The Background to John Shortland’s Discovery – John Hunter’s Missing List

The Background to John Shortland’s Discovery

John Hunter’s Missing List

By Mr Paul Farnill

It is well known that in 1797 John Shortland entered and named the Hunter River whilst in pursuit of a party of escaped convicts.  Shortland had entered a then unknown inlet (the mouth of the Hunter), after an unsuccessful search for the escapees at Port Stephens.   What is lesser known is why Shortland decided to take a row boat as far as Port Stephens in the first place?  Was the discovery of the Hunter River and its coal deposits a purely serendipitous event, or was it a result of a rational plan?

A voyage to Port Stephens in nothing more than an armed row boat was surely a hazardous adventure, even in those days, and in chasing the significantly faster sailing vessel that had been seized by the convicts would seem quite a futile exercise.  Before undertaking such a voyage, one would think that Shortland held some expectation of success, and indeed he did!   A document that appears to have lain hidden in the British Archives for over 200 years offers some explanation. (1)

The seeds of Shortland’s discovery were sown some seven years earlier in 1790 when a group of five convicts, after suffering the appalling conditions of the second fleet, stole a punt from the settlement at Rose Hill [Parramatta]. At night the convicts escaped undetected down the river to the harbour, where they exchanging their stolen punt for a small boat used by the watch house at Watson Bay.

There is no record of any pursuit of the five escapees.  David Collins, writing at the time, said of the escape:-

They no doubt pushed directly out upon that ocean which from the wretched state of their boat wherein they trusted themselves, must have proved their grave. (2)

Collins names the escapees:-

Their names were John Tarwood, a daring and desperate character and principal in the scheme; Joseph Sutton, who was found secreted on board the Neptune and punished; George Lee; George Connoway and John Watson. (3)

Nothing further was heard of the five escapees, until five years later in 1795 when William Broughton in HM Sloop Providence was forced past Sydney Harbour in a storm, and took shelter in Port Stephens.  Broughton recorded his surprise at encountering four Europeans living with the natives.  These Europeans proved to be the four surviving 1790 escapees (Joseph Sutton having died).

Broughton described the four as “miserable half starved objects” and records that “the man that enticed them to desert [presumably John Tarwood/Turwood] at first refused to board the ship and preparations were made to leave him behind”.  Broughton however persuaded him that he would not be ill treated or punished, and Tarwood agreed to return to Sydney. Broughton reflected that “one or two of the men had married but left their wives and children with no regret.” (4)

Two years later in 1797, the vessel Cumberland, a colonially built vessel, engaged in the carrying of supplies between the Hawkesbury and Sydney was seized by a party of convicts.  No description of the Cumberland has been located, but it is described as being the “largest and best” boat in the colony. (5)  This description suggests that the Cumberland was larger than its contemporary, the other colonially built vessel a 44 ton sailing schooner named  the Francis.

The loss of one of the colony’s only two sailing vessels must have been a severe blow to the near starving settlement.   There being no suitable vessels available in Sydney Harbour at the time of the escape (The Francis was at Norfolk Island), Governor Hunter dispatched two rowing boats in pursuit.

Not having any fit vessels to pursue [them] on such an occasion, I despatched two row-boats well armed. (6)

One boat turned south and returned after a short time, but one commanded by John Shortland rowed north as far as Port Stephens.

Hunter’s letter of January 1798, in which he describes the taking of the Cumberland, included the statement “I send enclosed No.3 a list of the deserters.”(7)   However the Historical Records of NSW, which includes a copy of Hunter’s letter, states “this list is missing.”(8)   Similarly the Historical Records of Australia includes the notation: “A copy of the list of deserters has not yet been found.” (9)  The ‘missing’ document was however encountered during research for a Master’s thesis in 2009. (10)  The list, under the heading “ List of Men Gone off in the Cumberland” (11),  includes the names John Tarwood and George Lee, these being two of the convicts taken into custody by William Broughton at Port Stephens only two years earlier.  Tarwood is believed to have been the instigator of the initial escape and both men are believed to have taken Aboriginal wives during their five years sojourn at Port Stephens.

Given Tarwood and Lee’s previous association with Port Stephens, it would seem a logical step for Governor Hunter to dispatch a boat to search the area. Thus the “missing list” indicates that John Shortland’s ‘chance’ discovery and exploration of the nearby inlet, that proved to be the mouth of the Hunter River, may not have been as accidental or fortuitous as previously believed.


1. Paul Farnill, “The Beginnings of a European History of Newcastle and Port Stephens” (Research, Maquarie University, 2009).
2. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in N.S.W. , 2nd ed., vol. 1 (London: T Cadell and W Davies, 1803).
3. Ibid.  (surprisingly perusal of the convict indents held at SLNSW, reveals no 2nd fleet convicts by the name of John Tarwood and Joseph Sutton. There was however a John Turwood and Joseph Suttle, it would appear that Collins misspelt the names.)
4. William Robert Broughton, Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean in His Majesty’s Sloop Providence and Her Tender (London: T Cadell & W Davies, 1804).
5. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in N.S.W. .p418
6.  John Hunter, “Letter – John Hunter to the Duke of Portland 10 January 1798,” in CO 201/14 (No.30) (Kew England: National Archives, 1798).
7. F.M. Bladen, ed., Historical Records of New South Wales, vol. III, Hunter. 1796-1799 (Sydney: Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1895). p346
8. Ibid.
9. Fredrick Watson, ed., The Historical Records of Australia, Governor’s Despatches to and from England 1788 to 1848 (Sydney: Government Printer, 1914).
10. Farnill, “The Beginnings of a European History of Newcastle and Port Stephens”.
11. John Hunter and David Collins, “Inclusion No.3 – List of Men Gone Off in the Cumberland and Ramsay’s Boat,”  (London: Public Records Office, 1798).  Note since discovering the list in the British archives a copy has been located in the NSW SL as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP).


Bladen, F. M., ed. Historical Records of New South Wales. Edited by F. Watson. Vol. III, Hunter. 1796-1799. Sydney: Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1895.
Broughton, W. R. Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean in His Majesty’s Sloop Providence and Her Tender. London: T Cadell & W Davies, 1804.
Collins, D. An Account of the English Colony in N.S.W. . 2nd ed. Vol. 1. London: T Cadell and W Davies, 1803.
Farnill, P. ‘The Beginnings of a European History of Newcastle and Port Stephens’. Research, Maquarie University, 2009.
Hunter, J. ‘Letter – John Hunter to the Duke of Portland 10 January 1798’. In CO 201/14 (No.30). Kew England: National Archives, 1798.
Hunter, J., and D. Collins. ‘Inclusion No.3 – List of Men Gone Off in the Cumberland and Ramsay’s Boat’. CO201/14, Frame 129. London: Public Records Office, 1798.
Watson, F., ed. The Historical Records of Australia, Governor’s Despatches to and from England 1788 to 1848. Sydney: Government Printer, 1914.



5 thoughts on “The Background to John Shortland’s Discovery – John Hunter’s Missing List

  1. Shortland entered Hunters River on his passage north to Port Stephens. The evidence for this is in the 1798 letter to his father (below), where “down” refers to “away from Sydney”, and the Eyesketch shows the track of the whaleboat boat from Hunters River “to Port Stephens” with bearing and distance for that track.

    The Eyesketch from the Taunton files also shows the “track from Port Jackson” entering Hunters River between Braithwaites Head and Hacking Island (Signal Hill and Nobbys)

    It makes sense for Shortland to keep close to the coast while heading north, both to search for signs of the escapees or wreckage, and to stay out of the southerly East Coast current offshore.

    J. Shortland, Jun., To J.Shortland, Sen.
    HMS Reliance, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson,

    10th September, 1798.

    My Dear Father, About a twelvemonth since I went on an expedition in the Governor’s whaleboat as far as Port Stephens, which lies 100 miles to the northward of this place. In my passage down I discovered a very fine coal river, which I named after Governor Hunter. The enclosed I send you, being an eye-sketch which I took the little time I was there….

    …the Governor talks of sending down to have it surveyed.

    Extract of a Letter from Lieut. John Shortland of H.M.S. Reliance, to his Father…’, 10 September 1798 (SLNSW CY3008 154)

  2. Russell is correct that Lieutenant John Shortland, Jnr, RN entered the harbour of the ‘ very fine Coal River’, on 10 Sep 1797 on his way TO Port Stephens. I don’t quite agree with Russell’s argument about gleaning this from the descriptions ‘track down’ (which Russell thinks means ‘track away’), ‘track to’ etc. Each of the three versions of Shortland’s ‘eyesketch’ contain subtle differences – another story for another time, however. Quite simply, if you read the eyesketch title on the official sketch lodged with the Hydrographic Office, Taunton, it clearly says ‘Discovered this River Septr 10. 1797, on my way to Port Stephens’. This version also clearly depicts and labels boat tracks as ‘Track from Pt Jacksons’, ‘Boats track to Port Stephens’. It is also pretty clear that Shortland located a camp or landing site first near Signal Hill, then rowed up the harbour on the western side and then ‘down’ (in this case, ‘down’ doesn’t mean ‘away’ Russell) the harbour on the eastern side, landing at three locations on the Stockton Peninsula on the return leg – the last of which was near the anchorage at Punt Road. Of course, the proud folk from the Stockton Historical Society believe that Shortland landed at Stockton first and had this enshrined in a memorial tablet near Punt Road, as well as several publications. It is also clear that Shortland’s small party were the first Europeans to document some landward exploration. His party must have climbed Signal Hill to see the watercourse and hill he marked on the southern side as well as the feature marked ‘A Swamp’ (Throsby Creek) which he did not sketch as connecting with the harbour, so may have only seen it from Signal Hill (and assumed that it was a landlocked swamp). There is no ‘track’ shown to Nobbys Island, but there is a small ‘+’ symbol (‘landed here’)- which is also the symbol for ‘rock’ or ‘reef’. The published 1810 map shows the ‘+’ more strongly as a landing site. Perhaps Shortland just wanted to mark it as a ‘rock’ albeit a very large one, and an engraver later interpreted it as a landing site? Not sure – maybe he did land at Nobbys.

    Rowboat? – Shortland’s letter and sketch indicate he was in the Governor’s whaleboat for the duration of the mission. Such whaleboats could be and were often fitted with sails. Bass conducted several ocean going trips in a whale boat in the same period, from Sydney to Point Hicks and west along the Victorian coast (separate from the ‘Tom Thumb’ trips). He certainly didn’t have his crew ‘pull’ the entire way. When the Bryants’ party of escaped convicts made their heroic trip to Batavia in a six-oared Government cutter, they sailed much of the journey. I think the principal means of propelling a whaleboat is through the use of oars, but that doesn’t prevent use of sails. Shortland remarked in his letter to his father that he didn’t achieve as much as he wanted in his short stay in the harbour due to rain. Perhaps the rain wetted the sails and halted a steady breeze? It wouldn’t hamer rowing. Of course, Shortland also had a mission to get on with. One question posed about the sketch sent to his father – he shows a section of the NSW coast where Port Stephens is clearly marked but doesn’t plot the location of the ‘Coal River’.

    We should recall Collins is a secondary source.

  3. Note that the official version lodged with the Hydrographic Office has Shortland discovering the coal river on 10 Sept 1797 (or perhaps it only appears to be a ’10’). His letter to his father is dated exactly 12 months later. Most secondary sources, including the version of the sketch sent to his father, have the date as ‘9 Sept 1797’.

  4. Re rowboat/whaleboat. John Hunter’s letter to the Duke of Portland of 10 January 1798 says “I dispatched two row boats, well armed.”

  5. While the evidence certainly points to John Shortland discovering the Hunter on the outward leg of his voyage, I don’t believe one can be 100% certain.

    One would assume the eye-sketch prepared by Shortland, was prepared on the spot. If the discovery was made on the outward leg of the voyage it would appear that the route of the boat was a later addition. Shortland’s sketch does not show a proposed direction to Point Stephens but rather “boat’s track to Point Stephens…” and would appear to show an actual track that had already been taken.

    There is a possibility that the track and even the notes on the map were a later addition for the information of Shortland’s father inserted some months after the event.

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