Swan River Colony

Although Sydney was settled in 1788, the Swan River Colony was not established until 1829 by the British. The founding father of modern Western Australia was Captain James Stirling who, in 1827, explored the Swan River area in HMS "Success". Captain Charles Fremantle declared the Swan River Colony on 2 May 1829. The first fleet of settlers arrived in June 1829, disembarking with their possessions on the sandy beaches north of the Swan River. The official foundation ceremony for Perth took place on 12 August 1829 with the chopping down of a tree by Helen Dance, the wife of Captain William Dance of the "Sulphur".

The "Success" was run aground and damaged in 1830 and repaired with jarrah felled from what is now Kings Park. In January 1831, "Success" sailed for England via India, with a letter from Stirling praising jarrah. Inspection of the ship revealed the jarrah repair had not deteriorated even though green wood was used. The Admiralty ordered a consignment of jarrah and so the demand for the timber began. Jarrah was originally called "Swan River mahogany" as it was a good substitute for the Central American hardwood that was used in shipbuilding.

The first reports of the new colony to England in January 1830 described the poor conditions and the land as being totally unfit for agriculture. They said that the settlers were in a state of near starvation. Regardless, a few more settlers and additional stores were dispatched. By 1832 the settler population of the colony had reached about 1,500. In 1833, the first dirt track between Perth and Fremantle was cut through the bush. The difficulty of clearing land to grow crops were so great that by 1850 the population had only increased to just under 6000.

In 1832 the Swan River Colony was renamed the Colony of Western Australia , however, the name "Swan River Colony" remained in informal use for many years afterwards.

After 15 years of meagre growth WA chose to change from being a free colony to a penal colony. The traditional reason why is the local settlers needed cheap labour to help develop the region, but it would also bring Imperial funds to run the penal system. The decision came when the eastern states were shutting down their penal settlements, so the offer was gladly accepted by Britain. The provisos were that serious criminals were not accepted, and they should be preferably be young, from rural backgrounds and with skills suitable for the Colony. Women were not accepted, and the convicts could never return to Britain. Around 9,720 British convicts, along with thousands of warders, administrators, Pensioner Guards and all their families were sent to the Swan River colony in 43 ships between 1850-1868. Western Australia would be the last British convict colony.

Most convicts in WA spent very little time in prison - they were initially set to work on public works, quarrying, burning lime or building roads in the Fremantle and Perth area. Later, they could be stationed at remote areas, working in road gangs (in 1870 it was estimated convicts built approximately 1770km of roads) or work partys. Perth's early buildings had been rudimentary and simple, but with the arrival of convict labour, new buildings of colonial authority were erected. Convicts built the Perth Gaol (now part of the museum), Perth Town Hall and Government House (both still in use today) as well as the Canning River Convict Fence (see Mason & Bird Heritage Trail for more info). In Fremantle, they built the Fremantle Prison and Warders quarters (currently the best preserved convict-built prison in the country) and the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum (now Fremantle Arts Centre). Well behaved convicts obtained a ticket of leave meaning they could work for money, or even start a business. Eventually, most were granted a conditional pardon and their freedom. A Conditional Pardon would ultimately mean freedom, with the right to leave the Colony (but not to return to Britain). However, misconduct would see the convict slide down the scale, with ticket of leave men being returned to Fremantle as a convict. Escapists and serial offenders were subject to corporal punishment, solitary confinement on bread and water and hard labour on road gangs, while the most severe crimes resulted in hanging.

The convict's uniform reflected their status in colour - the chain gangers wore leg iron twenty four hours a day and their uniforms were mustard and black. Uniforms were marked with broad arrows indicating they were the property of the British government, and were made in London prisons. Only five original Western Australian convict uniforms are known to be in existence. See a replica convict uniform in Bunbury museum in the photos.

The last ship of convicts arrived in 1868, as transportation was stopped because the colonists were worried that too many criminals were in the Colony - half the Colony was convicts or ex convicts. By 1886, less than fifty convicts were still imprisoned and Fremantle Prison was the Swan River colony's primary place of incarceration. The gold rush of the 1890's soon provided the influx of men that the Colony needed. The latter half of the nineteenth century, and in particular the last two decades, saw Perth begin to grow for the first time in a significant way.

This page is the property of Follow My Ride, a website detailing off road cycle tracks near Perth and in Western Australia.