From the sixteenth century onwards the number of people convicted of crimes, many of which were seemingly trivial by today’s standard, was becoming a problem.
The gaols in England were overcrowded, filthy and disease ridden resulting in many prisoners being removed to the hulks, which were old battleships that had outlived their usefulness. These ships were anchored in some of the harbours off the southern coast; the main places being Portsmouth, Plymouth and Woolwich. Soon this type of accommodation became as bad as the prisons on shore and the hulks had deteriorated to the point of becoming useless.
A convict hulk next to the frigate "Lady Ridley" in port (National Library of Australia)
Nicholas Matthew Condy, Convict hulks at Gravesend, England (National Library of Australia)
As there were few places that could accommodate prisoners, the idea of sending them to distant lands was explored. Many suggestions were dismissed; some were put into practice but failed so the idea of colonial prisons persisted. From the middle of the seventeenth century convicts were sent to the American colonies but the purchase of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean provided a more preferable workforce there. Africa was also tried, Nova Scotia rejected the idea and eventually it was decided to send the convicts to “The Great South Land” – Australia, discovered by James Cook in 1770.
Further planning had to take place as the trade routes in the Pacific and Indian oceans were controlled by the British, Dutch and French East India Companies. These were private organisations that had grown rich and powerful and had no intention of allowing intervention in their lucrative trading arrangements. After much political manoeuvring it was agreed that a fleet of ships could be sent to Australia as long as the abovementioned arrangements were not compromised.
The First Fleet was then put in place and consisted of eleven ships; five transport (to carry convicts), three store ships and two British naval ships – His Majesty’s Ship Sirius and His Majesty’s Armed Tender Supply. The Sirius was the flagship, captained by John Hunter and carried the newly appointed Governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip. The Supply’s duties were to keep the ships of the Fleet together, take messages between the ships and any other duties that the small ship could perform.
Henry Macbeth-Raeburn, The pioneer, in 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip R.N. proceeded from Botany Bay to Port Jackson (National Library of Australia)
The transport ships were Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penryhn and Prince of Wales; the store ships were Borrowdale, Fishburn and Golden Grove. It took many months to get the Fleet organised. Delays were caused by differences of ideas, public opinion, selection of convicts, goods to be carried and who were to be the guards in or of the ships. An incredible amount of time was spent in organisation since the idea of this momentous journey to the “ends of the Earth” was first thought about in 1785. Finally, the Fleet set sail from Portsmouth on May 3rd, 1787 and the incredible journey had begun.
Many stops were made along the way to replenish fresh supplies, the main ones being the Canary Islands, then across the Atlantic to Rio de Janiero and back across the Atlantic to Cape Town. This was the last port of call before the final leg to Australia and was essential as the livestock and feed were loaded.
William Bradley, Sirius, Supply & Convoy: Needle Point ENE 3 miles.
Hyaena in Company. 13 May 1787 (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)
William Bradley, City of St. Sebastians, Rio Janerio: Sirius and Convoy at Anchor. 1787 (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)
They then sailed round the south of Tasmania and up to Botany Bay on the New South Wales coast. This was the place where James Cook had landed in 1770 but the Fleet found the place unsuitable for a settlement so went further up the coast, in through the Heads and discovered Port Jackson (now Sydney Harbour). They finally settled at Sydney Cove on January 26th 1788.
John Allcot, The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27, 1788 (National Library of Australia)
View of the entrance into Port Jackson taken from a boat lying under the North Head, 1790? (National Library of Australia)
The transport and store ships unloaded their cargos and returned to England by various routes and with various problems. These ships had been hired by the British Government and as the masters play casino online were paid by the head for the convicts that had been carried, a second lucrative voyage could be arranged. The Sirius and the Supply were the only ships left at Port Jackson and were to remain so for over two years until the Second Fleet arrived in the middle of 1790.
List of people on board HMS Sirius, flagshipduring the voyage of the First Fleet from Portsmouth England on May 3rd 1787 to Port Jackson on 26 January 1788:
PHILLIP Arthur RN. Captain
BRADLEY William, 1st Lieut
MAXWELL George William, Lieut
KING Philip Gidley, 2nd Lieut
JACKING Henry, quartermaster
PALMER John, purser
MILLER Andrew, commissary
WORGAN George Bouchier, surgeon
JAIMSON Thomas, surgeon’s mate
DODD Henry Edward, agriculturalist
DeMALIEZ Bernard, servant
FREEMAN Thomas, clerk
DAVIS John, coxswain
HARRIS John William
HILL Francis, master’s mate
SHORTLAND John Jnr
RISS Robert, Major
FURZER James, 1st Lieut (q/m)
COLLINS David, Lieut
DAWES William, 2nd Lieut
PACKER William, Sergeant
GOWEN John, Corporal
FREEBORNE Alexander, Drummer
STEPHENS Robert Mount
ANGELL James, Private
BACON Jane, wife
BACON Elizabeth, child
BATCHELOR John, private
GILBORNE Margaret, wife
GOODWIN Philip, Private
THOMAS Ann, wife
TUNKS William, Private
PRATER Charles, servant to Lt. Collins
KELTIE James, master
MORTON Micah, retired master
CUNNINGHAM James, mate
SOUTHWELL Daniel, mate
BROOKS Thomas, Bo’sun
BROOKS Deborah, wife
BUCKLEY Stephen, mate
GRAVES George, yeoman
BRODIE Walter, armourer
ROSS Peter, gunner
MARA John, gunner’s mate
LIVINGSTON John, carpenter
WESTBROOK William B
MERIDETH Frederick, baker
WATSON Robert, sail maker
DAVIS John, gunner’s mate
A trip to South Africa for HMS Sirius
After the settlements at Sydney and Norfolk Island had been established, the transport and storeships returned to England, leaving the Sirius and the Supply to service the two settlements. The Supply made regular voyages to Norfolk Island, taking more convicts and Marines and returning to Sydney with grain and salt meat. It was decided to send the Sirius on a trip to Cape Town for much needed supplies.
Captain John Hunter writes at length about his concerns as to the condition of the ship but eventually set sail for the Cape of Good Hope in October 1788. It was not an easy voyage as they had to sail from west to east to catch the prevailing winds. The concerns that Hunter had about the multiple leaks that the ship had developed, was proved right. The copper sheathing on the hold had an electrolytic action on the iron bolts and leaks developed in many places. The crew were weakened by the constant necessity of having to pump the bilges every two hours and scurvy was always a problem as provisions became scarce. The weather was severe, the winds were very cold and the ship had to round Cape Horn and dodge the enormous icebergs that it encountered on the “bottom of the world” trip. After reaching Cape Town the ship took on six months’ worth of flour, various stores and twelve months’ provisions for the colony and set sail for Sydney in February 1789.
The trip home up the east coast of Tasmania nearly ended in disaster. As Captain John Hunter wrote “ We had every moment reason to fear that the worst might, by the ship striking, launch the whole of us to eternity”. Terrific storms raged but she managed to limp into port, the arduous journey from Cape Town having taken 91 days.
The Sirius was beached to the north of the harbour in the bay now known as Mosman Bay. Over the next five months she had repairs carried out. It was found that some vital fittings had been omitted when the ship was readied for the voyage from England and this, along with the deterioration of iron bolts, had caused many of the problems they encountered on this arduous voyage.
William Bradley, Tracks of the Sirius & Waakzaamheydt in the Southern Hemisphers, 1787-1792 (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)