Last Convicts Land in Western Australia

Although the colonies in the eastern part of Australia had banned the importation of convicts, Western Australian officials requested that transportation be revived to provide labor for their struggling colony’s development. Nearly ten thousand felons arrived on the western shore from 1852 until the penal system officially ended in 1868.

Summary of Event

The British Transportation Act of 1718 Transportation Act of 1718 provided for the seven-year expulsion of criminals from Great Britain to its colonies in North America. The act had not been fully realized in Great Britain’s Australian colonies until the first fleet, carrying one thousand passengers, sailed in 1787. One year later, on January 20, 1788, 780 convicts, both men and women, along with their jailers, stepped off two warships to establish a prison on the site of what is now Sydney. Australia;convict immigrants
Transportation of convicts
British Empire;and Australia[Australia]
[kw]Last Convicts Land in Western Australia (1868)
[kw]Convicts Land in Western Australia, Last (1868)
[kw]Land in Western Australia, Last Convicts (1868)
[kw]Western Australia, Last Convicts Land in (1868)
[kw]Australia, Last Convicts Land in Western (1868)
Australia;convict immigrants
Transportation of convicts
British Empire;and Australia[Australia]
[g]Australia;1868: Last Convicts Land in Western Australia[4130]
[g]British Empire;1868: Last Convicts Land in Western Australia[4130]
[c]Colonization;1868: Last Convicts Land in Western Australia[4130]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1868: Last Convicts Land in Western Australia[4130]
Stirling, James
Peel, Thomas
Levey, Solomon
Fremantle, Charles Howe
West, John

The original colony, New South Wales New South Wales;convict settlers , which then encompassed the eastern part of the continent, took in eighty thousand convicts. The remaining seventy thousand were taken to Van Dieman’s Land, an island colony that was renamed Tasmania Tasmania;convict immigrants in 1855. New South Wales stopped receiving convicts in 1840, and in 1852, Van Dieman’s Land no longer admitted England’s unwanted felons.

Just as transportation ceased in the flourishing eastern colonies, the settlers three thousand miles to the west saw the practice as a means of salvation for their floundering colony. For the next sixteen years, Western Australia, which covers approximately one-third of the continent, took in 9,668 able-bodied male convicts. They went to work building their own jails, even though the superintendent of convicts described Western Australia as “a vast natural prison.” The port town of Fremantle Fremantle, Charles Howe , facing the Indian Ocean and situated on the Swan River, served as the headquarters for the penal system. The workers spread through the colony, mainly along the coast, to work on the ranches and to build infrastructure such as bridges, roads, and public buildings.

In spite of the enthusiasm of Western Australian settlers for free labor, those in the eastern colonies objected to the continued importation of felons for that labor. The protests, along with economic factors, eventually stopped transportation to Western Australia and put an end to the brutal system in 1868.

That Western Australia in desperation continued to foster a system that was no longer acceptable remains consistent with the colony’s early history. Its founding in 1829 had been fueled more by colonial fantasy and personal ambition than by practicality, which made it a financial burden both to Great Britain and to the other Australian colonies. When an adventurous British sea captain, James Stirling, Stirling, James stopped off briefly at the mouth of the Swan River in 1827, he considered the region promising and set out to promote a privately financed settlement there, which he would head as lieutenant-governor. His first patron, English landowner Thomas Peel Peel, Thomas , nurtured aspirations as an empire builder but lacked the necessary capital to fund his ambitions. Stirling’s second backer, Solomon Levey Levey, Solomon , had the money but the wrong connections. Not only was he Jewish—a Jews;in Australia[Australia] concern for many at the time—but also a former convict who had made a fortune in Sydney after his release. Living in London, he joined the enterprise as a silent partner.

The Parmelia sailed into the mouth of the Swan River in 1829 carrying an assemblage of free men and women who had been promised a paradise. Instead, they soon discovered they had been led into a wilderness that had not been surveyed or mapped. Even nature seemed incongruous to the newcomers, for the swans from which the river took its name were black with red bills. Either unproductive or covered with growth that defied clearing, the land resisted cultivation. In spite of Stirling’s Stirling, James assurances that all would be well, desolation and misery mounted. Through importing basic supplies from South Africa and Van Dieman’s Land, the colonists survived, and by 1850, Western Australia had a population of 5,886, all of whom would have gladly left the colony immediately according to a report the governor sent to London.

Australia at the End of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 1

Australia at the End of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 2

Finally, some of the frantic colonists requested that Western Australia be turned into a penal settlement in order to provide free labor to rescue the region from its hopeless state. This petition pleased London authorities who had been rebuffed by the eastern colonies, especially by the efforts of the Anti-Transportation League. Believing that the voluntary reception of convicts in the west would weaken the league and restore the transportation system to its former scale, the British began dispatching shiploads of men to Western Australia. The region’s remoteness and instability offered nothing but misery, isolation, hard work, and deprivation to the hapless felons.

The Anti-Transportation League, founded by John West West, John , a Congregational minister, had played an important role in ending transportation to New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land. The league’s arguments did not focus on the system’s inhumanity but stressed the moral pollution—or “the stain,” as it was called—that the criminal class spread among the colonies full of decent folk. Never mind that many of the folk who protested the system were direct descendants of convicts. Yet the league found its arguments ignored by the same Western Australians who embraced the labor but ignored “the stain.”


Historians acknowledge that importing convicts into the free settlement of Western Australia, which had started out with such grandiose plans, saved the colony from falling into oblivion. Through the infusion of nearly ten thousand laborers, the coastal region at last became productive. Most of the interior remains uninhabited and undeveloped into the twenty-first century.

While leaders of the Anti-Transportation League continued to preach against the penal system, their efforts actually played a minor part in ending convict importation. The decision makers in London concluded that the system was no longer practical from a financial standpoint. Because Western Australians did not have the funds to pay for much-needed laborers, the burden fell on the British government. Expenditures for transporting felons were ten times greater than the cost for imprisoning them in Great Britain.

After 1868, Reverend West West, John and his associates turned their attention toward building a nation that would be loyal to the Crown. The defunct Anti-Transportation League would serve as a forerunner to the federation movement, which in 1901 united the scattered Australian colonies into a single entity.

Even though the penal system had been abolished, the convicts remained. The “old lags,” as they were called in the Australian vernacular, met various fates. Many integrated into the communities, marrying, having children, and contributing to society. Others ended up in prison again or in mental institutions, often suffering illnesses such as acute alcoholism. Some vanished into the bush and joined the roving gangs of bushrangers who robbed and plagued settlers. A fortunate few made their way back to England.

For generations, the convicts, whom Australian novelist Kylie Tennant Tennant, Kylie (1912-1988) aptly called “the reluctant pioneers,” were denigrated, along with their offspring; no one would admit to having a convict ancestor. In later years this shame changed radically to a sort of pride. Contemporary Australians proudly claim their convict heritage, going to great lengths to prove that they are descendants of the once-invisible victims of a cruel system that played so significant a role in founding the nation.

Further Reading

  • Bosworth, Michal. Convict Fremantle: A Place of Promise and Punishment. Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2004. Re-creates the old city and describes significant structures from the convict era to recapture life in the penal colony. An engaging and informative book. Illustrations.
  • Erickson, Rica, and Gillian O’Mara, comps. Dictionary of Western Australians: Convicts in Western Australia 1850-1887. Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 1999. Lists the convicts who came to Western Australia and provides information on their lives in the colony.
  • Fremantle Prison. Accessed February 3, 2006. An excellent permanent Web site that offers a comprehensive history of the penal colony in Western Australia, personal information on the convicts and jailers, genealogical charts, and details about daily life. Includes illustrations and sketches.
  • Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. 1987. Reprint. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. A classic work that provides the most thorough account of the penal system in Australia. A standard and important work that is notable for its readability.
  • Laugeson, Amanda. Convict Words. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Illuminates the British penal settlements in Australia through analyzing the language the convicts used, especially the slang and argot that developed.
  • Macintyre, Stuart. A Concise History of Australia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Includes a succinct account of the penal system and its role in colonization, which Stuart sees as a form of invasion.
  • O’Reilly, John Boyle. Moondyne. 1879. Reprint. Sydney: University of Sydney Press, 2000. O’Reilly’s novel, based on his experiences as a convict in Western Australia, provides a rare, personal account of life in the penal colony. An Irish activist and political prisoner, O’Reilly escaped imprisonment and settled in Boston in the United States.

Flinders Explores Australia

Great Britain Begins Colonizing Tasmania

Melbourne, Australia, Is Founded

Gold Is Discovered in New South Wales

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Transportation of convicts
British Empire;and Australia[Australia]