Danger at sea: a crew's battle to survive on a sinking Post Office Packet Boat.

On 22 June 1803, the Post Office Packet Boat Lady Hobart set sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia for Falmouth. She would never reach her intended destination.

The Post Office contracted many ships to carry mail to and from overseas destinations. These ‘packet boats’ as they were known, also carried messages of state, passengers and goods.

The ship’s crew were lightly armed and relied on speed to get them out of trouble. However, Britain was almost constantly at war during the 18th and 19th centuries and many packet boats found themselves engaged in naval engagements with the enemy. Life at sea was dangerous.

Black and white print of Lady Hobart on the morning of 28 June 1803 by Nicholas Pocock; Engraver R. Pollard, 1804 (TPM 2009-0014)

Built in Liverpool in 1799, the Lady Hobart weighed 200 tons and was commanded by William Dorset Fellowes.

On 26 June 1803, just four days after setting sail from Nova Scotia, the Lady Hobart and a French schooner (small sailing vessels with fore and aft sailing on two or more masts), L’Aimable Julie, engaged in a brief battle. All the French crew were captured. Two English schooners arrived and the French prisoners were divided between them. Two British Naval lieutenants on board the Lady Hobart sailed the prize schooner to England, while the packet boat carried on.

Just two days later, on 28 June, the Lady Hobart struck an iceberg, so large it was referred to as an ‘island of ice’. The Captain’s log recorded that they hit it with such violence that the crew were thrown from their hammocks, she swung round, her stern port was stoved in and her rudder carried away. The ship’s six small but heavy cannon were thrown overboard.

Captain William Dorset Fellowes, 1769 – 1852 © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection

In an attempt to slow the water gushing in through the hull, the crew passed two sails beneath the ship. Despite pumps going and bailing with buckets, the ship was soon settling in the water. Realising that the ship was lost, they lashed pig iron to the mails and threw them overboard to sink.

The Captain, William Fellowes, ordered the ship’s two boats; a cutter, a small sized decked boat, and a jolly, a boat carried by a ship, powered by four or six oars, into the water. 18 people boarded the former and 11 the latter. They had few oars, both boats were heavily overloaded with people and a few supplies. They were at sea some 350 miles from St Johns, Newfoundland.

They rowed when they could. Sustenance was mostly limited to the occasional half a biscuit and glass of wine or rum each. They were frequently surrounded by fog and the temperature dropped. It often rained. The feet of the seamen began to swell and many of the crew began to hallucinate. Fellowes recorded that it was the three ladies with them, including his wife, that “with a heroism that no words can describe, afforded us the best example of patience and fortitude”.

Some seamen began to drink seawater and suffered stomach cramps. Fellowes recorded that on 3 July the captured French Captain, on board the cutter, then in a delirium, jumped overboard and promptly sank.

Fog banks were mistaken for land, distant gunfire proved to be the blowing of whales and the commander had a hard time keeping morale raised and maintaining discipline in the small cramped boats.

On 4 July, after seven days at sea in the North Atlantic and nearing land the fog cleared, they finally spotted two boats.

Within half a day they were in the village of Island Cove, 40 miles from St. Johns. Fellowes hired a schooner to take them to Halifax and later catching passage on an American ship, many were returned to Bristol on 3rd August 1803 with others following later. Their ordeal was such that many of the crew lost fingers and toes.

Fellowes was commended and promoted by the Postmasters General and he was permitted to write an account of his adventure.

Fellowes’ riveting account of the loss of the Lady Hobart can be seen by any visitor to The Postal Museum’s Discovery Room, by prior appointment.

Written by hand, by the man who experienced uncertainty, Fellowes written account of the ordeal can be found in The Postal Museums archives. It is a first-person account of decisions on which people’s lives hinged.

Half way down his introductory page, Fellowes writes…

“The desire of being held in the memory of mankind, has been justly said, to await us to the mouth of the grave, and however hideous the danger, no officer with a feeling mind, and a sense of honor, can bear the idea of leaving the world, liable to its censure for neglecting his duty in the loss of his ship”


He continues with a mention of the strain he felt carrying letters of state…

“The pillow of a Commander of a ship, intrusted as I was with dispatches of great importance at the commencement of a war, and anxious to escape falling into the hands of an enemy; must ever be restless and uneasy”


For the crew of the Lady Hobart, Fellowes’ actions resulted in the majority of his crew surviving what was almost certain death.

Find out how the mail has been carried by sailing boats, steam ships, ocean liners, rowing boats and even by hovercraft!