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The Phantom First Fleet to Australia

Dan Byrnes
Word Factory

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The Blackheath Connection

News in July 2006: The history websites on this domain now have a companion website, and an updating website as well, on a new domain, at Merchant Networks Project, produced by Dan Byrnes and Ken Cozens (of London). This new website (it is hoped) will become a major exercise in economic and maritime history, with much attention to London/British Empire and some attention to Sydney, Australia.

Note1: In 1992-1993, writer Dan Byrnes, from the Tamworth-Armidale area of Northern New South Wales, was given a Writer's Project Grant by the Literature Board of the Australia Council to complete research on convict transportation to Australia. Here are just some enigmatic findings on Pacific history arising from that research ...

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Note2: This article is partly based on information freely made available by noted Blackheath historian Neil Rhind in 1989, for which generosity the present author is grateful.

read now for free a major article on British whalers entering the Pacific from 1786... "Outlooks for the South Whale Fishery", already print-published in an academic journal Links to sites on related topics

The fleet that never sailed:
and an enigma of British ships visiting Tahiti
that sends Pacific histories mysteriously
back to Blackheath in London

WHEN it became known in London that government was considering sending convicts to New South Wales, or, New Holland, three commercial men were standing in the wings, ready to act quickly. They made an offer of shipping for a "first fleet" - but have largely been written out of history.

On 21 August, only three days after cabinet's decision of 18 August, 1786, a still little-known London firm, Turnbull, Macaulay and Gregory (TMG), offered enough shipping for such a project. Their quick response-time is one thing. Where and how they obtained their information, which was correct, is another thing. Their offer was rejected and the matter, quite properly, was put out to tender.

They sank into 210 years of obscurity. Their phantom first fleet never sailed. Today, most historical opinion is that the First Fleet took an uncommon long time to set sail. The delays contrast starkly with the speed with which the three men acted when the news first broke. Logo for Peter Western database sales

Questions can gather quickly around their story. What on earth were their motives? Why bother, commercially, to send ships to the edge of the known world? Macaulay was a London alderman. So did they represent any of the majority of London's civic opinions about the pesky convict problem? Why do we hear so little about them? Who were they?

Business partners, they were alderman George Mackenzie Macaulay, John Turnbull and Thomas Gregory, partners in a firm that a while before had exercised government contracts to send food and supplies - vittles - to British troops in Canada. As government contractors, they probably had an "in" on information about newly-arising business. We are speaking of days, 1786, when insider trading in commercial life was relatively common.

Government after earlier political confusions made its decision to resume the transportation of convicts on 18 August, 1786, secretively. While it was only the members of the Privy Council that decided, it is known that George III fully approved. More so, almost all of Britain's political establishment agreed, or at least, did not dispute the decision. It was a victory for the silent majority. Something had to be done about the state of crime, the numbers of transportable convicts not yet transported.

How did government interpret the Turnbull, Macaulay and Gregory offer of shipping? Common sense and usual business practice prevailed along with generalised desires to rid the kingdom of unwanted transportable convicts.

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Perhaps, one or two government men blanched? Would it be politically useful, if it were known that just one "family business" had a motive to raise a fleet of convict transports? Probably not.

Alderman George Mackenzie Macaulay (1750-1803) had married money and was recognised as a capable man, working government contracts, importing tea and insuring ships at Lloyd's of London. It seems probable that Macaulay's sister had married John Turnbull - who is hard to trace.

Macaulay, who married into the wealthy Theed family, was from the Isle of Wight. So was the extended family of Thomas Gregory. The more-or-less family firm was tight, until it fell apart in 1797 amid family-style arguments and Macaulay's loss of around 25 per cent of his investments. About 1796-1797 was a crunch period for many London financiers.

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Information that is almost alarming to stumble across is that a relative of Thomas Gregory, William Gregory, did "confidential work" for George III. William Gregory was a sometime British consul to major Spanish cities. Did he, at the king's behest, rustle up a family-linked firm to help further the king's known desire to rid the kingdom of convicts? Did George III merely want some quick action in order to prod the bureaucracy to work faster? We may never know, William Gregory's whereabouts and movements at the time remain unknown still. (His "confidential work" is noted in Burke's Landed Gentry for Gregory.)

Of this family group, Francis Gregory (died 1680) of the Isle of Wight had sons Mark, Francis, and John. One Mark Gregory, MP for Newport in 1777-1778 and a London merchant who married Sarah, daughter of one Captain John Urry RN. (George Macaulay also had an uncle, Capt. Urry; possibly the same man. We do know, that one Capt Urry became one of many subscribers to the journal, "Transactions", of the later-governor of NSW, John Hunter, published in 1792).

Another William Gregory RN of this family, a sometime British consul at Mexico, Madrid and Barcelona, married Jane Joliffe. He died at Cowes in 1778. This William (the consul) had a sister, Nanny, who married Sir Christopher Baynes (1755-1837), first Baronet, whose father William (1719-1790), was a gentleman of the Privy Chamber to Geo II and Geo III. (Burke's Landed Gentry for Baynes; Burke's Peerage and Baronetage for Baynes). These connections could possibly explain any early information gained by TMG about a semi-secret decision, desired by the king, to begin transporting convicts to Australia?

The facts of the commercial lives of Londoners letting ships for use as convict transports for Australia have never interested Australians, and oddly enough, that represents a loss of many tall tales.

Some facts: George Macaulay from the Isle of Wight had entered commercial life with Abel and Co., a firm at Lloyd's of London which lost about £5000 as debts owed by Americans prior to the American Revolution. As such a British creditor, his firm by 1786 was registered with The British Creditors, an English-Scottish lobby group of disgruntled merchants wanting to retrieve up to £2.5 million from the victorious Americans.

A sometime-chairman of The British Creditors was Duncan Campbell (1726-1803), the overseer of the Thames prison hulks, whose staff by late 1786 would be checklisting the names of hundreds of transportable convicts. As chairman of the Creditors, Campbell had a fruitless interview with Thomas Jefferson in April 1786. That meeting in fact occurred within the timeframe treated in the recent splendid movie, Jefferson in Paris.

Suspicions about a "family business" wanting to ship out convicts grow worse. Both Campbell and Macaulay lived at a select London-Kent suburb, Blackheath, as did Turnbull. What becomes interesting, then, is that the man who did get the First Fleet contracts, William Richards Jnr., did not live at Blackheath, though other men becoming interesting in shipping convicts also lived at Blackheath. Richards lived at Southwark in London.

Duncan Campbell (1726-1803)

Thames hulks overseer,
Duncan Campbell (1726-1803)

Campbell was also the uncle-in-law of William Bligh, captain of HMAV Bounty. Ironically, one of Campbell's daughters, Elizabeth, married London barrister Alexander Pitcairn, brother of Robert whose name became attached to Pitcairn Island, where Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian fled. (Bligh did not know this until some time after he was deposed as governor of New South Wales in 1808).

Meanwhile, there are many twists and turns with the tale of "the phantom first fleet". William Richards finally saw to the First Fleet sailing for New Holland by May 1787 under the command of governor Arthur Phillip. Part of the fleet was Lady Penrhyn, which shipped women-only. Lady Penrhyn was owned by another London alderman, and a friend of Macaulay, the sea-biscuit manufacturer William Curtis. Curtis was a London lord mayor of the 1790s, and like Macaulay he sent a regular tea ship to China.

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Why did these two aldermen bother? It seems likely that two London aldermen letting a ship into the First Fleet were expressing civic London's feelings about getting rid of unwanted convicts. If so, they were both written out of history for their pains.

Macaulay and Curtis were both however interested in getting seal fur from Nootka Sound (on the western coasts of Canada) to sell at Canton (China). Before May 1787, Macaulay chartered Lady Penrhyn from Curtis, once she had landed her convicts at what became Sydney, for the Nootka Sound voyage.

Even more intriguing, Macaulay put his own man on the ship, Lt. John Watts, "who had been out with Cook". Watts had orders to take command of Lady Penrhyn after she left New South Wales, while she was at sea. (This information is found in the appendices to Gov. Phillips' Journal, published in London in 1789.)

But, a ship on her maiden voyage, Lady Penrhyn "developed a bad bottom", and it was suspected she could not handle sailing into icy Canadian waters. The seal-fur gathering exercise was abandoned. So she sailed to Tahiti instead, before going to Canton to ship tea.

Intriguingly, once again, Lady Penrhyn got to Tahiti before Bligh arrived there in HMAV Bounty. The Tahitiians, who greatly respected Cook, wanted to know what had happened to him. Watts told them Cook had been killed at Hawaii. The result of this was that when Bligh arrived at Tahiti on Bounty, Bligh, he who "had been out with Cook", felt obliged to tell the Tahitiians - that what Watts said about Cook's death was a "misunderstanding".

Intriguingly, coincident with the first British settlement of Australia, two mariners who had been "out with Cook", one famous, the other, Watts, hardly-known, were known to two men who lived at Blackheath in London, Duncan Campbell and George Macaulay. These two sailors commanded the first two British ships to arrive at Tahiti after Cook's death.

What is really odd is that according to the well-kept local history of Blackheath in London, both Campbell and Macaulay were members of the Blackheath Golf Club.

Was it a mere coincidence - in days when golf was not yet a popular game - that two Scotsmen in the same golf club, helped out with providing commanders of the first two British ships arriving at Tahiti? As Britain made a new burst into the Pacific? One doubts it was an accident!

This non-coincidence makes for reflections on what becomes well-known in history - and what does not. Lady Penrhyn with her all-female cargo is best-known for just that, her all-female cargo. What later happened to the ship's people (crew) has not yet been reported in a history book. Macaulay's "phantom first fleet" has been reported in history, although in garbled fashion.

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Many Pacific sea roads lead back to Blackheath, London. Before a ships sailed with convicts for Australia, a contract had to be made out. Before Macaulay's ship Pitt sailed with convicts in 1792, Macaulay made a share-deal for that contract with another Blackheath identity, a Lloyd's underwriter and investor in the Southern Whale Fishery, John St Barbe.

It was also not an accident that St Barbe lived very close at Blackheath to the London whalers, the Enderby family, who were the political leaders of the South Whale Fishery. Enderbys had several ships in the Third Fleet to Australia, which had preceded Pitt's voyage.

A conclusion can be drawn - that various shipping men at Blackheath in London spent considerable time inspecting maps of the Pacific Ocean, because their employees were out there. Given such a strong common interest in a brand new ocean, it seems hardly likely these men otherwise ignored each other.

In similar vein, the Larkins family of Blackheath sent out Royal Admiral (I), Capt. Essex Henry Bond, later in 1792, departing not long after Macaulay's Pitt. Though generally, Larkins sent regular ships to India. Oddly enough for any theme on civic London and its interests in vast new waters, Capt. Bond was married to a grand-daughter of Sir Thomas Chitty, Lord Mayor of London in 1760.

London - or Blackheath - businessmen used the first few years of convict transportation to Australia to explore the Pacific, and the East, for new commercial possibilities. There were fewer useful possibilities than they hoped, but their disappointments, and their Blackheath connections, are not why their efforts have remained unknown to history.

The fulness of these commercial explorations is unknown to history because Australians ask too-few questions about the First Fleet - and why it was sent.

Behind alderman George Macaulay's phantom first fleet are other phantoms of London and the Pacific... Research continues...
Addendum: By 23 August, 2003, the present author discovers on the Net that researchers on the Macaulay family of the Isle of Wight, considered broadly, via a genforum, agree with any genealogical material presented on these webpages, and suggest that alderman Macaulay's sister, Beata, daughter of Mordo Macaulay of Isle of Wight, married the alderman's partner, John Turnbull in 1784. If this is so, and correct, and it is new to the present author, this is the first time in almost 30 years of research that we can find a name for alderman Macaulay's father. What other information may arise soon on the Net? Alderman Macaulay had about 10 siblings.


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