Paul (fremantlebiz) wrote,

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Rottnest Island - The mystery of John Lomas’s cottage

One of the most intriguing mysteries on the island is the explanation for a small 19th century building called Lomas’s cottage. It was constructed at the expense of the colonial government to provide free care for an elderly man named John Benedict Lomas. He was the same age as me when he took up residence in 1870, the difference being that he had a string of criminal offenses behind him which would rival many a modern day scoundrel. He must have had very special connections considering the treatment he received from officialdom throughout his life, because some of the crimes if committed by lesser mortals would probably have resulted in being hung.

The restored Lomas cottage in April 2009

When we were at Rottnest in April, I made a copy of the latest official explanation which is displayed inside the occasionally unlocked cottage. It had a lot more detail than other explanations I’d seen previously. They were in essence, 'an old man the authorities felt sorry for.'

Clearly someone who chooses to remain anonymous has done some more serious research on Lomas. However, I got the feeling there is still a lot more to be known about this somewhat incredible story than has been told to the public. My own suspicion is that Lomas was possibly the illegitimate progeny of someone with very powerful connections in England, possibly even someone connected to the British royal family. However, there is absolutely no hint of this in the official saccharin-tainted explanation below:

John Benedict Lomas (1806-1888)

When John Lomas came to Rottnest Island in 1870 he was 64 years of age, an ex-convict and pauper. His story paints a vivid picture of the hardships suffered by the many men and women who came to Australia as transportees.

Born in 1806 in Yorkshire, England, Lomas first got into trouble with the law as a young soldier. Following two attempts to desert the British Army he was convicted to seven years imprisonment and transported to New South Wales. Upon his release in 1830 Lomas took to highway robbery and theft, and was promptly re-convicted to serve another 15 years. When he obtained his second free pardon in 1838 he decided to make an honest living as a farmer in South Australia. He lived near Adelaide until 1850 with his wife and four children.

In 1850 he abandoned his family and returned to Yorkshire to claim his inheritance as the eldest son of the family. However when his brothers successfully squashed his claim, Lomas broke down and (in a desperate move) set fire to a hay stack. He was placed in a mental asylum and then sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for the crime of arson. By the time he was brought to Western Australia on a convict ship in 1857, he was a broken man.

After serving most of his sentence he received a conditional pardon in 1860, however, in 1861 was convicted to ten years for horse stealing. He was then released in 1866, and re-convicted in the same year to six months hard labour at Fremantle Prison.

Lomas had only begun his second sentence when he suffered a mental breakdown and was deemed ‘unfit to receive his ticket of leave’.

The Authorities were sympathetic and kept Lomas at Fremantle Prison until they considered him to be sufficiently recovered to be granted a free pardon. But upon his release in 1870, when efforts failed to find him suitable employment, he was ‘removed especially as an Imperial Pauper to Rottnest Island.

The authorities built this cottage for him and provided food and clothing, including ‘a daily ration of rum as a stimulant’.

In 1874 Lomas relinquished his secure position on Rottnest Island to visit his family in South Australia. After being told that he was no longer wanted, he returned to Western Australia, where he appears to have spent his final years in and out of various institutions.

On the 27th December 1888 John Lomas died at Fremantle Prison Hospital whilst serving a sentence for vagrancy.

I made a timeline yesterday to try and make more sense of the above account. For me it poses more questions than it answers.

1806 Born Yorkshire.
18?? Joined British Army.
1823? Convicted by Army on 2 counts of attempted desertion.
1830 Transported to NSW and completed sentence of 7 years.
1830 Turned to highway robbery - sentenced to 15 years.
1838 Granted free pardon. Moved to South Australia to become a farmer.
1850 Allegedly abandoned a wife and four children - returned to Yorkshire to unsuccessfully claim an inheritance.
185? Committed to mental asylum - sentenced to 15 years for arson at his ‘family’s’ farm.
1857 Arrived at Fremantle as a convict.
1860 Granted conditional pardon.
1861 Sentenced to ten years for horse stealing.
1866 Released.
1866 Sentenced to six months hard labour for unstated offense. Mental breakdown.
1870 Released and set up by the government to live on Rottnest in a specially built cottage as an “Imperial Pauper.”
1874 Departed Rottnest for S.A. to visit family.
18?? Rejected by family and returned to W.A.
18?? In and out of various “institutions.”
1888 Died in Fremantle Prison while serving a sentence for vagrancy.

There’s an out-of-print book titled Rottnest Island in History and Legend by William Somerville, first published by the Rottnest Island Board in 1949 - I have a 1976 edition. On page 74 it’s obvious the author also pondered over the identity of Lomas. His sheltered patronage on Rottnest came from the highest levels of colonial government and included Queen Victoria’s Vice-Regal representative, Governor Sir Frederick Weld.

Lomas’s enduring status apparently meant he remained sufficiently influential to make ongoing demands from the island for improving such things as his rations and the daily rum allowance. Curiously Lomas’s cottage has informally been referred to as ‘Buckingham Palace’ ever since those times. Somerville’s not very convincing explanation is that a prison warder named Buckingham, about whom little was known, moved into the cottage after Lomas departed.

It seems that Lomas may have made his biggest mistake by leaving Rottnest in 1874. He owed something of his generous Rottnest patronage to the acquiescence of Governor Weld, but in 1875 he shipped out to govern Tasmania.

A patron of John Lomas, Governor Sir Frederick Aloysius Weld

© MMIX Paul R. Weaver.

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