James Smith, eccentric tourist on Australia's First Fleet: a tentative identification

A paying passenger somehow joined the fleet of convict ships sent to colonise New South Wales in 1787-88. This note tentatively traces James Smith to the Essex village of Messing. Historians of Essex and of Australia are invited to test the hypothesis.

The mystery passenger When Australia's First Fleet called at Cape Town in November 1787, its commander, Captain Arthur Phillip, made an unwelcome discovery. The convoy of eleven ships was taking around 780 convicts to establish a penal colony in New South Wales, along with another 500 sailors, marines, officers and officials. In the months before the Fleet had sailed, in May 1787, Phillip himself had spent much of his time in London dealing with bureaucrats while the expedition was assembling off Portsmouth. Once aboard his flagship, he was keen to depart: Phillip trusted his captains, and there was no time for the commander to inspect his flotilla. At sea, there had been little direct contact among the various ships, although the officers had begun to establish friendships while sightseeing ashore when the vessels purchased additional supplies at Tenerife and Rio de Janeiro. Thus it was not entirely surprising that it should have been six months into the voyage before it emerged that a paying passenger had somehow attached himself to his military expedition. Phillip was angry:  James Smith had no right to be on the voyage.[1] He was also probably embarrassed by what was in effect a security lapse: it seems that no allusion to the interloper was ever made in any reports or statistical returns made to his superiors in London.

James Smith was sailing aboard the Lady Penrhyn, recently built for the Atlantic slave trade but now refitted to take 102 female convicts around the world to Botany Bay. Since the women were regarded as unlikely to mutiny, the ship carried only a handful of marines, along with three officers and two surgeons, who travelled in more comfortable quarters. It is likely that Christopher Sever, the ship's master, realised that he had an empty cabin at his disposal, and decided to fill it with a paying passenger. It may also be regarded as highly probable that only an eccentric would have been willing to purchase a ticket to Botany Bay. Sever probably urged his human contraband to remain unobtrusive in the early stages of the voyage, so that his presence in the First Fleet might only become generally known when it would be too late to return him to England.

Fortunately for James Smith, his fellow passenger, surgeon Arthur Bowes, found his company congenial. Friendship between them seems to have developed after the Fleet left Rio de Janeiro in August 1787. On 1 December, Bowes recorded in his journal the gift of a four-volume compendium of knowledge from "Mr James Smith, passenger on this ship". Perhaps Smith had spent much of his time reading in his cabin, but now felt confident enough to abandon his low profile. On Christmas Day, Bowes described his typical day on the high seas. After breakfast, he showed a proper sense of proprieties and priorities, first checking the health of the ship's company. "Then I visit the sick among the convicts after wh[ich] I put up such Medicines as are wanting". He then brought his journal up to date, a chore that was sometimes discharged in a sentence or two. His day's work effectively over, he sought out the company of James Smith, "a very intelligent good disposed Man" whom he had not met before they found themselves on the same ship. "I find in my Conversation with him no small Abatement of that irksomeness wh[ich] must otherwise have prevail'd in a voyage of this kind where I was a stranger to every one on Board." As discussed later, the two found that they knew people in common, so that a conversation with Smith conjured pleasant reminders of home.[2]

Australia's first free settler When the First Fleet arrived at Sydney, Arthur Phillip at first "peremptorily refused" to allow James Smith to remain in the colony, although nobody stopped him from coming ashore to ramble around the harbour. Bowes "draw'd up a petition" on Smith's behalf and – a stroke of luck here – enlisted the support of George Johnston, the lieutenant of marines, whom Phillip had just appointed as his aide-de-camp, the chief of a non-existent staff. Johnston, who had also sailed on the Lady Penrhyn, supplied James Smith with "an extra-ordinarily good Character", as did another shipmate, the marines captain, James Campbell. On 15 February, Phillip swung to the other extreme, telling James Smith that he had changed his mind, and "there sh[oul]d be a Tent erected for him, a piece of ground sh[oul]d be allotted to him for a garden", with seeds supplied from government stores. In return, Smith was "to officiate as headborough", a semi-archaic English term for a parish constable. His initial responsibility would be "to superintend the Convicts that were at work", reporting those who "misbehaved". The governor even threw in the promise, both unnecessary and unwise, that he would be "further promoted" in due course.

It might be tempting to interpret this episode as one in which the top official was persuaded to adopt a sensible course after initially giving free rein his own hurt dignity. In fact, given the orders under which Arthur Phillip was operating, his decision to allow James Smith to settle in New South Wales represented a major historical landmark. Primarily, Phillip was the autocratic governor of a prison colony, and hence fully entitled to be angry at the discovery of a tourist. His freedom of action was restricted by his Instructions, a detailed document approved at the highest level of British government, the Court of St James's, on 25 April 1787. The Instructions envisaged that the penal colony would evolve towards becoming a free community by encouraging two types of independent settlers, but the transition was to be gradual. Land might be granted to former convicts, in carefully specified small blocks that obviously assumed that an English countryside could be created in New South Wales. Although Phillip was endowed with the power to speed the process by pardoning reformed felons, the growth of an emancipist population of smallholders was likely to be spread over some time: the shortest term of transportation was seven years, and most First Fleeters had faced the courts since 1784. At least the process of converting convicts into farmers was in the hands of the governor, the man on the spot. However, London intended to control the second category of potential settlers. The Instructions foresaw the possibility that "many of our subjects employed upon military service at the said settlement, or others who may resort thither upon their private occupations, may hereafter be desirous of proceeding to the cultivation and improvement of the land". While the British government was "disposed to afford them every reasonable encouragement", the strategy was one of caution. Phillip was directed to give priority to the submission of a report on "the actual state and quality of the soil" of districts selected for free settlers, and to make recommendations on the terms and conditions that should accompany land grants.[3] The intention, it seems, was to build in safeguards that would prevent a large-scale property grab by the officers, of the kind that did indeed take place when Major Francis Grose became acting governor after Phillip's departure in 1792.

Some ingenuity was required to fit a concession to James Smith into the rules under which the governor was bound to operate. Smith was obviously somebody who had resorted to New South Wales upon some private occupation – or whim – turning up unexpectedly and well before the Instructions had envisaged the arrival of any such person. On reflection, Phillip presumably decided the spirit of his Instructions allowed him to give himself authority to allocate, not a farm but a hut and ground for a garden patch, no doubt on a provisional basis that might be regularised when some regular system of land granting was introduced. On 15 February 1788, Arthur Phillip probably felt that he had resolved an irritating small problem by heeding the pleas of a surgeon and two officers, men whose goodwill he needed for the massive challenges ahead. There was in fact no immediate prospect of shipping James Smith back to England, and he could hardly be drummed out of the colony to starve in the bush. Allowing him to stay was the obvious solution. Nonetheless, Phillip had taken the large step of approving the colony's first non-convict settler, thereby establishing a glimmer of the eventual prospect of a free Australian society.

 Six days later, James Smith settled into his new quarters. Another passenger on the Lady Penrhyn of indeterminate status had been a fifteen-year-old boy called Joseph Harrison, whom Bowes had firmly described as "not a Convict". He was now allocated to work for Smith, along with "a Convict (a Black man)" who had perhaps been a household servant, a liveried fashion accessory, to some wealthy family in England before taking to crime.[4] James Smith showed his appreciation for the support he had received by presenting Bowes with a lizard.

In June 1788, James Smith prosecuted a female convict, his namesake Ann Smith, for insolently resisting his authority as constable. When ordered to put out her fire at night, she had replied that she would do so if he agreed to go to the Governor and get her a pair of shoes. She then abused him as a busybody. Ann Smith had travelled on the Lady Penrhyn, where she "had always behaved amis[s]" and had acquired a "very indifferent Character". On land, she had threatened to escape, but had presumably thought better of the attempt. She now sneered at James Smith, saying that "though on the ship, she took him for a gentleman, she now found quite the contrary." Her lame apology in court that she had thought knowing him at sea might allow her "to take such a liberty" did not save her from being sentenced to be flogged, although Phillip promptly issued a reprieve.[5] It is hazardous to build too large an interpretation upon a single incident. Ann Smith was not an easy woman to handle. However, it seems likely that James Smith's transformation from cabin passenger to constable had reduced his standing. Phillip's intervention was humane, but possibly also reflected recognition that the appointment was not proving a success.

In November 1788, Phillip established a new farming settlement at Parramatta, then called Rose Hill. James Smith was transferred to supervise the convict workers. Phillip was well aware that "the habitual indolence of the convicts" was made worse by "the want of proper overseers to keep them to their duty".[6] Unfortunately, James Smith did not fill the gap. His failure in the role is known mainly through the success of Phillip's personal servant, Henry Dodd, who replaced him in March 1789. "One or two others had been so employed for a short time," wrote Captain John Hunter, "but were removed, as wanting either industry or probity".[7] James Smith's honesty was not in doubt, but he was obviously out of his depth. His dismissal came at a time of crisis for the colony, which was running short of food with no knowledge of when ships might arrive with fresh supplies. Phillip decided to divide the population, sending the less productive to Norfolk Island, where they might subsist on natural resources such as fish and seabirds, and where the potential for farming seemed promising. Although his name was carefully kept from the official record,  it seems that James Smith was one of those relocated.  In February 1791, the island's commander, Robert Ross, reported to Phillip, praising one of the convicts who had succeeded in establishing himself as an independent farmer: "he is a very deserving painstaking person." Without any identification or context, Ross continued with a complaint about an individual who was evidently well-known to both of them. "I wish I could say as much for Mr Smith, for, notwithstanding every encouragement that has been given him ... I am clearly of opinion that he never will do any good for himself or anybody else." James Smith had been allocated a piece of ground but had proved incapable of making use of it.[8] According to the website of the Fellowship of First Fleeters, he was returned to England on HMS Gorgon in 1791.[9] The Gorgon's captain sailed home around Cape Horn, a voyage that took the ship deep into iceberg-infested latitudes, rounding South America before calling at Cape Town.[10] If James Smith survived the voyage, he would have joined the small band of eighteenth-century travellers who had circumnavigated the globe. It would have been a remarkable achievement for someone who was such an unlikely pioneer. His return journey, however, was almost certainly less comfortable than his passage out, and his subsequent history, if any, is totally veiled.

Who was James Smith? Eccentric, ephemeral, elusive – that seems to summarise the sketchy tale of the First Fleet's only paying tourist, Australia's first free (although unsuccessful) settler. Probably exploited in his naivete by an unscrupulous sea captain, who took his cash and kept him under wraps, James Smith's fantasy cruise to an idyllic new world ended in an uncomfortable and humiliating nightmare of floggings and famine. After three grim years, he vanished into the obscurity from which he had emerged.

However, there were two clues that said a little more about him. Arthur Bowes, the surgeon aboard the Lady Penrhyn, hailed from Tolleshunt D'Arcy, a village overlooking the Essex marshes. As the First Fleet ploughed on into the lonely southern oceans, he became increasingly homesick for his friends back home, and that was the key to his friendship with James Smith, who had "a thorough knowledge of my intimate acquaintance in the County of Essex".[11] This suggested that James Smith had either lived in, or at least visited, the area where Bowes had grown up. Presumably there had been some distance between their respective homes, since they had never met, even though they knew people in common. The second clue lay in the respectful categorisation assigned to James Smith, both by Bowes and by Ross: he was always "Mr", which, in the sensitive gradations of eighteenth-century class, indicated a man of birth, wealth and consequence – however unimpressive his actual personal qualities.  Might these pointers to location and class be sufficient to identify him?

In most parts of England, attempting to identify someone called Smith – the most widespread name in the English-speaking world – would be a hopeless task. However, in Essex the surname was widely supplanted by the synonym Wright.[12] Another advantage to a Smith-hunter is the existence of the Essex Record Office, one of the leading local archives services in Britain. Its Seax website provides an online calendar that indicates the nature and sometimes the content of documents. Seax is easily searchable, and can be filtered by date.[13] Since Essex is the tenth largest by area of the historic counties of England, it is easy to dismiss James Smiths from its more remote corners, while the specific class identification of the Australian example equally rules out namesakes from more humble backgrounds. There is one James Smith who fits the requirements of neighbourhood and status. He lived at a village called Messing, about six miles (ten kilometres) north of Tolleshunt D'Arcy.[14] He was probably a lawyer who chose to invest in land, the key to acquiring status in Georgian England. Seax shows him renting the Parsonage Farm in 1752, with about forty acres, and two years later adding Bouchers Hall, one of the local manor houses, on a 21-year lease. He was mentioned as a prominent resident of Messing by the county historian Philip Morant in 1768.[15] "James Smith, gent. of Messing" died in August 1784. The James Smith of the First Fleet was presumably a son or a nephew, an unworldly individual who inherited wealth but, it would seem, very little else. Seax has one other intriguing item. Around 1780, a lawyer, Samuel Shaen of Hatfield Peverel, 10 miles (16 kms) from Messing, compiled notes about a case investigating the sanity of a Mr Smith. The issue appears to have related to his capacity to inherit and manage property. The witnesses came from Messing.[16]

Although Messing and Tolleshunt D'Arcy are relatively close, it is not altogether surprising that members of their local elites had not met. They were divided by one of the largest areas of common land in eighteenth-century Essex, Tiptree Heath, which according to a historian of 1861, "up to the beginning of the present century was a wild and lawless district ... abandoned to a few miserable cattle and the vagrant gipsy rover."[17] There was an element in romantic exaggeration in that description, designed to glorify Victorian improvement of that now-enclosed tract, but it is likely that the Heath constituted something of a psychological barrier between the communities. In addition, while gentry in Georgian times were expected to take part in local government and law enforcement, administration was carried out through traditional divisions called hundreds: Messing was included in the very large Lexden Hundred, which stretched away further to the north, while Tolleshunt D'Arcy formed part of the much smaller Thurstable Hundred. Essex had two ancient boroughs, which functioned as ports, market towns and social centres for banquets and balls. Their spheres overlapped, but it is likely that upper middle-class Messing predominantly looked east to Colchester, whereas comfortable Tolleshunt D'Arcy was more likely to turn west to seek its pleasures at Maldon. Difference in age may also help to explain why the two men first met on board ship: Bowes was 37 when they became friends, but James Smith was probably some years older.

James Smith: a tentative identification I summarise the hypothesis, acknowledging that it is provisional and requires further research. Between 1752 and 1775, a wealthy lawyer called James Smith established himself as a landed proprietor in the small Essex parish of Messing. After his death in 1784, his estate passed to a namesake, probably his son. Questions arose about the mental condition of the heir, with witnesses examined from the village. Probably he was eccentric, for it seems that he was allowed to inherit, which gave him enough cash to buy a ticket to Botany Bay. Although he is not listed as having studied at either Cambridge or Oxford, he was obviously a bookish personality, as evidenced by his gift to Bowes of a four-volume compendium of knowledge. This may suggest that he was captivated by Hawkesworth's celebrated account of the voyages of Captain Cook, published in 1773. Hawkesworth's three-volume work was undoubtedly popular with the public, but James Smith was probably unique in actually being inspired to visit the south Pacific.

Selling him a place as a cabin passenger to Botany Bay was probably an unscrupulous act of exploitation by the master of the Lady Penrhyn, and Christopher Sever was perhaps responsible for ensuring that James Smith kept a low profile until the First Fleet reached Rio de Janeiro. Arthur Bowes, who came to know Smith as they sailed the south Atlantic, seems to have been so pleased to encounter somebody who could talk about his native county that he overlooked the obvious point that the mere fact of Smith's presence on the Lady Penrhyn suggested that his companion was an oddball. When the expedition arrived in New South Wales, Phillip was persuaded to allow James Smith to remain, but although he was granted patches of land at Sydney Cove, presumably then at Parramatta and certainly on Norfolk Island, his total unsuitability for pioneer life quickly became apparent, and he was sent back to England in 1791.

Unfortunately, since I have reached an age where I can no longer pursue research in archives, my identification of James Smith is necessarily tentative. Much depends on the enquiry by the lawyer Samuel Shaen into the sanity of "Mr Smith" and the evidence of witnesses from Messing, which will either support or undermine the hypothesis. I can only make appeals to historians in Essex and Australia to extend (and test) the story.

For another First Fleet passenger on the Lady Penrhyn, see: "From Little Ilford to Botany Bay: Frances Davis, cross-dressing First Fleeter"

ENDNOTES  I am grateful for advice from Gillian Doyle, Vice-President & Research Director of the Fellowship of First Fleeters. Websites were consulted during January 2021.

[1] P.G. Fidlon and R.J. Ryan, eds, The Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth: Surgeon, Lady Penrhyn 1787-1789 (Sydney, 1979),72. At the time, the author was known as Bowes.

[2] The Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, 45, 51. The ship's other surgeon, John Alltree (who was incompetent but likeable) "generally makes up the trio". James Smith is first mentioned accompanying Bowes on a sightseeing tour of Rio, ibid., 34.

[3] Historical Records of New South Wales, i (2), 85-91, esp. 90-1. The shock discovery of the infertility of Australian soil, combined with the need to restrict the limits of settlement in the face of Aboriginal hostility, ensured that Phillip's blueprint was never submitted to London.

[4] The Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, 72, 74, 8. We can only speculate on how James Smith intended to live in New South Wales. It would presumably have been explained to him that the Lady Penrhyn was contracted for early release to sail to Canton for a cargo of tea. There was no reason to assume that any other First Fleet transport would take him back to England. Since there was no banking or credit network in the Pacific, he could only have paid his own way by taking with him a bag of gold coins, an unwise strategy in a colony of thieves. Perhaps he believed that he was travelling to a paradise where everything would be provided. If the assumption was absurd, it also coloured much British government planning for the colony.  

[5] J. Cobley, Sydney Cove 1788 (London, 1962), 165; The Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, 66, 72.

[6] The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay… (London, 1789), 57.

[7] A.J. Gray, "Dodd, Henry Edward (c.1752-1791)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, i (1966): https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dodd-henry-edward-1984; J. Hunter (J. Bach, ed.), An Historical Journal of Events at Sydney and at Sea (Sydney, 1968, cf. 1st ed., London, 1793), 302. Hunter's ambiguous comment probably explains Eldershaw's negative comment: "Except for his freedom Smith does not seem to have been an outstanding character." M.B. Eldershaw, Phillip of Australia… (Sydney, 1977, cf. 1st ed., 1938), 149. Eldershaw stated that James Smith was appointed a Justice of the Peace at Rose Hill. The First Fleet passenger list of the National Centre for Biography lists him as "peace officer": https://history.cass.anu.edu.au/centres/ncb/first-fleet-ships-and-passengers#lady_penrhyn. .

[8] Historical Records of New South Wales, i (2), 440-1 (11 February 1791). By a curious coincidence, another non-convict James Smith, a gardener from Kew, was sent out by the Guardian in August 1789. Ibid., 262. The ship sank in December. The second James Smith does not seem to have reached New South Wales. The use of "Mr" in the Ross account points to James Smith of the Lady Penrhyn. For a third James Smith, a convict on the Scarborough, see https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-james-30783.

[9] http://www.fellowshipfirstfleeters.org.au/storie4.html. In his note, Peter George Christian states that "advancing age and infirmity led to his dismissal". Old age is a relative concept. If the James Smith of the First Fleet was the son of the James Smith of Messing, Essex, who died at the age of 70 in 1784 (note 16, below), then he was unlikely to have been older than his mid-50s by 1791. 

[10] Historical Records of New South Wales, i (2), 572; M.A. Parker, A voyage round the world in the Gorgon man of war ... (London, 1795). The author, Mary Ann Parker, was the widow of Captain Parker who had commanded the Gorgon. She wrote the book to glorify her late husband and raise money to support his orphaned children.  James Smith is not mentioned, and he was not listed as a subscriber. Nor was Smith named by the diarist Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who chronicled deaths on board. P.G. Fidlon and R.J. Ryan, eds, The Journal and Letters of Lt. Ralph Clark 1787-1792 (Sydney, 1981), 224-38.

[11] Bowes was born at Tolleshunt D'Arcy in 1750, and would die there in 1790, shortly after his return from the East. The Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, xix, 51.

[12] The point is not noted by historians of Essex, but appears prima facie to be correct.

[13] https://www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk/,

[14] Messing is believed to owe its unfortunate name to an early Anglo-Saxon sub-tribe, the people of Maecca. Essex also has villages called Mucking and Ugley. Messing is associated with an early emigrant to the American colonies, Reynold Bush, claimed as the ancestor of two American Presidents.

[15] P. Morant, The History and Antiquities of the County of Essex (2 vols, London, 1768), ii, 125. A county newspaper, the Chelmsford Chronicle, was established in 1765, and many early issues are available on line. Although the file is searchable, optical character recognition systems cannot cope with the long S used by printers as part of the double-S in Messing, A local historian with knowledge of the parish community might be able to search more closely. 

[16] Chelmsford Chronicle, 13 August 1784. The household goods and some of the farm animals of the elder James Smith were auctioned, which may suggest that his heir did not intend to live in the village, ibid., 5 November 1784. The Essex Record Office call number of Shaen's notes is D/DU 139/2/1.

[17] D.W. Coller, The People's History of Essex (Chelmsford, 1861), 400-1. For the role of 18th-century Maldon as a "minor pleasure resort", see A.F.J. Brown, Essex at Work 1700-1815 (Chelmsford, 1969), 123. For Colchester, Victoria County of History of Essex, ix, 169-75 (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp169-175)