Lieutenant John Shortland – Hunter’s River 1797

An Eye Sketch of Hunter’s River 1797 (Courtesy of Hydrographic Department, U.K) Click Image for High Resolution Version

Lieutenant John Shortland. An eye sketch of Hunter’s River. 1797. Signed J.S.
[initials presumed to be those of Lieutenant John Shortland].

1797 Lieutenant John Shortland, R.N.

Lieutenant John Shortland of the H.M.S. Reliance officially “discovered” the River on the 10th September 1797 while on route to Port Stephens. The letter to his father reporting the discovery is recorded in Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. 3 pp 481 – 182:

“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. Vessels from 60 to 250 tons may load there with great ease, and completely landlocked. I dare say, in a little time, this river will be a great acquisition to this settlement. The short time I remained at this river we had rain, which prevented my doing so much as I otherwise should.


“An Eye Sketch of Hunter’s River.”

Shortland Eye Sketch from Navy Archives in Taunton

An eye sketch of Hunter’s River. Two photographic copies of a plan dated 1797.
Signed L.S. [initials presumed to be those of Lieutenant John Shortland].

A copy is held in the University Archives at Shelf Location A6472 (iii)

Original is held in the Hydrographic Department.
Ministry of Defence, Taunton, Somerset, United Kingdon: C642/1

Please click here for The State Library of New South Wales: Papers of Sir Joseph Banks site who have scanned the following letter and map relating to Shortland’s discovery:

Extract of a Letter from Lieut. John Shortland of H.M.S. Reliance, to his Father…, 10 September 1798 (Series 23.38)

Transcribed Excerpt from Historical Records of New South Wales Vol.3 p.347:

Excerpt (p.347) from Governor Hunter’s Letter to the Duke of Portland, 10th January 1798 published in Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol.3 pp 343 – 350:

“A small river has been lately discovered by a boat I had occasion to send northward in pursuit of the deserters: it is about sixty-five miles from this part: on its south shore and near the water a considerable quantity of coal was discovered, and specimens were brought hither. As soon as the public service will admit of my absence from hence, I propose to go thither in a boat and examine this discovery myself, after which your Grace shall be more particularly informed.”

Transcribed Excerpt from Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol.3 p727:

Discovery of Hunter River

When the last accounts left New South Wales, the Governor was going to send Lieut. John Shortland (first lieutenant of his Majesty’s ship Reliance) in the Colonial schooner, to survey the coast. Some months previous Lieutenant Shortland discovered a very fine river, which it is thought will prove of great advantage to the colony, as, from the survey he then had an opportunity of taking, he thinks vessels from 60 to 250 tons may load there, and be completely landlocked. The river lays N.N.E. about 63 or 65 miles from Port Jackson.

[Reprinted from the True Briton of 25th October, 1799. The river was named Hunter River, in honour of Governor Hunter, by Lieutenant Shortland, its discoverer. The native name of the river was “Coquon.” Shortland discovered the river in September, 1797, when in quest of convicts who had seized the Cumberland – the Government boat for trading to the Hawkesbury. – Ante, pp. 347, 481. As early as June, 1796, a party of fishermen reported the discovery of gold in the vicinity of Port Stephens. – Collins, vol. i, p.484; vol. ii, p. 48.

In the Christian Observer, July, 1802, appeared the following paragraph:- “Governor King had formed a small settlement at Hunter River for the purpose of working the coal, which is of the same nature with that of Newcastle.”]

Copy is held in the University Archives at Shelf Location A6472 (iii)

Original is held in the Hydrographic Department. Ministry of Defence, Taunton, Somerset, United Kingdon: C642/1.

Compare the original above with the first published edition (1810) below:

Lieutenant John Shortland's Eye Sketch of Hunter's River 1797, first published 1810.
Lieutenant John Shortland’s Eye Sketch of Hunter’s River 1797, first published 1810.

1810. [July 31]

Memoir of the Public Service of the Late Captain John Shortland, of the Royal Navy (3.2MB PDF File).
Naval Chronicle Vol. XXIV pp.1-21, 312-313. Contains plate of Shortland’s Eye Sketch.


History of Newcastle and the Northern District
By H. W. W. Huntington

No. X.

[Ref: History of Newcastle AND THE Northern District. (1897, September 9). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW : 1876 – 1954), p. 7. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from ]


Although Lieutenant Shortland failed to capture the deserters who piratically seized the Cumberland, we are told that his pursuit had not been without advantage, for he had entered a river which he named Hunter River. At the present juncture of affairs, this memorable event is one of surpassing interest to Novocastrians, and must ever possess a peculiar interest to all lovers of colonial history. Impressed with the importance of the subject, the writer has been at extraordinary pains to ascertain a true account of the survey; but, strange to relate, the historical records are almost silent on the subject, although there is every probability that a chart and survey of the ‘harbour were furnished Governor Hunter by the bold and intrepid Lieutenant Shortland soon after his return to Sydney. The only official utterance on the auspicious event is a brief mention in one of Governor Hunter’s dispatches to the Duke of Portland, dated 10th January, 1798, to this effect:-“‘ A small river has been lately discovered by a boat I had occasion to send northward in pursuit of deserters. It is about 65 miles from this port on its south shore, and near the water a considerable quantity of coal has been discovered, and specimens were brought hither.” It was only after diligent search among old newspapers and charts prepared nearly a century ago that the writer has managed to ‘gather sufficient material for a brief history of this event, which is one of much curiosity and value. As the office of the historian is a narration of facts, a fair and impartial exposition of this historical event in the absence of the official documents can only be gained by a close study of Shortland’s chart (of which a facsimile has fallen into the hands of the writer), with other details of the survey supplied by Lieutenant Shortland to his father, to Captain Collins, and others. This interesting little chart, or “eye-sketch,” which Lieutenant Shortland sent to his father on 10th September, 1798, from Sydney Cove, reveals a vivid picture of Newcastle Harbour in September, 1797, and speaks more forcibly than words can express. Upon careful inspection there is no mistaking there is no mistaking the spot where he landed, and where he slept, besides, the track of the whaleboat, from its entry to its departure from the port, is plainly depicted.


It appears that as soon as Governor Hunter had directed Lieutenant Shortland to undertake the whaleboat expedition to the northward in search of the convicts who had seized the Cumberland on September 5, 1797, the whaleboat was well manned and armed for a fortnight’s voyage. It was early on the morning of 7th September when the little craft sailed down Port Jackson and outside the Heads in the teeth of a fresh north-east wind with fresh breezes and squally weather with rain, a strong current setting in to the southward. With all expedition Broken Bay was cursorily examined, and the voyage continued to the northward. Owing to the wind blowing strong with hard squalls, great care had to be exercised in hugging the coast at a safe distance. Eventually the sea side of Newcastle was passed, and Port Stephens reached. As no trace of the pirates could be found in this harbour, the navigators, on the afternoon of the 9th, quitted it, and made all haste southward. When off Cook’s “small clump of an island,” Lieutenant Shortland saw behind it what had the appearance of a bay, the land making like islands” in front of it. Determined to seek shelter from the southerly gale that was blowing, he reconnoitred the narrow passage between the two bluff headlands, now known as Nobbys and Fortification Hill. Rounding the bold rocky head land attached to the mainland, he had in coming from the sea to give a wide berth to the dangerous reefs which encompassed the mainland point, as well as the reefs of the adjacent island, upon which the surf was breaking heavily. Having surmounted these dangers, he carried three fathoms of water in the shallowest part of the capacious basin or harbour into which he brought his little boat. He had hardly entered to port when he experienced a strong current, which at once established the fact that he had reached the mouth of a river. Upon sounding he found deep water, and then he sailed round to a little white sandy bay on the inland side of the mainland point, the present locality of the lifeboat sheds. A search was then made for a supply of fresh water, and at the head of the bay a beautiful little stream of crystal water was found flowing from the hillside, which was covered by a dense wood. Beside this fresh-water creek, which caused the bay to be afterwards known as Freshwater Bay, a camp was formed, and a tent-house erected. The scene of the camping ground was at the base of what is now Fortification Hill, which was then covered with verdure and a dense scrub, while in the valley running from the harbour to the seashore there was a thick wood of white honeysuckle and gum-trees. The exact locality of the camp can easily be ascertained, as the “eye-sketch” exhibits a cross at the place of landing, and a circle around the cross is placed to represent the tent-house. The writer has often visited the place and pondered over the great transformation scene which has taken place since 1797, not only in the appearance of Nobbys and Signal Hill, but also in the foreshores of the harbour. The position of the historic spot seems to have been near the site of the present principal pilot houses, off the road leading to the breakwater. As the sketch places signs at three places where fresh water ran close to the camp, and as there are still some traces left of these little original streams, the memorable spot could be determined almost to a certainty.


We now come to that interesting part of Lieutenant Shortland’s visit, the discovery of coal on the south shore of the harbour, which event took place immediately after he landed. At the time of his visit there was no breakwater connecting Nobbys with Signal Hill, nor were there any hillocks of sand backed against the southwest end of Nobby Island, which towered nearly 150ft perpendicularly from the bosom of the ocean, and exhibited beds of coal strata now frequently covered with sand, the seams of coal at the base being from 18 to 20 inches thick. Glancing at several views of Nobby Island in the early days before the hand of the despoiler had robbed it of nearly all its primitive features, its original form assumed the shape of a crouching lion; the outlines of a majestic head with elongated body and a reef of rocks for a tail made a good representation of a lion rampant. Fifty years after Lieutenant Shortland saw it in its primitive state it was shorn of its lofty head and summit to a depth of fully 60ft to enable the lighthouse to be erected on a solid foundation at a given height. Signal Hill also presented to Lieutenant Shortland a dignified and bold front to the sea, its north end being high and rugged, rising perpendicularly from the semi circle of rocks or reefs which formed its basement, and over which the ocean dashed in its most surly moods and raised a surf which broke to a very great height in bad weather. It was between these two rocky portals (Nobbys and Signal Hill) that Lieutenant Shortland steered the Governor’s whaleboat, and for many years after this voyage (until Macquarie Pier, as the breakwater was originally called, was partially completed) the colliers resorting to the river for coals and timber preferred that narrow passage to the proper channel of the river, which runs round the north side of the island. It was while Lieutenant Shortland was exploring the foot of Signal Hill and the beach near the camp that lie found abundance of coal scattered about, making in a very short time a splendid collection of specimens of the mineral for the purpose of having them analysed by Messrs. Broadbent and J. H. Platt, the only two expert coal miners in the colony. The coal had the appearanee of being cast out of the cliffs, where there were three seams of coal, the lowest being on the reef, which was dry at low tide, and the highest 20ft or 30ft above the rocks. It was discovered that the coal beds ran through the headland from the harbour to the base of the southern highland facing the ocean.


Immediately after the finding of the coal deposits an excursion was organised to the summit of Signal Hill, which Lieutenant Shortland denominated “Braithwaite Point,” in honour of an old naval veteran who was a staunch friend of his father’s. From the top of this delightful eminence a fine panoramic view of the surrounding country was obtained, and the scene before them was of the most picturesque and animated nature. According to the navigator’s account the proper entrance of the river was seen to be very “narrow and covered by a high rocky island lying right off it, so as to leave a good passage round the north end of the island between that and the shore.” To this island Lieutenant Shortland affixed the name of “Point Hacking,” after Quartermaster Heny Hacking of H.M.S. Sirius, one of the first Australian explorers, who made heroic efforts to cross the Blue Mountains in 1794, and is presumed to be the discoverer of Port Hacking, near Sydney, in 1788. Hereafter it will be seen that this hero of Australian history in 1799 procured a boat load of coals from Newcastle after a desperate encounter with the natives. It is almost needless to state that Point Hacking is now called Nobby Island, so named after Lieutenant Nobby, who formed one of the early navigators of the river. Lieutenant Shortland, from his elevated position on Braithwaite Point, noticed (to use the words of the original account), that “a reef connected the south part of the island with the south shore of the entrance of the river,” but between the two points he found a channel for vessels of good tonnage of 60 to 250 tone, if not more. The reef uniting the island with the hill on which they stood also formed the subject of comment. Looking inland there was a pleasing prospect of the range called the Sugar Loaves and the Hunter range of mountains, also the many mangrove islands which dotted the river, the Cabbage Tree and forest swamps, and the sand hills covered with scrub which stretched along the Newcastle Bight, upon which the surf rolled heavily. Here and there were seen in the distance blackfellows’ fires, which gave evidence that the country was well populated with the descendants of the original possessors of the soil. This survey of the country from the top of Signal Hill was the only view Lieutenant Shortland had of the windings of the River Hunter, inasmuch as he only had time to row his boat up the harbour a distance of about five miles from Nobbys. However, he saw enough of the scenery to establish the existence of a fine river stretching a long way inland, which he called the Hunter in compliment to the Governor, Captain John Hunter, one of the ablest captains of the Royal Navy, and one of the most distinguished of our early colonial administrators.


As the day was far advanced, Lieutenant Shortland determined to take a short trip round the harbour from the site of the life boat shed, as far as the first island and back to the camp. The boat appears to have been rowed along the foreshores of Newcastle, which extended nearly. to Hunter street, the best part of Scott street being then under water and having since been reclaimed from the waters of the harbour. Lieutenant Shortland, in his sketch, erroneously joins Bullock Island to the mainland as he conceived they were united, although there was a sheet of water stretching far away (in the direction of Honeysuckle Point) which he denominates ” a lagoon,” the approaches to which are marked with sand banks, and the statement “part dry at low water.” Probable the heavy rains that had been falling at the time had submerged the surrounding neighbourhood. Passing along the harbour side of Onebygamba to its extreme point, Lieutenant Shortland christens the extremity “Point Bass,” after Dr. George Bass, of H.M.S. Reliance, and the famous discoverer of Bass’ Straits in 1798, this reference to Dr. Bass leads one to ponder whether Bass was not a good imitator of the prowess of Lieutenant Shortland in his venturous voyage to Newcastle in a whaleboat, which exploit Bass surpassed the following year by his wonderful exploration of 600 miles of Australian coast in a whaleboat. Directly opposite Point Bass there is another point of land which faces Port Waratah, in the vicinity of the Hunter River Copper Smelting Works. To this point Lieutenant Shortland has given the name of “Point Flinders,” after his comrade the great circumnavigator, Captain Matthew Flinders, who with Dr. Bass in the little sloop Norfolk in 1799, circumnavigated Tasmania. Between Points Bass and Flinders there is in the sketch the mouth of a creek, which is the veritable Throsby Creek. Arriving at an island, now called Mosoheto Island, but Mangrove Point by Lieutenant Shortland, the whaleboat’s course up the river came to an end. Mangrove Point was so named as it was thickly covered with mangrove trees. It is described as encompassed with a huge sandbank in front of it and by another at its rear, marked “dry at low water.” Behind this island appear three or four small islands, presumably Wallis Island, Schnapper Island, &c. The sketch bears no trace of Dempsey or Ash Islands, and merely outlines the harbour from its entrance to the opening of Fullerton Cove. At the entrance to Fullerton Cove and opposite Wallis Island there is a point of land (Mitchell’s 1000-acre grant) which Lieutenant Shortland has named George’s Point, after his Majesty George the Third. During the return voyage of the whaleboat two landings were effected on the north side of the har bour (now called Stockton), one being opposite Mangrove Point or Island, and the other at the harbour end of Stockton-street. Another place of landing on Stockton was at the point close to the Tin Smelting Works and northern breakwater, the point being named “Point Kent,” after Lieut. William Kent, R.N., Commander of H.M.S. Buffalo, and nephew of Governor Hunter. This last point is directly opposite Nobbys, or Point Hacking, and both points exhibit dangerous reefs, upon which the swell breaks with uncommon violence, raising a surf perhaps nowhere to be equalled. On the sea side of Stockton beach the following words are written on the sketch, “A sandy beach, which trends towards Port Stephens, about 14 or 15 miles.” The last place on which Lieutenant Shortland landed prior to his camping for the night, at Signal Hill, was Nobby Island, where he beheld coals lying in heaps at the base of the island, the lowest coal bed being uncovered at low water. There was no landing on the Newcastle water side except at Signal Hill. The sketch is made to a scale, and the distances of various places from Signal Hill may be thus computed – Point Hacking, half a mile; George’s Point, nearly six miles; Point Bass, about 2½ miles; Point Flinders, about three miles; and to the first island in the channel towards Fullerton Cove about four miles. Beyond all doubt, the survey was only a cursory examination of the port of not many hours’ duration. Nightfall, doubtless, put an end to minute observations as to the soil or the state of the country. Indeed, it does not appear whether he had any intercourse with the natives, but if he had the accounts handed down to us would have mentioned it. The sketch shows a track to Port Stephens, which Lieutenant Shortland says is E.N.E true 10 leagues. In a corner of the sketch are the following remarks in the lieutenant’s handwriting :-” An eye sketch of Hunter River. It lays N.N.E. true 63 or 65 miles from Port Jackson. Discovered this river 9th September, 1797, in the Governor’s whale boat. High water full to change 8 a.m. Tides rise six to eight feet. J.S.”


When Lieutenant John Shortland reached Port Jackson on the 19th September, after making a minute survey of Port Stephens and Broken Bay, Governor Hunter was pleased beyond measure at the coal discovery, which was triumphantly recorded in the diary of the Colonial Secretary in these words :-” In this harbour was found a considerable quantity of coal of a very good sort, and lying so near the waterside as to be conveniently shipped, which gave it in this particular a manifest advantage over that (the Coal Cliff coal discovery) discovered at the southward.” In fact, Governor Hinter was so elated at the coal-beds rendering the settlement a great service that he wrote to the Home Secretary, ” As soon as the Public Service will admit of my absence from hence, I propose to go thither in my boat and examine this discovery myself, after which your Grace will be more particularly informed.” Sad to relate, the Duke’s reply was a recall to England of the Governor, hence his intention to survey Newcastle Harbour had to be abandoned; nevertheless, before he left the settlement, he allowed the boats of private individuals to resort to the river for coals and timber. Governor Hunter first surveyed Port Jackson, Broken Bay, and Botany Bay, and the frustration of his intention to survey Port Hunter may justly be deemed a misfortune, inasmuch as his surveys have never been excelled for detail or elaborateness. Recourse must now be made to the historic letter of Lieutenant Shortland to his lather, which the writer has copied from one of the old naval chronicles. It reads as follows: “H.M.S. 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. Vessels from 60 to 250 tons may load there with great ease and completely landlocked. I daresay in a very little time this river will be a very great acquisition to this settlement. The short time we remained at this river we had rain, which prevented my doing so much as I otherwise should.” The letter was signed “J. Shortland,” and of course contained private and personal intelligence. In the “True Briton” of 25th October, 1799, there appears a paragraph based upon the Lieutenant’s letter to his father, which also forms a link in the chain of the discovery of the “Coquon,” as the natives called the river, but anglicised by Lieutenanit Shortland into Hunter’s River. The paragraph reads as follows :-” When the last accounts left New South Wales the Governor was going to send Lieutenant John Shortland (first lieutenant of his Majesty’s ship Reliance) in the colonial schooner to survey the coast. Some months previous Lieutenant Shortland discovered a very fine river, which it isthought will prove a great advantage to the colony, as from the survey he then had an  opportunity of taking he thinks vessels from 60 to 250 tons may load there and be completely land locked. The river lays north-north east about 63 or 65 miles from Port Jackson.” It would appear that Lieutentant Shortland slept during the night of the 9th September, 1797, at the foot of Signal Hill called Braithwaite Point, and in the course of his run round the harbour, landed five times, namely, Nobbys called Point Hacking, the inside point of Stockton called Point Kent, at the next point on Stockton foreshores, at a point on Stockton near Fullerton Cove, and at the camp under Fort Sratchley. Shoals were marked on the sketch off the boat harbour and in the north harbour. It will be seen that Lieutenant Shortland was the first to designate the river a “Coal River ” – a name by which the harbour was known for upwards of a quarter of a century. In the wide field of British enterprise and commercial activity there is no part of her colonial possessions more deserving of immediate and earnest attention than the Newcastle and northern district, a country of vast extent, exuberant fertility, intersected with navigable rivers, abounding in coal, iron, copper, lead, silver, gold, yielding good harvests annually, and offering a profusion of cereals, wool and meat products, in exchange for the manipulated products of British or foreign countries. (To be continued on Tuesday)

Gionni Di Gravio
University Archivist & Chair, Hunter Living Histories Initiative
University of Newcastle (Australia)

6 thoughts on “Lieutenant John Shortland – Hunter’s River 1797

  1. Just a small point, the naming of this map an eye-sketch suggests it was drawn on the spot, yet it shows Shortland’s track to Port Stephens. This could indicate that the Hunter River was entered while Shortland was returning to Sydney rather than while on his way to Port Stephens.

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