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Australian Ancestors–Fremantle Prison

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    Last Updated: January 10th, 2009

    gatehouseAs nearly any other kind of research, finding an Australian ancestor presents its own challenges, and often can be a bit frustrating, particularly if that ancestor began his or her life in England or the UK.

    Australia was of course one of the penal colonies, where the black sheep ancestors of many Australians today were retired to when they committed some kind of misdeed, or in those days, imagined misdeed against the crown.

    Australia was for all intents and purposes, for a time, a large penal colony for those who had committed some major or minor infraction. As such it contained many men and women who began their life in what is now the UK.

    Fremantle Prison was among the places where Australians who had begun life as citizens of the United Kingdom were sent, and the prison has a fascinating history that will literally keep you spellbound even as you’re reading it and searching out your ancestors here.
    Originally called the “Convict Establishment” Fremantle prison was built by the convicts themselves, a labor which was carried out between the years of 1852 and 1860 from local limestone.

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    Swan River had come into being in 829. The colony was somewhat developing more slowly than it had been hoped, in part due to the arid and difficult nature of the land that it was part of, but also in part due to the lack of labor that existed there.

    Captain Stirling, who had given many a rather false report of the lands that existed there, terming them fertile and abundant, saw the actual area and became disenchanted with the landscape, leaving nearly as soon as they arrived. After all not everyone wants to scrape a living out of an inhospitable area.

    This meant, in reality, that there were very few people available to work the colony and cause it to grow and prosper.
    1845 saw the York Agricultural Society, who found support in their local merchants, to lobby the Legislative Council of the colony to plead with the British to send them convicts to be used as cheap–or more realistically–free–labor.
    This was viewed at the time as the best means to get labor of both the skilled and unskilled variety to help in building roads, bridges and buildings that the colony was going to require to grow and prosper.
    Some convicts actually gained from it, as if they were close to the end of a sentence, they were given a sort of leave that isn’t unlike the parole system of today.

    The debate took several years, until in May of 1849, the British Parliament passed a resolution that read:

    “from the first day of June in this present year; Her Majesty’s settlements in Western Australia shall be places to which felons and other offenders in the United Kingdom then being or thereafter to be under sentence or order of transportation or banishments shall be conveyed…

    Amusingly enough, the first ship that carried convicted felons to Fremantle in June of the next year, actually passed the ship that was carrying the news that they were coming, so the colony was nothing if not unprepared for the arrival of the 75 passengers that it carried.

    After finding temporary housing for his charges, the head of the colonies looked around to find suitable means and place for his buildings and settled upon a limestone ridge. The limestone was quarried on site and the convicts set about building their own housing.
    Fremantle Prison was the site of many convicts housing, male as well as female and from the records here, which are remarkably complete, one can glean a great deal of information so far as ancestry.
    Well worth paying a visit, the Fremantle Prison site and its accompanying records can help you in your quest to find an ancestor with a bit of a shady past.

    Freemantle Prison Records (Swan River Colony)
    Text of Council Order found on Fremantle Prison Site

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