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By turns pessimistic, hopeful, lonely or desperate, the letters of those who travelled with the First Fleet are concerned with all aspects of the colony's growth and development, the convicts, perceptions of the officials, chronic food shorages, the growing settlement and contact with the Indigenous population.


The number of surviving, personal letters of First Fleeters written to patrons, family and friends at home in Britain is, in reality, surprisingly extensive given the size of the literate population and the method of conveying letters by sea over many months.

Before the advent of an organised postal system between Britain and New South Wales, in 1809, First Fleeters entrusted their letters to the captains of ships sailing from Sydney Cove. The first letters were sent when the ships Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn and Scarborough departed the colony on 3 May 1788 followed by the Alexander, Borrowdale, Friendship and Prince of Wales on 14 July 1788. The last ships to leave, the Fishburn and Golden Grove, sailed on 19 November 1788. Only the Supply and Sirius remained.

The collections of the State Library include letters written by Captain of Marines, James Campbell, John Campbell, Master of the Supply, David Blackburn, French astronomer, Joseph Dagelet to William Dawes, first chaplain Reverend Richard Johnson, Governor Arthur Phillip, Midshipmen Newton Fowell and Henry Waterhouse. Officer of the Marines, Ralph Clark kept copies of many of his letters in a letterbook now held in the State Library.

View the letters:

James Campbell (d. 1795?)

James Campbell embarked as Captain of Marines with the First Fleet on board the Lady Penryhn and served in New South Wales until December 1791. He took a great interest in the flora and fauna, sending natural history specimens including a kangaroo skin, and drawings by Captain John Hunter, back to his patron and Royal Navy Captain, Lord Ducie.

Campbell was one of the most disgruntled of the officers, and he was relentlessly critical of Phillip's governorship and of the settlement in general believing it could not succeed. In his first letter he attempts to give the best account `of this vile Country’. In the second, incomplete letter, probably written before he was sent to Rose Hill (now Parramatta) to make preparations for a settlement there, Campbell reiterates his negative view of the colony and its prospects.

Campbell returned to England on the Gorgon, departing December 1791.

His letters were presented to the Library by Lord Ducie, in 1938.

As a captain of the Marines, Campbell kept an orderly book recording general and regimental orders. A fragment of Campbell’s orderly book for January to February 1788 is held in the Dixson Library bequeathed by Sir William Dixson in 1952.

Read more of James Campbell's letter

About this item: 

Captain James Campbell (d. 1795?) was posted as Company Commander of the New South Wales Marine Corps in November 1786. He embarked as Captain of Marines with the First Fleet on board the Lady Penryhn. 
He served in New South Wales until December 1791. He took a great interest in the flora and fauna sending seeds, a kangaroo skin, and drawings by Captain John Hunter, back to Lord Ducie. Campbell was highly critical of Phillip's governorship and of the settlement in general, believing it could not succeed. He supervised the establishment of settlement at Rose Hill (Parramatta) and maintained a friendship with Lieutenant Ralph Clark and Major Robert Ross. 
Campbell returned to England on the Gorgon, departing December 1791. 
Lord Ducie succeeded to the title on 11 September 1785. He was a Captain in the Royal Navy.

Transcript: 

My dear Lord,

Tho’ your Lordship did not desire it, yet I take the liberty of giving you the best account in my power of this Country, as well as of the things we have met with in since our arrival.

I have no doubt but that the people in England will expect some account of our arrival here, long before it is possible they can receive any unless they hear of us from France. The reason why, I must leave to be explained by those, more in the secret, then I either am or wish to be. But it appears to me rather strange, that eight ships should have remain’d here so long, without sending some of them home, or if not home, to the nearest Port, to endeavour to procure some stock or Refreshment for us, which we are in absolute want of, having nothing but salt Provisions to subsist on. and of even this, our allowance is very scanty.

I know not why, or whither it was so intended by Administration, that the only difference between the Allowance of Provisions served to the Officer and served to the Convict, be only half a Pint (per day) of vile Rio Spirits, so offensive both in Taste and Smell, that he must be fond of drinking indeed, that can use it. but such is the fact.

I take it for granted that your Lordship is already acquainted with all our Transactions prior to our leaving the Cape of Good Hope /13th Novr - In a few days after our Governor made known his Don Quixote scheme of seperating our little Fleet, leaving them to work there way through an immense sea but little known, and

Collection 16: Lord Ducie - Letters (x 2) received from Captain James Campbell, 12 July 1788, possibly October 1788 (incomplete) -
12 July 1788, October 1788
Campbell, James, d. 1795?
Digital ID: 
a1517001
View collection item detail
About this item: 

Captain James Campbell (d. 1795?) was posted as Company Commander of the New South Wales Marine Corps in November 1786. He embarked as Captain of Marines with the First Fleet on board the Lady Penryhn. 
He served in New South Wales until December 1791. He took a great interest in the flora and fauna sending seeds, a kangaroo skin, and drawings by Captain John Hunter, back to Lord Ducie. Campbell was highly critical of Phillip's governorship and of the settlement in general, believing it could not succeed. He supervised the establishment of settlement at Rose Hill (Parramatta) and maintained a friendship with Lieutenant Ralph Clark and Major Robert Ross. 
Campbell returned to England on the Gorgon, departing December 1791. 
Lord Ducie succeeded to the title on 11 September 1785. He was a Captain in the Royal Navy.

Transcript: 

to which all were strangers. On the 26th of the same month, he Embarked himself on board the Supply Tender and left us on the same day strike he left us, strikeend ordering the Agent to follow him with three of the Transports, leaving the other six to the care of Captain Hunter in the Sirius. They were all out of sight before night. From this time we were most fortunate in fair Winds, tho’ we saw no more of each other till our arrival in Botany Bay. The Tender got there on the 16th. The Agent and his Ships, on the 19th, and the Sirius with the Division on the 20th of January 1788. Indeed so very little difference was there in the sailing of the Transports in general, that I cannot see how any other, if they arrived at all, could have been expected than our being closs at the heels of each other. The Time Peice which had been put on board the Sirius, and had been painstakingly attended to by Capatin Hunter, had been found to answer extremely well. But when the Govr went on board the Tender he carried the Time Piece with him, as if indifferent about every thing but his own safety. However, he very soon let it run down and render’d it useless for the rest of the Passage.

Our stay in Botany Bay was but very short, the first three days of which, were employ’d in looking out for some eligible spot to form our Settlement, But no promising spot being found there, the Governor determined to look at this Harbour to see what it promised, this he did in one of his Boats, and on his return, said it was, what it certainly is, as fine a Harbour as any ever seen. This discovery made us quit Botany on the 26th and got into our present Cove the same evening. The morning we left Botany Bay, two French ships of War, (L’Astrolabe and Boussole) strike which strikeend came there to refit. They were on a Voyage of Discovery, had visited

Collection 16: Lord Ducie - Letters (x 2) received from Captain James Campbell, 12 July 1788, possibly October 1788 (incomplete)
12 July 1788, October 1788
Campbell, James, d. 1795?
Digital ID: 
a1517002
View collection item detail
About this item: 

Captain James Campbell (d. 1795?) was posted as Company Commander of the New South Wales Marine Corps in November 1786. He embarked as Captain of Marines with the First Fleet on board the Lady Penryhn. 
He served in New South Wales until December 1791. He took a great interest in the flora and fauna sending seeds, a kangaroo skin, and drawings by Captain John Hunter, back to Lord Ducie. Campbell was highly critical of Phillip's governorship and of the settlement in general, believing it could not succeed. He supervised the establishment of settlement at Rose Hill (Parramatta) and maintained a friendship with Lieutenant Ralph Clark and Major Robert Ross. 
Campbell returned to England on the Gorgon, departing December 1791. 
Lord Ducie succeeded to the title on 11 September 1785. He was a Captain in the Royal Navy.

Transcript: 

[Page 3]

the West coast of America where they lost two of their Launches with their Crews. At Navigator’s Islands, they had been still more unfortunate, having had one of their Captains, many of their Officers and about forty of their Men cut off by the Natives.

As soon as we came to this place, every body in health were got on shore, and into Tents. All hands were then set to work, but without order or regularity, nobody could know what was, or ought to be done but our Principal. Every thing was to be done at the same time, and of course nothing is done but what we ought to be ashamed of. A scene of confusion ensued which we have not yet got out of, and, I much fear, never will. In short, my Lord, I do not think (entre nous) that your three Kingdoms could produce another man, in my opinion, so totally unqualified for the business he has taken in hand, as this man is. To establish an Infant Colony with any hope of success or satisfaction to those embarked in the attemp, does it not require a man of a Free, Liberal and Generous way of thinking, it surely does. This Man will be every thing himself - never, that I have heard of, communicates any part of his Plan for establishing the Colony or carrying on his work, to any one, much less, consult them, - whither it proceeds from confused ideas, or from other cause, I know not, but there is hardly a day in which the orders of the preceding are not contradicted, men are taken from one Peice of work before it is well begun, and sent to another which is again left in the same state. I must here except such things as are actually carrying on for himself, which are never suffer’d to be interfered with. Every thing that can be got hold of, is appropriated to his own use, He is

Lord Ducie - Letters (x 2) received from Captain James Campbell, 12 July 1788, possibly October 1788  View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a1517003
About this item: 

Captain James Campbell (d. 1795?) was posted as Company Commander of the New South Wales Marine Corps in November 1786. He embarked as Captain of Marines with the First Fleet on board the Lady Penryhn. 
He served in New South Wales until December 1791. He took a great interest in the flora and fauna sending seeds, a kangaroo skin, and drawings by Captain John Hunter, back to Lord Ducie. Campbell was highly critical of Phillip's governorship and of the settlement in general, believing it could not succeed. He supervised the establishment of settlement at Rose Hill (Parramatta) and maintained a friendship with Lieutenant Ralph Clark and Major Robert Ross. 
Campbell returned to England on the Gorgon, departing December 1791. 
Lord Ducie succeeded to the title on 11 September 1785. He was a Captain in the Royal Navy.

Transcript: 

[Page 4]

selfish beyond measure, in so much that even the Public Stores sent out, as we suppose, for the benefit of the Colony at large, are as far as possible, by this strange character, lookd upon as private property, to that degree that not one Article or Tool can we procure from him but what necessity compels him to give, and even then it is granted as a favour and that favour granted in such an ungracious manner that our necessitys and not our wills let us accept of them. and I may safely say that from the greatest Rascal among the Convicts, to his next in Command, some Toad Eater and Tale-bearer excepted, there is not a man but what dispises him. Is it not most extraordinary how such a man as this could have got himself talked of as he was at home.

So much for a vile subject of which your Lordship is I dare say heartily tired. I shall therefore go on to give the best account I can of this vile Country.

The Principle part of it is of a very light sandy Soil, Marshes and Rocks, with here and there small Paches of tolerable good looking Ground which, if cleared from Trees, might be brought to produce Corn. The whole surface is, as described by others, intirely covered with Trees some of which are of a very large size. Tho’ they do not stand closs to each other, yet are they as bad as if they did, for their roots run on or very near the surface, and from Tree to Tree in such a manner that there is no such thing as turning up the ground till the Trees have been removed Root and Branch. A work of infinite labour and difficulty.

All the Fresh Water we have yet found, are the drains from the Marshes, but it is exceeding good. Not a River, or any thing like one have

Lord Ducie - Letters (x 2) received from Captain James Campbell, 12 July 1788, possibly October 1788  View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a1517004
About this item: 

Captain James Campbell (d. 1795?) was posted as Company Commander of the New South Wales Marine Corps in November 1786. He embarked as Captain of Marines with the First Fleet on board the Lady Penryhn. 
He served in New South Wales until December 1791. He took a great interest in the flora and fauna sending seeds, a kangaroo skin, and drawings by Captain John Hunter, back to Lord Ducie. Campbell was highly critical of Phillip's governorship and of the settlement in general, believing it could not succeed. He supervised the establishment of settlement at Rose Hill (Parramatta) and maintained a friendship with Lieutenant Ralph Clark and Major Robert Ross. 
Campbell returned to England on the Gorgon, departing December 1791. 
Lord Ducie succeeded to the title on 11 September 1785. He was a Captain in the Royal Navy.

Transcript: 

[Page 5] 

can we find. Some Convicts who had been sent a few days ago to hunt for the Governor’s lost cows, say that they discover’d a large River, but as they could perceive no stream in it, it is probable that it was only one of the Marshes which was overflow’d by the incessant rains we have had for some weeks. I should suppose the Governor to be of the same opinion, for I cannot understand that any steps have been taken to ascertain the truth of it.

All the Trees here, meriting the name of Timber, are confin’d to two kinds, - the first is a very large, promising and beautiful Tree, perfectly straight in its Trunk, with noble spreading Branches. Its leaves have a strong aromatick taste and smell, much resembling Pepper-mint. It is hard, heavy and red in grain, and when cut, a great quantity of a kind of astringent red Gum really underline runs underlineend from it in a stream, but the Physical Gentlemen say it is of no use, neither is the Tree, for when it is Sawed it is found good for no one purpose but the fire. When exposed to the air it falls to peices like a cut Onion.

The other Tree does not grow to any considerable size, tho’ very lofty, it is likewise very hard, and grows, not unlike our Pine, but in its grain it is much more of the Oak. This Tree if it could be found sound might be useful underline here underlineend in building, but not one in a thousand can we find but what is rotten at the heart, yet of those, with the assistance of the Cabbage Tree, of which we have not left one within a dozen of Miles of us, are we from necessity obliged to errect such Hutts as we are now making for ourselves. Our variety of Shrubs is great, and some of them most beautiful, from those, I intend collecting

Collection 16: Lord Ducie - Letters (x 2) received from Captain James Campbell, 12 July 1788, possibly October 1788 (incomplete)
12 July 1788, October 1788
Ducie, Francis Reynolds Morton, 3rd Baron, 1739-1808
Digital ID: 
a1517005
View collection item detail

John Campbell

John Campbell travelled with the First Fleet to New South Wales. He returned to England on the Lady Penryhn which left Sydney in May 1788, travelling via Lord Howe Island, Tahiti, China and St Helena. Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth, who also returned to England on the Lady Penryhn, recorded 32 crew members in his journal but does not include John Campbell.

This letter was written at sea by John Campbell to his parents on his return voyage to England from New South Wales on board the Lady Penrhyn. He describes the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay then Port Jackson, and the passage of the Lady Penrhyn to England. The letter is addressed to `Mr John Bell Writter Ayre North Britain', ie Scotland. It may be a copy intended for publication. Nothing more is known of Campbell.

William Dawes (1762-1836)

Astronomer William Dawes volunteered for service with the First Fleet. He was attached to the Marines on board the Sirius and supplied with astronomical books and instruments at the recommendation of Astronomer Royal, Reverend Dr Nevil Maskelyne.

In Sydney Cove he was employed on shore from March 1788. He built an observatory at Dawes Point and also worked as engineer and surveyor. He was part of Philip Gidley King's party sent to welcome the French expedition of La Perouse after their arrival in Botany Bay when he would have met Joseph Lepaute Dagelet (1751-1788?), the astronomer with the French expedition.

This letter is written by Dagelet to Dawes at Botany Bay shortly before the departure and disappearance of La Perouse's entire expedition. Dagelet probably perished in the wreck of La Perouse's ships off the Vanikoro Islands in 1788. He writes of his regret at not being able to visit the site of Dawes' observatory before he leaves, and comments extensively on Dawes' plans for his observatory. The letter is testament to the scientific collaboration between the British and French.

The letter was presented to the Library in 1915.

About this item: 

William Dawes (1762-1836) volunteered for service with the First Fleet and was attached to the Marines on board the Sirius.
A competent astronomer, he was supplied with astronomical books and instruments at the recommendation of Astronomer Royal, Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne. In Sydney Cove he was employed on shore from March 1788 and built an observatory at Dawes Point. He also worked as engineer and surveyor.
He was part of Philip Gidley King's party sent to welcome the French expedition of La Perouse after their arrival in Botany Bay when he would have met Joseph Lepaute Dagelet (1751-1788?), the astronomer with the French expedition. This letter is written to Dawes from Botany Bay shortly before the departure and disappearance of La Perouse's entire expedition. Dagelet probably perished at the Vanikoro Islands in 1788. Dagelet writes of his regret at not being able to visit the site of Dawes' observatory before he leaves, and comments extensively on Dawes' plans for his observatory.

Transcript: 

Translation

Joseph Lepaute Dagelet to William Dawes

At Botany Bay on 3 March 1788

It is with much regret that I see myself on the point of leaving you without any hope of going to visit your observatory. Mr de La Perouse claims that I am too weak to undertake such a long expedition, and the zeal he shows for my health makes it my duty to agree with him. M. Boutin [Charles Fantin de Boutin, a senior officer on La Boussole] has easily explained to me the plan you have chosen and that you are currently having carried out. I find that your q.c.[quart de cercle, i.e. quadrant] is perfectly well placed and leaves nothing to be desired from any point of view. Will you cover it with a little cone-shaped dome which turns on itself? This is something very handy for the observer, and would also protect you from the humidity of the air at night, which I would strongly recommend to you for the sake of your health. You could have it constructed in tin or iron sheeting if you have a shortage of carpenters.

I would also like your clock to be located in a such a way that you can see the face and the second hand when you stand on the platform of the q.c. As far as possible you should avoid comparisons or the need to make comparisons on machines of this order ? this will mean less discussion about your reductions and greater simplicity in your journals. Never forget to note the slightest verifications, the slightest changes and any improvements to your instruments, as such a circumstance will add confidence in those who like to argue, it will save you all those "ifs" and "buts" of disputatious people. This, Sir, is advice you doubtless do not need, and I am only offering it to you because of the absolute certainty I have that you will see it as a proof of my sincerest friendship for you and my concern for all your interests.

Permit me now to offer you a picture of the research topics which your enthusiasm and insights would make interesting and useful to science. Your integrity would bring a very special quality and true certainty. You are aware that scientists are still divided on the question: are the tides at the Equinox more powerful than the tides at the Solstice? Are they equal, or what is their force? Theory would seem to render them stronger at the solstice of Capricorn, but as far as I know nothing definitive has been observed on this question. You know that a well graduated rule [= tide pole] on a headland which does not dry out etc. the winds, and thermometers are necessary to follow in this sort of research. The strength or violence of the winds in this hemisphere would be of interest 

Joseph Lepaute Dagelet - Letter to William Dawes, 3 March 1788 View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a1297001
About this item: 

William Dawes (1762-1836) volunteered for service with the First Fleet and was attached to the Marines on board the Sirius.
A competent astronomer, he was supplied with astronomical books and instruments at the recommendation of Astronomer Royal, Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne. In Sydney Cove he was employed on shore from March 1788 and built an observatory at Dawes Point. He also worked as engineer and surveyor.
He was part of Philip Gidley King's party sent to welcome the French expedition of La Perouse after their arrival in Botany Bay when he would have met Joseph Lepaute Dagelet (1751-1788?), the astronomer with the French expedition. This letter is written to Dawes from Botany Bay shortly before the departure and disappearance of La Perouse's entire expedition. Dagelet probably perished at the Vanikoro Islands in 1788. Dagelet writes of his regret at not being able to visit the site of Dawes' observatory before he leaves, and comments extensively on Dawes' plans for his observatory.

Transcript: 

to Physics. You can easily imagine a means, Sir, to oppose to its action a perfect surface of a clearly determined size, whose force would press a spring or would move a weight which would give the relationships in all circumstances. It would be necessary to ensure carefully that this surface moves only on a horizontal plane and that it be perpendicular to the lie of the wind. These sorts of observations have never been made properly nor have they been followed up. It is possible that great benefits to naval design would result from such research. I have no doubt that you could find much simpler things than the ones I would put on paper ? your very construction will provide you with some.

If at some future stage in the development of your establishment it were possible for you to procure a sector with a radius of 6 to 8 feet, a grander enterprise, and one more worthy of your merit, would be to attempt to measure a degree of the meridian under this hemisphere. That was the greatest wish of the Academy and also my own at the outset of this campaign ? I did not despair of completing this task within 4 months, provided that the position was favourable. You know that there is a host of good books on this topic, Bouguer's for an Astronomer seems to me the best. [Pierre Bouguer, 1698-1758, author of La Figure de la terre, déterminée par les observations de Messieurs Bouguer et de La Condamine, [...] envoyés par ordre du Roy au Pérou pour observer aux environs de l'équateur [...], Paris: C.-A. Jombert, 1749]

If in your purely astronomical inquiries you would devote time to the comparative research of the right ascension of the Sun and some of the stars which provide the setting of cœlum Australis, that would be of particular interest to me, and if you judged it appropriate, I would offer it on your behalf to the Academy of Sciences. If you were to observe some of Venus's conjunctions, either superior or inferior, you know perhaps that I have studied its movements and intend to return to this research one day.

The daily variations of the magnetic needle preoccupies many minds in Europe. I have had the honour of telling you what this research amounted to. An 8 or 10 inch needle in a wooden box safely placed on one of the blocks which follow your observatory would provide a stable point to fix it firmly.

I have always wished to meet with you again to clarify these questions but I fear that I have been too lengthy already and I therefore conclude by sending you the longitude and latitude at Botany Bay:

latit. 33o 59´ 10" long. 149o 6´ 30" This is the position of our observatory. 
+ 2.19.0_
151.25.30

Please present my compliments to all your gentlemen and to Cpt Hunter. I profit from the presence of your seamen to send you my farewells and my very sincere offers of service in France for everything you would find me capable of.

Joseph Lepaute Dagelet - Letter to William Dawes, 3 March 1788 View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a1297002
About this item: 

William Dawes (1762-1836) volunteered for service with the First Fleet and was attached to the Marines on board the Sirius.
A competent astronomer, he was supplied with astronomical books and instruments at the recommendation of Astronomer Royal, Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne. In Sydney Cove he was employed on shore from March 1788 and built an observatory at Dawes Point. He also worked as engineer and surveyor.
He was part of Philip Gidley King's party sent to welcome the French expedition of La Perouse after their arrival in Botany Bay when he would have met Joseph Lepaute Dagelet (1751-1788?), the astronomer with the French expedition. This letter is written to Dawes from Botany Bay shortly before the departure and disappearance of La Perouse's entire expedition. Dagelet probably perished at the Vanikoro Islands in 1788. Dagelet writes of his regret at not being able to visit the site of Dawes' observatory before he leaves, and comments extensively on Dawes' plans for his observatory.

Transcript: 

I take advantage of the offer you made to me and I would be obliged to you if you would forward or have sent to England the packet which I addressed to M. de la Lande [Director, Paris Observatory] and a letter to the Royal Military School. The latter can be entrusted to the Post but I would ask you to be so kind as to forward that of M. de la Lande to Mr de Maskeline [Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal] for him to pass it on to him, or, if you would prefer, to Doctor Sepherd, [probably Anthony Shepherd, Professor of Astronomy, Cambridge] putting a second envelope over the other, and addressing it either to the Minister in Paris or to the Minister of War.

You see, Sir, that I somewhat abuse your kindness. I have presented your compliments to Mr de la Perouse and to our gentlemen, and I am charged with expressing their general gratitude.

P.S. This morning we sent back a seaman who was almost the victim of the natives. Without the help of our chasseurs who went to his rescue it is probable that he would have been overcome by numbers. Please be so kind, Sir, in your travels to think that they, these natives, merit only a very limited measure of trust, their good faith is suspect, and I urge you not to venture too far without your weapons.

Dagelet sends his regards to Mr Donis [Dawes]. He would be flattered to go and get his errands for him in Europe, and he will do it if he can be relieved of some of his duties before his departure; he has not forgotten which topics of research hold the greatest interest for scientists at the present time. He also intends to send him the results of his observations on longitude and latitude at Botany Bay. Latitude will diverge little from 33o 59´0" and longitude from 149o 2 or. Paris, but he will send them to him and will take the liberty of sending a dispatch for his journal before his departure ? In any eventuality he presents his compliments to Mr Donis and is jealous that he will go without having the honour of presenting his respects and without admiring the foundations of the Maskeline Observatory. We have drunk your collective health.

Translated by Professor Ivan Barko, 2005

Joseph Lepaute Dagelet - Letter to William Dawes, 3 March 1788 View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a1297003


Newton Fowell (1768-1790)

Born in Devonshire, England, Newton Fowell had been recommended to Captain Arthur Phillip by Evan Nepean, and he quickly impressed Phillip. He was befriended by Philip Gidley King who, during the voyage to New South Wales, confided his appointment as Lieutenant Governor of Norfolk Island. He was promoted Second Lieutenant in December 1789.

Fowell’s letters to his family describe the voyage to New South Wales and the founding years of the colony, discipline in the colony and on Norfolk Island, the flora and fauna, local Aborignal people, food shortages and public buildings. Interestingly, in a long letter dated 12 July 1788, he recorded that Phillip named the settlement Albion rather than Sydney on 4 June 1788, the King's birthday.

In April 1790, prevented by bad weather from landing at Norfolk Island as had been planned, Fowell was forced to continue to Batavia on the Supply on a mission to procure supplies.

In Batavia, he contracted fever and died at sea on 25 August 1790.

His last letter, written to his family on 31 July 1790, reached England in December 1790. His letters were preserved in the family home, Blackhall in Devon, until 1987 when they were acquired by the Library.

Reverend Richard Johnson (1753-1827)

The Reverend Richard Johnson was appointed the first Church of England chaplain to the colony of New South Wales in 1787. He held this appointment until 1800 when he returned to England with his family and Governor John Hunter on HMS Buffalo

Johnson owed his appointment to friends within the London Eclectic Society: a group of evangelical clery and laymen interested in mission and prison reform. William Wilberforce, John Newton and John and Henry Thornton were among its leaders.

On 3 February, 1788 he conducted the first divine service in Sydney 'under some trees' or 'a great tree' and preached from the text 'What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me' (Psalm 116:12).

For six years, Johnson carried out all the clerical duties in the colony, conducting services out in the open or in storehouses in Sydney and Parramatta and presided over all the baptisms, marriages and burials in the colony. He worked with dedication amongst the convict population, along with ministering to condemned men at executions.

He supported Governor Phillip's policy of befriending the Indigenous population in Sydney by having Abaroo, an Indigenous girl, live with his family. 

In November 1788, Richard Johnson wrote to Henry Fricker of Portsmouth, England, a friend of the Johnson family. Henry Fricker was one of a group of Portsmouth and Lymington friends of the Reverend Johnson, and acted as a channel for English news once Johnson and his wife Mary had left on the First Fleet convict transport Golden Grove in 1787.

Amongst personal news, Johnson describes the arrangements for religious observances at Rose Hill, the Governor's reluctance to build a church and the irreligious lives of the convicts. The letter is from a series of correspondence from Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker between May 30, 1787 to August 10, 1797.

The letters were presented to the Mitchell Library in 1917.

Letters from the Rev. Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker, 30 May 1787-10 Aug. 1797

About this item: 

The Rev. Richard Johnson was appointed as the first chaplain to the colony of New South Wales in 1787, an appointment he held until 1800 when he returned with his family and Governor John Hunter on HMS Buffalo. Henry Fricker, Portsmouth, England, was one of a group of Portsmouth and Lymington friends of the Rev. Johnson, and acted as a channel for news once Johnson and his wife Mary had left on the First Fleet convict transport Golden Grove in 1787. Johnson owed his appontment to friends within the London Eclectic Society, notably the Rev. John Newton, the Rev. Henry Foster, William Wilberforce and John and Henry Thornton.

Transcript: 

Port Jackson - New South Wales 
April 9th, 1790. - 
Dear friend, 
Tis now a long long time since I have been able to write to or hear from you. - Am happy however to embrace this fresh opportunity of scribbling over a few Lines to you to inform you we are still alive & well, but have had many ups & downs, Changes & Visissitudes of Providence since we left England - & I can only tell you, that sd. we be so fortunate as to set out feet upon English Ground again, I think it wd. not be a little that sd. induce us to venture a second time upon the deep & mighty ocean. I dont speak this by way of murmuring & complaining - I still believe this is God's appointment, & this is a sufficient argument to silence every objection or Complaint. - I will now give you a little information respecting our situation, wch, you will find not the most comfortable in the world. - 
Tis now about two Years and three Months since we first arrived at this distant Country - All this while we have been as it were buried alive - never having an opportunity of hearing from our fds. - The Sirius frigate has once since that period been at the Cape of Good Hope, & this means we have had a little information of publick affairs, but this is very small. 
It was fortunate for us however that the Sirius has had a Voyage to the Cape, for otherwise we sd. have been very precariously situated. - Our stock of Provisions brought from England, is nearly exhausted, & as to flour - we sd. have been without any for some Months had it not been for the supply we recd. by her from the Cape - This Providence appears still greater as she was very nearly cast away by Dieman's Land as she returned here. - Had this been the Case our situation here must have been deplorable. –

Collection 18: Letters from the Rev. Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker, 30 May 1787-10 Aug. 1797, with associated items, ca. 1888
1787-1797
Fricker, Henry
Digital ID: 
a1769022
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About this item: 

The Rev. Richard Johnson was appointed as the first chaplain to the colony of New South Wales in 1787, an appointment he held until 1800 when he returned with his family and Governor John Hunter on HMS Buffalo. Henry Fricker, Portsmouth, England, was one of a group of Portsmouth and Lymington friends of the Rev. Johnson, and acted as a channel for news once Johnson and his wife Mary had left on the First Fleet convict transport Golden Grove in 1787. Johnson owed his appontment to friends within the London Eclectic Society, notably the Rev. John Newton, the Rev. Henry Foster, William Wilberforce and John and Henry Thornton.

Transcript: 

We have been anxiously looking out for a fleet for a long time, but hitherto none has appeared, & 'tis now generally conjectured that the fleet expected is either lost or taken by some Enemy. - Our hopes now are almost vanished, & every one begins to think our situation not a little alarming. - This is increased by the following Melancholy Providence - The Sirius was intended to be sent off about this time to Canton in China for the purpose of taking up some Vessels & bringing us a supply of Provisions - But previous to her doing this, she together with the Supply Tender, was sent to Norfolk were she was drove ashore upon the Rocks or Reef, & foundered. - Fortunately no lives were lost, & it is hoped the greatest part of the Provisions will be saved. - The Supply returned here on the 5th inst. with this News. - This cast a further Damp upon every Countenance. - A Publick Council was called by the Governor on the same eveng to see what measures had best to be adopted in consequence of the loss of the Sirius, & the present scarcity of Provisions 'till a supply arrived here either from Europe or elsewhere. - In Consequence of this Council the greatest part of publick work is to be dropped. - All Boats belonging to individuals are to made use of for the publick. Officers are to superintend this fishing Business in their turn, amongst whom I am to take an active part; sometimes to go down this Harbour, & sometimes to Botany Bay. - Others are to employed in raising Vegetables, Potatoes &c, &c - & some are to shoot for the publick, & whatever is caught, either Fish, fowles, or Kangaroo is to be served out in lieu of Salt provisions. - Several Hoggs have been already killed, & sold to Government at 1d. per lb , & this likewise served out in the room of salt provisions. - As an individual I am as well off as Most. Have plenty of Vegetables, Potatoes, &c., wch. I feel of essential service, & wch. are chiefly the fruits of my own hard labour. - Had not we something of this to help out , you may judge how we sd. now do upon the Pension of 2 lbs. of Pork - 2½ lbs. of flour - 1 lb. Rice - & a pints of pease per Week. - This is the utmost allowed us, & when served fish &c the Pork stopped, - 
The Supply is going to Batavia in the course of a very few days, where she is to take up some Vessels & purchase pro[visions]

Collection 18: Letters from the Rev. Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker, 30 May 1787-10 Aug. 1797, with associated items, ca. 1888
1787-1797
Fricker, Henry
Digital ID: 
a1769023
View collection item detail
About this item: 

The Rev. Richard Johnson was appointed as the first chaplain to the colony of New South Wales in 1787, an appointment he held until 1800 when he returned with his family and Governor John Hunter on HMS Buffalo. Henry Fricker, Portsmouth, England, was one of a group of Portsmouth and Lymington friends of the Rev. Johnson, and acted as a channel for news once Johnson and his wife Mary had left on the First Fleet convict transport Golden Grove in 1787. Johnson owed his appontment to friends within the London Eclectic Society, notably the Rev. John Newton, the Rev. Henry Foster, William Wilberforce and John and Henry Thornton.

Transcript: 

[pro]visions for the settlement. - This supply we hope to receive in about six or seven Months, if it please God no misfortune attends her. - Two Persons are going from hence to England by whom I shall send my Letters. - One of these is the Commissary who will take up more Vessels at the Cape in Case a fleet has not yet touched there. - Such is our state of affairs as a Colony. - As to my family, we are in a thriving way - Mrs. J. has had a second Child. - The first was a Boy, but still Born. - The latter is a Girl, a sweet Babe about five weeks old - Have had baptized already - Had you been here you sd. if you pleased have stood as sponsors. - Have given it the name of Milbah Maria, {Milbah a name amongst the Natives}. - Have a Native Girl under my Care - Have had her now about 11 Months - She was brought in here with three others dreadfully afflicted with the Small Pox. The two men died - Abaroo { the name of the Girl} & a Boy, {Nanbarry} recovered, the latter is with the Surgeon General. - Three more have been brought in by force, one of which died of the above disorder after he had been in the Camp several Months & had become reconciled to the Camp - a second made his escape - & a third O-gul-[..?], or Benelong {for they in general have many names} is still at the Governors & has become very communicative & affable. - Have taken some pains with Abaroo {about 15 Years old} to instruct her in reading, & have no reason to complain of her improvement - she can likewise begin to speak a little English, & is useful in several things about our little Hutt. - 
Have taught her the Lord's Prayer &c - & as she comes better to understand me, endeavour to instruct her respecting a supreme Being &c. - Wish to see these poor heathen brought to the Knowlege of X'tianity, & hope in time to see or hear of the dawnings of that time when these shall be given for our Lord's inheritage, & the uttermost parts of the earth for his Possession.- But little apparent fruit yet amongst the Convicts, &c - Oh that they were wise - but, alass! Nothing seems to alarm or [..?] them. - Trust I have been in some degree faithful, & believe that God's word will not return to him void. - I need not tell you I am in great haste - the scribble & the inaccuracies of the above lines testify it - Have much to do before the Supply sails - On Monday I am appointed to go a fishing, so therefore

Collection 18: Letters from the Rev. Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker, 30 May 1787-10 Aug. 1797, with associated items, ca. 1888
1787-1797
Fricker, Henry
Digital ID: 
a1769024
View collection item detail
About this item: 

The Rev. Richard Johnson was appointed as the first chaplain to the colony of New South Wales in 1787, an appointment he held until 1800 when he returned with his family and Governor John Hunter on HMS Buffalo. Henry Fricker, Portsmouth, England, was one of a group of Portsmouth and Lymington friends of the Rev. Johnson, and acted as a channel for news once Johnson and his wife Mary had left on the First Fleet convict transport Golden Grove in 1787. Johnson owed his appontment to friends within the London Eclectic Society, notably the Rev. John Newton, the Rev. Henry Foster, William Wilberforce and John and Henry Thornton.

Transcript: 

[Lower page writing] 
it is impossible I sd. satisfy the wishes of all my fds. Must beg you to communicate the Contents of this Letter to my fds. at Lymington, Boldre, Priestlands, & the Isle of White, with our united & cordial Love to every one that enquires after us - And be sure not to forget to remember us to our dear Portsmouth fds. - Our hearts are with you - We often talk of you - pray for you, & wish you prosperity of Body & Soul. - Know not when I shall be able to repay you for past favours - These however I trust I bear in grateful Remembrances & hope sometime to make you some small return, - Dont fail to let me hear from 
[Upper page writing] 
you, if in nothing else, here remember I stand Creditor. - I long to hear from you - Much more to see you, but when or whether ever this shall be God only knows - & if we never see each other here again, I trust we shall soon meet in a better world when we shall part no more for ever. - Am with real X'tain esteem & affection 
Your truly obliged fd. & well wisher 
Richd. Johnson -

Collection 18: Letters from the Rev. Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker, 30 May 1787-10 Aug. 1797, with associated items, ca. 1888
1787-1797
Fricker, Henry
Digital ID: 
a1769025
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Arthur Phillip (1738-1814)

Governor Arthur Phillip diligently wrote letters while enroute to New South Wales. The first letter he wrote from the colony was on 2 July 1788 to Sir Joseph Banks. He wrote and sent two copies of this letter to increase the chances of its safe delivery by long sea voyage. Phillip's letters to Sir Joseph Banks were bequeathed to the Library by David Scott Mitchell in 1907.

In a long letter written to William Petty, Marquis of Lansdowne the following day, 3 July, Phillip records his first impressions of the Indigenous inhabitants and explains his reasons for establishing the settlement at Sydney Cove, rather than Botany Bay as directed. Sydney Cove offered a fresh water supply and a safe harbour. Phillip’s letter was acquired in 2003. 

He famously describes Sydney Harbour:
'here a Thousand Sail of the Line may ride in the most perfect Security.’

Letter from Arthur Phillip to the Marquis of Lansdowne

About this item: 

Arthur Phillip was appointed first Governor of the colony of New South Wales on 12 October 1786. He was commander of the First Fleet which sailed from Spithead on 31 May 1787 and disembarked at Port Jackson, New South Wales, on 26 January 1788. In December 1792, Phillip returned to England, resigning his post as Governor on 23 July 1793. He died in 1814. 
William Petty, 1st Marquis of Lansdowne and 2nd Earl of Shelburne, was a British politician. Both he and Phillip were associated with a group advocating free trade.

Transcript: 

The Marquis of Lansdown

My Lord

As I was unwilling to trouble Your Lordship with letters that could only contain assurances of respect, I defer'd writing till I arrived in this Country. the few extracts from my journal, is all the information I am able to give your Lordship, at present, of the Natives; who never come to us & with whom I have never been able to remain but a very short time. the Rains now fall very heavy, & many of the Natives find it difficult to support themselves, as few fish are caught. I shall be able to give a better account of the Country when I have visited Lansdown Hills - they form part of a Range of Mountains that appear to be fifty miles in land & on which I have in

Collection 19: Letter from Arthur Phillip to the Marquis of Lansdowne, 3 July 1788
3 July 1788
Phillip, Arthur, 1738-1814
Digital ID: 
a567001
View collection item detail
About this item: 

Arthur Phillip was appointed first Governor of the colony of New South Wales on 12 October 1786. He was commander of the First Fleet which sailed from Spithead on 31 May 1787 and disembarked at Port Jackson, New South Wales, on 26 January 1788. In December 1792, Phillip returned to England, resigning his post as Governor on 23 July 1793. He died in 1814. 
William Petty, 1st Marquis of Lansdowne and 2nd Earl of Shelburne, was a British politician. Both he and Phillip were associated with a group advocating free trade.

Transcript: 

a late excursion seen Smoke; which, with my having traced the Natives thirty miles towards these Hills, leaves no doubt but that there are Inhabitants in the interiour parts of the Country. I thought these Hills worthy the Name I have giving them, and at the foot of which I flatter my self that I shall find a River, that communicates with the Sea, at no great distance from Port Jackson, which I have preferd to Botany bay as affording a more eligible Situation for the Colony, & being with out exception the finest Harbour in the World. my reason for thinking there must be a large River, is the having found pools of water which did not appear to be formed in the Rainy Season. the want of time prevented ye tracing them to their Sauce.

The Woods by which we are surrounded are not removed but with a labour of which no Idea can be formed, & unfortunately the Timber is only fit for fire wood, & I was obliged to fix on this Spot, on account of Water which in the dry Season is scarce, as here are not any Runs of fresh water but

Collection 19: Letter from Arthur Phillip to the Marquis of Lansdowne, 3 July 1788
3 July 1788
Phillip, Arthur, 1738-1814
Digital ID: 
a567002
View collection item detail
About this item: 

Arthur Phillip was appointed first Governor of the colony of New South Wales on 12 October 1786. He was commander of the First Fleet which sailed from Spithead on 31 May 1787 and disembarked at Port Jackson, New South Wales, on 26 January 1788. In December 1792, Phillip returned to England, resigning his post as Governor on 23 July 1793. He died in 1814. 
William Petty, 1st Marquis of Lansdowne and 2nd Earl of Shelburne, was a British politician. Both he and Phillip were associated with a group advocating free trade.

Transcript: 

what are drains from the Marshes, form'd in the Rainy Season. Botany bay, offerd no Security for large Ships, here a Thousand Sail of the Line may ride in the most perfect Security.

the clearing the ground will be a Work of time & it will be four Years at least, before this Colony will be able to support itself, & perhaps no Country in the World affords less assistance to first Settlers. still, My Lord, I think that perseverance will answer evry purpose proposed by Government, & that this Country will hereafter be a most Valuable acquisition to Great Brittain from its situation.

It has been my determination from the time I landed, never to fire on the Natives, but in a case of absolute necessity, & I have been so fortunate as to have avoided it hitherto. I think they deserve a better Character than what they will receive from Monsr. La Perouse, who was under the disagreable necessity of

Collection 19: Letter from Arthur Phillip to the Marquis of Lansdowne, 3 July 1788
3 July 1788
Phillip, Arthur, 1738-1814
Digital ID: 
a567003
View collection item detail
About this item: 

Arthur Phillip was appointed first Governor of the colony of New South Wales on 12 October 1786. He was commander of the First Fleet which sailed from Spithead on 31 May 1787 and disembarked at Port Jackson, New South Wales, on 26 January 1788. In December 1792, Phillip returned to England, resigning his post as Governor on 23 July 1793. He died in 1814. 
William Petty, 1st Marquis of Lansdowne and 2nd Earl of Shelburne, was a British politician. Both he and Phillip were associated with a group advocating free trade.

Transcript: 

firing on them. I think better of them from having been more with them. they do not in my opinion want personal Courage, they very readily place a confidence & are, I believe, strictly honest amongst themselves.

most of the Men wanting the Right front tooth in the Upper Jaw, & most of the Women wanting the first & second joints of the little finger of the left hand, are circumstances not observed in Capt. Cooks Voyage.

Your Lordship will I hope do me the justice to believe me fully sensible of the polite attention I receiv'd when leaving England, & permit me the honor of subscribing my self with the greatest Respect & esteem

My Lord
Your Lordships
Obliged & Most Obedient
Humble Servant

A Phillip

Sydney Cove
July 3d. 1788.

Collection 19: Letter from Arthur Phillip to the Marquis of Lansdowne, 3 July 1788
3 July 1788
Arthur Phillip, 1738-1814
Digital ID: 
a567004
View collection item detail

Henry Waterhouse (c. 1770-1812)

In his first long letter from Sydney Cove, on 11 July 1788, Henry Waterhouse gives a detailed account of the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay and the establishment of the settlement in Sydney Cove. He reports Henry Lidgbird Ball's discovery of Lord Howe Island, describes Sydney's Aboriginal inhabitants and the colony's plants and animals. Waterhouse was one of the British party to meet with the French expedition, led by the Comte de La Perouse, which landed at Botany Bay only days after the arrival of the First Fleet.

He was present at the founding of the settlement on Norfolk Island and witnessed the spearing of Governor Phillip at Manly on 7 September 1790.

The letters were acquired in 1998.

Read further correspondence by Henry Waterhouse

Waterhouse family papers

About this item: 

William Waterhouse was a page to the Duke of Cumberland. He married Susanna Brewer. They had twelve children including Henry, one of whose godparents was the Duke of Cumberland, and Elizabeth, who married George Bass. William Waterhouse corresponded with Henry, Elizabeth and George Bass. Henry Waterhouse wrote long informative letters to his father which now form an important record of early events in New South Wales and Norfolk Island.

William Waterhouse - Letters written by Henry Waterhouse to his father, 1788-1801; and other papers, 1782-1803 View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a603001
About this item: 

William Waterhouse was a page to the Duke of Cumberland. He married Susanna Brewer. They had twelve children including Henry, one of whose godparents was the Duke of Cumberland, and Elizabeth, who married George Bass. William Waterhouse corresponded with Henry, Elizabeth and George Bass. Henry Waterhouse wrote long informative letters to his father which now form an important record of early events in New South Wales and Norfolk Island.

William Waterhouse - Letters written by Henry Waterhouse to his father, 1788-1801; and other papers, 1782-1803 View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a603002
About this item: 

William Waterhouse was a page to the Duke of Cumberland. He married Susanna Brewer. They had twelve children including Henry, one of whose godparents was the Duke of Cumberland, and Elizabeth, who married George Bass. William Waterhouse corresponded with Henry, Elizabeth and George Bass. Henry Waterhouse wrote long informative letters to his father which now form an important record of early events in New South Wales and Norfolk Island.

William Waterhouse - Letters written by Henry Waterhouse to his father, 1788-1801; and other papers, 1782-1803 View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a603003
About this item: 

William Waterhouse was a page to the Duke of Cumberland. He married Susanna Brewer. They had twelve children including Henry, one of whose godparents was the Duke of Cumberland, and Elizabeth, who married George Bass. William Waterhouse corresponded with Henry, Elizabeth and George Bass. Henry Waterhouse wrote long informative letters to his father which now form an important record of early events in New South Wales and Norfolk Island.

William Waterhouse - Letters written by Henry Waterhouse to his father, 1788-1801; and other papers, 1782-1803 View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a603004
About this item: 

William Waterhouse was a page to the Duke of Cumberland. He married Susanna Brewer. They had twelve children including Henry, one of whose godparents was the Duke of Cumberland, and Elizabeth, who married George Bass. William Waterhouse corresponded with Henry, Elizabeth and George Bass. Henry Waterhouse wrote long informative letters to his father which now form an important record of early events in New South Wales and Norfolk Island.

William Waterhouse - Letters written by Henry Waterhouse to his father, 1788-1801; and other papers, 1782-1803 View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a603005