A History of the Lady Nelson


                                      (c) Jonathan Davis and Irene Schaffer

The Lady Nelson was built at Mr Deadman's Yard, Deptford, England, and launched on 13 November 1798. She was sixteen metres long by five metres beam and of sixty tons. A small vessel even by contemporary standards, earning for herself the nickname H.M.S. Tinderbox yet she was unique in the fact that she had been fitted with three sliding keels, better known as centreboards. This enabled the ship to be of shallow draft, and with the keels raised drew only 1.8 metres, which allowed her to negotiate shallow water. The keels were the design of a Captain John Schanck, and were referred to as Captain Schanck's system. The idea of the sliding keels was not new at the time, but their practical application certainly was, and it was this feature that caused the Admiralty to buy her in 1799.

Lady Nelson, River Thames 1800

As His Majesty's Armed Survey Vessel, the Lady Nelson set sail for the fledgling colony of New South Wales in March 1800, under the command of Lieutenant James Grant. It was on this voyage of eight months duration that she became the first ship to sail from the west through Bass Strait, thus initiating the shorter route from England to Port Jackson. The first landfall of that part of the continent which was to become South Australia, was entered into her log on that voyage, and for the next twenty-five years, through a series of pioneering voyages she was to carve an important niche for herself in Australian maritime history. No other colonial vessel achieved as much as the Lady Nelson. In March 1801, she was sent to re-examine Bass Strait by Governor King. On this voyage she made the first survey of Westernport Bay, Churchill Island was named, and on 31 March, 1801, Lieutenant Grant planted wheat, corn, peas, rice, coffee, berries and potatoes. The crew erected a small house on the island, the very first in what was to later become Victoria.

From November 1801 to March 1802, under the command of Lieutenant John Murray, the Lady Nelson explored Bass Strait and most of King Island. It was on this voyage that Port Phillip was discovered and explored. From July to November of 1802, she accompanied the Investigator (under Lieutenant Matthew Flinders) north to assist in the charting of the coastline. After damaging herself on the corals of the Great Barrier Reef, she had to turn back to Sydney, necessitating Flinders to continue alone.

Under the command of Lieutenant George Courtoys, Lady Nelson in company with the Porpoise, set out from Sydney in June 1803 for the River Derwent in Van Diemen's Land, in order to establish the first European occupation of what is now Tasmania. Bad weather was experienced and both ships returned to Sydney. A second attempt was made in August 1803, the Lady Nelson left Sydney in company with the chartered whaler Albion, with Lieutenant John Bowen on board, who was to be Lieutenant Governor of the new settlement. Again bad weather was experienced and the Lady Nelson suffered some damage but kept on, arriving in the Derwent on 5 September 1803. The Albion arrived five days later, having sheltered in Oyster Bay, and having put in the time by capturing and killing three Sperm Whales. The Lady Nelson spent three weeks at the new Risdon Cove settlement before returning to Sydney.

January 1804 saw the Lady Nelson with Lieutenant James Symons in command at Port Dalrymple on the River Tamar, in Northern Van Diemen's Land. Here the estuary was explored by a survey party. It was during this survey that the site of the future settlement of Launceston was noted. Following this the Lady Nelson crossed Bass Strait to Port Phillip, where David Collins had established his first settlement, near the present site of Sorrento. Unhappy here, he transferred to Southern Van Diemen's Land with the Lady Nelson and the Ocean, arriving in the Derwent in February 1804. Dissatisfied with the Risdon Cove settlement, Collins decided to set up camp in Sullivan's Cove to establish what was to become Hobart Town.

On returning to Sydney, the Lady Nelson with the sloop James and the cutter Resource, carried people and supplies to the Hunter River for another new settlement. Thus the foundations were laid for what has become Newcastle.

October 1804 saw the Lady Nelson with Buffalo, Francis and Integrity on their way to Port Dalrymple. Here Lieutenant-Colonel Patterson established the first settlement in northern Van Diemen's Land. The Lady Nelson spent seven weeks here making a thorough survey of the River Tamar.

In 1806, the Lady Nelson made a voyage to New Zealand to return Maori Chief Te-Pahi to his homeland. There was a cargo of timber and bricks on board to build what may have been the first European house in New Zealand.

On 28 November 1807, the Lady Nelson arrived in the Derwent with the first of 600 odd settlers from Norfolk Island, she later made two more voyages, again to Hobart in 1808 and to Port Dalrymple in 1813. These new arrivals were settled at Sandy Bay, New Norfolk, Clarence Plains and Longford.

During 1811 to 1812 the little brig conveyed Governor Macquarie to Van Diemen's Land for his famous tour of inspection. Macquarie's opinion of the Lady Nelson was `The best and safest boat he had ever sailed`.

From 1812 the Lady Nelson was employed in carrying coal from Newcastle and grain from the Hawksbury River to Sydney. 1819 saw her in use again for survey work. Following a survey of Port Macquarie it was decided to establish a settlement there. Two years later, the Lady Nelson, in attempting to go to sea from this port, was driven onto the rocks, where she became a wreck with the tides flowing through her. Yet in 1824, she was again in commission as she accompanied HMS Tamar from Sydney to Melville Island in the Northern Territory to form a settlement. This was the settlement of Fort Dundas, the first British settlement in Northern Australia. On her second trip from the new settlement in 1825 in search of supplies, she called into the island of Baba, where the crew made fun of one of the native girls, and were subsequently murdered by the natives and the ship run ashore and burned. One of the Lady Nelson's guns is, today, still in the possession of the Islanders.

The new Lady Nelson is a full sized replica of the original, built to present day safety standards, as laid down by the Department of Navigation and Survey. It was built at Woodbridge in Tasmania and launched in 1988. Lady Nelson commenced operations in 1989 manned entirely by volunteers. The years between 1990 and 1996 saw a period of escalating debt after a policy of payment was introduced, and the ship spent most of each year out of Tasmanian waters. An attempt to sell the vessel to clear the debt was thwarted by the Friends of the Lady Nelson Group. In June 1996 the Lady Nelson returned to Tasmania and commenced sail training and an educational programme as a totally volunteer operation. In 1998 the Lady Nelson competed in the Tall Ships Race from Sydney to Hobart.

Lady Nelson replicia (c) Irene Schaffer
In January 2001 the final debt clearance payment was made. The Lady Nelson continues to operate successfully with all crewing, maintenance and office work being carried out by volunteers. There is strong demand for the vessel, with weekend harbour sailing, short and extended charters, and crew training days. A growing number of primary schools are bringing classes aboard for one and a half hour charters on the river. Secondary schools, scouting organisations etc. are chartering the ship for journeys of several days duration, during which time they are provided with the experience of traditional sailing, the challenge of the elements, teamwork, and the fellowship of the sea. The Lady Nelson is also in demand interstate to celebrate the important bicentenary events now occurring. The vessel visited South Australia in December 2000, Churchill Island in March 2001, and Port Phillip in February 2002. The Lady Nelson is Tasmania's Tall Ship, and a functional reminder of Tasmania's beginnings.

Lady Nelson Website: http://www.ladynelson.org.au