Historical parole documents linked to the last convict ship to arrive in Australia have been found in Perth in the belongings of a Geraldton priest, 15 years after his death.
The pristine ticket of leave belonged to William Bartlett, a Buckinghamshire horse dealer convicted of rape in 1866.
He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and transported to Western Australia aboard the Hougoumont in 1868.
Thousands of tickets of leave were issued to WA convicts, allowing them to work for themselves and live in a given district of the colony before their sentence expired or they were pardoned.
Fremantle Prison assistant curator Eleanor Lambert said not many of the documents had survived, and when they did they were often damaged.
“The tickets were carried at all the times,” she said.
“They had to be produced at a moment’s notice, otherwise you could be rearrested.
“These people lived very harsh lives, so documents literally fell apart in people’s pockets.”
Ms Lambert said there were quite a few tickets of leave in the state records office, but the latest find was particularly significant because it was in such excellent condition.
“This one has some slight staining around the edges and a small amount of silverfish damage, but honestly if you looked at it, it looks like it was written yesterday,” she said.
Chance discovery tucked inside magazine
Upon arriving in Western Australia, Bartlett spent some time in Fremantle before being sent to the Geraldton-Greenough region, about 400 kilometres north of Perth, where he worked for local farmers and landowners as hired labour.
Bartlett’s ticket of leave, which has since been donated to the Fremantle Prison, was issued in 1881.
He was eventually rearrested for vagrancy, as well as stealing a pig, and it is believed his ticket of leave was reissued to him and given to the Geraldton parish priest for safekeeping.
The ticket of leave is believed to have stayed in the parish’s archive, eventually making its way into the possession of Catholic priest Robert Dowglass.
Following the priest’s death in 2002, his papers were passed on to his sister-in-law Ina Dowglass, who died last year.
The document was found some months later, when Ms Dowglass’s niece Julie Bateman, of Perth, went through her estate.
“It was only by chance discovery,” she said.
“When I was going through my aunt’s estate, I’d found a magazine – one of those coin and note evaluation books.
“I thought I’d keep the magazine because it could be an interesting read later on.
“It was only when I was looking at it probably a few months after my aunt had passed away, I found this folded piece of paper tucked in the middle of this magazine.”
Ms Bateman said she did not immediately realise the significance of the document.
“After contemplation I thought I should take it down to the Fremantle Prison to see if they were interested,” she said.
“I showed it to one of the tour guides and I think he almost had a heart attack when he realised it was an authentic 1880 ticket of leave.
“Everyone was so excited to see this documentation that I’d casually strolled down [with] there in my handbag.”
Exhibition to mark anniversary
Bartlett was eventually remanded to the Mt Eliza Poor House before being transported to the Colonial Hospital, where he died of a brain embolism in 1894, aged 65.
The ticket of leave will form part of a new exhibition at the Fremantle Prison about the history of convict transportation to Australia.
“Unfortunately it was not a success story for him. He didn’t assimilate very well into Australian society,” Ms Lambert said.
“This convict William Bartlett came out on the Hougoumont in 1868, which was the last convict ship to ever arrive in Australia, and the 150th anniversary of that arrival is next January, the 9th of January.”