Western Australia owes a large debt to the Royal Engineers and the sappers who played a pivotal role in the development of the public works program that led to the construction of hundreds of miles of roads, numerous bridges and drains and rural depot buildings that enabled settlers to easily hire ticket-of-leave labour.  The important colonial buildings that were constructed during the 1860s through contract work were a bonus.  Not only did the the commissioned officers of the Royal Engineers provide the technical expertise to implement many of these projects, they also played an important supervisory role.  However, it was to the relatively unknown rank and file members of the 20th Company, commonly referred to as sappers that a greater debt is also owed.  These men were skilled craftsmen who at times were called upon to practice their trade when there were shortages of ticket-of-leave men in addition to their task of instructing prisoners and providing military protection.

It can not be denied that without their help the convict system developed would have been more costly for the British government therefore it is highly likely that the strategy of establishing road parties, erecting rural depots and prisoner training would have been considerably curtailed. The ramifications for the colony would have been a reduction in economic growth and an inability to utilise the convicts and ticket-of-leave men to the same extent.
Dr Fiona Bush BA, MBEnv, PhD MICOMOS [an extract from Fiona’s PhD Thesis].

It was not my intention to give a history lesson on colonial Western Australia.  You will know by now that the 20th Company in WA comprised up to 130 NCOs and rank and file men; no more than 100 were in WA at any one time. They have been identified on this site (click here) and, in time, will have as much information about them as I can acquire.

My intention was to link the names to specific public works in an effort to explain what an Instructing Warder’s responsibilities were.  It is clear that these men were often required to exceed their role as instructors (as Dr Bush explains above).  It is also clear that it would take a very long time to track 130 men through the Convict Establishment system, the Royal Engineer Office, Fremantle , the War Office or any other of the myriad government entities, both in Britain and in the Swan River Colony. I hope this is just a beginning to your further research.

First, let us look at the variety of skills the sappers and miners brought to the State and utilised in the years 1850-1862.  The data has been extracted from the War Office muster rolls and pay lists.

Occupation/Trade Statistics by Ship

Trade Scindian Anna Robertson Marion Sub Total Salsette Nile Grand Total
Carpenters  2  18  4  24  1  1  26
Masons  1  12  7  20  0  10  30 (29*)
Miners  1  6  7  14  0  7  21 (20*)
Smiths  1  9  1  11  1  5  17
Painters  0  4  3  7  0  2 10
Bricklayers  0  6  2  8  0  1  9
Collar-makers  0 3  1  4  0  0 4
Tailors  0  4  0  4  0  1  5
Wheelers  0  2  1  3  0  0 3
Coopers  0  0  2  2  0  0  2
Buglers  0  1  1  2  0  0  2
Total by ship  5  65  30  100  2  27  129 (127*)

* One mason (Townsend) and one miner (Cameron) arrived on the Marion and Anna Robertson respectively, returned to England (1856) and came back to Western Australia on Nile (1858).

Source for Table:
Muster Rolls & Pay Lists WO11-126, 130, 158.

If you are only seeking the location of one man, you could follow his whereabouts in Western Australia month by month (1850-1858) and quarterly (1859-1862).  Click on War Office Records to find not only the War Office series and piece numbers, but the AJCP reel numbers for the microfilm in Australia.

The State Records Office in Western Australia has a resource named the Buchanan Index Overview.  If you choose to use the online examples in the link provided, searching by keywords such as ‘sappers’, ‘instructing warders’ and ‘Royal Engineers’ in the Theme-Topics category may lead you to a letter and page number on microfilm.  Alternatively you may find a name in the Names or Addressees category.  By whatever means you are able to pinpoint your item of interest, you will need to visit the State Records Office in Perth to access the relevant microfilm.  The staff are extremely helpful in these matters.

Training the Trainers

19th C. Royal Woolwich Arsenal

On 23 April 1812 an establishment was authorised, by Royal Warrant, to teach “Sapping, Mining, and other Military Fieldwork’s” to the junior officers of the Corps of Royal Engineers and the Corps of Royal Military Artificers, Sappers and Miners. Their ‘academy’ was situated at Woolwich, the traditional headquarters of the Board of Ordnance and its arsenal. In 1850 the Sappers and Miners training facility was moved to Chatham. The Royal Engineers moved there in 1857.

IW Brompton Barracks Inspection of RSM 1856

Inspection of RSM, Brompton Barracks, Chatham 1856

In 1855 the Board of Ordnance was abolished and authority over the Royal Engineers, Royal Sappers and Miners and Royal Artillery was transferred to the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, thus uniting them with the rest of the Army. The following year, the Royal Engineers and Royal Sappers and Miners became a unified corps as the Corps of Royal Engineers.

At Chatham the sappers received instruction in the field services of the royal engineer department. The course followed was very complete, omitting no detail with which a sapper should be acquainted. It embraced pontooning, bridge-making, photography, telegraphy , rifle science, fortification, plan drawing and surveying.

Work and Instruction in Western Australia

So what kind of public works did the sappers and miners get involved in – both as Instructing Warders to the prisoners or ticket-of-leave men – or as skilled tradesmen assisting in the building of infrastructure for the State?

The Western Australian convict workforce was spread throughout the State by the use of depots and a ticket-of-leave system for convicts who exhibited good behaviour. The main depots of the Convict Establishment were in Fremantle, North Fremantle, Mount Eliza, Freshwater Bay, Guildford, and Greenmount. There were also hiring stations located further afield in Toodyay, York, Bunbury, King George’s Sound and Port Gregory.

In January 1863 James Manning, Clerk of Works, Lieutenant Colonel Henderson, RE and E M Grain, Captain commanding the Royal Engineers, signed a Memorandum showing approximately the Amount of Work performed by Convict Labour, from the arrival of the Scindian in June 1850 to November 30, 1862.