Historic Ships Associated with the Marshall Islands No. 1
The British merchant vesssel Charlotte (1788)

edited by Dirk H.R. Spennemann

The Charlotte had originally been built as a cargo ship and had been chartered by the British navy to serve as convict transports from the United Kingdom to Botany Bay. Prior to the charter, the vessel was routinely surveyed by the government dockyard at Deptford. The basic dimensions of the ship are known from these surveys. The East India Company carried out its own surveys of the vessel as it was to be chartered to carry its cargo. With the exception of small, vignette-like sketches in Gilberts account, no historic pictures exist. Despite the fact that the Charlotte formed part Australias First Fleet, little work has been carried out on the vessel and published data are also sketchy.[ 1]

The ship

The Charlotte was a double-decked, three-masted vessel built in 1784 (?) on the Thames and copper-sheeted in 1785. When surveyed at Deptford on 3 November 1786, she had an extreme length of 105 feet (32m), an extreme breadth of 28 feet 3/10 inches (8.6m), a height between decks of 66 (1.98m) throughout, with a displacement of about 340tons and a draught when loaded, of 16 feet.[ 2] The Charlotte carried six guns. Even though reputedly named after Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III,[ 3], she was apparently as without a figure-head or galleries. Being described as square-sterned, barque-built with quarter badges, suggests that she had small windows set flat in her quarters.[ 4] The vessel was owned by a merchant named Matthews, in honour of whom Gilbert named a Matthews Rock.


Her first appearance is in the 1786 Lloyds Register, where the Charlotte is entered as being employed on the Antigua to London run (sic!) under the command of a J.Sanderson.[ 5] The next years register shows her employed on the London to Stettin run under a J. Sandrin master. In the same year the command was transferred to Thomas Gilbert and the route changed to London-Botany Bay.[ 6]
The British Admiralty's charter of the Charlotte as a transport vessel for the 'First Fleet' commenced on 15 November 1786 and continued until 28 July 1789, at a rate of 12 shillings per ton and month.[ 7] The Charlotte was not a vessel of first choice, but a late replacement for the Britannia, which was found to require too much repair.[ 8]
For the voyage to Sydney the Charlotte was commanded by Thomas Gilbert, with John White responsible as surgeon for the welfare of the 88 male and 20 female convicts. White stayed behind in Sydney. The round-bodied Charlotte did not perform well in weak winds and frequently had to be towed. For the trip from Port Jackson to Canton Thomas Gilbert had the sides of the Charlotte painted red, because some of the [accounts of] voyages I had perused [had pointed] out that colour as the most pleasing to the natives of these climates.[ 9]

Sketches of the Charlotte as reproduced by Gilbert 1789, the only contemporary image of the ship.

Soon after her return to England, the Charlotte was sold to Bond & Co, a firm of Walbrook merchants, who employed her on the LondonJamaica run under the command of a B. Howes.[ 10] Sometime between 1792 and 1793 the comand of the vessel was transferred to a D.Kent, who retained command until 1806.[ 11] In 1797 the Charlotte underwent smaller repairs.[ 12]. In the following year the vessel was bought by a Mr. Rutherford, who continued to employ the master D.Kent and use the ship, now armed with 2 three-pound standard guns, on the London-Jamaica run.[ 13] In 1799 major (thorough) repairs had become necessary and the vessel received a new deck as well as new underwater works. The armament was reduced to 1 three-pounder gun.[ 14] The vessel seems to have performed according to wishes, as the register show no changes to that status until 1803, when the armament was upgraded to six six-pounders.[ 15] In 1804 the Charlotte underwent repairs, was given new wales and topsides, and was resheeted with copper of wood, fastened with iron bolts.[ 16] In 1806 it was sold to a Mr. Fletcher, who used it as a London-based transport ship, commanded by R. Allison (or Ellison), and upgraded its armamant to eight eighteen pounder C cannons.[ 17]
Bateson contends that the Charlotte was sold to the Quebec merchant John Jones, her registry transferred to Quebec in 1810 and that she was eventually lost off Newfoundland in November 1818.[ 18] Consultation of the Lloyds Register shows that this is not the case. Rather, in 1811 further repairs were required, with a new TopSch @@ and generally good repairs.[ 19]
The last entry for the vessel occurrs in the register for 1823, twenty-nine years after it was built.[ 20] The fate of the vessel, whether it was broken up or lost at sea cannot be ascertained at present.

Artists Impressions

In the absence of original images, a number of artists impressions have been created derived from the limited historic data available. 

Artists Impression of the Charlotte, by @@  [ 21]

Artists Impression of the Charlotte, by Tony Crago  [ 22]


1. In this summary, the figures contained in the Register of Transports, 1774-1794 (FO Adm 49/127, quoted after Bateson, Charles [1959]. The Convict Ships 17871868. Glasgow: Brown, Son & Ferguson., p.82) have been used. Other figures were compiled by the British Admiralty and by Philip Gidley King (1980) The journal of Philip Gidley King , Lieutenant R.N., 17871790. edited by Paul G. Fidlon. Sydney: Australian Documents Library  [BACK]

2. Tonnage: Register of Transports 338t ; Admiralty 345 13/94 t; King (op. cit.) 335t; Lloyds Register 17861805 350t; Lloyds Register 18061823 358.  [BACK]

3. Crittenden, Victor (1999). A First Fleet Letter to a Gentleman in Edinburgh. By Edward Home. Canberra: Mulini Press, p. 6.  [BACK]

4. Compiled after Bateson (op. cit.), p. 79 passim.  [BACK]

5. Lloyds Register 1786.  [BACK]

6 Lloyds Registers 1783 onwards.   [BACK]

7. Flynn, Michael (1993). The Second Fleet. Britains Grim Convict Armada of 1790. Sydney: Library of Australian History.  [BACK]

8. Knight 1989.  [BACK]

9. Gilbert, Thomas (1789). Voyage from New South Wales to Canton in the Year 1788, with Views of the Islands discovered By Thomas Gilbert Commander of the Charlotte. London: Printed by George Stafford, for J. Debrett, opposite Burlington House, Piccadilly, p. 29.  [BACK]

10. Lloyds Register 1790.  [BACK]

11. Lloyds Register 1793-1806.The Lloyds Register for 1792 lacks the pages containing information on the Charlotte.  [BACK]

12. Lloyds Register 1797.  [BACK]

13. Lloyds Register 1798.  [BACK]

14. Lloyds Register 1799.  [BACK]

15. Lloyds Register 1800; 1801; 1802; 1803.  [BACK]

16. Lloyds Register 1806.  [BACK]

17. Lloyds Register 1806 1823.   [BACK]

18. Bateson (op. cit.), p. 80.  [BACK]

19. Lloyds Register 1811  [BACK]

20. Lloyds Register 1823.  [BACK]

21 Image: © Fellowship of the First Fleet, 1997.
Source http://home.vicnet.net.au/~firstff/ships.htm   [BACK]

22 Image: © Tony Crago
Source http://weblink.solutions.net.au/~guthrigg/conships2.htm  [BACK]

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.
e-mail: dspennemann@csu.edu.au

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