James Weavers and the Voyage of HMS Guardian
The story so far:
HMS Guardian under the command of Lieutenant Edward Riou left Portsmouth in September 1789 with vital supplies for the new colony at Sydney Cove. She carried a ship’s company of eight-eight men and some forty others, including the Reverend John Crowther, nine men who were to become superintendents of convicts, and twenty-five convicts especially chosen for their farming or practical skills. One of the convicts was my ancestor, James Weavers. While crossing the Southern Ocean, some 2000 km south of Cape Town, the Guardian struck an iceberg. She was severely damaged and, as there seemed little hope that she would remain afloat, boats were lowered and some officers, crew, and others scrambled into them and pulled away. Some were drowned during this manoeuvre, and there was little hope that others would survive. Remaining on the Guardian with Riou, who thought it his duty to remain on board and try to save his ship, were about sixty people, including James Weavers and twenty of his fellow prisoners. Their situation was perilous.
There were some small, uninhabited islands further south and some of the crew wanted to try to head for those. But Riou believed it would be better, with what little ability they had to steer, to head north where there might be a chance of meeting up with another ship, perhaps the Lady Juliana. There were mutterings amongst the crew, and some troublemakers talked of throwing Riou overboard and taking over the ship. But he managed to exert his authority and they headed north. He established a routine for shifts at the pumps, sometimes taking turns himself.
Entries in the original Guardian Log, and a narrative account Riou wrote later, give a graphic account of their struggle for survival. He wrote of his efforts to care for those on board: 'when anyone said that he absolutely could no longer stand to his spell, I let him lie down in the garden-house, the only place on the ship which was warm and dry, and established it as a hospital where I had them supplied with tea, hot wine and spices …'
And '... as everybody had been constantly wet and cold, I mixed ostrich’s eggs and rum together and ordered some pigs to be killed and fowls that were about the deck. I likewise ordered tea and sugar, of which there was abundance to be ready always at midnight, at 4 o’clock in the morning, at 8 and 4 in the afternoon. I was convinced this warm drink would keep them from desiring much liquor …’
But there were also times when he had to use harsh measures: 'At 9 pm, a heavy black squall came on all on a sudden with a violent fall of rain. The wind took the mainsail aback. There was no seeing the man who stood so near as to touch you, and no one on deck but myself. I called as usual for the spells of the pumps immediately to come upon the quarter deck to haul the mainsail up, but finding no one stirred and reading the loss of the mainsail, as also perhaps that a gale might come down … I ran down with a thick stick in my hand and beat everybody upon deck to haul the mainsail up’. 
Other pages from Riou's log reflect his efforts to keep going, his writing hampered by a crushed hand injured while trying to move cargo. More than once the word 'losing' scrawled across an entry shows his despair. Efforts to steer the vessel, first by constructing an improvised ‘steering machine’, then by using a cable, were only partially successful. Later a makeshift rudder was built but was found impossible to mount properly with the hands available. Occasionally they could steer a course by setting the sails and using the wind. Half submerged and little more than a floating raft, the Guardian limped northwards, towards Madagascar, before turning and making again to the coast of Africa and the Cape where, with the assistance of other ships, she anchored once more in Table Bay, on 22 February 1790. It was an extraordinary feat of seamanship.
The boatswain later wrote:
'We was in this teruble situation for 9 weeks before we got to the Cape of Good Hope. Sometimes our upper-deck scuppers was under water outside, and the ship leying like a log on the water, the sea breaking over hur as if she was a rock in the sea. Sixteen foot of water was the common run for the nine weeks in the hold.’
(See Fig. 6. The Route of the Guardian and Fig. 7. A page from Riou’s rough notebook with a sketch of the crippled Guardian).
A number of the survivors later wrote in praise of Edward Riou. They spoke of his calmness and ability in the face of disaster, and of his admirable personal qualities. Only the German superintendent, Phillip Schaefer, was critical. He wrote:
‘On 22nd February we reached the Cape of Good Hope after a voyage of nine weeks of suffering on the sea, and the sadness and toil were beyond description … The ship's captain, Edward Riou behaved like a savage for the whole nine weeks — he shouted and said he had nearly killed himself. He called me a fervent rascal and ill-treated me. My poor child had to stand all night in water, and had to serve the men with liquor when they rested from the pumps and do other work as well. My chest went overboard, so that my poor child and I were left with nothing but our lives, and had to go ashore at the Cape without shoes and hats, with swollen legs and sick, and without any help from Capt. Riou’. 
As already mentioned, one of the boats from the Guardian had been picked up by a French merchant ship after drifting for nine days, and the 15 survivors, including the master, Thomas Clements, were dropped back at the Cape just in time to take a passage home to England in an East India Company ship returning from China. Clements, into whose care Riou had entrusted his farewell letter, delivered it to the Admiralty, and the next day, 24 April, the London newspapers carried the news of the disaster. There was great consternation, not only for the loss of life, and the lost ship, but for the lost supplies which were so desperately needed at Sydney Cove.
On his arrival back at Table Bay, Riou immediately wrote a hasty note to the Admiralty, reporting the saving of the ship and those who had remained with her. It’s interesting to look at the means of communication — no mobile phones or emails then!. Riou gave the letter to the Captain of a Dutch packet homeward bound from the Cape. After a quick passage of only eight weeks, on arriving off Dungeness in the English Channel, the Dutch Captain hailed a Dover boatman, and a rider was dispatched from Dover to London to deliver the letter to the Admiralty. So, less than a week after the first news of the disaster had reached London, there was now, as the newspapers reported, 'extremely unexpected and miraculous news. Though beyond the verge of all probability, we are enabled to announce, that His Majesty’s ship Guardian is safe!’. 
King George lll was told the good news at once, and declared that he never received more joy than on reading Lord Chatham’s note enclosing the letter from Capt. Riou. It was reported that the First Lord of the Admiralty had set off for Cornwall, at night, in a post-chaise and four to inform his cousin, Lord Camelford, that his son was alive after all, and Lord Hood hastened to visit Riou’s mother to tell her the wonderful news.
Public interest was intense and newspapers published every possible detail of the Guardian story. The publication of Riou’s farewell letter, written in the face of imminent death, made him a popular hero overnight. The disaster was even the subject of a long- running performance at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, which advertised:
'An entirely new Historical Representation, in two parts, founded on the late interesting nautical Event, called English Heroism, in which is particularly and correctly given a living picture of the Guardian Frigate (commanded by Lieutenant Riou) in her very perilous situation in the South Seas, embayed amongst the stupendous floating Islands of Ice; Descriptive of the several Agitations among the Crew on her first striking on the ice, the full Discovery of their imminent Danger, the uncommon Exertions of the Officers and Crew, the Magnanimity of the Commander, the final departure of the Boats, with the providential arrival of the Launch, and afterward the Guardian at the Cape of Good Hope’. 
Meanwhile, back at the Cape, unloading of the remaining cargo was begun and Riou hoped that the ship could be repaired. The surviving crew and convicts were set to salvaging any remaining cargo and fittings, though most were rancid and rotten by long immersion in salt water. Riou ordered that clothing and blankets be washed, in an effort to save them, but the Dutch inhabitants of the neat streets of whitewashed houses at the Cape were not happy; they complained of the stench coming from the beach where the salvaged goods were spread to dry.
While at the Cape, Riou painted a watercolour sketch of the Guardian. (See Fig. 8. The Guardian’s Return to Table Bay, 22 February 1790). Note that the red and white ensigns are shown inverted as a signal of distress. Hopes that the Guardian could be repaired were dashed when, after a thorough survey of the hull, it was agreed that she was damaged beyond repair. She was hauled onto the beach where she was further damaged during a gale.
And where was the Lady Juliana which had left Portsmouth some weeks before the Guardian sailed? She had left with a cargo of over 200 female convicts, and had made a slow journey ─ a not uncommon practice with female transports — and did not arrive at The Cape until a week after the Guardian had limped back there. They had taken 128 days to reach Rio de Janeiro, and had stayed there for 45 days. The Lady Juliana has been dubbed The Floating Brothel. There were several babies born in Rio and more later in the voyage. 
When the Lady Juliana left the Cape at the end of March to continue on to New South Wales, the five surviving superintendents of convicts, with little Elizabeth Schaefer, and some of the salvaged supplies from the Guardian were sent on with her, including a flock of 22 sheep. The sighting of sails off the Heads at Port Jackson in early June, caused great jubilation. At last! Here was the long awaited store ship bringing supplies! Imagine the disappointment when it was learnt that no store ship was coming, the Guardian had been lost. Instead here was the Lady Juliana with only a few supplies, and over 200 more troublesome females to feed. It was not till the arrival later that month of the store ship Justinian that the future of the settlement was assured.
Some two weeks after the Lady Juliana had left the Cape, the ships of the Second Fleet arrived there, and Riou made arrangements for the remaining salvaged Guardian supplies to be taken on board. Orders from London were that the convicts remaining at the Cape were also to be sent on to NSW with the Second Fleet. But Edward Riou had misgivings about handing them over to the Naval Agent, Lieutenant John Shapcote. His dealings with Shapcote made him mistrust him, and he feared for their treatment. His conscience prompted him to write an extraordinary letter to the Secretary at the Admiralty:
'Permit me now, sir, to address you on a subject which I hope their Lordships will not consider to be unworthy their notice. It is to recommend, as much as is in my power, to their Lordships’ favour and interest, the case of the twenty convicts which my duty compelled me to send to Port Jackson.’ He praised their conduct and said, 'I publicly declare that not one of them, so far as depended on myself, should ever be convicts, and added, 'I have taken the liberty to recommend them to the notice of Governor Phillip …’ 
Remaining at the Cape, Riou continued the salvage work, dismantling and arranging for the sale of what remained of the Guardian and her fittings. The proceeds would be used to purchase provisions for later British ships calling there. When their work was finished, Riou and the remaining survivors finally sailed for home in HMS Sphinx, reaching Portsmouth in May 1791 — one year and eight months after sailing with such hopes for the new colony. He took with him the Guardian’s figurehead, some remaining guns, the Log Book, and the long masthead pennant. The pennant and Log Book are now preserved here in The State Library and a digital version of the Log can be accessed online.
Having lost his ship, under naval law Riou had to face a formal court martial. But he was honourably acquitted, and soon promoted to commander, then post-captain. William Bligh had also faced a court martial not long before, after losing The Bounty, and the newspapers were now moved to comment, 'It is a worthy remark that both Lieutenant Riou and Lieutenant Bligh were bred in the school of Captain Cook - a school which we thus see has produced glorious seamen’. 
Edward Riou’s naval career continued, and he went on to command the squadron of frigates, under Nelson, at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. He was killed during that engagement, shot while on deck. Nelson paid tribute to him, saying … 'in poor dear Riou the country has sustained an irreparable loss, and he mourned him as 'that good man and excellent officer'. 
An elaborate monument, shared with another officer killed at Copenhagen, was erected in the crypt of St Paul’s in London. (See Fig. 9 below, Memorial in St Paul’s, London). Riou is also commemorated in lines from Thomas Campbell’s poem, The Battle of the Baltic:
'Brave hearts! To Britain's pride,
Once so faithful and so true,
On the deck of fame that died
With the gallant, good Riou’
And what of James Weavers? Riou's misgivings about the treatment the convicts would receive on the Second Fleet were, of course, well founded. The appalling conditions on the Second Fleet have been well documented. The Surprize, shipped quantities of water in heavy weather, and the prisoners were confined below in perpetually damp quarters. On the Scarborough, reported plans for a mutiny caused the convicts to be treated with great brutality, while on the Neptune, the master deliberately starved his charges and opened a warehouse on his arrival at Sydney Cove to sell the rations he had withheld. Little wonder that, of a total of just over 1,000 convicts embarked on the three ships, up to one quarter died on the voyage or shortly after arriving. 
The Fleet reached Port Jackson in late June 1790. On their arrival, the chaplain, the Reverend Johnson, went on board and wrote of the inhumane conditions:
'The misery I saw amongst them is indescribable, their heads, bodies, clothes, blankets, were all full of lice. They were wretched, naked, filthy, dirty, lousy, and many of them utterly unable to stand, to creep, or even to stir hand or foot.’ 
The few who were fit enough were sent to Rose Hill (now Parramatta) to begin work, but most had to be found hospital accommodation in hastily erected tents at Sydney Cove, where the ill and dying had only the damp grass for bedding and one blanket to share between four. We don’t know into which group James Weavers fell. But, again, he had survived. (See Fig. 10 below. A contemporary impression of convicts in NSW).
Lieutenant Riou’s letter from the Cape praising the behaviour of the convicts, and his recommendation on their behalf, were heeded, and Lord Grenville, then Secretary of State, wrote to Governor Phillip:
'The orderly behaviour of those convicts before the Guardian was disabled, and their good conduct after the accident happened to her, which Lieutenant Riou has strongly represented in his letters has induced his Majesty to consent that they shall be pardoned on condition of their continuing abroad, in such parts or places as may hereafter be directed by you …’ .
They were to be given Conditional Pardons, settled on land, and supplied with provisions and tools suitable to their trades. James and several others received 30-acre grants of land on the Parramatta river, a little downstream of the present Ryde Bridge, an area known then as the ‘Eastern Farms’, and later Kissing Point. (See Fig.11 below. An Impression of the View over the Parramatta River from Weavers’ Farm in 1882). I found the tattered remains of James Weavers’ original deed of grant in a Primary Application Pack at the Land Titles Office — it was quite a thrill to realise that I was holding an original document signed by Arthur Phillip. 
James formed a liaison with another convict, a new arrival with the Third Fleet, Mary Hutchinson, and together they cleared the virgin land and began farming, and producing a family — a baby who did not survive, and three more children.  Life could not have been easy, clearing the virgin land with only the most basic tools, and the constant threat of attack by the aborigines, whose land they had taken. Their burdens were further increased by the dealings of unscrupulous traders, most of whom were officers of the New South Wales Corps, the infamous ‘Rum Corps’, who had a monopoly on imports and trade.
James Weavers was one of a number of settlers who met at Kissing Point in March 1798 to protest to Governor Hunter. They complained that goods were sold at impossibly high prices, at huge profits to the traders. They also complained that when they sold their produce to the public stores there was exploitation and dishonest dealing. James said he found it ‘impossible to live comfortably tho' possessed of a large and fertile farm’, and his accounts were submitted as evidence of the high prices.  (See Fig. 12 below. James Weavers’ bills).
Nevertheless, by 1801, with the help of one convict labourer, the family had cleared all the land, planted 8 acres of wheat and maize, and acquired 28 sheep, a goat, and 17 hogs. They were now self-sufficient and ‘off stores’. In the following years, James acquired more land. In 1803 he purchased 60 acres in the area now part of the North Ryde Golf Course. And the following year he received a second grant from the crown, an adjoining 100 acres. 
But now his luck ran out. The records show that James Weavers was buried on 4 April, 1805. The circumstances of his death have not been recorded, but there is some evidence to suggest that it may have been the result of an attack by Aborigines. 
James and Mary had three children who survived infancy, but the Weavers name didn't continue. Two sons, James and Enoch, died unmarried and without children, so far as is known — young James was drowned in the Lane Cove River. It is only through their youngest child, a daughter Sarah, who was born in 1800, that there are descendants of James Weavers alive today.
Sarah Weavers married twice and had six children and many grandchildren. As 'Granny Wicks’ and 'Granny Watts' she became a local legend in the Ryde area as a nurse and midwife. Her sons, sons-in-law and grandsons became pillars of Ryde and North Ryde society through the mid to late 1800s. They continued the farming tradition, and as farmers, orchardists, and businessmen, they served on church and school committees, and as aldermen in the newly formed Municipality of Ryde.
I guess it could be fairly said that they, and the many thousands of James Weavers' descendants today, owe their existence to the seamanship and sterling qualities of Lieutenant Edward Riou, the young Commander of the Guardian.
Notes and References
BT Bonwick Transcripts (Mitchell Library, SLNSW)
CO Colonial Office (The National Archives of the United Kingdom)
HRA Historical Records of Australia
HRNSW Historical Records of NSW
LPI NSW Department of Lands NSW, Land & Property Information
ML Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW
PA Primary Application (SRNSW)
PRO Public Record Office (The National Archives of the United Kingdom)
SAG Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney
SLNSW State Library of New South Wales
SRNSW State Records NSW
TNA The National Archives of the United Kingdom
13. The Log of HMS Guardian, Manuscripts, oral history & pictures online, SLNSW.
14. Quoted in Free Settler or Felon?, Convict Ship Guardian 1790, www.jenwillets.com.
15. Public Advertiser, London, April 30 1790, The Burney Collection – 17th & 18th Century Newspapers, SLNSW Electronic Resources.
16. Public Advertiser, London, 10 May 1790, and others.
17. See Rees, Siân, The Floating Brothel, Hodder, 2001.
18. Riou to Stephens, 20 May 1790, HRNSW 1, Pt 2, p. 338; HRA 1, 1, p. 751, note 144.
19. General Evening Post, London, April 29 & 30 1790.
20. Quoted by John Knox Laughton in Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, Vol 48.
21. Bateson, The Convict Ships, pp. 31 - 32, 126 - 131.
22. Johnson to Thornton, HRNSW 1, Pt 2, pp. 387 – 388.
23. Grenville to Phillip, 16 Nov 1790, HRA 1, 1, pp. 212 – 213.
24. Now at SRNSW, (NRS 17513, PA 18590). The original deed of grant, not including the seal, and Weavers’ will have been conserved separately (SRNSW: AK 819).
25. Register St John’s, Parramatta, Register St Phillip's, Sydney. For Sarah’s birth date see The Paul Benson Memorandum Book, transcribed by J. MacLeod, 1988.
26. Bigge Report Appendix, State of Agriculture in NSW, 1798, pp. 62 – 69 ML: BT Box 12; CO 201/123, pp. 615 – 619, PRO reel 112.
27. Miscellaneous Lists from PRO reel 20, ML, and BT, SAG Typed MSS.
28. Grants and Leases of Land, Bk 3C, Feb 1800 - Apr 1809, p. 21, LPI NSW.
29. An endorsement on a petition by his son Enoch for a grant of land mentions his father having been killed by natives. (SRNSW 4/1824 B)
6. From Nash, M.D. (ed), The Last Voyage of The Guardian – Lieutenant Riou, Commander 1789-1791, Van Riebeeck Society, 2nd Series No 20, Capetown, 1990.
8. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK.
10. Malaspina Expedition Drawings 1793, SLNSW.
11. Sydney Subdivisions: Ryde, Beaconsfield Estate. ML, SLNSW
12. TNA, UK, [PRO CO 201/123]
© Arthur Phillip Chapter of Fellowship of First Fleeters 2016-
- A talk given by Judith MacLeod, member, to a meeting of the Chapter on 20 May 2016.
- Illustrations and engravings acknowledged above by the author.
- A talk given by Judith MacLeod, member, to a meeting of the Chapter on 20 May 2016.
- Illustrations and engravings acknowledged above by the author.