James Ruse: Part 1 – Cornish Convict

By Chris Dunkerley –


When the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove in January 1788 having spent many months sailing from England, ingenuity was a cargo much needed – but not planned for by the authorities. Where could it be found? On the convict ship Scarborough was James Ruse, both an ordinary Cornishman and an unusual one, vital for what would later become our nation, Australia.

A potentially starving penal settlement on poor agricultural soil baking under the antipodean summer sun. A Governor who was willing to go outside the accepted bounds. Bringing these together may never have happened, but that it did was a pivotal point in the eventual success of European settlement in our southern land.

An Ordinary Cornishman

I was bred a husbandman, near Launcester in Cornwall”.  Thus James Ruse began his account to Captain Watkin Tench when visited at Rose Hill, Parramatta, in November of 1790.  Ruse was indeed born at Lawhitton, near Launceston in Cornwall on 9 August, 1759.

Lawhitton, in Cornish Nansgwydhen (possibly meaning Treed Valley, is a civil parish (and village name) in east Cornwall. The village is situated 3 km south-east of Launceston and just over a one km west of the border with England, the River Tamar. East Cornwall’s mid 18th century employment was largely agricultural, with some tin streaming and shallow mines; large scale mining being still half a century away. The Ruse family, father Richard, mother Elizabeth, and children had moved a short way west to South Petherwin by 1764. Growing up with his sister and four brothers James would have helped the family as tenant farmers and later find work as an itinerant farm worker locally, with little prospect of ever having his own land.

Fate, Folly or Ordained?

On the 7 March, 1779 Ruse is recorded at age 19, marrying 33 year Susannah Northcott. Six months later a daughter Elizabeth was born, but died 3 weeks later.  A son Richard was soon born and baptised on 1 January, 1781.

The next year James’s life changed again when he, perhaps desperate to support his family, was caught breaking and entering, attempting to steal two silver watches and other goods (value ₤5.10s). With the Assizes held year-about at nearby Launceston or at Bodmin he was taken away from his family over to Bodmin, where he was found guilty on 19 August, 1782 and sentenced to be hanged – however the was sentence reduced to transportation for 7 years.

He was assigned to be transported to Africa, but when that destination was deemed unsuitable he was held on the hulk ship ‘Dunkirk’ at Plymouth (in sight of Cornwall) for the next 5 years, from where he went out to do manual labour, which thankfully gave food, fresh air, and exercise. During this time Susannah found other solace and support with the birth of a son to Robert Strong.

With the assembling of the convict First Fleet bound for Botany Bay, James Ruse was transferred along with 207 other male convicts to the Scarborough, a transport ship of 430 tons.

It sailed with the rest of the fleet from Portsmouth, England on 13 May 1787, finally arriving at Botany Bay and then into Port Jackson on Saturday 26 January, 1788.

United Kingdom of Great Britain union flag raising by Arthur Philip of the First Fleet at Port Jackson, January 1788 claiming the east coast of Australia

James Ruse arrived alive and in good health and later, in 1827, he was recorded as claiming to be the first of the Fleet ashore, carrying Captain Hunter of the flagship Sirius on his shoulders! How did James end up stepping ashore literally on the other side of the world from his Cornwall?  Fate, Folly or Ordained? I’ll leave that to your thoughts.

The Extraordinary Times

The First Fleet was a way of establishing a new penal colony far from Britain that could take and sustain convicts that were overflowing her gaols.

Although Lord Sydney upped the Fleet’s provisions to two years supply, it became clear very soon that landing in mid-summer under the baking heat, and on the sandstone based coastal soils at Port Jackson, the scope for growing food and sustaining the livestock they had brought with them was very poor.

Moreover the non-food supplies sent out were often of the wrong type and better fitted to London life, or of poor quality for the tough conditions, including the tools and farm implements.

With most of the ships heading off on further journeys, and despite hoping for further reserves of supplies with the next convict shipment, the fledgling European settlement within those two years, with its 1030 people (73 having died and 87 born), was alone and facing starvation.

The Second Fleet arrived six months later in July 1790 with 753 more mouths, and alas brought no spare provisions; with prospects of a Third Fleet to follow. Something bold had to be done.

The First Fleet was led by Captain (later Admiral) Arthur Phillip who was quite a talented and unconventional naval officer. Son of a German migrant he had also served for a time in the Portuguese navy and his resourcefulness led to his appointment as leader of the First Fleet, and Governor of New South Wales.

Among his senior officers was Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King, a Cornishman born two years before Ruse in nearby Launceston.

To be continued in June …

In the meantime enjoy this song, written by multi-talented Cornish Bard, singer/songwriter, and language campaigner Richard Gendall about James Ruse:

James Ruse TCB