Swan River Colony was established as a "free settlement" in June 1829. For the first fifteen years, the people of the colony were generally opposed to accepting convicts, although the idea was in constant circulation almost from the start. Early in 1831, the Colonel Peter Latour asked permission to transport 300 Swing Riots convicts, but was refused. Nonetheless, the idea was under discussion later that year, with the Fremantle Observer editorialising on the need for convict labour,, and George Fletcher Moore writing in his diary: In 1834 Captain Frederick Irwin suggested that the colony take in some Indian convicts for use as labour for the construction of public works. Towards the end of that year, a meeting of settlers at King George Sound passed a motion, signed by sixteen persons, that convict labour was needed for land clearing and road works, but this was met with little support in other parts of the colony.. Three years later a similar motion was considered but defeated by the Western Australian Agricultural Society.
As Western Australia was not yet a penal colony, contemporary documents scrupulously avoided referring to the Parkhurst apprentices as "convicts". Most historians have since maintained this distinction. An opposing view, held for example by Andrew Gill, is that the Parkhurst apprentices were convicts, and that their apprenticeships constituted convict assignment.
Serious lobbying for Western Australia to become a penal colony began in 1844, when members of the York Agricultural Society brought forward a motion stating . Nothing concrete came of the motion, but James Battye nonetheless identifies it as a turning point:
In 1845, no less than three memorials were circulated requesting the establishment of a penal colony in Western Australia. Two of them were aborted, but the third resulted in a petition by the York Agricultural Society to the Legislative Council on the subject. The York Agricultural Society, which consisted mostly of pastoralists, argued that the colony's economy was on the brink of collapse due to an extreme shortage of labour.Footnotes] Pamela Statham has examined these claims, and found that the colony was in fact oversupplied with labour at the time, the main obstacles to progress being a shortage of money capital, and the lack of markets for the colony's produce. Only in the pastoral sector was there a severe labour shortage. The York Agricultural Society can therefore be seen as an influential lobby group representing the interests of a small but influential minority.
The York Agricultural Society's 1845 petition was unanimously rejected by the Legislative Council, which statedFootnotes] Over the following two years, however, the membership of the Council changed substantially. Three new members, Thomas Yule, Edward Barrett-Lennard and Rivett Henry Bland, were pro-convict pastoralists, giving the pastoralists a significant representation in Council. During 1846, the York Agricultural Society began circulating yet another petition. This petition appears to have convinced a substantial proportion of the colony of the merits of becoming a penal settlement. It obtained many signatures, and a number of newspapers began to support the idea.Footnotes] The petition was debated by the Legislative Council in July and August of 1847; it was rejected, but forwarded to the British Colonial Office nonetheless. To address some of the problems raised by the petition, the Legislative Council took a number of decisions, one of which was to ask the British government to send out a small number of convicts for a limited term.
When the reports of the Council's debates on the introduction of convicts arrived in Britain in early 1848, the British government took great interest in them. By this time, the only British colonies still willing to accept convicts were Canada and Van Diemen's Land, and these only under protest. A tentative attempt to institute a penal system within England had caused a public outcry, and had been suspended. With nowhere to send its convicts, the numbers in British jails had increased until the situation had become urgent.
In July 1848, Charles Fitzgerald was appointed Governor of Western Australia. The issue of convicts was almost certainly discussed with Fitzgerald before he departed for Western Australia, and it is probable that he was instructed to promote convictism, as he took a strongly pro-convict stance throughout his governorship. On his arrival in Western Australia in August 1848, he presented the Colonial Office's reply to Western Australia's request. Britain had refused to send convicts for a fixed term, but offered to send out first offenders in the final years of their terms. This was readily agreed to by the original petitioners, and also attracted some wider public support.
Implicit in Britain's offer was the understanding that the Swan River Colony would not become a regular penal settlement, in which Britain retained responsibility for managing and funding the penal system. Rather, it would take full responsibility for the convicts that it accepted. In February 1849, a public meeting was held to discuss the issue, from which a majority view emerged in support of an alternative proposal put forward by Lionel Samson. Samson argued that the colony needed both labour and capital, and pointed out that under Britain's proposal the colony would effectively become a penal colony but would not receive the usual investment of capital from Britain. In March, Fitzgerald was able to tell the Colonial Office:
Fitzgerald's message was received by the Colonial Office in July 1849. By that time, the Colonial Office had already acted to formally constitute Western Australia as a penal settlement. After receiving Fitzgerald's missive, the Colonial Office decided to send out about 100 convicts under the conditions of the original proposal. When news of this reached the Swan River Colony, the colonists protested that the original proposal was never agreed to by the majority of settlers. They demanded that the British Government either agree to fund the colony's convict establishment, or cancel altogether their plans to send convicts. Eventually the British Government agreed to the colonists' demands for funding, but since the expenditure was not warranted for only 100 convicts, it was decided to greatly increase the number of convicts sent.
The first of these was honoured throughout the convict era; and the second until 1868, when the last convict ship to Western Australia, the Hougoumont, was sent out with 62 Fenian prisoners on board. The third condition, that convicts not be convicted of serious crimes, was observed only for the first couple of years, and then only because the absence of a suitable jail would have made management of such convicts difficult. Later, more serious offenders were sent. It is a tradition that Western Australia's convicts were of a "better class" than those of Australia's other penal colonies, but Sandra Taylor has shown that this was not the case. Indeed, as Britain's penal system gradually reformed, it began to deal with more of its minor offenders at home, and therefore transported a higher proportion of serious offenders to Western Australia.
Most convicts in Western Australia spent very little time in prison. Those who were stationed at Fremantle were housed in the Convict Establishment, the colony's convict prison, and misbehaviour was punished by stints there. The majority of convicts, however, were stationed in other parts of the colony. Although there was no convict assignment in Western Australia, there was a great demand for public infrastructure throughout the colony, so that many convicts were stationed in remote areas. Initially, most convicts were set to work creating infrastructure for the convict system, including the construction of the Convict Establishment itself. Later, they were set to work on other public works, especially roads. In Perth, for example, convicts built the Perth Gaol between 1854 and 1856, and some were then housed there to provide labour for capital works in the city and surrounds. The Perth Town Hall and Government House and the Canning River Convict Fence are several of the notable landmarks built by convicts.
Since many convicts were stationed in work parties in remote locations, there were many opportunities for escape, and escapes did occur reasonably often. However since the colony was surrounded by ocean and desert, it was almost impossible to leave the colony, and few escapees remained at large within the colony for long. On some occasions escapees surrendered to avoid starvation. Notable exceptions include Moondyne Joe, who remained at large in the colony for two years, and John Boyle O'Reilly, a Fenian prisoner who escaped to the United States.
Convicts who were well-behaved could look forward to obtaining a ticket of leave well before the completion of their sentence. Ticket of leave men were permitted to work for money, but could not leave their assigned district and had few legal rights. After serving a period of time as a ticket of leave man, the convict might obtain a conditional pardon, which meant complete freedom except that they could not return to England.
The social stigma of conviction generally remained with ex-convicts throughout their lives, and to some extent affected their children too. Ex-convicts and their children rarely married into free settler families, for example. Although ex-convicts sometimes attained a position of social respectability by successful self-employment, for example as farmers or merchants, it was rare for them to obtain paid work other than unskilled menial labour. Government appointments were generally closed to them, with the notable exception of school teaching. A substantial number of ex-convict school teachers were appointed because educated free settlers were not attracted to the low salaries on offer.
Western Australia objected strongly to the cessation of transportation, and, once it became clear that the decision would not be altered, pushed for compensation. Governor Weld wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies:
Despite the colony's objections, Britain gradually began to wind the colony's penal system up, by reducing its expenditure and disposing of its assets. One by one the country convict depots were closed, and in 1872 the office of Comptroller General of Convicts was abolished. Much of the penal system's infrastructure was handed over to the colony, including the Convict Establishment, which became Fremantle Prison.
Although transportation ended in 1868, there were still 3158 convicts in the system by the end of that year, and it took many years for these remaining convicts to die or receive their freedom. Indeed, one of the most famous events of Western Australia's convict era, the Catalpa rescue, did not occur until 1876, eight years after the cessation of transportation.
For many years following the cessation of penal transportation to Western Australia, that period of Western Australia's history was systematically ignored. Few historians chose to study the era, and some historians actively avoided it. For example, Hal Colebatch's centenary history of Western Australia, A Story of a Hundred Years, contains no mention of Western Australia's convict era. Moreover, the possession of convict ancestry was for many years considered shameful; persons with convict ancestry tended not to speak of it, so that later generations were often ignorant of this aspect of their ancestry. In recent times, however, the stigma associated with convict ancestry has evaporated, and for some people has even become a source of pride. There has been a surge in interest in convict history and genealogy throughout Australia.