In the early 1800s a number of French explorers visited the south west coast of Australia. The British, who were at war with the French at that time, became concerned that a French presence in the south west of the continent could endanger trade with the eastern colonies. In 1819 Phillip Parker King and his crew patrolled the southwest, although it was not until his second voyage in 1822 that they made landfall on "Rottenest".
Settlement of the Swan River Colony began in 1829, and interest was shown almost immediately in Rottnest as a secure place with the potential for salt harvesting, farming and fishing. Rottnest was surveyed with provision for a town in 1830, and in 1831 William Clarke and Robert Thomson took up town lots and pasture land. Thomson, for whom Thomson Bay is named, took up residence on the Island in 1837.
The notion to use Rottnest as a confinement place for Aboriginal prisoners, was suggested by James Stirling. In August 1838 Constable Lawrence Welch, under the new title Superintendent of the Government Establishment, Rottnest, took six Aboriginal prisoners to Rottnest. They were to erect suitable dwellings, fish and collect salt. Buoyeen had been sentenced for assault; Mollydobbin, Tyoocan and Goordap for theft; Helia for murder; and Cogat for stealing butter.
However, shortly after their arrival, all six prisoners escaped to the mainland in Thomson's boat. Helia was drowned in the crossing, but the other five made is safely ashore. When he realised the prisoners were gone, Welch lit signal fires to attract the attention of people at Fremantle. The signals were seen, but because similar signals were used to announce that whales were on the coast, no one took much notice.
Despite this experience Governor Hutt decreed by 1839 that Rottnest was to be regarded as a training establishment for Aboriginal prisoners, as an alternative to mainland incarceration. Henry Vincent, the Gaoler at Fremantle, was put in charge of the Establishment. All private land was resumed by the Government. Many of the original structures such as the Salt Store, Vincent's first cottage and the Museum (originally a hay store) were built at this time. By 1844 there were approximately twenty prisoners on Rottnest.
Despite Vincent's objections to the presence of boats on the Island, a Pilot service was established under Captain Edward Back. Governor Fitzgerald expressed an interest in residing on Rottnest and Vincent began the construction of a new residence for himself so that his own house could be used by the Governor.
In 1847 Francis Armstrong was appointed as Moral Agent for the Aboriginal prisoners, and Vincent also burdened him with the tasks of Store and Lighthouse keeper. The cottage K1&K2 was built for him, but he returned to the mainland the following year.
In July 1849 Governor Fitzgerald closed the Rottnest institution and transferred some prisoners to Perth. Eight prisoners remained on the Island, working for James Dempster to whom the Island was leased. Many of the buildings were plastered for protection at this time.
Rottnest was proclaimed a penal establishment once more in 1855, with Vincent once again appointed Superintendent. A Chapel was built, and the boat shed and holding cell constructed. In 1864 the Government House was constructed as a summer residence for the Governor. Also in that year the Quod (slang for Prison) was constructed. Complaints about Vincent's abuse of prisoners were raised, and Vincent retired in 1867, to be replaced by William Jackson.
In 1880-81 a Boys Reformatory was constructed. By 1883 the prison population was in the order of one hundred and seventy people, and sixty Aboriginal men died during an influenza epidemic. The majority of Aboriginal deaths, mainly from disease, occurred during this period. Jackson was succeeded as Superintendent by William Timperley in 1883, Edward Angelo in 1890, and Frederick Pearse, the last Superintendent, in 1898.
Although the last prisoner did not leave the Island until 1931, the Prison, Reformatory and Salt Works were officially closed in 1903, and the Pilot Station was transferred to Fremantle. The closure of the Prison quickly lead to the use of the Island for recreational purposes. Physical development was not rapid and initially comprised the construction of modest bungalows and camps at Bickley Bay, together with a Store and Recreation Hall. A gradual campaign of conversions in the Settlement commenced, to adapt both the Reformatory and the Prison to hostel accommodation, and Government House to flats. It was in this period that the Island was made a Reserve.
The period 1855 - 1903 was a time of intensification and diversification of uses, and of significant development on Rottnest Island. It was in this period that the remaining buildings that form what is commonly referred to as the "historic core" were completed, and that attempts to plant trees and beautify the Island began.
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