York Convict Depot

York had a military presence many years before the Royal Sappers and Miners and their Royal Engineer officers arrived in the Colony in 1850, 1851 and 1852 making up a Company of 100 men. Later, there were ‘top ups’ required, but this was after the York Depot had been downgraded.

York Military Post
On 29th January 1831, a lieutenant, a sergeant and 20 troops from the 63rd Regiment in Hobart arrived on Isabella to augment the Redcoat troops at the Swan River Colony. The 63rd were the first to arrive in York in 1832 with the 21st, 51st and 96th Regiments continuing a military presence there until 1849, with between three and 37 men on station throughout those 17 years. Indeed, it was Ensign Robert Dale of the 63rd who accompanied the first settlers into the York region.

List of Convicts transferred to York [Convict Establishment Superintendents Orders 22 July 1851]
Perth Gazette article dated 25 July 1851

The Convicts
In July 1851 forty convicts were sent to York, men from the ship Pyrenees which had arrived in the Colony less than a month before.  All holding tickets of leave, the labourers, blacksmiths, carpenters, bricklayers and men with a variety of other useful occupations were destined to find employment with the settlers. In the interim they worked on the roads in the York townsite and the roads connecting York to Perth, Guildford and Toodyay.

The Enrolled Pensioners
In August 1851 Sergeant James Hayden led a detachment of enrolled pensioners to York [Broomhall:95]. Assistant Surveyor F T Gregory marked out four-acre blocks for pensioners who, by November 1852, were assigned lots as follows:

P1Richard Connolly73rd FootPyreneesDied in York in 1881.
P2Henry DaveyRoyal MarineScindianDied in York in 1892.
P3George BaggRoyal MarineScindianDied in Kojonup in 1872.
P4James Whitely31st FootMindenDied in Fremantle in 1894.
P9James Hayden (Sergeant)10th FootHashemyDied in York in 1880.
P10John Kairey84th FootMindenDied in Fremantle in 1867.
P11John Campbell47th FootMindenLeft for Ceylon in 1860.
Pensioner Lots at York 1851 – Names Marked
(Click to Enlarge)

The 20th Company of Royal Sappers and Miners
Nine of the Sappers and Miners (Privates) stationed in York 1852-1855 arrived in the Colony on Anna Robertson which left London on 10th September arriving on 18th December 1851. These were George Anderson (mason), Archibald Munro (carpenter), John Gardner (miner), Edward Mitchell (bricklayer), John Fasham (smith), Amos Scott (wheeler), James McNicol (carpenter), William Spry (painter) and William Pearson (bricklayer). William Dowling (carpenter) and Thomas Jones (mason) came on the convict ship Marion, arriving January 1852. For half of them, their previous service had been at the Great Exhibition which opened in Kensington on 1st May and closed on 15th October 1851.


Corporal John Hay was at the York Depot from February 1852 to May 1856, always the senior man. He arrived on the first convict ship Scindian in June 1850 with Captain E Y W Henderson. R.E., Comptroller General of the Convict Establishment, and four other Sappers.

Corporal Hay was well thought of by Edward Read Parker, a York long-term resident and man of influence. In a letter to the editor of the Inquirer newspaper in 1853, Parker defended the Sappers with a special mention for Hay. Corporal James Keir relieved Hay from June to October 1856, after which the Depot had its first Sergeant – Edward Taylor – who transferred from Toodyay.




Officer Class or Class Officer?
Lieutenant Edmund F Du Cane, who had served as a Juror at the Great Exhibition, also arrived on Anna Robertson and by January 1852 had been appointed supervisor of the Sappers and Miners in the Eastern District which covered York, Toodyay and Guildford. By today’s standards Du Cane was a very young man (21) to take on this level of responsibility. This was recognised by his superior, Comptroller General Henderson, in later correspondence to Governor Fitzgerald in September 1853:
Lieutenant Ducane [sic] is stationed at Guildford, in charge of the works at that station, York, and Toodyay, and the whole of the eastern districts. Having no clerk or foreman of works, the whole duty of preparing plans and estimates, checking the expenditure, and superintending the works, devolves upon him, and he is frequently and unavoidably absent on tours of inspection of the many works under his charge; he is also responsible for the amount of work and wages earned by the ticket-of-leave men; and all these duties involve a great amount of detail work.

Settling In
Corporal Hay joined Anderson, Munro, Gardner and Mitchell who had arrived in the previous month and in March they were joined by John Fasham. Our York Instructing Warders thus began their role of assisting the convict rehabilitation process, teaching their charges new skills and supervising work programmes. The temporary ‘depot’ was on a rented property with at least 30 TOL men in a large waterproof tent with stretchers to sleep on. Some of the men sent to York would have found employment and accommodation with settlers within the previous five to six months. The Sappers were at first accommodated in temporary huts made of thatch with brick chimneys until the Depot building programme got underway. One can only imagine the fate of their wives – all but one of the men was married, many of them had children.

First the Site and Then the Gaol
F T Gregory did not confine his 1851 survey to the pensioner lots; he also marked out the area on which the York Convict Depot would be built. In this map (below) the lots A4, A5 and A7 marked by me were used for buildings and A6 for other use: possibly brickmaking [Campbell:75].

Plan of Convict Reserve at York

A 12-cell gaol was the first construction project for the Sappers and TOL men. This was a Colonial Gaol which Du Cane in his mid-year report to Henderson described as ‘on the townsite’. Du Cane was pleased with the progress of the brickmaking – 30,000 bricks at a cost of 13 shillings per 1000; a fraction of the cost of those supplied by contractors. The men involved in this work earned 1/2½d. a day. The convict workforce continued to be around 30 but the weather was against them. During that first winter heavy rains washed out the mud used as cement (no lime was available) and the walls had to be rebuilt. Du Cane’s report eventually made its way to England where the Parliamentary record under the signature of Henderson can be read to this day:
At York a substantial stone gaol, with twelve separate cells, is in course of erection. It is a heavy piece of work for so small a number of men as have been available for it, but is progressing well. A large number of bricks have been burnt by the men for future building. Buildings thus constructed are much more durable than those built country fashion, of mud, as was originally intended, and the bricks cost about one third the usual market price. Stone foundations have been laid for the proposed buildings, and the necessary preparations made for their completion during the ensuing summer. Repairs have also been executed on the roads in the vicinity.

Work in Progress (or not?)
By the end of the year some progress had been made on the construction of the Depot, but clearly it depended on the number of TOL men available – there was a high take-up of private sector employment. Governor Fitzgerald took a tour of some of the outstations late in the year and had reservations about York’s progress, as he states in his correspondence to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in November 1852:
The arrangements I witnessed with reference to the buildings in connexion with the hiring depots at the York and Toodyay stations were not such as I could entirely have wished, as I was unable to discover any just ground for giving a preferential priority of construction to the Sappers’ cottages, which had been done, over the more essential buildings, such as an infirmary, a commissariat store, a residence for the senior superintendent, and, lastly, the pensioner cottages, all of which should have preceded the erection of cottages intended for men serving as soldiers, on whom living under canvass in such a climate could not be considered a hardship until circumstances permitted their being housed in more solid constructions [what did I say about wives and children?]. Having called the attention of the Comptroller-General to my views on the subject, I have no doubt a recurrence of such will not again take place.

The number of Sappers and Miners on station was at its optimum by this time – Corporal Hay and five Sappers. During 1853, Edward Mitchell, one of the original Sappers posted to York had left to do duty at Fremantle and Guildford and then died in June 1854. In mid 1853, John Gardner, another of the ‘originals’ was removed to the Military Hospital, Fremantle with a ‘severe illness and will be incapacitated for a long period’ [Barker:78]. It seems the Sappers may have been doing most of the works themselves, as the end of year report indicates only eight TOL men were available for public works and even then the labour strength was kept up by men sent to the Depot for punishment. However, the 12-cell gaol, gaoler’s quarters and native lock-up were complete.

In early 1856 many of the Sappers received orders to return to England. Du Cane, in charge of the York effort and Crossman of Albany were also on the list. When the Orders were written, the Crimean War was still in full swing and the War Office was seeking more fighting men. The two officers, one sergeant and 18 other ranks left in February 1856; John Gardner and Thomas Jones, previously of York Depot, were on the list (click here for the Crimean War Connection).

The Beginning of the End
In 1857 the York Depot construction was complete. On the adjacent pensioners’ land, ten cottages were complete and a further eight under construction. But, ironically this was the year Governor Kennedy chose to downgrade the York Depot; five other Outstations had been downgraded in the previous year and Port Gregory was closed forever in 1857. The downgraded Depots were named ‘branch establishments’ and staffing was at a minimum at York: one warder, a single hospital orderly; possibly barracks and kitchen staff were retained for the limited number of convicts using the facility.

This plan shows the Depot complete … a sketch from the WA State Records Office 
used in various formats by several 21st Century archaeologists; this one by Martin Gibbs.

In 1862 Governor Hampton briefly breathed some life back into the Depots, including York, when he stepped up regional public works projects. The Depots accommodated bond convicts as well as the now much reduced TOL men. They had to muddle along without the supervisory role of the 20th Company Sappers and Miners who left in April 1862, bar 27 men who took their discharges from the Army to settle in the Colony. Only one of the York Depot Sappers stayed: Archibald Munro. By 1861 he was at the Champion Bay Depot, discharged from the Army in December that year, and in 1864 took up 20 acres of land in the Swan District, most likely assisted by the £10 subsidy available to all the Sappers who discharged in the Colony.

In January 1862 Comptroller General Henderson generated his final report on the works of the Royal Engineers (including the Sappers of course) for the Convict Establishment. Of York he said:
A Depot for 120 men, quarters for six warders (three of these are at present used by the police), cook-house, hospital, commissariat store, quarters, stables, forage-room, harness-room, together with the necessary out-buildings, have been erected; also superintendent’s quarters similar to those at Guildford (now occupied by the medical officer). The whole enclosed by a post and rail fence. 13 cottages of two rooms each, for pensioners, have been erected; also a lock-up and police quarters, built of stone.

The Depot was finally closed in 1874. The populace was not happy! (click here for article). Thereafter the Superintendent’s quarters were remodelled and used as the Resident Magistrate’s house and today what remains is utilised as the York Residency Museum. Other suitable buildings were occupied as an invalid hospital until in the 1890s, when the York District hospital was built on the site – using some of the bricks from the demolished buildings.

Photograph courtesy of the Shire of York.


The Button
In October 2018 Katie Benfield, Curator of the York Residency Museum, contacted me to explain that a Museum volunteer had found a button on the Residency site. Katie very much hoped it dated from the convict era and asked me to help date it to the nearest decade.

The obverse bears Queen Victoria’s stamp and the words ‘Royal Engineers’. The reverse (pictured) bears a company name ‘Smith Kemp & Wright’ with what appears to be a maker’s mark.

I set to work on a bit of research into the Company. What I discovered was a ‘timeline history’ of the manufacturer of Army buttons from the 1840’s to 1990. Somewhere along the way it lost Mr. Kemp and in the early 20th century was taken over by the Firmin Group but continued trading as Smith & Wright, always with its location in Birmingham. I also contacted a colleague in England, Michael Hargreaves Mawson, a specialist in militaria.

Mike Mawson responded with: That is an Other Ranks button of the Victorian period, dating therefore from between 1856 and 1902.   Unfortunately, the design of button remained absolutely unchanged for almost fifty years (ref: Parkyn, Shoulder Belt Plates and Buttons), so we will be reliant on the manufacturers’ back-mark for closer dating.

The Firmin Group advised that no archives exist for Smith & Wright for the period required.

This makes two points clear … (a) the button came from a Sapper and Miner’s uniform issued AFTER the Corps merged with the Royal Engineers in 1856 and (b) as an ‘other ranks’ button, it could not have belonged to Lieutenant Du Cane or any other officer visiting York. An intelligent guess would suggest that because of the turnaround time of the voyage between the Colony and England, it would take up to 12 months for new uniforms to be ordered and supplied to the Sappers in the Colony, thus it was worn by a Private in the latter stage of the Sappers’ postings in York.

Muster Books & Pay Lists, Royal Engineers, Class WO11, Piece Numbers 126, 134, 138, 142, 146, The National Archives, Kew.
Convict Department, Superintendent Orders, Acc 1156 SO1-SO3, WA State Records Office.
The Veterans: a history of the Enrolled Pensioner Force, F H Broomhall 1989.
Building the Fremantle Convict Establishment, Robin McKellar Campbell 2011.
The Archaeology of the Convict System in Western Australia, Martin Gibbs, Australasian Historical Archaelology 2001.
Global, Regional and Local Networks: Archaeological Investigation of the Western Australian Penal Colony 1850 – 1875, Sean Winter 2013.
Further correspondence on the subject of Convict Discipline and Transportation, 1852-1855, Volume 6.
Warders and Gaolers: A Dictionary of Western Australian Prison Officers, David J. Barker 2003.

York Ticket of Leave Convicts [Acc 1156 SO1-SO3 WASRO].
York Pensioner Lots 1851 [Cons 3850-45b WASRO].
York Convict Reserve 1853 [Cons 3850-46a WASRO].
York Depot Plan [Gibbs Fig.4 AHA p.63 from Acc 1067C MPG 722 WASRO].
Residency Museum [photograph courtesy of the Shire of York].
Royal Engineers Button (reverse) [York Residency Museum].

Perth Gazette 25 Jul 1851.
Perth Gazette 13 Feb 1852.
Inquirer 22 Jun 1853.
Perth Gazette 20 Mar 1874.

© Diane Oldman 2019