She was but a dull sailor

The Sir Godfrey Webster (2) (1825-26) was chartered as a convict transport during 1825 to convey Irish male prisoners to New South Wales. The guards, a detachment of the 57th Regiment accompanied by 6 women and 7 children, embarked at Deptford on 24 May 1825. After the shipwrights and joiners from the dockyard had completed the work between decks to fit her out for service as a convict transport she sailed from Gravesend on 3 June and reached Cobh on 16 June 1825 .

On 27 June 196 male prisoners held on The Surprize hulk were inspected by Edward Trevor, principal superintendent of prisons and hulks. Trevor’s practice was to send every man who was ambulatory to the colony of NSW which was well known to the naval surgeons . The removal of such prisoners was done with the ready support of the medical officer of the hulk. The aim was to keep expenses as low as possible and to rid the hulk of troublesome prisoners.

The warrants approved by Dublin Castle for the 196 prisoners showed that 38 men had received life sentences. They included seven cases of manslaughter plus three of murder while the remaining 28 sentences were mainly for robbery, burglary and larceny. Four men received terms of 14 years; all for uttering forged notes. The majority of the prisoners however (154 in number) were sentenced to seven years for the theft of farm animals or property.

The surgeon superintendent of the Sir Godfrey Webster (2) was William Evans then undertaking his sixth voyage to the colonies. He remonstrated with superintendent Trevor about the propriety of embarking two disabled men, one blind and the second a cripple. Both men were returned to the hulk. Evans also objected to others whom he judged would be unable to survive the journey because of old age and infirmity but was not successful in having them relanded.

The prisoners from The Surprize were prone to scurvy as no fresh vegetables were included in their diet of two meals per day. No solid animal food was issued. The rate at which the men were victualled was 3d. per day per man. Their food intake was thus scanty and insufficient to maintain the prisoners in health.

On 11 July 1825 the Sir Godfrey Webster (2) sailed from Cobh under master John Rennoldson, a rough North Country man on his last passage, who was seriously afflicted with a liver complaint. He had charge of an old vessel which had been built at the Thames dockyard during 1799. She was known to be a slow sailor even in favourable conditions .

Upon leaving Cork harbour the weather became wet and boisterous with contrary winds which persisted for two weeks. Of necessity the men remained locked in the prison. There they suffered from sea sickness, costiveness caused by the salt rations and the dejection which was common on the early part of Irish voyages. Scorbutic dysentery began to afflict some of the prisoners due to the confinement below decks in the foul atmosphere of the prison.

On 3 August the transport called at Santa Cruz, Teneriffe, to replenish the water supply. Fresh beef and vegetables were procured and grapes for the sick. The journey continued and after passing the Cape de Verde islands the prisoners were relieved of their leg irons. This enabled them to move about more freely as the ship sailed into the equatorial region. The temperature rose between 84°F to 86°F. Heavy showers of tropical rain fell and when the days were fine the atmosphere was intensely humid. Twenty of the better-behaved were permitted to sleep on deck.

The ship crossed the equator on 1 September. As the sun was directly overhead with the heat unendurable coup de soleil, causing severe headaches, became a health risk. In attempting to engage the SE trades master John Rennoldson made two fruitless attempts to tack on and off the coast of Brazil but at 12 o’clock each day they lost ground due to the strong currents.

On 22 September the ship crossed the equator a second time. Surgeon Evans found this quite vexatious as it imposed a further period of tropical heat on the prisoners. The Sir Godfrey Webster (2) then made the necessary eastings but was again driven north. On 2 October she crossed the equator a third time. The voyage had by this time taken 12 weeks since quitting Cobh.

In the tropical heat scurvy took hold, with 34 cases under treatment. The disease manifests as bleeding gums, discolouration of the skin, ulceration together with rigidity of the joints. Surgeon Evans decided it was necessary to call at Table Bay (Cape of Good Hope) where they reached the anchorage on 4 November. The aggravated cases of scurvy were so severe that the patients had to be carried on deck. Extra cases of lemon juice were obtained plus vegetables, eight live bullocks and 50 sheep to enable a more beneficial diet. Table Bay however was an unsafe anchorage. Due to a heavy ground swell setting into the bay the Sir Godfrey Webster (2) was unable to put to sea until 13 November 1825.

As the transport sailed into the South Atlantic Ocean they began to make rapid progress. The temperature dropped to 58°F and the men began to suffer from the cold. Scorbutic dysentery again became prevalent. The Isles of St Paul and Amsterdam were descried as the weather deteriorated with gales accompanied by blinding rain. There were now 38 scurvy victims all of whom were distressed by the incessant rolling of the ship as every loose object was flung about the prison. The gales, squalls and hail continued as they sailed towards King Island which came into view on 27 December.

After passing through Bass Strait, stormy weather and high seas were again experienced. The ship was blown off course as she attempted to make her way along the east coast of the continent. Finally she came to anchor at Sydney Cove on 16 January 1826 after a voyage of 176 days. Remarkably there were only 3 deaths during the men’s ordeal.

Anne McMahon
Anne is a retired academic living in Canberra.