What is a Sapper? This versatile genius – condensing the whole system of military engineering and all that is useful and practical under one red jacket. He is a man of all work of the Army and the public – astronomer, geologist, surveyor, draughtsman, artist, architect, traveller, explorer, antiquary, mechanic, diver, soldier and sailor; ready to do anything or go anywhere; in short, he is a Sapper.
Captain T W J Connolly, the historian of the Royal Sappers and Miners, 1855.
to the Royal Sappers and Miners in Western Australia website where we will explore the history of the Corps’ presence in Western Australia; more importantly, the names and profiles of many of the individuals who served in the Colony from 1837-1839 and 1850-1862 – the sappers and their officers from the Royal Engineers. Most of the men garrisoned in the Colony returned ‘home’; some married and had children, some died; around twenty percent settled and made a new life in Australia; all left a legacy of buildings and infrastructure that can still be seen in today’s modern Western Australia.
These men made an indelible but under-stated contribution to our State, yet to my knowledge no one has written a definitive work about them; indeed it has been difficult to discover exactly how many and on what ships the Royal Sappers and Miners came to WA during the period of the Convict Establishment. We know, without question, the names, careers and movements of the commanding officers of the Royal Engineers; but of the NCOs and rank and file of the RSMs, very little. Two well known accounts of the British military personnel in Western Australia (Donohoe and Whiteley) may have been researched before the films from the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) became available. Furthermore, Major General R R McNicoll in ‘The Colonial Engineers’ (the first volume of the history of the Royal Australian Engineers), writes, ‘Not many of the names of the men are recorded …’ (p.108). I have not planned this website to be a ‘definitive work’ either, but I will try to fill in some gaps. It will always be ‘a work in progress’ but as at December 2016, at least all of the RSMs have been identified and most have personal and career profiles.
The First Sappers 1837-1839
Two corporals and a private, serving not under an officer of the Royal Engineers but a Lieutenant of the 83rd Regiment of Foot, were the first sappers to arrive in Western Australia.
Lieutenant George Gray was commissioned to lead an essentially civilian expedition to the northwest coast of New Holland (Western Australia). A small party including the two RSM corporals, Richard Auger and John Coles, sailed from Plymouth on the Beagle in July 1837 and at the Cape of Good Hope picked up more men, including Private Robert Mustard, and transferred to the schooner Lynher. They reached Hanover Bay on 2nd December 1837, but inexperience, flooded country, loss of stores and encounters with hostile aboriginals, caused the expedition to be abandoned after four months. The group sailed to Mauritius for a refit and recuperation. Robert Mustard returned to England in October 1838.
Grey’s party now with only two sappers- Corporals Auger and Coles – sailed to the Swan River settlement and in February 1839 set out for Shark Bay for their second expedition. They planned to make their way back south along the coast with supplies from two whaleboats. Within a few weeks the boats were wrecked in the surf and they were forced to carry their supplies. Three hundred miles north of Perth, Grey and his faithful sappers had to leave the main body of the expedition and force-march south with little food or water; they arrived in a poor state on 21 April. Search parties were sent out and regrettably discovered that some of the party left behind had died. Auger and Coles were later rewarded for their ‘good and enterprising conduct’ with a gratuity of £10.
20th Company of Royal Sappers and Miners 1850-1862
Edmund Y W Henderson was a young but able captain when he was appointed Comptroller General of Convicts in Western Australia. His task was monumental ….. there was no infrastructure for housing and managing the 75 convicts and 55 enrolled pensioner guards who arrived in the Colony – a fast passage of the Scindian overtaking the despatches which heralded their arrival. Part of Henderson’s role, in the first 18 months, would be to oversee the activities of five RSMs who travelled with him.
From the moment the two corporals and three sappers, with a working party of 25 pensioner guards and 25 prisoners, completed the roof, flooring and stone-works of an unfinished Fremantle wool shed to give cover to the first consignment of convicts, they proved their worth to Henderson, Governor Charles Fitzgerald and Earl Grey, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies.
On reading Henderson’s first report, in February 1851 Fitzgerald wrote Home:
….. The five non-commissioned officers of the Royal Sappers and Miners, who have been appointed by the Secretary of State ‘the Instructing Warders’, are for this purpose admirably adapted, and do not involve one-half the expense that would be incurred by the same amount of supervision by a civilian. I consider the rapidity and success of the works we have carried on greatly indebted to these men. I should strongly recommend that, as the [convict] establishment is increased, another detachment of intelligent non-commissioned officers of the Sappers should be sent to this colony. Their services will be most valuable in the direction of the labour of the prisoners on the different public works, being at the same time available for military duty in case of emergency ……….
Henry, 3rd Earl Grey responded in June/July 1851:
The company will consist of 100 men; it will be composed, as far as possible, of soldiers acquainted with the different trades and callings likely to be most useful to Western Australia, and also of men who have served some time, so as to afford a prospect of their settling in the colony on becoming entitled to their discharge ……..
And then they came: 65 on the Anna Robertson and 30 on the Marion; with the inclusion of the five rank and file on the Scindian, this made up the Company. Later, in 1858, 27 arrived on the Nile; these men replaced some of those who had died, returned to England as invalids or had completed their term of engagement. While the seven different sources I have consulted are in agreement on the number of RE Officers and RSMs who arrived in the Colony, the number of wives and children vary considerably. However, Captain Henry Wray reported to Henderson (19 Aug 1852) that ‘no fewer than seventy-five men out of the 100 had their wives with them’ [analysis indicates 82 men were married by February 1855]. This was a noteworthy situation: the usual establishment of wives ‘on the strength’ was 12 in a company of 100. Clearly the quota had been raised to encourage ultimate settlement in the Colony. In the event, 27 men settled in Western Australia – most of whom were married.
Please start using the site – it will take me some time to research and post a complete profile for each man; in the meantime enjoy what is already posted by using the A – Z Sappers Index from the main menu. For some ‘housekeeping‘ tips just click here!
As well as acknowledging those responsible for the the sources and links listed, I would like to give a very personal thanks to the following:
Jeanette Lee has been a moving force in the Enrolled Pensioner Guard Special Interest Group of the WA Genealogical Society since its inception over 15 years ago. Jeanette’s knowledge of WA colonial history is amazing. She has assisted in pointing me in the right direction too many times to recount, and that includes background about the Royal Sappers and Miners.
Peter Conole, WA Police historian (retired), has both a professional and personal interest in the development of law enforcement in this State, including the early years of the British military presence as well as a life-long interest in British Imperial history of the Victorian era. He has always been willing to share his considerable resources in order to document that history. He will be actively contributing to this website.
Dr Fiona Bush, BA, MBEnv, PhD M.AICOMOS shared her paper on the Sappers & Miners with me; originally part of her PhD, it served to add another dimension to my knowledge of the topic.
Trevor Smart has been researching the sappers and miners in WA for a book on the subject (2015) for the Sappers and Miners Association of WA. Trevor has generously supplied me with information about the works performed by the 20th Company during their tenure in this State. He echoes my sentiments entirely by his remark, “Now, no one in Western Australia remembers the Sappers were ever here”..…… but they will, Trevor, they will!
Did Dr Garry Gillard find me, or did I find him? His ‘Fremantle Stuff’ website is full of common ground. I appreciate his many suggestions.
Enthusiastic and knowledgeable Alison Cromb, Margie Eberle and Beth Frayne from Toodyay Historical Society who are so supportive of my work.
Website Author and Administrator
1st July 2021.