William Bradley, naval officer and diarist, was said to be the great-nephew of James Bradley (1693-1762), Astronomer Royal from 1742 until his death. One of his brothers, James, was on the staff of the Royal Naval Academy, Portsmouth, and his wife, Sarah Witchell, whom he married some time before May 1787, was a daughter of one of the masters there.


He entered the navy on 10 April 1772 and served successively as captain's servant, A.B., midshipman, and master's mate until 31 October 1778 when he was promoted lieutenant. He served in H.M.S. Lennox, Aldborough, Mermaid, Ripon, Prothée, Phaeton and Ariadne before being appointed first lieutenant on the Sirius on 25 October 1786 and sailing with the First Fleet the following May.


After reaching Port Jackson in January 1788 John Hunter, second captain of Sirius, immediately began with Bradley a series of surveys. They had completed that of Sydney Harbour by 6 February, Bradley's Head, on the northern shore of the harbour, first known as Bradley's Point, being named after the lieutenant. During his stay at Sydney Bradley lived on the Sirius and appears to have taken little part in the social life of the new colony, though he recorded in his diary the more striking day-to-day events and, in the course of duty, sat on the Court of Criminal Judicature.

On the various short surveying expeditions he undertook, usually with Hunter, his main interest was the Aboriginals, whose appearance and behaviour he describes in his journal. Natural history also engaged his attention, as may be seen from his descriptions of animals, birds and local timbers.


On 2 October 1788 he left Sydney for the Cape of Good Hope with Hunter in the Sirius to collect provisions for the settlement; sailing via New Zealand and Cape Horn and circumnavigating the globe, they arrived back on 9 May 1789.


For the rest of the year Bradley was occupied taking observations, supervising the repair of the Sirius and continuing his study of the Aboriginals, his comments showing how the general opinion of them became less favourable as time went on. In November 1789 he was in the party who captured Colebeand Bennelong, 'by far the most unpleasant service I ever was order'd to Execute'.

Because the problem of victualling the settlement remained unsolved, on 6 March 1790 Sirius and Supply were sent with marines and convicts to Norfolk Island. On 19 March the Sirius was wrecked, a disaster which kept Bradley for eleven months on the island. He surveyed it but found little to interest him there.


On 12 February 1791 Hunter and the officers and crew of the Sirius left Norfolk Island in the Supply for Port Jackson, which they left in turn on 28 March in the chartered Dutch ship Waaksamheyd for the Philippines. They finally reached Portsmouth on 23 April 1792, where at a court martial held over the loss of the Sirius, all were 'Honorably Acquitted' and paid off on 4 May.

Many details of William Bradley’s life remain a mystery, but the basic details of his later naval service are clear.


After returning to England in April 1792 he was promoted Commander and placed in charge of the 14 gun Comet, seeing action in the Battle of Ushant off the coast of France. Following that battle he was promoted Captain to the 74 gun ship Ajax (1794-1802) and subsequently commanded the 40 gun Cambrian on the Newfoundland Station (1802-1805). He returned to England in 1805 and was appointed captain of the 74 gun Plantagenet as part of the Channel Fleet until 1809 when he departed the ship.


The exact details of his departure remain unclear but in January 1809 Bradley informed the Admiralty that he had received a writ to appear before His Majesty’s Court of Common Pleas.  Bradley attributed the writ to a sentence passed by a court martial, of which he was President, upon Captain Christopher Laroche of the 38 gun frigate HMS Uranie [Urania].


Convened at Portsmouth in July 1807, Laroche was charged with failing to do his utmost to bring about an engagement with an enemy frigate. Found guilty, he was dismissed from his command.

While the exact nature of the writ brought against William Bradley is unknown, it effectively brought an end to his sea-going career. Taking an extended leave of absence to attend the Court in London, and with the stress of the situation weighing heavily on him, Bradley’s health declined to a point where he was forced to relinquish command of the Plantagenet. However, by the following year he had been appointed to the shore-based Impress Service at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.


Finding men to crew the ships of the Royal Navy during the long war with France and its allies was a constant problem. While the government attempted to attract volunteers by offering the ‘King’s Bounty’ to men who freely entered the service, in times of need it was also empowered to take British seamen from merchant ships in home waters and to round up suitable men on shore through the press gang.


By its nature, the activities of the Impress Service were unpopular and its members regularly liable to verbal or even physical abuse. Whether made in retribution, a genuine observation, or simply a mistake, Bradley’s career was rocked in 1812 by an anonymous letter sent to the Admiralty claiming that he had been seen intoxicated in the street at Cowes. The complaint came at a critical moment in Bradley’s career.


By 1812 Bradley was a post captain of 18 years and, having advanced in seniority to the top of the list of captains serving in the navy, by convention expected to be promoted to the rank of Admiral when the next vacancy occurred. In 1812 there were 191 flag officers on active service and another 31 ‘superannuated’ Rear-Admirals. In effect, a superannuated officer was a retired officer holding honorary rank but receiving a pension equal to the half pay of a Rear-Admiral.


Bradley seems to have first become aware of the threat to his expected promotion when a panel of three captains was tasked with investigating the complaint against him, and he quickly went about securing character references which he sent to the Admiralty Board. At this stage, the seven member Board appears to have been against awarding Bradley his flag, but following Bradley successfully appealing his case directly to the Prince Regent, it reversed its earlier decision, placing him on the list of superannuated Rear-Admirals on 22 September 1812.


The victory should have been enough to support Bradley, his wife Sarah and their five children (James 24, Louisa 18, Eliza 16, Maria 12 and Angus 6) in relative comfort, but events were soon to prove otherwise.


In 1814 William Bradley was found guilty of defrauding the postal system as outlined in The Salisbury and Winchester Journal on the 25 July:

It appeared on the trial that Admiral Bradley carried to the post-office, at Gosport, a parcel containing 411 letters, which he pretended to have brought by the vessel William and Jane, from Lisbon, upon which he claimed (in the name of Wm. Johnstone) and obtained a premium of 2d. per letter (amounting to about £3:8 s) which is given by a statute of George II to masters of vessels bringing letters from foreign parts. The letters were all written in his own hand on half sheets of paper, and addressed to different Members of Parliament. He had previously obtained premiums at the same post-office for the delivery of great numbers of letters under exactly similar circumstances, and suspicion of fraud was first entertained at the general post-office in London, by order of which enquiry was set on foot at Gosport.

…Evidence was given on the prisoner’s behalf, of his intellects having been in a disordered state in the year 1809; testimony to the honesty of his character was also adduced; the Jury however, returned a verdict of Guilty.

A singular circumstance is related respecting the above prisoner; it is positively asserted that he incurred an expense of £2 for the chaise hire, to carry the letters to Gosport; which expense, with the cost of the materials of 411 letters, must have reduced his gain to almost nothing.


The circumstances of Bradley’s fraud suggest a mental breakdown which, as his defence argued, may have been linked to incidents in 1809. Whatever the reason, it was a sad end to a long and dutiful career.

In October, the same newspaper announced that Bradley was to be transported for life, but within weeks he received a pardon on condition that he leave Britain and never return. As a result, William Bradley crossed the Channel to France where he lived at Le Havre until his death in March 1833.


In August 1816 while he was at Le Havre he wrote a letter detailing a method of calculating longitude with the use of an hour-glass and addressing it to the Admiralty by medium of his brother James. However, the authorities seem to have made no response, and Bradley remained in dishonoured exile, possibly until a free pardon was granted, on petition of his daughters and their husbands, in January 1822.. His wife described him as 'a kind husband and affectionate father', but he appears to have been of a retiring and even unfriendly disposition.  He died on 13 March 1833.

Bradley's professional reputation rests on his surveys and charts, though his name is so frequently coupled with Hunter's that it is difficult to distinguish their work. However, a number of separate manuscript maps of Port Jackson, Broken Bay, Botany Bay, Norfolk Island, and of the routes of the Sirius and Waaksamheyd and islands discovered in the latter, existing in different versions, by or attributed to him, but many unsigned and undated, are held by the Mitchell and Dixson Libraries, Sydney.


The bibliography of printed maps by or attributed to Bradley is equally complicated. Two that were issued separately are his charts of Norfolk Island (published by Bradley in 1794 and later by the Hydrographical Office) and of Port Hunter, Duke of York Island (published in 1794 by Alexander Dalrymple). Charts of Norfolk Island by him were included in The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay (1789) and one or more of the charts in Hunter's An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island (1793) are his.


Bradley's virtues as an independent cartographer may be debatable, for neither charts nor diaries by him recording experiences before 1786 and after 1792 are known, but his continuing importance to historians lies in the very full and precise journal he kept between those years, with its extensive text, many tables, a number of water-colour drawings of great historical interest, and manuscript charts.


(Edited, 2019, from information by N Erskine and J D Hine)



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