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Robert Thomson

Robert Thomson, born 1787, arrived in Fremantle 19 October 1829 on the Atwick, accompanied by wife Caroline Frances Anne Lediard and eight children (three more following on the Egyptian in 1831). He was a farmer from Teston, Kent who became a publican as well as a farmer. He provided the first ferry service across the river at Fremantle, from Ferry Point to Lukin's jetty.

He was granted land in the Swan Valley, the licence of the Stirling Arms (on Lot 105, on the NW corner of High and Pakenham Streets; the 1910 Bank of Adelaide building is now on that corner, with the Navy Club above) in Fremantle, and ferry rights in North Fremantle. He was granted or bought land on Rottnest Island - lots 2 and 14 at Kingston - and worked salt lakes and grew wheat. Thomson Bay at Rottnest is named after him.

When in 1839 the Govt resumed the Rottnest land for the penal settlement, he was given land in exchange at Jambaker - Thomsons Lake. He was also in 1841 granted Lot 24 Plantagenet 600 acres. He lived in Mandurah until the death of his wife in 1863. He then joined his son on Kangaroo Island, SA, dying 11 January 1865.

Hitchcock shows a Robt Thomson as being granted Fremantle town lots 136-137, on the corner of Pakenham and Short Streets.

Robert Thomson, his wife and 11 children took up residence on the island reputedly to escape the attentions of hostile Aborigines on the mainland. 
The venture, like others, was not a success and when numbers of sheep began to die, Thomson petitioned the Governor to buy him out and was offered 100 pounds which he refused. 
On the 17th of August 1838, Constable Laurence Welch left Garden island in an open boat with 10 Aboriginal prisoners headed for Rottnest.
A journey of some 12 miles on the open ocean was extremely dangerous but Welch and his charges arrived unharmed, much to the displeasure of Robert Thomson.
The island was now a gazetted prison used mainly to hold Aboriginal prisoners. 'Murphy's law' being what it is, a prison for Aborigines was built on the island and five (one source says two) escaped by stealing Thomson's boat, which was wrecked. ...
Thomson now took the opportunity to berate the authorities for his misfortune but they responded by saying he was lax with the security of his boat and it was his fault the escape had taken place. Not put off, he persisted and eventually got 10 pounds for his loss. Thomson eventually got a reasonable price for his holdings on Rottnest when the Government paid him 600 pounds and gave him title to land on the mainland. wanowandthen.

Paul Weaver:
Robert Thomson (1791-1865) purported youngest son of a Scottish lord, his equally respectable wife Caroline, and eight children arrived at the new Swan River Colony on Atwick in 1829, the year of its founding. Mrs Thomson was four years older than her husband. Three more daughters followed on another ship the Egyptian in 1831, plus there were apparently more children born later in the colony.
Pioneer settlers were obliged to be self-sufficient and brought all manner of equipment and livestock from England to assist them to become established. After some entrepreneurial activity which included operating a ferry service on the Swan River, the Thomsons became inspired by the prospect of settling on Rottnest. In 1832 the family took up a farming allotment on the southern edge of Sealers Lake, which was later called Lake Vincent. They set about trying to make the most of their chosen destination.
It became apparent that one of the deciding factors for going to the island was to isolate themselves, and particularly their daughters, from marauding Aborigines on the mainland. This had some justification. The British usurpation process had become increasingly punctuated with murderous intercultural violence.
But arid Rottnest was not a farming success story. The soil was deficient in trace elements. Crops were poor and livestock such as sheep perished from a lack of copper. Harvesting salt was an alternative endeavour.
Today the Thomson name is perpetuated in Thomson Bay. Of their pioneering settlement activities on the island there is little trace. ... we visited the farm site and admired a beautifully constructed limestone well protectively hidden in a thicket of vegetation near the edge of Lake Vincent. ...
By mid-1839 the resourceful Thomsons had become the last settlers on the island and were standing in the way of a government plan to use it as a native prison. It seems possible they may have been victims of a conspiracy to resume the land. A small group of Aborigines, and one white prisoner practised rowing at nearby Garden Island and then were brought to Rottnest and left unguarded during the ensuing nights. The Aborigines became inspired to steal Thomson’s boat and escape - it was wrecked on the mainland. Mr Thomson was blamed for not securing it properly. He soon capitulated to the land-resumption demands. He received minimised compensation and aged 48 with failing eyesight, he took up another land grant in difficult country near Jandakot ...
Mrs Thomson died at Mandurah, south of Fremantle in 1863. Mr Thomson died at Kangaroo Island in South Australia in 1865. Paul Weaver.

Kent Acott:
Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the death of Robert Thomson - the first man to live on Rottnest Island and whose name was given to the island's main bay.
Coincidentally, Thomson did not die on Rottnest but on Kangaroo Island off South Australia.
Usually the anniversary of his death would pass mostly unnoticed but a new walk trail through the middle of Rottnest brings Thomson's time there into new focus.
The trail takes walkers through the land Thomson and his family farmed in the 1830s and past the well he built - the oldest man-made structure on the island.
Thomson, his wife Caroline and eight of their 12 children arrived in WA on one of the first boats carrying settlers in 1829.
In about 1831, he moved to Rottnest, seemingly in mortal dread of mainland Aboriginals.
He was given 199 acres (80.5ha) on the island, including two town allotments. Their 81-acre (33ha) inland farm stretched from Serpentine Lake, through to the salt works to somewhere above Oliver Hill Fort north of Lake Baghdad.
The foundations of the homestead are still intact and some of the fence posts in the area may also be his.
The Thomsons stayed on Rottnest for eight years until it become a jail for Aboriginal prisoners.
Caroline died in Mandurah in 1863 and Robert decided to visit his daughter in Adelaide and to go seal hunting with his son, who had taken up land on Kangaroo Island.
While on the island, Thomson died of fever on January 11, 1865. He was 72.
Rottnest Island Authority's product development officer Teagan Goolmeer said the 4km walk trail provided a unique perspective of Rottnest's lakes.
Beginning at the Vlamingh Lookout, the trail twists between the Herschel, Baghdad, Vincent and Pink lakes before swinging around to Little Parakeet Bay.
A raised boardwalk ensures that walkers can get close to Lake Vincent without damaging its fragile ecosystem.
"It's a really interesting new section of the island's walk trails, which now total more than 52km," Ms Goolmeer said.
"It provides a sense of adventure as you walk through parts of the island that, until now, were rarely visited.
"You also get the opportunity to see some of the island's amazing birdlife and get a sense of the pioneering spirit of our early settlers, like Thomson."
The author [Kent Acott] is a great-great-great-great-grandson of Robert Thomson.

Of the seven other inns (or hotels as their pretentious licensees preferred to call them) first licensed in 1830, Robert Thomson received his licence at Fremantle for a 'house of public entertainment'—the genteel name for a pub—under the name of the Stirling Arms, situated on the corner of High and Pakenham streets, which at that time were streets in name only on the newly-drawn survey map. Thomson, after whom a bay was named at Rottnest, also had a licence for a ferry across the Swan River at or near the present North Fremantle railway bridge. (Tuckfield 1971: 67)

THOMSON, Robert, b. 1791 (Scotl), d. 11.1.1865 (SA), said to be younger son of Lord Thomson of "Eskdale" Tweed-dale, Scotland, arr. 19. 10. 1829 per Atwick with wife & 8 chd, 3 dtrs followed 28.12.1831 per Egyptian, m. 28.12.1813 (London) Lady Caroline Frances LEDIARD (LYDIARD) b. 1787 (Scotl) d. 2.12.1863 (Mandurah). Chd. (not in chronological order), Flora, Charles L, Mary, Marianne b. 1815 d. 1841, Laura b. 1822, Adelaide, Eleanor Frances, Alfred, Henry Octavius b. 1823 d. 1905, Francis George b. 1825 d. 1843 at Harvey (gun accident), Robert b. 1827, Horace b. 1834, Isabella b. 1836. Formerly officer in Scottish Regt. became farmer in Eng. Licensee "Stirling Arms" Frem. 1.1.1830 with ferry rights at Nth Frem. Granted 199 acres at Rottnest. Worked Salt lakes 1831-9, was only remaining settler when Govt. resumed the island for a penal settlement. Took up land at Jandakot. Lived at Mandurah until his wife died & then joined a son at Kangaroo Is. SA where he died. Several members of his family visited SA 1840s-1860s.

A clip from Roe's 'eye sketch' of 1829 showing, from left, the grants of Edward Birkett, that of his father James, Mr Darby's, that of Robert Thomson, and that of Dr John Whatley, who left his name alongside the railway as the extant Whatley Crescent. The river shown is the Swan, at what is now Bayswater.

References and Links

Acott, Kent 2015, 'On the trail of Rotto's pioneer', West Australian, 10 January.


Ewers, John K. 1971, The Western Gateway: A History of Fremantle, Fremantle City Council, with UWAP, rev. ed. [1st ed. 1948].

Hitchcock, JK 1929, The History of Fremantle, The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council.

Mitchell, Peter (Thomson descendant and researcher). Personal communications.

Tuckfield, Trevor 1971, 1975,'Early colonial inns and taverns', Early Days: Journal and proceeedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, 7, 3: 65-82; Part 2, Early Days: Journal and proceeedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, 7, 7: 98-106.

Weaver, Paul 2010, 'Rottnest Island - revisiting Thomson's farm', fremantlebiz.

Welcome Walls entry


Wikipedia page for Colonial Buildings of Rottnest Island

Garry Gillard | New: 26 August, 2015 | Now: 30 September, 2023