Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Robert Espie R. N.,

Convict Ship Surgeon-Superintendent

Date of Seniority Royal Navy 4 February 1815

Robert Espie was born in Ireland. According to records in the National Archives, he was appointed Surgeon in the Royal Navy on 21 May 1811. [7]

He was included in the Navy List of Medical Officers in 1814 [1] and was appointed surgeon to the Maria in 1816 (Naval Chronicle).

Surgeon Superintendent

Robert Espie was employed as Surgeon-Superintendent on eight convict ships to Australia Morley in 1817, Shipley in 1818, Dorothy in 1820, Lord Sidmouth in 1823, Lady Rowena in 1826, Mary in 1830(VDL) Roslin Castle in 1834 and the Elizabeth in 1836. In all those voyages only eight convicts died under his care. After each voyage he received passage money for the return to England.

He acquired land in Van Diemen's Land and entered a partnership with his brother George Espie who came out on the Dorothy with him. He was appointed Assistant-Surgeon in Port Dalrymple in 1820, however resigned because of ill-health the following year. In England in 1828 he married Janet Simons however it is unclear whether she ever accompanied him to Australia. In 1851 they were both residing in Lewisham, UK.

Convict Ship Morley (NSW)

Robert Espie's first appointment to a convict ship was on the Morley in 1817. The Morley departed England on 18th December 1816 with 175 male convicts, sailed via the Cape and arrived in Port Jackson on 10 April 1817. No medical journal survives from this voyage. There were no deaths. He returned to England via Batavia on the Morley in May 1817.

Convict Ship Shipley (NSW)

His second appointment was to the Shipley in 1818. One hundred and fifty male convicts from England came under his care. The Shipley departed England on 18 July 1818 and arrived in Port Jackson on 18 November 1818. He kept a journal on this voyage commencing on 23 June 1818 and finishing on 21 December 1818. Three convicts died during the voyage. In his summary at the end of the voyage he remarked on the deaths of three of the prisoners - Although three out of the five cases detailed in this journal terminated fatally, I trust it will not be inferred that the ship was sickly or that their illness was in any way caused or aggravated by want of discipline and cleanliness, but that their indisposition and death was purely the effect of incidental disease attacking men already much advanced in years and greatly emaciated by mental anxiety and confinement - each having left behind him a family - two out of the three, I think, would have paid the debt of nature had they been on shore, but the other certainly fell a victim to the motion of the ship and the disagreeable state of the weather.

List of Troops and Passengers including eight naval surgeons returning to England on the Shipley in 1819 He returned to England on the Shipley in April 1819. Unusually, seven other naval surgeons returned on the same vessel - Andrew Smith, William Hamilton, Thomas C. Roylance, Henry Ryan, Morgan Price, John Johnston and John Whitmarsh [2].

Convict Ship Dorothy (NSW)

His next voyage was on the Dorothy in 1820 with 190 male convicts from Ireland. He kept a Medical Journal from 1 March to 29 September 1820. No deaths of convicts occurred on the passage out.

On this voyage his brother George Espie, wife and three children accompanied him on the voyage.
Appointment of Robert Espie to the position of Acting Surgeon at Port Dalrymple - Sydney Gazette 21 October 1820

Robert and George Espie both received land grants in Van Diemen's Land.

Robert was appointed acting-surgeon at Port Dalrymple, succeeding Jacob Mountgarrett in that position in October 1820. He resigned from the position because of ill-health in February 1821 [4] and returned to England in May 1821.

Convict Ship Lord Sidmouth (NSW)

The fourth voyage was on the Lord Sidmouth in 1823, this time with 97 English female convicts. He kept a medical journal from 22 August 1822 to 1 March 1823

Robert Espie seems to have been less tolerant of female prisoners in his care than male prisoners. Punishment of the women included being sent to the coal hole or having their head shaved.

I cannot but express my great joy at having got rid of so troublesome a charge having been kept constantly on the alert during the period of their being embarked. The situation of a Surgeon Superintendent of a female convict ship if he does his duty can be no sinecure as they constantly require to be looked after and particularly to restrain them from contact with the sailors. This can only be done by beginning well at first, and checking all appearance of intimacy before the ship leaves England directing the master to discharge any sailor who may show a disposition this way which I did two or three instances did, to no small annoyance. I feel satisfied that making the women do almost everything for themselves and keeping them employed is absolutely necessary to preserve them in health and that the duties of Superintendent are far greater than those of Surgeon.

He took a passage from Sydney to Port Dalrmple in April 1823 on the Hawies.

A Notice in the Hobart Town Gazette in August 1823 informs the public that his partnership with George Espie of Cross Marsh had terminated.

Convict Ship Lady Rowena (NSW)

His fifth voyage was on the Lady Rowena with 100 female convicts from Ireland. The Lady Rowena departed Cork on 19 January 1826 and arrived in Port Jackson on 17 May 1826. There is no medical journal available for this voyage. None of the women died on the passage out.

He took a passage from Sydney to Hobart on the Cape Packet arriving on 1 July 1826. He returned to England on the Doncaster in October 1826.

Robert Espie married Janet Jerman Simons, the youngest daughter of William Simons of Sydenham on 17th January 1828 at St. Martin's in the Fields Church, Middlesex. At this time he was attached to H. M. S. Mersey. It is unclear if his wife ever came to Australia.

Convict Ship Mary 1830 (VDL)

He was appointed to the convict ship Mary in 1830 - The Mary arrived in Van Diemen's Land on 10 April 1830 with 167 male prisoners. One prisoner had died on the voyage out [6]. He kept a Medical Journal from 8 December 1829 to 20 March 1830.

In February 1832 he sailed from Hobart to Sydney on the Mary Elizabeth.

Roslin Castle 1834 (NSW)

He joined the Roslin Castle in England in 1834. The Roslin Castle departed London on 27th May 1834 with 230 male prisoners from England. The Medical Journal dates from 17 May 1834 to 25 September 1834. There were only seven cases which he considered serious.

Three of these men died on the voyage out -

1) James Bond age 19 who had concealed his illness on embarkation because he was eager to go. In the confusion of getting all the convicts on board, it was a day and a half before Robert Espie knew anything of his illness. He died while the ship was still at Sheerness

2) Edward Gale age 29 died of a ruptured blood vessel. He was already ill when embarked

3) George Turner aged 69 caught a chill after leaving the Cape of Good Hope and despite treatment and nourishment, never recovered. The surgeon considered him a very healthy old man and thought he would have recovered had the ship not been so cold and wet for so long. Robert Espie did not believe that a Surgeon Superintendent should have the power to refuse a man solely on account of his age but he thought it would be prudent to send all the younger ones first.

In his journal, Robert Espie remarked that he believed that novice surgeons in charge of convicts almost always fell into the trap of keeping the convicts in irons, and not allowing them free access to the deck, for 'apprehension lest the convicts rise and cut his throat'. He thought this had a dispiriting effect and, combined with the lack of fresh air and exercise, gave rise to many ailments which did not occur when the convicts were free of their irons and allowed on deck.

In January 1835 the Hobart Town Gazette noted he had been granted 2000 acres of land. His partnership with John Espie (brother, son or nephew?) was dissolved by mutual consent in March 1835.

Convict Ship Elizabeth 1836

In 1836 he requested to be assigned to a female convict ship thinking that he was well capable of undertaking the task and was appointed to the Elizabeth. The women of the Elizabeth were a wild, defiant lot and by his own account he was very nearly stabbed by one before the ship even left Woolwich. There were no deaths of convicts during the passage.

By the end of the voyage he was fed up as the following extract from his Medical Journal reveals. This was his last voyage as surgeon on a convict ship: -

Front cover of the medical journal of Robert Espie on the voyage of the convict ship Elizabeth in 1836

Front cover of the medical journal of Robert Espie on the voyage of the convict ship Elizabeth in 1836 with the notation.......This is a very imperfect Journal but as Mr. Espie is in N.S. Wales on two years leave, I shall on this occasion, pass it.

Surgeon's general remarks - What I have got to say must be brief, unless I do as some others are in the habit of doing who think to force their way to great notice at the Admiralty by writing a mass of silly trash, that no man could or would read were it his time was paid for at 3d an hour. I know a tall fellow in this service who employed these convict clerks writing while he dictated, and who when his journal was full spliced on to it at a quire of foolscap. This commencement looks a little pettish not to say savouring of scurrility - but mark me I was only in play, for all the abuse to hurl at any one must be of myself - I, like a fine dolthead asked Sir William to get one appointed to a woman's ship and I had the appointment by Sir William's means - I had very nearly suffered stabbing by one of the females before the ship left Woolwich.

I had vainly imagined I knew how to manage convict women having had two ships of that sort before, but from some cause or other I most decidedly did not succeed to my own satisfaction in this last ship, named the Elizabeth. I commenced to giving up my whole time and attention to the service I was employed on, but I had imbibed (and have still a strong prejudice) against corporal punishment and I tried all I could by other means such as solitary confinement and cutting their hair. These trifles only incited them to go to greater lengths to bid me utter defiance with a thousand threats of what they would do when they got to Sydney.

Here now let any man show me what is to be done from the master of the ship down to the lowest boy are all opposed to the Doctor if he has done his duty by preventing prostitution. I saw clearly I had committed an error by being too lenient, I therefore prepared myself with a good stout piece of rope and when I thought they deserved it, I whipped them most soundly over the arms, legs and back and this was continued (whatever the saints may think) till I had conquered every refractory spirit among them and my certificates will testify that the government of New South Wales was perfectly satisfied with my conduct in every particular - so much for the discipline of a female convict ship, but some people might reverse it and say so little - no matter I hate a tedious fool.

Now, a word sir as to the doctoring of them that required little or no trouble and the cases I have detailed in the foregoing part of this journal are the only ones I could possibly put together, for I have no genius at furbishing up a mess of disgusting egotism and pompous inanity making a mountain where there was hardly a wart, here then I sum up this sketch by saying that the whole of the persons under my charge on board the Elizabeth female convict ship landed at Sydney N.S.W in a much better state of health than when they embarked on board of her at Woolwich and when I know that this statement will be overlooked by so enlightened a judge of these matters as the present head of the medical department of the navy I cannot believe that a verbose and labour’d summary would have gained his favour a bit more than this one which is so easily got through. [Signed] Robert Espie, Surgeon, R.N, 26 October 1836, Sydney, N.S.W

Return to England

It is unclear when Robert Espie returned to England. He was included on the List of Surgeons of the Royal Navy fit for service in 1841 however there seems to be no further record of his being employed in the Royal Navy.

Robert and Janet Espie can be found in the 1851 Census living at Hanstead House in Hanstead Lane, Lewisham UK with three servants. Robert and Janet are 59 and 57 years old. Robert is stated to have been born in Co. Derry, Ireland.

Janet Jerman Espie died at Blyth Hill Sydenham, Kent aged 60 in 1854. In the 1861 Census Robert Espie is living in Bushey Hertfordshire with two servants and their young children.

He was on the 1864 List of Surgeons retired.

Notes and Links

1). Correspondence of Michael Farraday

2). Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast N.I. N.Z. Robert Espie, Pioneer Coast Whaler

3). Commissioner J.T. Bigge's Report on the duties of Surgeons

4). Deville’s range of Australian casts was enlarged by his making the acquaintance in 1832 of Robert Espie, a naval surgeon who over the previous decade had become a leading pastoralist on the Ouse River in Tasmania. As conflict between indigenous Tasmanians and settlers worsened through the 1820s into what became known as the “Black War,” Espie had no qualms about aggressively responding to native resistance. When he visited England it was with the skulls of two men of the “Big River” people whose lands he had occupied, which he offered to sell Deville - Paul Turnbull. British Anatomists, Phrenologists and the Construction of the Aboriginal Race, c.1790–1830


[1] Navy List

[2] Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1825. Copies of Letters sent within the Colony. April 1819

[3] Sydney Gazette 21 October 1820

[4] Sydney Gazette 24 February 1821

[5] Sydney Gazette 14 October 1820

[6] Hobart Town Gazette 16 April 1830

[7] National Archives UK