Friday October 6, 2006

Captain John Hunter RN - his contribution to the early development of Australia and the memorials that honour his life and work

Captain John Hunter RN, 29 August 1737 to 13 March 1821

It is my honour to be asked today to speak about John Hunter but more particularly to memorials that honour his life and work.

Before I talk about these memorials I thought it appropriate to outline some of his significant achievements and to explain why his birthday is celebrated each year by the Mosman community.

Captain John Hunter was the Captain of the principal naval escort to the First Fleet – or more technically as we are ‘on board’ at Penguin – 2nd Captain behind Captain Arthur Phillip. He is said to be the first European (or ‘white’ man) to set foot in what is now known as Mosman. This occurred on 19 June 1789, when HMS Sirius was taken to Mosman Bay for careening, or cleaning, of its hull, and this probably took place in what is now known as Reid Park, as the land there has been reclaimed.

Personally, I very much doubt that Hunter was the first European to set foot on our shores as I’m sure that the sailors who accompanied him would have grounded and held the longboat for him to step ashore.

John Hunter was born on 29 August 1737 at Leith, the port city of Edinburgh in Scotland. He was one of at least nine children.

As a child he was shipwrecked when sailing with his father off the coast of Norway, but thankfully they managed to make their way back to Scotland. He had a great interest in music, and received what was said to be a sufficient education, especially in the Latin classics to become an undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen, where he studied for a short time to become a Minister in the Church of Scotland.

He inherited a love for the sea from his father and he gave up his studies in 1754 to become the Captain’s servant on HMS Grampus. It was a very humble beginning but the next year he was enrolled as an Able Seaman –- after 15 months he became a Midshipman and in 1757 took part in his first sea battle. By 1759 he was serving as a Lieutenant and in 1760 passed his examinations in navigation and astronomy but did not get his first formal commission until 1780. In 1782 he was appointed as Admiral’s Third Lieutenant and by 1783 was described as ‘a mature seaman with considerable experience on the North Atlantic and West Indies stations’. He was strongly influenced by, and well known to, some of the great British naval leaders.

For a period he served as 1st Lieutenant of the Victory – a ship you can still see today in the naval docks in Portsmouth, England.

He served in both victory and in defeat as Britain endeavoured to expand its empire under great naval commanders.

It was a long hard haul for Hunter but it was rewarded in 1786 when he was appointed 2nd Captain of the First Fleet under Governor Phillip.

HMS Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet

HMS Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet

It is not well known, but he was also granted a dormant commission as successor to Phillip as the Governor of what we now know as Australia in case of Phillip’s death or absence.

So I have now painted a picture of John Hunter as the First Fleet gathered in 1787 on the mother bank near Portsmouth to transport the first convicts and establish settlement in Australia.

As we all know from our history books, the original idea was for a settlement to be started in Botany Bay that had been discovered earlier by Captain James Cook, but when Captain Arthur Phillip decidedit was not an appropriate location he chose Hunter to join him in his search for a better harbour. As history records, they eventually agreed on Farm Cove in Port Jackson where Circular Quay now stands.

While they arrived in Australian in January 1788, Hunter again set sail in October for the Cape of Good Hope to get new food and medical supplies for the struggling colony, returning in May 1789. It was after that return that he brought HMS Sirius to what we know today as Mosman Bay, but which at the time they named Greater Sirius Cove – for an obvious reason.

Monument to the Sirius at Mosman Bay where she was careened 19 June 1789

Monument to the Sirius at Mosman Bay where she was careened 19 June 1789

Hunter and the Sirius were then sent to Norfolk Island and unfortunately in March 1790 his ship was lost.

This was the third shipwreck in which Hunter had been involved. In the first 2 shipwrecks he was court marshalled as Commanding Officer in line with Navy regulations of the time but in both cases he was honourably acquitted of all blame. He was likewise acquitted for the loss at Norfolk Island.

Hunter left the Australian colony in December 1792 to return as our 2nd Governor in 1795. The population of New South Wales when Hunter took charge of the British colony was 3,211 of which 60% were convicts, and it is fair to say that he did not enjoy his term during which there was much civil unrest.

He remained Governor until September 1800 and it is said that his main enjoyment over the period was as an explorer and traveller. He was a keen naturalist and sent back many specimens of Australian flora and fauna to Sir Joseph Banks who had accompanied Captain Cook on the earlier voyage of discovery. A collection of Hunter’s original drawings is held by the National Library of Australia.

Upon his return to Britain he was given another command in 1804 but unfortunately he lost another ship, this time with the loss of many lives. Once again Hunter faced a court marshal and again he was acquitted of all blame. After that he did not go to sea again but was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Fleet in October 1807, and Vice Admiral in July 1810. Hunter never married and spent his last years in Hackney, London, where he died on 13 March 1821.

Extract from Burial Register, St John, Hackney

The burial register shows that on 21 March he was buried at the Old Hackney Cemetery which is no longer there but was said to look like this at the time.

Old  Hackney Cemetery

Enough of the history, now let’s move to the memorials.

Hunter Valley, NSW

The greatest natural memorial to the memory of Hunter must undoubtedly be the Hunter Valley, drained by the Hunter River, which was discovered in the 1790s.

Hunter River, NSW

In June 1796 fishermen sheltering from bad weather discovered coal there and the river was initially called Coal River, however in 1797 it was formally named ‘Hunter’ after John Hunter who was then the Governor of the Colony.

We then of course have the suburb of Hunter’s Hill in Sydney, where the hunting horn on the Coat of Arms is taken from the Arms of John Hunter’s family. Hunter’s Hill was proclaimed as a Borough, or Council, in 1861 –- 32 years before our Municipality of Mosman. In the early years of the colony it was an important stopping point on the trip up the river to Parramatta.

There are Hunter Streets in the Cities of both Sydney and Newcastle:

Hunter Street, Sydney

Hunter Road at Mosman;

Hunter Road, Mosman

and the latest version of the UBD street directory says there are nearly 40 Hunter Roads, Lanes or Streets in the Sydney metropolitan area!

In 1990 a lady by the name of Maureen Goldstein Morris brought to the attention of the then Mayor of Mosman, the late Peter Clive, that while many of the early Governors of the colony had been the subject of statues, Captain or Governor or Admiral Hunter had been forgotten.

A small committee was established at Mosman and with funds from a long-term resident of Balmoral and author the late Mary Drake financial assistance was forthcoming to commission the sculptor Victor Cusack to create a bust of John Hunter which was unveiled on his birthday in 1993 by the then Governor of NSW, Rear-Admiral Peter Sinclair, who was also once the Commanding Officer of this establishment, HMAS Penguin.

So, today we have the bust of John Hunter

Bust and plaque, Hunter Park, Mosman

in the park named after him

Hunter Park, Mosman

standing on a bay named after him.

Hunter Bay, Mosman

Copies of the bust are at his birthplace in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland –

Bust and plaque to Hunter in his birthplace, Leith, Scotland

just a stone’s throw away from the final resting place of that great ship the Royal Yacht Britannia, which also has an association with Mosman – but we will leave that for another day.

The final bust was taken to the heart of the Hunter Valley – Scone – where today it stands in Elizabeth Park.

Memorial to John Hunter in Elizabeth Park, Scone, NSW

Mosman Council can be proud of the lasting tribute it organised to the life and memory of John Hunter who, if he was alive today, would have been 269!!

In closing, I would say that it is a great shame that it was not until very late in his life, and really until many years after his passing, that the significant contribution of John Hunter to the early development of our great nation was truly recognised.

May Mosman continue to celebrate his name for years to come.

Happy birthday John Hunter!

—Viv May, 29 August 2006

— Posted by Mosman Library in ,  |  Permalink





Search Tools

Web Directories

Australian archives







This is a Flickr badge showing public photos from mosmanlibrary. Make your own badge here.
See what I've pinned on Historypin