by Peter Conole, Guest Writer
Sir Edmund Yeamans Walcott Henderson was born in April 1821 near Christchurch in Hampshire, the son of an admiral and of gentry descent in both parental lines. After graduating from the Woolwich Academy in June 1838 Henderson was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers.
Over the next decade he served in Britain and Canada, reaching the rank of 2nd Captain in 1847. His first important career milestone came in 1848 when he was assigned the vital and delicate role of surveying the New Brunswick frontier between Canada and the USA. Success in that venture revealed the young officer to be a man of promise. In May 1849 an Order in Council converted the fledgling colony of Western Australia (WA) into a penal settlement. A year later – still in his 20s – Henderson was given the onerous and highly responsible position of Comptroller General of Convicts for this new imperial venture.
WA was founded as a free settlement, and the decision to send selected felons here was only reached after long and heated arguments. Henderson and the first batch arrived on the Scindian in June 1850, along with troops of the Enrolled Pensioner Force and five Royal Sappers and Miners, the first of three shipments which would make up the 20th Company, RSM.
Under the stewardship of Governor Charles Fitzgerald and Captain Henderson, a high proportion of convicts already had or received ‘tickets of leave’ soon after arrival. Many were eventually allowed to seek private employment for wages. In terms of the work-a-day use of convict labour, infrastructure projects were key elements on the agenda for Henderson, his convict charges and the officers and men of the Royal Sappers and Miners. It was not easy from day one, as no housing was available for the convicts upon arrival. He was able to persuade the Fremantle harbour master to lend him a warehouse to hold them for the early years.
To quote one WA historian, Henderson was a “kind and just man, moderate and understanding and one opposed to harsh discipline”. Because so many early convicts could work as free agents, he and the Sappers and Miners set up nine depots around the colony in the 1850s to provide bases for those ticket-of-leave men seeking employment.
Progress and enlightenment were also in mind when Captain Henderson and his colleagues set their minds to the most important infrastructure project of all, old Fremantle Prison. Construction began as early as May 1851 and vital building operations on that formidable stronghold ended on June 1, 1855. The establishment was not meant to be just a penal centre, but rather a state-of-the-art prison aimed at confining offenders whilst reforming their behaviour and morals and educating them in the process. An asylum and hospital were added in 1854 for the benefit of distressed or failing convicts.
The years rolled on and the face of the colony changed as connecting roads from Perth to Albany and other regional centres were built, as swamps in and around Perth were drained and cleared and as major buildings such as the Pensioner Barracks and Government House made their appearance. The Sappers and Miners put up their own barracks and offices in what is now Henderson Street, Fremantle. The site is now occupied by a late Victorian courthouse and the old police quarters.
A public hospital, several government schools and a Mechanics’ Institute with attached library also appeared in the Fitzgerald-Henderson years, plus a riverside gaol with boating sheds in 1852. The pièce de résistance was probably the old Perth gaol, located just to the west of Beaufort Street in Perth, finished in 1856. The place complemented eight lock-up centres and gaols scattered around the colony.
The Governor and his major working partner Captain Henderson, in his dual roles as a very competent Comptroller General of Convicts and officer of the Royal Engineers, deserve equal credit and recognition for establishing a successful and relatively humane convict system.
Regrettably we have solid evidence that both gentlemen were unhappy about developments in WA. They were at the centre of stormy deliberations about the workings of the convict system back in England. The situation was bluntly described by Bishop Matthew Blagden Hale in a letter he wrote to a friend in England on November 3, 1857. He explained that in the early Convict Establishment years low-risk offenders with good prospects of reforming themselves and prospering in the colony had been sent. However, over the two previous years prison officials in England broke their agreement with the colonists and dispatched numerous hardened offenders who sometimes generated serious law enforcement issues after they arrived.
In 1856 an irate Charles Fitzgerald and Edmund Henderson fronted up to a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament in London and poured out their grievances. Fitzgerald said things had degenerated since the early days and that only the arrival of more free settlers and increased capital investment could ensure the well-being of the colony. Henderson deplored a perceived increase in crime and immorality in WA since the change of policy and said the system should be terminated rather than force the colony to accept more hard core criminals.
The situation was allowed to drift on and later colonial officials found them themselves in the position of having to introduce harsher systems for managing convicts. It is reasonable to ask: how were Henderson and successive Governors caught out by the decision to send large numbers of serious offenders to WA? The key factor was political instability in Britain. From 1852 until 1855 no less than five different Secretaries of State for the Colonies were in office and in such a situation transient officials and departmental clerks sometimes worked at cross purposes, with erratic results.
Personal affairs detained Henderson in England until 1858, when he returned to resume work in WA. By then, he had been promoted to the rank of Major. Henderson seems to have had a cordial relationship with Arthur Kennedy, the new WA Governor, notwithstanding the latter’s supposedly despotic way of managing colonial affairs. The next governor – John Hampton – posed much more of a problem after he assumed office in 1862. Hampton was a martinet who insisted on introducing a severe disciplinary system in the Convict Establishment.
Disputes with Henderson will have been inevitable, but after winning promotion to Lieutenant Colonel in 1862 the latter decided to leave WA. During a farewell gathering before his departure in January 1863 Henderson asserted that his disciplinary system had worked and that crime had been kept to a minimum during his time in office. Quite true, but Hampton did not attend the gathering to hear such opposing views.
Back in Britain Henderson received his reward for excellent WA service – appointment to the dual positions of Surveyor General of Prisons and Inspector General of Military Prisons. He felt able to sell his army commission in 1864 and prospered in his new labours, garnering an honour as a Companion of the Bath in 1868. He was knighted in 1878.
In 1869 Edmund Henderson was appointed sole Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, a complex and difficult position to hold at any time. His record in office was varied and began with a flurry of excellent and well-received reforms. However, as the brief standard reference works reveal, his public career ended badly because of political interference and some errors in judgement. Eventually, Henderson’s failure to counter some terrorist activity effectively and his poor handling of a major Trafalgar Square riot brought about the gentleman’s resignation in February 1886.
Regardless of his British misfortunes, Edmund Henderson has long been held in high regard in WA for his wisdom, tact and range of achievements. He died in December 1896.