21 Facts About the First Fleet

Did you know that approximately 20% of Australians descend from convicts … yes, true! Having a convict in the family has become a badge of honour for many, and having a First Fleeter even more so.

And while the term ‘convict’ tends to mean ‘criminal’, so many of the 162,000 who were transported to Australia weren’t actually ‘bad’. In fact, many were just trying to survive.

So just how much do you know of your Australian convict history? In particular the First Fleet? Here’s some intriguing facts that you probably didn’t know.

  1. Why send convicts to Australia?
    Britain had shipped about 52,000 convicts to America between 1717 and 1775 before they started sending them to Australia. And it was because of the American Revolution in 1776 that Britain started sending their criminals to Australia.
  2. When and where did it leave from and arrive?
    The fleet left Portsmouth, in Hampshire, England on 13 May 1787, and arrived at Botany Bay, New South Wales, Australia between 18-20 January 1788
  3. How many ships in the first fleet?
    The whole fleet consisted of 11 ships. 6 convict ships, 2 naval ships and 3 ships with supplies
  4. What are the names of the ships in the first fleet?
    H.M.S. Sirius, Charlotte, Alexander, Scarborough, Lady Penrhyn, Friendship, H.M.S. Supply, Prince of Wales, Golden Grove, Fishburn and Borrowdale
  5. Who was the captain of the first fleet?
    Captain Arthur Phillip
  6. What about Port Jackson?
    The fleet arrived at Botany Bay but as that place was deemed unsuitable as a settlement due to the lack of fresh water, the fleet sailed on to Port Jackson (Sydney Cove), New South Wales arriving on 26 January 1788
  7. What’s so special about the date 26 January?
    26 January marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, New South Wales and the raising of the British flag at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip, which signifies the beginning of European settlement in Australia.
  8. How long did the first fleet voyage take?
    The voyage took
    259 days (8 months and 14 days)
  9. Did the fleet stop anywhere along the way?
    They sure did. They stopped at Tenerife (Canary Islands), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and Cape Town (South Africa) on the way to stock up on food and supplies.
  10. How many convicts were on the first fleet?**
    When the ships left England there was a total of 1420 people onboard: Officials and passengers 15, Crew 323, Marines 247, Marines wives and children 46, Male convicts 582, Female convicts 193, Convicts’ children 14
  11. How many convicts arrived in New South Wales?**
    When the ships arrived there was a total of 1373, due to some deaths on the voyage: O
    fficials and passengers: 14, Crew: 306, Marines: 245, Marines wives and children: 54, Male convicts: 543, Female convicts: 189, Convicts’ children: 22** 
  12. How big were the first fleet ships?
    Alexander, weighing in at 452 tons, 114ft (34.7m) long and 31ft (9.4m) wide the Alexander was the largest ship in the fleet. To put it in perspective the ship was just a little larger than the size of a standard tennis court.
  13. What were the crimes of the convicts?
    The most common were: Petty theft, Burglary or housebreaking, Highway robbery, Stealing clothing, Stealing animals, Military offences, Prostitution, Crimes of deception, and Political protest.
  14. Who was the youngest female convict?
    Elizabeth Hayward/Haywood was aboard the Lady Penrhyn and was the youngest female convict on the First Fleet. She was 13 when sentenced, and 14 when the first fleet sailed. Her crime was stealing a linen gown and a silk bonnet. She was an apprentice clog maker before she was transported.
  15. And the youngest male convict is …
    John Hudson a ‘sometimes’ chimney sweeper, at 9 years old, and the youngest First Fleet convict at the time of sentencing, was tried at the Old Bailey in London in December 1783, to seven years transportation for breaking and entering a dwelling house. He was 13/14 when he was transported.
  16. What nationality were the convicts?
    Most were English, Irish or Scottish, but there were also some African, American and French convicts on the first fleet.
  17. Religion and the first fleet … 
    It’s well known that religion came to Australia with the first fleet. A reasonable portion of the convicts identifying themselves as Christian.
  18. And the first church service held on Australian soil was …
    The fleet arrived at Port Jackson on January 26th, on the following Sunday, February 3rd the first church service was held for the officers, marines and convicts on Australian soil. The service was led by the colony’s Chaplain, the Reverend Richard Johnson, on a grassy hill under a tree
  19. What were some of the items brought on the storeships?
    This is a small sampling of the stores: 6 butcher’s knives, 10,000 bricks, 18 coils of whale line, harness for 6 horses, 8 dozen pounds of sewing twine, 10 smith’s bellows, 7 dozen razors, 127 combs, 1 portable canvas house for Gov. Phillip), 589 women’s petticoats, 250 women’s handkerchiefs, 10 pairs of handcuffs, mill spindles, 10 forges, 700 spades, 700 west india hoes, 747,000 nails, 40 wheel barrows, 30 grindstones, and even a printing press. They also brought seeds, and many fruit trees.
  20. What animals came out with the first fleet? 
    18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks, 122 fowls, 87 chickens, kittens, puppies, 4 mares, 2 stallions, 4 cows, 1 bull, 44 sheep, 19 goats, 32 hogs, 5 rabbits, as well as Governor Phillips’ greyhounds, and Rev. Johnson’s cats
  21. The 26th of January hasn’t always been called “Australia Day”, so what was it known as? 
    It was originally known as “First Landing Day” or “Foundation Day”, and there’s evidence of these celebrations taking place that date back to the early 1800s. However it wasn’t until 30 years after the landing, that the first “official” celebrations were held in 1818. But as each Australian state was it’s own colony, and politics being politics, it took until 1935 to settle on a uniform date for all states to agree on, and named as Australia Day.

The Founding of Australia, 26 January 1788, by Captain Arthur Phillip R.N., Sydney Cove. [Original oil sketch (1937) by Algernon Talmadge R.A. ML1222]

 – More First Fleet information: Project Gutenberg Australia
 – Here’s a map of the journey taken by the First Fleet.
 – Search for the names of the convicts on the First Fleet here 

As a side note, if you find a convict if your family history, you have Australian royalty (as it’s known). However if you can lay claim to being descended from a First Fleet convict, then you have ‘true’ Australian royalty.

**[Please Note: the numbers vary depending on the report. But there were over 710, and can be up to 780]

4 Responses to “21 Facts About the First Fleet”

  1. barb says:

    great post!

  2. M Rogers says:

    Portsmouth is in Hampshire (Hants) – not Devon. Interesting fact that should be correct.

  3. angie says:

    great for my students

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