John Williams was born at St Peter’s in Liverpool in July 1807 the son of William and Margaret (nee Jones) Williams.
At a young age John became a skinner by trade. At this time he may have seen the military as a means of escaping the poverty and drudgery of life in Liverpool. The glory and adventure exhibited by the victories of the Napoleonic Wars would also have been an incentive for him to enlist. British soldiers could find themselves at various locations around the world such as the Mediterranean, the West Indies, Canada, India and Australia.
Thus when John turned 18 years of age he joined the 51st Regiment – officially known as the 51st (2nd Yorkshire West Riding) Kings Own Light Infantry after being renamed in 1821. The 51st was one of the six ‘Minden Regiments’ which, in August 1759 took part in the victory against the French at the Battle of Minden in the Seven Years War. John enlisted at Liverpool on 5 Jul 1825 as Private No. 435. He was recorded as 5 ft. 5½ ins. tall, with brown hair, hazel eyes and a fair complexion. He would have worn the regiment’s scarlet uniform with blue facings.
Left: Battle of Minden from BritishBattlefields.com
The 51st Regiment had sailed for the Ionian Islands in 1821, four years before John Williams enlisted. He would have joined the regiment as a reinforcement during September 1826. In 1826/27 the regiment sailed on the Vittoria from Cephalonia to Zante where it stayed until 1828 after which it moved to Corfu. Various working parties of the regiment proceeded to Vido to assist the Royal Engineers in constructing fortifications. These working parties continued until 1829. It was during these activities that John may have developed his stonemason’s skills that he relied upon later in Western Australia. In June 1830 the strength of the regiment was 31 sergeants, 10 buglers and 499 rank and file commanded by Major Campbell.
In 1831 the regiment continued to be stationed at Corfu but in November it was ordered to hold itself in readiness to embark for England but owing to political circumstances, the relief was indefinitely postponed. It remained at Corfu for two years in the daily expectation of being sent home. In September 1833 the regiment received notification that it was to be relieved by the Royal Horse Guards and that it would be stationed in Ireland. The troop ship Jupiter boarded some of the regiment and embarked on 25 Apr 1834 for home service. The Jupiter reached the Cove of Cork on 11 Jun 1834 where the regiment disembarked and marched to Buttevant from where companies were detached to various towns such as Doneraile, Castletown Roche, Killarney and Charleville. By October 1835 the various detachments were relieved and the regiment marched to Dublin where the companies were billeted at Beggar’s Bush Barracks, George Street Barracks, Portobello Barracks and Royal Barracks.
It was during his time in Ireland that John Williams met and married Margaret Hayes at St Mary’s, Buttevant in County Cork. They married on 21 Feb 1835. Margaret would have lived with the regiment performing duties like washing and cooking. Their son Robert was born when the Regiment moved to Belfast and was baptised on 4 May 1837 in the Belfast Roman Catholic church of St Patrick’s; interestingly on 7 May he was also baptised in the Church of Ireland Parish of St Anne’s, Shankill, presumably because John was still a Protestant at this point.
In 1836 the regiment was ordered to Belfast where it stayed until early May 1837 when it moved to Newry for embarkation to Bristol. The regiment boarded the steamers Victory and Herald and disembarked at Bristol on 24 May. From there the regiment marched to Chatham in Kent via Chippenham, Marlboro, Hatcham, Kingston, Browsley and Dartford. The whole regiment assembled on the parade ground at Chatham on 8 Jun 1837 in preparation for their deployment as convict guards to New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land. On 13 August the first guard for New South Wales, under Major Elliott, embarked at Gravesend for Dublin, from where they finally sailed in the ‘Neptune’ convict ship on 25 Sep 1837.
Both Margaret and Robert would have moved with the regiment to Chatham and when John was ordered to Van Dieman’s Land, Margaret would have had to go through a process of selection to be allowed to travel as only a certain number of wives, between six and eight per 100 men, were allowed to travel with the regiment.
John Williams and his contingent of the 51st Foot left Deptford In England in April 1838 on the Lord William Bentinck bound for Van Dieman’s Land captained by William S Stockley. On board were 320 male convicts, 69 of whom were ‘lifers’. Three convicts died on the voyage. It is not certain if Margaret and Robert were on the same ship but it is assumed they were. John was recorded in the ship’s ‘sick book’ by John Rankine, Surgeon Superintendent as suffering with hepatitis on 11 Jul 1838 and was discharged on 15 July to return to duty.
The voyage from England took 134 days, the convict ship finally arriving in Van Dieman’s Land on 26 Aug 1838. According to the third quarter Muster, John, along with Colour Sergeant Thomas Newal and 22 rank and file of his detachment did not disembark until 3 Sep 1838. Initially all these men were stationed at HQ in Hobart Town. As it turned out half of them sailed with John Williams on Runnymede for the Swan River Colony two years later and Private Thomas Longworth also took his discharge in Western Australia. In that same Muster it is recorded that John was awarded a Good Conduct Badge and an increase in pay of one penny per day.
In April 1840, Private Williams, along with two captains, four subalterns, one assistant surgeon, six sergeants, eight corporals and 124 privates, 24 women and 24 children left Van Diemen’s Land embarking on board the Runnymede for King George’s Sound and the Swan River Colony. This detachment of the 51st Regiment would relieve the 21st Regiment which, from September 1833 to July 1840, had 152 Redcoats in service in Western Australia. The 51st detachment would engage in similar service: assisting the police in enforcing civil law, keeping the peace between settlers and ‘natives’ and accompanying survey and exploration ventures. Soldiers were posted to various districts of Western Australia.
The Williams family disembarked at Fremantle, the port for the Swan River Colony where they arrived on 25 Jun 1840; some of the troops had disembarked in King George’s Sound a week earlier. John’s first posting was at Dale River some 20 miles from York where he and his colleagues patrolled for troublesome natives. This station was first established by seven troops from the 21st Regiment detachment in September 1839. Also posted at Dale in June 1840 with John Williams were Corporal Thomas Suxspeach and Privates Joseph Spelling, Charles Taylor, John Usher, Michael Walsh and William Wheeler. On the way to Dale they escorted two native prisoners to York – Doodjep and Bunaboy – who were tried in Perth for the murder of Mrs Sarah Cook and her infant daughter in September 1839. The aborigines were hanged on 30 Jul 1840 which is regarded as the Colony’s first legal execution and the only men to be hanged in York.
The Williams family lived in rough conditions at Dale living off the land as supplies were infrequent. They stayed at Dale for at least a year. Whilst at Dale they had another child, Mary Jane.
John was appointed Native Constable for Perth on 5 Oct 1841 by Governor Hutt, a position he maintained until 12 Jan 1843. In June 1842 he and another man apprehended two aboriginal men, Ner-rup and Bukkup, for assault on, with intent to kill, a native lad in Guildford.
After John’s term as Native Constable expired, he was posted to Canning. Then things started to unravel for him: he was court martialled on 16 Jun 1843, confined to the Round House for 40 days hard labour and his name entered in the Regimental Defaulters’ Book. His Army service record does not specify the charge, but of course he lost pay until he was released and returned to duty on 26 Jul 1843.
John was stationed at York from October 1843 until April 1844. During his time in York he gave evidence at the death of Private George Mabbott who drowned on Christmas Day 1843. The circumstances seem to have missed newspaper reporting, but are recorded in the relevant Muster & Pay List.
Then in mid-April 1844, John Williams’ record shows that he received 20 days in confinement – probably a minor infringement, but nonetheless forming a pattern. Immediately after his release on 7 May, he went into hospital for a further 20 days. Perhaps the incidents were related but there is nothing on record to explain his hospitalisation. Back on duty at the end of May, John spent a further three months in Perth, after which he was court martialled for the third time in the Colony with a sentence of three months in solitary confinement followed by six months’ hard labour. He served a little less than four months and was released on 30 Jan 1845. Major F C Irwin, Commandant, in his General Orders dated 4 Sep 1844 records that ‘a Garrison Court Martial will assemble at the Officers Mess Rooms this day at one pm for the trial of such prisoners as may be brought before it’. The Muster for September shows that John was the only prisoner; but come October, another six men of the 51st joined him in confinement!
John began duty on Rottnest Island on 1 Apr 1845 and would spend almost two years at this posting. It was a controversial period in Colonial history during which John was caught up in a major investigation into the treatment of aboriginal prisoners by the superintendent and overseers of the prison. A brief diversion here is made to introduce the Vincent Family of Rottnest Island.
Henry Francis Vincent, born 1797 in Dorset, enlisted in the 18th Light Dragoons (Hussars) in 1817, thus debunking a myth that he had served at Waterloo. Vincent left the Army when the cavalry regiment disbanded in 1821. He arrived in the Colony in 1830 and entered the prison service in May 1831, the year he married Louisa Hume. In late 1838 he was posted to Rottnest to prepare for the initial prisoners. He was appointed Superintendent in August 1839 and would serve on Rottnest on and off until his retirement in 1867. Louisa would serve as Matron from 1845 to 1849 and his son, Richard Francis started as an Assistant Warder in 1857 and later Assistant Superintendent until being dismissed in 1865 and banned from the Island. Thus Rottnest Island became a family affair, but not a happy family with reports of ill-treatment of not only the natives by father and son, but of domestic violence to Henry’s wife. Nonetheless in many ways Vincent was a positive force in the Colony in times when values were much different from today. Click here and scroll down for an excerpt of a summary of all three family members.
John Williams gave evidence in an investigation into stories of ill-treatment of the prisoners and the many rumours that accompanied the claims. Charles Symmons, Protector of Natives took depositions from a number of 51st Regiment soldiers stationed in Rottnest in August 1846. The depositions and outcomes were reported in the Government Gazette and reprinted in the Perth Gazette; see a transcription here.
According to John Williams’ notebook, it was while at Rottnest that he started to develop hearing problems. He was anticipating this deafness would be a means of obtaining a discharge from the army with the right to receive a grant of land. It was at this time that Governor Hutt offered John a job as gaoler at Albany, however, he turned it down in the hope of receiving the army pension and land grant.
John was examined by George C. Meikleham, Assistant Surgeon for the 51st Regiment (no date is recorded). His opinion was that John Williams ‘is affected with chronic Rheumatism and deafness and is totally worn out’. This opinion was confirmed after an examination by the Principal Medical Officer, Perth. He considered that John was ‘unfit for the duties of a soldier in consequence of age and infirmities’. He was finally discharged from the Army on 24 Aug 1847 after confirmation from Horse Guards (HQ) in England. A total of 33 men of the 51st took their Army discharges in Western Australia, but less than one third were eligible for an Army pension. Their regiment had already sailed to Calcutta in mid-March 1847.
John’s pension was one shilling a day and from August 1847 it was being paid out of either Regiment or Commissariat funds. When Captain John Bruce arrived in the Colony, military pensions transferred to his Pay List since he was, as of 1 Jul 1851, administering the Disctrict Pension Office of Western Australia.
Not much else is known about John after his discharge. He may have lived at various places such as Perth, Australind, Bremer Bay and Northam. At that time there were a number of men named John Williams in the Colony. One was a farmer near Geraldton, one farmed near Toodyay, another was a convict and yet another was a whaler near Albany. There was even an aborigine named John Williams. Our John Williams did live and work on ‘Bardeen’, a farm near Northam with his two children circa 1850.
The Bardeen Homestead was owned by Abraham Morgan, built as a two storey brick building with single storey living quarters. There was a separate one roomed kitchen where a cook provided meals for the family and workmen. The original 14 x 12 ft stone cottage, built around 1840, was incorporated in the later house. The brick homestead constructed in 1858 was thought to be one of the earliest brick buildings in the district [Heritage Council].
By 1851 John Williams was living at Bremer Bay. In fact his pension was paid there in 1851 [Broomhall]. He was working for John Wellstead aka John Pullen (another of the 33 discharged men from the 51st Regiment’s detachment in the Swan River Colony).
John’s married life is something of a mystery. Margaret featured in the Perth newspapers on more than one occasion: creating a disturbance in the streets (May 1853); stealing meat (June 1855); drunkedness (December 1860). It is not clear when Margaret and John had a parting of the ways but there were rumours that she had run off with an American sailor!
John probably spent most of his later years in Northam – he was certainly living there in 1879, described as a Mason [Garden]. He died there on 3 Aug 1889 and was buried in Northam Cemetery.
This story would not have been possible without the material contributed by Graham Leader, John Williams’ Great-great-great grandson.
Note: Click on any image to open in new window and increase size.
A record of the services of the fifty-first (Second West York), the King’s Own Light Infantry Regiment : with a list of officers from 1755 to 1870, William Wheater 1970.
A Guide to Regiments and Corps of the British Army, J M Brereton 1985.
The Military Establishment in Western Australia 1829-1863, E S & C G S Whiteley, 2010.
Legal Executions in Western Australia, Brian Purdue,1993.
Warders and Gaolers: A Dictionary of Western Australian Prison Officers 1829-1879, David J. Barker 2003, pp.207-209.
Note book 1840 [manuscript], John Williams, Acc. 678A, State Library of Western Australia.
The Veterans, F H Broomhall 1985 & 1989.
Northam, an Avon Valley history, Donald S Garden 1979, p.255.
Parish of St Peter Baptisms, Liverpool Records Office 283-PET-8-1.
Parish of Buttevant Marriages, National Library of Ireland 04998-01-p.281.
Parish of St Patrick’s, Belfast City, Baptisms, Diocese of Down & Connor, NLI Film 05470 / 01.
Parish of St Anne’s, Shankill Baptisms, Ulster Historical Foundation.
Medical Journal of Lord William Bentinck, by John Rankine, Surgeon and Superintendent, ADM101-45-4-3 folio 30, National Archives, Kew.
British Convict Transportation Register 1787-1867, University of Queensland website.
Musters & Pay Lists WO12-6200, 3rd Q. 1838, National Archives, Kew.
Distribution of Troops WO17-1235 folio 85 September 1839, National Archives, Kew.
Royal Chelsea Hospital Soldiers Service Documents WO97-0652-068, National Archives, Kew.
Musters & Pay Lists WO12-6202 to 6208, 1840-1847, National Archives, Kew.
General Orders WO28-266-40, 4 Sep 1844, National Archives, Kew.
Database of Round House Prisoners 1843-1844, Steve Errington, Western Australia.
Returns of Payment of Army & Other Pensions WO22-248-39, National Archives, Kew.
Heritage Council Place No. 03414 Northam, inHerit website.
General Registrar of WA Death Certificate Reg. 431, 1889.
Colonial Times, Hobart: 28 Aug 1838 p.4; 23 Jul 1839 p.6.
Perth Gazette & Western Australian Journal: 27 Jun 1840 p.2; 9 Oct 1841 p.4; 18 Jun 1842 p.3; 11 Mar 1843 p.2; 28 Jan 1843 p.4; 5 Sep 1846 p.2;
Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News 22 Jun 1855 p.3; 14 Dec 1860 p.2.
The Inquirer: 5 May 1853 p.2.
Northam Advertiser: 17 Aug 1912, p.3.
© Diane Oldman 2020