Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

George Bruce (c. 1778–1819)

by Vivienne Parsons

This article was published:

George Bruce (1778?-1819), sailor and adventurer, was born at Shadwell, London, the son of a Limehouse distillery worker. At an early age he was sent to work at a rope walk, but was later consigned to the workhouse at Shadwell and apprenticed to the owner of a fishing smack. Bruce deserted his master and was put to work at a public house in Limehouse; at the same time he engaged in petty theft, which led to his arrest for house breaking and stealing in March 1791.

Convicted at the Old Bailey on 13 April 1791 under the name of William Druce, he was condemned to death but recommended for mercy because of his youth. On 14 September, under the name of Joseph Druce, his sentence was commuted to transportation for life, and recorded by this name he sailed in the Royal Admiral and arrived in Sydney in October 1792. He is reputed to have been assigned to carrying water for the clearing gangs at Toongabbie, and also to have collected insects for the doctor at the hospital there, while recovering from a bout of fever. He later claimed to have been personal servant to the superintendent of the settlement, and also to Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose, although there is no record of the pardon Bruce claimed that Grose gave him. He was, however, permitted to become a sailor in the Cumberland, until Matthew Flinders took over the ship after losing the Porpoise and replaced the old crew with his own. Bruce then became a police officer, but was sentenced to six months hard labour for drinking illicit spirits he had been ordered to seize. In prison he became involved in a fight between English and Irish prisoners and was sentenced to receive 200 lashes, which he escaped from prison to avoid. After some months of evading recapture and working illicitly for various settlers, he was allowed by Governor Philip Gidley King to return to the sea, first in the Francis and then in the Lady Nelson.

In February 1806 when the New Zealand Chief Tippahee returned home after a visit to Sydney, Bruce nursed him through an illness while in the Lady Nelson, and then left the ship at the Bay of Islands. He stayed in New Zealand about two years, becoming a chief and later marrying Tippahee's daughter. He helped European traders to obtain cargoes, and in 1808 he agreed to accompany the General Wellesley, Captain Dalrymple, as far as the North Cape, but was carried on to Malacca, together with his wife, because of bad weather. Dalrymple left Bruce at Malacca and took his wife to Penang; however, they rejoined each other and went to Bengal where Bruce persuaded Lord Minto to provide them with a passage back to New Zealand. They sailed in the Union, but were delayed at Hobart Town in June 1809 by the deposed Governor William Bligh. Afterwards the ship was finally ordered to Sydney by the newly arrived Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

Bruce made an agreement with Alexander Riley and Simeon Lord to procure cargoes in New Zealand, but the plan was abandoned after news arrived of the massacre of the Boyd's crew by Maoris. On 10 February 1810 Bruce's wife died of dysentery, and their baby daughter, born on the voyage, was put in the care of the Female Orphan School. Unable to return to New Zealand and heavily in debt, Bruce signed on in the Porpoise, then leaving for England with Bligh in May 1810. After arriving in London in October, he enlisted in the navy, worked for a time at Chatham dockyards, and between 1813 and 1816 served in several ships. While in the Namur at the Nore in June 1813, he sent a memorial to the Colonial Office, requesting a passage to New Zealand on the grounds that his authority over the natives would enable him to help English traders and pave the way for Christian missionaries. Macquarie attacked this proposal in his dispatch of 12 May 1814, accusing Bruce of desertion from the Lady Nelson, impostures to Lord Minto, neglect of his wife, drunkenness and dissipation, and recommending that he might never be allowed to return to New Zealand for fear of the injury he might do both to the Maoris and the European traders.

Bruce made another attempt to return to New Zealand, sailing in the convict ship Guildford bound for New South Wales, but he had to be put off at San Salvador suffering from fever and ague. He was taken back to London in the Congo in November 1816 and paid off at Deptford. Forced on to the streets, he was overcome by hunger and exposure, until rescued by an unknown benefactor, who helped him to gain admission to Greenwich Hospital. He remained there until his death on 9 February 1819, but meanwhile dictated his story to a fellow pensioner and presented it to the hospital.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 8
  • G. Barrington, The History of New South Wales (Lond, 1810)
  • R. McNab, From Tasman to Marsden (Dunedin, 1914)
  • T. Dunbabin, Sailing the World's Edge (Lond, 1931)
  • E. J. Tapp, Early New Zealand: A Dependency of New South Wales, 1788-1841 (Melb, 1958)
  • C. H. Bertie, ‘Picturesque Rascals’, Home (Sydney), 1 Mar 1935, pp 48, 80
  • A. Jose, ‘George, the Careerist’, Forum (Sydney), 6 June 1923, p 14, 20 June 1923, p 14, and 4 July 1923, p 16
  • G. Bruce, Life of a Greenwich Pensioner 1778-1819, abridged version with notes by T. Whitley (State Library of New South Wales)
  • HO 11/1.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Vivienne Parsons, 'Bruce, George (c. 1778–1819)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 May 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]

Alternative Names
  • Druce, William
  • Druce, Joseph

c. 1778
London, Middlesex, England


9 February, 1819 (aged ~ 41)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Social Issues
Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: death
Commuted To: life
Court: Old Bailey, London
Trial Date: 13 April 1791


Occupation: fisher (professional)


Left the colony: Yes