The Society acknowledges the traditional owners of the Irwin Districts, their continuing connection to land, sea and community and pays its respects to elders and their cultures, past and present.

Convict Tracks of the Victoria District – The Exhibition

Convict Transportation Around The World

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Major Convict site, with purpose built facility
Representative route of convict ships from Britain and Ireland to NSW, VDL, WA and NI
Major Convict site where convicts were used for labour
Representative route of convict ships to New Caledonia 1863-97

Transporting convicted criminals to overseas colonies was practiced by most imperial powers between the 17th and 20th centuries, including Britain, Spain, France, Russia and British India.

Transportation had three main objectives, with one or another aim predominating at different times:

• To project imperial power and influence around the world through strategic colonisation,
• To punish criminals and deter crime at home, and
• To reform criminals and create new societies abroad.

Transportation from Great Britain began in the 1640s when royalist prisoners were sent to permanent labour in West Indies sugar plantations.  Other British convict colonies include Maryland, Virginia, Bermuda, the Falklands and Gibraltar.

The British system was closely studied and partly copied by other powers, especially by France in New Caledonia. Other significant convict transportation sites include French Guiana and New Caledonia (France), Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines (Spain) and Siberia and Sakhalin (Russia).The British India convict transportation system operated between 1790 and 1938 transporting male and female convicts to Penang, Singapore, Malacca and the Andaman Islands.

The Anecdotal History is worth quoting verbatim:
“Singapore, Malacca, Penang, and Maulmein were the Sydneys of India. There are upon an average about 1,100 to 1,200 native convicts from India constantly at Singapore. These are employed making roads and digging canals; and, undoubtedly, without them the town, as far as locomotion is concerned, would have been now but a sorry residence.”

Convicts on Parade, Singapore 1860s
Source: McNair, Maj, A.J R “A record of the convict prison at Singapore in the straits settlements established 1825, discontinued 1873”

Source: Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Nomination, 2008

Transportation to Eastern and Western Australia

The Convict System in Western Australia began in 1850 after the cessation of transportation to New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land. It had several differences to that of Eastern Australia. It was better administered and did not have the same punishment regimes. Below is a summary of the differences between the Eastern States and Western Australian systems.

The WA government drew up Ticket of Leave Regulations which set out the rues for men sent out to work. The regulations were amended several times. You can download a copy of the 1869 regulations here.

& NI*
Transportation of women No Yes
Transportation of children No Yes
Could sponsor family members to emigrate Yes Yes
Assignment to private employers No Yes
Pensioner Guards Yes No
Land grants to Ticket of Leavers Yes ?
Parallel system of subsidised free migration Yes
Bride Ships
Female Factories No Yes
Silent System No Yes
Right to petition the Governor Yes Yes
Proportion of convicts that were ex-military 10% c2.5%

*VDL – Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania), NI – Norfolk Island

Western Australia also had its own internal convict systems, transporting colonial criminal prisoners to New South Wales before 1850, and Aboriginal political prisoners to Rottnest Island between 1838 and 1931.


  • Rica Erikson, The Brand On His Coat: Biographies of some Western Australian convicts, UWA Press, Nedlands 1983
  • Stephen Nicholas (ed), Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia’s Past, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne 1988
  • Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Nomination, Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra 2008
Fremantle Prison 1865
Source: :GaryGillard,net

Colonising the Victoria District

Convicts were sent to the Victoria District, now the coastal region of the MidWest of WA, soon after lead ore was discovered on the Murchison River in 1848.  

Their contributions to the development of the towns of Geraldton, Dongara and Northampton and all points in between through the construction of a network of roads, bridges and jetties cannot be underestimated.

Convicts on their Ticket of Leave were not kept in prison unless they committed another offence. Instead, they were available for work in the mining, farming and  pastoral industries as well as teaching and secretarial work. They made positive and important contributions to the economic development of the district and to Western Australia.

Lynton Convict Hiring Station 1853-1857
Source: Dr Bruce Baskerville, 2007

Dongara Police Occurrence Books

By the 1860s, two large property holdings had been established in the Irwin District and stocked with cattle and sheep, driven from the Swan River and Avon Districts.

A settlement scheme soon followed which encouraged more settlers to take up land along the Irwin River. The landholders wanted land cleared for wheat cropping as well as roads and a port to get their agricultural products to market so convict labour was in demand.

Convicts were issued a Ticket of Leave at Fremantle and sent to the Irwin District to work. This required an administrative centre for the police who could travel the district to monitor these men to ensure they were fulfilling the terms of their release.

The Dongara Police Station and Courthouse was built for this purpose by expiree Joseph Walton, using convict labour and completed in 1871.
This photograph was taken c1912 (IDHS IRME01843)
This photograph is of Irwin House taken about 1880 (IDHS IRME01881) where many ticket of leave men were employed.

Many offenders were Ticket of Leave men

  ARSON 2.17%
  ROBBERY 7.24%
OTHER OFFENCES Trespass, Breech of the ‘Scab in Sheep Act’, Failure to pay Court costs, Breech of Agreement Unlawful possession of a £5 note Ticket of Leave men failing to report to Police 5.79%
ALCOHOL RELATED OFFENCES Profane and/or obscene language, Disorderly conduct, Fighting, Disturbing the Peace, Unlawfully entering the hotel, Sly grog production and distribution, Disturbing the Native Assistant, Indecent conduct, Interfering with Police while on duty at the hotel, Riding furiously on a public road, 28.26%

Irwin District Convict Mapping

IDHS research has documented over 700 convicts who were assigned to work in the Irwin District. We are matching these men to the landholders to create a map of where these men worked and the infrastructure which was built.

  • 1 -The original Pell Bridge was built by expiree Robert Cousins in 1873
  • 2 – In the late 1863 a convict road crew built a road North of Mountain Bridge to meet the existing stock route (Old North Road). Remnants of the cobble road are still visible.
  • 3 – For 20 years The Cattle Company held pastoral leasehold over much of the land between Mingenew and Greenough. It based its managers at Irwin House and employed a large number of ticket of leave men,
  • 4 – James Pascoe built the Milo Inn (Pascoe’s Inn) on the Number 2 stock route in 1868, employed 7 ticket of leave men.
  • 5 – Expiree James Mountain and his family leased a tillage block near the Irwin River and employed ticket of leave men between 1868 and 1871. Mountain Bridge bears the family name today
  • 6 – Expiree Joseph Chivers had four 100 acre blocks south of the river and employed 10 ticket of leave men between 1865 and 1875.
  • A – Dongara Cemetery contains many graves of the European settlers as well those of 24 ticket of leave men.
  • B – Dongara Police Station and Courthouse(1871) was built be expiree Joseph Walton using ticket of leave labour. The building now houses the Irwin District Museum
  • C – Dongara Hotel (1868) was built be expiree Joseph Walton using ticket of leave labour. It was originally known as The Irwin Arms,
  • D – Convicts built the road from Dongara to Port Denison, Originally known as Beach Road it is now Point Leander Drive,
  • E – At Port Denison two obelisks were built by expiree Robert Sparkes in 1869 using ticket of leave labour. They were used to guide ships into Port Denison through the hazardous reefs. The obelisk at the fishing boat harbour is now known as the Fishermen’s Memorial, the inland obelisk has been partially demolished
  • F – In 1859 harbourmaster Edward Downes small cottage at the mouth of the Irwin River was attacked by 5 convicts who had escaped from a working party in Fremantle and had sailed north in a whaling boat. The convicts tied up Edward, has wife and a visiting friend. The convicts stole food, guns and cloth which they used for a sail, They were eventually apprehended in Shark Bay.
  • G – Two limestone quarries were the source of stone for the buildings and roads constructed by convicts in Dongara.

Ticket of Leave

Ticket of Leave 1868 (IROB10199)

Tickets of Leave were printed on waterproof parchment and were quite durable They were required to be carried at all times and must be shown to Police when requested The place of employment of the holder was listed and he had to remain at the assigned property. This ticket (IROB1099) was issued to Benjamin (Taffy) Jones 9772. His surname was been removed from the document prior to acquisition.

The ticket of leave system was subject to special regulations, a copy of these regulations from 1869 can be downloaded here. Thanks to Geraldton Museum and Gardens for this supplying this document to IDHS.

Sources: Bain, M.A ‘Ancient Landmarks,’ IDHS Archives, State Records Office

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