Mistaken identity on Newcastle’s anniversary stamp

Mistaken identity on Newcastle’s anniversary stamp

The exciting news was that the city of Newcastle, Australia, was about to feature on its very own set of postage stamps, brought out by the Post Master General to help commemorate the city’s 150th anniversary in 1947. Well, not exactly the city’s 150th anniversary – more the anniversary of the discovery of the mouth of the Hunter River by Europeans. Or more precisely again, the discovery by non-convict Europeans.

Naturally there was a stamp to commemorate the coal industry – showing coal cranes at The Dyke, Newcastle Harbour. And of course, there was a stamp for the steel industry, which at that time was still going strong in Newcastle. Finally, there was a stamp to honour the European bloke who has the credit for bringing the attention of the colonial government of New South Wales to the existence of a river mouth to the north of Sydney with a fair amount of coal lying around and plenty of cedar trees worth chopping down.

Only trouble is, the stamp designer got the wrong John Shortland, publishing a quite nice portrait of the river-discoverer’s father, who also happened to be a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy.


A 1947 Sydney Morning Herald report on the mistaken stamp portrait.

It was an embarrassing mistake, but a common one. Even Newcastle City Council and the Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society had, at times, used portraits of the wrong John Shortland.


The frontispiece of a 1947 historical society journal, featuring the wrong John, again.

The mistake was reportedly spotted by Mr John Shortland, of Manly (apparently a relative of the formerly naval Shortlands), who was given the job of playing the river-discovering Shortland in a re-enactment of the event put on at the time of the 150th anniversary celebrations in Newcastle.


Mr John Shortland, of Manly, playing the part of the river-discovering John Shortland during a 1947 re-enactment of the event at Newcastle.

The publicity officer of the Newcastle Philatelic Society, Mr C.H. Puddicombe, astutely observed that, apart from stamp collectors, few people would know or care about the mistake. There was a flurry of speculation that the mistake would make the stamp more valuable, but this doesn’t appear to have been the case in the long run.

What about all these Shortlands?

As a matter of interest, our river-discovering John Shortland was one of three members of his family who came to New South Wales with the Royal Navy as part of the First Fleet in 1788.


Shortland Senior, Naval Agent for the First Fleet.

There was John Shortland Senior, born in 1739, who joined the navy in 1755 and participated in a number of actions against the French and was involved in military transport to and from the North American colonies.

He was naval agent for the ships of the First Fleet and in that role he found positions in the First Fleet for his two sons, John Jnr (19) and Thomas (17). He stayed in New South Wales for the first six months of the colony’s existence before heading back to England with his son Thomas, via Lord Howe Island and Batavia (now Jakarta), carrying important despatches from Governor Phillip and also from the French explorer La Perouse. These were the last accounts of La Perouse, who vanished after visiting Botany Bay and was never seen again.

Shortland commanded the Alexander, but was also in charge of another three ships, the Friendship, Prince of Wales and Borrowdale. The ships became separated. The Alexander and Friendship waited a while at Lord Howe island for the other two ships, but when they didn’t turn up they headed for Batavia. The voyage took a long time, food ran low and the crew got scurvy. Things got so bad they had to abandon the Friendship, since there weren’t enough fit sailors to keep two ships going. They battled to Batavia, where Shortland got a fresh crew and headed for England. He got there in May 1789, was promoted to captain in 1790, retired the same year and died in 1803.

Young Thomas also got home safely and went on to have an illustrious naval career until he died from yellow fever while serving as resident commissioner of Jamaica in 1827. Before he died he married and had nine children, a couple of whom also had successful careers in the Royal Navy.


John Shortland Junior, chased convicts, found coal, named a river. From a miniature by artist Robert Field, set in a gold locket, in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England.

John Shortland Junior was born in 1769 and at age 12 he went to sea for the first time with his naval officer father, travelling to Quebec. When his father got the job as naval agent for the First Fleet, taking convicts to New South Wales in 1788, he arranged a job as second mate for 19-year-old John Jnr on the Friendship. Young John switched to the fleet’s flagship Sirius, and was rapidly promoted to Master’s Mate under the command of John Hunter, who was later to be a governor of NSW.

A hair-raising voyage

Young John was still serving under John Hunter in the Sirius when, later in 1788, the ship was sent to the Cape of Good Hope to get supplies for the desperately hungry New South Wales colonists. It was a hair-raising voyage, completely circumnavigating the globe in the “roaring forties” – the first ship ever to do so – and the ship was almost wrecked off the coast of Tasmania on the return leg.

In 1790, with no sign of any ships from England to bring fresh supplies to the new colony, the (repaired) Sirius was sent out again, this time to take convicts, marines and stores to the secondary prison colony of Norfolk Island. It was accompanied by the colony’s only other sailing ship, the fast but very small Supply. After unloading, the Sirius ran ashore and was wrecked, leaving the colony without its main lifeline. Young John Shortland was there, with the rest of the crew, exiled until the Supply was able to come back. They nearly starved, and only survived by massacring a huge colony of mutton birds which sustained them for 11 months. John Shortland was quoted in a memoir in the Naval Chronicle of July 1810, that the effort of getting the stores from the wrecked ship, and sleeping for a few nights in a row on wet sails, caused him to suffer rheumatic pains for the rest of his life.

The Supply, meanwhile, went back to Port Jackson with the bad news, before being sent on a dangerous mission to pick up food and help from Batavia. While it was away the Second Fleet of six ships full of convicts arrived, but this convoy of ships was a horrific disaster in its own way. Many of the convicts aboard were sick, starving and covered in lice. About a quarter had died on the voyage and more died soon after arriving.

Fortunately, the Supply returned safely from Batavia, bringing a chartered Dutch ship, the Waaksamheid, full of stores for the desperate colony. The Supply went and rescued the crew of the Sirius from Norfolk Island, and John Shortland went aboard the Waaksamheid as master’s mate – along with the Sirius’s captain John Hunter and others – on a voyage back to England in 1791 to face a court martial over the loss of the ship. All were acquitted and Shortland got on with his naval career.

Missing out on war opportunities

In 1795 Shortland’s old skipper John Hunter got the job as governor of New South Wales and he offered Shortland the position of first Lieutenant aboard the Reliance, the ship that was taking the new governor to his colony. Like other young military men who opted for a posting to New South Wales at this time, Shortland (then just 24) was grieved when war broke out with France and he was unable to participate in the potentially profitable and career-enhancing opportunities opened up by those hostilities.

Aboard the Reliance, based in New South Wales, he made a few voyages to New Zealand and South Africa before the event that led to him almost being depicted on an Australian postage stamp.

Some runaway convicts stole the colony’s best boat – the Cumberland – from Broken Bay and headed off to parts unknown. They were accompanied by some of the Cumberland’s crew. Some other members preferred to row ashore and stay behind, and they went to Sydney to alert the authorities (and probably curry a bit of favour for themselves). The colony only had two sailing vessels, so Governor Hunter sent two whaleboats out chasing the runaways. Hunter’s young friend Shortland was in charge of the boat that rowed north. He never caught those convicts, who had made good their escape, although it seems he had a good idea of where to look.

According to this interesting article, among the runaways was a certain John Tarwood, who had run away once before, in 1790, when he and four other convicts had stolen a small boat and put to sea. It was assumed in the colony that they must have drowned, but in fact they made it to Port Stephens where they were taken in by some indigenous people and made to feel welcome and at home. Five years later four of the men (one had died) were seen by Captain William Broughton of the sloop Providence – in the Asia-Pacific on a mapping expedition – and taken back to Sydney, leaving indigenous wives and children behind. Judge Advocate David Collins wrote that the men drew crowds of interested citizens, black and white, who were keen to hear their stories. They were full of praise for the indigenous people who had taken them in, although the language they learned in Port Stephens was not understood by the Sydney blacks.

Researcher Paul Farnill credibly suggests that Shortland might have assumed Tarwood would try to return to his former native life at Port Stephens, and that was where he ordered his crew of rowers to head.

They didn’t find the missing boat or the convicts, but on the way back south and looking for shelter from bad weather they saw the mouth of a river and went in to have a look around. In a letter to his father, Shortland described an “expedition on the Governor’s whaleboat about as far as Port Stephens, which lies 100 miles northward of this place [Port Jackson]. In my passage down I discovered a very fine coal river, [on 10 September 1797] which I named after Governor Hunter. … Vessels from 80 to 250 tons may load here with great ease, I dare say [the river] will be a great acquisition to this settlement.” It was here that Shortland made his well-known eye-sketch of the estuary.

While in the river, Shortland landed in a variety of places, climbed Signal Hill, found fresh water, saw plenty of native activity, found coal and cedar and named numerous places after his friends and patrons. Governor Hunter was enthusiastic about the discovery, and soon other visitors were heading north to Hunter’s River for cedar and coal.

Affair with convict housekeeper

Back in Sydney John Shortland served as a member of the criminal court. He was assigned a convict housekeeper – Catherine Farrell – and is reputed to have had an affair with Elizabeth Powell – the convict housekeeper of his friend William Kent. Powell reputedly had a daughter named Margaret Shortland, who moved to Van Diemens Land in 1818.

John Shortland and his father both received land grants in the colony of New South Wales: 25 acres at Liberty Plains and 380 acres at Bankstown. Neither man ever did anything with their grants.

While in Sydney, John Shortland Jnr was champing at the bit to get back to England and he succeeded in 1800. In 1803, with the troopship Pandour taking troops to Egypt, he is said to have flown a kite over Pompey’s Pillar, enabling him to rig a rope ladder and climb the famous 26m-high monument, flying the Union Jack on top and toasting the King of England.

His next ship was the troopship HMAS Dolphin, then the armed sloop Trompeuse then, in 1805 as post captain on HMS Squirrel. In 1808 he was in North American waters in the Squirrel before being put in charge of a captured French ship, the Junon, in 1809. Shortland is said to have sunk a large chunk of his own private funds into fitting out the Junon, presumably expecting to capture valuable wartime prizes and make up for the lost time he’d spent in the backwater colony of New South Wales. Late in 1809, hearing rumours of a French frigate en route to Guadaloupe, he went searching for this potential prize. Instead, he was himself tricked and ambushed by four disguised French warships off Antigua on January 10, 1810, and they blew his ship to pieces before setting it ablaze. Shortland was badly mangled. The French took him to a hospital at Guadaloupe where he died on January 21. He was buried with full military honours.

After all this, he almost made it onto an Australian postage stamp. With the tide now set against commemorating white men of the British colonial era, I suspect he has missed his opportunity.


Artist and actor Max Cullen with some of his artworks based on “The Wrong Guy”.
Max seems to be thinking the stamp should have had Henry Lawson on it.

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