The name for Rottnest Island in the Noongar language is Wadjemup, which means ‘place across the water where the spirits are’.
During the last ice age, approximately 7,000 years ago, Wadjemup was connected to the mainland. At that time Whadjuk and other Nyoongar people could walk to Wadjemup, and it was known as an important meeting place and ceremonial site. Following the last ice age global sea levels rose and formed the islands off the coast of Fremantle, including Rottnest (Wadjemup), Carnac Island (Ngooloomayup) and Garden Island (Meandup).
The Island is 18 km. (11 mls.) off the coast of Perth and 19 sq. km. or 7.3. sq. mls. in area.
The first Europeans took up residence on Rottnest Island shortly after the first settlement of the Swan River Colony was established in 1829. Rottnest Island was considered to be of interest as a place with potential for salt harvesting, farming and fishing.
In December 1830, Benjamin Smyth surveyed Rottnest Island for the Surveyor General. A plan for the township to be known as Kingstown was proposed, containing 177 lots of 1/3 of an acre and other lots of 10 acres to be offered to the public.
Rottnest Island was used as an aboriginal prison between 1838 and 1904 (excluding a brief period of closure between 1849-1855) and a forced labour camp for aborigines and other prisoners until 1931.
In the absence of a police force or prison service, small numbers of British Army troops from detachments of four regiments serving in the Swan River Colony arrived on Rottnest Island from 1838. The idea of an island-prison was certainly not new, even in Australia. In November 1841 Legislation for the native prison, framed in words of high ideals, followed – as did more prisoners, soldiers and support staff. The soldiers served as armed guards and supervisors of work parties from 1838 to 1849. Almost a decade after the first aborigines were sent to Rottnest Island, acting Governor Frederick C. Irwin (1847) recognised the failure of this experiment and recalled all but the most recalcitrant. Most were shipped back to the mainland and worked in the road gangs of Perth and Fremantle. The trigger for this concern may have been the charges brought before Magistrates which had been levelled against the prison’s superintendent in 1846. And not a little by sentiments such as these:
The prisoners will sit down and weep most bitterly particularly the old men, or those who have left wives and children on the main; and when they see the smoke from the fires at the place where they have been accustomed to meet when unshackled and free, memory wanders over the scenes of bygone days, they seem sensitively alive to their lost freedom and lamentably bewail their captivity. [Henry Trigg, Superintendent of Public Works in 1842].
This was followed by the closure of the prison by Governor Charles Fitzgerald. In 1849 Vincent [the Superintendent] was transferred back to Fremantle and the native prison was practically closed and the Island leased [Whiteley:30]. Indeed James Dempster and his family leased the farm from 1849 to 1853 with the assistance of aboriginal and european prisoners from the Round House [Errington:41].
When the prison re-opened in 1855/56 convicts, as well as aborigines, were sent to the Island and became the responsibility of warders from the Convict Establishment in Fremantle and members of the Enrolled Pensioner Force. The soldiers were done with it.
This ‘Plan of Boundaries proposed for the Townsite of Kingstown’ dated 7th March 1836 was adopted in Executive Council a month later. It shows the signatures of Governor Stirling and Arthur Hillman, then Colonial Draftsman. The landholders at the time were C Farmer and F H Byrne (10 acres each) close to Sealer’s Lake; R and C Thomson (200 acres) and R M Lyon (10 acres) on the shores of Threefold Lake; W Bolton, C Norcott, A H Stone and J Greswell (10 acres each) also clustered along Threefold Lake and adjacent to each other. This series of salt lakes has since been renamed, and most possibly changed shape and become more salty!
It is not known to what degree these properties were farmed by their respective owners, and I seriously doubt the ten acre lots saw much attendance by their owners (all of whom were making Colonial history), but Robert Thomson and his family may have been more agriculturally active; most likely cereal crops and sheep from about 1832.
Robert and Caroline Thomson arrived in the Colony with some of their children in October 1829. The Thomsons had selected other land in Swan some of which Robert later transferred to the Rottnest tenure. In 1838 Robert must have been surprised – and greatly concerned – to see a boat load of natives and a handful of white men descending upon the Island: the forerunners of the prison community. In time the government took over the Thomson’s holdings on Rottnest, and he took up land in other parts of the State. Thomson Bay, his namesake, is today the most commercial part of Rottnest Island.
The First Prisoners
These Aboriginal men were in the Round House (Fremantle Gaol) during 1837 and 1838. Those marked with an asterisk escaped within days of arriving (see below right) , the others are purely speculative as being among the first prisoners and any error is mine.
*Buoyeem/Bouyan, *Cogat, Daricap/Darrip, *Goordap, *Helia, Jetamart, *Mollydobbin, Nambert/Nuanwert, Obediah, and *Tyoocan/Tocan.
Lawrence/Laurence Welch was an enigma on the colonial stage. He arrived on Warrior on 3rd March 1830 at the age of 29. He was born in Englefield, Berkshire and came to the Colony as a servant of Thomas and Catherine (Caroline) Walters. Welch very quickly established himself in the Colony – between 1830 and 1833 he received appointments as Constable, Inspector of Weights and Measures, Customs Officer, Bailiff of the Court, Auctioneer, and Sheriff’s Officer of Perth and Guildford. It is possible that some of these positions relate to the duties of a Sheriff’s Officer. In March 1834 he was granted Town Allotment H5 in Perth on a star-studded list of other colonists. In April 1836 Welch had a near-death experience when Robert Smith, a private in the 21st Regiment, tried to kill him (see left). Smith, a 22-year old who had arrived in Australia with his regiment three years before, was drowned in May 1838 while posted to York.
In August 1838 Welch was appointed Superintendent of the Government’s Native Establishment Rottnest at a salary of £75 per annum. His first task was to escort ten aboriginal prisoners to Rottnest by way of Garden Island on 17th August 1838. He was accompanied by Charles Gee, a Round House prisoner, and Thomas Fulcher, a private in the 21st Regiment (more on these two men shortly). Things did not go well for the ubiquitous Mr Welch. His first task of stowing the provisions in a cave and organising the aborigines to thatch the entrance resulted, a few days later, in half his prisoners burning down the tree to which they were chained and making their escape in Robert Thomson’s boat anchored close to the beach. In another unfortunate incident four months later, Welch reported the loss of provisions, tools, and personal clothing from a fire on the Island while he was in Perth.
After another escape by prisoners in August 1839, reported here in the Perth Gazette, Welch was dismissed in favour of Henry Vincent. Welch returned to the mainland where he slid into Henry Vincent’s role as gaoler at Fremantle during which time he managed to find another government appointment as a tax collector! And this news story shows that Welch almost went out with a bang on the Queens Birthday celebrations!
The Carpenter and the Soldier
Lawrence Welch was not the lone gaoler among prisoners in his 11-mile jaunt across to Rottnest. Clearly there were some unnamed sailors involved in taking the craft (what was its name?) across the sometimes treacherous waters to the Island. It seems the last landfall was Garden Island, the base established by Stirling prior to his sortie into Swan River. At least two other men accompanied Welch – a carpenter and a soldier.
Charles Gee, a 44-year-old carpenter from Sussex, arrived in the Colony with his wife and five children in October 1829 on Caroline. Gee would have probably been known to Welch, a Court employee, and Vincent, a gaoler, as he – Gee – had served time on several occasions. In January 1838 he went to trial for larceny and was sentenced to seven years transportation. In the event this was commuted to hard labour and Charles was put to work digging the tunnel below the Round House. The tunnel was built for the Fremantle Whaling Company by Charles Gee and many other prisoners including some aborigines mentioned above. Charles’s skills as a carpenter would be welcome on Rottnest for the building programme ahead.
Private #115 Thomas Fulcher arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in July 1833 with other soldiers of the 21st (Royal North British Fuzileers) Regiment on the convict ship Enchantress from England. He arrived in Fremantle, WA on the ship Jane from Hobart on 9th September 1833 and served in the Swan River Colony for nearly seven years along with 152 comrades in his detachment. During that time he had the distinction of being the first soldier to serve on the Rottnest Island Military Post. He left the Colony with his regiment on the troopship Runnymede on 23rd July 1840 bound for Calcutta; he died there on 15th September 1840 – most likely of cholera.
There was a minimum of one soldier and a maximum of seven on the Rottnest Military Post each month from August 1838 (Fulcher) to 1853 (Private #1831/2445 Henry Goss). Goss was not only a soldier in the 96th and 99th Regiments, but a licenced pilot for the Port of Fremantle whose HQ was on Rottnest for some years. Goss was discharged from the Army in Perth, thus you can click here for his profile. Edward Back was operating as Head Pilot from 1848 to 1857 and thus was another Rottnest identity. It would not be useful to list the names of all the soldiers posted to Rottnest during the military’s occupation on the Island, however this information is available on the Musters and Pay Lists for the three regiments involved: 21st, 96th and 99th. Here is a ‘snapshot’ of each regiment’s first men on station and – where possible – last man on station.
Henry Francis Vincent born in Broadwindsor, Dorset enlisted in the 18th Hussars in London at the age of 20. He served from November 1817 to August 1821 ‘in consequence of the disbandment of the regiment and having the vision of the right eye destroyed by Ophthalmia.’ Vincent was discharged and admitted to a pension of 6d. per day on 21st September that year. It was noted that he had received treatment at the commencement of the disease in more than one Army hospital*. After discharge he resided in Crewkerne, Somerset until the end of December 1829 – his employment unknown. Vincent arrived at the Colony on the migrant ship Medina on 6th July 1830. He married Louisa Hume on 19th October 1831; they had three sons and three daughters.
*Vincent would not have incurred either injuries ascribed to him at Waterloo by some sources (losing an eye or being shot in the groin). He did not join the Army until two years after the Battle of Waterloo.
Vincent started work in the Fremantle Prison (Round House) on 29th May 1831 with a salary of £100 per annum. He was appointed as Welch’s replacement from 20th August 1839 (see left). He and Louisa would live on the Island but he would retain his position as gaoler on the same salary as previously. Within six months he would ask for more money but was refused as the couple enjoyed the benefits of rations and stock to the value of £100 a year and were provided with a house, fuel, light, servant-labour and gardens. Things were going well. At the beginning of 1841, Vincent was given a good report card from the visiting Protector of Natives, and George Fletcher Moore in an article ‘The Aboriginal Race of Western Australia’ dated 10th August, praised him for his good progress and improvements at Rottnest Island in just 18 months (extract on right).
Then things began to turn sour. In December 1842 Vincent was charged with ill-treatment causing the death of a prisoner nearly two years before. He was exonerated of the charge. In 1844 Vincent released a prisoner too early after misunderstanding a mitigation of the prisoner’s sentence; the prisoner speared five of his fellow aborigines after gaining his early release. In August 1846 Charles Symmons, Protector of Natives and Visiting Magistrate, along with Francis Armstrong acting as interpreter, took Depositions on the Island from four corporals, four privates of the 51st Regiment and prisoners, after charges of ill-treatment and even murder of the aboriginal prisoners had been laid against Vincent. Click here for transcripts of the Depositions. Charles Symmons supported Vincent to the hilt and thus he remained in the eyes of the authorities as a tough but not unfair man.
In early 1847 military guards of the 96th were posted to Rottnest Island. In 1848 there were allegations of drunkenness and ill-treatment of the prisoners by an Overseer – 96th Private John Boag. Louisa Vincent had been appointed Rottnest Matron in June 1847 and she gave evidence to the Native Protector on the matter. Henry and Louisa Vincent remained on the Island until mid-1849, and when the prison temporarily closed, Vincent returned to his role as a gaoler – although now in Perth. But he would return with a worsening reputation in December 1855 after being reappointed as Superintendent.
The 96th detachment left the Colony for India in May 1849 and were relieved by the 99th Regiment detachment. Eight soldiers from the 99th assisted in the move back to the mainland leaving Henry Goss (now with a pilot’s licence) on the Island until September 1853.
All the buildings on the Island prior to 1849 were organised and supervised by Superintendent Henry Vincent, built by prisoner labour, guarded by soldiers.
A Heritage Council Register records:
The lack of timber on the island led to the development of a distinctive and unusual roof structure for many of the colonial buildings in Thomson Bay Settlement, Wadjemup/Rottnest Island. The roofs used narrowly spaced split beam trusses. The methods of construction used in the roof systems are rare in Western Australia, with the use of what are now referred to as ‘Vincent’s Trusses’, stone, and oils for protection against the weather. These methods, constructed under the direction of Vincent, utilised local materials, and were used at a time when roofs were largely made of rushes or shingles cut from sheoak. This was then covered with a slurry of lime and sand thus successfully using the limited resources available on the Island to achieve weather protection for the limestone buildings.
This item appeared in the 1849 Western Australian Almanck pp.53-54
Accommodation for the military and the first superintendent’s residence was built in 1840/41. Governor Fitzgerald stayed in the superintendent’s residence in 1848, promoting the idea that a Governors’ residence (summer home) be built. The Governor’s residence was not approved until 1858 and not completed and occupied until 1864. A second superintendent’s residence on the Island was built in 1848.
Although the permanent military guard was present from 1840, the permanent barracks was not built until 1844 (now cottages E, J and H).
The permanent prison (The Quod), School and Chapel, and a variety of other buildings were not built until after 1856 when the Island had resumed its role as an offshore prison.
The Pilot Boathouse
The Fremantle Pilot Service was established in 1844 and Edward Back, the first pilot, appointed in 1845. In September 1848 the pilot service moved to Rottnest Island and Edward Back with it. Back would ultimately use Francis Armstrong’s cottage (Armstrong was Storekeeper, ‘Moral Agent’ and sometimes Interpreter from 1847 to 1849).
A secure boathouse, established in 1846, was the first building constructed on Rottnest Island for the pilot service. It was built at the northern end of the seawall. The pilot’s task was to guide ships safely though the reefs around the Island to Fremantle Harbour. Quarters for the pilot crews were not added to the boathouse until 1853.
Completed in 1849, the original Rottnest Island Light Station was Western Australia’s first stone lighthouse. This 20-metre (66 ft.) lighthouse was built to provide a safer sailing passage for ships to Fremantle Port and the Swan River Colony.
Superintendent of Public Works Henry Trigg (right) designed this first lighthouse and laid the foundation stone. Perth builder Bayley Maycock oversaw construction of the tower at a cost of £500 and used labour provided by the prisoners and locally quarried limestone. The machinery for the revolving catoptric light was designed and made in Fremantle. The first light flashed for five seconds in the minute and was visible for 18 nautical miles. The light consumed around three gallons of coconut oil per week; later kerosene was used as fuel.
The lighthouse was three metres shorter than originally planned and had taken nine years to build due to poor skills, some say because of resistance by the prisoners’ superintendent, who disliked outside interference on the island.
The first keeper, Samuel Thomas, was appointed on 18th January 1849—two years before the light was lit. Living quarters for the keeper were built around the base.
The 1849 lighthouse was replaced, and demolished, in 1896 by a larger model on the highest point of the Island. At approximately 38 metres, the new lighthouse (now the Wadgemup Lighthhouse) remains the fourth tallest lighthouse in Australia but is now closed to the public. The Wadgemup Lighthouse was augmented in 1900 by the Bathurst Lighthouse, on the northern edge of the Island following the City of York shipping disaster in 1899, when 11 lives were lost.
Rottnest Identities before and after the Hiatus
WARDERS & OTHER STAFF
Lawrence WELCH (Superintendent) 17 Aug 1838
Charles GEE Senior (Prisoner-Carpenter) 17 Aug 1838
Henry VINCENT (Superintendent) on Island 6 Nov 1838, Appointed 20 Aug 1839
Joseph MORRIS (Assistant Warder) 16 Apr-23 May 1846
Louisa VINCENT (Matron) Jun 1847
Francis Fraser ARMSTRONG (Moral Agent) 1847-1849
Edward BACK (Port Pilot) 11 Sep 1848-1857
‘William/Yundee’ (Overseer) 1848-1853?
Samuel THOMAS (Lighthouse Keeper) 18 Jan 1849
Thomas CARTER (Lighthouse Keeper) Jan 1853
George & Christine FRANCIS (Warder, formerly Royal Marines and Cook) Oct 1855
George BARR (Warder, formerly 51st Regiment) Oct 1855
Phillip DIXON (In Charge Native Prison Gang, TOL #313) 1855?
Felix KENNEDY (Assistant Warder) 1 Oct 1855
William HILL (Warder & Overseer) 14 Oct 1855
Richard WRIGHT (Warder & Ploughman) 24 Nov 1855
Samuel DUFFIELD Jan 1854-1879
ENROLLED PENSIONER GUARDS
John Wood COULSON (CALSON), Royal Marines
James CROOKS, 3rd Foot Guards
James CUNNINGHAM, 31st Regiment of Foot
Charles Edmund FORDHAM, 80th Regiment of Foot
Patrick GALLAGHER, 80th Regiment of Foot or Royal Artillery
Thomas MAHER, 35th Regiment of Foot
William McLAUGHLIN or McCAUGHRAN ?
Daniel McINTYRE, 13th Regiment of Foot
Duncan McKELLAR, Royal Artillery
Samuel MORTON, 95th Regiment of Foot
Henry PHILLIPS, Rifle Brigade
Joseph TRACEY, Royal Artillery
William URQUHART (Sgt.), Royal Artillery
Wikpedia and Wikipedia Commons Images.
Rottnest Visitor Centre website.
Aborigines and White Settlers in the 19th Century, Neville Green (Part 1, Stannage 1981).
Conquest and Settlement, 21st Regiment in Western Australia 1833-1840, Geoff Blackburn 1999.
The Military Establishment in Western Australia 1829-1863, Whiteley ESW and CGS 2010.
Warders and Gaolers Dictionary 1829-1879, David J Barker 2000.
The Round House 1831-1856, Steve Errington 2022.
Rottnest Island Authority Archives, assorted documents, courtesy Dr. Lesley Silvester, Archivist.
Plan of Kingstown, Rottnest Island 1836, Cons 3868 item 229, WA State Records Office.
War Office Musters & Pay Lists, WO12-3807/3808; 6202, 6208, 9670, 9813, 9817, National Archives, Kew.
War Office Monthly Returns of Troop Distribution WO17-1234-1252. 1839-1856, National Archives, Kew.
A Colony Detailed, the First Census of WA 1832, Ian Berryman 1979, p.46, entry 440.
Western Ancestor, Mike Murray, Family History WA June 2017, pp.294-295.
Heritage Council, Register of Heritage Places 1992-2020.
Lighthouses of Australia Inc. website.
Army Discharge to Pension WO119-0064-274/5 & WO23-30-44, National Archives, Kew.
Enrolled Pensioner Force @ 30 Sep 1856 CSR 362/189, WA State Records Office.
Newspapers & Gazettes
Perth Gazette 9 Apr 1836.
Perth Gazette 25 Aug 1838.
Perth Gazette 10 Aug 1839.
Government Gazette 24 Aug 1839.
Perth Gazette 20 Feb 1841.
Perth Gazette 5 Sep 1846.
Perth Gazette 30 May 1851.
West Australian 18 Mar 1896.
I am glad to know these experts in their field, always willing to help me out: Dr Steve Errington, for all things Round House (Fremantle Prison);
Jeanette Lee, for all things Enrolled Pensioner Force.
© Diane Oldman 2022