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The 39th Regiment of Foot in Australia 1825-1832

The 39th Regiment of Foot in Australia 1825-1832

The 39th Regiment of Foot were  posted to Australia in November 1825 with the unattractive job of guarding convicts sentenced to transportation to Australia.  This meant that the Regiment set sail in eighteen different groups over a period of twenty two months.  The largest of these groups had three officers and fifty one other ranks.  The average time for each voyage in uncomfortable and often dangerous conditions was four months; the slowest took six months.

An example of the problem was that of a young Ensign (2nd Lieutenant) commanding seventeen Other Ranks in charge of 120 convicts from Dublin jail.  He records that a more unsuitable ship than Regalia 300 tons could scarce have been found to face winter gales and to keep the difficult charges under control.  Later, another ship, the Cambridge, carrying the Regimental Head Quarters was not large enough to take all the soldiers below deck so they spent the voyage on deck!  Another ship was blown off course to Tristan da Cunha, thus taking six months to reach Australia.

On arrival in New South Wales the Regiment was divided into many different detachments.  For example, in Sydney the Regimental Headquarters had only eleven Officers and two hundred and thirteen Other Ranks, the remaining sixteen Officers and three hundred and sixteen Other Ranks being on detachment.  These detachments were spread over a wide area: for example, Parramatta fifteen miles away, Bathurst one hundred and fifty miles away, Norfolk Island one thousand miles away, also Van Diemen’s land (Tasmania) where the most difficult convicts were sent and who gave the guards a very difficult time indeed.

With the monotony of guarding and supervising convicts and living scattered in far flung detachments keeping the King’s peace, time must have weighed heavily on the regiment as in many of the stations there were few in any recreational facilities.  Ensign Coke in his diary gives some idea of the monotonous routine and some of the grisly duties which faced the Subalterns.   For example, on Mondays, one Subaltern would have to supervise those to be hanged.  Sometimes there could be as many as six or eight suspended from the same gallows!

On the other hand, the experience of living in an age of exploration and adventure and on an unexplored continent must have made the idea of discovering what lay beyond the horizon where no white man had ever set foot very exciting.

So Captain Wakefield and twenty three Other Ranks set out to seize the Western Australia before the French could take it over and founded the colony at King Georges Sound.  (Albany).  They set sail from Sydney on 9th October 1826 and hoisted the Union Jack on Boxing Day, having secured half the continent for England through a journey that took over six months.

Captain Smyth made a longer and more arduous journey to the north coast and established Fort Wellington in Raffles Bay in 1827.

The most famous of all was Captain Charles Sturt who in 1828 set out on his first great journey.  Sturt  travelled 1200 miles through what was thought to be impenetrable marshes of the upper Macquarie and named the great river flowing west from the Blue Mountains ‘Darling’ after General Darling.  The following year he set off again with a party of six, setting out from Sydney in November 1829 to explore the Murrumbidgee by boat and named a new river the Murray after the Secretary of State.  Altogether they travelled 2,000 miles, so he virtually became the founder of South Australia.  He was then sent to Norfolk Island to try and sort out the situation among the convicts which had got out of hand.  In 1833 he left the Regiment because of illness and was invalided home to England.  He later returned and became Surveyor General, the Colonial Secretary and also led yet another expedition to the centre of the continent.  He later returned to England, where he died in Cheltenham in 1869.

Exploring and travelling seemed to be the norm in this Regiment.  In 1830 Captain Forbes and Lieutenant Maule went north to the Liverpool range and crossed the waters of the upper Goulburn and Hunter rivers to the upper Macquarie.

Also when Captain Forbes was not raising and training Mounted Police, he was keeping bush rangers (escaped convicts ) under control by searching for a gang that was causing trouble and had become a severe menace to local settlers in April/May 1832.  He also did a great deal of surveying on his own account.  All of these expeditions recorded daily details such as rates of travel, the bearings of topographical features and daily latitude and longitude – all vital information for the new settlers.

The regiment received orders to transfer to India in July 1832.  On its departure the civic authorities paid the 39th many6 compliments and its official inspection report stated that it was “A good body of men, well-appointed and in very good order”.  The Dorset’s could look back with considerable pride on the achievements of the 39th during their seven year tour in Australia in the late twenties and earl thirties of the nineteenth century.