LIEUTENANT JOHN SHORTLAND (Senior) (1737 - 1803)

 John Shortland, Senior,  was baptised in Saint Luke, Old Street Parish in the Diocese of London, County Middlesex on 16 October1737. He entered the navy in 1755 as a midshipman and served under Admiral Boscawen off Newfoundland, Vice-Admiral Byng off Minorca and Rear-Admiral Rodney in the West Indies. At the age of 26 he received a promotion to Lieutenant and was engaged in active service.

On 5 July 1764 he married Margarethe Rutherford daughter of John Rutherford esq. of Kelston, Scotland at St Mary’s, at Whitechapel Middlesex. Their first son John was born ca.1768, and their second, Thomas George in 1769. A daughter Jane was born in 1771, and her sister Peggy in 1774.

After his promotion in 1763 Shortland spent most of his time in transport work between England and America with the exception of 1782 when in command of transports carrying troops to the relief of Gibraltar under convoy. In 1786 he was appointed as Agent to the Transports of the First Fleet, and supervised all the transports excluding the two naval vessels. He was responsible for the fulfilling of the contracts for supplies loaded onto the transports and was in command of all the masters of those vessels.

Additionally, Shortland had control of all directions for the correct distribution of provisions to the holds of the ships and was responsible for the accommodation of the marines on board as well as that of the convicts. It was a very responsible position and the success of the whole venture was largely in his hands. He also procured appointments for his sons, John and Thomas George.

On May 13 1787 Shortland sailed in the Alexander and arrived at Botany Bay on 17 Jan 1788. After the fleet transferred to Port Jackson Shortland successfully completed the physical inspection of all stores as they were brought ashore for depositing in hastily built storehouses. At Sydney Cove he was kept busy ordering the carpenters from the Golden Grove to build the first hospital in the settlement.

Shortland’s next task was to sail back to England. He departed Port Jackson in charge of the Alexander on 14 July 1788, accompanied by his youngest son Thomas George as Master’s Mate. Also under his overall command were the transports Friendship, Prince of Wales and Borrowdale.  Most importantly, he carried dispatches from Governor Phillip back to the Secretary of State, Lord Sydney, and perhaps almost as important was the fact that he carried letters from Count de La Perouse to be handed over to the French Ambassador. Regrettably these were the last accounts recorded during the voyages of La Perouse.

The Alexander and Friendship anchored at Lord Howe Island to await the arrival of Prince of Wales and Borrowdale but it was later found out that they had taken an alternative route. Continuing on the voyage by way of Batavia, Shortland discovered and charted many islands and reefs including the dangerous Middleton Shoal.  He sighted but did not identify the Solomon Islands.

Towards the end of October 1788 scurvy had reduced the crews of both ships. Shortland had to make the decision to scuttle Friendship so that what was left of the two crews could continue the journey. They struggled on and reached Batavia, reporting that they were in such bad shape they were unable to sail the Alexander into port and had to call on the Dutch for help.

After this perilous voyage Shortland arrived in England in May 1789. He had kept a full journal of transactions which were highly valued by the authorities and  strongly urged the Admiralty to have the eastern coast of Australia properly charted which was considered to be a contributing factor to the dispatch of Matthew Flinders for explorations in the Investigator. He was promoted to Commander in 1790 and after further active service finally retired as a captain on half pay in 1802.

After his retirement he sought permission to accompany his daughter Peggy to France for recovery of her health. However, on 16 January 1803 not long after arrival in Lille, France he died aged 64. His death certificate indicates that his wife Margaret was still with him at the time, aged 50.

The gravesite of John Shortland in Lille has not been located but Margaret died in Westminster, London, on Christmas Day 1815 and was buried on 6 January 1816 in the north cloister of Westminster Abbey.

It is of note that on two important occasions John Shortland Sn. has been confused with his more famous son John Jn. First on the celebration of his son’s discovery of the Hunter River, and second, on the 150th anniversary of the same event, when the postal department issued a stamp which showed the father instead of the son.


 'Memoir of the Public Services of the Late Captain John Shortland, of the Royal Navy', Naval Chronicle, vol 24, 1810, pp 1-21.                                                                                                             

J.W. Shortland, The Shortland Family of the Royal Navy and Australasia with Particular Reference to the First Fleet”, State Library of New South Wales, Australian National Library, FFF First Fleet House Library 16.6Bs (2011)

 #6292 John W Shortland




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