Provisions for the First Fleet

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Quality of the Sea Provisions

It has long been recognised that William Richards, the contractor for the First Fleet, did an excellent job of procuring sea provisions for the voyage. The fact that it was specifically mentioned by four of the civil and military officers who accompanied the voyage indicates that they were much better than what these men had usually encountered.

The Judge Advocate, David Collins, wrote: ". . .the high health which was apparent in every countenance was to be attributed not only to the refreshments we met with at Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope, but to the excellent quality of the provisions with which we were supplied by Mr Richards, Junior, the contractor. . .' (David Collins, 'An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales' [1798], Sydney: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1975, Volume 1, pp.2-3)

In his private journal, Lieutenant Philip Gidley King observed: "I believe every person in the Fleet were fully sensible of this advantage which cannot fail of doing credit to the contractor, Mr Richards, who contracted with government to furnish the provisions etc for the marines and convicts from England to Botany Bay." (Philip Gidley King, ‘Private Journal, 1786-1792’, 2 Volumes, State Library of NSW, Safe 1/16, 20 January 1788, pp.122-123)

Marine Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Tench wrote in his journal, intended for immediate publication in England: "I beg leave, however, to say, that the provisions served on board were good, and of a much superior quality to those usually supplied by contract: they were furnished by Messrs Richards and Thorn of Tower Street, London". (Watkin Tench, ‘A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay’, London: J. Debrett, 1789, p.47. The third edition was published as Watkin Tench, 'Sydney’s First Four Years' [1793], Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1979, and in that version, the last sentence of this passage (at p.32), reads, ‘Mr Richards, Junior, of Walworth, Surrey’. William Richards had sought and obtained a correction.)

And while he did not mention William Richards, Arthur Bowes-Smyth, the surgeon of the Lady Penrhyn, also commented on the quality of the provisions: "The provisions for the convicts were also very good of their kind, the beef & pork in particular were excellent. . . I believe few marines or soldiers going out on a foreign service under government were ever better, if so well provided for as these convicts are." (Arthur Bowes Smyth, The Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth: Surgeon, Lady Perhryn, 1787-1789, Sydney: Australian Documents Library, 1979, 10 December 1787, p.47)

Obtaining Good Quality Provisions

It was not by accident that William Richards had obtained such high quality provisions for the voyage. We now know that he deliberately sought out the best in London - merchants who not only supplied high quality provisions, but packaged them well so that they were still edible when they were opened many months later.

For reasons that will be explained below, it is probable that Richards obtained the 'bread' (or sea biscuit) for the First Fleet from the firm of Seale & Walters, a firm of biscuit bakers located at 202 New Crane, at Wapping, on the waterfront to the immediate east of the city. On his voyage to the north-west coast of America in 1785, Nathaniel Portlock carried biscuits baked and packed by this firm, and he noted that when a cask was opened on their return to the Thames three and a half years later, the biscuit was as fresh as when it was packed. (Nathaniel Portlock, 'A Voyage Around the World. . . in 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788', London: John Stockdale, 1789, p.381)

One of the partners in this firm, Thomas Walters, was a major creditor of William Richards on the First Fleet, and on the voyages of the 'Boddington' and 'Sugar Cane' in 1793, and it seems probable that it was from this firm that Richards purchased the sea biscuit for his voyages. Walters was also one of the underwriters of the freight of the 'Sugar Cane'. (Order of the Lord Chancellor, ‘In the Matter of William Richards the Younger, a Bankrupt’, 8 April 1794, Public Record Office, TNA B1/89, p.160; Walters v Richards, Court of Chancery, 26 November 1795, TNA C12/469/80)

Historians have come to assume that 'creeping biscuit' was unavoidable on long ocean voyages of the 18th century. The experience of Nathaniel Portlock and Australia's First Fleet demonstrates that if those responsible for procurement did their jobs well, and sought out high quality bakers who made sure to package their produce well, this need not be the case.

- Gary Sturgess, 5 July 2016