# 41117

FOWELL, Newton Digby (1768-1790)

[FIRST FLEET] Midshipman Newton Fowell, on board HMS Sirius at sea, off Rio de Janeiro, 6 August 1787: autograph letter signed, addressed to his father, John Fowell.

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Entire letter, 1 page, quarto, manuscript in ink on the first side of a bifolium, laid paper watermarked with Britannia and GR surmounted by crown; dated 6 August 1787 and signed N. Fowell, addressed to John Fowell Esq., Black Hall, S. Brent, Devonshire, England, with DOVER/SHIP-LRE hand-stamp on the face and rated in ms. 1/7 (to be paid upon receipt); the flap with circular arrival date stamp NO/20/87; complete and well preserved, some very light foxing and minor internal reinforcing at folds; the address and a few internal words slightly re-drawn, small loss at one edge from where a little roughly opened, red wax seal partially remnant.

Possibly the only First Fleet letter still remaining in private hands.

The existence of this Newton Fowell letter was not known about at the time of publication of Nance Irvine’s otherwise definitive census The Sirius letters : the complete letters of Newton Fowell, midshipman and lieutenant aboard the Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet on its voyage to New South Wales (Sydney, 1988). The letter only came to light in early 1991, when it was discovered in a bundle of maritime mail acquired from the book trade by its previous owner, U.K. postal history collector Malcolm Mynott. It is unclear at what point it had become an estray, separated from the rest of Fowell’s correspondence which had been marked for preservation for posterity by his grief-stricken parents upon learning of his death at the end of 1790. The story of its identification, its history and its significance are described in Mynott’s scholarly article in Philately from Australia (December, 1992) – a copy of which we include with the letter. Virtually all of the other known Newton Fowell First Fleet correspondence was acquired by the State Library of New South Wales at auction in 1987 (Sotheby’s, London, 15 December 1987, lot 252).

Midshipman Newton Fowell’s missive to his father was written on 6 August 1787, the very day that the eleven ships of the First Fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip arrived at Rio de Janeiro. It is one of two surviving letters Fowell wrote to his family from Rio de Janeiro (the other is dated 3 September).

Honoured Father,

We are just now off Rio Janeiro [sic] on the Coast of Brazil South America from where a Packet is now under Weigh for Lisbon & have five Minutes time which I would not let slip to let you know I am very well & have great hopes of a Coms. [commission] every Day. I am of course very happy and like the Officers very well. Capt. Philip [sic] has hoisted a broad Pendant [pennant] so I suppose he can here do anything with the Squad [Squadron] he Pleases. I am in want of a few things which I did not find in the Chest the first some Coarse Cloth for Towels & some Table Cloths fit for a Wardroom Mess. Leather for shoes and Cloth for Trousers.

6th August.

I am, Hond. Father

Your dutiful Son

N. Fowell

I shall write again the first Opportunity.’

The First Fleet would sail for Cape Town almost a month later, on 4 September, and thence to New South Wales. HMS Supply was the first ship to arrive at Botany Bay on 18 January 1788; three others arrived on the following day, and the remaining ships of the squadron, HMS Sirius among them, dropped anchor on 20 January.

Newton Fowell (1768-1790) was the second son of John Fowell and Mary, née Digby, of Black Hall manor, near South Brent, Devon. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 12 in March 1781, as a midshipman on HMS Ocean. In 1786 the young man persuaded his father to use the influence he had through his connection with Lord Nepean to have him appointed to the First Fleet. He was duly transferred to HMS Sirius in February 1787. During the voyage to Australia, Phillip reported favourably on Fowell in a letter to Nepean: ‘… a very good young man, & improves very much.’ Indeed, at the landing ceremony at Sydney Cove, Fowell would be a central participant alongside Phillip, King, Collins and Ball.

Fowell was appointed acting second lieutenant in February 1788, when Philip Gidley King was sent to establish a settlement at Norfolk Island. His promotion was confirmed on 28 December 1789. In March 1790, when HMS Sirius (under the command of John Hunter) was wrecked at Norfolk Island, Second Lieutenant Fowell and First Lieutenant William Bradley gallantly volunteered to stay on board the foundering vessel, although the ship was ultimately lost. Fowell was then transferred to HMS Supply. Early in 1790, after being unable to make landfall at Norfolk Island, the Supply continued on to Batavia, where it was able to obtain fresh provisions for the fledgling penal settlement and a vessel to replace the Sirius, the Waaksaamheyd. Fowell was chosen to sail the Waaksaamheyd back to Sydney, an appointment which was to be his first – and last – command. In his final letter to his father, written from Batavia at the end of July 1790 and carried back to England by Philip Gidley King on the Dutch packet Snelheid, Fowell laments the loss of a number of precious curios and sketches in the wreck of the Sirius: ‘I have sent a Plan of Botany Bay & Port Jackson / I had them all Complete to send you but they were lost in the Sirius with a very valuable collection of birds which cost me a great Deal of Trouble’. (During his time at Sydney Cove, Fowell is known to have made many sketches, none of which have survived). On the return trip from Java, Fowell died of fever at sea on 25 August 1790, at the age of just 22.