Senior Curator Julian tells about the crew's battle to survive on a sinking Post Office Packet Boat.

The Post Office contracted many ships to carry mail to and from overseas destinations. These packet boats also carried messages of state, passengers and goods. They 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)

On 22 June 1803, the Post Office Packet Boat Lady Hobart set sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia for Falmouth. Built in Liverpool in 1799 she weighed 200 tons and was commanded by William Dorset Fellowes. Meeting a French schooner (L’Aimable Julie) it engaged in a brief battle, all the French crew were captured.

Two English schooners, small sailing vessels with fore and aft sailing on two or more masts, arrived and the prisoners were divided between them. Two British Naval lieutenants on board the Lady Hobart sailed the prize to England. Fellowes set the Lady Hobart on a northerly route in an attempt to avoid any other French ships in the area.

On 28 June the Lady Hobart struck an iceberg, so large it was referred to as an ‘island of ice’. The Captain’s log records 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

The crew passed two sails passed beneath the ship in an attempt to slow the water gushing in through the hull. 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.

Fellowes ordered the ship’s two boats; a cutter – 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 and they had managed to save 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 records 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 records 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, and they spotted two boats- rescue!

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.

I feel this account is one of the gems in The Postal Museum’s library; written by hand, by the man who experienced uncertainty, and his own sense of worth. 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!

– Julian Stray, Senior Curator