Lady Nelson H.M. Armed Tender 1798-1825

Lady Nelson H.M.


Armed Tender


 England and New South Wales




Lady Nelson, River Thames 1800 

                                                                                                    (c) Irene Schaffer


The Lady Nelson was a very unusual ship, first built as a cutter for survey work in the River Themes in 1798, under instructions of her designer Captain John Schank of the Royal Navy, and later converted to a brig for service in the Colony of N.S.W.


The other unusual feature of the Lady Nelson was that she had three sliding keels designed for sailing close inshore for map making.  Being only a 60 tons vessel did not deter Governor King from selecting her to assist Captain Matthew Flinders on the Investigator, with his survey work along the east coast of N.S.W.


The voyage of the Lady Nelson in 1800 reads like one of Jack London’s novels. Recorded by Lt. James Grant commander of the Lady Nelson on his voyage from England, and published on his return to England in 1803.


From her first day on the River Thames the Lady Nelson received unfavourable attention from other passing ships and sailors for her design. She was said to look more like a Spanish pirate ship than one of His Majesty’s Armed Vessels. She was to receive the nickname, His Majesty’s Tinderbox.


From the time she set sail on her voyage of discovery the Lady Nelson sailed exceptionally well, surviving bad weather in both the Thames and in the Channel and Atlantic Ocean. Her ability to hold her own saw her arrive at Capt Town without mishap whereas some of the larger ships did not make it.


Her adventures were many while on her way to Port Jackson in NSW, she was towed by the ship Brunswick after leaving Portsmouth because she could not keep up with the convoy. Sailed through a gale, was shot at by a British ship, leaked because of bad workmanship while converting her to a brig in Deadman’s Dock on the River Thames. The Lady Nelson also had members of her crew steal one of the ship’s boats in an attempt to desert. Encountered what Grant described as two perfect storms one of which had the Lady Nelson sailing perpendicular over a wave.


Lt Grant found his skills were put to many uses on his voyage to N.S.W. As a naturalist he was extremely interested in the fish and birds he observed during the voyage and he kept the crew busy on the look out for them. Grant had no other officers to assist him with navigating or a surgeon to attend any sickness or accidents on his little ship, (as he had a habit of calling her). He looked after his crew in the same manner that Captain Cook had done. He saw to it that the ship and the crew were kept clean and that they had fresh food when possible and lime juice to keep off the scurvy. Cook seemed to be a hero to Grant as he spoke of him a number of times in his journal.


One of the crew took sick in the tropics and Grant rigged up an awning on deck and looked after him himself. He also changed the men’s diet by replacing their breakfast of oatmeal with something cooler and giving them tea during the day.  Wine and spirits was replaced with beer that Grant brewed himself from essence of spruce.


After a stay over of three months at the Cape of Good Hope the Lady Nelson sailed for Port Jackson Grant took on board a prisoner of Danish descent who proved to be an excellent sailor. The other passenger was Doctor Brandt, a German surgeon who had been shipwrecked off the east coast of Africa 7 years earlier. Grant’s hope of having the company of a surgeon who was also a noted naturalist with him on this last part of his voyage was short lived as Brandt turned out to be quite eccentric and along with his two companions a dog and a baboon called Jacko, did not enhance life on board.


Before leaving the Cape Lt. Grant received instructions from His Grace the Duke of Portland from Captain Gordon aboard the Wellesley, to search for the strait between Van Diemen’s Land and New Holland and to make his passage through it.


The Wellesley was extremely lucky to have reached the Cape with government stores on board as she was pursued by a much larger French ship and fired on. If the Wellesley had been lost then Grant would not have received his orders and the Lady Nelson would have sailed around the bottom of VDL and she would not have gone down in history as being the first ship through Bass Strait from west to east.


Crossing the Indian Ocean during the Monsoon season would have been daunting even for a much larger ship than the Lady Nelson. In heavy seas, squalls, gales, rain, lighting, hail and sleet the little brig encounted everything the elements could put in her way. At one time a wave as high as her 60 foot mast almost saw the last of her. As they sailed south-west the weather improved and many whales were seen. Soon this changed and heavy rain fell and leaks were discovered below deck, which spoilt much of their bread rations.


 Her crew came to know her so well that Grant did not have to give orders, they would all come on deck immediately they sensed any variation in her sailing. Owing to her small draft and flat bottom she rose from these dangerous situations like a piece of cork on the top of every wave.


Not one of the twelve seaman was flogged on the whole voyage. It must have been a very happy ship regardless of the length of time it had taken them to complete the voyage. Three months crossing the Atlantic Ocean and nearly two months crossing the Indian Ocean.


By the middle of October the Lady Nelson neared the southern part of New Holland and sailed east towards Bass Strait.  Along the southern part of the Continent Grant named many capes and mountains after officials and friends in England, Cape Banks after Sir Joseph Banks and Nelson after the brig, Mount Schank was named for Captain John Schank plus many more as he neared Wilson’s Promontory, at the eastern end of Bass Strait.


The Lady Nelson had taken 71 days from the Cape of Good Hope. As she made her way up into Port Jackson. Grant found the approach to Sydney Town very picturesque. A small island with a house on it particularly took his eye, it was called Garden Island. Governor King was to give Lt. Grant this island for his own use while he was at Port Jackson. He later placed Dr Brandt and his dog and monkey on the island where the doctor grew vegetables for the crew on the Lady Nelson.


After they arrived at Sydney Cove the brig lost most of her crew, mainly because their wages had been cut (as was Grants) and they decided to transfer onto other ships where they would receive better pay. 


Unfortunately from then on the Lady Nelson was crewed mostly by ex-convicts and Grant was not happy to see his little ship crewed by men who did not know how to sail her. For the first time he had a sailor flogged for stealing.


The Lady Nelson was then commissioned by Governor King with Lt Grant in charge to sail her south in the hope of finding the passage into Port Phillip.


On the 6 March the Lady Nelson sailed out of Sydney Cove accompanied by the sloop Bee under Grant’s command with orders to sail south towards Jarvis Bay, where Grant went on shore and spent time with the local aborigines.


Continuing south they made Wilson’s Promontory, and turned west into Bass Strait. Because of the bad weather the expedition could go no further than Western Port where Grant planted vegetables on Churchill Island before returning to Sydney Cove on 14 May 1801.


Returning to Port Jackson Grant was ordered to take Colonial Patterson on board the Lady Nelson and sail to the Hunter River in company with the schooner Francis.


 On arriving back in Sydney Grant decided to return to England, leaving on 9 November 1801 on the Anna Josepha. Back in England he continued his career in the Royal Navy. After being made Commander of the Hawk he was wounded. He later retired to France where he died in 1833. 


From 1802 to 1824 the Lady Nelson featured in many voyages as she became one of the busiest vessels in the Colony. Her name is associated with many firsts, from VDL to the far north –River Derwent, Port Phillip, Risdon Cove, Hobart Town, Tamar River, Hunter River and Port Dundas.


Under the command of many colourful captains the Lady Nelson was for a time under the supervision of Royal Navy Officers, later she was taken over by private captains and ex-convicts who had their master’s ticket. 


In 1806 The Lady Nelson sailed to New Zealand completing her sailing of three of the large oceans, Atlantic, Indian and part of the Pacific. The following year she began her many voyages to V.D.L. transferring many of the Norfolk Islanders to the south and north of the island between 1807 and 1813.


Over the next ten years the Lady Nelson continued to sail between Sydney, Norfolk Island and Newcastle.  In 1821 she was driven ashore at Port Macquarie and holed on some rocks. There she stayed until Governor Macquarie ordered her to be hauled up on to the beach and repaired.


In 1824 accompanied by HMS Tamar the Lady Nelson was sent to Melville Island to establish the first white settlement in the north. Because of the shortage of food she was dispatched to the Timor Sea to obtain pigs. On her second voyage she was captured by pirates on the island of Babba, and all the crew were killed and the ship stripped and burnt.


It was not until later that her fate was known, when a passing ship saw her burnt out hull, with the name Lady Nelson on her stern.


So ended the life of this amazing little ship, who for 25 years served her country with pride and honour and who is still remembered today when her replica sails on the River Derwent to the delight of all who see her.


 The Journal of the voyage of the Lady Nelson from England to Port Jackson in 1800, wrtten by Lt. James Grant and published in England in 1803, can be read in full on the Lady Nelson website:  (under History)   The journal is a day to day record on board the Lady Nelson. 

Two other logs kept by the Captains on board the Lady Nelson are also on this website.
"Lady Nelson's Voyage to the River Derwent 1803"
* "Lady Nelson's Voyage from Port Jackson to Port Dalrymple 1804"

Permission was granted for these records to go on the Lady Nelson website with the help of Glyn Roberts.

* "Lt. James Grant R.N. 1772-1833 & H.M. Colonial Brig Lady Nelson 1798-1824" by Irene Schaffer.

*All three books can be obtained from Irene see book list.