William Bradley (Royal Navy officer)

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William Bradley
Born 1758
Died 13 March 1833
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Royal Navy
Years of service 1772 to 1812
Rank Royal Navy Rear-Admiral (struck off)
French Revolutionary Wars
Glorious First of June
Napoleonic Wars

William Bradley (1758–13 March 1833) was a British naval officer and cartographer who was one of the officers who participated in the First Fleet to Australia. During this expedition, Bradley undertook extensive surveys and became one of the first of the settlers to establish relations with the aborigines, with whom he struck up a dialogue and whose customs and nature he studied extensively. He later however fell out with his aboriginal contacts and instead undertook a mission to gather food which ended with an eleven-month stay on Norfolk Island after a shipwreck.

Bradley's later career was overshadowed by his steadily deteriorating mental state. Although a successful small ship commander, Bradley became increasingly erratic and was eventually retired as a result. A few years later, suffering serious mental problems, Bradley committed a highly unusual case of postal fraud and was ultimately exiled. He never returned to Britain but lived in quiet disgrace in France.

Early career[edit]

Bradley was born on 14 November 1758 in Portsmouth, a great nephew of the Astronomer Royal James Bradley. His family was closely associated with the Royal Naval Academy and both his younger brother James and his father John Bradley served on the faculty. Bradley entered the Royal Navy in 1772, and served on a rapid succession of ships before becoming lieutenant in 1778.[1] He continued in service aboard HMS Lenox, HMS Aldborough, HMS Mermaid, HMS Rippon, HMS Prothee, HMS Phaeton and HMS Ariadne until 1786, when he joined HMS Sirius. His service during the American Revolutionary War was not significant, but Bradley was attached on the Sirius to the First Fleet destined to colonise Australia.[1]

Service in Australia[edit]

During 1788, Bradley did not involve himself directly in colonial affairs, but instead joined John Hunter in extensive operations along the Sydney Harbour coastline. The two men were often away from the colony for extended periods, conducting surveys of the coastline and the lands around.[1] A keen note-taker and sketcher, Bradley compiled many records of his experiences and also developed close relationships with nearby aboriginal tribes. He was an early champion of the original inhabitants, but several experiences later changed his view to one substantially more negative.[1]

In October 1788, Bradley joined a six-month circumnavigation of the globe to collect supplies for the colony from the Cape of Good Hope. Returning in March 1789, Bradley worked on the repair of Sirius, combined with further survey and more observations of the aborigines. During this time, Bradley developed a strong antipathy for the aborigines due to unknown reasons and was involved in the November 1789 raid which captured Colbee and Bennelong, a job he found extremely unpleasant.[1]

In 1790, Sirius and HMS Supply were dispatched to Norfolk Island in search of better food supplies. At Norfolk Island, Sirius were caught in a storm and wrecked. Marooned on the island, Bradley his crew conducted extensive surveys of the land during the eleven months spent there. In 1791, Bradley and others returned to Port Jackson and from there took ship to the Philippines and then to Britain. The ships arrived in 1792 and the crews were court martialled for the loss of Sirius, but honourably acquitted.[1]

French Revolutionary Wars[edit]

Bradley was promoted to master and commander in 1791, and in 1793 was given the fire ship HMS Comet as part of the Channel Fleet under Lord Howe. In May 1794, a year after the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars, Howe's fleet began the Atlantic campaign of May 1794, chasing a French grain convoy deep into the Atlantic. The campaign concluded with the battle of the Glorious First of June, where Howe's fleet defeated an equally sized French force but failed to stop the convoy. Bradley acted as a signal repeater during the campaign, relaying Howe's signals to the large fleet. He performed so well at this duty that he was promoted to post-captain in the aftermath of the campaign.[1]

Bradley soon took command of the frigate HMS Cambrian and served in her on the Halifax station for the next eight years. He returned to Britain in 1802 on the Peace of Amiens and in 1805 took command of the ship of the line HMS Plantagenet. In neither of Bradley's commands did he perform any significant or notable service, remaining on convoy and blockade duties. In 1809 however, Bradley suffered the first of his increasingly severe mental disturbances.[1]

Mental illness[edit]

Removed from service by his illness, Bradley later joined the impress unit at Cowes, but in 1812 again suffered a mental breakdown, and was retired as a rear-admiral. Two years later, Bradley suffered personal disaster when he was caught involved in a minor attempt to defraud the postal authorities. Arrested and brought before the Winchester Assizes, his conduct was noted as being highly unusual, but this was not taken into account initially and he was stripped of his rank and pension and sentenced to death. Appeals from his family later brought about a reduction of sentence, firstly to transportation and subsequently exile.[1]

Retiring to Le Havre, France in 1816, Bradley devoted the sane hours of his life to a series of inventions designed to easily calculate longitude. He hoped that by inventing such a device, the Admiralty might be persuaded to reverse his sentence and permit him to return to Britain.[1] This never occurred, and attempts by his family to get the sentence repealed on the grounds of his insanity were equally fruitless. Bradley finally gave up these efforts after years of failure and died in France, a recluse, in March 1833.[1]

Bradley left three daughters and a son. His wife described him as 'a kind husband and affectionate father', but fellow officers often considered him disagreeable and aloof.[1] He left behind a large body of work on the coasts and aborigines of the Sydney area which is still available in the State Library of New South Wales. This work includes, surveys, charts, personal observations and sketches.[1]

His name is commemorated in the name of Bradleys Head.

See also[edit]

His descendants live in the UK, in Berkshire, Devon and Essex and in Sydney Australia. One ancestor even share his date of birth - Joseph William Bradley 14 November 1917.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Bradley, William (1757 - 1833), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Janet D. Hine, Retrieved 20 January 2008