Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days, Volume 11, 1995-2000

Thomas Hill Dixon: first superintendent of convicts in Western Australia

Tony Stebbing

Stebbing, Tony 1999, 'Thomas Hill Dixon: first superintendent of convicts in Western Australia', Early Days, vol. 11, part 5: 612-627.

Thomas Hill Dixon, prison administrator and adventurer, arrived in Western Australia in 1850 with the first convicts from Britain and served with distinction as a reforming and humane superintendent of convicts until his departure ‘under a cloud’ in 1859. A complex personality, who faced perennial financial and marital problems, he later wandered Asia in various endeavours and revisited Britain before returning to Western Australia, where he died in 1880.

Thomas Hill Dixon (1816 -1880)

Thomas Dixon was bom on 20 February 1816 on the Isle of Man. His father was an innkeeper who provided Dixon and his brother with good educations. He was only twelve when his father died and his mother, Hannah, afterwards struggled to keep the hotel going and her sons at school.

At the age of eighteen Dixon left the island to train in medicine at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, but he returned after only six months, probably to help his mother run the hotel when his older brother fell ill and, later, died. He maintained his ambition of a career in medicine, spending a five-year term as a pupil of Dr Thomas Nelson, close by his old school, but he never returned to Glasgow to complete his training.

On his mother’s death in 1837, Dixon inherited her estate, but she died in such debt that her assets barely covered the funeral expenses. Following legal problems over his mother’s estate and pursued by her creditors, he left the Isle of Man with his wife Eliza Fennella (nee Cooke). She was almost certainly Manx, although no record of their marriage has been found. Their first daughter, Mary Cooke Dixon, was bom in Liverpool in 1840, but Dixon did not do well there. In August 1842 the family moved to London, where a second daughter, Hannah Matilda (‘Tilly’), was bom in 1843. While there, his wife left him in circumstances which are unknown; there is no record of his subsequent remarriage.

In London in the nineteenth century crime was rife. Criminals numbered one in eight of the population of Greater London which increased rapidly between 1821 and 1851 from 1.6 million to 2.6 million 1. In this period of rising population and crime, Thomas Dixon joined the Metropolitan Police Force in 1842 as Constable


Number 19,597 in Deptford. It is strange that he should have chosen such a career after his medical training and apprenticeship. In 1847 a friend, Richard Quirk, wrote:

[I] greatly regret to hear of him now being in a position so much inferior to that which his connexion, education and regular habits of life & business might have entitled me to expect. 2

On the Thames off Woolwich and Deptford, obsolete men-o’-war were moored at this time as prison hulks used to take the overflow of convicts from prisons. As a constable in Deptford, Dixon would have been familiar with the parties of convicts which came ashore daily to work in the naval dockyard and aware that many of those incarcerated in them were destined, according to their sentences, to be ‘transported upon the seas ,... to such place as His Majesty ... shall think fit to direct and appoint ... ' 3

Dixon saw an opportunity to escape from life as a policeman in Victorian London and decided to start a new life in the colonies. Early in 1847 he approached friends and associates for testimonials in order to apply for a position in the Convict Service. The references came from Dr Nelson, his old teacher, from Richard Quirk, an old family friend who was receiver-general of Her Majesty’s Customs on the Isle of Man and from Professor Edward Forbes, a schoolmate, by then occupying the chair of botany at Kings College in London. His application was successful and within three years he found himself superintendent of convicts in remote Western Australia.

* * *

When the announcement of a new settlement ‘on the western coast of New Holland’ was published in 1829, it was stressed that, ‘It is not intended that any convicts, or other description of prisoners, be transported to this new settlement’. 4 However, after twenty years, the future of the colony was threatened by a decline in the number of original settlers by more than a half; a problem compounded by lack of investment. The colonists sought a radical solution.

On 23 February 1849, at a meeting in the Court House in Perth, it was agreed that the colony was in decline, aggravated by the steady emigration of labour to South Australia and to the goldfields in New South Wales. The proposed solution was the investment of capital and the provision of ‘new and abundant labour’. 5 Since it seemed likely that the Home Government would make the colony ‘a receptacle of convicts by pouring in upon us felons under the various names of “exiles”, “probationers” and the like’, the meeting resolved to request Her Majesty’s Government to create a ‘regular penal settlement’, with a convict establishment to maintain and supervise convicts, which would be properly administered at the


expense of the Home Government. It was hoped that the convict labour force would be directed to public works, building roads, bridges and public buildings, while a ticket-of-leave scheme would provide the colony with reformed men, trained to become permanent colonists.

Settlers’ representatives asked the new governor, Captain Fitzgerald, to convey their proposals to Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Grey. Such petitions had been drawn up before, the earliest in 1831. However, it was the first time that such a request had been put to Fitzgerald and he acted immediately. In July 1849 the governor’s letter to Earl Grey reached Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, who quickly acceded to the proposal, since it not only met the colony’s request for labour, but would also help solve the problem of disposing of Irish prisoners then filling English and Irish gaols. Less than twelve months elapsed between the despatch to Earl Grey and the arrival of the first convicts off Fremantle on 1 June 1850.

The first convicts sent to Western Australia were transported on the Scindian, a fast Indiaman of 650 tons, which embarked many of her motley human cargo at Tilbury Fort, and took on convicts ‘of good behaviour’ from Portland, Isle of Wight, before finally leaving Portsmouth on 4 March 1850. Aboard were 75 convicts, 50 pensioner guards with their wives and families, some cuddy passengers with their families and servants, and a small party of officials, warders, sappers and miners under Comptroller-General, Captain E.Y.W. Henderson R.E. Those on board included Thomas Dixon, his new ‘wife’ and his daughters. 6

The passage to Fremantle was fast and took just 88 days from Deptford. One consequence was that the Scindian overtook vessels that were expected to give warning of the imminent arrival of the convicts, so no arrangements had been made to accommodate them. A large wool shed was therefore rented in Fremantle. This took a month to adapt as temporary accommodation. Meanwhile, most of the convicts and guards had to remain aboard the Scindian at anchor in Gage Roads for three weeks as she rode out winter gales.

Not many months after Dixon and his ‘wife’ arrived in Western Australia, she was inexplicably banished from Fremantle to Toodyay in 1851 ‘for the benefit of the Service’. 7 His daughters remained with Dixon living in the superintendent’s residence in Fremantle. The last available reference to his ‘wife’ was in 1854 when she was ill and Dixon took the long ride to see her at Toodyay. There she was living in a ‘hovel’ at an outstation three miles from the nearest source of supplies. She was being given a government ration, but had run out of flour and was living on rice. 8 With little more than these facts available as to her circumstances, it seems most likely that she had been banished from Fremantle following her exposure as Dixon’s common-law wife and not the mother of his children.


It is worth comparing the voyage of the Scindian with that of the Nile, which arrived at Fremantle in January 1858 with 268 convicts. The two voyages not only provide an instructive contrast, but also show Dixon’s role as superintendent in reporting on the state of new arrivals, and making recommendations, which were conveyed to the Home Government, to improve procedures.

That life aboard the Scindian was well ordered and clean seems to have been due largely to the surgeon. Dr John Gibson, who was responsible for the convicts’ welfare, discipline, daily regimen, diet and quarters. Gibson’s report


makes clear the day-to-day realities of life aboard ship. 9 His general orders laid down the regulation of convicts, including considerable detail on requirements for the stowing of bedding, taking exercise, washing hands and faces, and combing hair. They also make explicit Gibson’s willingness to hear from convicts any report of misconduct or injustice, for he knew that petty issues could become explosive in the cramped and fetid conditions of the prison hold. Cleanliness of the prisoners’ quarters was paramount for the health of those on board. The prison hold was cleaned daily, the decks swept after every meal and the water closets cleaned two or three times a day, sprinkled with chloride of zinc and inspected by Gibson. Wednesdays and Saturdays were designated shaving days, and Tuesdays and Fridays for washing clothes, when lines were rigged on deck for drying. The schedule ensured that when the prisoners were inspected on Sundays before divine service, they looked their best and behaved in a ‘becoming manner *.

On her arrival, Governor Fitzgerald went aboard the Scindian and commended the order, cleanliness and perfect ventilation in every compartment, and the cheerfulness and contentment of the convicts. Henderson similarly noted the health, cleanliness and propriety of behaviour of the convicts, while the convicts assured Gibson that ‘we will ever remember the many benevolent acts by which our comfort has been promoted.’10

The arrival of the Nile at Fremantle eight years later provided the starkest of contrasts. Far from appearing clean and tidy for Sunday worship, Dixon found the convicts in conditions of the ‘utmost depravity’. His report made the strongest request that arrangements on convict ships be improved. This report, with Henderson’s endorsement, was sent by Governor Kennedy to Secretary for the Colonies, Henry Labouchere, with Kennedy’s own recommendation for dealing with ‘disorder and indiscipline’ on future convict ships. Dixon’s investigation into conditions on the Nile had apparently revealed an ineffectual surgeon. Kennedy wrote:

The utmost care should be taken in the selection of a Surgeon Superintendent, - it is no ordinary office and requires a man of no ordinary stamp to perform its duties. Courage, decision, promptitude and temper are indispensible. 11

He then attempted to identify the cause of the behaviour and plight of prisoners aboard the Nile noting, firstly, the problems that arose from not separating convicts:

It seems not only impolite and inexpedient, but cruel to associate an educated forger (who may be otherwise a moral man) even to sleeping with a brutalized being, convicted of unnatural crime or bestiality.


The solution was essentially one of supervising the prisoners’ quarters at night, Kennedy wrote, but it was dangerous to do this.

I do not believe that any officer who does his duty strictly would venture into the midst of 300 convicts in a ship’s hold at night - the officers ought to have reasonable protection and I therefore recommend Mr. Dixon’s suggestion of a fenced or railed passage down the centre of the ship.

This recommendation was subsequently implemented. In this and other ways Dixon worked to improve the lot of convicts in transportation, urging the Home Government that

Those in any way officially connected with transportation ... should endeavour, even on the score of humanity alone, to bring about such a change of system, as will put an end to the ‘horrors’ of a Convict Ship... 12

The reason for sending convicts to Western Australia was different to that for transportation to New South Wales. Those dispatched in the early fleets to New South Wales were, in effect, transferred to a new and infinitely larger prison hulk, Terra Australis. No secret was made by successive Whig and Tory governments that transportation was meant to inflict ‘relentless suffering’ 13 and thus to acquire a reputation that would deter crime at home. There were no signs that this objective was met.

In contrast, Western Australia required convicts as labourers and permanent settlers. Punishment through suffering was never an objective. Dixon worked to maintain this distinction, which the Home Government became inclined to overlook after the early shipments of convicts. The initial request was to send healthy men, less than 45 years old, of good behaviour and under sentences of less than seven years. The colony’s hope was to receive men who would soon to be issued their tickets-of-leave and be eligible for release into the community as free labourers.

Even a life-term convict could be awarded a ticket-of-leave after a minimum of eight years. Upon release he was given the freedom to earn a living and to choose his master, to wear his own clothes and to keep any money earned. He could move about the colony, but not leave it, until his sentence had finally expired, or he had been pardoned.

The Home Government was regularly reminded by Dixon and others of the reasons for sending them convicts: whether it related to the age and condition of men and their fitness to work, or the suitability of books for the prison library to be read by men ‘... intended to become permanent settlers in this colony’. 14 Dixon repeatedly noted in his reports that to send convicts who were invalids or over fifty years-of-age defeated the purpose of transportation to Western Australia for the function of the system was not simply to carry out the sentences awarded by the British courts, but to provide a labour force and settlers for the colony.


Dixon’s report of 31 December 1857 provided a summary of the status of the Convict System. The total number of convicts received by then was 1233, of whom 20% had been discharged on tickets-of-leave to join the labour market. He noted that it was a real challenge to convert convicts into self-reliant colonists with a trade, for those arriving on later ships were generally the dregs of Victorian society and the lowest kind of labourers, many of them ‘addicted to drunkedness’. Dixon reported:

... this Establishment (is) the portal through which the whole convict population of the colony must pass, I would remark that much of the future utility of convicts as colonial settlers depends on what they have been taught here. I look indeed upon this Establishment as a sort of industrial and moral alembic subserving the interests at once of the convicts submitted to its ordeal, and of the colony whose labour market those convicts are ultimately to supply. 15

Due largely to Dixon’s policies, by 1857 the Convict Establishment was training ‘tolerable’ blacksmiths, carpenters, rough-masons, tailors and shoemakers, and had recently begun to train printers. Dixon wrote, ‘It is one important part of my plan to have the facilities for acquiring a knowledge of useful employment multiplied as much as possible within these walls’; 16 and he wished to add another twenty trades to those already being taught.

Dixon calculated the total value of convict labour for the latter half of 1857 at £16,495. At four shillings for a ten-hour day, this represented the labour of about 550 men. In addition to the labour of men working within the Establishment walls, the estimate included the work of about 300 prisoners on road parties at Mount Eliza, Guildford, Wanerenooka, Albany, York, Toodyay, Avon, Northam and Beverley. Clearly, this represented a significant subsidy to the economy of the 1 colony, given that the total number of colonists had only been 5000 when Governor Fitzgerald took office in 1848. It is impossible to assess the contribution of convict labour to the outlying districts, but at York a convict depot was established in 1850 and convicts could still be hired in 1872. They did much to develop the district, including the building of roads, bridges and public buildings.

Convicts who learned a trade at the Convict Establishment made a significant contribution to the Western Australian economy for a generation. Many builders throughout the colony employed tickets-of-leave men who had new skills. From 1851 to 1885 convicts were a predominant influence and introduced new building styles with squared masonry and baked bricks instead of rough stone slabs and mud huts. They left their mark in Toodyay, York and elsewhere for decades. 17


Dixon certainly recognised that history was being made:

It were [sic], indeed, one of the most interesting political experiments ever yet attempted in the world, to found and watch the progress of a society composed entirely of persons... upon whom a sentence of expatriation had been passed. 18

In the same report, Dixon expressed his belief that ‘no system of transportation is susceptible of producing permanently favourable results to a community, which does not include the female as well as the male element’. Convicts of both sexes had been sent to the eastern Australian colonies, and he now urged that female convicts be sent to Western Australia without delay. However, his efforts were to no avail for, although he was supported by the Legislative Council, the governor rejected the idea. 19

Life in British prisons at this time was typically miserable and degrading. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the Utilitarian philosopher, summarised the aims of a reforming prison regime thus: ‘morals reformed, health preserved, industiy invigorated, instruction diffused’. 20 In Britain, his efforts had little influence at the time, but Bentham might well have provided the text to which Dixon worked as he developed the role of the Convict Establishment in moral reformation, education and the teaching of a useful trade, so that on their release convicts could find jobs. He also created a regime that was more humane than those in English prisons of the time.

Dixon strongly disapproved of flogging, which had been the usual punishment for any offence in the penal colonies of eastern Australia. He wrote:

I should be glad to see this sort of punishment abandoned entirely, except in cases of brutal assault. In no other class of offences could the public sentiment of modem times countenance its infliction... When we consider the utter impossibility of effecting escape in the bush - the colony being in reality ... a vast natural prison - we ought I think in awarding punishment, with a view to reformation, to reflect that already has the culprit received the most impressive of all kinds of persuasion, viz. the experience by actual suffering from starvation and otherwise, of the futility of such attempts. If circumstances, therefore, do not manifestly require the infliction of physical torture, and if we find that no good result to spring from it, except in restraining ebullitions of personal violence, why should we continue it ... a rational system of humanity is the best of all governing influences. 21

Although Dixon reported in August 1857 a man receiving 75 lashes


for making clothes out of prison property and trying to escape, the frequency and severity of flogging in Western Australia seem almost trivial compared with the frequent sentences of hundreds of lashes and lifetime tallys of several thousands of lashes, which became commonplace in New South Wales and Norfolk Island. 22 Nevertheless, in 1856 and again the following year, Dixon urged the abolition of corporal punishment and the use of chains. 23

Dixon considered it essential to give convicts some hope that they might complete their sentences. He reported ‘there are now in this Establishment men whose whole aggregation of sentences ... would doom them to a life of perpetual imprisonment ... creating as they do a great stumbling block to all hopes of reformation’. 24 He saw the need to leave ‘the offender some distant hope of surviving’ his accumulated sentence. Without hope of release there could be no inducement to reform or improvement. To this end Dixon worked out a formula to determine probationary periods in relation to sentences before a convict could become eligible for a ticket-of-leave.

The formula was based on Captain Alexander Maconochie’s ‘marks system’ which he introduced at Norfolk Island in the early 1840s, 25 and was amended by Dixon to take into account the conditions of the Penal Servitude Act of 1857. Instead of serving fixed sentences, prisoners were able to earn marks in proportion to the seriousness of their offences. Marks were accumulated through good conduct, hard work and study, and could be lost for indolence or misbehaviour. When a prisoner accumulated the required number of marks, he became eligible for release. The system emphasised training and performance, as inducements to reformation, rather than punishment and retribution, giving convicts day-to-day encouragement to work well and as a deterrent to breaking the rules.

Dixon’s promotion of a series of lectures was for its time a far-sighted attempt to educate the convicts. Lectures given in 1853 were introduced with a grandiloquent address setting out their purpose:

I am happy that my duty permits me to come amongst you to cheer you onward in engagements that cannot fail to redound to your credit and comfort, and I trust also to your future prosperity and happiness ... Believe me, the primary design of Her Majesty’s Government is to aid and encourage you in a return to virtuous courses of life. 26


He then linked the operation of the marks system explicitly to the lecture program:

I presume you are in possession of the fact that we have instituted a system of classification according to moral improvement and industrial activity, which will affect the duration of detention in this establishment... the introduction of lectures, can be taken as an adjunct of this plan of classification, insomuch as it is an aid to moral improvement... [which]... is the great end we are desirous of obtaining. Idleness ... is so fruitful a parent of multitudinous evils, that we felt that the introduction of a such a plan of mutual instruction ... could not but be attended with benefit. 27

The lectures were usually given by the better-educated convicts and ranged widely over the fields of philosophy, mineralogy, poetry, astronomy, chemistry, geography and human anatomy. That Dixon also allowed his own daughters to be taught by convicts reflected his confidence in their trustworthiness.

There is ample evidence that Dixon won respect and praise for his work from senior levels in the government service. 28 Those officials leaving the colony received a farewell note of appreciation from Dixon, which often elicited a testimonial for himself. Thus, he was commended for his dedication, his humanity and his administrative capacity by Henderson and Thomas Brown, the police magistrate in 1853, and by W.F. Mends, the head of the commissariat, in 1856. Dr Rennie, the surgeon of the Establishment, wished him ‘... every hope for the final success of the interesting experiment in which [he had] been, for upward of seven years, so arduously engaged.’ Governor Fitzgerald acknowledged Dixon’s unceasing efforts to improve the moral and intellectual condition of his charges and had no ‘hesitation in strongly recommending this officer for any appointment worthy of his abilities, intelligence and zeal’.

Despite his good work in Western Australia, Dixon was to disappoint all those who thought so highly of him. On 15 April 1859, Governor Kennedy advised the secretary of state, that Dixon had been suspended from his position as superintendent of convicts on admission of the embezzlement of public and private funds in his care. 29 It was the more surprising because Dixon was reputed to be ‘a hardworking and trusted officer and Henderson’s right-hand man’. 30 The case became a cause célèbre, not least because of flaws in the charges, the secretive way in which the prosecution conducted the case against him and the exposure of weaknesses in the administration.

Dixon had been receiving an annual salary of £420 at the time, but there had been indications of his financial difficulties for some time. He gave evidence at his trial that he had arrived in the colony in 1850 with debts amounting to £300 - £400. To ease his problems he had applied for six months’ advance on his salary in 1850, a gratuity as overseer of convicts in 1851 and an increase in salary in


1852. 31 Nevertheless, in 1857 he had been forced to borrow £100 from Patrick Brett, giving his household furniture as security.

Surprisingly, Dixon’s account at the bank was a general one, with no distinction made between his private and public funds, so it inevitably appeared that he had misappropriated public funds to offset his private expenditure. There were apparently no proper accounting procedures to ensure public and private funds were kept separate, and no requirements for adequate financial auditing.

Dixon’s embezzlement came to light because his staff had not been paid. Salaries were owing to two warders and an assistant superintendent. Accounts of court proceedings against him, with editorial comment, were published in Perth newspapers.32 On 19 April 1859 Dixon was tried and found to be a debtor to the Crown for £422 that should have been used to pay the wages of staff at the Establishment and the outstations. Dixon acknowledged the debt and provided statements listing the salaries due and the amounts unpaid.

The Crown lost little time in applying to the Insolvency Court in the hope of recovering as much as possible from the liquidation of Dixon’s effects. The Crown apparently went ahead in secret, concealing the move from Dixon and the private creditors, as the prosecution were keen to establish that the public debt had priority over the private one. This the prosecution did by obtaining a writ ‘in extent’, which sequestered Dixon’s estate for the Crown.

After Dixon’s suspension, and the realisation that the sums owing in arrears of salaries and wages could not be recovered from his estate, there was considerable confusion as to how the officials would be paid. The prosecution admitted that the Crown held itself responsible for the arrears of salaries. However, Comptroller-General Henderson directed claims for the arrears to Dixon, perhaps because one interpretation was that Dixon was actually a debtor to Henderson and that he would have to find the money. Amid press reports of ‘palpable incompetency’,33 Henderson came under considerable criticism for inadequately supervising Dixon, particularly with respect to his management of the outstations, where the arrears were greatest.

Dixon was probably aware that the comptroller-general received travel expenses of £100 a year and forage for two horses, and the press noted that the only visit Henderson ever made to a distant station was ‘... the pleasure trip with His Excellency to the York and Toodyay agricultural festivities ...’ ,34 In contrast, Dixon had to maintain two horses at his own expense to enable him to visit outstations from Albany to Champion Bay - the same horses that he sold for £55 to repay private debts. The sum was later recovered by the Insolvency Court and given up to the estate. The Independent Journal considered that, had Henderson applied his own travelling and horse allowances to their intended purposes, the irregularities at the country outstations would not have occurred, as it was there

Thomas Hill Dixon: First Superintendent of Convicts in Western Australia


that the arrears in payment occurred, with significant sums owing to two warders and an assistant superintendent at Champion Bay, Northam and York.

The case became very difficult for the government. With Dixon a fraudulent bankrupt, some of the blame for his embezzlement fell on those above him, who had responsibility for overall control and supervision. The Crown had used devious means to wrest monies from Dixon’s estate to the disadvantage of his private creditors. The success of the Crown in pursuing its claim to Dixon’s assets was robbery of the private creditors, the Independent Journal proclaimed. 35 There also remained the issue of who should now pay the arrears of salaries.

With seemingly little chance of settling Dixon’s case without further embarrassment and some blame falling, on the government, the thrust of the prosecution shifted. On 25 May 1859 the Crown tendered an affidavit in proof of a debt due to it of £89 received by Dixon as fines from prison officers. Dixon was eventually indicted on 6 July on three counts: embezzling £89 of public moneys, converting moneys to his own use, and stealing coins the property of the Queen and of one James Masters. 36

Dixon’s defence raised objections to the indictment, claiming that the first two counts did not make clear that the money was actually issued to the accused and that he came by it lawfully. The indictment was also bad because it contained one count of misdemeanour and two of felony. The court accepted that the case was flawed, although it was made clear that a resubmission to prosecute would be reasonable and the Crown expressed its intention to indict Dixon for larceny. Dixon’s defence then objected, claiming that he should not be detained in custody on account of the negligence of the Crown prosecutors. In the end he was given his freedom and, not for the first time in his life, he fled the scene. Within three days of his release, on 11 July 1859, Dixon boarded the schooner Guyon bound for Singapore. 37

The imprisonment and trial of their father must have been a difficult time for Dixon’s daughters Mary and Matilda. On 3 February 1859, a little more than two months before Dixon’s arrest, the younger woman had married the Revd Richard William Spithead Alderson, chaplain to the Prison Establishment. He had been chaplain in the Crimean War before coming to Fremantle in 1857. The census at the end of 1859 recorded that Mary was employed in the household of J.W. Parker at Bridge House in York.

After Dixon’s departure, his more far-sighted innovations in the convict system were reversed. The marks system had proved a difficult and complex one to administer and in 1863 the authorities decided that remissions for ticket-of-leave and conditional pardons were too lenient. Then, in January 1868 the transportation of convicts to Western Australia came to an end.


Within a few months of his release Dixon made his way from Singapore to Labuan Island off the north-west coast of Borneo where, in early 1860, he was appointed chief constable. If he had hopes that the move to a more isolated part of the Empire would allay his problems, he was mistaken. He must soon have realised that a despatch from Governor Kennedy advising of his suspension, arrest and trial, would come together in the Colonial Office with another requesting confirmation of his appointment as chief constable of Labuan. After six months it seems that the expected news arrived, and he was asked to resign. 38

A testimonial from the police magistrate of Labuan reveals that he had performed with credit:

The appointment of Mr Thomas Dixon to the Office of Chief Constable in this island, by His Excellency the Governor, in January last; not having been confirmed by Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, he is about to leave the Island.... It is with the greatest regret that I find myself about to lose his services, for since his appointment, he has in every way given the most entire satisfaction, to myself, as well as to all others with whom his duties brought him in contact... he carries the good wishes of all who have known him here. 39

Once more Dixon made his way back to Singapore, but all that is known of this period is a further testimonial he received from a doctor in May 1861:

I have much pleasure in stating that since I have known Mr Dixon upward of nearly two years he has always conducted himself in a steady and respectable manner. 40

Whether he was simply an acquaintance, or that Dixon worked for him as an assistant is unclear.

In many ways Dixon’s next move was the most unexpected and adventurous in his career: he became a mercenary with the forces fighting to put down the Taiping Rebellion in China. This rebellion was a major catastrophe in Chinese history resulting in the loss of 20 million lives. 41

There are two letters extant that Dixon wrote to his daughters giving an account of his experiences as a mercenary during January and February 1862, when Shanghai was under attack by the rebels. One letter describes weather which, according to the North China Herald, was ‘unprecedented in the meteorological annals of Shanghai for its severity and the low range of the thermometer’. Mercifully for the defenders of Shanghai, the extreme weather checked the rebel advance, but Dixon’s account of the effects of the cold is graphic:


We have had a hindquarter of fine beef from Japan hanging up for nearly a month, and cannot use it on account of the frost. It is as ice itself, and when we attempt to cut it with an axe or cleaver it actually breaks into pieces. Venison the same - even the eggs are frozen, and before they can be used to make a pudding, are obliged to be put for a few minutes in the oven. The milk is served out in pieces like loaf sugar - ale and porter also freeze - and to mend the matter we are obliged to boil the snow or ice for ordinary purposes - I am nearly half starved.42

With the thaw, the rebels became active again and Dixon described reporting to the main guard prior to joining a patrol which encountered refugees fleeing from a village fired by the ‘ruffians’, tying up some villagers in their houses before firing them, beheading others and attacking the fleeing refugees. They discovered among the refugees two rebels armed with long knives, matchlocks and ammunition, together with a small flag for signalling. They were handed over to the Chinese authorities, identified as known rebel spies and soon executed.

While Dixon played no significant role in the Taiping Rebellion, the letters provide a vivid, first-hand account of his active service at a critical time in the defence of Shanghai. He concluded by sending his good wishes to people with whom he had been closely associated in Fremantle:

I hope that Mr and Mrs H [Henderson] and family - G Clifton and family - Mr Lefroy and family - Mr Attfield - Masters Manning - and all friends are well.

Evidently, Dixon sought to retain the favourable remembrance of four of the leading officials of the Convict Establishment. Of these, Henry Lefroy warrants notice as having been Dixon’s able lieutenant. He was a humanitarian, like himself, and ‘a rather radical-thinking champion of the underdog’. He was well-read and had joined the convict service as an assistant superintendent in 1854. He succeeded Dixon as superintendent of convicts in 1859 and held the post until his retirement in 1875. 43

In March 1863, while Dixon was still in China, his eldest daughter Mary married Stephen Staunton Monger at St John’s Church, Fremantle. The service was conducted by the Revd Alderson, brother-in-law of the bride. The witnesses included Henry and Annette Lefroy, the cleric’s neighbours in the staff houses at the prison gate. Dixon was doubtless delighted that both his daughters were now in comfortable circumstances, for Mary’s marriage assuredly set her in an extended family that had prospered since the introduction of convicts.

Then aged twenty-six, Stephen Monger was the third son of an immigrant of 1829, who had been a foreman sawyer with Latour’s party, ultimately making a success of trading in sandalwood and goods for settlers in York. The Mongers had


opened a branch of their business in Fremantle, and the eldest son had married the daughter of another leading merchant there, the sister of the up-and-coming Masters Manning.

Dixon’s younger daughter Matilda was to spend twenty-eight years of her life at the prison gate, for her husband remained in the Convict Service until 1878. From then until his death in 1892 he was rector of St John’s Church, Pinjarra.

In 1865 Dixon wrote to his daughters from Liverpool, ‘in the best of health - as strong as ever’, outlining plans to visit the places where he had spent his early years - the Isle of Man, Glasgow and London. 44 There is no other evidence as to where or how he spent the next ten years, but, in December 1876 the Fitzroy brought him back to Fremantle to live out his declining years with his daughter, Mary and her husband, his health now suspect. He died aged sixty-three years on 30 January 1880 on the property at Staunton Springs in the Williams district.

Thomas Hill Dixon served as superintendent of convicts for nine years, running Fremantle Prison and the convict system, with its outstations and permanent working parties. He helped to realise the hope that the labour of convicts would build the infrastructure of the new colony - public buildings, roads and bridges - while ticket-of-leave men became permanent settlers to reverse the decline in population due to emigration. In the decade following the arrival of the first convicts with Dixon on the Scindian, the population tripled and the economy grew proportionately.

Dixon created a more humane regime than that from which the convicts had come. He was a prison reformer who attempted to reduce corporal punishment and to foster education and moral improvement. Dixon saw the convict system as the means of providing the colony with a labour force, each man with a trade. That the labour of 5,200 transported felons provided a significant input to the economy is clear, if only from the fact that the loss of convicts proved to be ‘economic disaster’ for Western Australia. 45

Sadly, Dixon’s inability to live within his means, compounded by a lax system of financial administration, led to his embezzlement of public and private funds, which eroded recognition of his achievements. By the time Dixon left in haste, transportation had but a few years to run. It had been a mixed blessing, but by the late 1870s Western Australia had found its feet. Dixon himself had led an unusually colourful life but, reflecting the Manx motto, Quocunque jeceris stabit, ‘It will stand whichever way you throw it’, he always contrived to somehow land on his feet.



Appreciation is extended to Mr Jack Honniball, Royal Western Australian Historical Society and Ms Anne Brake, Curator of Fremantle Prison, for assistance in tracing documents relating to Thomas Dixon’s service and trial in Western Australia.


1. B. Weinreb and C. Hibbert, The London Dictionary (London, 1983).

2. T.H. Dixon Papers, Acc. 4591A; Battye Library, Perth.

3. R. Hughes The Fatal Shore (London, 1987) p. 129.

4. The Times, London, 17 January 1829.

5. A. Hasluck, Unwilling Emigrants (Melbourne, 1959), p. 130.

6. C. Bateson, The Convict Ships 1787-1868 (Glasgow, 1959).

7. Convict System Papers., Acc. 1156, C19;SROWA.

8. Convict System Papers, CEWA, 1854; SROWA.

9. Report of the Surgeon Superintendent on Scindian, 1850. ADM 101,66/8.

10. ibid.

11. Kennedy to Labouchere, 13 April 1858. Colonial Office (CO) 18/104 PRO Kew.

12. Convict Establishment, Superintendent’s Report, 1 July to 31 Dec. 1857. CO 18/104.

13. Hughes, op. cit., p. 584.

14. Convict Establishment, op. cit.

15. ibid.

17. R. Erickson, ‘An Essay on Farmhouses’, Early Days, Vol 11 (3), 1997, pp. 277-8.

18. Convict Establishment, op. cit.

19. Hasluck, op. cit., p. 140.

20. Cited in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition.

21. Convict Establishment, op. cit.

22. Hughes, op. cit., p. 480.

23. Convict Establishment, op. cit.

24. Dixon to Henderson, 9 April 1858. CO 18/104.

25. A. Maconochie, The Mark System of Prison Discipline (London, 1857).

26. A. McArthur, Transportation to Western Australia 1848-1868 (Nedlands, 1964), pp. 235-6.

27. ibid.

28. T.H. Dixon, Letters from various government officials, 1853-57. Acc. 923, SROWA.

29. Kennedy to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 15 April 1859. British Parliamentary Papers on the Convict System, Vol. 8; monographs, Battye Library. Kennedy to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 23 May 1859. CO 332/1.

Garry Gillard | New: 20 September, 2020 | Now: 20 September, 2020