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Ralph Clark (1762–1794)

by Janet D. Hine

This article was published:

Ralph Clark (1762-1794), officer of marines and diarist, was born on 30 March 1762 in Edinburgh, son of George Clark, gentleman's servant, and his wife Ann, née Man. After a period in the Dutch service before 1777, he became a second lieutenant in the marines on 25 August 1779. After the American war he lived in London, though officially a member of the Portsmouth Division of marines. On 23 June 1784 he married Betsy Alicia, eldest daughter of Matthew Trevan, of Efford manor, Egg-Buckland and Swilley, Stoke Damerel, both in Devon, and his wife Elizabeth, née Stephens. He had met her at Efford. Their son, Ralph Stuart, was born on 23 August 1785. Anxious for promotion, Clark volunteered for duty at Botany Bay, and was permitted on 7 December 1786 to exchange with an officer ordered there. In May 1787 he sailed in the Friendship in the First Fleet.

His only claim to importance is the diary he kept from 9 March 1787 to 17 June 1792, written up almost every day, sometimes at great length. There are four gaps, the only considerable one being between 10 March 1788 and 15 February 1790. The journal is intimate, informal and revealing. It was certainly never intended for the public. The idiomatic language, untidy writing, careless spelling and sparse punctuation show the unselfconsciousness of the born diarist, and the human element lacking in other contemporary records is uppermost here.

Though continually concerned about his health, he appears to have been brave, competent in his duties and never at a loss for something to do. He collected butterflies at Rio. He had various birds and beasts stuffed to send back to England from Australia. His letters, dispatched at every opportunity, show his ability to write in a style more correct and sophisticated than that of his spontaneous diary.

While in Sydney he did his share of guard and picket duty. He sat on the Criminal Court, a service he hated though he regarded it as an obligation. In his leisure he went fishing and shooting, and took part in a number of short sorties to try to establish communication with the Aboriginals, who seemed less afraid of him than of many others. The site of his vegetable garden is commemorated in the name of Clark Island in Sydney Harbour.

After the death of Captain Shea in February 1789, Major Robert Ross promoted Clark temporary first lieutenant, and next year chose him to serve on Norfolk Island. They sailed in the Sirius on 6 March 1790, and Clark stayed there until 19 November 1791. Ross made him quartermaster-general and keeper of stores at Sydney Bay and later put him in charge of the smaller settlement at Charlotte Field. He supervised the clearing of the ground and the laying out of the village Queensborough on 30 April 1791, a place of which he was very proud. He was fastidious and honourable. He was quick to take offence and to prompt others to defend their good name; but he did not like to be 'constantly bickering' and on several occasions arranged reconciliations between his colleagues. He seems to have been a favourite of men like Ross and Captain Campbell who were isolated by their rank or recurrent quarrels, but he came to detest some of his fellows. After leaving Norfolk Island, he returned to England in the Gorgon, arriving there in June 1792. He was promoted first lieutenant in September, and though placed on half-pay on 6 December, soon returned to active service in the French war.

Clark's wife died before him, after giving birth to a stillborn child in the first part of 1794. In the same year, young Ralph, then a midshipman, died of yellow fever in the West Indies on 30 June, in the same ship in which his father had died twelve days earlier. Though the English family then became extinct the registers of St Philip's Church, Sydney, record the birth of a daughter to Clark and a convict, Mary Branham, on 23 July 1791 at Norfolk Island; she was christened Alicia on 16 December at Sydney.

Clark's journal and letter-book with a few other documents and a miniature of Mrs Clark were purchased for the Mitchell Library, Sydney, in July 1914. The journal was published in 1981.

Select Bibliography

  • Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, Catalogue … Diaries and Letter-book of Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Lond, 1914)
  • R. Clark, journal and letter book (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Janet D. Hine, 'Clark, Ralph (1762–1794)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 June 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]


30 March, 1762
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


18 June, 1794 (aged 32)
at sea

Cause of Death

killed in action

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.

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