|23 March 1820||The Schooner Neptune (I) sailed from The Downs, Kent, EnglandG, on Thursday, 23 March 1820 with William Wales aboard. |
On January 29th 1820, King George III died at Windsor Palace and was succeeded by his son George IV. News of this event would first arrive in Sydney aboard the ship Neptune which transported William Wailes to Port Jackson. The surgeon on the Neptune during this trip was James Mitchell , who was appointed as Surgeon Superintendent to Male Convicts on 19th February 1820 and joined his ship the Neptune that afternoon. The Neptune was being fitted out at Deptford at the time, together with the Mangles which was also to carry convicts to Port Jackson. James Mitchell, the Surgeon, kept a Journal covering his period with the Neptune and records that "Lieutenant Rice of the 46th Regiment (which is at present in India) and a detachment of the 46th Regiment consisting of a Sergeant and 30 men with 7 wives and 3 children joined the Neptune as Guards of the convicts". Lieutenant Rice had formerly been with a Regiment of Troopers called the 7th and was with them at the battle of Waterloo. Upon their arrival in Sydney these men would become part of the 48th Regiment, then situated in New South Wales.
The Neptune ran into a number of difficulties while making her departure from England. On her way down the Thames from Deptford to Woolwich, the Pilot ran her aground on the Isle of Dogs. She was extracted from there unharmed but returned to Deptford. The following day she set off again to Blackwall and then to Woolwich where they took aboard 156 convicts, 20 of whom were boys who were kept in separate accommodations to the adult convicts on the Neptune. The convicts' ages ranged from 15 to 68. Captain McKissock (a native of Ayr in Scotland) joined his ship at this point and is described by the Surgeon as "a very fine looking man, very muscular and of an athletic appearance". The Neptune then sailed for Gravesend but the same "stupid Pilot" put them on a sand bank in the river. Although the sand was soft and the Neptune was soon off again unharmed, this must have been a frightening experience for the convicts locked below decks. As the wind was now against them, they hired a Steam Boat to tow them down to Gravesend. While at Gravesend a new Pilot was taken aboard as well as the stock for the trip.
Following reports of the high number of deaths and shocking conditions in some of the early convict ships, new rules had been introduced for the transport of convicts. Ship owners were now paid for the number of convicts that arrived in good health in Sydney rather than for the number taken aboard in England, and certain conditions applied concerning food and accommodation. For instance, provision had to be made for two gallons of Port Wine per convict for the trip (given twice a week after dinner) and lemonade daily (as protection against scurvy). In his journal the Surgeon shows his disapproval of such goods being lavished upon the convicts during the trip. He writes that they had "more provisions than they could possibly consume, they even gave their overplus of porridge and pea soup to the pigs! When sick they are allowed every luxury, such as Donkins Preserved meats at 2/6 per pound ........ they are better accommodated and better fed, and more kindly treated than our brave defenders by sea and land". During the trip, schools were held for both the men and the boys. Many learned to read and write and recite passages from the Bible during the trip. The Surgeon also provided the Sunday sermons aboard ship.
The Neptune next sailed for The Downs, in the Straits of Dover between Ramsgate and Deal, but again the Surgeon reports that "before we got to Margate our Pilot 'tho a very celebrated one, continued with great dexterity to put the Ship on a sandbank, but very providentially it did not blow for if it had we must have gone to pieces". One can only imagine how the convicts were feeling after yet another grounding. The Neptune survived her third grounding, anchored at Margate for the night, reached The Downs the next morning with a firm breeze, lay to - rather than anchor - while sending ashore their final despatches and then proceeded down the English Channel. The date was Thursday 23rd March 1820.
The Neptune's run of bad luck continued as she immediately ran into violent and contrary winds that soon had most of the convicts quite sea sick or perhaps sick with fear. While other ships apparently headed for harbour, the Neptune remained at sea in the Channel. They didn't manage to clear the Lizard Point, the most southerly point in England, until about 27th March and then, after crossing the Bay of Biscay, were past Cape Finisterre, a notorious promontory in North West Spain that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and has claimed many a sailing ship heading south, and were finally into the open Atlantic with fine weather.
The Neptune passed to the Northward of the Desotas and Madeira Islands off the African coast and ran into two more violent storms; one on the 3rd May and a full hurricane on the 26th and 27th May. On the 13th May the Surgeon delivered a Private's wife of a baby girl. Nearing the Equator one Sunday, they met a ship returning to England and sent letters aboard to be carried home. A further storm with thunder and lightning and rolling seas hit them on the 13th June and on the 17th June the Surgeon delivered a second baby girl to another Private's wife. The Surgeon lamented in his journal that only one of the other women offered to assist at the birth of the two babies, even though they were in rough seas at the time. They passed the northern end of Tristan Da Cunah in the south Atlantic then steered a course along the 39th degree of latitude for St. Pauls Island in the Southern Ocean, which they located quite accurately, and straight on for Bass Strait. Ships took this course to take advantage of the "roaring forties" which gave a fast passage direct to Bass Strait. The Neptune, for instance, made an average 210 miles per day in the early days of July while running before a "fresh gale" and with following heavy seas. While such conditions provided a very fast passage, they were also very dangerous; requiring constant vigilance at the helm to avoid broaching side on to the waves and being swamped or being driven under by the following waves crashing down on the stern if sufficient speed was not maintained. You cannot afford to lose your sail to storm winds in such conditions. A number of ships suffered such a fate, and even today, yachts have been rolled and dismasted in such seas.
The Neptune sighted Cape Otway (in what is now southern Victoria) but then encountered strong head winds which prevented her from entering Bass Strait for five or six days. The Captain was ready to sail around Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania), a trip of some ten days, when the winds finally changed and they were able to sail through the Strait. The Surgeon notes that in the Strait they passed between the Island of Rodents and Crocodile Rock (a rock almost submerged and therefore difficult to see) about dusk, a dangerous passage not often taken. While sailing up the east coast of New Holland (Australia) the Neptune yet again very nearly came to grief; this time on Cape Howe. It was night and the Second Mate was sailing close to the coast at a fast rate. The Captain, who was in bed, was suddenly "seized with some presentiment" and rushed on deck to find the sea breaking over a reef of rocks extending out from the Cape immediately ahead of the ship. They only just had time to put about and avoid the reef. The Surgeon notes that the Second Mate was both "very short sighted and extremely careless".
About 2 o'clock on Saturday 15th July 1820 the Neptune was off the entrance to Botany Bay. They continued up the coast until they sighted the Port Jackson Lighthouse where they fired a gun and hoisted a flag for a Pilot. The Pilot came out in a small boat and they sailed in between the heads but were becalmed out of sight of their destination, Sydney Town. They anchored for the night near a couple of South Sea Whalers and the Surgeon notes that "in the evening the Naval Officer Captain Piper came on board, he appears a very Gentlemanly man, and is considered the most liberal, and most polite man in all the Territory, and he is most undoubtedly the most universally beloved of any man in New South Wales".
The next morning, a Sunday, the Neptune finally anchored off Sydney Town but it was to be a further fortnight before the convicts were landed and handed over to Governor Macquarie. This was partly due to the fact that the Neptune carried the first news of King George the Third's death which then required various ceremonies to be conducted, and partly because the arrival of the convicts had to be published in the Gazette and sufficient time allowed for the news to be passed to the more distant parts of the colony so that the Settlers had time to come into Sydney to collect those convicts that they might wish to have as labourers.
The Surgeon, James Mitchell, moved ashore and took lodgings with a Mr Johns, one of the first convicts to arrive in New South Wales, at an exorbitant rate of 30/- ($3) per week. During his seven week stay in the colony, James Mitchell stayed or dined with many of the colony's elite. These included:
· The Naval Officer, Captain Piper
· Commandant of the Garrison, Major Druitt
· Governor Macquarie
· Commissioner Bigge (investigating the Rum Hospital among other things)
· The Surveyor General, Lieutenant Oxley
· Mr Hamilton Hume
· Mr McArthur Senior
On the Sunday following the Neptune's arrival, Governor Macquarie proclaimed a meeting of all the Military, Naval and Civil Officers, together with the respectable part of the Colony, to attend a funeral sermon on the death of the Late King George III. On the Monday the same people gathered to proclaim the new King, George IV, and drink his health. The Military fired a Feu de Joie before the Government House.
The convicts were landed one morning about 6 o'clock, having first been outfitted in new clothing which consisted of spare military uniforms and forage caps. When lined up in the gaol for inspection by the Governor they looked more like a part of the Guard Regiment than prisoners. Governor Macquarie ordered that their red coats be taken back and dyed yellow. The Surgeon notes that no floggings had been necessary during the trip as minor punishments had sufficed. No convicts had any complaints when asked by the Governor if they had been treated correctly during the passage from England.
James Mitchell returned to England with the Neptune via Java. During the period 1820 - 1824 he made a total of three voyages to New South Wales on the Convict Ships Neptune and Guildford. On the second voyage of the Guildford in 1823 - 1824 he suffered a mental and physical collapse that resulted in his admission to the Lunatic Asylum at Haslar upon his return to England.