HMS Lady Nelson

The Lady Nelson story is one of courage and devotion, this small 60 ton brig carried out her duty, with all the vigour of a much larger sea faring vessel, in her twenty-five years of service in the colony, between 1800 and 1825

Woodcut of Lady Nelson in the Thames 1800


Two hundred years ago on 1 December 1811 the original Lady Nelson brig: (a two-masted square-rigged vessel) was again in Hobart Town, having undertaken a difficult voyage from Sydney bringing Governor Lachlan Macquarie and Mrs Elizabeth Macquarie for their first tour of Van Diemen’s Land.

Elizabeth Macquarie (Wikipedia)

Major General Lachlan Macquarie (Wikipedia)










This vessel already had an important Colonial career. She was built at Deptford in 1798 and her length was 16m, beam 5.33m and draught 1.8m.  The Lady Nelson differed from other exploring vessels in having 3 centre-board keels.  It was thought that this would steer easier, sail faster and tack and wear quicker in less room.  Her three sliding centre-boards enabled her draught to be reduced when in shallow water drawing no more than six feet when her sliding keels were up. 

Fanny Nelson wife of Admiral Horatio Nelson (Wikipedia)

She was named in honour of the wife of Horatio Nelson.

In January 1800 the Admiralty appointed Lieutenant James Grant to explore and survey parts of Australia.  She carried provisions for 15 men for nine months and water for three months and was armed with two brass carriage-guns and given a further four guns.  They called at St Lago (Cape de Verde Islands) for provisions.  The vessel did not land at Rio de Janeiro and sailed to the Cape of Good Hope where two new keels were built.  At Simon’s Bay, Commander Grant found HMS Porpoise, also bound for NSW.  Another ship the Wellesley arrived with instructions from the Duke of Portland at the Admiralty directing Grant to sail to Sydney through Bass Strait (discovered by Bass and Flinders the year before); instead of around southern Van Diemen’s Land.

The Lady Nelson was the first known vessel to sail eastward through Bass Strait.  The Lady Nelson arrived in Sydney on 16 December 1800.

Upon arrival Governor King was disappointed Grant had been unable to land on the New Holland south coast and map it, however, Grant did sight the indentation to Port Phillip Bay.  A competent surveyor, Ensign Barrallier was sent by Governor King in Lady Nelson to explore and chart Bass Strait, Jarvis Bay and Western Port.  Following this Grant received orders to take Colonel Paterson, the Lieutenant-Governor to Hunter River, (now Newcastle) where coal was found.  When the brig returned to Sydney, Grant resigned his commission and returned to England.

The command of Lady Nelson then went to John Murray with embarkation to Norfolk Island in October 1801.  Lady Nelson then returned to the Kent Group of islands in Bass Strait to finish exploration of the south coast of Western Port and the discovery of Port Phillip Bay.  This included King Island. 

Matthew Flinders' Investigator a 20th century drawing (Wikipedia)

Following another voyage to the Hawkesbury River in July 1802 in company of HMS Investigator (Matthew Flinders) the Lady Nelson sailed north along the coast to NSW to what is now Queensland, and did not return until 22 November 1802.  Commander Murray had missed Nicholas Baudin’s French ships by four days however, the presence of the French expedition hastened the British colonisation of Van Diemen’s Land as they believed the French may lay claim to the island.  Meanwhile, Murray took troops on Lady Nelson to Norfolk Island to relieve men there and on his return to Sydney was forced to resign his command due to an irregularity in his statement of servitude.

In 1803 the Lady Nelson under command of Lieutenant Curtoys and having Lieutenant John Bowen on board, the Commandant of the new settlement, in company of HMS Porpoise, set out for Van Diemen’s Land but due to foul weather both ships were unable to proceed.  A whaler, the Albion (on to which Bowen transferred) replaced the Porpoise and the Lady Nelson arrived at Risdon Cove on 7/9/1803 followed by Albion five days later.  On 29 September, the Lady Nelson weighed anchor and returned to Sydney on 15 October 1803.  On 25 November, Captain George Curtoys was taken ill and transferred to the naval hospital at Sydney.  Curtoys was succeeded by Acting Lieutenant James Symons and the Lady Nelson left Sydney on 28 November for Port Phillip and visited Port Dalrymple but had to take shelter in the Kent Group of Islands.  Mr William Collins, sailing in the schooner Francis observed smoke from one of the islands and found the Lady Nelson in the cove.  The leaky Francis was returned to Sydney and her party including Mr Robert Brown (botanist) transferred to the Lady Nelson at Port Dalrymple and explored the Tamar.

On 21 January 1804 she arrived at Port Phillip and Colonel Collins ordered the settlers to embark in the Lady Nelson.  On 30 January in company of the Ocean the Lady Nelson set sail out of Port Phillip Bay and ten days later anchored at Risdon Cove.  Colonel Collins did not think Risdon suitable and moved the settlement to Sullivan’s Cove on 20 February 1804.

The Lady Nelson left the Derwent for her return voyage to Sydney on 6 March 1804.  No sooner had she anchored than Governor King dispatched her with another colony of settlers for Newcastle.  The next voyage to Norfolk Island in April and May 1804 faced continuous gales, so much so, that the brig headed for New Zealand and anchored near the river Thames (Bay of Isles), where 200 Maoris surrounded her bringing potatoes and other vegetables for barter.  The Lady Nelson eventually arrived at Norfolk Island on 22 June 1804 where Ensigns Piper and Anderson were embarked and they arrived back in Sydney on 9 July 1804.

The brig was overhauled and sailed again on 8 September for the Hawkesbury to collect wheat.  On 14 October 1804 the Lady Nelson accompanied HMS Buffalo with Lieutenant-Governor Paterson arriving at Port Dalrymple on 21 November, with torn sails and splintered masts.  The settlement was named Yorktown but soon gave place to George Town and the Lady Nelson remained until 11 January 1805 then sailed to Sydney.

Following another overhaul the Lady Nelson sailed to Jervis Bay and escorted the Estramina, belonging to the King of Spain (seized off the American coast) for Sydney.  This prize, a beautiful armed schooner that was crewed by Americans and never released; eventually became the property of the Government.

Between April and May 1805 the Lady Nelson was freshly painted before sailing to Norfolk Island with salt and brine.  Further runs between Sydney and Port Dalrymple and return were undertaken.

In February 1806 the Lady Nelson was instructed to convey Tipahee, a New Zealand chief of the Bay of Isles from Sydney back to New Zealand.  The brig was away four months and returned to Sydney via Norfolk Island.  Lieutenant Symons’ logbook closes on 20 July 1806.  In November Lady Nelson carried stores to Newcastle under command of William G.C. Kent.

On two embarkations, in November 1807 and February 1808 the Lady Nelson removed 34 and 51 settlers respectively from Norfolk Island to Hobart Town for settlement in Van Diemen’s Land.  In January 1813 she removed the last of the Norfolk Islanders (45 settlers), this time to Port Dalrymple, Van Diemen’s Land.

Then under Governor Bligh’s rule 1807-1808 the Lady Nelson was dismantled.  When Governor Macquarie arrived in 1810 he was informed by Colonel Foveaux that when Governor Bligh was deposed.


Lieutenant Governor of Northern Van Diemens Land William Patterson and Lieutenant Govenor of NSW (Wikipedia)

Colonel Paterson immediately manned the Lady Nelson with seamen who continued to use her for the services of the Government settlements.

Governor Macquarie took frequent excursions in the Lady Nelson and in October 1811 he and Mrs Macquarie embarked for Van Diemen’s Land for their extensive inspection of the Colony.

In May 1815 the Lady Nelson ran aground at Port Macquarie with the crew abandoning ship when the rudder and sternpost were swept away, but she was refloated and repaired.



By 1819 the Lady Nelson appears to have lay dismantled in Sydney Harbour and described as ‘nothing more or less than a Coal Hulk’.  Governor Macquarie then ordered her to accompany Captain Phillip King in the Mermaid to explore Torres Strait and accompanied her to Port Macquarie.

On 24 August 1824 under the command of Captain Johns, the Lady Nelson departed Sydney for the last time accompanying HMS Tamar to Melville Island to form a new settlement and trading post.

In February 1825 the Lady Nelson left Port Cockburn (below Melville and Bathurst Islands) for a cargo of buffaloes from the northern islands.  Her Commander was warned to avoid an island called Baba, infested with Malay pirates.  It is supposed this warning went unheeded for it was there the Lady Nelson met her end.

The schooner Stedcombe was dispatched for Timor for buffaloes and instructed to search for the Lady Nelson.  The Stedcombe too, never returned and it was learned she too had been captured by pirates off Timor Laut, east of Baba, where the Lady Nelson was taken.

Fourteen years later Captain Watson of the schooner Essington arrived at Port Essington with the news that a Dutch vessel had called at the island and seen an Englishman kept captive there who stated he had belonged to the Stedcombe.  A plan was made to carry out a rescue from the island of Timor Laut.  On 1 April 1839 at 2.30pm two canoes, one carrying the captive came alongside the Essington.  The captive dressed as a native was in a miserable condition with body scars and sores.

He had forgotten most of his English but was able to state that the Stedcombe was plundered and burnt and two boys kept captive as slaves.  One had since died.  Joseph Forbes who survived was taken to Sydney and hospitalised and later retired to Williamstown.

A ship called the Faith called at Sydney with news that the hull of the Lady Nelson was still to be seen with her name on the stern of the island of Baba.

Warwick RISBY

The Log Book of Lady Nelson by Ida Lee
The Forgotten Generation of Norfolk Island & Van Diemen’s Land by Reg Wright

Permission was granted to reproduce the Lady Nelson article that was published in the Hobart Town (1804) First Settlers Association Inc Newsletter, December 2011

The late Governor Philip Gidley King and the Lady Nelson’s Bell
The following anecdote related by the “Old Stager” may be read with interest by many persons in Sydney as well as this colony.

Governor King first arrived in the sister colony from England as second lieutenant of the Sirius frigate, under the command of Captain Hunter, who conveyed the first fleet of prison ships to Botany Bay, and lost the Sirius upon Norfolk Island.  On arrival Captain Hunter (sic) was appointed first commandant at Norfolk Island, and afterwards relieved Governor Phillip as second Governor of Sydney.  Lieut. King subsequently took leave of absence in England for the benefit of his health, and upon his return was appointed Governor-in-chief of New South Wales and its dependencies.  He was a very eccentric man, and from his long residence amongst the prisoners of the Crown, acquired an accurate knowledge of their “slag”, was considered to be “wide-a-wake”, and “down to every move on the board”.

In the year 1803, when he was a Post Captain in the Royal Navy, he was Governor in-Chief as aforesaid and had, consequently, the ordering of all the men-of-war upon the station at Sydney.  The following vessels were upon the station: – The Supply (brig), the Reliance (ship), the Buffalo (ship), and the Lady Nelson.  The Governor was very corpulent, and so much afflicted with the gout that his temper was none of the best.  He had caused a flagstaff to be erected in the front of Governor House, on the east side of Sydney Cove, which was attended by a midshipman, who communicated with the King’s ships in the harbour, according to a code of signals with which he was furnished.  The Lady Nelson was stationed near the flagstaff, to pass the signals along to the other vessels.  The Governor, whose gouty paroxysms frequently interfered with his rest, when lying uneasy on his couch, began to suspect that the discipline on board the vessel was not carried out in the strictest manner.  It was a general and imperative order that all the ship’s bells should be struck regularly every half hour during the night, and the morning reports of the several officers commanding always set out that that duty had been diligently performed.  This the Governor did not believe to be the case, more especially as regarded the Lady Nelson’s Bell.  He was determined to play the officers a trick, and ascertain the truth.

There happened to be a man named Fitzgerald, an Irish convict in the gaol at Sydney, who was sentenced to work in heavy double irons for two years.  He had been a noted bushranger, had the worst character in the settlement, and was a notorious thief.  The Governor sent for this fellow at about ten o’clock one night, and told him he wanted him to do a little job of thieving.  He was to swim off to the Lady Nelson, get up the cable on to the forecastle, unship the bell and bring it ashore.  He was enjoined to effect this silently and cautiously, so as not to disturb the sleepy watch on deck.  The job was more-over to be performed in his irons.  “If you succeed,” said the Governor, “you shall have two gallons of rum (worth £20) out of the King’s store, and one iron shall be taken from your leg immediately, and if your conduct is good for six month, the other shall be struck.  That will be called meritorious conduct in the thieving department in Botany Bay.”  “But suppose, Your Excellency” said Fitzgerald, “I am caught in the fact?” “Don’t be afraid,” said the Governor; “I will make it all right.  You must not say I sent you thither; if you get it, bring it to me; I will give you further directions.”  The bargain being thus satisfactorily concluded, Fitzgerald proceeded to fulfil his part of the contract.  The Lady Nelson was lying about a cable’s length from the shore.  He swam off, got up by the cable, quietly unshipped the bell, lowered it over the bow by a rope’s end as directed to do by the Governor, and returned to the shore with it, being so much exhausted however, that he was glad of the assistance of a constable whom the Governor had despatched to the water-side to render aid in the time of need.  The bell was carried up in triumph to Government House, and His Excellency was much pleased to find that so grand a robbery had been committed on board one of his Majesty’s ships.  The constable was order to take it to Mr John Gowen, the storekeeper, who was to lock it up until the next morning.  Fitzgerald got his order for the two gallons of rum, and the gaoler was directed to take one iron off his leg according to the stipulation.

At ten o’clock next morning a signal was passed for the commander of the Lady Nelson, Lieutenant Cattoyes, to come on shore with the Morning Report.  When presented, this document stated that the bell had been regularly struck.  “Mr Cattoyes,” said the Governor, “you have presented a false report.  The Lady Nelson’s Bell was locked up nearly all last night in the King’s store, where it now lies.  I sent a thief for it, and he brought it to me safe.  For this gross neglect of duty I shall order you under close arrest, and have you tried by court martial for the same.”  Mr Cattoyes was kept under confinement for fourteen days, and then released with a severe admonition, and a salutary injunction that he should never forget the Lady Nelson’s Bell!

The Courier (Hobart, Tasmania: 1840 -1859), Wednesday 29 July 1857, page 3


Lady Nelson on Port Phillip Bay (Howard Timbury)

The Lady Nelson replica

1983       The Tasmanian Sail Association Ltd announced their wish to build a replica of the original vessel
1986       First cut made in the 50 ton log for the keel by the late Sir James Plimsoll, then Governor
1988       The Lady Nelson launched
1989       Commenced operations entirely by volunteers and made over $13,000 profit in three months
1990       Policy of payment introduced and ship sent to mainland to generate income – heavy losses incurred
1991-5   Period of escalating debt with vessel spending most of each year out of Tasmanian waters
1996       Attempt to sell vessel to clear debt of $250,000 thwarted by Friends of the Lady Nelson Group
June – The Lady Nelson returned to Tasmania
July –  The Lady Nelson resumes Sail Training and educational cruises as a totally volunteer operation



© First Fleet Fellowship Victoria Inc 2011