Towards the end of the 1840s when convict transportation to the Eastern States was coming to an end, the Governor of Western Australia (with the backing of the leading land owners) pressured the British Government to send convicts to Western Australia. This was done with a view to revitalising the economy and to provide a cheap labour force, as labour was in short supply and expensive. As the average citizen was opposed to the proposal on the grounds of public safety, it was initially proposed that any convict sent would be well behaved, have served most of his sentence and be entitled to a ticket-of-leave on, or soon after his arrival. However, over time, the convicts became much more hardened criminals, that necessitated the building of Fremantle Prison.
To ensure the safety of the convict ships it was proposed that each ship would have a guard consisting of men who were former soldiers of the British Army, Royal Marines and the East India Company. The men had been discharged to pension after serving the British Empire with distinction. The Scindian the first convict ship with a Guard arrived in 1850 and the Hougoumont, the last, in 1868. Between those dates thirty-five ships of the forty-three ships which transported convicts to Western Australia had a guard of between 28 and 55 pensioners many accompanied by their wives and children.
At the time Military pensions were not a right. Pensions were only awarded to men of merit who had served for long periods of time, had a good record, were totally unfit for further service or had been injured in the service of their country or contracted a disease in that service. Prior to 1854, all men enlisting in the British army did so for life and the onus was on the individual to prove he was ill or worn out from long service and eligible for a pension.
The reforms of 1854 saw the introduction of enlistment for a limited period. After 21 years’ service a private could receive up to 1/- per diem, a corporal 1/3, and a sergeant 1/6. Pensions for the East India Company were awarded from the Lord Clive Military Fund and were comparative to those of the British Army. Pensions for the men who fought in the Crimea were awarded through a fund presumably raised from the grateful public, i.e. “Patriotic Fund”.
During their military careers the pensioners were engaged as troops of the line wherever there was a British Military presence. This included service in India, Greece (Ionian Isles), Gibraltar, Malta, Australia, South Africa, West Indies, Canada, North America, Nova Scotia, New Zealand as well as doing garrison duty in the British Isles.
The list of wars in which they participated and had medals awarded is impressive and include:
1st Afghan War 1839-1842 Persian War 1856-1857
1st Opium War 1839-1842 2nd Opium War 1856-1860
1st Sikh War 1845-1846 Indian Mutiny 1857-1859
2nd Burmese War 1852-1853 New Zealand Wars 1845-1872
Crimean War 1854-1856 2nd Ashanti War 1863-1864
As an enticement to volunteer for the Convict guard, each pensioner was entitled to a free passage for himself, his wife and children, employment for a limited period after arrival and to those eligible, a land grant and a two-roomed cottage to which they would be entitled to Fee Simple after seven years occupancy and making general improvements.
The land grants varied in size according to location, in rural areas from 10 or 20 acres to one third of an acre in Perth. The areas set aside were known as pensioner villages; the first village established was at South Perth and was a notable failure due to its isolated location on the south side of Perth Water accessible only by boat. Other more successful villages were established at Freshwater Bay, North Fremantle, Bunbury, Busselton, Albany, Toodyay, Northam, York, Kojonup, Greenough, Lake Koojee [Coogee], Willagee Swamp, Perth and West Guildford. Other failures included Port Gregory where the allotments were adjacent to a salt water estuary and those of Kelmscott, Belaring Springs and St. Ronan’s Well which were laid out but never settled.
After the arrival of the Convict Guards in the Colony they were enlisted for a period in the Enrolled Force and performed guard duty at Government House, the treasury, the magazine, the Convict Establishment, convict depots and road gangs as well as attending ceremonial and church parades. From 1862 they were the only Military personnel stationed in Western Australia and as such gave the general public a sense of security needed in a community with a heavy convict presence. Many worked as warders for the Convict Department, in the Police and Water Police forces and in the general workforce in a variety of occupations including shop keepers, tailors, market gardeners, farmers, as well as general labourers. It was often the children of pensioners who reaped the benefits.
After the cessation of transportation to Western Australia in 1868 the role played by the Enrolled Pensioner Force decreased. In 1874 the Colonial Office instructed the Staff Officer of Pensioners to reduce the level of expenditure until finally on the 10th November 1880, the Force was officially disbanded. Guards were still required for Government House, the magazine, and the Fremantle prison and in addition a member of the guard was appointed as an orderly for the Governor. So, as a temporary measure, it was decided to form an Enrolled Guard under the command of the Commissioner of Police to be disbanded on 31 March 1887.
The employment of pensioners in Western Australia had many advantages in that there was increased money flowing into the economy through the payment of salaries and wages. Expenditure increased with the erection of the Fremantle Prison and the Pensioner Barracks at both Fremantle and Perth as well as roads and bridges, much of it paid for by Imperial funds.
The pensioners were available in times of emergency whether from natural disasters or prison escapes. They engendered in the population a feeling of security and helped maintain a balance between the number of free settlers and those of the convicts. It was often the pensioners’ daughters, (and sometimes the widows), who provided wives for Ticket-of-Leave men, helping redress what had become a serious problem, namely, the imbalance of the sexes. Western Australia was different from the other colonies in that only male convicts were transported. Although it was possible for a married convict to apply for an assisted passage for his wife and children to be assisted immigrants, the offer was not often taken up.