The Lady Nelson was a brig, built in 1798 as a cutter for mercantile service. The Royal Navy purchased her in 1799 and from 1800 on she explored the coast of Australia. She was the first known vessel to sail eastward through Bass Strait, the first to sail along the South coast of Victoria, as well as the first to enter Port Phillip. Lady Nelson was also involved in the founding of Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne and Brisbane. She and all her crew were lost to Malay pirates in 1825. Lady Nelson was built in 1798 for mercantile service, and to the design of the cutter Trial. Like Trial, she was fitted with three Shank sliding or drop keels (actually removable centreboards). (The Shank keels were the invention of naval architect Captain John Schank.) The fore and aft centreboards were 3 feet long, and the centre one was 6 feet long. With them up the vessel drew only 6–7 feet instead of the 13 feet that would be more usual for vessels her size. The crew could drop the centreboards 7 feet through a relatively flat hull for stability in deeper waters.
The Lady Nelson was launched on Tuesday 13 November 1798 at Deadman's Dock Deptford. She was named in honour of the wife of Horatio Nelson, England's naval hero. On 21 December 1799, while she was on hire to the Royal Navy, French privateers captured her off Cabritta Point in the Bay of Gibraltar. A party led by Lieutenant William Bainbridge of HMS Queen Charlotte recaptured her and escorted her back to England. The Royal Navy purchased her and in 1800 converted her as a brig and established her as a gun-brig. After the conversion, she left Deptford Dockyard on 13 January 1800, bound for Australian waters under the command of Lieutenant James Grant. She was armed originally with two brass carriage guns and was given a further four guns and a crew of fifteen men: the commander, two mates and twelve seamen.
After she had arrived in New South Wales, the Lady Nelson was for the next twenty five years one of the most important vessels in the colony. She sailed regularly between Sydney, Norfolk Island, Hobart, Port Dalrymple and Port Macquarie. In 1807 she was one of the four ships commissioned to bring the first evacuees from Norfolk Island to Hobart Town. She sailed again in 1808 for Hobart Town with more evacuees. Most of these people were convicts from the First, Second and Third Fleets, along with a few military men, who had been living on Norfolk Island for the previous twenty years. In 1800, Lieutenant James Grant RN was the first known explorer to pass through Bass Strait from west to east. He was also the first to see, and crudely chart, the south coast from Cape Banks in South Australia to Wilsons Promontory in Victoria. Grant gave the name "Governor King's Bay" to the body of water between Cape Otway and Wilson's Promontory, but did not venture in and discover Port Phillip.
After arriving in Sydney on 16 December 1800, Grant was ordered by Governor King to take cartographer Francis Barrallier to chart the southern coastline to protect it against claims by the French. Grant sailed on 8 March 1801, with John Murray aboard as first mate, and en route explored Jervis Bay, where he was able to befriend some aborigines but shortly after he set sail again. Grant surveyed as far as Westernport.
However, her most famous southern voyage was in early 1802 when John Murray, having been given command of the Lady Nelson, discovered the entrance to Port Phillip. On the same voyage he also surveyed King Island (which he later named after the Governor of New South Wales). In 1801 she came under the command of Jonathan Murray. Later she was under George Courtoys and then James Symons. Lady Nelson's next assignment was to make an extensive survey of the Hunter River area. The ship sailed with Colonel William Paterson in charge. So much coal was found – 75 tonnes (74 long tons; 83 short tons), mined in what is now the centre of Newcastle – that King sent the brig back in company with a schooner. King traded the coal with the captain of the Earl Cornwallis for iron of the same value, possibly Australia's first mineral transaction. The Lady Nelson is also associated with Mathew Flinders. In 1802 Lady Nelson intended to accompany Flinders' other survey ship, the Investigator, in surveying the coast north of Port Jackson, into what is now Queensland. However, she accompanied the Investigator only as far as the Cumberland islands when Flinders decided she was too slow and unseaworthy and sent her back.
In June 1803, the Lady Nelson took the first settlers, ten convicts and three soldiers, to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), landing on 7 September 1803 at Risdon. Colonel David Collins soon found the site unsatisfactory and moved the settlement to the present site of Hobart. In October 1804, the ship was again dispatched to Van Diemen's Land, this time with troops and settlers for Port Dalrymple (now Launceston). After much storm damage and a complete refit in Sydney, she was sent again to Jervis Bay to investigate a report that a Spanish armed schooner was anchored there. The vessel, the Estramina, was crewed by Americans who had taken her as a prize in the American war against Spain. She tried to escape, but surrendered after Lady Nelson commanded by James Symons fired a shot across her bows; Lady Nelson then escorted her back to Sydney. In May 1807 Lady Nelson came under the command of Lieutenant William G.C. Kent. She was then paid off in 1808. In 1813 Lady Nelson, with the Minstrel brought the last of the evacuees from Norfolk Island, this time to Port Dalrymple in Van Diemen's Land. With this voyage, Lady Nelson had brought a total of 568 men, women and children from Norfolk Island to begin a new life in Van Diemen's Land. These people became an important part of the new settlement and many descendants still live in Tasmania.
On 2 May 1815 on departing Port Macquarie the Lady Nelson ran aground on the south side of the harbour. The crew abandoned ship as the brig's rudder and sternpost were swept away and the bottom planks started to leak. Shortly afterwards the tide completely filled the ship. The Lady Nelson was considered lost by the commandant of the settlement but eventually the ship was refloated and repaired. Lady Nelson sailed on many more expeditions, including to Norfolk Island and New Zealand. She sailed in Australian waters during the governorships of King, Bligh, Macquarie and Brisbane. Brisbane sent her north with two other vessels to carry settlers to a new trading post on Melville Island, and she served that settlement for some time.
Her final voyage started in February 1825, when she was sent under the command of Master John to Koepang to bring back buffaloes for food. Several months passed before it was learned that Malay pirates had captured her off Babar Island, north-east of Timor. The pirates massacred the entire crew; the vessel herself was wrecked on the island. On 22 September 1825, the Sydney Gazette reported: The Lady Nelson has been most unfortunately cut off at Timor by Malay privateers and all the crew sacrificed, except the Captain. The little 60-ton ship contributed more to the exploration and settlement than any other. She served in the colony for a quarter of a century.
Two replicas of the Lady Nelson have been constructed in the past 20 years or so, the first is a non sailing reconstruction built in 1986 and currently stands outside the Lady Nelson Visitors centre in Mt Gambier. The second was completed in 1987 by Ray Kemp at Woodbridge in Tasmania as part of the bicentenary celebrations. She also sailed to commemorate significant events around Australia in the early 1990s. Following her permanent return to her home port of Hobart, she now sails predominately on the waters of the River Derwent.