James Stirling, first Governor of Western Australia
James Stirling, founder and first Governor

Although a small military contingent set up camp at Albany in 1826, the first permanent residents did not settle there until 1831. The first WA settlers arrived in the Swan River Colony,   which was to become Perth, in 1829.  They were free settlers who were required to show that they had ‘improved’ their land before being granted title.  However, beyond the immediate margins of the Swan River, the soil proved poor and the colony struggled for some decades.

English naval officer Captain James Stirling, with permission from Governor Darling, explored the Swan River region in 1827. Impressed by what appeared to be rich land along the river, Stirling promoted the idea of settlement in the region. He ultimately became the first Governor.

In April 1829 the Challenger, captained by Charles Howe Fremantle, arrived, followed on 31 May by Captain Stirling on the Parmelia. The colony was proclaimed on 18 June, 1829. The first WA settlers received free land grants in proportion to the value of their stock, implements and servants. They were not given full title to their grants until the land had been sufficiently improved.

At settlement in 1829 the colony possessed 57 horses, 204 cattle, 1,469 sheep, and 106 pigs. Unfortunately, the surrounding land was only productive in pockets and as more settlers arrived there wasn’t enough to go around. Many quickly returned to England or left for the eastern colonies. Food was expensive. In 1831, Captain Fremantle wrote that mutton was 2 shillings per pound, kangaroo 1 shilling 8 pence a pound, flour 10d and butter 5s a pound. In 1834, rationing was introduced for flour.

By 1838, the population was 2,132 with a workforce of just 788, half of whom were employed in agriculture. In 1840, the number of livestock had grown to 506 horses, 2,318 cattle, 30,961  sheep and 1,533 pigs. The shortage of labour eventually resulted in the introduction of convicts in 1850, putting an end to Western Australia’s status as a free colony.