The introduction of Convicts in 1850 evoked great change throughout Western Australia

...allowing the once struggling colony to prosper.

An Ordinance to provide for the due custody and discipline of Offenders transported to Western Australia.The first 20 years were indeed some of the toughest for the Swan River colony, with the whole project almost on the verge of collapse. However, the future of this establishment would certainly be brighter from the introduction of convicts in 1850; encouraging great change throughout WA and allowing the once struggling colony to prosper. The face of Western Australia was transformed as a result, with the convicts evoking change socially, economically and politically. The changes which saw the greatest impact on the colonies development were almost all economical, with a large population growth increasing demand for goods and services, the injection of capital by the British Government and of course the use of these convicts for labour. However such positive changes were not seen amongst the everyday population, with a strengthened class divide and society developing into one of fear, not to mention to the further degradation of the Aboriginal population. Politics, too, saw its ups and downs, with the Catholic Church strengthening its influence and the criticized Governor Hampton taking power. But nonetheless, whether substantially positive or negative, through the use of both primary and secondary sources, it is possible to identify that all of these changes in fact allowed the colony to better in some way. 

What needed bettering was the result of a disastrous attempt at settlement in 1829; reports from angry settlers going against the claim of a land of “milk and honey” flooded back to England, inevitably causing the colonies development to stagnate1 . Land shortages, infertile soil, lack of fresh water, lack of immigrants, lack of money, the expensiveness of labour and lack of government support were all major problems faced by the settlers throughout the 1830’s. These problems continued to haunt the settlers into the 1840’s, however even where things did improve, such as farming, it was still drastically held back by the colony’s severely restricted market2 . Great change needed to occur for the colony to efficiently survive, let alone prosper. However, as to what form this needed change would take would eventually split society’s views and opinions into two.

A heated debate over the convict issue would soon ensue between the rich and powerful and the everyday citizens; further strengthening the divide between the two classes. Initially it was the successful farmers of York in 1847 that came up with the idea of using convict labour, and soon found themselves with support from leading businessmen and then even the Governor, Captain Fitzgerald3 . While these individuals only recognized the economic benefits of such decision, the everyday citizens were generally opposed to the idea, concerned of the negative effects which would sweep through society such as crime and a large gender imbalance. The Perth Gazette printed such views on behalf of the citizens who opposed, at one point in time publicly posing the question Are our 5000 inhabitants so sunk in listlessness…that they are ready quietly to look on while the Home Government pours out upon their coasts the outcasts, the very dregs of the British Isles?4 The opposing views of these two classes were clashing, and in the end those of the rich and powerful minority prevailed. The attitudes of the working class towards its leaders were now changing to a more negative status, clearly evident from the fact that from the 1st of June 1850, when convicts arrived, until the 1870’s, the settlers refused to celebrate their own colony’s anniversary5 . But nonetheless, if instead the views of the working class were to prevail, it would have withheld the colony’s great economic success that was soon to follow, and possibly could have disallowed it to ever prosper.

The convict agreement between WA and Britain led to over 10,000 male convicts, and nearly 2000 servant girls, arriving in WA between 1850 and 18686 ; a huge population boost for the colony previously struggling with a shortage of immigrants. In addition to this, the British Government set aside an annual sum of money to help promote (free) immigration to the colony, in order to try and ensure no gender imbalance would occur7 . Also by doing this, the image of WA previously hindered by James Stirling’s disastrous attempt at settlement was now being reconstructed. As a result of both convictism and promotion, the colony’s population jumped from 5886 in 1850 to a large 22,915 in 18698 . This opened up avenues of economic opportunities, in particular with those involved with goods and services. Farmers now had an unrestricted market to produce food for, and between 1850 and 1869, farming land doubled and the number of sheep increased fivefold9 . As a whole, this goods and services boom can be statistically backed up, as between 1850 and 1860, the Gross State Product of the Swan River colony grew four times larger10 . The introduction of convicts and the population boom that followed was a great change for the once small and struggling colony; this new unrestricted market that developed now made many previously marginal industries viable to those in business, which encouraged economic expansion finally allowing the colony to prosper.

Something else which significantly aided the colony’s economic expansion was the injection of money capital by the British Government. As a result of WA accepting convicts, the British Government agreed to bear all expenses in relation to their care11 . This included paying the salaries of the warders and other prison officials, and also providing two-thirds of the cost of operating the significantly increased police force12 . With this injection of money capital, the colony now had the opportunity to invest money into new industries, in particular those that exploited the State’s natural resources13 . It was around this time that the timber industry began to develop, with the States largest timber operation, Jarrahdale Timber Mill, being commissioned in 1872. The timber from this mill was a great benefit for the entire colony; it was spread throughout the state and even made its way to export where it was used for paving on the streets of London and Glasgow14 . Much technological advancement also resulted from it; the Jarrahdale-Rockingham railway line was constructed to transport the timber and machinery never before seen in WA, such as the Thompson Road Steamer, was imported to aid in the mills operations15 . The Timber industry provided much needed revenue for the colony, and amazingly still remains a strong aspect of WA to this day. The injection of money capital brought by the convicts had such an impact that two new banks were constructed to help sustain it16 ; it allowed the government to increase its revenue by tapping into previously unviable resources, which inevitably set the colony up for a prosperous future. 

It was this boost in revenue from both population growth and injection of money capital that allowed public expenditure on works, roads and buildings to increase17 ; which were of course fuelled by convict labour. It was the convicts who initially built the infrastructure that actually allowed the colony to expand; they built buildings such as Government House and Fremantle prison, which both still serve society in some way to this day. They are also credited for making the main towns of Perth, Fremantle and Albany much more comfortable places, in terms of infrastructure, to live18 . Initially they were assigned to public works such as those previously mentioned, however afterwards, if they were not disorderly, they were able to obtain a ticket-of-leave and then seek employment amongst the free settlers. It was this aspect of the deal that had detrimental effects on the free settler’s population, leading to unemployment or at best, a cut of up to 60% of wages19 . By law, masters in the colony could employ and pay convicts at drastically lower rates compared to those of free settlers, and it was this option that many began to favour. This disgusted many free settlers who, despite the dramatic growth of the colony, eventually decided to immigrate to eastern gold-rich colonies20 . As you can see, this aspect of convictism in WA brought a double-edged sword; on one side was the fact that convicts built necessary infrastructure and did jobs throughout WA that was almost impossible for ordinary free settlers to do due to high labour costs, however on the other side of this was the fact that this was often done at the expense of the honest, hardworking free settlers. But nonetheless, it was this cheap labour provided by the convicts that played a key role in allowing the colony to prosper.

Unfortunately loss of jobs to convicts wasn’t the only problem the free settlers had to deal with, they also had to live with the fact that these “hardened criminals” were also now apart of their own society. As a result of this, within a year of convict arrival WA society was transformed into one of fear; people were reluctant to leave their homes at which they installed strengthened doors and locks, restrictions were placed on personal movement (especially with woman and children) and guards were posted around towns to protect civilians from escapees 21. The extent to which this sense of nervousness and distress prevailed is clearly evident in the fact that soon after convicts arrived, the carrying of weapons, in particular firearms, amongst free settlers skyrocketed22 . And so did the crimes, between 1861 and 1870, 72% of court cases heard by the Supreme Court were those of convicts. “…a feeling akin to fear crept over us…” the Perth Gazette reported in 186723 . By 1851 society was now engulfed by convicts, with one in three men being a ticket-leaver. People were now forced to become suspicious of each other, which inevitably squeezed out many traditional values and attitudes that Australia became famous for. These could include the value of mateship; the idea of equality within each class was definitely thrown out the window, and a man now had to think twice, or three times, about helping a stranger out. The introduction of convicts definitely turned society on its toes; however such a challenge was clearly necessary for the great economic benefits of convictism to transpire as their benefits were needed in and out of government hands. It was the surpassing of this challenge which allowed this once struggling colony to prosper.


One non-government organization whose growth, and influence, was significantly aided by convictism was the Catholic Church. For the first time it became a powerful pressure group in society, with its membership growing substantially around convict times. This sudden growth could be due to the fact that every convict who acquired a ticket-of-leave was forced to attend Church24 , and/or could also have been aided by the sudden sense of fear that spread throughout everyday society. But whatever the cause, this development, like that of convict labour, brought a clear double-edged sword for the colony. On one hand, the good values and attitudes that the church still teaches to this day would have been of great benefit to the colony, especially in rehabilitating the convicts; however on the other hand the power that the church had now obtained allowed it to easily challenge the ideals of those politically in power. In addition to this, a sense of sectarianism began to develop too. In 1854, the Perth Gazette reported on one Roman Catholic prison chaplain lashing out at a Protestant chaplain labelling him as “an agent of the devil”, and his congregation as “infidels who would be eternally damned”25 . Convictism had brought with it a new power with added social tension, but in spite of this tension the church promoted positive change within society, which inevitably allowed the colony to prosper in a positive way.

Another figure which came to power during convictism was Governor John Hampton, who replaced Governor Kennedy in 1862. Hampton had been Comptroller-General of convicts in Tasmania, and came to WA on a mission to impose his ideas on the colony’s prison system. Under Hampton’s influence, discipline was tightened considerably, with lashings being handed out to convicts more often than ever. During his six year term in office, a large 6559 lashes were received by only 96 convicts. In addition to this, use of indefinite solitary confinement increased, a diet of bread and water became more common as did extra assignment to hard labour in chain gangs. Hampton was revolutionizing Western Australia’s prison system, and the reaction from critics can be assessed from the following report sent to the Howard Association in London in 1867…
“The Governor is trying these unfortunate men to desperation so that their time can be lengthened for any offence they commit…Prisoners’ sentences are lengthened here to periods which are quite astonishing…This treatment… has long been abolished by the Home Authorities as being the source of crime, and repugnant to the spirit and feeling of a more civilised age” 
Although his methods were seen as wrong, it was Governor Hampton who insisted on convicts becoming more involved in public works programmes. Under his instructions, convicts built famous WA icons such as Government House, the Town Hall and the Supreme Court26 . As you can see, although Hampton brought quite a negative change to the colony, it was this change that saw more public works projects completed, which was one of the key aspects in allowing the colony to prosper.

Before 1850, it was difficult for settlers to even imagine the future of their colony as a result of the many blunders in the past; however the introduction of convicts certainly made this future much brighter, and even launched the colony into one of prosperity. Convicts brought with them many changes that effected every part of society, including economically: the injection of money capital by Britain, a population boom and use of convict labour, socially: a strengthened class divide and transforming society into one of fear, and politically: the Catholic Church strengthening its power and the criticized Governor Hampton taking power. Not all of these changes may have been positive; however working together they shaped the colony of Western Australia into one with a positive future. Without the introduction of convicts, the colony’s expansion could have remained stagnated or been so slow that gold may have never have been found, and worse, the establishment which the free settlers worked so hard for may never have been worthy of federation.


1On This Side – Themes and Issues in Western Australian History. (1985). Bookland: Perth, p.141

2Ibid., p.142

3Koutsoukis, A.J (2002). A Brief History Of Western Australia. A & M Bookshop: Western Australia, p. 32

4Ibid., p.33

5On This Side, Op.cit, p.146

6Ibid, p.146

7An Economic History of Western Australia since Colonial Settlement. (2004). Department of Treasury and Finance: Western Australia, p.7

8Koutsoukis, A.J, Op.cit, p.37

9Ibid, p.37

10An Economic History of Western Australia..., Op.cit, p.8

11Ibid., p.7

12Koutsoukis, A.J, Op.cit, p.8

13An Economic History of Western Australia…, Op.cit, p.8

14“PEEL INLET: Western Australia – History” Available at:

15“Jarrahdale Museum & History”. Available at:

 16Koutsoukis, A.J, Op.cit, p.37

17An Economic History of Western Australia…, Op.cit, p.8

18Koutsoukis, A.J, Op.cit, p.37

19Ibid, p.38

20Ibid, p.38

21On This Side, Op.cit, p.152

22Ibid, p.153

23Ibid, p.153

24“Convicts to Western Australia.. Research Guide – Emancipation”. Available at:

25On This Side, Op.cit, p.153-154

26Koutsoukis, A.J, Op.cit, p.36-37

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