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A direct north general view of Sydney Cove, the chief British settlement in New South Wales as it appeared in 1794, being the 7th year from its establishment. Painted immediately from nature by T. Watling

From Terra Australis to Australia

In May 1787 the British government sent the First Fleet 20,000 kilometres around the world to establish a  British colony in New South Wales.

Letters home

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.

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


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.

John Campbell - Letter to his parents, 9 August 1789

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.



Newton Fowell (1768-1790)

Item 18: Letter received by John Fowell from Newton Fowell, 12 July 1788

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. 

Reverend Richard Johnson

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


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.

Captain Arthur Phillip, 1786 , by Francis Wheatley

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


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




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