Major towns of the colony developed slowly into the port city of Fremantle and the main settlement, 20 miles up river, at Perth.
Much of the land around the Swan River Colony was unsuitable for agriculture and it was inevitable that the colony would have to expand beyond the Swan River area after the most fertile locations were quickly settled.
Sheep farming was the most successful early agricultural activity, and the basis of all expansion until the 1850s.
While Western Australia was initially a “free settlement”, economic problems for settler capitalists led them to seek the transportation of British convicts. WA became a penal colony in 1850.
By 1868, over 9,000 convicts had been transported to Western Australia on 43 convict ship voyages.
Wool production, usually on large stations, was also the basis of expansion further east and northward.
The first permanent settlements in the North West (later divided into the Pilbara and Kimberley regions) took place in the mid-1860s, initially at the Harding River, De Grey River and Roebourne (gazetted in 1867). Pearling also came to dominate the North West, initially in Nickol Bay, with a fleet at Tien Tsin Harbor (later renamed Cossack). In the North West, unlike southern WA, the labor force was dominated by Indigenous Australians, often under harsh forms of unfree labor.
In 1870, some members of the Legislative Council were elected for the first time, although only male settlers with significant property could vote and the Governor could still veto the Council’s decisions.
Ernest Giles twice traversed the Gibson Desert between 1872 and 1876.
During the 1870s, the Murchison and Gascoyne regions were also settled by Europeans.
Gold Discoveries, 1885–1900:
Until the 1880s the economy of the state was based largely on wool and wheat. A major change in the colony’s fortunes occurred in 1885 when gold was discovered and prospectors by the tens of thousands swarmed across the land in a desperate attempt to discover new goldfields.
In 1887 a new constitution, including proposals for responsible government, was drafted and sent to London by Governor Broome for approval. It was argued that due to the increasing wealth being generated by gold rushes, Western Australia should become a self-governing colony. An Act granting self-government was passed by the British Parliament in 1890, giving the Colony independence from the UK in matters other than foreign policy, defense and “native affairs”.
In 1891 the rush to the Murchison goldfields began when Tom Cue discovered gold at the town which now bears his name. In the years that followed dozens of gold towns – Day Dawn, Nannine, Peak Hill, Garden Gully, Dead Finish, Pinnicles, Austin Island and Austin Mainland – flourished only to be abandoned when the seams were exhausted and the gold fever moved on.
The influx of miners from the eastern colonies and from overseas increased the presence of trade unions in Western Australia. The Trades and Labor Council, Perth was established in 1891 and Perth Trades Hall opened (1912). The first edition of the Westralian Worker appeared on 7 September 1900 and was followed shortly afterwards by the opening of the Kalgoorlie Trades Hall, the first such hall in Western Australia. A Trades Hall was opened in Fremantle in 1904.