Ward Swale (1828-1887) – convict transported to Australia by Will Swales

Desperate times, desperate measures

On 8 January 1848, at the Court of Quarter Sessions at Ripon in Yorkshire, a 19-year-old, farm labourer called Ward Swale pleaded guilty to house breaking. He had broken into a cottage in the Nidderdale village of Bishop Thornton, and stolen several small items. The most valuable had been a watch, which later he had sold for eight shillings. It was his second indictable offence in a year, so he was classified as a repeat offender, one of the primary qualifications for the sentence that was passed down upon him - transportation for 10 years.

Ripon Gaol
Ripon Court of Quarter Sessions - now a museum

Transportation had been used as a punishment in England for just over 250 years, but by the time Ward Swale received his sentence the system was in crisis. The colonists in Australia, which had been Britain and Ireland’s official oversees dumping ground for convicts for the previous 61 years, had hung up the ‘full’ sign, and were vigorously resisting accepting any more shiploads. This story explains how Ward Swale became one of the last of 160,000 convicts sent to Australia, in what historian Robert Hughes has called ‘the largest forced exile of citizens by a European government in pre-modern history.’

Ward Swale was born in September 1828, the second child, and first son, of a waggoner, William Swale and his wife Mary. They lived in Nidderdale, in Strawberry Cottage, an isolated home in the woods alongside Fell Beck close to the village of Smelthouses. Nidderdale is one of the most beautiful of the Yorkshire Dales, characterised then, as now, by mixed farmland and small villages dotted on either side of its green valley sides. Today the area around Smelthouses is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

By the time of the census in 1841, when Ward Swale was 12, his mother had died, and he had left home, although not to go far away. He was living at Wysing House Farm in Smelthouses, lodging with another branch of the Swale family, and working as a servant/labourer. In 1843 his father remarried and started a new family, eventually having four more children.

These were extremely troubled times for the poor in both urban and rural communities. Historian A N Wilson described the period 1837 to 1844 as “the worst economic depression that had ever afflicted the British people. It is estimated that more than a million paupers starved from simple lack of employment.” If that wasn’t bad enough, in 1845 two major disasters made the situation for the poor spectacularly worse.

In Ireland, potato blight caused the start of a famine. Those who could afford it escaped by emigration, mainly to America and Britain. The huge influx of Irish peasants fleeing the famine would have exacerbated the plight of the poor in England at any time, but 1845 was the worst possible year for it to happen. A dreadfully wet summer in England resulted in a disastrous grain harvest, leading to an acute shortage of bread, and further widespread unemployment for agricultural workers.

Consecutive years of potato blight in Ireland pushed the scale of the famine to new heights, and by 1850 there had been a million deaths. By then, the poor were fleeing across the Atlantic from all over Ireland and Britain. Between 1846 and 1854 the total reached almost two and a half million.

A strong, young man such as Ward Swale, apparently with only loose family ties, would surely have yearned for the chance of joining the flow of emigration. But without the wherewithal to pay, it can only have been a pipe dream. In the 1840s his relatives might have given him free board and lodging in return for his labour, but probably no pay. On the other hand his situation might have been much worse. He might have been out on his ear and left to find food and shelter by his wits. In this case he would not have contemplated surrendering himself to any of the workhouses in nearby towns. They were the last refuge of the old, the sick, and of destitute women and children. All we know for sure is that for some reason he turned to crime.

In court at Knaresborough and Ripon

On 5 January 1847 Ward Swale, aged 18, appeared before the Justices of the Peace at Knaresborough Quarter Sessions. He was convicted of house breaking and sentenced to six months in prison. Unfortunately the detailed records of this case have not survived. Nor do we know where he served his sentence or whether he qualified for early release.

After completing his sentence, the likelihood is that even as a known criminal he would have been able to find farming work during the late summer, at least until the harvest was in, but after that, with little or no work on the farms in the winter months, he might well have been destitute. The full story of what happened next is preserved in the witness depositions laid before the justices at Ripon Court of Quarter Sessions.

On Wednesday 13 October 1847, between one and two o’clock in the afternoon, Ward Swale called at the home of a widow, Mary Harrison, in the village of Bishop Thornton in Nidderdale. Mary was a labourer and had gone out to dress some geese for one Marmaduke Buck, who lived about two miles away. At home was her 10-year-old daughter Ellenor. Ward asked Ellenor if he could come into the house to light his pipe. He lit it and sat himself down in Mary’s armchair, staying for about an hour. After he left, Ellenor went out. Mary was the first to return to the house, at about 7pm. She found on the table a pot that had contained some pickled onions. She suspected straight away that someone had been in the house. She discovered that the window of a back bedroom had been taken out completely. Missing from the house were a silver watch, a brass watch guard and coulter (meaning the chain and bar used to fasten the watch to clothing), a broken seal, a half-farthing, three handkerchiefs, a shirt, and a pair of worsted stockings.

Exactly a week later Ward Swale called into a blacksmith’s shop near Hampsthwaite in Nidderdale where the blacksmith’s son William Smith was working. In his evidence William Smith said: “He [Ward Swale] pulled a watch out of his pocket to see what o’clock it was. I asked him if he would sell it and he said he would, and stated he had bought it of a ‘navvie’ the previous Saturday evening.” Smith paid five shillings and sixpence for the watch.

Key Yorkshire locations in this story

Rivers Map

Later, Smith’s mother Ann paid another two shillings and sixpence to Ward Swale to complete the transaction. Ward Swale disposed of the brass watch guard, coulter, broken seal and half-farthing to his cousin John Hullah, a labourer of Swincliffe Top in the township of Felliscliffe, near Hampsthwaite. He received in exchange a watch chain. In what appeared to be a fairly slick fencing operation John Hullah then sold the loot for ten pence to John Fryer, a labourer, of the nearby village of Clint.

Two police officers were on the case – Joseph Young, of central Harrogate, and David Vickerman, of Knaresborough. Between them they gathered evidence from all the witnesses named above, all of whom, except William Smith, signed their statements with a cross. It wasn’t the most difficult manhunt the constables would have to pursue in their careers.

When a known, convicted house breaker takes the trouble to call on his next intended victim to introduce himself before committing the crime, it has to be said that he is not likely to remain at liberty for very long. Ward Swale’s failure to protect his identity may have been because he was reckless, or because he was stupid. Or could it be that he wanted to be caught? It’s possible that with winter coming on, and no prospect of work, he realised that he was facing once again a choice between destitution, the workhouse, and prison. He already knew what prison was like, and perhaps he reasoned it would be the least demeaning of his choices.

Ripon House of Correction
Ripon House of Correction - now a museum
Ward Swale remained free for a month after the crime. Finally, on Wednesday 17 November, PC Young apprehended him in Knaresborough. He was taken to Ripon, and locked up in the House of Correction. He appeared at the epiphany hearing of the Court of Quarter Sessions on 8 January 1848. As was the practice at the time, Ward Swale and the other prisoners scheduled to appear were marched to the courthouse through the streets, surrounded by guards and court officials. He stood before justices of the peace Charles Oxley and Robert Paley on a charge of house breaking, and he pleaded guilty.

Interestingly, the court valued the watch he had stolen at only one shilling, and the other items at a total of one shilling and four pence. Maybe this apparently modest valuation was a device by the court to permit a more lenient punishment for the 19-year-old. Otherwise, he could have been sentenced to transportation for 14 years or for life. The exact term used in sentencing was that he was “to be transported beyond the seas for ten years.” From now on he was termed a convict – the name used to denote prisoners under a sentence of transportation.

Into the new system for transportation

At this time, the government was facing two major problems concerning transportation. Firstly, the colonists in Van Diemen’s Land, the last remaining Australian colony to accept convicts, had recently suspended further intakes and were threatening to end them for ever. Secondly, the experimental system for preparing convicts for transportation, which had been in operation since 1843, had proved an unmitigated disaster. It needed urgent reform, but now it would also have to be converted into a holding system, while a world-wide search was conducted to try to find an alternative destination for convicts.

Since 1843, all newly sentenced convicts had been sent initially to Millbank Prison, which was on the north bank of the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge in London. Opened in 1816, it was a huge fortress, the largest prison in Europe, with six penitentiary buildings arranged around a central block, each accommodating up to 200 prisoners.

Sentence record

Here, convicts were held for nine or ten months and assessed for their suitability for transportation. This was necessary because the Australian colonists, after decades of coping with every kind of convict who was dumped on them, had started to insist that they would accept only reasonably fit, young convicts whose characters could be shown to have been reformed, and who could develop into worthy citizens.

Millbank prison
The fortress of Millbank Prison viewed from the south bank of the River Thames

The assessment was carried out by enforcing, for the first six months, an extremely harsh regime known as the Separate System. This meant that the convicts were locked up alone in a cell, where they would work, rest, eat and sleep, without being able to see or speak to anyone other than their prison warder. Once a day they took part in a brief communal exercise in the prison yard, but even this was conducted in total silence. Occasionally they would attend the schoolroom, and they would attend chapel once a week. Millbank had been built for the purpose of introducing the Separate System, which it was claimed would guarantee to reform lesser criminals and juveniles within a year. The scheme was a total failure, and was abandoned, which is why the prison had been converted to a reception gaol for convicts. The authorities retained the Separate System because they believed it could still be useful for breaking the spirit of more hardened criminals.

For convicts who were over 35 or sick, the assessment period was academic. They would not go to Australia under any circumstances. These rejects were joined by any convicts deemed to have been unresponsive to the Separate System, and were sent to the notorious prison ships, known as the hulks, to serve out the remainder of their sentences. They were put to hard labour in naval dockyards and other military establishments adjacent to the ships’ moorings. In the early 1800s, at the height of transportation, there had been 10 civil-prison hulks in operation in England, all with the most appalling records for mistreatment, abuse, malnutrition, disease and death. By the 1840s, with the numbers being sentenced to transportation in steep decline, only four hulks remained, two on the Thames at Woolwich and two in Portsmouth Harbour, each accommodating about 500 convicts.

Graduates from Millbank who were under 18 and deemed capable of reform were sent to the new juvenile prison at Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight, where they could learn a trade before being transported. Finally, the 18 to 35s who were reasonably fit and well behaved were sent to the newly built London prison at Pentonville where they underwent a new, experimental process of forced character reformation, prior to being transported to Australia in a status of ticket of leave. This was a kind of probation, which meant that the convicts would disembark as free men, able to earn a living, but with tight reporting conditions to restrict their movement and to prevent re-offending.

The process of character reformation at Pentonville was an extreme form of the Separate System. Convicts were isolated for 18 months, and with a much stricter application of the rules of non-communication between prisoners. Even at exercise time, prisoners had to wear masks so that they could not communicate by facial expression. However, it soon became clear that it wasn’t working. It drove a high proportion of prisoners insane, while those who survived were shipped out to Australia with their spirits so broken that they had little to contribute to the colony.

Pentonville prisoners exercising wearing masks
Pentonville prisoners exercising wearing masks

So in 1847, when the whole future of transportation was hanging in the balance, there was nowhere to send the convicts, and the system for preparing the best of them had proved a failure, the government had to come up with some new ideas, and fast. It had to spin out the period for holding convicts prior to transportation, without causing further damage to their mental and physical health.

A sliding scale was introduced regulating the holding period depending on the length of the overall sentence. It was set at a minimum of two years for a seven-year sentence, and up to seven and a half years for a life sentence. Pentonville was converted to become a reception gaol like Millbank. Both continued to operate the Separate System for new arrivals, but in the case of Pentonville, the length and severity of the isolation was gradually reduced to become comparable with that at Millbank. After a minimum of six months in isolation, adult convicts who showed promise would then be transferred to the hulks to complete their holding period.

This was a reversal of roles for the hulks. They ceased to be dumping gaols for the old, sick and badly behaved, and instead accommodated the best of the convicts. To make sure this transformation was handled successfully, the management of the hulks was replaced with a completely new regime. The idea was that convicts in the hulks would have an incentive to work hard and behave well in the hope of qualifying for transportation with ticket-of-leave status. Those who did not come up to scratch would stay in the hulks for the rest of their sentences, or worse, be sent back to isolation in Millbank or Pentonville. It was a neat scheme on paper, but the unacceptable reality for prison reformers at the time was that it still depended on retaining the filthy, rotting hulks, which provided the worst prison accommodation in England.

At the same time as implementing this new system, the government was also working on plans to deal with the possibility that transportation would not be resumed. This idea was to replace it with a new sentence, to be called penal servitude. This meant prison with hard labour on public works in this country. The problem was that the only gaols that were geared up for managing programmes of hard labour were the hulks, which were increasingly regarded as no longer fit for a modern penal system. New gaols would have to be built, and that would take time.

Solitary confinement at Millbank Prison

Against this background, Ward Swale was entered into the new holding system for convicts on 8 January 1848. On a 10-year sentence, he would spend at least the first three years in prison in this country. First he was sent to the county gaol at York Castle while the authorities arranged his transfer to London. He was destined for Millbank, which was his first stroke of luck. Pentonville would have been much worse. The journey was probably undertaken by horse-drawn cart. It would have taken several days, and would have involved staying overnight at prisons on the way. He was one of several prisoners transferred from York Castle who arrived at Millbank on 18 February 1848.

Millbank Prison Main Entrance
Millbank Prison main entrance

New arrivals were bathed and then sent naked to the prison surgeon’s room for a full examination to make sure that they were free from contagion. A description of each prisoner’s physical appearance and any distinguishing marks was entered in the records. A note was also made of their literacy skill, which in the case of Ward Swale was described as ‘imperfect’. They were issued with a uniform of a blue shirt, a cravat which was blue with a narrow brick-red check, trousers in brown flannel with a thin red stripe, a grey jacket, and a grey Scotch cap. Ward Swale was given prison number 14183 and was locked up in penitentiary number six, ward B, cell 16. At some stage he was moved to cell 4 in the same ward, possibly at the completion of his six month’s confinement in a separate cell.

Ward Swale Millbank Prison record
Millbank Prison record of Ward Swale

Solitary Cell at Millbank
Solitary Cell at Millbank

Central to the regime at Millbank Prison were religious instruction and hard work. The prison was virtually a clothing factory, making uniforms and footwear for many of the prisons and public institutions in the south of England. Some officers provided instruction in tailoring, while prisoners who were already skilled in shoe making or weaving were set to work in those trades. Prisoners worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. Those serving their six months of solitary confinement laboured alone in their cells, with their doors open, while warders paced the corridors.

Prisoners deemed unsuitable to learn or work at skilled trades were set to work on the simplest task of “picking coir”, also known as picking oakum. Wards A and B of penitentiary six were designated for this work, and so it seems likely that Ward Swale was one of those given this mind-numbing, finger-wrecking job.

On 4 October 1848, after nearly eight months at Millbank, Ward Swale was transferred to the Thames hulk Warrior, 11 miles down-river. It was to be his home for nearly three years.

Life on board the hulk Warrior

Warrior was a former 74-gun, naval man-of-war, built in 1781. It was withdrawn from sea-going service in 1816 and commissioned as a hulk at Woolwich in 1840. As part of the attempted reform of the hulks in 1847, Warrior had been brought alongside the quay at Woolwich Dockyard and moored there permanently to allow for the installation of gas lighting. It was the only hulk ever to have it and gave rise to it being dubbed “the model hulk”.

Warrior moored at Woolwich Dock, with the ancillary laundry hulk Sulphur behind
Warrior moored at Woolwich Dock, with the ancillary laundry hulk Sulphur behind

It was an ironic description. At about this time an official report by the governor of Warrior concluded: “It is well known that the hulk is in a most dilapidated condition, and scarcely able to hold together. Recent repairs supporting the lower deck & co have rendered her safe from any immediate danger; but the remedy is merely temporary. She is rotten and unsound from stem to stern.”

The hulk’s records show that Ward Swale was one of 96 new inmates taken onboard in the quarter ended 31 December 1848, taking the total population of the vessel to more than 500. He was given prisoner number 4374, which was emblazoned on the back of his new uniform of a rusty brown suit with red hoops.

Prisoner ward on Warrior From the Illustrated London News 1846
Prisoner ward on Warrior
From the Illustrated London News 1846

Prisoner accommodation was on three decks, each accommodating 150 to 200 convicts. Decks were divided into caged wards, or cells, on either side of the hull, with a passage running down the centre. Each ward accommodated two messes, each for eight to ten men, and each with a table and two benches. Ventilation was provided via the former gun ports along the sides of the hulk. There were small workshops for shoemaking and tailoring, which was done by convicts with those skills. A large galleried chapel occupied about a third of the top and middle decks. There was a surgery, and a schoolroom. Each ward had a small library, and every prisoner was issued with a library book, a bible, a prayer book, and a hymn book. In winter, heating was provided by fireplaces in the passageways on every deck, and in the hold.

Chapel onboard Warrior
Chapel onboard Warrior

Every day the men were woken at 5.30am, and had 30 minutes to get dressed, washed, roll up their hammocks and take them to the hammock houses on the hulk’s deck, where they were stored, and to some extent aired, during the day. The mess tables, which had been turned on their sides during the night, were set on their legs and washed down ready for breakfast, which comprised 12 ounces of dry bread and a pint of cocoa per man.

At 7.15am, after the men had cleaned their mugs and mess tins, the working day began. A small number of convicts stayed onboard all day to do cleaning, laundry, cooking, general maintenance, and housekeeping duties. The majority were escorted to their work in the dockyard by a military guard, which came on board each morning. The soldiers stayed on guard over the prisoners all day, with their carbines loaded and bayonets fixed. The working day was ten hours in summer and 8½ hours in winter. Lunch was taken onboard the hulk, and comprised six ounces of meat, a pound of potatoes, and nine ounces of bread. This was supplemented three days a week by a pint of soup.

The most helpful account of life onboard Warrior for the period after 1847 is given in Criminal Prisons of London (1862) by Mayhew and Binny. Here’s how the authors described work in the dockyard: “Only the strongest men are selected for the coal gang, invalids being put to stone-breaking. We glanced at the parties working amid the confusion of the dockyard, carrying coals near the gigantic ribs of a skeleton ship, stacking timber, or drawing carts, likes beasts of burden. Now we came upon a labouring party…carrying timber from the saw mills. There were parties testing chain cables amid the most deafening hammering. It is hard, very hard labour the men are performing.”

Warrior central passageway between cells From the Illustrated London News 1846
Warrior central passageway between cells
From the Illustrated London News 1846

After the day’s work, the convicts were given an hour and a quarter to be mustered on board, to wash, and then to prepare, eat, and wash up a meagre supper of a pint of gruel and six ounces of dry bread. This was followed by up to two hours engaged in evening prayers, school work, and repairing clothing. Then the hammocks were slung, and all were in bed at 9pm in summer, or 8pm in winter. The only respite from the daily physical labours was a day in the schoolroom, which came around for each convict about once in every nine or ten days of hard labour. Typically about a third of the convicts could read and write well, a third of them, including Ward Swale, were described as being able to read and write ‘imperfectly,’ and the remainder were illiterate. It was a hard regime that frequently led to illness, injury, and unrest among the prisoners. An incident in 1850, which Ward Swale must have witnessed, was described obliquely in an official report as an “attempt at combined disorder”. It was quelled by the removal of 25 convicts to solitary confinement at Millbank and Pentonville.

The prison governor’s quarterly reports recorded the health and behaviour of every prisoner. Throughout his incarceration Ward Swale was described as ‘healthy’. During the first 18 months his behaviour was recorded as ‘good’, and for the last 18 months it was ‘very good’. Ward Swale and his fellow convicts had a good incentive to remain well behaved and healthy. The smart ones understood that this was how to qualify for a berth on one of the transportation ships to Australia, and an automatic release on ticket-of-leave on disembarkation. They probably didn’t know that the chances of any more transportation voyages were looking slim.

Alternatives to Australia and to transportation

As an alternative to transportation to Australia, the government had considered virtually every outpost of the expanding British Empire, including South Africa, Ceylon, and Canada. All were rejected for various reasons. Slowly but surely provision was being made for the end of transportation, and the end of hulks. In 1850, the home secretary created the Convict Prison Service, which brought together the management of Millbank, Pentonville, Parkhurst and the hulks. The service was also tasked to build new, so-called ‘Public Works Prisons’, which would be set up to manage hard labour and allow for the introduction of penal servitude as an alternative to transportation.


Ironically and unexpectedly, 1850 turned out to be a very good year for the restoration of transportation. Firstly, Van Diemen’s Land was reopened for a limited number of new convicts, although it was still abundantly clear that this was going to be a short-lived revival. Secondly, and much more importantly, out of the blue a new destination was found – in the colony of Western Australia.

The free settlers of what had originally been called the Swan River Colony had been struggling to get established. After 20 years of hard work, less than 6,000 Europeans had been attracted to settle in the area. The situation was critical. If they were going to survive they needed an instant labour force to work on farms and on public works such as road building. They decided that they had no choice but to overturn their hitherto rigid policy of refusing to accept convicts. By the end of July 1850, the first two ships had disembarked a modest vanguard of 175 convicts at the port of Fremantle, at the mouth of the Swan River. For the foreseeable future, transportation was back on.

In July 1851, three and a half years after his conviction, it was finally Ward Swale’s time to be transported. He was one of 44 Warrior convicts selected to join the ship Minden, which was to be the fifth convict ship to set sail for Western Australia.

1851 census record for the prison hulk Warrior. Convicts' ages are those at admission
1851 census record for the prison hulk Warrior. Convicts' ages are those at admission

A new standard for voyages of transportation

The government sub-contracted transportation to merchant ship owners, who refitted their vessels for the purpose. In earlier years, the ship masters had sought every possible way to increase their profit margins resulting in the most appalling cruelty and loss of life en route. By the early 1800s a new system was introduced. The ship’s surgeons, instead of reporting to the master of the ship, were given absolute authority over the wellbeing of the convicts, and were obliged to observe detailed regulations concerning their welfare. The surgeons were seconded from the navy, and were given the elevated title of surgeon superintendent.

Merchant ship Northfleet which was built to the same design and size as Minden
Merchant ship Northfleet which was built
to the same design and size as Minden

Convicts’ health onboard improved markedly, but then as the merchants acquired newer, bigger ships for their regular trade, they relegated their increasingly aging, small vessels for transportation contracts. Consequently in the 1830s and 40s there was a spate of disastrous shipwrecks. Several dilapidated old ships went down on their voyages to Australia, drowning hundreds of convicts and crew.

By the time of Ward Swale’s transportation the government had committed to ensure that the merchants supplied their best ships for transportation. In his book The Convict Ships, Charles Bateson explained that Minden was one of a large fleet of modern merchant vessels owned by the hugely successful ship owner Duncan Dunbar. He was one of the most prolific suppliers of transportation ships at the time. The 916-ton ship Minden had been built only three years earlier, and was three times the size of many of its predecessor transportation ships.

Voyage to Australia onboard Minden

Minden picked up its cargo of convicts from several different prisons, starting with a group from the Thames hulks, then sailing to Portsmouth Harbour to collect from the hulks there, then onto the Isle of Wight to pick up from Parkhurst Prison, and finally to Plymouth, where presumably it took onboard convicts from the newly opened Public Works Prison at Dartmoor.

On embarkation the convicts were inspected by the ship’s superintendent surgeon, who on Minden was John Gibson. He had the authority to reject any convicts he believed were not fit for the rigours of the long voyage. But the managers of the convict prisons and hulks were not going to accept returns so they would often withhold information about the ill-health of some convicts. Charles Bateson, described the routine for embarkation: “The prisoners were allotted numbers and divided into messes, usually six to a mess. Each man received a bed and pillow and a single blanket, with two wooden bowls and a wooden spoon. Each mess was given a keg and a horn tumbler.” He added: “The space on deck for storing the bedding during the day was often insufficient and the canvas hammock cloths so worn as to be useless for protecting the bedding from rain and spray.”

When Minden set sail from Plymouth on 21 July 1851, onboard with the ship’s crew were 302 convicts, watched over by 40 ‘pensioner guards’, who were accompanied by 26 wives and 49 children. The pensioner guards were retired British Army soldiers who were given incentives by the government to emigrate to Western Australia. Their function was to guard the convicts on the ship, but on arrival they were free immediately to seek work among the free settlers in the colony. To encourage them to stay, they were offered an allotment of 10 acres of land which they could lease for seven years and then own freehold. As an extra incentive, a gratuity of £10 was given to each of them and they were promised the use of convict labour to help clear the land. It also meant that the ex-military men were always on hand to help in case of an outbreak of disorder among the convicts in the colony. This system operated only between 1850 and 1864. The guards on transportation ships before and after this period were serving soldiers on their way to postings in Australia or India.

Superintendent surgeon John Gibson’s log described the regime onboard Minden during the voyage. He reported: “To preserve and secure good health a rigid adherence to cleanliness in the prison barracks and crew’s berth was practised, with attention to dryness, ventilation and occasional fumigation by the swinging stoves.” He had procured a supply of marine soap, which enabled everyone on board to wash daily in salt water. He recommended that the authorities should in future ensure that marine soap was supplied to all convict ships; the standard soap supplied being no use in salt water bathing. Scurvy was successfully avoided by the daily serving of a mixture of lime juice, wine, water and sugar.

Convict ship John Calvin in 1846, painted by a convict, Knut Bull
Convict ship John Calvin in 1846,
painted by a convict, Knut Bull

The prisoners were divided into two groups. In the morning one group worked in school below, while the other group worked tailoring and shoe-making on the deck. In the afternoon the groups switched so that everyone got half a day in the fresh air. Gibson recorded that In the evening they were all allowed on deck where they were encouraged to sing, dance, play music, play leap frog and to box. His report sounds almost idyllic, but it clearly masks some harsher truths. Even on the modern ships, conditions below decks for the convicts were not good. Robert Hughes’s book The Fatal Shore explains that: “There was rarely as much as six feet headroom, and the only air came from the hatchways, which were kept closed with thick grilles and heavily padlocked.”

It is known that while the ships passed through the tropics the sleeping quarters were subject to almost unbearable temperatures. The Irish political leader John Boyle O’Reilly, who with a number of other ‘Fenians’ was one of the last to be transported to Western Australia in 1868, described the miseries of the hold: “The air was stifling… There was no draught through the barred hatches. The sun above them was blazing hot. The pitch dropped from the seams, and burnt their flesh as it fell. There was only one word spoken or thought – one yearning idea in every mind – water… Two pints of water a day were served out to each convict – a quart of putrid and blood-warm liquid. It was a woeful sight to see the thirsty souls devour this allowance.”

First taste of freedom in a new world

Freemantle Foreshore
Fremantle shoreline

Minden arrived at Fremantle on 14 October 1851, the beginning of the southern hemisphere spring. The weather had been kind for all 85 days of the voyage. There had been four deaths from sickness en route – two infant children, one sailor, and one convict. Ward Swale didn’t get a mention on the sick log, so presumably his health had been relatively trouble-free during the voyage. Minden was the last of the three convict ships to arrive at Fremantle in 1851. Its cargo of 301 convicts was the largest shipment to date and swelled the total number of convict arrivals in the colony to 977 in just 16 months. The convicts from Minden were all given their tickets of leave as soon as they arrived, a privilege that had not been afforded to all their predecessor arrivals at Fremantle. Those not released were incarcerated in a temporary gaol on the harbour side.

On disembarkation all convicts had to be registered as residents of the colony. The registers have been preserved and provide fascinating detail. Ward Swale was described as 23 years old, 5ft 7¾ins tall, of stout build, with an oval face and fresh complexion, and with two pock marks on his left cheek. He had dark hair and blue eyes. He was given a new number, 776, which would remain with him for the rest of his sentence. His occupation was recorded as farm labourer.

The last words of the report by Minden ship’s surgeon John Gibson paint an inspiring picture of the opportunity that awaited Ward Swale. He concluded: “The colony since the founding of the penal establishment in 1850 (I having had charge of the first draft of convicts) has made a rapid and wonderful rise to prosperity after slumbering for 20 years. The men who have been sent out have generally conducted themselves very satisfactorily and obtained their ticket of leave early. The settlers have rapidly hired them at very reduced wages to what they were accustomed to give to free labourers, and the work done by them, and their behaviour, has met with great approbation from their employers and they are materially aiding in pioneering and opening up the resources of the colony.

The government expenditure in improvements of roads, buildings, etc. has been most beneficial and already altered the face of the port of Fremantle from that of a dead, deserted looking fishing haven to a busy, bustling nucleus of commerce. The colony was healthy when I left, but the freezing winter months had brought along with them a severe influenza attacking the families in towns and country – it suddenly disappeared on spring approaching. I have no doubt but Western Australia will ere long become as flourishing as her sister colonies.”

These were exciting times for the free colonists, who had rushed to set up facilities for dealing with this sudden influx of convict labour. Initial accommodation for all ticket-of-leave men was provided at convict hiring depots. They were bunk houses with wardens to monitor behaviour and compliance with the conditions of leave. Convicts put to work on public projects, such as road and bridge building, remained in the depots, while those picked out for hire by private masters were taken away and given private accommodation. Generally the latter was the best deal. In 1851 convict hiring depots had been set up at Guildford, about 18 miles inland from Fremantle, and at York, the main town in the farming district of the Avon Valley, which is some seventy miles inland, over the Darling Hills.

Swan River Colony from the archives of the surveyor general of Western Australia

It is well recorded that Ward Swale spent his later years living and working in the Avon Valley. It seems highly probable that he would have been sent there immediately on his arrival in the colony because of his relevant experience as a farm labourer. In Australia, there was no transportation for convicts. They were expected to walk, even as far as York, which was a five-day march from Fremantle. As he trekked with his comrades over the hills to his new home he would surely have been amused and amazed to discover that after being transported to the other side of the world he was going to end up in a place called York, and indeed in a district called the Shire of York.

Problems of integration and the end of transportation

The next we know of Ward Swale is that on 12 August 1854, when he was just coming up to his 26th birthday, had was given a conditional pardon. It’s not known where he was at this time, but the likelihood is that he was in the Avon Valley. He had served six years and eight months of his 10-year sentence. The pardon was a reward for consistently good conduct during his ticket of leave. The condition was that he could not return to England until receiving a full pardon or until his sentence expired in January 1858.

Ward Swale didn’t marry, which wasn’t at all unusual for a convict in Western Australia. It was the only penal colony in Australia never to accept female convicts, and so quite simply there weren’t enough women. Instead, the authorities asked the British Government to send more women among the free emigrants, which gave rise to the policy of exporting paupers from British and Irish workhouses on so-called “Bride ships”. But it wasn’t successful. Between July 1850 and March 1855, 10 free-emigrant ships arrived at Fremantle carrying a total of 1,032 women, 656 children, and 622 men – not even enough women to slow the widening gender disparity. During the same period the population was swelled by the arrival of more than 3,000 additional male convicts.

The abundance of convicts who became absorbed into the community with little or no hope of finding a mate had serious social consequences. In 1854 the chaplain appointed for the newly built Fremantle Convict Establishment commented: “Many are tempted to seek a substitute for home and its happiness on the bench of the alehouse.” He deplored the fact that the men had to struggle against a serious evil – “the want of wives.” A census in 1859 showed that 62 per cent of the male population was single. Of those who were married it was reported by the registrar that perhaps a quarter were actually separated from their wives, who remained behind in England. Not only could the convicts not settle down to a stable family life, but also they would rarely be able to shake off the stigma of their backgrounds. The term convict came to be regarded as an insult. The approved euphemism was ‘government man’, but everyone knew what it meant. Those who completed their sentences were known officially as ‘expirees’, which only served to prolong the stigma for life.

Sometime after January 1858, when Ward Swale became an expiree, he was probably given an opportunity to make something of himself. Some of the bigger land owners – generally those who were among the founders of the colony – started adopting a philanthropic approach to dealing with the convict problem. Deserving individuals were allocated small plots of land with a shack so that they could start to farm for themselves and sustain themselves. Ward Swale might well have been a beneficiary of such charity because there is a brief reference to the fact that in 1861 he employed a ticket-of-leave man. Perhaps for a while at least he had a foot on the first rung of the ladder of success.

Punch magazine 1864, caption:
Punch magazine 1864, caption:
“Now Mr Bull don't shoot any more of your rubbish here
or you and I shall quarrel.”

However, the 1860s was also a period when many of the free settlers were becoming increasingly frustrated by the overwhelming numbers of the convict class. Even though the convict arrivals at Fremantle were down to rarely more than one to two ships a year, the grumblings of discontent were starting to echo those of the New South Wales colonists who had called a halt to transportation just over 20 years earlier. Western Australia accepted its last convict ship in 1868, marking the end of all transportation by the British government. Over the 18 years of transportation to Western Australia, 43 ships had delivered 9,720 convicts, and it was more than enough for the still-fledgling community. Free emigrants had still not been attracted in anything like the hoped-for numbers, and the population was seriously unbalanced.

A census of all Australia in 1871, recorded the population of the eastern mainland, which by then had been subdivided into the states of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland, at 1,541,000. By contrast the same census revealed that Western Australia, more than 40 years after the colony was established, had a total population of only 24,785. It was still a tiny, pioneer territory, comprising 15,375 males and only 9,410 females. Some estimates suggest that about a third of the convicts returned to England after completing their sentences. Even if that is accurate, it means that about half the male population of 1871 must have com
prised those who had arrived as convicts.

Back ‘inside’ again

The next record of Ward Swale turns up in 1879 by which time the colony still hadn’t made any significant progress in its development. The record includes a reference to fact that he was growing wheat and carting somewhere in the Northam area, which also suggests that he might have been in business for himself. Unfortunately however it was another major lapse of integrity that resulted in Ward Swale finding his way back into the record books.

According to sworn depositions laid before the criminal courts, it seems that some time about December 1878, when Ward Swale was aged 50 and was in his 28th year in Australia, he promised to sell 12 bags of wheat - about 48 bushels - to a baker in Perth called George Marfleet. The baker had not bought wheat from Ward Swale before, but he understood that it would be the produce of the expiree’s own land at Northam. By harvest time, in February 1879, for some reason Ward Swale didn’t have the wheat he had promised.

On Sunday 9 March 1879 Henry Cole, who farmed at Chimney Hut Gulley, near Northam, had 19 bags of wheat and five of barley stored inside his house. Each bag contained about four bushels. That night he padlocked his house and went away to the nearby township of Clackline. He returned on Thursday the same week to discover that the padlock had been tampered with. Missing from his stock was 12 bags of wheat and three of barley. He followed some cart tracks from his house to the Northam and Guildford Road, but couldn’t follow them any farther.

The following day, Friday 14 March, Henry Cole reported the theft to the police in Northam, and told the constable that he suspected Ward Swale. It is not clear why he suspected him. On the same day Ward Swale was in Perth delivering 12 bags of wheat to George Marfleet’s bakery. Marfleet instructed Ward Swale to take the wheat to Green’s Mill in Perth. At the mill two workers, George Baker and Benjamin Mills, helped to unload the bags. One of the bags split open and was patched by George Baker. Ward Swale returned to the baker’s house with a receipt from the mill, and was paid by cheque £12 4s 6d. Apparently this was short by £3 15s, which was an amount previously owed to the baker by Ward Swale.

Once again Ward Swale had committed a crime against someone who knew him, and who was able to accuse him. Once again he had left a trail of incriminating evidence behind him. It is tempting to speculate that once again he had reached a point in his life when the best prospect of survival was to go to prison. For someone with no reputation or esteem to lose it was at least a way of obtaining guaranteed shelter, food and water.

The Police Gazette of 26 March reported that a warrant had been issued for the arrest of Ward Swail (sic). He was described as an expiree, late 776, stout, age 55 (an error), 5ft 7¾inches high, grey hair, blue eyes, round visage, swarthy complexion, and with two pock marks on his left cheek. It added: “This man is supposed to have gone to Albany, riding a bay mare pony.” By this time Albany was a port of call and coaling station for the regular steamship service between Sydney and England, so it might have been speculated that he was aiming to escape the colony by sea. However, if he had set off for Albany, he clearly didn’t make it because after remaining at large for two months he was arrested in Northam on 29 May by Leading Constable McCreery and PCs Eaton and Laurence. It is more likely that he had just been marking time until the inevitability of his arrest. He was locked up in the police cells at Northam before being transferred to Newcastle, which was the location of the nearest resident magistrate, R J Fairbrother.

Newcastle was a new town that had been developed in 1861 on the site of the old Toodyay convict hiring depot. It was given the name of Newcastle, after the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Duke of Newcastle. On 14 June Ward Swale was brought before Mr Fairbrother, and evidence was received from the complainant, Henry Cole, and the investigating police officer, Charles Payne, of Northam. PC Payne said he had been to Green’s Mill with a man called Benjamin Jessop, another farmer from the Northam area, who had been employed by Henry Cole to bag-up the wheat and barley at his farm. At the mill, Jessop recognised the 12 bags as the ones he had sewn. The miller, Mr Green confirmed that one of the 12 identified by Jessop also contained the patch put on it by his employee, George Baker, in the presence of Ward Swale. Mr Fairbrother remanded Ward Swale to be detained in custody at Perth.

The Old Courthouse, Perth
The Old Courthouse, Perth

On 23 June Ward Swale was brought before the Perth magistrate, Rowley C Loften. Evidence was heard from the baker, George Marfleet, the miller James Joseph Green, his employees George Baker and Benjamin Mills, and from Benjamin Jessop. The latter said in his evidence that he knew Ward Swale and that in February he had been farming and carting. He knew that Ward Swale grew some wheat because he saw it growing when it was in ‘grass corn’ or ‘green’. He didn’t know whether or not Ward Swale sold any bags of wheat. After hearing the evidence, Ward Swale was asked if he wished to say anything in answer to the charge. He signed a statement that recorded his response: “I have nothing to say.” This signature is the only mark made by Ward Swale’s hand that remains.

Perth Statement
Perth Court case-file cover
Perth Court case-file cover

The magistrate committed Ward Swale for trial at the Supreme Court of Western Australia in Perth on the charge of larceny from a dwelling of 12 bags of wheat. At his trial on 4 July he stood before the Chief Justice, His Honour Sir Archibald Paull Burt. Remarkably, despite apparently overwhelming evidence against him, and with no defence to offer, Ward Swale entered a plea of not guilty. He must have been determined to avoid any chance of clemency and to get the longest possible custodial sentence. Sure enough he was found guilty, and sentenced to five years in prison.

He became prisoner number 10278. No records have survived to indicate where he served his sentence. It was at least in part at Perth Gaol, but he might have spent some of the time at the much larger Fremantle Prison, the former Convict Establishment, which by then was under considerably less pressure since the end of transportation 11 years earlier. But wherever he was, Ward Swale proved once again to be a well-behaved prisoner because he earned an early release after just over three years. The Police Gazette reported that on 25 October 1882 he had been discharged from Perth Gaol on a ticket of leave.

Perth Gaol
Perth Gaol

The York district ticket-of-leave registers show that on 16 January 1883 Ward Swale was hired by Stephen Monger, of Staunton Springs, which is south west of the town of Beverley, along the Williams Road. Stephen Monger was a son of one of the entrepreneurial founder-settlers of the colony, and was a wealthy farmer. He had 10,000 acres of pastoral land as well as trading as a miller and a merchant.

Sad, lonely end

Ward Swale’s sentence expired in July 1884, by which time he was 55. Although now a free man, he can have had little to feel proud about. If in his youth he had benefited from a grant of land from a philanthropic settler, it was not likely to happen again, given his age and his criminal record. He would have been one of hundreds of aging, single, probably lonely ex-convicts who were scratching an existence labouring up and down the Avon Valley. The economy still hadn’t taken off, and at this time hundreds of people were leaving Western Australia each year in search of a more prosperous life in the eastern states. Ward Swale probably wouldn’t have had either the resources or the enthusiasm to make the trip. He probably spent a lot of time drowning his sorrows in the pub.

He died in the town of Northam on 11 August 1887. The circumstances aren’t known, but it is possible to speculate from the detail on the death certificate. A Dr Dunlop certified the cause as Meniere’s Disease. This is a degenerative disease of the inner ear, which interestingly is now known to be non-fatal. The symptoms are periodic episodes of vertigo or dizziness, tinnitus, and low-frequency hearing loss. The vertigo attacks come without warning and can be so severe that the patient falls over. Dr Dunlop must have known that Ward Swale was a sufferer.

Death certificate of Ward Swale
Death certificate of Ward Swale

But it seems that neither he nor the person who registered the death, a publican called Henry (surname undecipherable), knew very much else about him. The death certificate described Ward Swale as a labourer, aged about 70 years. In fact he was just a few weeks short of his 59th birthday. The publican is described as being present at the death. So, is it possible that without a close friend in the world Ward Swale died after a sudden attack of vertigo caused him to suffer a fatal fall in a pub?

It would have been a sad, lonely end to a life of probably greater misfortune than he deserved. He had not seen and probably had not heard from any member of his family at home in England for at least 36 years, and he had no family of his own in Australia. He was a three-times-convicted housebreaker. He could certainly be condemned by history as nothing more than a common crook. On the other hand, perhaps he was genuinely a victim of his circumstances. Maybe he only offended to secure a custodial sentence that would enable him to avoid destitution. If history must judge him at all perhaps it should be as nothing worse than a poor, hapless rogue.

One thing is certain – he played a part in the crucial early history of Western Australia, and can rightly be described as one of the founding colonists. He was one of the first 7,000 Europeans to settle there, and was in the vanguard of the emergency labour force that rescued the colony from impending failure. During his life in Western Australia the population was gradually hauled up, somewhat against the odds, to about 40,000.

Then, just two months after his death, a mining survey confirmed the discovery of gold at Yilgarn, in the east of the colony towards the Great Victoria Desert. It led to subsequent rich finds at nearby Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie and triggered a boom that broke six decades of economic stagnation. In just 11 years from 1890 to 1901 the population grew from 46,000 to 180,000. By 2007 the total was up to two million, three quarters of the people living in the now sprawling metropolitan area of Perth, which has grown to become Australia’s fourth largest city.

Ward Swale’s contribution may not have been entirely positive, but without the likes of him the history of Western Australia might have been very different indeed.


The production of this story has been made possible with the help of many people including:

Yvonne and Peter Bentley
Bess Chapman, Ripon Courthouse Museum
Edward Crawford
Patrick Dunbar
Bevan Carter, Audrey Holland, Jeanne Iles, Jane Innes, Western Australia Genealogical Society
Margaret McPherson, Fremantle Prison Museum
Carol Littlefair, York Residency Museum, Western Australia
Staff at West Yorkshire Archives
Staff at National Archives, Kew, Surrey
Staff at Western Australia State Records Office

I am particularly grateful to my distant cousin Peter Bentley and his wife, Yvonne, who first alerted me to the existence of Ward Swale in our family, and fired my curiosity to try to discover why he seemed suddenly to disappear without trace. Stumbling across his name on a database of transported convicts was a eureka moment, which led to many fascinating avenues of research to piece together his story and the context within which he lived his life.

Relationship between the author and Ward Swale

Ward Swale was a half-brother to the author's great grandfather, Joseph Swales. Ward and Joseph had the same father but different mothers. Their father, William, is recorded as having the surname Swale and Swail until his second marriage, when it started to appear in official records consistently as Swales.

The addition of the final ‘s’ in the family name could have happened by accident or by design. It occurred at a time when increasing literacy allowed families to start standardising the spelling of their names. Previously names were only written down by clergyman or government officials who used whatever spelling they thought appropriate. People whose surname had started as Swale, originating in Swaledale, in Yorkshire, had been recorded at different times by various spellings such as Swayle, Swayles, Swail, Swails, Swale and Swales.

Click here for a PDF version of the family tree

Image Acknowledgements

Swan River Colony Map Provided courtesy of the Department of Land Information, WA 2005

Picture of ship The Northfleet Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria

Freemantle shoreline Courtesy of Freemantle Prison

Freemantle Convict Establishment Courtesy of Freemantle Prison

Sources of information

UK primary sources

Parish records of Pateley Bridge Chapelry 1822-1831

Census of Great Britain 1841, 1851

General Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths 1843-1849

Ripon Court of Quarter Sessions records 1847, 1848 (West Yorkshire Archives QT1/2/213)

Criminal Registers for England and Wales 1805-1892 (National Archives HO27/83, HO27/86)

Home Office prison records1770-1951 (National Archives PCOM 2/28)

HM Gov. Convict Prison Quarterly Returns 1848-1851 (National Archives HO8/98-109)

London Illustrated News 21 February 1846

Minden surgeon’s log 1851, by John Gibson

Crawford family letters 1851

Western Australia primary sources

Physical description of convicts – Accession 128

Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages

Supreme Court Records 1879

Police Gazette - 1879 nos. 13, 23, 25, 28; 1882 no. 44

York District Ticket of Leave Registers 1861, 1883

Secondary sources

Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, by George C Kohn (1999)

Ripon Liberty Law and Order over the last 300 Years by Anthony Chadwick (1986)

Ripon House of Correction and Liberty Prisons by J M Younge

Home Office Bicentenary History 1782-1982

The Victorians, by A N Wilson (2002)

Empire, by Niall Ferguson (2003)

The British Police 1829 – 2000, by Martin Stallion and David S Wall (1999)

Crime and Society in England 1750-1900, by Clive Emsley (1987)

Memorials of Millbank and Chapters in Prison History, by Arthur G F Griffiths (1875)

Criminal Prisons of London & Scenes of London Life, by Mayhew and Binny (1862)

The English Prison Hulks, by W Branch Johnson (1957)

The Intolerable Hulks, by Charles Campbell (1993)

From Floating Tombs to Foundations, by Ann Coats (2003)

The Convict Ships, by Charles Bateson (1959)

The Blackwall Frigates by Basil Lubbock (1924)

Bound for Botany Bay, by Alan Brooke and David Brandon (2005)

The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes (1986)

Unwilling Emigrants, by Alexandra Hasluck (1959)

Old Toodyay and Newcastle, by Rica Erickson (1974)

Bride Ships, by Rica Erickson (1992)

Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians, pre 1829 – 1888, by Rica Erickson (1988)

Western Australia Pioneer Index 1837 - 1888

Convicts in Western Australia 1850-1887, by Rica Erickson & Gillian O’Mara (1994)

York Heritage Trail booklet

Web sites





















Sources of illustrations

IllustrationCreator/publication/ownerImage source
Merchant ship NorthfleetBrodie Collection, State Library of Victoriawww.slv.vic.gov.au
Ripon Court of Quarter SessionsWill SwalesWill Swales
Key locations in YorkshireWill SwalesWill Swales
Ripon House of CorrectionWill SwalesWill Swales
Ripon Court verdictWest Yorkshire ArchivesWest Yorkshire Archives
The fortress of Millbank PrisonCriminal Prisons of London (1862)www.victorianlondon.org
Pentonville prisoners exercisingCriminal Prisons of London (1862)www.victorianlondon.org
Millbank Prison entranceReproduced in Metropolitan Improvements (1827)www.ph.ucla.edu
Millbank Prison recordNational ArchivesNational Archives
Solitary cell at MillbankCriminal Prisons of London (1862)www.victorianlondon.org
Warrior moored at Woolwich DockCriminal Prisons of London (1862)www.victorianlondon.org
Prison ward on WarriorIllustrated London News (1846)www.portcities.org.uk
Chapel onboard WarriorIllustrated London News (1846)www.portcities.org.uk
Warrior central passagewayIllustrated London News (1846)www.portcities.org.uk
Australia mapWill SwalesWill Swales
1851 census recordNational Archiveswww.ancestry.co.uk
Merchant ship NorthfleetBrodie Collection, State Library of Victoriawww.slv.vic.gov.au
Convict Ship John CalvinPainted by Knut Bull, reproduced in The Convict Ships, (1959) publisher Brown, Son & Ferguson, GlasgowScan from the book, authorised by the publisher
Fremantle shorelineUnknownwww.fremantleprison.com.au
Swan River ColonyDept. of Land Information Western Australia, and reproduced in Unwilling Immigrants (1959), publisher Oxford University Press, Melbourne Scan from the book
Punch magazine 1864Punch Cartoon Librarywww.learningcurve.gov.uk
The Old Courthouse, PerthRoyal Western Australia Historical Society, and reproduced in Bride Ships (1992), publisher Hesperion Press, Carlisle, WAScan from the book
“I have nothing to say”Western Australia State Record Office, Supreme Court Records (1879)Bevan Carter
Perth Court case-fileWestern Australia State Record Office, Supreme Court Records (1879)Bevan Carter
Perth GaolBattye Library, Perth, Western Australia Battye Library
Death certificateWestern Australia State Records Office, births marriages and deaths recordsWestern Australia State Records Office, births marriages and deaths records
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