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Captain Edward Back

Rottnest Pilot Edward Back 1815-1886 was from Kent and died in Fremantle. He married Paula Curtis; they had twelve children. One of them may have died and been buried in the Rottnest Island Cemetery, as this unofficial page suggests. Paula Susannah was the sister of Anthony Curtis, who arrived Medina, 1830.

Peter Conole 2010, 'Edward Back and Son', Fremantle History Society newsletter, Spring (January) - first two paragraph of the article follow ...

The father was Edward Back, born at Folkestone, County Kent, in 1815. The son was Edward George Back, who in colonial times became the quintessential ‘Freo’ police officer. He was born there, served as a constable there, was in charge of the Fremantle district twice and died there. Considerable attention has been given to the family lineage. The Backs appear to have been a labouring family in origin, from the village of Kennington, in County Kent. As immigrants they prospered to a considerable degree in Western Australia. Inspector Edward George Back, the son of Edward Back and his wife Paula (‘Poll’) Susanna Curtis (1807-1885), was sixth in descent in the direct male line from Thomas Back of Kennington. Edward Back arrived in Western Australia in the 1830s as a crew member on the Fanny, a vessel owned and skippered by Anthony Barnabas Curtis. Anthony was also an Englishman, the son of William and Mary Curtis. He had first arrived in WA in 1830 and, after father William passed away in 1835, brought some of his relatives out to the colony on the Fanny, including his mother and sister. Edward Back became acquainted with Anthony’s sister Paula Curtis, later to be known to family and friends alike as Poll Back. Edward married her at Fremantle in September 1837. They had a very large family, ten children in all, the last of whom was born in the year Poll turned 48.
Edward was a skilled seaman and sailing master and had no trouble earning a living. He held the position of Acting Harbour Master at Fremantle in 1842 and 1844 and acquired the courtesy title of ‘captain’. He obtained an appointment as Port Pilot of Rottnest Island in 1846. The stern and rough-edged Henry Vincent, Superintendent of the Native Establishment on Rottnest, built a cottage for the Backs in Thompson Bay. At this time in the colony’s history there was not much in the way of incoming or outgoing vessels to deal with, so Edward Back was required to do other work. He became a fisherman in order to provide additional food for the prisoners on the island. ...

Establishment of Pilot Service

backAn official pilot service was established from Fremantle in 1844. Edward Back was appointed pilot in 1846 and acted as Pilot on Rottnest from 1848-57 except for some periods of time when he was suspended from duty.

In March 1846 Superintendent Vincent opposed a pilot service on Rottnest on the grounds that persons and boats not under his control would threaten the security of the person. However he was instructed to proceed with the building of a boathouse. Despite the lack of skilled labour, he erected a boathouse out of limestone, with a sentry box on the north, and a cell on the south to hold prisoners coming to or leaving the island. At the same time he built a house for the pilot. He also built boat crews' quarters on the north end of the sea wall with a storeroom at ground level for boat gear.

Photos of Edward and Susan Back >

susan backCaptain Back appointed

The first official pilot stationed at Rottnest, Captain Edward Back was appointed to the position in August 1848 and issued with the following instructions:
You are hereby required to proceed to Rottnest on the 11th day of September next and His Excellency has been pleased to sanction your occupying the house that Mr Armstrong resides in. Two rooms for yourself and one for your men. You are required on no account to allow the small boat to remain on the beach without one of the boys remaining by her and the boys must sleep on board the boat every night hoisting in the dinghy. You will be supplied with hooks and line for fishing for the establishment on Rottnest and all fish caught will be handed over to Mr Vincent, the superintendent, keeping sufficient for your own use.

Francis Armstrong arrived on Rottnest Island in 1847 as Moral Agent and Storekeeper. He helped to build his own cottage, however, in August 1848, the Governor gave orders for the cottage to be used by the newly-appointed Pilot, Captain Edward Back, and his crew.

pilots cottage

Pilot's Cottage Rottnest

Armstrong moved out to quarters in the lighthouse at the centre of the Island and resigned from his position four months later.

Captain Edward Back was the progenitor of the Back clan of Fremantle. He came of old seafaring stock, and was related to Admiral Sir George Back, the Arctic explorer.

Pilot Station 1848-1903


Captain Back and his crew were given the cottage occupied by Francis Fraser Armstrong who was banished to the centre of the Island (he resigned 4 months later). He was to have two rooms for himself (and family of eight) one room for the men (foreman, wife? and two crew). The two boys (transported from Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight) were to sleep on the boat.

Pilot Boat Service

Captain Back was the Pilot in residence on Rottnest from 1846. He successfully navigated all shipping that landed at Fremantle harbour. He and his boat crew would operate in all weather to ensure safe passage of these ships.

The pilot boat service operated by the Lighthouse sending a signal (flags or lanterns until 1892 when the telephone was installed) to the 24 hour lookout at Bathurst point who warned the crew. The Pilot and crew were expected to respond to a call no matter what the time of day or weather conditions. In the early days they had to pilot about one ship per week but after 1890 there was frequently more than one per day. By 1903 there were 3 pilots and 17 crew employed at Rottnest.

The crew would row or sail Captain Back to the vessel off Rottnest. The Pilot would meet the vessel five miles NE of Bathurst point and the Pilot would get on board to take the ship to Fremantle. This was a difficult task in heavy weather and on one occasion a rope was thrown to the Pilot who tied it around himself and was pulled to the ship by its crew.

The pilot boat would then follow the vessel - sailing or rowing, or occasionally tied behind the ship - all the way to Fremantle.

Once they had retrieved the captain, the Pilot and crew would then return to Rottnest. This would take approximately one day. The crew took food and a kit bag with them for an overnight stay. Communications with the mainland were by flags, heliograph or flares and were notoriously unreliable until a telephone link was established in 1900.

Problems with Captain Back

1. Fishing
The crew were provided with hooks and lines and must catch fish each day to be handed to Mr Vincent except those needed for their own use. Back was obviously not interested in fishing and was frequently in trouble for not getting sufficient fish.

2. Alcohol
He appears to have been fond of the drink despite the strict rules against drinking.

3. Lax security
Shortly after he arrived on Rottnest eight aboriginal prisoners escaped in a pilot boat and Back was criticised for his lax security.

4. Sinking of Pilot Boat
Shortly after this incident, the pilot boat sank while coming between Natural Jetty and Phillip Rock. Back was ordered to pay £2 per month for replacement. With a salary of only £85 per year, that was an enormous impost. Eventually his salary was reduced to £80 per year.

5. Loss of two crew - whisky?
In 1853 he lost two of his crew and there were stories that bottles of whisky given by the Captain of a ship were implicated.

6. Landing in Fremantle
At one stage he was advised by the Governor that he could not land in Fremantle more than once a month. He had been selling fish and crayfish to supplement his income. Back's response was that he signed on as a Pilot not as a slave. He was clearly a man with a strong will.

7. Loss of another boat 1856
In 1856 Back lost another boat and was dismissed, but, because of his competence as a pilot, later reinstated.

Severance 1857

Finally, in 1857 he was replaced by William Jackson and given £50 severance pay.

Piloting in Fremantle

He remained in Fremantle where his piloting expertise saw him earning a living guiding ships into the harbour. He frequently acted as nominal master of vessels whose actual masters were unable for the time being to comply with the new conditions under which no ship could clear from the port unless her master held a certificate of competency. Occasionally he relieved Harbour Master Daniel Scott. He died in 1886.


Senator Chris Back, descendant of Captain Back, was appointed CEO of the (newly established) Rottnest Island Authority in 1988

The Pilot Boat Crew

The crew were kept busy when not doing piloting duties. As well as fishing they were required to fetch wood and water, whitewash the lighthouse and cottages, mend flags and sails, scrub and paint the boats as well as maintaining a vegetable garden. They also kept a pig and a sheep. In addition they had to ferry prisoners, warders and supplies to and from the Island as well as the Governor and his family and their guests during holidays.

They were strictly forbidden to drink or gamble and had to be in quarters by 10 pm. Despite this, drinking was common and even the log for Christmas Day 1882 recorded that all were more or less drunk. No smoking or unnecessary conversation was allowed on the boat and there were a host of other rules. Penalties for breaches were days of pay lost ranging from one day for a first offence of swearing to eight days for a fifth offence.

Accommodation was poor. Cottage K1 and K2 leaked badly and was exceptionally cramped in the early stages. The crews quarters above the first boathouse were not built until 1852 and the crew’s kitchen (Cottage M) not until 1867. Subsequently the Coxswain’s cottage (Cottage L) was built in 1871. In 1895 a letter was placed in a bottle that was not found until 1970. It was addressed to future generations and hoped that by the time it was found the pilot crew would have had a raise since they only got £7 (per month?). It also hoped that crews would have a better place to live as this is only a stable patched up. It concluded with support for Home Rule for Ireland.

Juvenile Crew Henry, James and William - Parkhurst Prison Boys

Pilot Captain Edward Back’s first Rottnest boat crew consisted of boat foreman William Saunders and, among others, two teenage boys described as Government Juvenile Immigrants who had been transported to Western Australia from Parkhurst Prison, Isle of Wight, for what to us seem like menial crimes. They were apprenticed to Captain Back as a plan to rehabilitate them in the hope they would become future useful citizens. Although these boys were the charges of Back, he insisted they slept on the pilot boat rather than in his house (now K1 and K2), as a means of guarding the boat from the possibility of it being a method of escape for prisoners

Henry Blake was sentenced to 15 years transportation, aged 15, for ‘stealing from a house’. James Bradley aged 13, for ‘simple larceny’. When they arrived at Rottnest in 1848, Henry was possibly 18, James 16. It seems they were given their freedom within a couple of years. Sadly, Henry Blake died of typhus shortly afterwards, whereas James Bradley was known to be working as a farm labourer in 1850. A third Parkhurst Prison lad, William Cornish, joined Back’s crew later. Aged 16, he was transported for 7 years for ‘stealing three ducks’. All the boys were welcomed by the new colony as a potential labour force until it was soon realised just how under-nourished and under-sized they were.

Edward Back was appointed in 1845 as the first full time Pilot, based in Fremantle.
In 1848, Captain Charles Fitzgerald RN, Western Australia’s governor designate, while approaching Fremantle was nearly shipwrecked waiting for a Pilot to come out from Fremantle. This event was the catalyst to move the Pilot Station to Rottnest Island and Edward Back arrived on the the island on September 11th 1848 with his wife and six children. He received a salary plus rations and in 1849 this is recorded as being 60 pounds annually, plus rations of 1 pound of meat and 1.5 pounds of flour per day. The Pilot service on Rottnest had many problems, including communications between the island and Fremantle, which consisted of a combination of lookouts and flags by day and flares by night. The relationship between the island superintendent and the Pilot was strained from the outset as the superintendent did not want boats on the island that could be used by the prisoners to escape.
Edward Back’s tenure ended in 1857. Fremantle Pilots website.

References and Links

Fremantle Pilots website - from which the last section of the above is taken.

Back genealogy page.

Peter Conole 2010, 'Policing the port in early colonial times', Fremantle Studies, 6: 12-28. The paper mentions (with a photo): 'Constable Edward Back of Fremantle - later Officer in Charge of the Port in the 1880s and 1890s. (WA Police)'. It's been confirmed by Dianne Dench, his g-g-granddaughter that he was the the son of the pilot Captain Edward Back.

Peter Conole 2010, 'Edward Back and Son', Fremantle History Society newsletter, January.

Garry Gillard | New: 8 February, 2016 | Now: 18 October, 2023