Amity – the busy little brig

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On Christmas Day 2026 the town of Albany, Western Australia will recognise the anniversary of the first European settlement on the large body of land known 200 years ago as New Holland. In 2023, Albany hosted around 400,000 visitors [Tourism WA]. A large percentage of these would have seen the replica of the brig Amity ‘parked’, rather than ‘moored’, on Princess Royal Drive. The original Amity was a small ship, yet she carried over fifty passengers, their personal belongings, provisions and livestock, plus a sizable crew from Sydney, New South Wales. The picture above shows the single deck of this ship in replica. Here is some information about this busy little brig that the tour guides may not have mentioned.

Builders and Owners

Amity was built in St John, New Brunswick, Canada in 1816. I have not been able to identify her builder or first owner. She was not listed in Lloyds Register until 1822 when she was owned by J & A Muir, who may have been her first owners. In 1823 she was sold by the Muirs to Robert Ralston an Ayrshire cattle breeder and farmer. Ralston refitted the ship to bring her up to scratch for a long voyage he had planned.

The number of shipbuilders and ship yards in New Brunswick in the 19th century was formidable.  I have looked at many possibilities (even written in French) on the origin of this remarkably sturdy vessel.  I am hoping that the Bicentennial celebrations will bring forth a descendent of Amity‘s builder; now wouldn’t that be something to look forward to.

Until the purchase by Ralston, Amity worked the Atlantic as a trader from North America to Britain. In the two years prior to Ralston’s ownership she was operating between Cork, Ireland and Greenock in Scotland. She then became pivotal to the settlement of Australia. Amity was a small but tough ship – and she had to be, since during her career of almost thirty years she worked the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans.

Specifications

When launched, Amity was a two-masted, square-rigged ship of black birch and pitch pine, a brig of 142 tons. She was a single deck vessel with beams and proved iron cables. She had been surveyed in October 1823 having received some damage repair, and a new keel. She was a Second Class (E) vessel and her materials were of first class quality. In 1823/24 there were at least 27 ships named Amity plying the world’s oceans. The Muir/Ralston ship Amity utilised the services of three different masters during those years: Captains J Heron, D Withers and M McMicken [Lloyds Registers].

Who were the Ralstons?

Lloyds Register 1824

Robert Ralston and his large family then put the recently purchased brig to work. Ralston decided to take up farming land in Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania); accompanying them would be other migrants, bringing the passenger complement to 21. This included James Grieg, partner to Robert Ralston in the cattle that travelled with them.

The journey was arduous. Amity sailed from Stranraer, Scotland on 15th November 1823 to Dublin; from there touched on Rio de Janeiro in January 1824 and caught the roaring 40’s to the Cape. She arrived in Hobart after five months on 15th April 1824. Robert and his son Mathew Ralston, along with James Grieg left the Ralston women to settle in Hobart. On 16th May they sailed on Amity for Sydney with a view to selling the brig [CO63/1/1/69]. This was accomplished when Amity was purchased by the NSW Government. Robert returned to VDL where he took up land in Morven (now Evandale) where he bacame a successful cattle farmer, planting the seeds of his Ayrshire cattle in Australia and New Zealand. Ralston and his families – for his six daughters all married bar one – established other successful businesses in Hobart and Launceston.

The NSW Colonial Government took ownership of Amity in August 1824 and for several years she was engaged in transporting government officials, soldiers and convicts to establish new European settlements in remote parts of the Australian Continent in the east, west and even in the South Pacific Ocean.

Her Voyages to Moreton Bay

Sydney Gazette 2 Sep 1824

In 1824 Governor Thomas Brisbane decided to establish a northern settlement which would serve to remove convict second-offenders from Sydney and at the same time start a settlement to boost the supply of foodstuffs to NSW and other British colonies. On 1st September John Oxley, Surveyor General and Allan Cunningham, the King’s Botanist, would embark on the first of several Amity voyages to find the most suitable location for the settlement. Eleven days later, in stormy weather, 20 soldiers, wives and children, Oxley, Cunningham and other government officials, 30 convicts, stores and livestock, disembarked at Redcliffe. In mid-1825 the Amity assisted in relocating the settlement at Redcliffe to a more suitable site 17 miles south on the Brisbane River.

 

John Oxley and Allan Cunningham

 

On 28th July 1825, while the Amity was on one of her many trips to Moreton Bay from Sydney, her crew – at anchor in the bay – encountered a longboat carrying some survivors of the ship Royal Charlotte which had left Sydney in June and for the last month had been wrecked on Frederick’s Reef. Treacherous waters around the reef required that Amity anchor some distance away but sent it’s whaleboat to evacuate the castaways. Amity then returned immediately to Sydney arriving on 10th August 1825. This may not have been the busy little brig’s first rescue mission, but it certainly wasn’t her last.

 

Her Voyages to Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island has had many ‘lives’ as a British outpost in the South Pacific. It was visited by Captain James Cook during his second voyage of the region. in March 1788 only five weeks after the First Fleet arrived in Sydney, a convict settlement was established, but by 1814 the Island was more or less abandoned.

A second convict settlement began in 1825 and the brig Amity had a role in its re-establishment. She was one of the ships transporting the convicts and supplies from Sydney to Norfolk Island and back again (1826).

Her Voyages to King George’s Sound

Amity Passengers. Click to enlarge.

Amity made her debut at King George’s Sound when the landmass on that side of the Continent was named New Holland. She brought the first Europeans to the area from New South Wales. Three ships had set sail from Port Jackson, NSW on 9th November 1826:

HMS Fly, a brig-sloop, 336 tons. Captain Frederick Augustus Weatherall.
Dragon, a brig, 134 tons, bound for Western Port (later Corinella, Victoria). Mr J H Skelton, Master.
Amity, colonial brig, 148 tons, bound for King George Sound. Captain Thomas Hansen and Lieutenant Colson Festing RN.

All three vessels met with bad weather en route. Amity, off the northern coast of Tasmania called into George Town to renew her water supply and organise a hunting party for provisions. Lockyer records in his journal that on the 29th November, when off Storm Bay, the wind shifted bringing a ‘perfect storm with a very great sea’. The storm broke off the main boom and stove in part of the bulwarks. The damage necessitated a call at Hobart for repairs, after which the voyage continued on the 6th December.

For Amity the weather was poor the remainder of the voyage, but she finally made safe anchorage in Princess Royal Harbour on Christmas Day. At daybreak on 26th December 1826, Major Lockyer and Lieutenant Festing went ashore to decide upon a site for the first British military post and potential settlement in Western Australia. Details of the voyage can be found in Major Lockyer’s Journal.

Her Voyages to Other Settlements

Cobourg Peninsula [courtesy of Russ Swan]
Amity made many more voyages to King George’s Sound from Sydney and return. Most of the time the journey would take her to the Cobourg Peninsula. The peninsula was sighted and named by Captain Phillip Parker King, RN in 1818 after Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, Queen Victoria’s uncle. The British and colonial government jointly tried to establish settlements in the region – at Fort Dundas on Melville Island, Fort Wellington at Raffles Bay and Fort Victoria at Esssington on the Cobourg Peninsula. The Army musters referred to these outposts for the soldiers of the 39th Regiment as ‘Northern Coast’. They were not a success with near-starvation, disease, tropical lethargy and attacks by the local indigenous population; clearly the result of isolation, difficult supply of essential services and cultural misunderstanding.

Among other ships in and out of King George’s Sound via the northern settlements were the schooner Isabella, the cutter Mermaid, another brig Governor Phillip, and the barque Lucy Ann. Many of these vessels, like Amity, would ferry 39th regiment soldiers in rotation from Sydney, to the northern coast, to KGS and return.

Colonial Times 22 Jun 1827

Amity‘s voyage in 1827 left Sydney on 19th May 1827. This voyage accompanied Captain James Stirling, commanding HMS Success, who was making a second attempt at settlement of Port Essington. Other ships commanded by Royal Navy folk – Captain Noyes, Lieutenant Hicks and Lieutenant Bedwell were also on this mission. They transported soldiers, convicts, livestock and provisions suffient for a nine month period. Amity, again playing the workhorse in attempts to settle the north coast of Australia, then continued her journey to the Sound. Port Essington was (briefly) three times lucky with settlement in 1838, but today’s ruins show that that too failed in an attempt to establish a European footprint on the Cobourg Peninsula.

In a despatch from Captain Wakefield (now Commandant) to Colonial Secretary Macleay dated 19th August 1827 he writes, I beg to mention to you that the Brig Amity made the Sound on the 22 July. I sent the Pilot on board to assist in bringing her into harbour, but the wind being contrary they let go the Anchor in the Sound. In consequence of the gross neglect of the Chief Mate, the cable was not secured to the Vessel so it ran completely out; a gale of wind came on; the Ship was driven to sea,and we saw no more of her for seventeen days.[HRA p.513].

In the same Despatch No. 6, Wakefield mentioned that George Thomas, one of the acting pilots would return to Sydney (with not very flattering remarks about the man!). Wakefield mentioned that Acting Pilot John Hobson was always ready, willing and perfectly sufficient for any duty that may be required of him. In a nice touch to his despatch, Wakefield also wrote, P.S.—No clothing having arrived for the Prisoners, I am fearful they will be in a state of perfect nudity before a supply is received.

The brig finally arrived at KGS on 8th August and returned to Sydney by a shorter route arriving at Port Jackson on 20th August 1827. It was on this long voyage West, that the wives of the convict overseers, Sarah Wood and Ann Wood and Ann’s two children travelled to join their husbands at the Sound.

In February 1828 Amity was again at the Sound. Amity was on her way to deliver a cow and two bullocks to Raffles Bay settlement. The cattle were ordered to be inspected for their fitness to travel north. They were deemed unfit to travel and given approval to to remain at the Sound. Nothing more is mentioned of Amity‘s forward voyage arrangements. The cutter Mermaid, in port at the same time from Melville Island, returned to Sydney with a very sick ship’s master Samuel Dowsett and crew, accompanied by Wakefield’s reliable pilot, John Hobson, in the event of problems at sea. [HRA p.517/18].

The busy little brig was back at the Sound in mid-June 1828 with correspondence and government reports from Secretary Macleay. She returned to Sydney with two convicts and a ‘seine’ (large fishing net) delivered on a previous Amity voyage that was not fit for purpose [nothing ever changes, but it just took a little longer to fix the problem in 1827/28]. Ultimately a net was sent down by Captain Collet Barker from Fort Wellington, Raffles Bay, where he was Commandant at that time. It seems the second seine was a shabby affair with holes in it, but nonetheless helped feed the population at the Sound.

Sydney Gazette 3 Nov 1829

On 6th December 1828, Commandant Wakefield returned to Sydney on the brig Governor Phillip and Lieutenant George Sleeman took over as Commandant from that date. Thus Sleeman was in charge of the KGS settlement when the next voyage for Amity that I have identified arrived. In 1829 Amity was sent on a voyage from Sydney to Fort Wellington in Raffles Bay, the intention being to remove everything from the settlement which was closing down. The first choice for this voyage was Mermaid and then Governor Ready, but both ships had been wrecked, Mermaid on 13th June and Governor Ready on 18th May – both in Torres Straits. Amity left Raffles Bay on 24th August for Swan River – arriving on 22nd September where she deposited a variety of salvaged stores from Mermaid and possibly five of her crew too [BL Acc 36 Vol 2/54]. Amity then left the very recently settled Swan River Colony on 29th September for the Sound. Her master, William Owens, safely arrived on 4th October and sailed for the return journey to Port Jackson, Sydney on 7th where she dropped anchor on 20th October.

Amity gave up her colonial government public service job in 1831 when she returned to private ownership. I have not found a annual listing in Lloyds Register for her from that time to when she was wrecked in 1845. Neither have I found a survey being conducted by Lloyds. During this interval there were two other brigs named Amity built in New Brunswick registered, one built in 1825, the other in 1838. It appears that at the time of her demise she was transporting livestock for her living.

Her Demise

Vansittart Island shown between Flinders and Cape Barren Islands. Cape Portland on the VDL mainland shown south.

In June 1845, Amity was sailing from Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land to Port Albert, Victoria with a crew of 11 and a cargo of livestock, when she ran into a heavy gale while entering Bass Strait. She ran aground on a sandbank about 12 miles off the southeast coast of Flinders Island, identified as Vansittart Shoals. The rudder broke off on impact and by 7 a.m. on 18th June the vessel appeared to be breaking up. Some of the crew abandoned ship on the partly damaged long boat, while the remainder left in the smaller craft (the jolly boat). All drifted towards land on a location known as the North Rollers where the heavy surf damaged the two boats beyond repair. Fortunately a party of sealers from Vansittart Island discovered them and gave assistance. The captain, part-owner, first mate and two crewmen struck out for the mainland, landing at Preservation Island. The schooner Letitia was at anchor where Amity‘s Captain Marr went aboard. The boat on loan from the sealers picked up and landed the rest of Amity‘s crew at Cape Portland from whence they walked overland to Launceston. The last registered owners of Amity were Napoleon Gibert (the part-owner on board when she was lost) and John Story; they had purchased her in 1842. Fortunately for them, Amity was well insured and in July 1845 she was sold at auction for thirty shillings! [Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database].

 

Her Replica

In the lead up to the town of Albany’s sesquicentennial celebrations, an idea was floated that a replica of Amity would be a tourist drawcard.  As an experienced shipbuilder, Mr Stan Austin took on the challenge to design and build a replica of the busy little brig from scratch. Stan’s involvement in the construction of the replica was a labour of love, requiring prolific and painstaking research into the forgotten knowledge of brig-building. Stan Austin, Pieter van de Brugge the leading shipwright, and a team of locals completed the project in 1976, using techniques dating back centuries.

Sources and Bibliography

Books, Journals & Websites
The Amity : The Story of a Brig and her Pivotal Role in Australian Colonisation by John Pearn and Danny Tangney 2016.
Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database.
Historical Records of Australia (HRA) Series III, Volume VI Tasmania, Western Australia and Northern Territory, Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament, 1923.
Journal of Major Lockyer Commandant of the Expedition Sent from Sydney in 1826 to Found a Settlement at King George’s Sound, Western Australia – transcription, Battye Library, State Library of WA.
Land Looking West: The Story of Governor James Stirling in Western Australia by Malcolm Uren 1948.
Log of Logs, Vol. 1, p. 20 by Ian Nicholson.
The Military Establishment and Penal Settlement at King George Sound’ by John Sweetman 1989.
Museum of the Great Southern website.
Possessory Lien—the First European Settlement, King George’s Sound, New Holland (1826-1831) by Robert Stephens, Early Days, vol. 6, part 6: 23-59.
The Ralston Family and the Brig Amity by Lorraine Wootton, Launceston Historical Society Inc.
Settlers Gazette Newsletter, Swan River Pioneers 1829-1839, Issue No. 17, December 1998.
Tales from the Quarterdeck website.
Wikipedia and Wikipedia Commons website.
Wrecksite website.

Archives
Colonial Office Shipping Departures CO63/1/1, Tasmanian Archives.
Letters to King George’s Sound, 4 November 1826 – 11 January 1831 [Record NRS 977, Microfilm SR Reel 712, State Archives and Records, NSW]. Digitised by Notre Dame University.
Lloyds Register of British and Foreign Shipping (and predecessors) 1816-1845.
War Office Muster Rolls and Pay Lists WO12-5263 to 5264, The National Archives, Kew.

Newspapers
Sydney Gazette 6 May 1824 – arrival of Ralstons at Hobart on 15 April.
Sydney Gazette 2 Sep 1824 – to Redcliffe and Moreton Bay.
Sydney Gazette 11 Aug 1825 – rescue of castaways on Royal Charlotte.
Colonial Times 3 Feb 1826 – supplies to Norfolk Island.
Sydney Gazette 23 May 1827 – Amity to King George’s Sound.
Colonial Times 22 Jun 1827 – Amity at Port Essington.
Sydney Gazette 3 Nov 1829 – Amity with Mermaid survivors.
Albany Advertiser 12 May 2011 – obituary for Stan Austin, replica project supervisor.

 

© Diane Oldman 2024