LIEUTENANT WILLIAM BRADLEY 1757-1833
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
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
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
'by far the most unpleasant service I ever was order'd
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
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
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)