Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Convict Ship Gilbert Henderson - 1840

Embarked: 185 females
Voyage: 132 days
Deaths: 1
Surgeon's Journal: yes
Captain J. Tweedie
Surgeon Sir John Hammett

The barque Gilbert Henderson was built at Sunderland in 1837 [1].


The Gilbert Henderson sailed from Woolwich with female prisoners and 24 children on 14th December 1839.

Free Passengers

Twenty years later an account of the voyage of the Gilbert Henderson was published in The Englishwomen's Domestic Magazine under the title Life on Board a Female Convict Ship and written by a young midshipman who had been a passenger on the vessel.

He described the other free passengers on board......

In the year 1840, I sailed from Woolwich on board the barque Gilbert Henderson, of Liverpool, chartered as a convict ship by Government, and bound to Hobart Town, Van Diemen's land, with a living freight of three hundred and fifty female convicts.....Besides the naval surgeon (in our case one Sir John Hammet), the passengers on board the Gilbert Henderson comprised a retired 'naval physician of the fleet', who was going out to settle in Van Diemen's Land, on a grant of land he had received from Government; his nephew, a young Irishman about twenty years of age, of no profession, who was going out to seek his fortune, under his uncle's patronage; his son, a lad of fifteen years; a retired army captain, greatly addicted to microscopic studies, who was also going out to take possession of a Government grant; and a midshipman of the Royal Navy (myself) going out to rejoin my ship, after having been on sick furlough.

Sir John Hamett was a surgeon of higher naval rank than it was or is usual to appoint to do duty on board a convict ship. He had been knighted for his services (in Prussia) on behalf of the English Government, during the period of the cholera epidemic of 1831-32. But he had accepted the appointment because it afforded him an opportunity to reach Van Diemen's land free of expense, in order to settle upon a grant of land in the interior of the island, which had been accorded to him for his medical services, in addition to the honour of knighthood. I may, however, here state that the worthy knight who was somewhat of an eccentric, and was the most enthusiastic of the party respecting the anticipated delights of a colonial life, very soon found his way back to England.[4]

The passengers mentioned above were Dr. John Frederick Clarke, Deputy Inspector of Hospitals, and his son Master F.N. Clarke and servant; Mr. Bishop, Purveyor, Captain Phelps, late of the 48th regiment and Mr. Nuttall.

Surgeon Sir John Hamett

John Hamett kept a Medical Journal on the voyage of the Gilbert Henderson from 25 November 1839 to 30 April 1840 [2]....

Of 185 female convicts embarked in November 1839, at Woolwich, 93 were received from the penitentiary in London, 41 from Liverpool, 1 from Oxford, 1 from Durham, 10 from Exeter, 6 from Ilchester, 5 from Knutsford, 4 from Aberdeen, 4 from Dundee and 30 from Leith. Of these, 1 was sent to the House of Correction before sailing, 1 died on the passage and three were sent to the Colonial Hospital at Hobart on 25th April.

Punishments on Board

In his account the midshipman gave details of punishments, illness and conditions the women endured.............. The punishments were few and far from severe, and, as a general rule, after the first month at sea were seldom called for. Stopping the allowance of tea at supper time or the allowance of plum pudding on Sundays and Thursdays, were the mildest and the most frequent punishments. Next to these was the sending of the culprit below in fine weather and compelling her to work while her companions were enjoying themselves on deck.

For the more refractory, a wooden box, something like a sentry box was provided. The culprit was placed in this box, where she was compelled either to stand upright, or to stoop in an uneasy posture for an hour, or two, or three, according to the nature of the offence; and when the door of this prison was closed the only light and air came from a hole in the top
.' [4]

Iron Maiden from the ship Success

- An old postcard of the deck of the ship Success. The Success was built in 1849 and used to bring immigrants to Australia, however did not ever bring convicts.

The Success was used in the 1850s in Victoria as a convict hulk. The upright prison (Iron Maiden) pictured may have been similar to that described above which was used as punishment for refractory women on the Gilbert Henderson

Death of a Convict Girl

The young midshipman described the burial of a young women, Mary Connor, who had been afflicted with consumption....

Everything that the doctors skill could devise was done for this poor girl, but she was beyond human aid even when she was sent on board the ship. The disease for which science has no remedy had fixed itself upon her lungs, and she slowly pined away and died, far from the relatives and friends she had known and loved in happier days, ere she had yielded to the temptation which brought her, and perhaps those near and dear to her, to grief and shame. (She had been a respectable servant girl in Edinburgh, and, out of a situation, and suffering from illness, she had stolen and sold to purchase food and medicine a muslin dress that was exposed at the door of a draper's shop. All on board felt for her, all on board pitied her fate. She was buried at midnight, on a calm moonlit night, when the surface of the ocean was smooth and glittering as that of a mirror. Sewn up in a white sheet, and strapped to a board loaded with shot at one end, the lifeless form was laid across the bulwarks near the gangway. The sailors of the watch below and all the convicts were summoned to the deck by the slow tolling of the ship's bell. The passengers came forth from the cabin. Sir John Hammett read aloud the prayers appointed by the Church to be read at the funeral of those buried at sea, and when he spoke the solemn words - 'We therefore commit the body of our beloved sister to the deep etc etc the board was loosened, it slid swiftly over the side, a splash was heard, and the corpse sank deep beneath the parting waters, there to abide until the Great Day when the sea shall give up her dead. The splash was heard amidst solemn silence, but immediately there arose from the assembled females a wild 'keene' of lament, which rang in the ears of the listeners for long afterwards and, many among them sobbing hysterically, the females retired to the deck below' [4]


The Gilbert Henderson arrived in Hobart on 24 April 1840.

Sir John Franklin

Portraint of Sir John Franklin from a drawing by Nigelin - Project Gutenberg

Portrait of Sir John Franklin from a drawing by Nigelin - Project Gutenberg from the Life of Sir John Franklin by H.D. Traill

A few hours after the Gilbert Henderson had come to anchor and soon after the convict officials had quitted the ship the state barge of his Excellency the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land was seen approaching. It contained Sir John Franklin (then Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land) and Lady Franklin, who were attended by a guard of honour in the colonial uniform of a post-captain of the Royal Navy, and he and his lady had reached the ship before we had time to fire a salute or make any preparations to receive them.

Lady Jane Franklin

I was informed that Sir John Franklin made it a point to visit every convict ship that arrived at Hobart Town, and that Lady Franklin always accompanied her gallant husband on board female convict ships. It was the first time I had met Sir John Franklin, who was one of the handsomest men I ever saw - standing, I should think, over six feet in height, and stout in proportion, with handsome features, a fresh florid complexion and an exceedingly benevolent expression of countenance. His Excellency and Lady Franklin lunched on board and Sir John inquired into the particulars of the voyage and before he went away invited the doctor Sir James Hammett, the captain and the passengers to dine with him the Governor's House on the following day. Lady Franklin meanwhile, with a gentle sympathy and a natural kindness which at once attracted them towards her, sought out the younger convicts and assembled them round her, and addressed them briefly yet earnestly telling them that if now they behaved well and were honest, virtuous, and diligent, their past follies and crimes would be forgotten and they might yet become happy wives and mothers and respectable and respected members of society [4]

Convicts Disembarked

In the course of a day or so the convicts were all removed from the ship which had so long been their home - perhaps as I have said before the happiest home many among them had ever known, some to go to the masters and mistresses to whom they had been assigned, others to go to penitentiaries at Hobart Town, Launceston, and different parts of the island. It was rather a painful leave taking. Many of the females had been secretly working little souvenirs in the shape of book marks etc which they now respectfully and timidly offered to the doctor, captain and passengers who still remained on board. Sadly and sorrowfully enough they stepped over the side of the ship into the steamer that was to convey them to their several destinations and at length when the rope was cast loose, and the steamer went off with her living freight some among them tried to get up a feminine cheer as they waved their bonnets and handkerchiefs at the ship and the captain who was standing at the gangway watching their departure.. But they could not manage it; the feeble cheer broke down and many of them sat down sobbing or threw their arms round the necks of their companions and wept on their shoulders os long as the steamboat remained in sight of the vessel [4]

Sir John Hamett Returns to England

Sir John Hammett was well provisioned for his sojourn in the bush however his adventures were short lived.....

He had provided himself with all the requisites of a settler in the 'bush', such as tents, axes, spades, garden seeds, cooking utensils, etc., and to these had added all the comforts and elegancies of civilisation that he could stow on board, such as articles of furniture, cases of books, pipes and barrels of wine and beer, etc, and, according to his own account, was going to found a Utopia in the wilderness; yet on landing at Portsmouth two years afterwards, the first person I met on the quay was Sir John Hammett!

'I heard that the B had just arrived', he said, as he shook hands with me, 'and I came down expecting to find that you had returned to England with the vessel. I thought I'd like to shake hands with my old shipmate again. We had some pleasant days on board the Gilbert Henderson.'

'Yes Sir John', I replied, 'But you of all persons are the last I should have expected to meet. I thought you were long ago comfortably settled in the bush.'

'Wouldn't do my dear sir', replied the knight. 'Not at all the thing for a man of my years. I was sadly disappointed. Not a living soul within twenty miles of my grant. Went to look for it couldn't find it for a long time. Found it. A wretched place. Nobody to speak to but the convict servants I took with me. Should have been dead and buried in less than six months if I'd stayed. Remained a week. Came back to Hobart Town, and sailed for England on board the first vessel that was ready for sea. Sad take in. Grants of land indeed! Cost me hundreds of pounds all thrown away. Ruinous! Come and dine with me today but don't speak of Van Diemen's Land. It makes me miserable to think of it

I accepted the invitation to dinner and found Sir John very comfortably situated in a modest establishment near Portsmouth, with his wife and daughter, enjoying a much nearer approach to the Utopia of his sanguine imagination than ever he would have succeeded in founding in Tasmania.' [4] - Read more from Life on board a Female Convict Ship - Englishwomen's Domestic Magazine

Sir John Franklin's Return to England

........Sir John was, in fact, a man of too much kindly and generous feeling for the post he occupied. He could not bring himself to deal so harshly with the convict population, nor to hold the reins of government so tightly over them, as the free settlers required at his hands; and Lady Franklin, I fancied also so mild and gentle were her looks, voice and manners, seemed entirely out of her place in that rude, remote colony. Soon afterwards Sir John Franklin resigned the lieutenant governorship and returned to England and sailed thence on the last fatal voyage from which he never returned. [4]


[1] Bateson, Charles Library of Australian History (1983). The convict ships, 1787-1868 (Australian ed). Library of Australian History, Sydney : pp.364-365

[2] UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817-1857. Medical Journal of Sir James Hammett. The National Archives. Kew, Richmond, Surrey.

[3] National Archives - Reference: ADM 101/29/7 Description: Medical journal of the Gilbert Henderson female convict ship from 25 November 1839 to 30 April 1840 by James Hamett, surgeon and superintendent, during which time the said ship was employed in transporting female convicts from Woolwich to Hobart Town in Van Diemen's Land. (Described at item level).

[4] Life on board a Female Convict Ship, Englishwomen's Domestic Magazine