First Fleet ships

More on the famous ‘First Fleet’

The convicts’ convoy which carried Susannah Holmes, her husband-to-be Henry Kable and their tiny baby Henry to Australia in 1787 was a motley  fleet of ships. That we know so much about them is due to historical good fortunate.

Only thirteen years earlier in 1764 the very first Lloyd’s Shipping Register was published, a comprehensive survey of  more than 4,000 ships registered in the UK and abroad. Details recorded in the earliest Register book often  included the past and present names of the vessel, the name of the master, the number of crew, the names of the owners and  when and where the ship was built. Interestingly, by 2010 that figure had topped 100,000 ships.

Prison hulk. Similar to the one in which Susannah and her baby were confined in Plymouth awaiting transportation.

Prison hulk. Similar to the one in which Susannah and her baby were confined in Plymouth awaiting transportation.

Fleet - Friendship


Susannah, Henry and their baby had been transferred from a rotting prison hulk called Dunkirk moored at Plymouth, one of many used to house the growing number of prisoners who had previously been transported to America until the War of Independence put a stop to that convict traffic.

The family were embarked on a ship called Friendship, 278 tons, 75 ft long and 23ft at the beam. She was skippered by Francis Walton. It is not recorded where she was built in 1784. What is recorded in other documents is that on the return voyage from Australia to England her crew were stricken with the seafarers’ disease scurvy. She was scuttled and sunk in the Straits of Makassar off Borneo on October 28th 1788 probably because there was insufficient crew left to sail her.

Golden Grove, another of the legendary First Fleet.

Golden Grove, another of the legendary First Fleet.

Altogether there were eleven ships in the fleet, most of them around 300-400 tons and a mixture of convict transports and supply ships. The largest was an armed Navy flagship HMS Sirius.  At 540 tons, she was armed with 20 guns and carried officers, crew, marines and their families. The smallest ship was a 170 ton Royal Navy brig named Supply. Fitted with eight guns and carrying 55 officers, crew, marines and apparently just two convicts, she led the fleet for most of the way and was the first to arrive in Botany Bay.

The Charlotte, the ship to which Susannah and baby Henry transferred in Cape Town.

The Charlotte

By that time Susannah and her son Henry had been transferred from the Friendship to another convict transport called Charlotte. At Cape Town they were among a number of women disembarked from the Friendship to make way for a cargo of sheep.

While Henry stayed on board, Susannah and their son joined the 335 ton Charlotte, a three master skippered by Thomas Gilbert. Built in 1784 she would eventually return to England before being sold to a Quebec merchant and eventually lost off the coast of Newfoundland in 1818.

Sydney map 1789

Sydney map 1789

When the Charlotte arrived along with the rest of the First Fleet she was carrying 84 male and 24 female convicts  including Susannah and baby, as well as a 30 strong crew and 40 marines. All the transports were packed tight with prisoners, their Marine guards and crew.

Quite remarkably all eleven ships had survived the 13,000 mile journey into the unknown, an heroic act of seamanship that would carry Susannah Holmes, Henry Kable and their tiny son into the history books.

Text by Dick Meadows. Reproduced with permission.