Convicts to Free Citizens

WA was the first Colony in Australia to be settled by free non-convict settlers, but due to slow population growth and a stagnant economy, in 1850 WA commenced the transportation of Convicts from Great Britain and Ireland. This occurred at the time other Australian colonies were ceasing transportation and closing their convict establishments. Between 1850 and 1868, almost 10,000 men were transported to WA, and State Archives reveal the close management of their lives. The comparatively late commencement of the convict system was one of the factors that delayed the introduction of representative and responsible government in WA.

Upon arrival in Western Australia, many convicts quickly received a ‘Ticket of Leave’ so that they could be placed in work. Later they received pardons and ‘Certificates of Freedom’. Infused with the dirt, grime and sweat from a life hard lived, these heavily stained archival documents reveal Western Australia’s convict past like no others.

Those convicts who survived into the beginning of the 20th century did so as full citizens of the State, voting in elections, with some becoming valued members of the community. Official histories in the 1920s sometimes avoided acknowledging WA’s convict experience, and State Archives reveal official discussions about whether WA’s Convict records should be destroyed. However, over 150 years later, WA’s convict past is embraced and some of their descendants sit in WA’s Parliament.  The archives documenting Western Australia’s Convicts are also inscribed on UNESCO’s International Memory of the World Register.