic prisoners should receive three days holidays to celebrate feast days which were traditional holidays in Ireland. Kennedy pointed out that jealousy could result if these holidays were given. The Duke of Newcastle who was the Colonial Secretary, replied that the Roman Catholic prisoners were not to receive the holiday. Captain Henderson expressed the wish that no more Roman Catholic prisoners be sent out because he considered the cost of hiring a priest too high, and he considered having a priest the only way of appealing to them, and their better natures. In a reply to this request, however, Newcastle stated that no more Irish prisoners would be sent to Western Australia. Because of their fiery nature, Captain Henderson would not send the Roman Catholic prisoners to the depots.
By mid 1851, a site had been established for building an establishment. The building was to cost some £27,000 and it was to be built of limestone, quarried from around Fremantle. This was an aim which could not be achieved very rapidly. To build a gaol such as the one proposed would take a considerable period of time, and would require man men working on it. There existed the more immediate goal, however, the need to house the convicts while the new establishment was being completed. Repairs and the changing of Captain Scott's Esplanade Hotel into a gaol kept many men busy, who could have otherwise been employed on the main establishment. The needs of the colonists had to be satisfied as regards the labour problem. These two factors kept the new establishment with a few workers to build it. Consequently the progress of the building was very slow. An immediate need for speeding up the progress was wounded when the hospital surgeon reported that his hospital was inadequate for its purpose of caring for the sick prisoners. Apart from this, the general health of the Fremantle community was reasonably good. From time to time few fevers hit the township, and this was attributed to the drinking water. The surgeon reported on the health of the convicts.
“On the whole, the general health of the prisoners is good, the prevailing sickness has been of an exceedingly mild character.”
Later in 1855 when the hospital at the new establishment was completed, the conditions for patients improved considerably. It was later reported that the Establishment would be open for use in June 1855. The Establishment was not begun till towards the end of 1851, and semi-completed in mid-1855. Considering the handicaps, mainly a lack of labour, it was not a bad effort to complete it in this time. The Establishment was finally completed in 1858, although extensions to the hospital continued until 1860. The year 1856 was a set back to the work when a willy-willy blew down a large section of one of the walls.
Compared with life in the English prisons at the time, the Western Australian system was very good to prisoners. In fact, the majority considered transportation to Western Australia a good thing. The food was not too bad in the Fremantle Establishment, and depots. Up till 1853 the prisoners had to eat the “left-overs” from the ships which came in. They ate these to supplement their other rations. Throughout the period the rations were fairly liberal. Later when the Establishment was moving more smoothly gardens were set up and fresh vegetables were readily available. Conditions were good as regards clothes. Clean clothes were supplied weekly; not a bad period when English conditions are considered. Hot water was supplied in winter, while in the summer time, bathing was carried on in the sea. Shaving was regular – Wednesday's and Saturday's.
A persistent rumour began to appear in Fremantle in the 1853-54 period. Many people said that the worst type of convict was to be sent to Western Australia from the other states. The convict system was just about to end in Tasmania and men feared the introduction of these harsher types. This rumour worried even the Governor, until the Duke of Newcastle informed him that the rumour was unfounded. The people of Fremantle began to feel that their town was more prosperous and playing a more significant part in the development of Western Australia than was the present capital and seat of government, Perth. So in 1854, the citizens of Fremantle decided to petition to Lord John Russell to make Fremantle the new seat of government. The petition was unsuccessful, but it does give an indication as to how important the feeling of pride was in the Fremantle community at this time.
So by 1855 Governor Fitzgerald's term of office ended and he was succeeded by Kennedy. The establishment had been started and was partially completed. Conditions now were better than ever for the convicts, but a harsh ruler was here. Most important as regards Fremantle was the feeling of pride which the town had developed. This was a far cry from the soul-sickening 1830's.