WHEN Glennis Sewell was researching her family tree and came across a great grandfather who arrived in Western Australia as a convict aboard the Ramillies in 1854, she was struck by a question: What happened to his fellow shipmates?
Often historical accounts of early convict ships focus on the odd character who made a name for themselves later in life or simply include the transportation register, but Sewell set herself the ambitious task of trying to track down every last felon from the Ramillies.
The result makes her recently published two-volume Ramillies: The Story of 277 Convicts Who Arrived at the Swan Colony in 1854 an important addition to our understanding about those early years.
“It took about five years of constant work, pretty much every day,” Sewell told the Herald.
She made use of all the research facilities available before collating the information and pitching the manuscript to Hesperian Press, which eagerly agreed to publish.
Sewell said discovering the immense differences amongst those on board the ship was the most enjoyable part of researching the book, including those she believes were probably innocent to those accused of horrid crimes.
“Some were young, some were old. Single, married with children; they really covered the whole spectrum that you could imagine, and this was interesting to discover,” she says.
“Figuring out who was there and why they were there was the hardest part. It takes a long time to get everything in order and then check everything.”
The Swan River Colony was always something of a speculative venture, with a lively debate in the British press between those convinced by James Stirling’s descriptions (and the paintings her sent back home) of a bountiful paradise, and those reporting the impressions of its earliest settlers of a harsh, fly-ridden swamp.
It wasn’t long before the colony was in dire straits and the dream of a town built on commerce rather than convict labour was abandoned.
The first ship carrying convicts to arrived at Fremantle was the Scindian on June 1, 1850. Captain Edmund Henderson was responsible for the 75 convicts on board as well as the pensioner guards, warders and their families who accompanied them.
Picked more for their tradie skills than a simple desire to ease pressure on Britain’s overcrowded prisons, Henderson and his charges soon made an impact on the colony and were responsible for building Fremantle Prison.
Ramillies was the 14th ship to arrive with convicts.
Sewell wanted to understand how many became successful once they arrived in the colony.
She discovered about 40 who remarried and believes there’ll still be families around the state who are direct descendants and might get a kick out of the book.
Fifteen of the Ramillies’ convicts were proven to have returned to Britain, while others probably also returned but disappeared into obscurity.
Many also settled in the eastern states, and as far away as New Zealand and South Africa. At least 188 remained in the colony.
“One of the most interesting is John Perks, who was sentenced to seven years for stealing,” Sewell says.
He worked on sheep stations in the Murchison district, firstly for Thomas Burges and later for Edward and Frank Wittenoom, who appointed him manager of Murgoo station in the 1880s and later Boolardy station.
Perks learned to speak Wadjari and spent a lot of time exploring the Murchison district with the Yamatji traditional owners – the first white man to do so.
“He was well known and well respected throughout the district,” says Sewell, adding he returned to Staffordshire in 1893 where he got married.
“He did return to Western Australia for a short time in 1900, before returning to live out his life in Staffordshire, dying in 1918 at the age of 84.”
Others were successful in taking up farming and running businesses, particularly those who married, Sewell said.
Ramillies: The Story of 277 Convicts Who Arrived at the Swan Colony in 1854 Glennis Sewell Hesperian Press
By ARIANA ROSENBERG