- Nicholson, Ian
- Early warships, History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1999 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
AN ATLANTIC CONVOY IN 1798-1799 INCLUDING THE CONVICT TRANSPORT HILLSBOROUGH BOUND FOR BOTANY BAY (Log extracts, HMS Amphion, Captain R.H.A. Bennett – P.R.O. Adm. 51/1264 – entries noon to noon)
England was at war with France and British merchant ships were escorted clear of the Channel approaches and European waters at least. Amphion, at Spithead in Dec 1798 and proceeding to the “Cape Station”, was designated as the sole escort.
- 18.12.98: (Selected log extracts only) Sailed HMS Grampus with a Convoy to the East.
- 19.12.98: Made signal for the Convoy to unmoor (after false start due to weather on 15th).
- 20.12.98: Unmoored Ship, Signalled Convoy to weigh; 5pm to anchor again. At 8am Signal Convoy to weigh. At 9 weighed and made sail, at 11 hove to at St. Helens. Made sail 16 ships in Convoy. Signalled the Hillsborough to make more sail.
- 21.12.98: Convoy in company … brought to and board(ed) a Danish Cutter from Dartmouth bound to Gottenburgh: made the signal for Convoy to bear up for Portland, at noon Portland Bill, East. Double Reefed the Topsails.
- 22.12.98: Light breezes and clear wr. Spoke a Brig bound to Dublin. Made signal for Sternmost Ships to make more sail. At 3.30 anchor(ed) in Portland Roads in 7fms, brought to and boarded a Schooner from Weymouth bound Jersey.
- 23.12.98: AM. Calm, shortened in Cable. Lt breezes 7 weighing, at 8 convoy made sail.
- 24.12.98: Fresh breezes at 4.30 Burry Hd N by W, Start Pt W by N. Double reefed the Topsails Convoy in Co. Struck Top Gallant masts, etc. Ship very laboursome.
- 25.12.98: Strong breezes and squally. Made signal for Convoy to close. Noon strong gales.
- 26.12.98: Strong Gales … AM. less wind. 10 Sail of Convoy in Sight … Moderate.
- 27.12.98: Strong Gales … Convoy much scattered, very squally. At noon C. Finisterre S13 E, 69 Leagues. Made signal to ware&wore ship. 11 Sail of Convoy in sight.
The above extracts will indicate the general nature of the long entries. Space does not permit publishing the whole. Convoy work, whether under sail (1798-99) or steam (1939-45) had many similarities e.g. “20.12.98: Signalled Hillsborough to make more sail” 22.12.98: Made signal for sternmost ships to make more sail” 27.12.98: Strong gales … Convoy much scattered…” The investigation of strange sail appeared to be very thorough. Perhaps induced by the lure of prize money! The following comments on the voyage are interesting.
The Hillsborough was a full-rigged ship of 764 tons which was quite large for her time. Previously in the East India Company service or trade, she was taken up for the voyage to NSW under Captain William Hingston in late 1798. Although fitted to capacity for an almost record number of 300 prisoners, her spacious ‘tween decks were expected to provide comparatively healthy conditions on the voyage. This was not to be and the “Fever Ship”, as she is termed, recorded the highest number of deaths on passage, 95 of the 300 male convicts embarked, with more dying shortly after arrival in Sydney.
Among the surviving prisoners on this disastrous voyage was one William Noah who kept or later compiled a graphic account of events on passage. This diary is in the Dixon Library Collection, State Library of NSW, and was published as: “A Voyage to Sydney in the Hillsborough, 1798-99“, (Sydney, 1978). There are not very many detailed voyage narratives by convicts themselves as their conditions afloat, confined below decks for some 22 hours a day and generally deprived of adequate light let alone writing facilities, etc., would deter even the keenest diarist.
Furthermore, while William Noah was a reasonably well-educated man, he had no previous seagoing experience and little opportunity to witness events on deck. How then could he compile such a full and informed account of proceedings onboard? Details of weather, sail changes, navigation, passing ships, etc., are all covered to an extent which would be beyond the competence of most members of the crew.
Perhaps he had a vivid imagination, primed by an old mariner among his fellow prisoners? It was mainly for this reason that the author came to consult the logbook of the Amphion above – to find that Noah’s account is accurate for the period in convoy at least, and no doubt for the entire voyage. Well, how was this achieved? A clue and likely solution was found when reading convict John Grant’s account of his voyage in the Coromandel in 1803-04. As a trusted prisoner he was employed in “keeping the logs” which presumably meant copying out the “fair” logs periodically. It seems quite likely that William Noah was in a similar “privileged” position and took the opportunity to make an additional copy for reference and combination with his own notes when compiling his personal story of the voyage later. We should be grateful that he was shrewd enough to do this – otherwise this excellent and authentic narrative of the Hillsborough’s infamous voyage would not have survived.