John Alexander Herbert: First Fleet Convict – London to Sydney

Early Years

Information on John’s early years is currently limited.

He was born in a house at Shoe Lane (behind St. Andrew’s Church near Long Lane), District of Smithfield, Town of Holborn, County of London early in 1767. Long Lane is near Central London, nearby being the Smithfield Markets, the Old Bailey Courts, St. Andrew’s Church of England and the Thames River.

St. Andrew’s Church of England, Holborn, London

John was baptised at the St. Andrew’s Church of England, Holborn on 26 April 1767, with his parents being recorded as James and Elizabeth Herbert.

Social Conditions, England 1760s – 1780s  

At the turn of the 18th Century, London, England was both a bustling metropolis and a dark and desperate place. With a population of over 800,000 people, London was the largest city in Europe and the home of the wealthiest subjects of the British Empire, but also contained a large population of poor and indigent citizens who sought to eke out a living on the city’s mean streets.

There was little work available and the population was exploding.

The American War of Independence which had raged from 1775 until 1783 had been lost, and by the declaration of peace in 1783 the British government had permanently lost its considerable colonial tax revenues and was struggling with a large National Debt.

Massive cutbacks were made to the army and navy which resulted in thousands of soldiers and sailors being thrown into an already depressed job market.

The 1780s was a time of recession and many stole to survive. To deter the growing influx of crime, the Georgian era Parliament brought into being stiff laws, known as the “Bloody Code”, which created some 250 capital statutes that were punishable by death or “transportation to lands beyond the seas.”

Soon the gaols were filled to overflowing. Many of the convictions were for crimes of necessity, being the theft of food, clothes, money or other items that could be readily converted into cash, to enable the purchase of the necessities of life.

Arrest and Trial

On 5 April 1784, John was taken into custody on the charge of pickpocketing, stealing a silk handkerchief from John Thompson, value one shilling.

Sixteen days later or on Wednesday, 21 April, he appeared at the Old Bailey court, Justice Hall, London, with the trial being conducted before a jury and a presiding judge, Mr. Barron Eyre.

John was found guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years.

Evidence given at the trial-

John Thompson Sworn – “About 12 o’clock on the 5th. April I lost my handkerchief, I was walking along Smithfield, and a gentleman called to me and said I had lost my handkerchief, I turned around and the gentleman had the boy and my handkerchief.”

Alexander, Sworn – “Between 10 and 11 o’clock, I observed the prisoner and some others attempting to pick gentlemen’s pockets; at last I observed the prosecutor come along, and the prisoner followed him; and when he came to the corner of Long Lane, he picked his pocket; I followed him, I clapped my hands around the prisoner, and he dropped the handkerchief from under his coat; that was about eight or ten yards from where he took it.”

Prison Hulks – “Censor”

After sentencing John soon found himself aboard the prison hulk Censor, one of the two hulks where prisoners sentenced to transportation were held. Initially the Censor was scheduled to hold up to 183 prisoners, while the second hulk, Justitia, 125. However with increasing prison numbers and a hold on prisoners being transported, over crowding soon occurred. By 30 November 1784 the Overseer of Convicts, Duncan Campbell, is writing to the Treasury Department proposing that the Censor inmates be increased to 240 convicts and upwards.

Hulk Conditions

Conditions aboard the hulks were appalling resulting in mortality rates of around 30% being quite common. Between 1776 and 1795 nearly 2,000 out of almost 6,000 convicts serving their sentence on board the hulks, died.

The standard of hygiene was so poor that disease spread quickly. The sick were given little medical attention and were not separated from the healthy. The living quarters were very bad. Sleeping, whether sick or healthy, was undertaken on the bare boards of the floor and with shackles attached, often both around the waist and ankles. There was barely enough room for a man to stand up straight. The stench emanating from the hulks reached from bank to bank across the Thames. The men were frequently flogged with a cat o’nine tails.

Food on the Hulks

The authorities were always keen to keep down the cost of the prisons. They wanted to avoid giving the prisoners a better life than the poor outside the hulks. The quality of the prisoners’ food was therefore kept as low as possible. The monotonous daily meals consisted chiefly of:

  • ox-cheek, either boiled or made into soup
  • pease
  • bread or biscuit 

The biscuits were often mouldy and green on both sides! On two days a week, the meat was replaced by oatmeal and cheese. Each prisoner had two pints of beer four days a week, and badly filtered water, drawn from the river, on the others.

Sometimes the Captain of the hulk would allow the convicts to plant vegetables in plots near the Arsenal. This attempt to add something extra to the poor diet of the prisoners depended on the good will, or otherwise, of the individual in charge.

Convict Dress

As well as being unhealthy the convicts were mostly poorly dressed. They were supposed to have:

  • a linen shirt
  • a brown jacket
  • a pair of breeches

But the men who controlled the ships often pocketed the money the Government had given for the clothes.

A prison reformer of the time, John Howard, periodically visited the hulks and found “many had no shirts, some no waistcoats, some no stockings and some no shoes.”

Many convicts were forced to rely on their friends and relatives for clothing.

Employment of the Hulk Convicts

The convicts imprisoned aboard the hulks were taken ashore in work parties when “health and weather” permitted

In a Report of Convicts ordered to Hard Labour on board the Hulks from 11 July to October 1785, (John Herbert was aboard the Censor at this time) contained the names of 278 convicts. Their supervisor, Duncan Campbell, wrote as follows- “The convicts named in the above return have since last report been employed, when health and weather permitted, in raising gravel from Barking or Woolwich Shoals, in wheeling the same for the purpose of filling up a large moat making considerably higher the ground contiguous to the Proof and Practice Butts which they have erected; in sawing of timber for the Laboratory, and in other occasional work in the Warren of Woolwich under the direction of the officers of the Board of Ordnance.”

Transportation of Convicts to Australia

After the loss of the American Colonies, the British Government began to look at other suitable places where prisoners could be sent and the glowing reports given by Captain Cook and Joseph Banks about New Holland (Australia) and Norfolk Island soon attracted the attention of the authorities. On 6 December 1786, an order-in-council was issued designating “the Eastern Coast of New South Wales, or some one or other of the Islands adjacent” as the destination for transported convicts, as required by the Transportation Act of 1784 (24 Geo 111, c56) that authorised the sending convicted felons to any place appointed by the King in Council.

An article in “The Universal Daily Register” (the forerunner of “The Times”) of 23 December 1786 revealed the plan for a dual colonization of Botany Bay and Norfolk Island. “The ships for Botany Bay are not to leave all the convicts there: some of them to be taken to Norfolk Island, which is about 800 miles east of Botany Bay, and about 400 miles short of New Zealand.”

Captain Arthur Phillip’s instructions given to him in April 1787, only weeks before sailing for New Holland, included an injunction to send a party to secure Norfolk Island “as soon as circumstances may admit it ……… to prevent it being occupied by the Subjects of any other European Power.”

The urgency to settle Norfolk Island was to secure a source of hemp which was vital in the production of rope and sails necessary for both military and commercial vessels, following a threat to cut off their existing supplies from Russia.

Embarkation for Australia

Once the decision was made to establish a settlement in Australia, planning commenced and ships were secured and prepared for the journey including the building of prison quarters on the convict transports, crews obtained and supplies assembled. A list of convicts to be transported was also drawn up, 759 names in total, made up of 568 males and 191 females. John Herbert was included at number five on this list. The Fleet which is now known as The First Fleet consisted of 11 ships and near 1,500 persons, including sailors, marines, officials, wives and children.

John Herbert commenced his journey to Australia leaving the Hulk Censor on 24 February 1787 to travel to Portsmouth for embarkation. This move was by waggon and under light horse guard.

An account for costs in relation to the transportation of convicts from Woolwich to Portsmouth provides a glimpse of this part of his journey. Contractors undertaking the transfer were Townshend and Thomas Sing and their account for costs is as follows-

  • Bread, cheese and beer and other articles for 20 convicts on the road £2-4-6 
  • Expenses attending and guarding said convicts from Woolwich to Cumberland Fort £8-0-0
  • Horse hire for Sing and Townshend in so doing, 6 days £3-0-0
  • Waggons £13-3-3

John Herbert was allocated to the transport Scarborough, however, due to bad weather on arrival at Portsmouth embarkation was delayed for five days. The next nine weeks or until 13 May was spent in port aboard the Scarborough awaiting the Fleet to get underway. A witness of that time, Lieutenant King, noted “they were confined to their cells below deck, handcuffed together, from the time of their embarkation.”

The Scarborough was a relatively new ship of 418 tons that had been built in 1782 at the Port of Scarborough, England. It measured 111 feet 6 inches in length, at its widest 30 feet 2 inches, had two decks and had been rigged as a barque. It was to sail with 208 convicts, all male.

The Voyage to Australia

After several delays the Fleet at last weighed anchor at 3.00 am on Sunday, 13 May 1787 with the destination being Australia some 13,000 miles away.

The journey was not without its difficulties, and for those travelling aboard the Scarborough, a number of events have been recorded.

There was trouble with the prisoners from the outset. Many were in indifferent health when they embarked and their confinement in the prisons below deck had led to the outbreak of illness, despite the fact that they were receiving fresh provisions.

Further trouble occurred a week after setting sail, or on 20 May, when the Fleet was 200 miles west of the Scilly Islands, with the serious report being received by the Scarborough’s captain that a plot had been formed among the convicts to seize the ship. The Fleet was brought to a stop and hove to while the problem was dealt with. The supposed ring leaders were identified – Phillip Farrell and Thomas Griffiths – who were then transferred to HMS Sirius, where they were each given 24 lashes, heavily ironed, and then sent on to the Prince of Wales. The ships again hoisted their sails heading for Teneriffe in the Canary Islands where they dropped anchor on 3 June.

The Fleet then headed for South America reaching Rio de Janeiro on 6 August where they stayed for a month recuperating, sailing from there on 5 September. After leaving Rio there was trouble with the marines aboard the Scarborough, with some of these marines receiving 50 to 150 lashes for different offences.

The First Fleet at Rio de Janeiro

On 13 October the Fleet reached the Cape of Good Hope dropping anchor in Table Bay. There they stayed a month recuperating and taking on fresh supplies.

On 12 November the Fleet sets sail with the destination being Botany Bay. It was an uncomfortable passage with the ships being buffeted by rough seas. During several of these storms the Scarborough shipped a considerable amount of water, which left the prisoners soaked and their cells awash. How miserable this must have been for those imprisoned below!

On 6 December storms gave way to thick fog, with three of the ships, Friendship, Alexander and Scarborough, finding themselves in close proximity to each other but not visible to one another. It must have been an eerie experience for the sodden convicts, as huddled below in the damp and foul prisons, they listened apprehensively to the booming of the ship’s guns and the ringing of their bells as the crews sought to avoid collision.

Their first sight of Australia occurred on 5 January, 1788 when the coast of Van Diemen’s Land was sighted and by 18 January, the Supply, the fastest ship of the Fleet, had reached Botany Bay, dropping anchor at 2.15 in the afternoon. The three transport ships, Scarborough, Friendship and Alexander reached port at 8.00am next day with the remainder of the Fleet coming to anchor at 9.00am a further day later.

On arrival a party of 20 convicts from the Scarborough were put ashore with their instructions being to start clearing land in preparation to establish a settlement. One wonders if John Herbert, our forebear, may have been amongst the first of those arriving to set foot on Australian soil, but if not, soon did so at Port Jackson. 

Sydney Cove, Port Jackson

The arrival of the Fleet at Sydney Cove on the late afternoon of 26 January 1788 for John Herbert meant the end of one segment of his life and the beginning of another. Life in the future would be on land and not aboard ship as his last four years had been. Social conditions and the environment would be very different. Instead of life in the midst of a city, London, he was now in the midst of virgin bush with the challenge being to survive and to come to terms with a very different climate, isolation, and a new mind set relating to settlement and nation building.

The first unexpected surprise had just happened: two days earlier, or on 24 January, the members of the Fleet were greatly astonished by the appearance of two ships with French colours. However by adverse weather they were driven out to sea and out of sight. There was much conjecture and some suspicion in some quarters. Two days later they again appeared and on this occasion entered Botany Bay. They were soon identified as the research vessels, the Bousole and the Astrolabe under the command of La Perouse. It was a great relief to discover that their intentions were peaceful and activity was being directed to research and discovery. The two vessels it was learned had sailed from France on 1 August 1785. They were to remain at Botany Bay for six weeks, sailing from there on the 10th March.

Possibly another surprise for John was the discovery that there was a second John Herbert at the settlement, also a convict. He had been tried at Exeter on 14 March 1785 for highway robbery at Plymouth, sentenced to death, with the sentence commuted to 7 years transportation. He arrived with the First Fleet aboard the Charlotte and in the same year married Deborah Ellam. By 1806 records note they had a family of 7 children and living at Prospect Hill west of Parramatta.

The presence of two by the name of John Herbert at Sydney Cove may have been the cause of some confusion and this may be the reason why our John Herbert, on at least one occasion, was recorded as Thomas Herbert. But why use the name Thomas? Could this hark back to the Biblical disciple who was identified as “Thomas the twin” or was it just a mistake in recording his identity?

Around 6.00 pm on 26 January 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip and other senior members of the expedition came together on the shore, the colours raised and New South Wales declared possession of the British Crown. They also drank the King’s health and success to the settlement.

A major event occurred 12 days later, 7 February, when all the people of those arriving, the officials, marines, convicts, wives and children were brought together as one group for the first time. On one side of Governor Phillip were the officers and marines and on his other side stood the convicts.

He reminded the convicts they were still in a state of custody and had their remaining sentence to serve out. If they were subservient and obeyed directions, they could expect to be treated well and receive rewards, but if they broke the rules and behaved badly, the full force of the law would fall upon them.

In this speech, Governor Phillip spoke of the importance of marriage in society and strongly recommended that couples enter into marriage, and promised every kind of countenance and assistance to those who entered this state.

The speech appears to have had some effect as in the course of the ensuing week fourteen marriages took place among the convicts.

The first week after arrival at Sydney Cove, located where the Opera House now stands, “all was hurry and exertion”. The plan of the encampment was quickly formed, and places were marked out for every different purpose, so as to introduce, as much as possible, strict order and regularity.

A picture of the activity and development at Sydney Cove in the two years from founding in 1788 to April 1790, is revealed in the journal of Captain Hunter who during this time had been residing on Norfolk Island. He says “When I left Port Jackson in February, 1788, the ground around Sydney Cove was covered with a thick forest, but on my return at this time, I found it cleared to a considerable distance, and some good buildings were erected.

By Ivan Badcock – October 2010

John Alexander Herbert was Ivan Badcock's 7th g.grandfather through the Page Family.

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