North Fremantle Convict Depot

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Within months of the arrival of the first convicts in 1850, it was recognised that hiring depots should be established away from the main base at Fremantle to take ticket-of-leave men closer to the location of public works programmes and further afield for employment opportunities with the settlers.

With the arrival of the convict ships in 1851 – Mermaid, Pyrenees and Minden – the number of convicts in the Colony increased to well over 900 men, and Fremantle itself would have been getting overcrowded in any event.  The 293 men on the Pyrenees were given their tickets-of-leave (TOL) immediately upon arrival. North Fremantle was one of the first of the depots, initially as a camp set up on the north bank of the river, to work the Fremantle to Perth road.   We are fortunate to have a list of those who were allocated to the works around North Fremantle [Inquirer 23 Jul 1851].

The 76 TOL men were escorted to their work area by 19 British Army veterans of the Enrolled Pensioner Force. Land for the 19 pensioners was laid out and huts erected as temporary quarters until more permanent cottages could be built.

Next to arrive at the depot were the Sappers and Miners who would be acting as Instructing Warders. The first to be stationed on the original site was Corporal Henry Condy (February 1852) followed by Privates James Grifffin (March), John Kenny (May) and John Beatty (November). It seems that not a great deal of thought went into the selection of the TOL men’s occupations. The Sappers would need to instruct a good many men to bring their trade skills up to scratch. Out of the 76 men, there were two brickmakers and brickmakers’ labourers, one bricklayer, two painters, two blacksmiths but only one carpenter and one mason. Privates John Cameron and John Fasham were assigned to the depot after it had been relocated in 1853. From May 1854 to December 1855 only one Sapper was on station (either Kenny or Fasham).

The cottages comprised two rooms, concrete floors, stone walls and shingle roofs. As it happened,none of these pensioners came as a convict guard on Pyrenees; whether the authorities avoided a situation where convicts would be living in close proximity to their former guards, or whether it was coincidence, I do not know. The first pensioner lots to be assigned with permanent cottages built on them were Lots P1-P19. These were assigned to men from as early as 1852; about half the men were granted title to the land within the period required by the conditions of their EPF engagement, the remainder being a second occupier.

Left: Map of Pensioner Land [Woodhouse Series 1877 Call No. 9024.F85G46] and
Register of Pensioner Land [WA S1308- Cons 4892 Fremantle P1-19].

The first lots to be taken up occurred in November 1852 when P1 was assigned to Owen Connor. Connor was representative of most of the EPF men and it seemed relevant to provide a brief summary of his background to get a glimpse of these men [click here for more information].

Map of Bruce Town Land auctioned in October 1900 [33-14-66 SLWA]
Captain John Bruce (later Colonel) acquired Lot 130, a 20 acre parcel of land, delineated in green on map Cons 3868_Item_119. Reminders of Bruce’s position as Officer in Command of the Enrolled Pensioner Force (1850-1870) and Commandant of Troops (1854-1870) abound in this area with the names John Road/Street, Bruce Street, Johannah Street (his wife) and Pensioners Road; ultimately the entire area was known as ‘Brucetown’. Most of the surviving maps were used over and over again for amendments and were rarely dated. Thus it is unclear when John Bruce acquired his land in North Fremantle. In 1890 the executor(s) of the Bruce estate, twenty years after his death, auctioned the subdivided land into 88 lots. [Inquirer & Commercial News 17 Oct 1900].

In September 1853 when the pensioner cottages were almost all complete and occupied, a decision was made to move the depot’s timber barracks half a mile north to be closer to Rocky Bay quarries as work resumed on the Perth roadworks. The depot was now located west of Lots 56 and 57, opposite what became Stirling Highway and Alfred Road, but east of the later railway line.

By the end of 1854, the majority of men were moved from the North Fremantle Depot to work on the new Fremantle prison. By 1855 it had become an invalid depot from which those who were able worked on levelling and surfacing the Perth Road. In 1857 it was reported that maintenance and repairs were being carried out on the depot buildings and work on the quarry continued … ’19 invalids, blind, lame and almost useless have thus been engaged’ [Campbell 8.10].

In Comptroller General Henderson’s final Memorandum of Work accomplished by the Sappers of the Royal Engineers, he wrote of the work at North Fremantle Depot as: 21 cottages, each containing two rooms 12 x 12, have been built with stone and roofed with shingles, and four with concrete roofs for pensioners; two large wooden depots, now used for invalids and a road party.

The depot was officially closed in 1872 and in 1894, the former North Fremantle School was built on the eastern side of the railway line; indeed some of the depot is buried beneath the railway line opened in 1881.

LAGS’: A history of the Western Australian convict phenomenon, W J (Bill) Edgar, 2012 Tammar Publications.
Inquirer 23 Jul 1851.
The Archaeology of the Convict System in Western Australia, Martin Gibbs, 2001 Australasian Historical Archaeology No. 19.
Building the Fremantle Convict Establishment, Robin McKellar Campbell, PhD thesis, 2010-2011, Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Visual Arts.
Henderson & Coy., Robin McKellar Campbell, 2017, Uniprint W.A.
Inquirer & Commercial News 17 Oct 1900.
Convict System: A collection of miscellaneous official documents relating to the transportation of convicts to Australia, covering the period 1810-1865, bound in 8 volumes., State Library of WA.