The Tale of First Fleeter John Martin

By Ted Westwood, #7264, Member Fellowship of First Fleeters

The Fellowship of First Fleeters newsletter Founders readers have often made enquiries concerning African Americans who were First Fleeters, possibly because of the oddity of their being black men who were probably not born in the British Isles. The two most often mentioned are John Randall and John Martin. Ted Westwood, #7264, a member of the FFF Southern Highlands Chapter, is descended from both men.

Research by the Martin family indicates John was either born in Barbados and went as a slave to America with his parents or was born in America. Obviously owned by a Martin, young John was recruited by the British and became a seaman, having been 20 at the start of the War of Independence.

It is assumed Martin must have jumped ship at some stage in England, as he was to be convicted of stealing clothing valued at 68 shillings at the Old Bailey on Wednesday 3 July, 1782, long before the War finished.

Now the theft of anything over the value of 40 shillings meant a death sentence if found guilty, but luckily for John at the time all gaols were full, many people were being hung daily and the grave diggers were unable to keep up so bodies were either left hanging on the gallows or thrown in the river. This was causing some concern to those with a conscience who were demanding something be done, so John Martin lucidly had the value of clothing stolen reduced to 39 shillings during the trial and he then received a sentence of seven years transportation to Gambia via Den Keyser. During his voyage John became ill and was offloaded, sent back to England and to the hulk Ceres where he obviously met John Randall and was later transferred to Alexander on 6 January, 1787.

It is interesting to note that the original destination for this ship was to be Sierra Leone where the British were trying to establish colonies. Botany Bay was originally discounted as a penal colony due to the huge cost of transport which was quoted at £50 per capita. The Sierra Leone project became a subject of great public awareness and concern as most shiploads sent there had all died within a short time. With 1300 felons incarcerated on five hulks the situation was very serious. Lord Sydney discarded his objections to Botany Bay in June 1786 by indicating “His Majesty thought to fix on Botany Bay as the destination for his unwanted felons.”

Lord Sydney now expounded on the “fertility and salubrity” of this place, drawing on evidence of Joseph Banks that the land was fertile, climate healthy, while cattle could be “grazed on fine meadows as was ever seen”. Having now sung praises of this haven, Sydney requested Treasury to provide shipping to transport about 800 convicts to its far distant shore. Sydney was now especially enthusiastic about Botany Bay’s location as it was “so far away from England that it is hardly possible for people to return without permission”. Hence the First Fleet was established and the rest is well-documented history.

Alexander 2On board the eleven ships, among the hundreds of white convicts were eleven black men — my ancestors John Randall, John Martin and nine others. During incarceration on Ceres, while in transit on Alexander, [picture left] and in the “Botany Bay” colony, it is interesting to note that none of the black men died due to the many diseases experienced by white convicts causing huge loss of life. It is thought this was due to the blacks being inoculated by the British in America when they joined the British Service.

When John Martin arrived in Australia be had just over one year of his sentence to serve. However, Governor Phillip would not give anyone freedom as he did not have paperwork to confirm what convicts were saying — it was not until the Third Fleet arrived in July 1792 that paperwork caught up with the convicts who were then freed if their sentences had expired — by this time John Martin had served over nine years.

On 29 August 1788, Martin received 25 lashes for lighting a fire in his hut so he and two others could keep warm—all received this treatment. After being freed in July 1792, Martin married Ann Toy on 26 August at St John’s Church, Parramatta. Ann was a Second Fleet convict ex Neptune, who died on 11 February, 1806 with no issue.

On 29 November 1792 Martin was granted 50 acres at the Northern Boundaries. This was the same day John Randall was granted his adjoining 60 acres. The rental was one shilling a year commencing after 10 years.

Martin basically led an unremarkable life, content to try to grind out a living from his property. After Ann died in 1806, Martin began a relationship with Mary Randall, daughter of his friend John, and their first child was born 17 November, 1807, when Mary was just 13. Altogether they had eleven children but Martin claimed only five as his. Their third child, a daughter, Frances, was my ancestor.

 Martin eventually married Mary at St John’s Church, Parramatta, on 20 July, 1812, the service being conducted by Samuel Marsden. John was 57 at this time and Mary 19.

On 12 January, 1810 Martin was appointed Constable of the Northern Boundaries which included being Pound-keeper, all for three pence a day.

On 25 January, 1826, aged 71, he resigned as Constable, and in the 1828 census he was listed as retired on a pension, age 73, living at the Field of Mars.

John Martin died on his property and was buried in an unmarked grave at St John’s Church, Parramatta, on 22 December, 1837. His age was given as 88, which is incorrect.

In his will Martin left ten acres and the house to son Henry, with daughter Sophie to have two rooms. The land was divided into four allotments with ten acres each for John, Sophie, Hannah and my ancestor Frances with lots drawn for each. To his wife Mary he left one shilling to prevent her from contesting the will. His horses were divided equally among the children. He signed his will with an ‘X’ twelve days before he died.

Mary Martin died on 27 September 1857, aged 64. At some time she lost a leg and was bedridden for several years. She was buried at St John’s Church, Parramatta, with her headstone now incorporating a plaque, fitted in 1998, recognising the life of John Martin as a First Fleeter.

Martin’s daughter Frances married a Welsh-born convict John Ingram ex Dunvegan Castle in 1830. Their daughter Eliza married a free settler Thomas Sharp, born in England in 1838. They were married at East Gosford.

Their daughter Priscilla married free settler Felix Westwood, born in 1840 at Worcestershire, England, who was my great grandfather. Felix died on June 24, 1916, at Rookwood Asylum, with TB. Priscilla died on 10 April 1930. Both are buried at Rookwood Cemetery.

Randall and Martin between them had more than 60 grandchildren, with well over 25,000 Australians able to trace their bloodline to these two First Fleeters. Their original land grants, Nos. 92 and 93, Book 1A, Page 47, are now the locations of The Kings School and the Church of Christ Theological College, North Parramatta.


John Martin’s house, (above) built in 1822, still stands at 204 Pennant Hills Rd, Oatlands.