Champion Bay Convict Depot

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Before the convicts arrived – and indeed the reason convict labour was an attractive proposition – came the discovery of lead at Northampton and the prospect of a mining development. Lieutenant L R Elliot, Sergeant Henry Thackery and 29 rank and file of the 99th Regiment were at ‘Champion Bay’ on 26 November 1849 arriving on the Schooner Champion. Within 12 months this newly formed Military Post covering Geraldton, Northampton and Port Gregory, was augmented by a further 11 rank and file of the 99th at Sharks Bay.

Meanwhile, Scindian the first convict ship, arrived in June 1850 with 75 convicts on board, 21 of whom would be entitled to tickets of leave by the end of 1850. Tenders had been called in August 1850 from parties willing to contract to supply a vessel for the conveyance of men and stores to Champion Bay.

On 16 October 1850 the Mining Journal reported that Geraldine Mining Company personnel were set to travel to Champion Bay on Evergreen with labour and stores, and in November the Perth Gazette announced that John Nicol Drummond was being transferred from York to Champion Bay as a police presence.

Although the Army had already established a barracks for 30 men the previous year, by the beginning of 1850 the force had been reduced to half that number. There would be facilities for the new labour force who would spend most of its time further north on the Geraldine mine site.

Five Years of Convicts, Pensioners, Warders and Soldiers

By the end of 1852, Governor Fitzgerald reported to the Secretary for the Colonies that there were 25 ticket-of-leave men working at the mine and that they slept in a long shed that was ‘rough but capacious’. He also recommended the establishment of an Outstation (Convict Depot) at Champion Bay or Port Gregory. But this cracking activity around Champion Bay [aka Geraldton, the newly surveyed town site] was not to be just yet.

In December 1851 and January 1852 the ships Anna Robertson and Marion had arrived to form the 20th Company of Sappers and Miners along with its Royal Engineer Officers. Captain Henderson R.E. had arrived with five of the Sappers of this Company on Scindian. In January 1852, Governor Fitzgerald and Lieutenant Du Cane R.E. visited the area where a convict depot was contemplated. And Lieutenant Henry Wray R.E. was busy organising Treasury funds to enable the fabrication in Fremantle of transportable buildings of timber and canvas for shipping North. But after the arrival of the next convict vessel, Pyrenees, it was Port Gregory that received the green light for being at the forefront of the mining development; it would be the site of a Convict Depot.

WO17 Distribution of Troops May 1853

In 1853, William Pope sailed to establish a party of four enrolled pensioners in the Champion Bay district – a signal that the 99th detachment of troops would soon be relieved of outstation duties. Unfortunately the pensioners are not named, neither by Captain Bruce in his monthly return for May that year, nor by the Commandant’s General Orders which mistakenly mentioned an EPF corporal and three privates would be leaving for Bunbury!

Fremantle Prison has been part of our State’s heritage for so long, it can sometimes be forgotten how much pressure was brought to bear on the Colony’s resources in the first five years of convictism prior to the completion of what would become a major prison structure as well as the administration HQ of the ‘Convict Establishment’. Between 1850 and 1855 twenty-two convict ships and troopships arrived with over 3,600 convicts, 454 enrolled pensioners, 20 warders and 265 soldiers; plus the families of many of these men. The ‘outstations’ were not just hiring depots, they were helping relieve the accommodation problem. Fremantle Prison, designed by Captain Henderson and supervised with convict labour by Captain Wray, relieved the Round House and other temporary gaols in 1855.

In these years the Champion Bay district saw the movement of around 30 convicts accountable through the ‘receipts and discharges’ of the Convict Establishment records [Acc 1156 R&D volumes]. Two other factors during this period would have consequences that would change the landscape of the Colony: 1853 saw the introduction of the new Penal Servitude Act and the formation of the Western Australian Police Force.

What of the Sappers and Miners?

Records of the Sappers and Miners show that they were later on the ground than the other groups mentioned above. This is how the numbers and names looked from 1857 according to the Musters and Pay Lists (click to enlarge image).  You will find details of each of these men on their respective pages from the Sappers Index.

Two Sappers were engaged at Port Gregory Convict Hiring Depot, but when it closed in 1857 the remnants of that operation were taken over by the Champion Bay Depot in Geraldton which is why Philip Turpin did not arrive until April 1857. The old military barracks were in a bad state of repair by that time.

In the Royal Engineers Memorandum of Work 1850-1862, it indicated a brief note on Champion Bay: Stone, lime, and timber have been procured for police buildings and residence, consisting of quarters, stabling, cells, and enclosed yards and privies; a jetty has been constructed 300 feet long, into nine feet of water at low water; four cottages for pensioners have been built, and the necessary depot buildings, consisting of depot, cook-house, store, hospital, quarters, and the usual offices.

Convict Depot 1863, Cons 3868 -137.

A Plan was drawn in 1857 showing the Depot located between Bayley and Lewis Streets on Suburban Lot 10, originally owned by H Gray. The only copy extant from WA State Records Office is so overdrawn by later developments that it is not helpful. However, the extract of the 1863 Plan shown here, although suffering a similar fate from the drafting ink, at least shows the structures mentioned in the Memorandum of Work. The Jetty, built in 1857/58 was shown on a re-aligned Gregory Street between the Depot and the H-shaped Residency on the corner of Evans Street; the new commissariat, courthouse and police buildings were in front of the new barracks.

James Manning, Clerk of Works, the man most responsible for the Memorandum of Work being drawn up, reported as late as 1865 to 1867 that the Warders’ Quarters and boundary wall were completed, the cell block enlarged with eight new cells underway, the hospital completed, and incidental repairs were ongoing on the Depot buildings.

Part of an article on Depot closures [Perth Gazette 8 Mar 1872]
The Depot was finally closed in 1872 along with Albany, Bunbury, Mt Eliza, North Fremantle and Toodyay Depots. I do not know its fate but presumably its buildings served a community function for a time thereafter.


The Military Establishment in Western Australia 1829-1863, ES and CGS Whiteley, Hesperian Press, 2010.
Building the Fremantle Convict Establishment, Robin McKellar Campbell, UWA Thesis 2011.
The Veterans, F H Broomhall, 1989, Hesperian Press.
‘Lags’, a history of the Western Australian convict phenomenon, Bill Edgar, 2012,Tammar Publications.
WA Musters Rolls & Pay Lists 99th Regiment WO12-9813, 1849-1850.
WA Monthly Return of Distribution of Troops WO17-1249-44, May 1853.
General Orders 16th May 1853, WO28-266-199, The National Archives, Kew.
WA Muster Rolls & Pay Lists May 1856 to 1862: WO11-146 to 207, The National Archives, Kew.
Plan of Geraldton 1863, Cons 3868 Item 137.

Perth Gazette 18 Nov 1849
Perth Gazette 26 Nov 1849.
Perth Gazette 13 Sep 1850.
Mining Journal 16 Oct 1850.
Inquirer 23 Oct 1850.
Perth Gazette 6 May 1853.
Perth Gazette 8 Mar 1872.


© Diane Oldman 2022