Prints available to order
This oil painting is by gifted maritime painter Roger Morris and was commissioned by Don Armitage in 2012. It shows HMS Tortoise towards the end of April, 1843, when it has almost
completed loading kauri spars while moored off Tairua, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand.
High quality canvas or art paper prints are available here.
This story is by Don Armitage and is a work in progress.
(I acknowledge the valuable assistance of Bob Taylor in England. Thanks Bob).
HMS Tortoise was moored at Nagles Cove, Great Barrier Island for six months during the last half of 1842. It was a particularly safe anchorage in all weathers, and had the advantage of a shipbuilding establishment ashore overseen by Captain Jeremiah Nagle. The Tortoise was a large barque of 986 tons, and 150 foot long, crewed by 80 men. At this time she was already an old ship, having been built of teak in Bombay, India 57 years before, and launched 22nd March, 1784. It was then named the Sir Edward Hughes and was an East Indiaman, not a Royal Navy vessel. In 1806 it was sold to the Royal Navy, renamed HMS Tortoise, and pierced to carry 22 guns. But for many years she lay at Woolwich, becoming increasingly in need of repair.
Her Commander for the 1841-3 voyage, James Wood, had already been to New Zealand twice before in 1838 and1840 as Commander of the 120 foot long, 589 ton barque HMS Buffalo to get kauri spars mainly for the large ships-of-the-line of the Royal Navy. The location of their timber-cutting camp was Te Karo Bay, about 4 miles north of Tairua on the east coast of Coromandel Peninsula. Unfortunately, they had only got 22 spars felled by late July, 1840, when strong easterly gales forced the ship ashore where it was wrecked. A later court martial in England completely exonerated Wood. The intentions this time were to deliver convicts to Hobart and then complete the Buffalo’s mission. As the New Zealand winter of 1842 arrived and to avoid the dangers of an exposed coast at that time of year, the Tortoise was moored at Great Barrier Island, and the cutting camp at Te Karo was supplied from it by a succession of cutters and schooners shuttling back and forth.
However, it was not all smooth sailing. Three crewmembers of the Tortoise had lost their lives while in New Zealand, and there were on-going problems getting native labour, dealing with interruptions and inconveniences caused by the threat of inter-tribal warfare, provisioning, and lastly, the reluctance of the widow of a recent Governor of New Zealand to come aboard for the return voyage to England. When the Tortoise arrived back in England in October 1843, she had with her an important collection of flora and fauna, which had been gotten while in New Zealand, and which were given to the museum at Kew, but efforts to find it today have so far proved unsuccessful..
The story of the voyage to Australia and New Zealand is mostly taken from the ship’s log, a journal written by the Master, William Jeffrey, a private soldier of the 96th Regiment, Edmund Ashworth, a convict on the voyage, George Reading, and the journal of the Timber Purveyor, Thomas Laslett. Other information has been gleaned from archival and newspaper sources in England, Australia and New Zealand. Sketches and paintings are from a variety of sources.
The Tortoise was broken up and sunk off the coast of Ascension Island most probably in 1860, (not 1858 as was previously thought), where its remains are still visible today.
Preparation for the voyage to Australia and New Zealand
Moves to send HMS Tortoise to Australia and New Zealand were at least formulated shortly before 12th of May of 1841, on which date the Commander, James Wood commissioned the Tortoise, and the surgeon, Mr. Brownrigg, was appointed. However, the preparations may date back as far as the clearing of Commander James Wood over the wreck of the store-ship HMS Buffalo, after which the British Navy then had only one store-ship left, HMS Tortoise, then albeit a coal hulk. Wood was already familiar with the source of, and the ways and means to obtain, the kauri masts in New Zealand.
On 12th July, the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty appointed Thomas Laslett for the third time to be Purveyor of Timber in New Zealand in the HMS Tortoise.
Elements of the 96th Regiment, already under orders for Australia at least since mid-1840, on 28th July, 1841, left their barracks in Lancashire and moved to London by steam train, then to Sheerness, to be in readiness to board the Tortoise as guard to the convict cargo to be transported to Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land.
Sheerness, is a small town on the edge of the major naval dockyards at Chatham on the coast of the River Thames, South-west of London. It is the first place we come across the Tortoise, where, according to the first day of the log of the Tortoise, May 12th, 1841, the vessel was in the dock.
Laslett, in his journal, says:
“The survey and examination into her condition, revealed the fact, that the iron fastenings of the bottom planking were in a sad state from waste by corrosion; the planking 5” in thickness, was remarkably well fitted with close joints, and covered with a kind of cement, in lieu of caulking with oakum. To remedy the defect of the iron nail fastenings, small pieces of about 2” square were cut out of the bottom and the nails broken off, pieces of wood being afterward let in in their place. Tree Nail fastenings was then introduced in lieu of the nails, and also a few iron bolts. The bottom was then covered with felt, and outside this a sheathing of 1” board, over which was put the usual copper sheathing. The topsides were repaired and the upper, forecastle and poop decks were entirely new. The cost of the whole being about £6000.”
Accommodation for those of the ship’s company appointed thus far, was aboard the hulk Hussar, which they took charge of the same day. Between May 24th and 26th were entered 16 petty officers and 14 able seamen, and on the 28th, a party of marines was embarked, - one sergeant, one corporal and 20 privates. Meantime work progressed rapidly both on the Tortoise and the Hussar.
While sails were being fitted ashore at the dockyard, the hulk Hussar was cleaned, the outer surface of the Tortoise was scraped, cleaned and painted, ballast was got on board and stowed, and all the million and one jobs carried out such as on masts, spars, and rigging to enable her to go on a voyage around the world.
On Sundays the ship’s company would muster on deck for the holding of devine service, and the mandatory ‘Articles of War’ would be read out.
The navigating officer and Master, William Jeffrey, and the Second Master, Thomas Bowen, were both appointed in June and moved aboard the Hussar. Jeffrey was accompanied by his wife Betsy.
“From the 24th June, the day on which I arrived at Chatham until the 14th August, Betsy and self were very comfortable, located in the Hulk Hussar.”
On 8th July, it came out of dock, but nevertheless continued to leak. The chief shipwright, Mr. Fincham, said that the hull would take up and the problem would soon cease, but it took rather more time than expected. On August 10th riggers came aboard the Tortoise and shifted her to the hulk Defence because a hawser had parted and ran foul of the Hussar.
Two days later, the ship’s company was shifted into the Tortoise, where they received on board soldiers’ baggage and stowed it. On August 16th, there embarked aboard the Tortoise 31 officers, 100 men, 17 women, and 29 children of the 96th Regiment. More were to come later. On August 20th, a vessel came alongside with a large cargo of stores for barter with the Maories of New Zealand.
Next day, the steam vessel Monkey came alongside with 100 convicts; 50 each from the old 74-gun hulk Warrior and the hulk Justitia. In 1841, the gross number of convicts received on board the hulks in England during the year was 3,625. A convict taken aboard the Tortoise from the Warrior, George Reading, records -
“..I left Woolwich on the Saturday 21 of August and I went To Chattem that day and went on bord the Tortuis and Came back again to Sheaness whear I Stoped Till Monday -- and then we Seat Sale For Portmsouth…”
At noon, a pilot came aboard and at 2pm the ship was taken in tow by the steam vessel Monkey down the river. Half an hour later, the steam vessel was cast off and the Tortoise proceeded under her own sail until she came to anchor in 11 fathoms at the Little Nore.
In the morning of the 23rd August, pay clerks came aboard and paid the ship’s company two months pay in advance. The steam vessel then took the Tortoise in tow and at 10pm cast off, the Tortoise coming to anchor in the Downs in 9 fathoms.
The next day, she weighed anchor and with a moderate westerly wind, proceeded down channel and on the following day was sailing to the west along England’s south coast making for Spithead. It was thick, unsettled weather and muskets were fired to prevent collision. It must have been also a shakedown voyage after so long in port. It wasn’t until 8pm of the 27th that she reached Spithead.
At noon on 30th August a steamer came alongside and put on board 280 convicts; 140 each from the hulk Leviathan and hulk York. 36 years before, the Leviathan had been fourth in line behind HMS Victory going into the battle of Trafalgar in October, 1805. In the afternoon another load of barter stores were sent out to the Tortoise, while two convicts were sent to the convict hospital ship, and another one two days later. On September 10th more barter stores arrived.
The Avon steam-vessel, Lieutenant C. Jenkin, left Woolwich today [10th September] for Portsmouth with ordinance, stores and articles for barter with the natives of New Zealand. The Avon, on her arrival at Portsmouth, will transfer her cargo to the Tortoise, 15 guns, bound for Van Dieman’s Land and New Zealand.
The Times Saturday, 11th September, 1841, p4.
The next day, they weighed anchor and made sail, but there was little wind and the ship was towed out of Spithead. Two days later on September 13th the Tortoise arrived in Plymouth Sound to the west along England’s south coast. The next day, yet another convict was sent to the hospital ship and in the afternoon they received another 24 convicts from the hulk Stirling Castle.
On the 24th September convicts were issued with bibles, prayer books, testaments, and slates. Over the next few days a succession of vessels visited the Tortoise with provisions, more timber cutting implements, and water. On the 23rd, two chronometers, highly important for navigation, were brought aboard.
Since the voyage took it through the heat of the tropics, ventilation for so many people was vital, and so carpenters came aboard and made scuttles. The ships’ water tanks capacity of 279 tons was topped up. Another convict was sent to the convict hospital. The vessel was delayed from sailing, according to Laslett, by having to wait upon…
“…papers from the Secretary of State bearing on the convict question, but the delay afforded an opportunity for many of the convicts’ friends to visit them prior to leaving England. …there were, however, a few cases in which the meeting was of a painfully distressing character, and especially so as it affected the prisoners’ friends.”
On the 3rd October at 4pm, the Tortoise made sail, standing out through the east channel. But, the weather was atrocious and it also showed up major defects that needed to be fixed before the voyage proceeded. Almost everyone was enduring misery and seasickness. The vessel returned to Plymouth Sound on the 7th in the afternoon. By the 8th, 16 caulkers and 15 shipwrights had come on board from the dockyard to begin repairs. By the next day the number of shipwrights had doubled, and they were all kept at it caulking and making half ports and other repairs for the next week, sleeping aboard. Jeffrey says in his journal: -
Monday, Oct, 11 
Tuesday 12th, 9 p.m.
Early on Sunday morning, two convicts, names J. Porter and John Baptiste Hannot, made their escape from the Tortoise convict ship lying in Plymouth Sound. They were seen on deck from below to empty the slops, and they took the opportunity of slipping overboard from the head, unperceived by the sentinel. As the ship was more than a mile from the shore, the wind blowing hard, with a heavy sea running, and no boat in sight, it is thought that they were drowned. It is almost impossible that they could have landed under Staddon Heights in such weather. They were heavily ironed.
[The Times Monday, 25th October, 1841, p7].
With a fine breeze from the ENE, at last, and finally, at 2.30pm on 26th October, 1841, the Tortoise sailed from Plymouth Sound on her way to Hobart, via Cape Town in South Africa, with 651 people aboard. The weather that had detained the vessel had also kept a large fleet of merchant ships in port, which also sailed the same day, and it “was a pretty sight to see them all in motion weighing their anchors and making sail.”.
Towards Rio Janiero, in Brazil, and Cape Town, South Africa.
By next day, the breeze had backed slightly to the NE and strengthened, pushing the Tortoise along at 8 to 9 knots. The passengers were all seasick from the vessel’s rolling motion. Even the master, William Jeffrey, ‘had not one wink of sleep all night.’
Over the next few days the weather stayed fair. The moon shone brightly. Leg irons were progressively knocked off at least some of the prisoners. The convict, George Reading comments:
“I had my iron Taken of my leage on the 29 of October and Veary Glad as it was Veary Great Easment to my mind”.
The passengers became acquainted with each other, and life at sea gradually took on a regular routine. The convicts had been organised, almost as soon as they had come onboard, into four divisions, presided over by a captain,which were again sub-divided into messes presided over by a 2nd captain each selected from their number. A senior captain was appointed to be in charge of all the four divisions, his duty being to secure orders from the ship’s officers and convey them to the captains and 2nd captains and see them carried out. The prisoners were often allowed up on deck by divisions, occasionally being allowed to sleep on deck when the temperatures below decks became intolerable.
The water usage per day was about 2 ¼ tons, or about 3 ½ litres per person per day on average. On 31st October was the first Sunday of the voyage, and the crew and soldiers mustered by divisions for the performance of devine service, read by Major Cumberland, and for the Tortoise’s crew, the reading out of the articles of war. Devine service was read to the prisoners by Mr. Bowen, the 2nd master. Sundays and Mondays were usually reserved for washing clothes and scrubbing hammocks. On most days, there were often other sails in sight.
On 2nd November William Jeffrey comments:
“Wind still foul. A head swell making the ship pitch and all very uncomfortable. Passengers of all sorts sea sick.”
The same day, the ship exchanged colours with a Portuguese vessel. By November 4th, Jeffrey is commenting:
“Last night was one of the worst I have spent in the Tortoise. Blowing hard gale from the SW, and a heavy sea on. Could not sleep. Turned out at 11 p.m. Tried to sleep on locker; could not manage it -- bulk heads creak so much. The old Ship very easy and dry but rolls very quick and deep.”
The issuing of lime juice helped keep up vitamin ‘C’ levels in order to avoid scurvy. By 7th November, Jeffrey comments that the weather has improved:
“100 miles WNW of Madiera. No less than 12 sail in sight. Wore white trousers today for the first time. The men looking very nice. Took the valence off my sofa today to make the cabin cool, weather getting very warm. Today there has been a great number of birds round the ship of the swallow kind. Several caught. Also a small horned owl, for which ‘Mundell’ (the Ensign) was goose enough to give a crown. Weather very fine, but the wind again foul and very light.”
At 4pm on 16th November it was noted in the log that 16 sail were in sight, and by the next morning 13 sail. On the 18th, during overwhelmingly oppressive heat amongst the prisoners below decks, one prisoner went mad and had to be put in a straight-jacket. By 6pm on 20th November, the west end of St.Antonia Island in the Cape Verde Islands, bore ESE, 4 or 5 leagues away. (A league is three miles). The Cape Verde Islands are about a thousand miles north of the equator and off the westernmost point of Africa. Convict Reading comments on the 22nd November:
“Monday 22 the day was Veary hot and Veary fine and I Saw thousands of flying Fish.”
By November 26th Jeffrey is commenting
“From noon yesterday until noon today had calms, light variable winds and squalls from ESE to S and very heavy rain. Caught a good deal of fresh water for washing. Soldiers in high glee washing in the rain. Poor devils of convicts all below - very hot and close. Today Mr. Bowen ill and touchy temper showed out in wanting to give up the catership. Gave a beaker of rain water to Capt. Griffiths and found I was obliged to give one to the Major to prevent jealousy.
Laslett comments on 28th November that the smell from the prison decks during the calms that they had been experiencing was becoming intolerable, even in the vicinity of the hatchways. On 29th November the Tortoise crossed the equator. Jeffrey comments:
“At 4 p.m. today crossed the Equator in Long. 24° W with a fine breeze from SE. Today observed great numbers of flying fish and a few dolphins and bonito about the ship. Tried to catch or strike them but could not succeed. It is 16 years since I was this way before. How many changes since then.”
Neptune came aboard and enquired into the names of those who had not before crossed the “line”, and there followed some splashing of water about, but the usual ceremony and sports were not entered into on account of the convicts being on the weather deck for their airing. Jeffrey’s journal continues:
For the last 3 days I have been hard at my accounts, and have neglected my Journal. We have had a fine breeze going from 6 to 9 knots for Rio. Our old Commander seems to wish to call there.
Mon 6th Dec.
Also on the 10th December, the convict George Reading comments:
“Freaday 10 we Passed by that noble and Eachant Place Called the isle of Saint ealeaner [Saint Helena] whear that noble Boneaparth ended his days and I little thought of Ever Passing that Place when I first heard of it”
William Jeffrey’s journal continues:
Also on 24th December, the wife of Corporal McCole was delivered of a daughter, the second child to be born on this voyage. Jeffrey’s journal continues:
The convict, George Reading comments on this fellow prisoner’s death:
“on Sunday 19 we had wone of hour Prisnors died and he was buread in the afternoon and he was buread in the deep and he had 2 Eaighteen Pound Shots fastned to his feet and be went down in wone mennet”
William Jeffrey’s journal continues:
Laslett says in his journal that the Tortoise had covered 8443 miles, Plymouth to Simons Bay, in 64 days, making a daily average of 132 miles. He goes on to say that the object of visiting Simons Bay was to replenish with provisions and water and to give a slight refit to the ship.
Simon’s Bay, Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.
Cape Town to Hobart, Tasmania.
Edmund Ashworth 1st February passed St Pauls is
Hobart to New Zealand