Wednesday, January 30, 2013

'Journal of a First Fleet Surgeon', by George B. Worgan

I promised myself that each time I read a published account of New South Wales, I would post a review on it here. I don't have a lot of time to read - the last review was almost a year ago: Born on the Hill End Goldfields, by Albert Ellwood Howard (

I recently finished reading 'Journal of a First Fleet Surgeon', by George B. Worgan (1757-1838), surgeon on the 'Sirius'. The title reflects that fact that George Worgan did not intend to publish his writings - they are  in fact a long letter to his brother Richard, describing the journey and establishment of the settlement, and he then copied entries from his diary for the first six months and appended these to the letter. Worgan states in his letter that he is including these journal entries to sate the curiosity of family and acquaintances till Watkin Tench's work came into print in London.

I read the first published edition, released in 1978. The letter is extremely descriptive of the countryside, the nature of the convicts, and his observations on the local indigenous population. It is interesting, for example, that Worgan notes that despite all they had learnt of the lifestyle of the Aborigines, the settlers had not yet ascertained how the indigenous peoples could light a fire so rapidly. During the first six months, as surgeon of the Sirius, Worgan did not stay on land but was quartered on the boat, moored in Port Jackson. Nevertheless, Worgan captures events such as executions, the loss of the cattle herd, exploratory hikes, clashes with the indigenous peoples, and the violent weather of Sydney.

The journal is structured and clear, and well worth reading to gain insight. Two small items particularly took my interest. The first was the interaction of the First Fleet with the visit of Laperouse, who was moored in Botany Bay. The story is too long to tell here, but the two French ships and their sailors were never heard of again after they departed Sydney - before they left Sydney they handed over journals for transport back to Paris, and these records are all that remain of the expedition (read more on this amazing story here:,_comte_de_Laperouse).

Secondly, I enjoyed reading the following comment from George to his brother: "Prithee my dear good Brother, do but consider the Distance that separates Us, which, is nearly that, of Antipodes. for when we We are getting up in the Morning, You have hardly entered into your first Sleep; when it is the Depth of Winter with Us, you are enjoying Richmond Hill." This reference to 'first sleep' gives an insight into the natural sleep habit of humans prior to electricity ( There were normally two blocks of night-time sleep, as humans went to bed much earlier in the absence of artificial illumination. This sleep was broken into two, with a period of several hours wakefulness during the middle of the night. There are apparently not many literary references to it, so I enjoyed reading it.

The foreword to the journal is a little underwhelming. It simply describes what is known of Worgan's immediate family, and how the manuscript was acquired. There are several on-line descriptions of Worgan at the Australian Dictionary of Biography ( and Wikipedia (, for example. Briefly, he was born in London, the son of a prominent musician/organist, joined the Navy at 18 and trained to be surgeon, and joined the Sirius in 1786, sailing for Sydney with the First Fleet in 1787. After returning to Britain, he served in the Navy till about 1800, married and lived in Liskeard, Cornwall, and died in 1838.

The lack of genealogical insight into Worgan's family in the foreword is frustrating. This is partly because, given that the letter contains some entries from Worgan's journal, it is clear that Worgan's journal must have existed somewhere - after all he returned to England and lived there till 1838. In fact, it is mentioned that Worgan's son confirmed holding a 2-volume journal in the 1830s. Furthermore, the letter was was donated to the Mitchell Library in 1955 by Mrs. Margot Gaye of Guildford, Surrey who found it amongst the possessions of her Aunt, Miss A. Batley, after her death. Nothing is known of the earlier history of this manuscript.

It would be extremely useful to know if Miss A. Batley was descended from the recipient of the letter Richard Worgan, George's brother. It is also hard to imagine a 2-volume diary on the settlement of the colony of New South Wales being thrown away - and so knowing what descendants George Worgan has in England would also be useful. Worgan had 2 sons, both of whom emigrated to Australia, and one has to think that such a manuscript would have quickly surfaced there. As such, his daughter who remained in his village of Liskeard would presumably have retained the journals. If they weren't lost in a house-they may well be sitting unappreciated on a bookshelf somewhere in Cornwall or elsewhere in England right now! Who knows what insight they would throw onto early Sydney!

The original manuscript along with a full transcript can be viewed digitally at the State Library of New South Wales site (

1 comment:

  1. I too have an interest in George B Worgan's ancestors and desendants.
    I have a soon to be daughter in law named Worgan, as yet no connection.Her father was born in Bristol of a line of Worgans from St.Brevials in Chepstow area.
    It is an uncommon name except in that area in early days.
    Brian Carpenter,