Lady Nelson

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Woodcut of the Lady Nelson
Career (UK)
Name: Lady Nelson
Builder: Deptford Dockyard
Laid down: 1799
Launched: 13 January 1800
Captured: 1825
Fate: Captured by pirates
General characteristics
Class and type: Brig
Tons burthen: 60 long tons (61 t)
Length: 52 ft 6 in (16.00 m)
Beam: 17 ft 6 in (5.33 m)
Draught: 6 ft (1.8 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Complement: 15
Armament: 6 Carronades

The Lady Nelson was a vessel used in the exploration of the coast of Australia in the early years of the 19th century. It was the first known vessel to sail eastward through Bass Strait, the first to sail along the South coast of Victoria, as well as the first to enter Port Phillip. The Lady Nelson was also involved in the founding of Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne and Brisbane.


The Lady Nelson was named in honour of the wife of Horatio Nelson, England's naval hero. She was built in Deptford, England in 1799 and purchased by the Royal Navy in 1800. She was a brig designed especially for inshore exploration, with a draught of only 6', and three sliding keels. This unusual feature was originally conceived by naval architect Captain John Schank. Her length was 52'6", her burthen 60 tons, and she was originally armed with 2 brass carriage guns. Her crew consisted of fifteen men: the commander, two mates and twelve seamen. She was fitted out with a further four guns and provisions for 9 months and sent to Australia under the command of Lieutenant James Grant.

The Lady Nelson was launched on Tuesday 13 November 1798 at Deadman's Dock Deptford.

On arrival in the Colony of New South Wales the Lady Nelson was for the next twenty five years one of the most importand vessels in the Colony, sailing between Sydney, Norfolk Island, Hobart, Port Dalrymple and Port Macquarie.

In 1807 she was one of the four ships commissioned to bring the first evacueers from Norfolk Island to Hobart Town. She sailed again in 1808 for Hobart Town with more evacueers. Most of the these people were made up of convicts from the First, Second and Third Fleet, along with a few military men, who had been living on Norfolk Island for the previous twenty years.

The Lady Nelson with the Minstrel in 1813 brought the last of the evacueers (except the clean-up party) this time to Port Dalrymple in Van Diemen's Land. This voyage completed the 568 men, women and children to come from Norfolk Island to begin a new life in VDL.

These 568 men, women and children became an important part of the new settlement and many descendants still live in what is now known as Tasmania.

Exploration of the Victorian coast

The Lady Nelson reached the western coast of Victoria, Australia in December 1800, and was subsequently the first vessel to pass through Bass Strait on her way to Sydney. Grant named Cape Schanck, Mount Gambier, Cape Northumberland, Cape Banks, Cape Bridgewater, Mount Schank, Lady Julia Percy Island, Portland Bay, Point Danger and Cape Otway along the southern coast. After arriving in Sydney on 16 December 1800, Grant was ordered by Governor King to take a cartographer to chart the southern coastline to protect it against claims by the French. Grant sailed on 8 March 1801, with John Murray aboard as first mate, and en route explored Jervis Bay, where he was able to befriend some aborigines. But when he discovered that they practised cannibalism, he set sail again. Grant surveyed as far as Westernport Bay. However, her most famous southern voyage was in early 1802 when John Murray, having been given command of the Lady Nelson, discovered the entrance to Port Phillip. On the same voyage he also surveyed King Island (which he later named after the Governor of New South Wales) and did not name the Kent Group they where named by Matthew Flinders in 1800[1].

The coastal Hunter River area

Lady Nelson's next assignment was to make an extensive survey of the Hunter River area. The ship sailed with Colonel William Paterson in charge. So much coal was found - 75 tonnes, mined in what is now the centre of Newcastle - that King sent the brig back in company with a schooner. King traded the coal with the captain of the Earl Cornwallis for iron of the same value, possibly Australia's first mineral transaction.

Association with Matthew Flinders

The Lady Nelson is also associated with Matthew Flinders. In 1803 the Lady Nelson was intended to accompany Flinders' other survey ship, the Investigator, in surveying the coast north of Port Jackson, into what is now Queensland. However, she accompanied the Investigator only as far as the Cumberland Islands when Flinders decided she was too slow, unseaworthy and sent her back.


In June 1803, the Lady Nelson took the first settlers, ten convicts and three soldiers, to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). It landed on 7 September 1803 at Risdon. Colonel David Collins soon found the site unsatisfactory and moved the settlement to the present site of Hobart. In October 1804, the ship was again dispatched to Van Diemen's Land, this time with troops and settlers for Port Dalrymple (now Launceston).

After much storm damage and a complete refit in Sydney, it was sent again to Jervis Bay to investigate a report that a Spanish armed schooner was anchored there. The vessel, the Estramina, was crewed by Americans who had taken it as a prize in the American war against Spain. It tried to make a run for it, but after firing a shot across its bows, the Lady Nelson escorted it back to Sydney.

Near loss

On 2 May 1815 on departing Port Macquarie the Lady Nelson ran ashore on the South side of the harbour. The crew abandoned ship as the brig's rudder and sternpost were swept away and the bottom planks started to leak. Shortly after the tide completely filled the ship. The Lady Nelson was considered lost by the commandant of the settlement but eventually the ship was refloated and repaired. [2]

The Loss of the Lady Nelson to Privateers

File:Lady Nelson replica in port.jpg
Replica of the Lady Nelson in Hobart

The ship was sent on many more expeditions, including to Norfolk Island and New Zealand. It sailed in Australian waters during the governorships of King, Bligh, Macquarie and Brisbane. Under Brisbane, it was sent north with two other vessels to carry settlers to a new trading post on Melville Island, and it served that settlement for some time. Its final voyage started in February 1825, when it was sent to Koepang to bring back buffaloes for food. Several months passed before it was learned it had been captured by Malay pirates off Baba Island, north-east of Timor. On September 22 1825, The Sydney Gazette reported: 'The Lady Nelson, brig, has been most unfortunately cut off at Timor by Malay privateers and all the crew sacrificed, except the Captain. The little 60-ton ship contributed more to the exploration and settlement than any other. She served in the colony for a quarter of a century'.

Modern replica

A modern replica of the Lady Nelson was built in c. 1987 and took part in the Tall Ships Festival at Pyrmont Bay in Sydney. It took part in the Tall Ships race from Sydney to Hobart. It is based in Hobart, Tasmania and operates as a sail training vessel crewed entirely by volunteers.


  1. Observations on the coasts of Van Diemen's Land on Bass's Strait and its islands...1801
  2. Australian Shipwrecks - vol 1 1622-1850, Charles Bateson, AH and AW Reed, Sydney, 1972, ISBN 0 589 07112 2 p50


See also

External links

fr:Lady Nelson