Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Convict Ship Portsea - 1838

Embarked: 240 men
Voyage: 140 days
Deaths: 1 Surgeon's Journal: yes
Previous vessel: Earl Grey arrived 21 November 1838
Next vessel: Elphinstone arrived 21 December 1838
Captain Samuel John Lowe
Surgeon Thomas Bell R.N.
Convicts and passengers of the Portsea identified in the Hunter Valley

The Portsea was built at Calcutta in 1808.

Prison Hulks

Many of the prisoners had been held in prison hulks prior to embarkation. Select here to read a Prison Hulk Report describing a typical week in the life of convicts incarcerated in the Hulks in 1838.

Military Guard

The Guard, consisting of Lieut. Donald McPhee of 28th Regiment, Ensign Gravatt, 28th regiment and 25 rank and file of the 28th, 50th, 51st and 80th regiments and passengers Mrs. McPhee and the Misses Isabella and Euphemia McPhee, boarded the Portsea at Deptford on 7th July 1838. The Portsea sailed immediately for Portsmouth, arriving there on 17 July.

Surgeon Thomas Bell

Surgeon Thomas Bell kept a Medical Journal from 7 July to 22 December 1838.

The surgeon examined the prisoners on the York and Leviathan hulks at Portsmouth. He rejected several who had recently had small pox. On 19th July, 240 male convicts were embarked and the surgeon spoke to them about good conduct and punishment. Rules were posted in the prison, beds and utensils were distributed and the surgeon took charge of all valuables.


They received orders to sail on 26 July however unfavourable winds delayed their departure. They were afterwards driven into Plymouth and did not leave there until 8th August 1838.

The Voyage

A school was established on board and convict Henry N. Disney (alias Arthur Battersby) took over as schoolmaster. Many of the convicts 'did not know the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, or how many Commandments there were'. By the end of the voyage there were no more than 3 who did not know the church catechism.
The prisoners were formed into divisions and exercised each day, walking four miles round the long boat while the band played. In the early part of the voyage, headaches, constipation and slight fevers, due to a change in diet, weather and sea life occurred. Later, as they approached the tropics, boils, prickly heat and ringworm prevailed.

The surgeon remarked that there were several cases of scurvy, mainly among the army deserters who had undergone punishment.

Prisoners who had deserted in Gibraltar, Jamaica or Canada included:
John Barraclough, George Beet, William Darcy, Robert Dicks, Joseph Flemming, William Fraser, James Gibson, George Glass, John Hancock, William Harris, Jonathon Harrison, Henry Hatch, Charles Hewitt, John Hill, Robert Hunt, Thomas Hunter, William Johnstone, Charles Lovell, Hugh McCartin, Henry Mead, Charles Oliver, William Power, Henry Skett, Christopher Smith, Morrison David Todd, William Whymark

They were treated with lime juice and nitre, 1 ounce of nitre to a pint and a few drops of oil of peppermint in wine with sugar to make it palatable. The mixture was diluted with water and given in doses of 3 or 4 ounces. As soon as symptoms of scurvy were detected, the sufferer was put on the special diet. - a pint of chocolate at 6am, with an ounce of lime juice and an ounce of sugar, and porridge, a pint of thick gruel with a gill of wine at midday, porridge again at 4pm, chocolate at 6pm and gruel with wine in it at 8pm.

Strict attention was paid to cleanliness and when the weather permitted the prisoners bathed every day and were afterwards rubbed dry with a towel, which each man who had money was made to buy before leaving port. The prisons were also cleaned and kept dry and ventilated. The constabulary force under H N Disney was active and impartial.


The ship was obliged to call at Hobart by a shortage of water and strong winds from the west making it likely that arrival at Sydney would be delayed. They left Hobart Town on 11 December and arrived at Sydney 18 December 1838.

Convicts Landed

On 22 December 1838 two hundred and thirty-nine prisoners were landed. One man had died on the passage out (George Carter) and another George Targett from Wiltshire died in Sydney Hospital on 30th December 1838. It had been 164 days since the embarkation of the guard.

The Colonial Secretary (Edward Deas Thomson) and the Principal Superintendent of Convicts (Captain John McLean), were pleased at the health of the convicts and the orderly way in which they landed.


Fifty-two of the convicts of the Portsea have so far been identified in the Hunter Valley. Some were assigned to settlers such as George Hobler and Edward Sparke; others became familiar with the walls of Newcastle gaol after being punished for absconding or associating with bushrangers.

Notes and Links

1). Convicts and passengers of the Portsea identified in the Hunter Valley

2). There were possibly two different surgeon superintendents by the name of Thomas Bell. The signature on the medical journal of the Eliza, and Prince George in 1837 and Portsea in 1838 are all similar. The signature on the medical journal of the Thames in 1829 (VDL) and the Edward in 1831 seem to have been signed by a different Thomas Bell.

3). Convict ships bringing detachments of the 28th regiment included the Recovery, Lady McNaughten, Charles Kerr, Westmoreland, Marquis of Huntley, Norfolk, Backwell, England, John Barry, Susan, Waterloo, Moffatt, Strathfieldsaye and Portsea

4). Convict ships bringing detachments of the 51st regiment included the Neptune, Waterloo, William Jardine, Bengal Merchant, Lord Lyndoch, Westmoreland, Clyde, Earl Grey, Portsea, Elphinstone,
John Barry, Blenheim, Waverley and the Middlesex.

5). Battersby's Divorce Bill - Arthur Battersby alias Henry Napier Disney.