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William Bradley (1758–1833)

by Janet D. Hine

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William Bradley (1758-1833), naval officer and diarist, was said to be the great-nephew of James Bradley (1693-1762), astronomer royal from 1742 until his death. One of his brothers, James, was on the staff of the Royal Naval Academy, Portsmouth, and his wife, Sarah Witchell, whom he married some time before May 1787, was a daughter of one of the masters there. He entered the navy on 10 April 1772 and served successively as captain's servant, A.B., midshipman, and master's mate until 31 October 1778 when he was promoted lieutenant. He served in H.M.S. Lenox, Aldborough, Mermaid, Ripon, Prothée, Phaeton and Ariadne before being appointed first lieutenant in the Sirius on 25 October 1786 and sailing with the First Fleet next May.

After reaching Port Jackson in January 1788 John Hunter, second captain of Sirius, immediately began with Bradley a series of surveys. They had completed that of Sydney Harbour by 6 February, Bradley's Head, on the northern shore of the harbour, first known as Bradley's Point, being named after the lieutenant. During his stay at Sydney Bradley lived in the Sirius and appears to have taken little part in the social life of the new colony, though he recorded in his diary the more striking day-to-day events and, in the course of duty, sat on the Court of Criminal Judicature. On the various short surveying expeditions he undertook, usually with Hunter, his main interest was the Aboriginals, whose appearance and behaviour he describes in his journal. Natural history also engaged his attention, as may be seen from his descriptions of animals, birds and local timbers.

On 2 October 1788 he left Sydney for the Cape of Good Hope with Hunter in the Sirius to collect provisions for the settlement; sailing via New Zealand and Cape Horn and circumnavigating the globe, they arrived back on 9 May 1789. For the rest of the year Bradley was occupied taking observations, supervising the repair of the Sirius and continuing his study of the Aboriginals, his comments showing how the general opinion of them became less favourable as time went on. In November 1789 he was one of the party who captured Colebe and Bennelong, 'by far the most unpleasant service I ever was order'd to Execute'.

Because the problem of victualling the settlement remained unsolved, on 6 March 1790 the Sirius and Supply were sent with marines and convicts to Norfolk Island. On 19 March the Sirius was wrecked, a disaster which kept Bradley for eleven months on the island; he surveyed it, but found little to interest him there. On 12 February 1791 Hunter and the officers and crew of the Sirius left Norfolk Island in the Supply for Port Jackson, which they left in turn on 28 March in the chartered Dutch ship Waaksamheyd for the Philippines. They finally reached Portsmouth on 23 April 1792, where a court martial was held over the loss of the Sirius; all were 'Honorably Acquitted' and paid off on 4 May.

On 14 March 1791 Arthur Phillip had requested the lords of the Admiralty to promote Bradley to the rank of master and commander, making special reference to his survey of Norfolk Island. Bradley transmitted the survey to their lordships on 23 April 1792 and was promoted in July. In command of the fireship Comet, he took part in the battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794, and was automatically promoted captain. He was appointed to command the Cambrian, attached to the Halifax Station, in 1802 and the Plantagenet in 1805. He had to give up this command to his first lieutenant, probably in 1809, owing to 'the unsettled state of [his] mind', but in 1810 was appointed to the impress service at Cowes and on 22 September 1812 was promoted rear admiral of the Blue and superannuated.

In 1814 he was involved in a petty case of defrauding the postal authorities. After his arrest his conduct was thought strange; but in spite of this evidence of his derangement, when tried at the Winchester Assizes in July, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Struck off the list of superannuated rear admirals he was first reprieved conditional on his being transported for life, and then pardoned on 27 October on condition that he went into exile. It is likely that he went to France forthwith; certainly in August 1816 he was at Le Havre when he wrote a letter detailing a method of calculating longitude with the use of an hour-glass and addressing it to the Admiralty by medium of his brother James. However, the authorities seem to have made no response, and Bradley remained in dishonoured exile, possibly until a free pardon was granted, on petition of his daughters and their husbands, in January 1822.

He had three daughters and a son who was born in 1806. His wife described him as 'a kind husband and affectionate father', but he appears to have been of a retiring and even unfriendly disposition.  He died on 13 March 1833.

Bradley's professional reputation rests on his surveys and charts, though his name is so frequently coupled with Hunter's that it is difficult to distinguish their work. However, a number of separate manuscript maps of Port Jackson, Broken Bay, Botany Bay, Norfolk Island, and of the routes of the Sirius and Waaksamheyd and islands discovered in the latter, existing in different versions, by or attributed to him, but many unsigned and undated, are held by the Mitchell and Dixson Libraries, Sydney. The bibliography of printed maps by or attributed to Bradley is equally complicated. Two that were issued separately are his charts of Norfolk Island (published by Bradley in 1794 and later by the Hydrographical Office) and of Port Hunter, Duke of York Island (published in 1794 by Alexander Dalrymple). Charts of Norfolk Island by him were included in The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay (1789) and one or more of the charts in Hunter's An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island (1793) are his.

Bradley's virtues as an independent cartographer may be debatable, for neither charts nor diaries by him recording experiences before 1786 and after 1792 are known, but his continuing importance to historians lies in the very full and precise journal he kept between those years, with its extensive text, many tables, a number of water-colour drawings of great historical interest, and manuscript charts.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Knapp and W. Baldwin, Newgate Calendar, vol 4 (Lond, 1828), pp 148-49
  • R. and T. Rienits, Early Artists of Australia (Syd, 1963)
  • Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 18, 25 July, 1, 22 Aug, 3, 31 Oct 1814
  • 'Winchester Assizes', Times (London), 26 July 1814, p 2
  • William Bradley journal (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Janet D. Hine, 'Bradley, William (1758–1833)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 November, 1758
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England


13 March, 1833 (aged 74)

Cause of Death


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