The emergence of modern Australia is often linked to the sailing of the so-called first fleet which left Portsmouth for Botany Bay in Australia on the 13th May 1787 under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip carrying around 1400 people including 780 convicts of both sexes. There were eleven vessels in the fleet which was made up of two naval escorts, HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, three transport ships carrying food and provisions, and six other transports which brought over the convicts and the soldiers. Whitby makes much of the fact that two of the supply transports, the Golden Grove and the Fishburn were built at Whitby whilst two of the convict transports, Scarborough and Friendship, were constructed in Scarborough harbour. It is less well known that the largest of the convict transports and indeed the first of them to reach Botany Bay was the Alexander, and she was built in Hull. Three Hull convicts were also sent out on this epoch making voyage.
The reasons why the First Fleet sailed for Australia were bound up in the rapidly changing political and social history of the later eighteenth century. Britain, of course, had been on the losing side of the American War of Independence which had broken out in 1776. In 1783 David Hartley, the Hull MP, had signed the Treaty of Paris on behalf of the British government which recognised the independence of the American colonies. As the British population grew, especially in towns, the numbers of people convicted of criminal offences increased. Britain had long transported convicts across the Atlantic and, after losing the American colonies, the government looked round for new places to send convicts as the country’s jails and prison hulks were by now overflowing. In January 1787, Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary, announced the decision to send the convict fleet to Botany Bay in New South Wales where Captain Cook had landed in 1770.
The Alexander had been built and registered in Hull in 1783 and was a 452 ton barque with a quarter deck. She was owned by the firm of William Walton and Company and commanded for the voyage by Duncan Sinclair. Although the largest transport vessel in the fleet, she was very small by modern standards at just 114 feet long and 31 feet at the beam. Despite her small size she left Portsmouth with 195 male convicts and 30 crew as well as 20 other passengers. There were a total of 759 convicts in the whole fleet, 568 males and 191 females. Apart from the convicts, soldiers and sailors, a number of civil officers accompanied the fleet with the expectation that they would stay there until the new colony became self sufficient. Livestock and large quantities of provisions were shipped south as well, including horses, calves, sheep, pigs, fowl and rabbits. The supplies they took were supposed to be sufficient to last for two years.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the level of overcrowding, the Alexander had problems from the start. Eleven convicts succumbed to fever whilst the vessel was still lying at Portsmouth and the ship was then cleared of people, fumigated with oil of tar and then whitewashed internally. These measures failed to wipe out the disease as another five convicts died before the ship finally sailed out of Portsmouth. The fleet’s voyage got off to a poor start and after leaving the English Channel the vessels spent ten days fighting high seas and heavy gales as they clawed their way south. It is hard to quite imagine the conditions amongst the convicts crammed in below decks, many of whom would never have been to sea before let alone subjected to days of such extreme weather.
The fleet reached Santa Cruz in Tenerife on the 3rd June 1778 where welcome supplies of fresh water and vegetables were taken on board. During their time at Santa Cruz, the officers and crew were invited to dine with the Spanish Governor but there was little relief for the convicts and the sickness on board the Alexander had become endemic. Indeed, conditions on all the ships had become fetid and they were infested with bugs and rats. One convict on the Alexander stole the jolly boat and slipped away but was recaptured the next day by a following transport which came across his boat. He was returned to the ship and flogged.
After leaving Santa Cruz the fleet crossed the Atlantic to San Sebastian (now Rio de Janeiro). This leg of the voyage took eight weeks before the fleet dropped anchor on the 6th August 1787. Not long after they departed from South America, the fleet ran into heavy gales and several ships were damaged. As conditions worsened on board the Alexander, a mutiny was narrowly averted when an attempt by some convicts to take over the ship was uncovered. Those involved were transferred to the transport Sirius and flogged. Their leader was apparently John Powers, who had previously tried to escape in the jolly boat; he received an additional 100 lashes for good measure.
The Alexander was not the only vessel to have serious problems en route. At one point a brawl broke out amongst the officers on the Sirius and there was also consternation on that ship when the crew discovered several layers of rotted wood in the hull. The fleet limped into Cape Town on the 13th October 1787 where the ships replenished with fresh meat, vegetables and some cattle. At this point, Captain Philips decided to sail ahead with the Supply and the three fastest transports, the Alexander, Friendship and Scarborough with the intention of seeking out a suitable settlement site before the rest of the fleet arrived. The Supply was the first vessel to arrive at Botany Bay on the 18th January 1788, after another eight weeks of storms and discomfort. The Alexander, followed by the other two vessels, arrived two days later.
Captain Phillips soon decided that Botany Bay was not the best site and on sailing north came to Port Jackson, now considered one of the finest harbours in the world. The first settlement was made quite close to the site of what is now Sydney Opera House and on the 26th January 1788 the whole fleet arrived and the flag was hoisted.
This date is now taken to mark the foundation of modern Australia and is celebrated annually as Australia Day.
During the voyage the Alexander had sailed some 15,063 miles at an average speed of three knots. All told, some 23 convicts on the First Fleet’s ships died on their way to Australia, although this number is small compared with the death toll in some of the later voyages. The Alexander, its captain and one of the convicts also played a part in making Australian legal history. Henry Kable instituted Australia’s first civil action in law when he claimed against Captain Sinclair of the Alexander for the non arrival of a parcel containing goods purchased by public subscription before he and his convict wife had been despatched to Australia. Against the odds, he won the case and was awarded £15 compensation.
Amongst those convicts shipped out on the Alexander were the three Hull men. Two of these, William Dring and Joseph/Thomas Robinson, had been tried in the Kingston upon Hull Quarter Sessions on the 7th October 1784 for stealing clothes and brandy of an unknown value. Robinson had originally been sentenced to death for the crime but both were eventually sentenced to seven years transportation. At the time of their conviction, Dring was about 14 years old and Robinson was 21. The crime of Richard Nettleton, the other Hull convict on the First Fleet, was no more serious. He had been convicted by a Hull court, also in October 1784, of stealing a silk handkerchief, scissors and snuffers with a value of one shilling. Neither Dring nor Robinson managed to steer clear of trouble during the colony’s early years. In May 1788, only a few months after arrival, Dring received 36 lashes for going absent without leave and later spent time in irons, first for starting a fire on the Sirius and then later for stealing potatoes. Robinson was also sentenced to be lashed on a couple of occasions. In February 1789 he received 12 lashes for being out of his quarters “with base intent” and on the 31st January 1791 he was given 50 lashes for killing pigeons reserved for those in need.
Both Robinson and Nettleton eventually left the colony but William Dring remained and married Ann Forbes. Many other Hull and East Riding men, women and children followed the convict route to Australia over the ensuing years.
After a number of difficult years the colony survived and the basis for modern Australia was established. As for the Alexander, she had a somewhat tortuous voyage back to Britain and it was reported that up to two-thirds of her crew succumbed to scurvy. The vessel itself remained a transport vessel until 1808 when she disappears from the register. Her final fate is unknown but the role of this Hull ship and her Hull convicts in the establishment of modern Australia deserves to be remembered.
Don Chapman, People of the First Fleet (Australia: Cassell, 1981)
Jack Egan, Buried Alive Sydney 1788 – 1792: Eyewitness Accounts of the Making of a Nation (UK: Alan & Unwin, 1999)
Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of Discovery and Exploration (USA: Houghton Miffin Books, 2000)
David Stevens, Navy and the Nation: The Influence of the Navy on Modern Australia (UK: Allen & Unwin, 2006)
Ships of the First Fleet
Australian Convict Information Links: Ballarat Genealogical Index