The State Library of New South Wales holds the largest collection of journals and letters written by mariners in the ships of the First Fleet. Of the eleven known journal manuscripts, nine are held in the Mitchell Library and Dixson Library collections.
The links below take you to the web page at the State Library where each journal or collection of letters is to be found. A short sample of the journal or letters can be viewed up front or it is possible to “Explore the Complete Journal” by clicking on the link of that name. Keep an eye open for links to other interesting item such as charts and other documents available on some pages. Details of the careers of these men are quoted from the Australian Dictionary of Biography, giving us a glimpse into the sometimes fascinating and often dangerous lives they, by the very nature of their occupation, lived and sometimes died. These journals and letters give us a unique first hand look at the First Fleet voyage to Botany Bay and the establishment of the settlement at Sydney Cove and on Norfolk Island as well as the desperate expedition to Batavia in April 1790 to buy supplies and hire a ship to bring them back to Port Jackson – see Newton Fowell’s last letter before he died of fever on the voyage back to Sydney.
“Arthur Bowes Smyth (1750-1790), surgeon, was born on 23 August 1750 at Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Essex, England, the seventh child of Thomas Smyth, a surgeon. He lived at Tolleshunt D’Arcy and practised there at least between 1778 and 1783. In 1787 he was appointed a surgeon in the Lady Penrhyn in the First Fleet; he took charge of the prisoners when the convicts’ surgeon on board, Dr Alltree, fell ill at Tenerife. Under the name of Arthur Bowes, as he was known in the colony, from 22 March 1787 to 12 August 1789 he kept a journal which included a record of the events of the voyage and the first weeks in New South Wales. While still in Sydney, on 19 March he reported on the birds of Lord Howe Island where Lieutenant Henry Ball had landed from the Supply on the way back from Norfolk Island.
Smyth left Sydney in the Lady Penrhyn on 20 April, and the journal is most significant for its descriptions of bird life at Port Jackson and Lord Howe Island, where the ship called on her way to China. He collected curios and natural history specimens on his excursions at Port Jackson, in a way typical of the non-scientific collecting done in the colony before George Caley arrived in 1800. Bowes must have been one of the first white men to see an emu, of which he made a drawing. While on Lord Howe Island he made the earliest known drawing of the now extinct white gallinule, and observed the bell magpie or currawong and four now rare or extinct birds, which have been identified as the Lord Howe Island pigeon, the booby, the Lord Howe Island rail or woodhen, and an extinct species of parrakeet. He died soon after his return to England and was buried at Tolleshunt D’Arcy on 31 March 1790. His journal is held by the National Library of Australia, Canberra.”1
“William Bradley (1757-1833), naval officer and diarist, was said to be the great-nephew of James Bradley (1693-1762), astronomer royal from 1742 until his death. One of his brothers, James, was on the staff of the Royal Naval Academy, Portsmouth, and his wife, Sarah Witchell, whom he married some time before May 1787, was a daughter of one of the masters there. He entered the navy on 10 April 1772 and served successively as captain’s servant, A.B., midshipman, and master’s mate until 31 October 1778 when he was promoted lieutenant. He served in H.M.S. Lenox,Aldborough, Mermaid, Ripon, Prothée, Phaeton and Ariadne before being appointed first lieutenant in the Sirius on 25 October 1786 and sailing with the First Fleet next May.
After reaching Port Jackson in January 1788 John Hunter, second captain of Sirius, immediately began with Bradley a series of surveys. They had completed that of Sydney Harbour by 6 February, Bradley’s Head, on the northern shore of the harbour, first known as Bradley’s Point, being named after the lieutenant. During his stay at Sydney Bradley lived in the Sirius and appears to have taken little part in the social life of the new colony, though he recorded in his diary the more striking day-to-day events and, in the course of duty, sat on the Court of Criminal Judicature. On the various short surveying expeditions he undertook, usually with Hunter, his main interest was the Aboriginals, whose appearance and behaviour he describes in his journal. Natural history also engaged his attention, as may be seen from his descriptions of animals, birds and local timbers.”2
“Ralph Clark (1762-1794), officer of marines and diarist, was born on 30 March 1762 in Edinburgh, son of George Clark, gentleman’s servant, and his wife Ann, née Man. After a period in the Dutch service before 1777, he became a second lieutenant in the marines on 25 August 1779. After the American war he lived in London, though officially a member of the Portsmouth Division of marines. On 23 June 1784 he married Betsy Alicia, eldest daughter of Matthew Trevan, of Efford manor, Egg-Buckland and Swilley, Stoke Damerel, both in Devon, and his wife Elizabeth, née Stephens. He had met her at Efford. Their son, Ralph Stuart, was born on 23 August 1785. Anxious for promotion, Clark volunteered for duty at Botany Bay, and was permitted on 7 December 1786 to exchange with an officer ordered there. In May 1787 he sailed in the Friendshipin the First Fleet.
His only claim to importance is the diary he kept from 9 March 1787 to 17 June 1792, written up almost every day, sometimes at great length. There are four gaps, the only considerable one being between 10 March 1788 and 15 February 1790. The journal is intimate, informal and revealing. It was certainly never intended for the public. The idiomatic language, untidy writing, careless spelling and sparse punctuation show the unselfconsciousness of the born diarist, and the human element lacking in other contemporary records is uppermost here.”3
“John Easty (flourished 1786-1793), marine, was a private soldier in the marines for ten years and ten months, beginning at latest in January 1784. He probably served in France and Spain before being sent to New South Wales as one of the marine detachment in the First Fleet. Easty was appointed to Captain-Lieutenant Meredith’s company on 4 November 1787. He carried out the normal duties of a marine, committed the typical military crimes of his kind, and endured as a matter of course the hardships and punishments, including a flogging in March 1788 for bringing a female convict into the camp. In December 1790 he was a member of two punitive expeditions sent against the Aboriginals around Botany Bay. Easty returned to England in December 1792 with the last detachment of marines to leave Sydney and rejoined his division at Portsmouth on 24 May 1793. On 15 September 1794 he entered the service of Waddington & Smith, grocers, in London; he was still employed there in November 1796 when he petitioned the Admiralty for compensation for short rations supplied in New South Wales.
Easty’s chief importance lies in his diary which covers the period from November 1786 to May 1793. This is a rare contemporary account of the first settlement in New South Wales as seen by the ordinary soldier, although some of it was hearsay and some was written long after the event. Easty was an experienced and competent marine but had very little formal education. He was compassionate and sentimental, unimaginative, with an uncomplicated patriotism and a soldierly pride in his corps. His religion was a simple Protestantism with Evangelical leanings. He was unmarried while in New South Wales but had relatives in England.”4
“John Hunter (1737-1821), admiral and governor, was born on 29 August 1737 at Leith, the port of Edinburgh, one of at least nine children of William Hunter, a shipmaster, and Helen, née Drummond, whose uncle was a lord provost of Edinburgh. As a child he was shipwrecked when sailing with his father off the coast of Norway, and he lived for some time with an uncle, Robert Hunter, at Lynn in Norfolk, where his interest in music brought him under the influence of Dr Charles Burney, the organist and composer. John Hunter received a sufficient education, especially in the Latin classics, to become briefly an undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen with a view to ordination into the ministry of the Church of Scotland, but the inherited call of the sea proved stronger, and in May 1754 he became captain’s servant to Thomas Knackston in H.M.S. Grampus. In 1755 he was enrolled as an able seaman in the Centaur, after fifteen months became a midshipman, transferred to the Union and then to the Neptune, successive flagships of Vice-Admiral Charles Knowles, and in 1757 took part in the unsuccessful assault on Rochefort. In 1759, still in the Neptune, in which John Jervis, later Earl St Vincent, was serving as a lieutenant, he was present at the reduction of Quebec. In February 1760 Hunter passed examinations in navigation and astronomy and qualified for promotion as a lieutenant, but he remained without a commission until 1780……..
When the arrangements which resulted in the sending of the First Fleet to Australia were being made in 1786, H.M.S. Sirius was detailed to convoy it. Hunter was appointed second captain of the vessel under Governor Arthur Phillip with the naval rank of captain. He was also granted a dormant commission as successor to Phillip in the case of his death or absence. In Phillip’s instructions, 25 April 1787, it was hoped that when the settlement was in order it might be possible to send the Sirius back to England under Hunter’s command. On the outward journey, soon after leaving the Cape of Good Hope, Phillip transferred to the tender Supply, hoping to make an advance survey of their destination at Botany Bay; he placed Hunter in the Sirius in command of the main convoy, though in the result the entire fleet of eleven ships made Botany Bay within the three days 18 to 20 January 1788……”5
“Philip Gidley King (1758-1808), governor, was born at Launceston, Cornwall, England, on 23 April 1758. His family had long lived in the district and were not impecunious. His father, Philip, was a draper, his maternal grandfather, Gidley, was a local attorney; but though his origin shows that for men of humble birth it was easier to advance in the navy than in the army, it proved a handicap in New South Wales where some of his critics considered him ‘not a gentleman’. For all that he was neither ignorant nor narrow in his interests, even if his references to the workings of Providence, his advice to his young son Norfolk, his views on alleged ‘Republican sentiments’ and ‘seditious principles’, and his reverence for the existing British constitution show that his religious and political opinions were clearly those of an orthodox naval officer.
King joined the navy as captain’s servant in H.M.S. Swallow on 22 December 1770. After five years in the East Indies he was moved to American waters in 1775, when fighting began against the rebellious colonies, and became a midshipman in the Liverpool in July. He was commissioned lieutenant in the Renown on 25 December 1778, after an examination the previous year when one of his examiners told King’s mother that he was ‘one of the most Promising young men I have ever met’. He returned to serve in the Channel Fleet from January 1780, and in the Ariadne he served under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. In 1783 King sailed to India in the Europe with Phillip who formed a high opinion of his merits; on their return, since peace had been made, King was paid off. In October 1786, as soon as Phillip had been nominated to command the expedition then setting out to establish a penal settlement at Botany Bay, he chose King as second lieutenant in the Sirius, in which he was sailing himself. He took King with him when he transferred to theSupply in the hope of reaching their destination ahead of the main fleet, and a fortnight after they arrived selected him ‘as a officer of merit … whose perseverance may be depended upon’ to establish a subordinate settlement on Norfolk Island.”6
There is strong evidence that another First Fleeter, John Herbert, off the transport Charlotte, sailed with Phillip to India on the Europe as a captains servant.7
“Jacob Nagle (1761-1841), sailor, was born on 15 September 1761 at Reading, in the American colony of Pennsylvania, one of four children of George Nagle (1735-1789), a blacksmith of German descent, and his wife Rebecca, née Rogers. George was sheriff of Berks County in 1770-75. In the American War of Independence he was an officer in George Washington’s Continental Army and in 1776 took Jacob with him to barracks in Philadelphia. The youngster joined the army in August 1777 and fought in the battle of Brandywine in September. After the winter of 1777-78, spent at Valley Forge, he and his father left the army and the family moved to Philadelphia where George ran a tavern that was popular with seamen.
Enlisting in the Continental Navy early in 1780, Jacob was briefly attached to the Saratoga before joining the sixteen-gun privateering brig Fair American. In November 1781 he was serving in theTrojan when that vessel was captured while making repairs at sea after a storm, and the crew taken on board H.M.S. Royal Oak. Imprisoned on St Christopher, Leeward and Windward Islands, in the Caribbean, Nagle was freed by the French after authorities surrendered in January 1782. He joined a French ship but was soon gaoled for helping a British sailor, and then escaped. Nagle eventually became a seaman in the Royal Navy after an exchange of prisoners in May and served in H.M.S. Lucia and two other ships until he was selected to serve aboard H.M.S. Sirius in March 1787.”8
“James Scott (d.1796), sergeant of marines, was a member of the marine detachment in the First Fleet, and arrived in New South Wales as one of three sergeants in the Prince of Wales. He had had little formal education but was already an experienced and competent non-commissioned officer when the fleet sailed. On 26 October 1786 he had married Jane Boxell at St Mary’s Church, Portsea, now a suburb of Portsmouth, both being of that parish. A daughter, Elizabeth, was born in the Prince of Wales in Rio de Janeiro on 29 August 1787 and a son, William Boxell, in Sydney on 4 June 1790.
Scott and his family embarked in H.M.S. Gorgon in Sydney on 31 October 1791. They sailed for England on 18 December and all survived the voyage despite the illness and deaths on board. Scott was discharged at Spithead on 21 June 1792 and from next October until March 1796 he served as a squad sergeant or second squad sergeant on shore at Portsmouth at £20 a year. He died towards the end of March 1796 and was buried at Portsmouth on 2 April.”9
“George Bouchier Worgan (1757-1838), surgeon, was christened on 3 May 1757 at St Andrew’s, Holborn, London, the second son and third child of John Worgan (1724-1790), a doctor of music, and his wife Sarah, née Maclean. At 18 he entered the navy, qualified as surgeon’s second mate in February 1778 and was gazetted naval surgeon in March 1780. He served for two years in thePilote and in November 1786 joined the Sirius, sailing in her next year in the First Fleet to New South Wales and taking with him a piano. In addition to his medical duties he joined several expeditions to such places as Hawkesbury River and Broken Bay. On one excursion from Prospect Hill the upper Nepean was named Worgan River after him. He visited the Cape of Good Hope in the Sirius in 1788-89, and then spent a year on Norfolk Island after she was wrecked there, before he returned to England in the Waaksamheyd in 1791, leaving his piano with Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur. He continued to serve as surgeon’s mate and surgeon until about 1800 when he was judged unfit for service and retired on half-pay. He took up farming with little success, and died of apoplexy at Liskeard on 4 March 1838.”10
Newton Digby Fowell (1768-1790) was born at the family home Blackhall in Devonshire England. The second son of an aristocratic family he was well educated and groomed for a career in the navy; he went to sea early in his life and served on several navy ships including the Ocean, the Perseus, the Berwick which was renamed HMS Sirius and the Ardent. He was desperate to get posted to a foreign station because there was a greater chance of promotion than on duties in home waters. He passed his midshipman exams in November 1786 and was recommended to Phillip by Evan Nepean and he joined the Sirius as a midshipman in February 1787. He wrote letters home from Portsmouth, during the voyage to Botany Bay, from the settlement at Sydney, from Norfolk island and finally from the Supply at Batavia where as a Second Lieutenant having been promoted to that rank in the Sirius before she was wrecked at Norfolk Island. Newton Fowell and and the gunner of the Sirius died of fever on the way back from Batavia, 5 men were left in the hospital.
1. Australian Dictionary of Biography. (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smyth-arthur-bowes-2674). Retrieved 20-05-2015.
2. Ibid. (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bradley-william-1820). Retrieved 20-05-2015.
3. Ibid. (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clark-ralph-1898). Retrieved 20-05-2015.
4. Ibid. (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/easty-john-2017). Retrieved 20-05-2015.
5. Ibid. (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hunter-john-2213). Retrieved 20-05-2015.
6. Ibid. (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/king-philip-gidley-2309). Retrieved 20-05-2015.
7. The Herbert Family Association Inc. (http://hfa-herbertfamilyassociation.com/?page_id=373)
8. Australian Dictionary of Biography. (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nagle-jacob-13125). Retrieved 20-05-2015.
9. Ibid (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/scott-james-2640). Retrieved 20-05-2015.
10. Ibib (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/worgan-george-bouchier-2816). Retrieved 20-05-2015.