Robert Watson was born in Northumberland northern England in about 1766 (First Fleet record), though his birth could have been as early as 1756 (according to his age shown on his death certificate).  He joined the H.M.S. Sirius on 20th December 1786 as an able seaman.  As yet little is known about his earlier life.


He set sail as a crew member and sail maker aboard the H.M.S. Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet, from Portsmouth England in May 1787.  During the voyage he was promoted to Quartermaster.  The ship was under the command of Captain John HUNTER, the 2nd Lieutenant RN was Philip Gidley KING and it also carried Captain Arthur PHILLIP.  These 3 officers were later to become the first 3 governors of the new colony.  The fleet arrived in Botany Bay on 21st January 1788 after 252 days at sea.  Robert Watson is reputed to have been one of the first to have set foot on Australian soil (ref: Royal Navy Settlers website).


Robert Watson left Port Jackson on board the H.M.S. Sirius on 2nd October 1788.  They sailed back to the Cape of Good Hope to get much needed flour and other supplies.  The arduous voyage took more than seven months to complete and returned just in time to save the near-starving colony.


The Sirius was to act as a re-supply vessel and communications link between New South Wales, Norfolk Island and England.   After reaching Norfolk Island and successfully unloading the marines and convicts on 13th & 15th March1790 in Cascade Bay, tragically, on 19th March 1790, the ship was wrecked on a reef at Sydney Bay, Norfolk Island whilst trying to land provisions.  The Sirius’s crew would be stranded for a year on Norfolk Island.


Robert Watson most likely had a common law marriage (as no marriage record has been found) with Sarah Dorsett one of the many convict women aboard the Lady Juliana (also commonly referred to as The Floating Brothel).  Sarah had been convicted of stealing a man’s coat and is frequently mentioned in Sian Rees’s novel “The Floating Brothel” and also the autobiography of John Nicol, which was published in 1822.  The Lady Juliana left Plymouth on 29th July 1789 and arrived in Port Jackson 309 days later on 6th June 1790, one of the slowest journeys made by a convict ship.  The Lady Juliana was the first convict ship to arrive in Port Jackson after the arrival of the 1st fleet.  Three weeks after the arrival of the Lady Juliana, the ships of the infamous 2nd Fleet arrived. Sarah Dorsett was later sent to the penal colony on Norfolk Island and arrived there in August 1790.  She was accompanied by her infant son Edward Dorsett Powell who had been born at sea near Rio de Janeiro and whose father was a sailor on the Lady Juliana by the name of Edward Powell.

Robert Watson left Norfolk Island on 21st February 1791 aboard the ship Supply with Captain John Hunter and crew members of the Sirius.  Robert remained in Port Jackson whilst Captain Hunter and some of the crew continued on to England.  He then returned to Norfolk Island in May 1791 to become a free settler.  He received a 60 acre grant at Cascade Run and was selling provisions to the government by May 1792.


In 1792 his daughter Rebecca was born.  He also had a son John (possibly born in Sydney).  He eventually sold his farm in 1793 when he became mate of the schooner 'Francis'.

In 1800 Robert was placed in charge of the Dawes Point battery on the east point of the western side of Sydney Cove.  In 1801 he was also appointed Boatswain of the dockyard which was also located on the western side of Sydney Cove.  Governor King granted him land in 1801 at South Head, later to become known as Watson’s Bay.


At some stage between 1794 and the 1806 muster, Sarah had left Robert and her 3 children and she was listed as living with John Woodward (later they had 4 children together).

In April 1811 soon after the South Head Road was completed, Governor Macquarie visited Robert Watson at the new stone house and outbuildings he had built and the Governor granted him a free licence to sell spirits there.  On 17th August 1811 after this visit Governor Macquarie also appointed him Harbour Master and Senior Pilot of Port Jackson.

In January to March 1814 he was piloting the 'Kangaroo' during the evacuation of Norfolk Island. Soon afterwards he resigned from his post of pilot, but retained the appointments of Harbour Master and Boatswain of the dockyard. His son-in-law Robert Murray was appointed Pilot in place of Robert Watson.


In November 1816 he was dismissed from his appointments on a charge of stealing canvas.  He was subsequently sentenced to 3years in HM gaol at Parramatta but only served 2 weeks; Governor Macquarie granted him a Conditional and Absolute pardon for “In consideration of the former good character of the said Robert Watson, and of his long and faithful service in this colony” (State Records of NSW Colonial Secretary Index, 1788-1825)


In November 1818, the Macquarie Lighthouse was completed and Robert was installed as its first Lighthouse-Keeper on the same salary that he had received as Harbour Master.

At the end of October 1819, he requested temporary leave because of illness and died at his house in The Rocks, Sydney, on 1 November 1819 after 31 years in the colony.


His funeral service was held at St Philips Church and he was buried in the Sandhills Cemetery (present day site of Central Railway).  Both Robert’s and Edward’s remains were removed in 1901 to the Bunnerong Cemetery (Botany).


The above are just a few of the many incidents, positions held & services performed by Robert Watson since his arrival in the colony.


Following are places in Sydney named after Robert Watson:

Observatory Hill in Sydney is in Watson Road (possibly named after Robert).

HMAS Watson which is located at South Head is also named after Robert Watson,


In 1929 a stone seat bearing the following inscription was erected in Robertson Park, Watson's Bay:

"To commemorate Robert Watson after whom this Bay is named. Quartermaster of H.M.S.Sirius 1786-1790 Signal -Man South Head 1791-1811 Pilot and Harbour Master 1811-1816 Superintendent of Macquarie Lighthouse 1818 Died 1st November 1819'.


His Children, His legacy.

His adopted son Edward (Dorsett Powell) Watson followed in his father’s footsteps and became Master of the Estramina, the Lady Nelson and the Hawkesbury Packet. Edward died on the 19th February 1820 aged 31 years and was buried with Robert Watson who he considered to be his father.  Edward had one known son named Edward Watson Jnr.

Little is known at the moment about Robert’s other son (his only known biological son), John Watson, who also followed in his father’s footsteps and became a mariner.  On 26 October 1821, along with his sister, petitioned the Governor to be granted their father’s land at South Head.


Rebecca Watson (my 4th Great Grandmother), married Robert Murray a Port Jackson Harbour Pilot (who tragically drowned on 30 January 1822).  She was pregnant with her daughter Sarah Rebecca Murray when he died.  She had lost her father, her brother Edward & her husband within the space of 2 years.  Tragically she turned to alcohol and died on 28 Sep 1826, leaving her daughter an orphan.


As Colleen McCulloch wrote in her book Morgan’s Run:

“How much of England has England wasted! The intelligence, the ingenuity, the resourcefulness, the hardiness.  And all of the owners had sat in English gaols and hulks utterly wasted. What is wrong with England, that England is blind enough to throw such assets away as worthless rubbish” I say thank God for England’s stupidity.

I would like to dedicate this story to my nanna Olive Jackson for starting me on this road of discovery and also to my grandpa Herbert Jackson (one of the brave “Rats of Tobruk”) for being a descendant of so many convicts (8 so far) & free men who helped shape this great country.


 I would also like to dedicate this article to Robert Watson for having the courage and foresight to venture to and stay in this foreign land and make so many valuable contributions to the new colony. 

Suzanne Kirby with editorial help from Doug Kirby

In May 2016 a memorial plaque to Robert Watson Able seaman "HMS Sirius" was installed in the First Fleet Memorial Park in the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park




M Jeavons for sharing with me information she had collected

Amanda Taylor on Roots web

Joy Murrin Family History Services – Transcription Services

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, E. J. Lea-Scarlett

F. J. Bayldon, ‘History of the Pilotage Service of Port Jackson’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 20, part 3, 1934, pp 129-63

Sydney Gazette, 5 Oct, 2 Nov 1816, 6 Nov 1819

State Library of New South Wales

Royal Australian Historical Society Library, Sydney

Wikipedia – HMS Sirius, Lady Juliana, John Nicol,  - First Fleet Fellowship Victoria

“The Founders of Australia” a Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet written by Mollie GILLEN

Australian Navy website, Royal Navy settlers, Roots web

Hobart Town Gazette

National Archives, London

Ancestry & Genealogy records

State Records of NSW Colonial Secretary Index, 1788-1825


List of convict ancestors for Herbert Jackson

Sarah Dorsett – 2nd Fleet – arrival June 1790 - Lady Juliana

Mary Ann Harrison –2nd or 3rd Fleet – arrival July 1791 – Mary Ann

Edward Robinson – 3rd Fleet – arrival Oct - 1791 – Admiral Barrington

William Henry – arrival June 1801 – Earl Cornwallis

Jane Carr – arrival June 1801 – Earl Cornwallis

George Smith - arrival Jan 1806 - Fortune

Thomas Fuller – arrival Nov 1817 – Larkins

Richard Jackson – arrival March 1833 - Andromeda



Copyright Fellowship of First Fleeters