Freotopia > Wadjemup

See also: cemeteries, tours, govt house, Wadjemup Lighthouse.
And below: penal settlement, pilot services, lighthouses, tourism, military history, historic buildings, sites and people (all men) – and the heliograph.

Rottnest Island/Wadjemup

Colonial Settlement

The first Europeans took up residence on Rottnest Island shortly after the first settlement of the Swan River Colony was established in 1829. Rottnest Island was considered to be of interest as a place with potential for salt harvesting, farming and fishing. Thomson Bay was named after Robert Thomson, who became a major landholder on Rottnest Island during the 1830s.

In December 1830, Benjamin Smyth surveyed Rottnest Island for Surveyor General Roe. A plan for the township to be known as Kingstown was proposed, containing 177 lots of 1/3 of an acre and other lots of 10 acres to be offered to the public. These lots were contained within the area now known as Thomson Bay and extended around to what became Bickley Bay on the site where Kingstown Barracks stands today. William Clarke and Robert Thomson took up town lots and pastureland and Smyth's survey of 1831 showed the town lots and sites for various designated purposes. Farming involved successful cereal cropping and other attempts at establishing vegetable gardens and vineyards.

govt house

Government House, 1864, photo by Alfred Stone, who is sitting on the steps

Penal Settlement

Ten Aboriginal prisoners were brought to the Island in August 1838 [by Constable Welch]. After a short period when both settlers and prisoners occupied the Island, the Colonial Secretary announced in June 1839 that the Island would become a penal establishment for Aboriginal people.

The Crown resumed all land on the Island, compensating settlers with land on the mainland. Access to the Island during the prison era was restricted. For almost a century the Island served as a prison for Aboriginal people (except for a short period of closure between 1849 and 1855) during which some 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys, from many parts of the State, were imprisoned.

Between 1838 and 1931, it is reported that 369 Aboriginal prisoners died. While most deaths were caused by disease, it is reported that five prisoners were hanged. An Aboriginal cemetery is located within the Thomson Bay Settlement.

Over the prison period, the Aboriginal prisoners constructed a large number of buildings and other structures including the seawall, lighthouses and other heritage buildings, mostly under supervision of Henry Vincent who was Superintendent of the establishment for 20 years.

Most of the development took place in Thomson Bay, and of particular significance is the Quod that was the prison accommodation for the Aboriginal men. The Quod is now part of the Lodge, and was operated under a private lease as holiday accommodation until 2018.

Closure of the Aboriginal prison was recommended in 1902. It officially closed in 1904 although prisoners were used to build roads and other works on the Island until 1931. Closure of the prison turned the attention of the public and the Government to Rottnest Island's possibilities as a recreation destination.

Pilot services and lighthouses

The operation of the pilot station is a major element of the maritime history of Rottnest Island. The Rottnest Island Pilot Station operated between 1848 and 1903. Pilots were experienced sailors whose job was to guide ships around dangerous reefs and into Fremantle harbour mainly to deliver supplies to the Swan River Colony. Over its 55 years of operation, the Rottnest Island Pilot Station used a number of different boats. Generally, the boat types used were a double-ended whaleboat, a slightly larger lugger and a small dinghy.

Lighthouses played a key role in the pilot boat operations by providing a communication link between the pilot boat station and incoming ships. The Island's first lighthouse was completed in 1851 and was constructed by Aboriginal prisoners, under the supervision of the Prison Superintendent. Half a century later it was replaced with a new, taller lighthouse on Wadjemup Hill; and a third was built in 1900 at Bathurst Point after the loss of eleven lives when the ship, the City of York, was wrecked in 1899. The Bathurst Point and Wadjemup Hill lighthouses remain today. The Wadjemup lighthouse is open to the public and tours are conducted daily.

A secure boathouse, established in 1846, was the first building constructed for the pilot service. This was built at the northern end of the seawall. Six years later, quarters for the pilot crew were added to the top of the boathouse. In 1859 another boathouse was built and both still remain today. The last pilot left Rottnest Island in 1903, ending more than 55 years of piloting, and a new system was established with a signal station set up near Bathurst Lighthouse for the Fremantle Harbour Trust. It was dismantled in 1904 and then erected near Wadjemup lighthouse. Once a vessel was sighted, the news was telephoned to the lighthouse in Fremantle and the new, steam-powered pilot boat dispatched from there. The signal station remained in operation until 1949 when compulsory pilotage was abolished, effectively making the signal station on Rottnest Island redundant. The signal station was restored in 2002.


From 1902 ferries carried tourists to Rottnest Island on Sundays. During these times visitors and prisoners were kept well apart.

The first public jetty was built in 1906 to the south of Thomson Bay Settlement, where the Army Jetty stands today. Until then passengers and cargo were brought ashore by a lighter. A tram track was laid from the Jetty to Thomson Bay Settlement and horse drawn trams were used to carry visitors and goods. The trams were later replaced by motor vehicles in 1925 and most of the tracks were removed and relocated to the Perth Zoo. Some small portions of the track still remain.

In 1907 a scheme for transforming Rottnest Island from a penal settlement to a recreation and holiday Island were drawn up by the Colonial Secretary's Department. As part of this scheme the Bickley area began to be modestly developed for public recreation. Timber and hessian camps, a store and a recreational hall were built overlooking Bickley Bay in the vicinity of where Kingstown Barracks stands today. A number of houses in the Thomson Bay Settlement were also made available for use, and the opening season was 1911.

The Prison and Boys' Reformatory were converted to hostel accommodation, completed in the 1913/1914 summer season. The Bickley camps were closed in 1911, and in 1913 it was proposed to shift the camp reserve to the Bathurst side of the Settlement. Thirty weatherboard camps were subsequently rebuilt at the Bathurst end of Thomson Bay.
More improvements were planned in 1917. A large tearoom and store were erected near the main jetty and wooden bungalows were also constructed close by and on the north side of the jetty.

In 1917 Rottnest Island was declared an A-Class Reserve under the Permanent Reserve Act 1899 and the Rottnest Board of Control was formed.

The original limestone buildings of Rottnest Island were whitewashed and this created an extreme glare. To remove the glare, buildings were progressively painted with an ochre colour that was created by putting rusty nails in the white wash paint.

Recreational and holiday pursuits have continued on Rottnest Island from this time to the present day except for its closure in 1914 and again from 1940 to 1945 for ititary functions.

Military History

With the start of World War I the Department of Defence commandeered the Island for use as an internment and Prisoner of War camp from 1914 to the end of 1915. In September 1915, the camp held 989 persons, including 841 Austrian and German internees and 148 Prisoners of War. Recreational and holiday pursuits were re-established in December 1915.

In response to increasing global tensions in the 1930s, the Australian government developed a three-year Defence Development Program that it commenced in 1933. In the Plan, Rottnest Island was identified as being critical to the defence of Fremantle as guns there could engage hostile ships well before they approached the range that would allow bombardment of Fremantle Port.

In 1934 the Western Australian Premier officially informed the Rottnest Island Board of Control of the Commonwealth's intentions for a defence program on Rottnest Island and in 1936 it purchased land at Bickley for this purpose and construction began later that year.

The fixtures on Rottnest Island were made up of the Oliver Hill Battery with two 9.2-inch guns and quarters at Oliver Hill; Bickley Battery with two 6-inch guns and quarters at Bickley; permanent Army Barracks at Kingstown (containing living accommodation for four warrant officers or sergeants and 72 rank and file personnel, cottages for commanders, officers mess, cottages for married non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and gunners, Army institutional buildings, small hospital, dry canteen, workshop, store, railway buildings, and supporting communication and observation structures); a three-storey fortress and battery command post building at Signal Ridge; Port War Signal Station at Signal Ridge; observation posts and engine rooms.

Also constructed by the military at this time were six searchlight emplacements, magazine shell stores, powerhouse, directing station and a railway from the jetty to the 9.2 inch guns. Improvements to the jetty were also undertaken. When the Barracks was completed in September 1937 Rottnest Island was declared a permanent station for troops.

In June 1940 the Island was declared a prohibited area and all recreational activity ended. The declaration was intended to last for three months, but continued for five years until June 1945. During the war period, administrative fire command staff and a coastal artillery gunnery school occupied Rottnest Island. The guns were manned 24 hours a day.

In the mid-1940s, the focus of threat moved to Northern Australia, so the fixed defences at Rottnest Island were reduced. The 9.2-inch guns were put on a maintenance basis and only the 6-inch guns at Bickley remained manned. The period of intensive military activity on Rottnest Island ended with the guns never being fired at the enemy.

After the war, all military units were disbanded and the guns placed in long term storage. By April 1945 all Thomson Bay buildings had been vacated by the military with the exception of the bakehouse and garage. Approximately 200 Italian internees were sent to the Island for four months to carry out repairs and renovations.

In June 1945, the prohibition order on Rottnest Island was lifted but until October only people travelling on commercial vessels could visit the Island. Dismantling of the battery was finalised in March 1953. An artillery maintenance detachment remained on the Island until 1960.

In 1953, the Army decided that further use for Kingstown Barracks was no longer necessary. This changed in early 1955 when it was determined the Barracks would continue to be used for training purposes. Training at Kingstown Barracks recommenced in May 1955.

In 1962 it was determined that the use of coastal artillery in the defence of ports was out-moded and coastal artillery guns and ammunitions around the nation were declared for disposal. The 9.2-inch battery on Rottnest Island was saved from disposal because the high cost of removing and shipping the guns to the mainland exceeded their value as scrap metal.

In 1967, the Army returned most of its land holdings on Rottnest Island to the Western Australian Government, retaining Kingstown Barracks, the Bickley area and easements necessary to connect water to the Barracks. The Army's use of Kingstown Barracks declined gradually from the 1960s to the 1970s and then sharply from 1974, to the point in 1979 where it was utilised for only 43 days in the year. In 1984 the Army and the Rottnest Island Board of Control began negotiations for the Board to purchase the remaining Army land and buildings including Kingstown Barracks. This was formalised in an official closing ceremony in December 1984.

After successful trials using Kingstown Barracks for environmental education programs over the 1984/1985 summer season, the Board recommended to the Government that the Barracks be used as an environmental education centre.

Historic Buildings

See also: the printed tour guide to the historic settlement.

Governor's Cottage and the Hotel Rottnest

The Hotel Rottnest is highly valued by the community of Western Australia as an integral part of their holiday experience on Rottnest Island. It is recognised for its significant vista of Thomson Bay and its social associations as a focal recreation point for many visitors to the Island.

The Hotel was constructed between 1859 and 1864 as the Governor's summer residence, Government House, Rottnest Island. More recently, the Hotel Rottnest is open to the public, offering accommodation and serving as the Island's favoured drinking spot.

Boys Reformatory

In 1881 the Colonial Government decided that the Island would be a suitable location to reform young boys who had come into conflict with the law.

The Rottnest Island Boys Reformatory was opened in 1881 next to the Aboriginal Prison, and operated for 20 years.

Carpenter John Watson was asked to construct the Boys Reformatory buildings on Rottnest Island and these included a workshop, kitchen, two large dormitories, a school room and four small cells. Upon completion of the building work, Watson decided to stay on as the Reformatory Superintendent and to teach the boys carpentry, joinery and gardening.

The Reformatory closed in 1901. Since 1909 the Reformatory buildings have been used as holiday accommodation, operated as part of the Lodge.

Army Jetty

The Army Jetty was found to be in poor - indeed dangerous - condition in 2019, as Nic Perpitch reported for the ABC: 'Rottnest Island's Army jetty, which collapsed injuring three people in October, was poorly managed and the island's governing authority appeared not to have properly responded when risk issues were raised numerous times, a review has found.'

Historic sites on Rottnest Island

Government House
Oliver Hill Battery and Railway
Signal Station, Observation Post
Pilot Boat Shed
Wadjemup Lighthouse
Bathurst Lighthouse
WW1 POW Internment Camp Site
Boys Reformatory
Kingstown Barracks, Bickley Battery
The Lodge (Quod) Prison
Rottnest Island Cemetery
Aboriginal Burial Ground
Vlamingh Memorial
Salt Works
Garden Lake

Historically significant men & where buried, if known

Constable Welch (fl. 1838, so d. before 1899)
Henry Vincent (1796-1869, buried Skinner St, headstone Fremantle Cemetery) - see the tour
Henry Trigg (1791-1882, buried East Perth)
City of York and Carlisle Castle shipwrecks (memorial in Fremantle Cemetery)
CY O'Connor (1843-1902, buried Fremantle Cemetery)
George Temple Poole (1856-1934, d. Darlington WA)
Robert Thomson (1791-1865 d. SA) first landowner
Francis Fraser Armstrong (1837-1897, buried East Perth)
John Watson (Boys Reformatory 1880-1901, fl. 1931)
John Lomas (d. before 1899, Lomas cottage 1871)
Captain Edward Back (1815-1886)
Captain William Jackson (1827-1895, buried East Perth)
William Henry Timperley (1833-1909, buried Karrakatta)
Lt-Col. Edward Fox Angelo (1836-1902, buried Karrakatta)
Frederick Pearse (1842-1922, buried Karrakatta)
Des Sullivan (1919-2007) manager for 25 years

It was possible, 7000 years ago, when sea levels fell, to walk to what became Wadjemup island. See Nunn (below) and also G.F. Moore (1884/1978), as follows:

Fremantle Museum one-page pamphlet about the Heliograph (c. 1990?)

The Rottnest Heliograph

A heliograph is in essence a mirror used to flash light signals. Heliograph derives from two Greek words: ‘sun’ and ‘writing’. Signals can either be prearranged or messages can be sent by morse code using combinations of short and long flashes of light. A small hand mirror could be used for short distances but might be tiring to use for long messages.
The heliograph on display, which was used to signal from Rottnest Island to Fremantle, is a more elaborate form of the simple device. It uses a 25 cm diameter mirror and a key (similar to a telegraph key) which, through a simple mechanism, allows the mirror to be tilted simply by touching the key with a finger.
For the first 50 years of settlement communication between Rottnest and Fremantle was by signal flags during the day and by signal fires at night.
Governor Sir Harry St George Ord arrived in the Colony in 1877. He liked Rottnest and was soon spending about a quarter of his time there. Soon after his arrival he urged the laying of a telegraph cable between Rottnest and Fremantle but this proved too expensive an undertaking for the Colony. In 1878 there was an unsuccessful attempt to establish a mechanical semaphore system. Ord then proposed a heliograph. A set of four heliographs arrived in July 1879. They cost $50 (£25) each. In 1880 when Sir William Robinson became Governor in succession to Ord, the heliographs were put under the control of the Post and Telegraph Department.
The heliograph on Rottnest was mounted on a rise, since known as Signal Hill, handy to Government House. The Fremantle heliograph was beside the lighthouse on Arthur Head.
The first Rottnest operator was Henri Courderot, a Frenchman, who was overseer of the salt works and clerk to the Prison Superintendent. He was paid $20 (£10) a year for operating the heliograph. In 1886 his pay was raised to $40 (£20) per year.
Telegraphists from the Fremantle post office operated the instrument on Arthur Head. Heliographs could only be used in sunny weather and this was reflected in the granting of a $10 (£5) gratuity to the Fremantle telegraphist for summer overtime work.
Communication between Rottnest and the mainland was not improved until after the tragic sinking of the City of York, wrecked on Rottnest in 1899. Faulty signalling by the lighthousekeeper was one cause of the ship being wrecked and 11 being drowned.
Premier John Forrest soon promised either wireless or telegraph communication, or a telephone cable A single circuit telephone cable was laid in 1900. Although the heliographs were no longer needed, one was still at Rottnest in 1914. In October 1914 Leslie Pym, chief signalman on Rottnest for the Fremantle Harbour Trust, reported that he would use the heliograph in emergencies, if the telephone cable was out of action, during the War. (World War I had broken out in August of that year.) The telephone cable proved reliable and the heliograph was not called in to use until 1931 while the cable was under repair for several weeks. It is possible that the heliograph was sometimes used during World War II.
The station on Rottnest was closed in 1949. Fortunately one heliograph from Rottnest was kept in store by the Fremantle Harbour Trust until it was donated to the Western Australian Museum in 1968.
Moynihan, John (1970). Twelve miles west of Fremantle, Australian Post Office Magazine, 17:1.
Moynihan, John (1977). All the news in a flash. The West Australian, 21 June 1977.

References and Links

Most of the text above is from an official publication.

Green, Neville 2007, 'Aboriginal sentencing in Western Australia in the late 19th century with reference to Rottnest Island prison', WA Museum.

Ludewig, Alexandra 2014, 'Fremantle Port: gateway to abeyance'Fremantle Studies, 8: 78-95, re the art of WW2 POWs on Rottnest.

Moore, George Fletcher 1884, Diary of Ten Years Eventful Life of an Early Settler in Western Australia and also A descriptive vocabulary of the language of the aborigines, Walbrook, London; repub. 1978 in a facsimile edition with an introduction by Tom Stannage, UWAP. The excerpt shown above is from the 'descriptive vocabulary', page 8.

Nunn, Patrick 2018, The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World, Sigma.

O'Meara, Laurie 2016, Rottnest: Where to from here?, privately published.

Perpitch, Nicolas 2019, 'Rottnest Island Army Jetty "poorly managed" before collapse which injured three, report finds', ABC News.

Rigby, Paul & Kirwan Ward 1969, Rottnest Island Sketchbook.

Snell, Ted 1988, The Artist's Rottnest, Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

Tutton, Matthew 2003, 'Engineering geology of Fremantle Harbour (an historical perspective)', Australian Geomechanics Symposium in Print.

Pilots page on this website.

Tour guide to the historic settlement

Official website - from which most of the above is taken

Wikipedia page for the island.

Wikipedia note on the Bickley Battery.

Wikipedia note on the Oliver Hill Battery.

Colonial buildings of Rottnest Island - Wikipedia page

wanowandthen Rottnest page

Garry Gillard | New: 8 February, 2015 | Now: 29 April, 2024