Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

John Stephenson R. N.,

Convict Ship Surgeon-Superintendent

John Stephenson was entered in the Navy List of Medical Officers in 1814.[1] He was appointed Surgeon on the Ontario in 1818[2]

Surgeon Superintendent

John Stephenson was employed as Surgeon Superintendent on five convict ship voyages to Australia:

1). Guildford to NSW in 1829. He embarked on the Guildford in Sydney bound for Hobart on 22 December arriving there on 1st January 1830 however did not depart on this vessel when she left for Bombay. The Guildford was lost on the return to England after departing Bombay.

2). Eleanor to NSW arrived 25 June 1831

3). Katherine Stewart Forbes to Van Diemen's Land in 1832.

4). Waterloo to NSW arrived 3 August 1833.

5). Neva in 1835 (wrecked)


John Stephenson drowned on 13th May 1835 when the Neva was wrecked near King Island.

Loss of the Neva Convict Ship

The Neva, of eight hundred and thirty-seven tons, commanded by Captain J. H. Peck, left Cork on the 8th January, 1835, bound to Sidney, having a crew on board of twenty six men, a surgeon, a superintendent of the convicts, Dr. R. Stevenson, R.N., one hundred and fifty female convicts, fifty five children, and nine free emigrants. Three of the passengers, it appears, died on their passage, and one child was born, so that at the time the vessel struck, she had on board no less than two hundred and forty souls!

For some weeks the voyage was pursued under the most favourable circumstances; the wind was tolerably fair, and, though there was some sickness among the passengers and convicts, everything seemed to prognosticate a speedy and propitious voyage. Alas! how soon was that assurance of safety changed to horrors of the most awful description. Danger lurked in their path, and Death, with all his terrors, stood, unseen before them. However, little deeming that their existence was so rapidly drawing to a close, they thought not of the future, till warned by the terrors to which they were subjected.

At about noon on the 13th of May, according to the ship's reckoning, she was ninety miles from King's-Island, at the entrance of Baas Straits, and everything wore a favourable aspect. A good look-out was now kept for land, which was accordingly made on the 14th of May at two o'clock in the morning. In about two hours after breakers were suddenly discovered right ahead, and immediate orders were given to tack by Captain Peck, who was then busily engaged in his various duties on the deck. Without the loss of a single moment, the vessel was then placed in stays; but, to the consternation of all on board, she immediately struck, unshipped her rudder, and became quite unmanageable. At this moment of terror the wind was very strong, and the ship was under double-reefed topsails.

Scarcely had the crew and passengers recovered from the alarm into which they had been thrown by this astounding fact, when the vessel again struck most violently, swung broadside heavily on the reef and directly listed. Horror now succeeded to the consternation and alarm into which all the parties on board had been thrown by this unexpected and melancholy event. Self-preservation seemed to be the one prevailing feeling that actuated every breast, and the captain was loudly called upon to render what assistance he could to rescue those who were under his care from the perils and dangers in which they were involved. He endeavoured to soothe and console them under their misfortunes, and earnestly besought them to restrain their terror as much as possible under these trying circumstances; but the imminent danger of their situation rendered them desperate, and their cries of deliverance rose louder and louder, as the danger of the ship became every moment but more apparent.

By whose orders we know not, but the pinnace was now lowered, and the captain, the surgeon, the superintendent of the convicts, and two of the crew, got into her, and endeavoured to make off from the now evidently sinking vessel. At this period of dismay and confusion, the doors of the prison were burst open by the violence with which the ship had struck, many threw themselves over the side of the vessel, and clinging to the boat, quickly swamped her, when, horrible to relate, all, except the master and the two sailors, perished amidst one wild cry of horror and despair. With the greatest difficulty the captain contrived to regain the ship, when, without losing a moment of time, he ordered the long-boat to be launched, and that care should be taken to prevent a similar accident to that which had just befallen them, by too many endeavouring to force their way into her.

After having taken the utmost caution to secure, as they believed, their own deliverance from a dreadful death, the long-boat was at length pushed off; but scarcely had they got away from the ship, when the boat was upset by the violence of the surf, and the whole of the party precipitated into the sea. The master and the chief-mate, being good swimmers, once more succeeded in saving themselves from the death which appeared, even to themselves, to be inevitable. With extreme difficulty they managed to reach the ship, but scarcely had they got on board, when a new horror awaited them—the vessel went to pieces, and every hope of preservation vanished like an unsubstantial dream. The scene at this moment was most awful, and wholly indescribable.

The vessel had been divided into four parts, each of which was covered with the terror-stricken females in the light dress in which they had just before simultaneously rushed from their beds, and with the remaining part of the crew, were clinging wildly to all parts of the wreck, and screaming for help in the most piteous manner. This was, indeed, a moment of terror, which would have appalled even the boldest. Situated as they were upon a frail and shaking wreck, not one gleam of hope broke in upon to cheer or inspire them. Beneath, and all around, were the lashing waves, roaring aloud as if eager to engulf them. Above, the winds howled in hideous triumph over the work of devastation and death which they had caused, and rocking the frail and disjointed wreck, so that each moment seemed to the terrified creatures as if it would be their last in this world. Every plank and joist creaked as the contending elements warred furiously with each other, and insecure as this place of refuge seemed, the hearts of the poor creatures quailed lest it should sink and bury them in the yawning abyss of water. Nor was it long before their worst apprehensions were verified.

The vessel, parted as it was, soon afterwards went to pieces, the final work of destruction was completed, and the whole of those on board, were precipitated, shrieking with horror, into the raging ocean! In this perilous situation, nearly the whole of the unfortunate sufferers were consigned to an untimely death. About two and-twenty persons, however, consisting of some of the crew, and a few of the convicts, were carried, by clinging to various, disjointed portions of the wreck, to King's Island, which was situate at the distance of about nine miles from the spot where this distressing accident had taken place. Tales of Shipwrecks and Adventures at Sea... edited by James Lindridge

Dr. Stephenson, who was recently lost in the Neva convict ship, was carried from his cot (having been previously indisposed) to the boat, which was swamped by the rush of the female convicts. It was his last voyage, and would have completed his full period of 20 years' service. What adds to the melancholy disaster is, his having been engaged to a young lady, whose feelings on hearing the fatal intelligence may be easily conceived. It was his intention to have married previous lo his departure, and to have taken his wife with him; but the rules of his service not permitting this, he postponed the event, and thus she providentially escaped a watery grave. When the Neva was taken up, the lowest tender was from another vessel, which was rejected as unfit. The Neva was then examined by a shipwright, and pronounced fit. She had, in fact, undergone complete repair the year before, and in Lloyd's list she appears as in the second description of first class ships. - Albion: A Weekly Chronicle of Literature, Science and the Fine Arts

Notes and Links

1). The State Library of Victoria has the following information about the voyage of the Katherine Stewart Forbes to VDL......The Dillingham convict letters, edited by Harley W. Forster. Cover title: The Dillingham convict letters from the hulks, Woolwich, the transport ship Catherine Stewart Forbes and from Sandy Bay and Hobart Town, Van Diemen's Land. Richard Dillingham was born in 1811.


[1] Navy List

[2] Edinburgh Magazine