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From a Prison Camp to Holiday Paradise

Thompson Bay, Rottnest

The Rottnest

of Last Century

Treatment of Native

Prisoners and Other Interesting Recollections


When he landed on Rottnest on December 29, 1696, Vlaming probably never envisaged the "rat-infested island" becoming the holiday playground of happy youth. Nor did the native prisoners who toiled on the island last century imagine that their cells would provide accommodation for thousands of pleasure seekers.

The Rottnest Island of 50 years ago presents an interesting historical study.

In 1883, my father, the late W. H. Timperley, Esq., I.S.O., when In- spector of Police, was promoted to the position of superintendent,

Rottnest Island

In due course, be and the family sailed from Geraldton to Fremantle

in the Adelaide Steamship Co.'s s.s. Ferret, a vessel of 347 tons gross reg- ister.  

Our family and furniture sailed to Rottnest Island on Mr. John Bate- man's lighter. Wilwatch, a vessel of about 15 tons register.

The main functions of the island


A lakeside view of the present-day hostel, which embodies quarters once used by prisoners.

at that date were to provide suitable custody and employment for natives imprisoned for criminal offences throughout the colony of Western Australia, and to be a boarding sta- tion for pilots required by incoming vessels.

A native prison had also been es- tablished at Roebourne in which were accommodated a number of short sen- tence prisoners brought in from all parts of the notrh and north-west of the colony.

The penal settlement at Rottnest Island had been established a few years prior to my father's arrival. I understand that the first official to be appointed superintendent of the island was a Mr Vincent, he being follow- ed by Captain Jackson and then by my father.

Communication with the mainland, Fremantle, in those early days was carried out


once each day, weather permitting, Sundays excepted. A weekly mail and passenger service was operated by the Fremantle harbor boat, which was an undecked wooden vessel of about 12 tons register, under the jurisdiction


From the lakes at Rottnest prisoners were employed in removing crusted rock salt, which was treated

in the works shown above. The works are still to be seen.

of the Chief Harbor Master, Freman- tle (Captain Russell).

The only regalar weekly passenger to the island was Dr. Hope or his as- sistant, Dr. Arthur White, the former being the medical officer for the Fre- mantle and Rottnest prisons and for the island inhabitants. The doctor and any official visitors were always accommodated at the superintendent's house, for which service a small al- lowance was added to the superinten- dent's salary. Visitors other than officials who wished to visit the island were required to procure and produce permits from the Colonial Secretary's Department before being permitted to land. One warder was always on duty about the settlement during the hours of daylight, and it was part of his duty to meet all incoming boats to in- spect permits, see that no alcohol was landed, and to convey mails to the superintendent's office, where the clerk sorted and delivered he mail

when called for.

Native prisoners arrived in pari- ties by the weekly mail boat (but not every week) and at times they were chained together to prevent any one of them making a dash overboard whilst on the trip across from Fremantle or a dash for liberty before or after leaving the boat.  

The natives, who were usually thor- oughly uncivilised and clad in the scantiest of filthy rags—highly nerv- ous and apprehensive as to what would happen next—and with long hair and beards matted together with lime, charcoal and grease, presented an awesome sight on landing at the small jetty in front of the pilot boat- shed in Thompson Bay.  

Immediately after landing the na- tives were taken under escort of war- ders, and perhaps several native pris- oners acting as interpreters and as- sistants generally, to the superinten- dent's office, where their official re-   cords were inspected. The process of identifying each native with his offi- cial record was then carried out.

An identity disc bearing a number was then issued to each man and tied round his neck, and according to his   degree of civilisation or intelligence   he was given either cap, two shirts, two pairs of trousers and belt, or a cap and kilt made from a blanket in lieu of trousers.

Prior to my father's taking over the position of superintendent, the natives were not supplied with a uniform, but wore whatever clothing became avail-

able to them.

The party was then taken inside the gaol to the ablution and haircut- ting section. Every man after hav ing his hair and beard trimmed was made to bath, after which they were dressed-very often by force-in their new clothes, and then drafted into parties under the control of one of the prison warders.

The warders whom I associate with my earliest recollections of Rottnest were Messrs. A Oliver (chief war- der), Flannagan, Gurney, Hodges, Parkin, Morgan, Kennedy and Buck- ingham. The chief warder was also

the dispenser for the inmates of the gaol, and for any of the islanders who needed attention in the absence of the visiting doctor.

The prison was an octagonal building strongly built of stone, capable of accommodating in its cells up to 200 natives as occasion demanded. The superintendent's offices were in front of the gaol, and on the right side of the main gate. Further along were the quarters occupied by Warder Mark Forkin. On the left side of the main gates were the quarters oc-

cupied by the chief warder, and still further to the left were War-

der Flannigan's quarters.

The main gates of the gaol were of wood, inside of which was an en- closure containing a further gate through which no man could pass out without the sanction of the warder on duty The prison baker's shop and cook house were situated in the left quarter of the building.

Warders were armed with a revolver   and supplied with a police whistle.  

They wore blue serge uniforms with  

white metal buttons, also helmets or  

caps according to the season of the   year.    

A few good-conduct European pris- oners were also accommodated in the   gaol. These men's services were util- ised in the occupations of teamster, blacksmith, farmer cook, baker, and one in charge of the salt works. The European prisoners were quartered near the warder's sentry box and the ablution area.

The gaol routine on week days con- sisted of rising at 7 a.m at which time large bell was run at Heliograph Hill,   situated just above the salt store, south of the superintendent's house. Cells were tidied by the occupants, and

after breakfast they fell in on the com- mand of the chief warder, who was ac- companied by the warders detailed for day duty. The natives toed a chain which stretched three-parts round the gaol courtyard. Here they were coun- ted by the chief warder, who then or- dered the warders respective parties to march off for their morning work. At noon the hill bell rang again, and the parties returned for their midday meal, after which they went to work until 5 p.m., when the bell again summoned all prisoners to enter the gaol.

The native prisoners' breakfast and tea consisted of bread and tea, whilst the midday meal comprised thick vegetable soup, stew and bread. On this diet they grew

sleek and contented.

A well was situated in the centre of the prison courtyard, from which water was drawn per medium of a windlass wound by hand. A small number of natives were kept engaged when neces- sary to carry water and cut firewood for use at the Government officials' quarters, also to sweep paths and keep

the settlement clear of rubbish.

Saturday afternoon was observed as the weekly half-holiday, during which the native prisoners were not allowed outside the prison. They spent their time in groups, yarning and joking or sleeping as they felt inclined. The

more civilised men were allowed to play cards-a game called "twenty fives" was their faivorite game. Dur- ing the summer months the civilised natives were allowed to practise cric- ket within the gaol, and to play mat- ches outside, in which some of the war- ders and islanders joined on Saturday


On Sundays, after breakfast, the natives were given uncooked meat and their ration of bread, and al- lowed to roam about the island away from the settlement until 4 p.m., when every man had to be in


Fishing lines were provided for those who cared to fish, and those who smoked were provided with clay pipes, tobacco, and a small supply of matches. SNAKES WERE VERY PLENTIFUL, and each Sunday during the summer months natives brought in snakes they had killed, and received their reward  

of half a stick of tobacco for each   snake produced.

No weapons which could be used for  

offensive purposes were allowed inside ,  

the gaol, with the exception of kylies

(boomerangs). These and small spears  

with burnt ends were made in plenty

by the natives, the former being used   to provide the clattering music for cor- roborees and the latter for sham fights, which created intense excitement but not ill-feeling among the combatants. Corroborees were usually held during week-end evenings, but every evening members of one or more tribes would have a singsong until they were count- ed into their cells for the night.

When a big corroboree was to be   staged, it was possible to see as many different varieties of corroboree as there were tribes in the prison. Those taking part painted various designs on their bodies with lime, manufactured

spiderweb headdresses from rushes, sticks, and the woollen bindings from their blankets, and carried sticks which had been scraped into balls of shav- ings. On these occasions small fires were lit in the gaol courtyard, and around these the natives corroboreed to the accompaniment of a vocal or- chestra, which clattered kylies in per- fect time and supplied other effects.

The rhythmical stamping of the natives' feet in the bolder forms of corroboree could be heard all over

the settlement.

Occasionally a native who had not become accustomed to his surroundings on the island would decide to leave his working party and run away in the hope of making back to his own coun- try. With so many expert black trackers on the island the runaway's liberty was


A small armory was kept secretly at the superintendent s house as a means of subduing any concerted hos- tile outbreak on the part of the natives. The arms kept in readiness were cut- lasses, bayonets, carbines, and revol-  

vers with the necessary ammunition, but these arms were never called into


Only one sentence of death was carried out at Rottnest up to 1890. The capital punishment in that instance was put into effect by hanging the victim-a native prisoner-in the prison courtyard in the presence of all other native prisoners, their warders and a special jury brought over from Fremantle to conduct the formal inquest after death had been pro- nounced by a doctor who was also


Horses were bred on the island and   shipped to Fremantle for police re- mounts. When the draft of unbroken horses was chosen for export, slings were placed round their bodies, and later they were haltered and driven to the water's edge, where they were fur- ther encouraged into the water and towed out behind a flat-bottomed barge on an endless rope to the lighter, where they were hoisted aboard by means of block and tackle, and placed in the lighter's hold, and transported to Fre- mantle.

Rocksalt was obtained each summer from a small lake which in winter be-

comes a continuation of Government House Lake but which dried off each summer, leaving a crust of a few in- ches of rocksalt. This commodity, which was gathered by natives using picks and shovels, was then stacked in a huge heap outside the saltworks, situated at the western end of the causeway, en route to the main light- house. The salt was refined by boiling in large pans, then carted to the salt store on the southern side of the super- intendent's bouse, where it was bagged and shipped on lighters for Fremantle.

The island produced its own horse and pig fodder. The farm lands were ploughed and seed sown by the approved methods then exist- ing. The crops were taken off by scythes and reap hooks in the hands of the native prisoners. The carting of the hay was carried out under the supervision of a white prisoner, who carried on the farming pursuits under the direc-

tion of the superintendent.

With the gaol full of natives, some provision had to be made for a hospi- tal in which those requiring surgical or medical treatment could receive suitable attention. Influenza followed by pneumonia, accounted for


among the natives. Native orderlies were trained to look after the sick, and did the work conscientiously whilst their patients were alive, but immedi-

ately one died evil spirits (jingies)   were suspected of being present. A good deal of persuasion was necessary to keep some of the more superstitious orderlies at their post.

During the winter months, when the influenza outbreak made its presence felt, my father used to visit the hospi- tal late at night or during the early hours of the morning. He was gifted with hypnotic powers, and on many occasions used those powers to lull de- lirious and raving patients to sleep for hours on end, and on occasions saved lives by being present when his hyp- notic powers were urgently required. The hospital was built on the northern side of the gaol, but not adjoining it.

Provisions for the islanders were brought over monthly in one of Mr. John Bateman's lighters. Certain stores were provided by the Govern- ment for the use of tbe islanders, and these could be purchased at a low price. Shipments of live sheep were brought over monthly by lighter according to requirements. The small herd of pigs maintained a welcome change from the otherwise monotonous meat diet of mutton. The vegetable supply for the inmates of the prison and the superin- tendent's house was grown in the Gov- ernment Gardens, situated on the east side of the settlement lake. A good supply of figs, yellow peaches and grapes was also produced there. All that now remains of the old garden is several date palms. Each warder was given a garden allotment on which to grow the vegetable supply for his own household. Gardens were also main- tained by the pilot and his crew.

In addition to the native prison an industrial school for European boys was conducted by the Government on the island. The officer is charge of this institution was Mr. John Watson, un-

der whose care the boys learned car-    

pentry, painting, and kindred crafts. The boys received a certain amount of schooling at the hands of Mr. Samuel Walcott, a Government schoolmaster.

Government House, the most sou- thern building of the settlement, which overlooked Thompson Bay, was maintained solely as a summer residence for the Governor of the

colony of Western Australia.

During our sojourn on the island Sir Frederick Napier Broome was Gover- nor of the colony. It was customary for him and Lady Broome with their guests and staffs of officials and ser- vants to spend about six weeks on the island each summer. His Excellency was a keen sportsman, and spent his leisure hours fishing and shooting. A small jetty ran out in front of Govern- ment House, on which was erected a bathing-box for the use of the Govern- ment House party.

When the ladies bathed the men were conspicuous by their absence,

and vice versa.

During those years (1883-1890) fish were plentiful, and big catches were usual occurrences. Many of the Gov- ernment House visitors were experi- enced fishermen, and preferred to use

ARTIFICIAL FLY to the more ordinary bait.

As all game on the island was pro- tected for the sport of the vice-regal party, many good bags of the long, red-legged snipe were shot down by these sportsmen, as were many brace of mountain and black duck, also teal. When a "shoot" was arranged, a party of natives was detailed to various parts of the lakes to drive the snipe towards the sportsmen, who were sheltering be- hind brushwood brakes at points of vantage round and behind the various lakes. Wallaby drives were also ar- ranged for the vice-regal party, who proceeded beyond the main lighthouse to Narrow Neck, where the scrub would be set alight by a party of natives, who headed as many wallabies as possible towards the guns of the shooting


The pilotage service for overseas ves- sels bound for Fremantle was carried out from Rottnest. A large un- decked lugger was kept available in Thompson Bay, also a whaleboat in  

serviceable condition in the boatshed for use on windless days. The person- nel engaged in the service comprised one pilot (Captain George Butcher) one coxswain (E. "Scotty" Gilmore)   one leading boat hand, and, say five


The island at this time had a small stone lighthouse with revolving light in the centre of the island, and a look-out at Bathurst Point on the north end. Both were man- ned during the 24 hours of the day.

Regular lightkeepers kept watch at the lighthouse, signalled by flare each hour of every night to the member of the pilot crew on watch at Bathurst   Point, who also showed a flare in re- turn. Flags were shown by day and lamp signals by night to indicate the approach of vessels.

The pilot boat was capable of going  

to sea in all weathers, and, according  

to circumstances, met the incoming vessels before they rounded Bathurst Point or beyond Thompson Bay.

In 1884 the impression that a Rus- sian force was coming to seize Austra- lia, and making Fremantle its first point of attack, grew to such dimen- sions that the Government of the day arranged that when the invaders were sighted off Rottnest huge bonfires at the main lighthouse and at Bathurst Point look-out were to be lit simul- taneously in the event of the fleet being sighted after sunset, and thus advise  

the authorities in Fremantle of the in- vasion. Those huge pyres stood for months awaiting the expected on-  

slaught which happily never came.  

Occasionally, in substitution for the visit of the harbor boat, the Fremantle   Water Police boat, or Captain Fother- gill's small steam launch Cleopatra would make the trip to the island.

Rottnest also provided a quaran- tine station for imported dogs. Many valuable animals were main- tained there for the prescribed six


Soon after my father took over his duties as superintendent he realised tbat the flocks of one-time tame pigeons, but now wild, had to be got rid of to ensure a pure supply of drink- ing water. More storage capacity for rainwater was also necessary. A sin- gle-barrelled muzzle-loading gun was supplied by the Government to the superintendent, who entrusted it to Warder T. Kennedy for the extermina- tion of all pigeons.

Underground water tanks were built at the west end of the prison, at the superintendent's house, and at Govern

ment House.

The roofing on the prison was  


A pinus inslgnus plantation wi planted by direction of my father in locality bordered on three sides by the settlement. Bathurst Point, and the "Basin " He also had preserved in good order an avenue of overhanging wattle trees running in a direct line from little north of the pilot crews quarters to the look-out at Bathurst Point. This was known as Lovers' Walk. Another track made and maintained was round the rocks from the north end of Thompson Bay beach to Flat Rock, a

fishing position just west of the Bath-

urst Point look-out.

The third and most beautiful walk was made over the range of hills south of the settlement lake, but north of Government House lake. Summer houses and a flagstaff were erected on this hill, which was named by my father View Hill. Visitors to the Island often referred to it as Mount Timperley.

As a fishing resort, Rottnest was

paradise for even poor fishermen. Dur lng the herring season the boys of the island could catch as many as


during the morning in front of the

settlement, or at almost any part of the island where a line could be

thrown in.

Easter Monday was the one day of the year when all the islanders migrated to Salmon Bay to catch salmon, herring, whiting, skipjack, schnapper, jewfish, sharks and stingrays, which were always plentiful at that season of the


The prison warders utilised a lot of their leisure at night in catching cray- fish in nets. They each had the use of a native, who would take out the net on Sundays and, though daylight, succeed in getting a good haul. The pilot crew also had crayfish nets and traps and were also successful in securing good catches.

A description of Rottnest would not be complete without some reference to the small European cemetery situated near the settlement lake. The original burial here is marked by a plain piece of stonework following the shape of the grave, and with a plain, flat stone


This is the grave of a young sea-  

faring French officer who was   killed in a sword duel by a fellow   officer many years ago.  

The physical features of Rottnest Island have not changed vastly be- tween 1883 and 1934. but there are some changes, the most notable of which is the erosion of Phillip Rock at the southern entrance to Thompson Bay. Instead of being the solid rock of hard-looking black stone growing a few hardy shrubs, to-day it presents  


Noticeable erosion has also taken place

on the rocky coastline from Thomp-   son Bay to Bathurst Point. The pine   plantation previously mentioned is no more. I understand that it suffered

considerably during the first years of  

the Great War, when that portion of the island was utilised as a prisoners- of-war compound. "Lovers' Walk" has disappeared. The track round the rocky seafront to Bathurst Point has ceased to exist, but the track over View Hill has been preserved. There is no track over Heliograph Hill, which affords picturesque views.

The old native prison is now an accommodation house for visitors, whilst the European boys' reformatory is now a hostel the management of which also controls the accommoda- tion in the native octagonal gaol.

Walcott's Beach, west of Jubilee Rocks near Bickley Point, is now shown on maps as Paterson Beach.

Government House and the super intendent's house are now sub-

divided into flats.