Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days: Volume 6, 1962-1969

H.M.S. Sulphur

E.S. Whiteley

Whiteley, E.S. 1967, 'H.M.S. Sulphur', Early Days, vol. 6, part 6: 45-55.

Everyone knows that it was the Parmelia which brought Captain Stirling and his sixty-odd officials and settlers to found the colony of Western Australia. Nearly everyone knows that it was H.M.S. Sulphur which accompanied the Parmelia and brought the detachment of the 63rd Regiment for the protection of the colony but not a great many people, I think, know of the vast amount of developmental and exploratory work performed by that ship and her men during the three years she was attached to the Swan River Settlement.

H.M.S. Sulphur was a “bomb," but this description has no relation to the modern youth’s term for an obsolete if adored vehicle. In naval parlance of the period a bomb was a small warship on which were mounted bombs or mortars for use in naval bombardments. Actually the Sulphur did not have any bombs, as before they could be fitted she was converted to a sloop to take settlers to the Swan River Settlement and was fitted with eight guns—six 24-pounders and two 6-pounders.

To those of you whose knowledge of ships is, like my own, confined to sailing on the Swan River with an occasional run to Rottnest, the term sloop can be confusing unless it is remembered that a sloop of war before the days of steam was a fully-rigged ship, smaller than a frigate and carrying guns on the upper deck only. She was of 392 tons, 105 feet long and beam 23' 6". If you mentally divide this meeting room in half and put each half end to end you will have some idea of the size of the Sulphur’s deck. She did have two decks but even so, one can imagine the discomfort of over 150 men, women and children confined to that small space for five months.

Captain William Townsend Dance was given command and the officers and crew totalled 57 including one widow’s man. Lest you may be wondering what a merry widow would be doing with a sailor-man aboard the Sulphur I had better explain now that the term was used to define a fictitious member of the crew whose pay went into a fund to provide pensions for widows of seamen.

As passengers the Sulphur had a detachment of the 63rd Regiment under Captain F. C. Irwin consisting of 68 troops, who were accompanied by 22 wives and 12 children. Except for Mrs. Dance, the records do not disclose that any of the sailors had wives and children on board, but it is evident that there were some wives, as on 26th October 1829 and 15th November 1829 respectively sons were born to Eliza, wife of Joseph Cox, and to Margaret, wife of Owen Jones, both seamen on the crew list.


The Sulphur sailed from Chatham on 9th January 1829 and after a stormy passage arrived at Plymouth on the 14th to meet the Parmelia. Surgeon Alexander Collie reported that nearly all the women and children and many of the soldiers were on the sick list and that the crowded state of the main deck rendered it "highly insalubrious." Many of the delicate females were benumbed from wet and exposure, some affected with febrile symptoms with faintings and hysterical paroxysms. However, some alterations were made to the stowage of the cargo; the soldiers’ sea-chests, which had taken up so much deck space, and about fifteen individuals, including some of the women who were in an advanced state of pregnancy, were removed to another vessel, probably the Marquis of Anglesea. This improved matters, so that Dance was able to report that he did not anticipate any danger to the vessel (although deeply laden) nor material inconvenience to the crew or passengers.

Dance’s instructions were that he was to proceed in company with the Parmelia, first to the Cape of Good Hope and then to Cockburn Sound on the west coast of New Holland. There he was to stay for the purpose of protecting and promoting the settlement until he received fresh orders or until Captain Stirling advised him that he was no longer required. He was to attend to the suggestions and meet the wishes of Captain Stirling but was under the command of Rear-Admiral Gage, commander-in-chief of the East India station.

As a result of more favourable winds, the Parmelia left the Sulphur behind after passing the equator, and arrived at Cape Town on 16th April. The Sulphur did not arrive until 26th April, It was there that the assistant surgeon of the 63rd Regiment, Dr. Tully Daly, was drowned and, according to Dance’s report, the commodore at Cape Town appointed another surgeon to replace him on the Sulphur. All historians appear to have concluded that this was Dr. Milligan after whom Milligan Street was named, but I have reason to believe that this is incorrect, and that the officer appointed was Hospital Assistant Horatio Holden who was in medical charge of the troops until the arrival of Dr. Milligan in January 1830.

At Cape Town a general refit and caulking was required which delayed the ship’s departure until 8th May. She arrived at Fremantle on 8th June to find that the Parmelia had been at anchor six days. Dance reported one continual gale of wind all the way from Cape Town with the most tremendous sea the oldest seamen on board could remember. On approaching land he had intended remaining offshore until the weather moderated but, fearful of being blown ashore, he decided to risk the hazard of the dangerous and unknown passage between the islands. That this was no mean achievement or perhaps good luck was involved is evident from the comments made by Captain Fremantle of H.M.S. Challenger in his diary. He wrote—“June 8—Saw a ship in the offing—blowing strong


—she proved to be the Sulphur coming in—felt that her situation was most perilous as on the bar outside there was a great sea and danger apparent in all directions but fortunately she escaped and anchored safely having touched once in coming through the passage—I think Capt. Dance very rash in attempting to run for the coast during such tempestuous weather—We all thought he must have been wrecked.”

Dance brought orders for Captain Fremantle to return to the East India station but, as the Parmelia had sustained damage when entering Cockburn Sound, he stayed to assist in the repairs. In fact he appears to have taken charge of the whole proceedings, as he ordered a survey of the Parmelia by the masters of the Sulphur and Challenger with Lieutenant Henry and carpenters from both vessels. He also ordered Dance to prepare his ship for heaving her down.

It was not until the 28th August that the Challenger left. Fremantle in his diary is somewhat caustic in his criticism of everybody, especially Dance and the Sulphur. He wrote—"We have been at Cockburn Sound four months—indeed I do not conceive that they could possibly have done anything without us as they arrived perfectly without resources and the Sulphur is of little or no use to them, having few men and being more like a merchant ship than a man-of-war with constant complaints and rows on board." At one time, he noted, the ship’s company were reported by Lieutenant Sicklemore to be in a state of mutiny and assistance was asked from the Challenger. "After investigating the circumstances I determined on discharging from the services a petty officer of the name of Taylor for drunken and mutinous conduct to the Second Lieutenant.” He also invalided Sicklemore home and appointed George Morritt, Admiralty mate of the Challenger, in his place, which he hoped would be confirmed. What Dance had to say about it is not related, but it is significant that Morritt was soon after transferred to H.M.S. Cruiser while the name James Taylor reappears on the crew list.

Evidently Fremantle did not like Dance. He criticised his rashness on entering Cockburn Sound in a gale and gave him no credit for seamanship. At a dinner aboard the Parmelia on the arrival of the Sulphur he records that Dance was there and talked much nonsense. Later event certainly disproved Fremantle’s allegations of uselessness and subsequent records disclose the constant employment of the Sulphur’s men on works ashore as well as numerous other special duties. In the field of exploration the Sulphur’s officers and crew acquitted themselves admirably.

The weather continued to be bad up to the end of September and Dance was asked to keep a sharp look-out for expected vessels. One of the first jobs entrusted to the Sulphur was the buoying of


the channel into Cockburn Sound and in this Dance himself, with the assistance of the master John Perriam, took a leading role. The Success, Challenger, Parmelia and Sulphur had all experienced the need for the proper marking of the channel, particularly as Gage Roads had been found to be an unsafe anchorage in the winter. The Marquis of Anglesea had in fact been driven ashore and wrecked from that anchorage.

The dawn of 1830 found the Sulphur’s crew very active. H.M.S. Success had called at Fremantle on 28th November 1829 on her homeward journey from Sydney and had run aground. She sustained serious damage and remained over twelve months, during which time the Sulphur’s men were engaged in assisting in the necessary repairs. The wrecked Marquis of Anglesea, now used as a Government store, needed caulking, and this work also fell to the lot of the Sulphur’s crew.

A review of the official correspondence between Stirling and Dance, despite its somewhat stilted phraseology, discloses much of human interest and reveals some of the hopes and frustrations of men engaged in a major undertaking. It would be rather surprising if there were not at times a clash of interests with consequent frayed tempers, and at such times the correspondence becomes pompous and formal. Both men appear to have had the greatest respect for each other’s rank and position. Stirling was of course the lieutenant-governor of a British colony, and although Dance’s instructions from the Admiralty were to attend to the suggestions and meet the wishes of Stirling, he was nevertheless the commander of a British warship attached to the East India station. Stirling never ordered but always politely requested or suggested, a diplomacy which won him every argument.

One such occasion was in July 1830, when Dance was requested to prepare for a voyage to the southern settlement. Dance protested that all his spare anchors and ground tackle were in use in heaving down the Success and such a voyage could only be taken at considerable risk. Stirling in reply declined to be drawn into expressing any opinion on a question with which, he said, he was not authorised to interfere, but pointed out that any delay would result in the starvation of the troops at Port Leschenault as well as the Sulphur’s own party at Augusta. Dance capitulated but played safe by informing the governor that he expected to be exonerated should any mishap occur through lack of tackle.

On another occasion Dance was taken to task for his delay in returning from Hobart where he had been for much-needed provisions He had left in November 1831 and was expected to return the following February but did not do so until June. Dance’s explanation was that he had found the markets at Hobart nearly destitute of everything and had to await supplies. The onset of westerly winds


earlier than usual had also caused delay and he had in fact great difficulty in rounding Cape Leeuwin at all. Stirling, perhaps realising that on this occasion he had been a little harsh in his criticism, magnanimously replied that he had merely asked for an explanation, so that he could advise the secretary of stale in order to explain any delay in the Sulphur’s final departure from the colony.

Of the many other duties falling to the Sulphur and her crew, each of which could be a paper in itself, I can only touch upon some. One was the rescue of a sailor from the brig James who was found at Woodman Point badly injured by an explosion of gunpowder. He was cared for on board but unfortunately died and was buried at Garden Island. Peel’s settlement at Clarence was in trouble and Dance was requested to send Dr. Collie to enquire into the cause of so much sickness. Collie made a full report on what he found.

In May 1830 the Rockingham went ashore and the Sulphur was again called upon to assist. The full story of the Rockingham has yet to be told. Attempts were made to repair her and tow her to Batavia but these failed and she was condemned as unseaworthy and apparently became a total wreck. Dance drew Stirling’s attention to the auction sale of the Rockingham’s guns which he thought would be useful for mooring buoys. Whether they were purchased and used for that purpose is not stated, but perhaps some day one of our underwater explorers will come across them and wonder how they got there.

In March 1831 the construction of a jetty at Fremantle was contemplated, and the Sulphur was asked to supply 1 cwt. of gunpowder to blast the rocks. The difficulties of transport to the outer settlements at Augusta and Albany and the problem of keeping those places supplied with provisions, etc., made demands on the Sulphur on many occasions. On one of these voyages two escaped convicts from Albany had been captured and placed on board for return to that post, and Dance was requested to pick up five more at Augusta and hand them over to Captain Barker at the Albany station. If that officer should have already left for Sydney, he was to hand them over to the captain of the Britannia for conveyance to Launceston. Barker had left and, as the Britannia did not put in an appearance, Dance had perforce to bring the gentlemen back to Fremantle. Settlers at Augusta and Albany were sometimes granted passages on the Sulphur. The names Turner, Kellam, Cook, Ludlow, Bussell, Earl and Chapman are recorded as residing at Augusta and Morley, Geake, Waddell and Rowe at Albany. On one of these voyages Dance was asked to enquire into the possibility of an entrance for ships into Nornalup Inlet and the best places to wood and water at King George’s Sound and the most convenient anchorage and a fitting place for a naval dockyard.

Richard Sholl, the Sulphur’s purser, was of great assistance to


Stirling and spent most of his time in Perth where he held the appointment of purchasing officer for the colony. Another instance of assistance rendered by the medical officers of the Sulphur was a request for Assistant Surgeon Johnston to attend the crew of the brig Faith who were suffering from scurvy.

In July 1831 the Government acquired the schooner Ellen and, pending the selection of a master and crew, the senior lieutenant of the Sulphur, William Preston, took command and secured a crew from the Sulphur. Many other instances of developmental work could be related, but it must not be forgotten that it was Mrs. Dance who took a leading role in the ceremony of the foundation of Perth.

The Government stores were located on Garden Island where the colonial storekeeper, Morgan, and his wife and daughter lived. Dance also had a house on the island where he and his wife and infant son lived when not aboard the Sulphur. Morgan was an interesting personality and there is much of his outspoken correspondence on record which makes delightful reading. He had been a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and occasionally crossed swords with Dance. On one such occasion Dance complained of Morgan’s men firing ball ammunition while in a state of intoxication, and he instructed Morgan that on no account was he in future to sanction the issue of firearms to anybody except for the protection of government property or with the express authority of the lieutenant-governor. Morgan questioned the right of Dance to give him orders while he held the position of colonial storekeeper. Had he left it at that he might have got away with it, but he indiscreetly added that he was not prepared to censure his servants on an ex parte statement and in a following letter he said he acquitted his men of disorderly conduct, and it could not be proved that they were intoxicated. Dance was furious and sent the correspondence to the governor under cover of a personal letter to the colonial secretary, Peter Broun, in which he expressed the opinion “that my wretched banishment on Garden Island from all Society is sufficiently irksome without being at the risk of being insulted by a person in every possible way, either rank or education, my inferior." He considered Morgan had taken leave of his senses, if he ever had any. The governor reprimanded Morgan in no uncertain terms for his lack of co-operation and in future he was to obtain permission from the senior naval officer before allowing anyone to reside on the island. The senior naval officer was, of course, Dance.

In the field of exploration the Sulphur’s men played their part. The names Preston and Collie are outstanding in the early days of the settlement. Dance himself explored the Canning River soon after his arrival, and he accompanied Fremantle on an expedition as far as the Darling Range on 4th July, 1829.

In September 1829 Preston, together with Collie, led a party of


officers and men across the Darling Range. They left the Sulphur at 10 a.m. on 8th September with the intention of sailing up the river towards Perth and then making for the hills along the Canning. Several attempts were made to cross the bar at Fremantle, but they could not make it and at noon found themselves at Woodman Point thoroughly drenched. Having got the provisions ashore and having buried the casks (of water or rum, it is not stated) they proceeded towards Fremantle, arriving at 6 p.m. very tired. Next morning Midshipman Disney was sent back with a party to bring up the rations and presumably the casks while Collie superintended the striking of the tents and loading of baggage into the boats. Preston, realising that the provisions still at Woodman Point would be too much for one trip, hired a cart and two horses and met them halfway. In doing this he was also actuated by the knowledge that spirits were easily obtainable at Fremantle and some of his men were already suffering a hangover. By this manoeuvre they were able to leave by 2 p.m., arriving at Point Heathcote at 5 p.m. where they pitched camp for the night.

Next day they were joined by Ensign Dale with a party of soldiers and proceeded up the Canning River, where they met some friendly natives. The journey was uneventful for the next few days except that Gilbert, the Sulphur’s clerk, having fired at a kangaroo rat, startled a party of native women and children who flew in all directions. They saw the smoke of a fire that had just been lit and after leaving some feathers and handkerchiefs they continued on their way without meeting any opposition. There were many other interesting details connected with this expedition, which returned to Perth ten days later without having discovered any land suitable for agriculture. November 1829 saw Preston and Collie again employed, this time on an expedition to Geographe Bay. They first entered the Murray estuary and discovered a river which they termed the Southern but which was probably the Harvey, but how it got that name and who the mysterious Major Harvey was, after whom it is said to have been named, is still a matter of conjecture. Returning to the estuary they proceeded south to Leschenault where they discovered the two rivers afterwards named by Stirling the Preston and Collie.

Surgeon Collie, although still an officer of the Sulphur, was in 1831 appointed Government Resident at Albany and while there made several important excursions into the surrounding country. Collie, as well as being a doctor, had an extensive knowledge of natural history and geology. While at Albany he kept comprehensive meteorological tables which are still in existence. In April 1831 advantage was taken of the Sulphur's voyage to Albany to examine more closely the coast in the neighbourhood of Nornalup Inlet. A whale-boat with Preston in charge left the ship on 18th April about


six miles offshore, and the Sulphur then proceeded on her way back to Cockburn Sound. Preston was to examine the coast for any port or harbour in the neighbourhood of Nornalup, sometimes written as Norway Loup, and, on proceeding to Augusta, was to examine the harbour which some of the settlers believe existed north of Cape Leeuwin. On this expedition Preston and his party of five narrowly escaped disaster.

After exploring the inlet and several small bays the weather became unsettled and they proceeded towards Point D’Entrecasteaux and found shelter for the night. Next day the wind increased to a gale and they had to lower sail and pull for the shore. On approaching the surf Preston noticed with astonishment that breakers extended for nearly half a mile from the shore. It was too late to go back and they went over the breakers. The boat touched bottom and nearly overturned but they managed to get ashore safely after the boat had filled. Preston in commending his men said that, had they not obeyed orders and kept their places in the boat, there would not have been a chance for the most expert swimmer.

The weather continued at gale force, so preventing the launching of the boat, and after two days Preston decided to abandon it as provisions were getting low. The long hike to Augusta was commenced and as the morning was very cold they took with them four bottles of rum, one of wine, eight of water, four pounds of pork, eighteen lbs of ship’s biscuits, two muskets, one gun, ammunition, an axe, three blankets and a spare flannel, shoes and stockings for each man. They kept to the beach wherever possible but occasionally had to take to the bush; after three days they found themselves on the banks of the Blackwood River. They were seen by some settlers who thought they were escaped convicts and notified Colonel Molloy.

Two of Preston’s men were in a bad way from weak ankles and sore feet but after treatment by Dr. Green they recovered and were fit to continue the journey next day. Before doing so, Molloy took Preston to visit the various settlers and he was astonished to see so much done and all apparently perfectly happy and contented. Later events disproved that contentment and as we know most of the Augusta settlers abandoned their holdings and settled at the Vasse. They continued their journey to the Murray, first in Earl's boat up the Blackwood and then across country until they came to the estuary of the Vasse. Passing through this country towards Pod Leschenault, Preston described the land as the finest he had seen in the colony.

So far the north had been neglected, and in November 1831 Stirling hired the cutter Colonist and, with Preston in command, an examination of the coast was carried out. This voyage was to great extent unproductive, as strong winds and shallow water


preluded a close examination of the shore in the short space of two weeks which had been allotted. Preston found several islands not on the chart, and after reaching latitude 28° 45' he had to return in order to be back in Fremantle on time. At the farthest north anchorage he observed part of a swinging boom which had been erected above high-water mark. It would be interesting to learn from which ship this might have come.

By the foregoing I have endeavoured to give you a brief outline of some of the work undertaken by the Sulphur which I hope may convince you that in the words of the late Dr. Cyril Bryan (“Cygnet” of the Swan River Booklets series) the Sulphur has as much right as, if not more right than, any other ship to be regarded as the pioneer vessel of the Swan River Settlement.

Although no stipulated period of attachment to the Swan River Settlement appears in Dance’s orders, it would seem that three years had been contemplated, as a memo from the Admiralty Office to Lord Goderich, dated 1st October 1831, draws his attention to the fact that the Sulphur had been out for three years and must be recalled. Instructions to this effect were sent to Stirling and apparently caused no surprise. Up to this point the relationship between Stirling and Dance, except for an occasional brush, appears to have been harmonious, and in a letter to Admiral Owen, Stirling stated that he had received from Captain Dance the most zealous assistance and co-operation in the furtherance of public service, exploration of neighbouring coasts, buoying of the channels and the protection of the settlement. It is difficult therefore to understand the serious rift in their relations which continued right up to the arrival of the Sulphur at Spithead on 12th December 1832.

Considerable dissension existed in the colony, as it was felt that the home government had not assisted the struggling settlement as much as might have been expected and, as Captain Irwin was due for leave, it was decided that he should return in the Sulphur and carry despatches to the Colonial Office. Dance was advised of this and replied that he would be ready to sail on 16th June 1832. However, the Executive Council desired that Stirling himself should go to England and present the case personally to the government and that Irwin should remain as acting lieutenant-governor. At the same time, as provisions were urgently needed, it was decided to ask Dance to go to the Cape of Good Hope for supplies and to remain at Swan River for a few months if required. Stirling requested a passage for himself and family to Cape Town as the first leg of his journey home. This change of plans for some reason irritated Dance and he somewhat testily informed the governor that much of what had been done would have to be undone and that he did not expect to be ready to sail before 25th July. Stirling went to Fremantle on 24th all ready to sail on the morrow only to find that Dance had


returned to Garden Island. He thereupon wrote to Dance complaining of the delay and emphasising his urgent representations regarding the shortage of provisions, which he said, would be serious and certain. Apparently what had delayed Dance and caused him to return to Garden Island was the illness of Mrs. Dance. He said Stirling knew of this and he expressed surprise at receiving such a peremptory letter demanding his immediate departure in view of the "calamity which has occurred in my family.'' He added that he was under the painful but imperative necessity of saying that, as the opinion of his medical man was that it would be dangerous to life to move Mrs. Dance for some little time, he was obliged to say with all respect to His Excellency that he must decline moving from the anchorage until his doctor approved.

Stirling replied next day and, unless he thought that Mrs. Dance’s illness was grossly exaggerated, his indifference to it seems most extraordinary. He dismissed the matter lightly by remarking that he had learned with much concern that “for some reason connected with your private affairs you must decline moving from your present anchorage.” He then reiterated the necessity for immediate departure to obviate the infliction of famine upon the settlement, and concluded by saying that “as any reliance on the assistance of the Sulphur in furtherance of His Majesty’s service to the colony could be useless and fallacious, her continuance on the station and her further return to it, ceased to be desirable. He requested Dance to advise him of the date of sailing as, in the event of the Sulphur being the first ship departing, he proposed to apply for a passage in the gun-room mess. Dance’s reply was quite polite and dignified. He proposed in view of His Excellency’s letter to return with all possible expedition to Spithead. On the subject of His Excellency’s intimation that he would apply for accommodation in the gun-room mess, he did not wish to have any control on the subject, but he had already provided the necessary means of subsistence for His Excellency and family at his table and if at this late period he determined on living in the gun-room mess, he, Dance, would be entitled to half allowance of his expenses in accordance with naval instructions. He would inform His Excellency the moment a day could be fixed for sailing.

The letter was formally acknowledged by the colonial secretary under instructions from the governor and merely requested to be advised of the date of sailing. Stirling was, no doubt, considerably disturbed by the shortage of provisions but he could hardly have improved matters by summarily dismissing the Sulphur even though there was some delay in the voyage to Cape Town. In any case it was subsequently found that the shortage was not so serious as anticipated, and supplies were obtained without having to send away for them.


The Sulphur left with the governor and his family on board on 12th August 1832 and reached England on 12th December, but the voyage was anything but happy for the parties concerned and Dance in reporting his arrival to the Admiralty referred to the quarrel, stating that, lest there should appear to be any blame attached to him, he was forwarding the whole of the correspondence. Copies of the correspondence which took place here are in the State Archives and when Miss Lukis was in England recently she was able to obtain copies of further correspondence written at Cape Town which indicated that tempers had by no means cooled. Dance, in fact, refused to take Stirling beyond Cape Town, which he said he had done with great personal inconvenience because he conceived His Majesty’s service required his making the sacrifice, but as he was now under the orders of the commander-in-chief, he did not consider himself authorised to embark any passengers whatsoever without his especial order.

Stirling as usual had the whip-hand and used it. He formally requested the commander-in-chief at Cape Town to direct Dance that his voyage on the Sulphur should continue, but the commander-in-chief, no doubt to Stirling’s great satisfaction, replied that he had no authority to grant such a request. Stirling thereupon advised Dance that, due to his refusal on the one hand and the Commander-in-chiefs want of authority on the other, he proposed to disembark, but he reminded Dance that his, Stirling’s, official instructions directed him to apply to the commander of the Sulphur for such assistance for the promotion of the service on which he was still employed. He also reminded Dance that his original orders from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty instructed him to assist Stirling in the furtherance of the promotion of the colony and, as he was proceeding to England on public business which would brook no delay, he was at a loss to reconcile these orders with Dance’s refusal to permit him on board the Sulphur. He concludes, “Having recalled the circumstances to your recollection I have done all that is in my power to prevent the injury which will be caused by the delay to the Settlement which you have been directed to promote.” He signed the letter James Stirling, Governor of Western Australia. Dance capitulated, and so the governor continued his journey in the gun-room mess. With the arrival at Spithead the Sulphur and her commander passed out of the history of Western Australia, but as we all know, Stirling was to return with a knighthood for a further term as governor.

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