The Lady Nelson by Warwick Risby


                                                                                             (c) Warwick Risby


Two hundred years ago on 1December, 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.


This vessel already had an important colonial career. She was built at Deptford in 1798 and her length was 16m, beam5.33m and draught 1.8m. The Lady Nelson differed from other exploring vessels in having 3 centre-board keels. Her length was 16m, beam 5.33m and draught 1.8m. 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. 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. Iago (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 & Flinders the year before); instead of round southern Van Diemen’s Land.

The Lady Nelson was the first know vessel to sail eastward through Bass Strait. The Lady Nelson arrived in Sydney 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 Philip Bay. This included King Island. Following another voyage to the Hawkesbury River, in July 1802 in company with HMS Investigator (Matthew Flinders) the Lady Nelson sailed north along the coast of 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 with HMS Porpoise, set out for VDL 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 September,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 Symmons 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 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 for Port Dalrymple and explored the Tamar.  

On 21 January 1804 she arrived at Port Phillip Bay and Colonel Collins ordered the settlers to embark in the Lady Nelson. On 30 January, in company with 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 &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 Maori ‘s 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 Lieut.–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.



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 Tippahee, 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 the 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 51settlers 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, V.D.L.


 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, 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 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 & Bathurst Islands) for a cargo of buffaloes from 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 had been 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 on the island of Baba.        



The Log Book of The Lady Nelson by Ida Lee

The Forgotten Generation of Norfolk Island & Van Diemen’s Land by Reg Wright

Journeys in Time –Ships

Jonathan Davis & Irene Schaffer



Near Stanley. Irene Schaffer  1998.

The new Lady Nelson is a replica of the original built at Woodbridge

 In Tasmania and launched in 1988 to compete in the Tall Ships

 Sydney to Hobart event. 


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, was crewed by Americans and never released, eventually she became the property of the Government.