The First Fleet

Continuing Our Tasmanian Story

Fleet connections

Richard Lucas is just one of a number of people associated with the First and Second Fleets to Australia who is linked (or potentially linked) in some way with my ancestry. Like nearly all of them, Richard arrived in Van Diemen’s Land from Norfolk Island. So, stepping back in time a little now, before the first European settlement in Van Diemen’s Land, I am going to introduce some of those remarkable individuals who sailed aboard the First Fleet to the new colony of New South Wales.

First Fleet entering Port Jackson

E L Bihan, The First Fleet Entering Port Jackson, January 26, 1788 (State Library of New South Wales)

Among those who sailed in the First Fleet were Stephen Martin (probably my 5 x Great Grandfather) on the Alexander and William Saltmarsh.

Journey to New South Wales

The story of the First Fleet has been recounted many times and as I have been able to discover little material specifically relating to the individuals of most interest to me, a brief outline of the journey will suffice for the purposes of this story.

The First Fleet comprised six convict transports — Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penrhyn, Prince of Wales and Scarborough — three storeships, and two men-o-war. The fleet weighed anchor on 13 May 1787. Sailing from Portsmouth in fine weather, it reached Tenerife on 3 June. There the fleet took on fresh water, pumpkins, onions, meat and Canary wine. A convict aboard the Alexander, John Power, attempted escape but was quickly recaptured and the fleet set sail again on 10 June.

From 6 August to 4 September, the fleet rested in the port of Rio de Janeiro, where the officers, marines and crew were allowed trips ashore, and the convicts had the run of the decks under supervision. Here, fresh meat was both excellent and cheap. Local rum, which proved of poor quality, was also purchased, along with other supplies. Clothing for the female convicts had not been forthcoming prior to leaving England so in Rio Phillip purchased 100 sacks of tapioca, the tapioca for eating and the strong burlap from which the sacks were made to be reused for clothing.

By mid-October the fleet reached Cape Town where it spent another month stocking up on plants, seeds and livestock for the new colony of New South Wales. During this period, Phillip also tried to build up the strength of convicts and crew for the last most difficult leg of the voyage. Fresh beef and mutton, soft bread and vegetables were served each day.

The fleet left the Cape on 13 November. It now headed into formidable oceans. Laden with new supplies, including some five hundred live animals, the transports laboured. Convict quarters were more cramped than before, with space having been given over to the construction of improvised pens for livestock and its food. The weather was dark, wet and gloomy but at least the gales remained favourable. Huge waves broke upon the decks and dumped freezing water upon the marines, the convicts and their bedding. Whale sightings and albatross punctuated the monotony.

On 3 January 1788 the coast of Van Diemen’s Land came into view. A week later, sailing northwards, the ships battled a violent thunderstorm that split the Golden Grove’s topsails, carried away the Prince of Wales’ main yard, and terrified the convicts below decks.

Two hundred and fifty days out from Portsmouth, the fleet reached its destination, Botany Bay, early on the 20th of January 1788. Governor Phillip soon decided against a settlement there and on the 22nd set off to examine Port Jackson where he chose an area beside the Tank Stream as a suitable site for settlement.

At Port Jackson the marines were employed to provide protection from attack and to assist in exploration and establishment of the new settlement. Thomas Lucas was likely to have participated in much of the early exploration of the area around Port Jackson and in the early engagement with the Eora and other Aboriginal people around the first settlement. Marines who had trades worked at their trades and were paid for their efforts. The marines were also engaged in tedious rounds of duty, mounting guard and the like.

On 1 October 1788 only five officers and four other ranks were prepared to accept the offer of a grant of land and discharge in the colony. Presumably most planned to return home at the end of their three years of service. Thomas Lucas was later to transfer to the New South Wales Corps.

Convicts of the First Fleet

Evidence that would definitively prove my Coventry family line has proven elusive during more than two decades of research. It seems very likely that my Great Great Grandfather, James Henry Coventry, was the grandson of Irish-born William Coventry and Mary Ann Martin, the daughter of Stephen Martin and Hannah Pealing. William and Mary Ann had four children, including two sons William James and John. For many years I thought that James Henry was one of William James’ children but now I think it more likely that his father was the far more elusive John Coventry.

Stephen Martin

Stephen Martin was born about 1748, possibly in Bristol in the south west of England. Around this time Bristol was growing rapidly to become England’s second largest city. Imported goods, products of the slave trade, such as sugar cane, tobacco, rum and cocoa, were imported via Bristol, providing a strong catalyst for growth.

I have yet to discover anything of Stephen’s early life. He was thirty-five when, on 28 April 1783, he was convicted at the Bristol Quarter Sessions of stealing a cann (a small pistol) and a pair of boots and spurs. Stephen was sentenced to seven years transportation.[i] Stephen was transferred to the convict hulk Censor where he lived and worked in harsh, squalid conditions, perhaps dredging the river, driving in posts to prevent erosion of the riverbanks, developing the Woolwich Arsenal or maintaining the hulk. Nearly four years after his conviction, Stephen was delivered to the transport Alexander, which was to carry him to Australia as part of the historic First Fleet.

William Saltmarsh

Also on board was William Saltmarsh, first husband of my 5 x Great Grandmother, Mary Butler. When William was just fourteen years old he faced the Lent Assizes at Surrey on the 28th of March 1785, with his friend George Freeland, charged with stealing from a shop in Putney and for taking, ‘with force and arms’, three cotton and two silk handkerchiefs. He was sentenced to seven years transportation and was held initially at Southwark gaol before being sent, in mid-1786, to the hulk Ceres and then, in August, to the Justitia. Like Stephen, he laboured hard over that period, and was fortunate to avoid an early grave from the numerous contagious illnesses that ran rife in the prisons and on the hulks. In January 1787 he was delivered to the Alexander. Unfortunately all we know of William’s early life is that he was described as a labourer and had lived in Putney before his arrest.



[i] State Library of New South Wales, Early Convict Index, Alphabetical and Ship Indents,,

Online resources

Stephen Martin on my Ancestry Tree

William Saltmarsh on my Ancestry Tree