History, WA History

Rocky Bay Joe

Looking upon the decade as a whole, we can see that many interesting events took place throughout the 1830s. William IV succeeded his brother to the throne of the United Kingdom in June 1830. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (abolishing slavery in the British Empire) was passed. Charles Darwin set off on a voyage of discovery in 1831 with the information collected later used in his book, ‘The Origin of the Species’. On the other side of the world, Western Australia (settled by Europeans in 1829) was still only a fledgling colony.

It was also in the early 1830s (approximately 1833) that Joseph Byron was born and, unlike the aforementioned events, his birth would have gone unnoticed except to those closest to him.

Attempts to establish the place of his birth have thus far been unsuccessful. While it is possible he was born in England, there is also the chance that he was born elsewhere.

Later evidence indicates that Joseph was lucky enough to receive an education. He was literate which gives rise to the assumption that he came from a family of means. Nevertheless, as he grew older, a career in the military called to him.

Again, details of his life in the military are sketchy. He served time in India and may have been part of the forces in Jhansi during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. By early 1864 and in his early thirties, he was certainly stationed in Jhansi as it was there that he was court-martialled.

In mid-1864 Joseph was brought to the General Court in Jhansi and was charged with insubordination. Insubordination within the military generally consists of an individual choosing to disobey a superior’s orders. Assaulting or treating a superior with disrespect are also acts of insubordination. No details as to what Joseph did are provided in the records at hand but it is likely that he committed a very serious act. On 8 July 1864 he was sentenced to ten years’ transportation and served time in Calcutta Barracks.

Four months later, on 3 December 1864, a warrant was issued by the Clerk of the Crown calling for his removal from India so that his sentence could be executed. From India, he was sent to England.


It is in this communication (printed in the Proceedings of the Government of India) that information concerning his military career are obtained. Joseph Byron, No. 246, was a Driver in B. Battery, 22nd Brigade Royal Artillery.

Having arrived in England by April 1865, Joseph bounced around from prison to prison during the next two years. On 7 April 1865, he was received at Millbank Prison in London; well-known for holding convict prisoners before their transportation to Australia.

Looking through the Millbank Prison register of arrivals, it’s interesting to see that Joseph most likely did not arrive alone. On the same date there were eleven other prisoners who were all sent from Calcutta Barracks in India to England. Many were found guilty of striking a superior officer or attempting to shoot a person. They were sentenced to four, five  or six years transportation. Joseph’s crime was listed simply as ‘disobedience’. He was one of two sentenced to ten years.

He remained in Millbank for two months before being sent on to Pentonville Prison in London, arriving on 19 June 1865. In the register, his trade was described as a bricklayer as well as a Private in the Royal Artillery. It was recorded that he was single, could read and write and was 26 years of age. This indicates a birth year closer to 1838 and conflicts with later records. A report of his character was also provided and was noted simply as ‘good’.

Pentonville Prison
Pentonville Prison in 1842

On 9 March 1866, Joseph was removed from Pentonville and was sent to Chatham Prison in Kent. He stayed there for the remainder of his time (six months) in England.

ChathamOn 6 September, Joseph, along with 97 other convicts from Chatham Prison, boarded a paddle steamer which conveyed them down the River Medway and out to The Nore (a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames Estuary). It was there that the new clipper ship Corona was waiting (already with pensioner guards and their families aboard) to embark and transport them to Western Australia. From The Nore the plan was to sail south around the coast of England towards Portsmouth and Portland to embark more convicts from these towns. It did not work out that way.

The Corona photographed between 1885 and 1946. Courtesy of State Library Victoria.

The ship set sail as planned. By 10 September they reached The Downs (an area of sea near the English Channel) and it was noted in the Surgeon’s Journal that many of the convicts had begun to feel the affects of seasickness and that some were also suffering from diarrhoea. The latter ailment was not another symptom of seasickness and its diagnosis and origin can be seen in the entry written on the day the convicts embarked.

One of the Crew seized with Cholera, sent on shore about 3P.M.

Cholera had broken out on the Corona and it was only the start of the voyage. Two days later, as the realisation dawned, steps were taken to try and ensure that the highly contagious disease would not spread further.

Barracks and Prison to be whitewashed twice a week with Chloride of Lime. Chloride of Zinc to be frequently applied to all parts of the Ship. All secretions from Stomach and Bowels to be disinfected. Stoves to be kept burning about Dock all day.

It’s not known whether Joseph suffered from seasickness or contracted cholera.

The disease however took its hold and on 16 September 1866 the ship was towed to The Motherbank (a sandbar northeast of the Isle of Wight) and remained in the area until early October. Throughout that time two convicts, William Sharp and Enoch Gibson, Gibsonpassed away.

By 8 October, the original plan was put back in motion and the Corona sailed for Portsmouth and then Portland to embark a further 79 and 133 convicts respectively, taking the total convicts on board to 308.

They were fed meat which, on alternate days, was accompanied by  either compressed vegetables or preserved potatoes and washed down with cups of either lime juice or wine.

As the illnesses abated and the journey continued, the convicts fell into a weekly routine which was prescribed by the Surgeon and written at the front of his journal. They were required to be up by 6am to wash their beds, hammocks and themselves. At 8am they ate breakfast. At 9:30am they said their prayers. They were exercised on deck and attended school. Dinner was eaten at 12pm and supper at 4:30pm. They said their prayers again at 6pm and were in bed by 8:30pm when the Surgeon completed his rounds.

Each day was the same as the last with the addition of shaving on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Sundays were also especially marked with the words ‘divine service’. All prisoners were expected to “assemble together in a clean and orderly manner, for the worship of Almighty God.

Fifteen rules were also written in the journal and mainly consisted of standard ones such as being required to behave in an orderly manner. They were also not permitted to steal from the stores of food, had to take their bedding on deck every morning and would be severely punished if found with a cutting or sawing instrument.

They ate in separate sections in the mess and each group had an appointed Captain who was in charge and responsible for several duties. Joseph would have been in a particular group in the mess and was required to eat with them for the duration of the journey. Considering his background within the Army, perhaps he felt quite at home on board the Corona. He was certainly no stranger to rules, regulations and strict order.

The ship sailed onwards towards its destination. Most of the trip went fairly well apart from two major incidents: the death of a third convict, Thomas Hinson, who succumbed in early November from diarrhoea and was buried at sea; and the discovery that deck planks had been sawn through by two convicts who were attempting to gain access to (what they thought) was the arms and ammunition stores. Denials served them no good and they received 24 lashes each as punishment.

Perth GazetteFinally, at noon on 22 December 1866, Rottnest Island was sighted. By 3pm in the afternoon they arrived in Fremantle and cast their anchor. Despite their delay at the start, the journey was considered to be the fastest ever to Western Australia and was completed in 66 days.

Joseph and the other convicts remained on board for two more days and, at 6am on the 24th, were disembarked from the Corona and brought ashore. By 8am they had arrived (on foot) at Fremantle Prison.

Fremantle Jetty
South Jetty in Fremantle circa 1870.

Convict number 9104, Joseph Byron was noted as 33 years old (birth year 1833), single with no children. He stood at five foot six and a quarter (just over 170 cm). He was described as having light brown hair, hazel eyes, a round face, dark complexion and was considered stout. Other identifying features included a “mark of ulcer sores on left arm and throat.

His religious denomination was recorded as the Church of England and under the box entitled ‘Residence of Convict’s Family or next of Kin’ it was written “No friends“.

Prior convictions were also stated and while it was written that he had been convicted previously, he had never been transported before. Other than that, his character was good.

Fremantle Prison
Fremantle Prison in the 1860s. Courtesy of the Fremantle History Centre.

At Fremantle Prison, Joseph and the other convicts were inspected and then sent off to bathe. Having handed over what he was wearing, he was issued with a new set of clothes made of heavy cotton material and stamped with black arrows. He also received other items such as socks, handkerchiefs, a pair of boots and a cap. Finally, his hair was cut short and he was sent to his cell.

It’s likely he spent little time in Fremantle Prison and was quickly put to work within the colony, working on roads or public buildings. Joseph however was not interested in keeping his head down and his nose out of trouble. Nine months after his arrival, on 6 September 1867, he was formally warned by Mr McMahon (an assistant warder) that if he continued to misconduct himself he would be brought in and severely punished.

By early January 1868 his behaviour had not improved and he was imprisoned in Perth for three days for “Disobedience of Orders & refusing to work“, a charge which was extremely similar to his original conviction. Perhaps Joseph would not (or could not) work.

Over a year later, on 11 October 1869, he was granted a Ticket of Leave. No longer required to work exclusively as convict labour for the Government, he was free to be employed privately and to earn his own money. Four days later Joseph went to work for John Bancells in Perth as a labourer.

None of his employment prospects were long term. In March 1870 he cut firewood for William McGrath in the Swan district. He worked as a teamster for Mr R. Thompson (also of Swan) in April 1870 and, in June 1872, he twice worked as a gentleman’s servant for Patrick Lambert in Perth.

Joseph seemed only capable of working odd jobs. Despite his trade being a bricklayer, he never actually obtained employment in that field.

Questions as to how he was supporting himself or why he had so few jobs during this period can be answered when reading over the ‘Remarks’ section in the register. Apart from when he was located at the Guildford Convict Depot for the first nine months of 1870 (confirming his employment in Swan) from 1869 until 1874 Joseph was in and out of either prison or hospital. He also spent considerable time in the invalid depot with the record showing that he was in that institution for most of 1873 and the first six months of 1874.

Looking closer at some of the individual records allows us to gain an understanding as to what Joseph may have been going through.

He suffered from rheumatic gout and appears to have been regularly admitted to hospital with this complaint. His first hospital visit occurred on 23 October 1869 at about age 36 and a mere three years after his arrival. He remained there for three months and was not released until 17 January 1870.

Joseph was not always completely blameless for his actions. On 18 May 1872 he was found guilty of assaulting Thomas McNamara (likely another convict) and was sent to prison for fourteen days. This conviction resulted in the cancellation of his Conditional Release which had only been granted three months prior. Another two years passed before he was finally granted his Certificate of Freedom on 21 July 1874.

The following year, in January 1875, he was back in hospital when his old gout problem caused him difficulty. This stint did not last as long as the previous one and he was released in early February.

On 22 October 1877 (noted as being a much older age of 50 in the records) Joseph was found guilty of using obscene and threatening language. No detail was printed in either the register or the newspapers as to who (if anyone) the language was directed towards. He was sentenced to 40/ or one month’s imprisonment. Given the impoverished nature of Joseph’s life in Western Australia, there can be no doubt as to which option was the only one available to him. He went to prison and was discharged in the following month.

Underlying the story of Joseph’s behaviour, it would appear that alcohol was another issue. While there is the possibility that Joseph was ‘self-medicating’ as a way to combat the pain of his rheumatic gout, we can’t ignore the fact that he may simply have been an alcoholic. Perhaps alcohol eased or helped him forget his joint pain for a short while but it would not have been conducive to improving his condition; alcohol is known to trigger the symptoms of gout.

Joseph was a convict who did not succeed within the system. It would appear he tried to survive on his own however, when necessary, he turned to the Government for support and became known as an imperial pauper. Throughout the years Joseph was recorded as receiving several shirts and a couple of pairs of boots, fairly minimal requests compared to other convicts’ larger orders. In the first instance of his making a claim for a shirt (on 24 July 1876) he was described as an ‘invalid’ and was required to sign his name. The signature, though a little scratchy, is strong, dark and clear. In amongst dates, facts and records, it offers a small, personal glimpse relating to the man himself.

Joseph Byron

As an imperial pauper, the years may have passed by slowly and difficultly for Joseph. He resided in Fremantle and at some point went to live in a cave near Rocky Bay. With the Swan River on his doorstep, the area (today part of North Fremantle) would have been much quieter than the hustle and bustle of the town of Fremantle.

My own visit illustrated this fact perfectly. Even today the cave and the area where Joseph lived is quiet and peaceful and with the Swan River gently lapping at the shore I can understand why he would have chosen to stay in the cave and maintain his liberty rather than opt for admittance to an invalid home.

It’s not known how long he resided within the cave but it is likely he lived there for quite some time. As it’s known to happen with people who frequent the same area for a considerable time, he soon became known to everyone as Rocky Bay Joe.

The 1880s saw the occasional visits to both prison and hospital but generally he kept out of trouble. As a new decade began in 1890, Joseph was about 57 years of age. The year did not start well.

On 30 January 1890 Joseph returned to the cave at Rocky Bay to find that his bed and all his belongings (everything he owned in the world) had been set on fire by a group of boys.

Cruel Outrage

The Police were said to have had the names of the boys but whether they were charged remains to be seen. Searching in the Police Gazettes and newspapers indicates that no one around that time period was taken to Court for a similarly described offence.

Less than a week later, Joseph approached the Fremantle Police Court determined to receive compensation for the loss of his property.

He explained that he suffered from rheumatism, and the pittance he earned was just enough to live on, and it was very hard to lose his things in the way he had. He had nothing left except the clothing he wore.

While sympathetic to his plight, the magistrate informed Joseph that he could not give him compensation and that the only way to obtain it was to sue the boys in the Local Court. Such an option would require hiring a lawyer and Joseph (a man clearly without wealth) stated “…he had not the means to do that.” With no other option, Joseph simply had to accept what had happened and move forward. Legal and correct but unfair nonetheless.

May 1890Four months later, on 5 May 1890, Joseph was sent to prison for seven days for being drunk on a Sunday. He spent one day in prison but, upon realising he was ill, was transferred to the hospital where he spent a further eight days.

The cold weather, living rough, his illnesses and perhaps the loss of his property took a major toll on his health. A month later he reported again to the hospital and was admitted on 8 June suffering from influenza and compressed liver. A week later he was listed in the category of ‘seriously ill’ and was described by the Doctor as “very low & weak”. He never recovered from this final illness and, in the morning of Monday, 16 June 1890, Joseph Byron passed away.

Imp Paup 9104 J Byron came in on 8th June 1890 suffering from influenza & compressed liver. He was very low & weak and never recovered much. He died from 4 [?] this morning.

His death certificate reflects his status as a pauper in Western Australia. In fact, his ‘Rank or Profession’ on the certificate is recorded simply as ‘Imperial Pauper’. His official cause of death was listed as influenza, congestion of liver and exhaustion. Absent from the certificate is his place of burial. This information is also not recorded on the Metropolitan Cemeteries Board database. Joseph Byron’s final resting place is unknown and it is disappointing that I cannot pay my respects to the man I have spent the last month researching. Perhaps more information will come to light at a later date.

The Prisoners’ Cash Account book also reveals just how much Joseph had in his account. The last entry (recorded before he was admitted to hospital) calculated that he had eleven shillings and eight pence to his name. Using the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Pre-Decimal Inflation Calculator (starting with the year 1901 as it’s the earliest year available) the amount is roughly equivalent today to $1.17.

Despite the opportunities that existed within Western Australia, Joseph was not a success story to come out of transportation. His records reflect a man who had a painful illness, was often in trouble and in and out of prison or hospital. While there is no doubt these visits were on occasion a result of bad behaviour or sickness, there is also a possibility that his attraction to these institutions was also due to his own poor social situation. If he was sleeping rough or lacking food, the lure of prison or the hospital (where he would be fed regularly and given a bed to sleep in) may have been too tempting.

Joseph Byron was not overly influential or instrumental in creating great things within Western Australia’s history. He had not wealth nor status and thus, as time passed, his story was easily forgotten; a common occurrence for people without family to remember them. Regardless, every person, even the very poor, have stories to tell. They might not be around to tell them themselves but I believe it’s important that we take the time to learn their stories, tell their stories and recognise the part they played in the world, no matter how small.


  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
    Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.
  • Proceedings of the Government of India. Home Department, 1864. Prtd. at the Home Settlement, 1864. Viewed online via Google Books (https://books.google.com.au/books?id=LCZOAAAAYAAJ&dq=bibliogroup%3A%22Proceedings%20of%20the%20Government%20of%20India.%20Home%20Department%2C%201864%22&pg=PA1013#v=onepage&q&f=false).
  • England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935; Millbank Prison Registers: Male Prisoners. Volume 10; Series: HO24; Piece Number: 10.
  • Image of Pentonville Prison sourced from The Illustrated London News courtesy of Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HM_Prison_Pentonville).
  • Shipping and Mercantile Gazette; 6 September 1866; Page 4. Obtained via Findmypast.
  • Shipping and Mercantile Gazette; 7 September 1866; Page 2. Obtained via Findmypast.
  • Image of the Corona courtesy of State Library Victoria; Accession no(s) H99.220/546 (http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/14116).
  • Admiralty Transport Department, Surgeon Superintendents’ Journals of Convict Ships. MT 32. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
  • Portsmouth Times and Naval Gazette; 29 September 1866. Obtained via Findmypast.
  • 1867 ‘FREMANTLE.’, The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times (WA : 1864 – 1874), 4 January, p. 2. , viewed 08 Apr 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3753192
  • Fremantle Jetty and Bathers’ Beach [picture] courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (Online Call Number: 009275D). https://encore.slwa.wa.gov.au/iii/encore/record/C__Rb2112316
  • Hasluck, Alexandra. “Chapter IV, The Hard Years.” Unwilling Emigrants: A Study of the Convict Period in Western Australia. Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1978. N. pag. Print.
  • Image of Fremantle Prison courtesy of the Fremantle History Centre; Image number 2111 (http://cdm16702.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/myfirst/id/3453).
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Description : General Register for Nos 9059 – 9598 (R15). ACC 1156/R15.
  • 1866 ‘Perth Gazette & W. A. Times.’, The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times (WA : 1864 – 1874), 28 December, p. 2. , viewed 08 Apr 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3753306
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Description : Register of Admissions and Discharges from Hospital, 1857 – 1886 (M32). Reference: ACC 1156/M32.
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Description : Registers of Local Prisoners for Nos 614 – 4185 and 4196 – 6853, 1876 – 1888 (F3 – F4). Cons 1156/F3-F4.
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Description : Discharged Prisoners Clothing, 1875 – 1933 and Convict Ships, 1850 – 1868 (V12). ACC 1156/V12.
  • 1890 ‘NEWS OF THE DAY.’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 31 January, p. 3. , viewed 13 Apr 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article77286299
  • 1890 ‘NEWS AND NOTES.’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 6 February, p. 3. , viewed 13 Apr 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3131872
  • 1890 ‘NEWS AND NOTES.’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 6 May, p. 2. , viewed 13 Apr 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3133987
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Description : Receipts and Discharges (Fremantle), 1886 – 1892, 1896 – 1898 (RD10A – RD13). ACC 1156/R&D10A-R&D12.
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Description : Daily Medical Journals, 1887 – 1891 (M24 – M25). ACC 1156M24-M25.
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Description : Prisoners Private Cash Account Book, 1881 – 1896 (V46). ACC 1156/V46.

6 thoughts on “Rocky Bay Joe”

  1. Very well Written Jessica shame he had no family hope you find where is buried so can pay respects to him 😀


  2. Hi Jess, I really enjoyed reading this post. Even though you have not been able to locate Joseph’s grave I feel you have already paid your respects by researching and writing about him.



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