John Hunter

1738-1821. He was born on 29 August 1737 at Leith, Scotland, one of nine children of William Hunter a captain in the merchant service, and of his wife Helen Drummond, the niece of the lord-provost of Edinburgh. His elder brother, Lieutenant William Hunter, died at Greenwich Hospital in 1810, aged 79.

As a very young child Hunter was shipwrecked off Norway with his father, and upon returning home was despatched to the safer surroundings of school at Lynn Regis under the care of an uncle who immediately placed him in a local school. Being destined for the church he continued his education in Edinburgh and at Aberdeen University, but his wish to become a mariner prevailed and in 1754 he joined the sloop Grampus, Captain Thomas Knackston, as a captain’s servant. During the following year he was placed aboard the Centaur 24, Captain William Brown, and such was his progress that he soon moved from being a topman to the midshipman’s berth.


John Hunter

In 1757 he joined the Union 90, Captain James Galbraith, which ship was fitting out at Chatham for the flag of Vice-Admiral Charles Knowles, although shortly afterwards he transferred with both these officers to the Neptune 90 at Spithead. After serving as second-in-command in the Rochefort expedition the admiral left the Neptune and she briefly became the flagship of Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes, before continuing off Brest as a private ship commanded by Captain Galbraith. In 1759 the Neptune under the command of Captain Broderick Hartwell, and with the future Earl of St. Vincent, John Jervis, as her first lieutenant, served as Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Saunders’ flagship at the reduction of Quebec. In February 1760 Hunter passed his examination for lieutenant but Saunders had so many favourites under his command that no promotional vacancies came Hunter’s way, and indeed he would not be commissioned for another twenty years.

Preferring to try his luck under the patronage of Rear-Admiral Phillip Durell, Hunter served briefly aboard that officer’s flagship Royal Anne 100 at Spithead before transferring to the admiral’s appointed flagship Princess Amelia 80, Captain John Montagu, which vessel formed part of Admiral Sir Edward Hawke’s fleet in Quiberon Bay. Towards the end of the year he obtained a transfer to the commander-in-chief’s flagship Royal George 100, Captain William Bennett, and he remained with her until the peace of 1763.

For a brief period Hunter resided in London before lack of finances and a wish for service took him back to Portsmouth to seek employment. During 1764-5 he was aboard the Tweed 32, Captain Philip Percival, serving on the Newfoundland station, and in the following year he became a master’s mate of the Launceston 44, Captain John Gell, which carried his old friend Vice-Admiral Durell out to Halifax. Unfortunately any hopes of advancement disappeared almost immediately when Durell died three days after their arrival. Hunter continued in the Launceston, and having become her acting-master in 1767 he was confirmed in this position by the commander-in-chief of the North American station, Commodore Samuel Hood, during the following year.

Upon the Launceston returning home, Hunter passed his master’s examination at Trinity House in 1769 and joined the frigate Carysfort 28, Captain William Hay, serving on the Jamaica station. During his time in the Caribbean he was involved in the furtive charting of Havana, regularly sitting atop the mast dressed as a common seaman and sketching his observations on a drawing pad. In 1771 the Carysfort drove ashore on rocks off Florida because of pilot error, and Hunter was instrumental in re-floating her after her masts had fallen and guns been thrown overboard. There followed further service in the East Indies from 1772-5 with the Intrepid 64, Captain James Cranston, and after returning home he joined in quick succession the Kent 74 and the Foudroyant 80, both under the command of Captain Jervis. On board the latter vessel he met the acquaintance of the purser, Evan Nepean, who in 1795 would become the influential secretary to the Admiralty.

In 1776 Hunter received an invitation from the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the North American station, Vice-Admiral Lord Howe, to join his flagship Eagle 64, Captain Henry Duncan, as sailing master. He held the honorary position of master of the fleet at the reduction of Philadelphia in August 1777, where he buoyed the unknown channel which allowed the hired vessel Vigilant 20 to bombard Mud Island at short range, although he did receive a severe wound to the shoulder for his efforts. He later fulfilled the same duty of master of the fleet at the defence of Sandy Hook during July-August 1778. Unfortunately, Lord Howe held the misconception that Hunter valued a future position of master-attendant of a dockyard more highly than he did advancement in the service, and by the time the Eagle returned home in 1779 Howe had resigned his position and was no longer able to promote his highly regarded subordinate. Typically Lord Sandwich the first lord of the admiralty, out of spite to Howe, refused the admiral’s subsequent request that Hunter be promoted lieutenant.

Leaving the East-India bound Eagle, Hunter instead joined the Berwick 74, Captain Keith Stewart, as a volunteer, and then the Channel fleet flagship Union 90, Captain John Dalrymple, although when Admiral Sir Charles Hardy promoted him to the rank of lieutenant the Admiralty reversed the decision on the fleet’s return to port. Having rejoined Captain Stewart on the Berwick as a volunteer and sailed with this vessel for the Leeward Islands, the commander-in-chief of that station, Admiral Sir George Rodney, used his authority to promote Hunter lieutenant on 12 July 1780. The Berwick returned home as a result of damage sustained in the Great Hurricanes of October 1780, and she fought at the Battle of Doggersbank on 5 August 1781.


The arrival of the Sirius and consorts in Botany Bay 1788

With the return to service of Admiral Lord Howe in 1782 Hunter was appointed third lieutenant of the flagship Victory 100, Captain Henry Duncan, and by the time he served at the relief of Gibraltar on 18 October he had risen to the position of first lieutenant. Subsequent to the action off Cape Spartel Lord Howe promoted him commander of the fireship Spitfire on 12 November, and upon returning to Portsmouth he joined the Marquis de Seignelay 14. During March 1783 it was reported that the crew of the sloop, together with that of the Speedy 14, Commander John Young, had mutinied by refusing to set sail with a convoy for the West Indies, but as Britain had come to peace with all her enemies bar the Netherlands the merchants successfully applied for passports to sail unaccompanied.

In April 1783 the Marquis de Seignelay arrived at Plymouth from Portsmouth with money for the dockyard, in June it was reported that she was to sail for Newfoundland with Vice-Admiral John Campbell’s squadron, and by December it was stated that she was serving in the Mediterranean, During April 1784 she sailed for Brest with a party of French people who had been taken up at sea, and that month it was again reported that she would go out to serve on the Newfoundland station, although in October she was apparently at Spithead. During the late summer of 1785 the newspapers announced that she had been serving in the Mediterranean assisting the squadron against depravations undertaken by the Barbary pirates, and in September she set sail for Scotland, from where she left Greenock at the end of November. Hunter retained her through to February 1786 when she was paid off.

From 1786-92 he played a major part in the settlement of New South Wales, in preparation for which he was posted captain of the ex-Indiaman Sirius 24 on 15 December 1786 by Lord Howe, who was by now the First Lord of the Admiralty, Hunter being the only future admiral raised to that rank during the year. He sailed from England with Captain Arthur Phillip’s First Fleet on 31 May 1787, arriving at the settlement in the following January. In October 1788 the Sirius was despatched from Port Jackson to the Cape of Good Hope via Cape Horn to collect supplies, and she completed a circumnavigation of the globe when making the return journey to arrive back at Port Jackson in May 1789. Hunter was then ordered to transport a party of convicts to Norfolk Island in 1790, but his leaky old ship was wrecked there in a storm on 19 March and, although some of the crew were taken by the brig Supply to Port Jackson, he and up to a hundred others remained on the island for a year in some distress before being relieved. Hunter sailed from Sydney for England in March 1791 aboard the chartered brig Waakzaamheid with one hundred and twenty-five men, and this vessel eventually arrived at Portsmouth in April 1792, having survived skirmishes with Malay natives in taking almost six months to reach Batavia. Battle of the Glorious First of June – 1 June 1794

After being acquitted by court martial for the loss of the Sirius Hunter served with Admiral Lord Howe as a volunteer aboard the Queen Charlotte 100, Captain Hugh Christian in the disappointing Channel fleet cruises from July – August 1793, and October-December. In February 1794 it was reported that he had taken leave of the King to assume an appointment as the second governor of New South Wales, but the posting appears to have been delayed as he was present at the Battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794.

Hunter finally left England in early 1795 to sail for New South Wales, which colony he reached in September aboard the troop ship Reliance 10. During his term of office he achieved a great deal in charting the local coasts and islands and directing the exploration of Australia and Van Dieman’s Land through his patronage of, amongst others, Matthew Flinders. At the same time he had to battle the military and other vested interests which in the absence of Captain Philip, who had left for England in 1793, had exploited the convict labour for their own riches. Matters came to a head in November 1799 when Hunter was recalled to England by a secretary of state, the Duke of Portland, on spurious charges sent home by his opponents. Receiving these orders in April 1800, he left the colony that October.

Hunter reached Portsmouth on 24 May 1801 aboard the Buffalo man of war, Commander William Kent, which vessel also escorted the East India trade home from St. Helena, and he brought with him many curiosities including two black swans and three emus. Somewhat despicably, he was not received by the secretary of state, nor granted his request for a commission of enquiry to examine his governorship of New South Wales. Thus he had to content himself with publishing a vindication of his record with recommendations for the future administration of the colony. Eventually the establishment accepted that his conduct was beyond reproach, and as well as being granted a £300 pension in respect of his service he was regularly consulted thereafter on the colony by the great and the good, including Sir Joseph Banks.


The wreck of the Venerable 1804

In August 1804, he was appointed to the Venerable 74, serving with the Channel fleet off Brest. On 24 November this ship went ashore off Roundham Head, Paignton in a fog and state of confusion after a man had fallen overboard and the boat sent to retrieve him had overset. Her men, bar one midshipman, the sailing master, and six others, were taken to safety on ropes hanging down her stern with Hunter exuding calmness, confidence and experience throughout the operation. By the following morning there was no sign of the wrecked Venerable. Once more Hunter was acquitted for the loss of his ship at a court martial which sat on the Salvador del Mundo 112 in the Hamoaze, Plymouth, on 11 December 1804.

Thereafter Hunter was not actively employed, but he superintended the payment of men of war at Portsmouth, became a rear-admiral on 2 October 1807, was presented to the King in the following January, and promoted a vice-admiral on 31 July 1810.

Admiral Hunter died in Judd Street, New Road, London on 13 March 1821.

He did not marry but had a devoted set of nieces and nephews, in particular Captain William Kent, who was his sister’s son. In his later days he bought a property in Leith and housed his widowed sister there.

Hunter was regarded as an excellent and experienced seaman, loyal, brave, professional and decent, although somewhat too trusting of his fellow man. William Bligh stated that he was not up to the position of governor on New South Wales, which was perhaps an indictment of his qualities in so much that he could see no evil in others. Prior to his arrival in 1795 it was expressed from the colony that his ‘just and liberal ideas’ were anxiously awaited. As a boy he designed and constructed a device for measuring inaccessible height, and in the 1760’s he experimented with an idea that would see boats fitted with air-trunks to prevent them sinking – this being an early version of a lifeboat. Hunter had a great interest in music, and his artistic skills were well utilised in sending home sketches for his scientific friends. He was a protégé of both Admirals the Earl of St. Vincent and Earl Howe.