Master James Ralph

Master James Ralph made three voyages from England to New South Wales as the captain of a convict transport. His first was on the Friends in 1811. It was 15 years before he made his second voyage on the Albion towards the end of 1826 and then a third and final voyage on the Albion in 1828.

Ralph had already captained the Friends on a voyage to Jamaica for its London-based owner, John Howell, before he took the ship to New South Wales. After his return, he captained the vessel for a final time on a voyage to Bermuda but was back in London for his marriage to Sophia Frances Spurling on 4 August 1813 at St Marys Church, Whitechapel. Sophia was 24 years old when they married.

Mulgrave Castle

From at least the end of 1814, Ralph had the captaincy of the Mulgrave Castle when he again sailed to Jamaica. In 1815, both he and John Howell, the owner who had taken over the captaincy of the Friends, lost their ship masts in a gale.

On the next voyage, in early 1816, the Mulgrave Castle struck rocks at Bonavista, in the Cape Verde islands in the middle of the Atlantic. In May, the ship was in port at Praya, St Jago (now Santiago) in the Cape Verde island group. Ralph had intended to sail on to Rio de Janeiro for repairs but the Portuguese governor of the island had him arrested, along with the captain of another vessel, intending to seize the goods they carried on board. However, after the diplomatic consequences of his action was pointed out to him in a letter from the officers and crews of the other foreign ships in port, the governor had a change of heart and Ralph was released. The Mulgrave Castle was able to leave the port. Ralph made it to Rio on 6 July, the ship in “much distress and needing considerable repair”.

Over the following years, Ralph captained the Mulgrave Castle on several trading voyages between England and India, Ceylon and Mauritius. In April 1825 he sailed from England for Bombay but in early September, the Mulgrave Castle was wrecked on the coast of Capetown, South Africa, near Mountain Battery at Green Point. The loss of the vessel “was attributed to strong insetting of the current and a sudden haziness coming on which caused a deceptive appearance in the distance of the lighthouse. A few minutes before the ship struck she was in 14 fathoms of water, the captain at the gangway attending to the leadsmen and all the hands on board looking out…the night was calm and star lit”. The crew passengers and cargo were all saved. Ralph sailed back to England as a passenger on the Rosella, arriving at Deal in April 1826.


In October 1826, Ralph left England on his first voyage as captain of the Albion. He was back in the convict transport business, carrying 192 male prisoners to New South Wales, arriving in Sydney on 11 February 1827. Before he set sail for the return voyage, Ralph did a little trans Tasman commerce, leaving Sydney on 6 April for Hobart in Van Diemen’s Land with stores for the government and several passengers. On 10 May the Albion returned to Port Jackson with 120 tons of potatoes, 60 bales of wool, 15 casks of sea elephant oil, 100 chests of tea (over which there was a fracas around import duties which was reported in the press) and 621 kangaroo skins. Ralph also carried William Wemyss Esq., deputy commissary general, and his wife; Edward Dumaresq Esq., acting surveyor-general; and John Townshend, who was taking 660 sheep to New South Wales. At the beginning of June, Ralph finally sailed for Batavia in the Dutch-east Indies (now known as Jakarta, Indonesia) and then Singapore, returning to England at the beginning of March 1828.

Ralph was to captain the Albion just one last time, taking his third convict shipment to New South Wales. He sailed from Sheerness on 1 June 1828, again carrying 192 male passengers, sailing via the Cape of Good Hope to reach New South Wales on 3 November. He set sail again from Sydney for Madras on 1 January 1829 and on 17 March he was reported to be at anchor in The Roads, “all well”. The Albion arrived in Madras on either 17 or 29 March and on 2 April he set sail for Mauritius (also known then as the Isle of France) for what appears to have been another stint of shorter haul trading. The Albion arrived back in India at Bombay from Mauritius on 23 June, and then sailed on to Madas, arriving on 19 July 1829.


In September 1829 Ralph sailed from Madras for Mauritius taking a large number of “free” Indian labourers to work there. They were one of the first groups of indentured labour imported by Mauritian sugar plantation owners in anticipation of the abolition of slavery. The Albion dropped anchor in Port Louis on 21 September with 500 male labourers, nine females and one child on board. However, the ship was immediately put under quarantine in the port and it was expected to remain so for at least one month. By the end of October 1100 Indian workers had arrived in Mauritius.

In December the Madras Government Gazette optimistically reported that the “terms of which the natives are engaged are said to be very liberal to the émigré and the fulfilment of them, it is believed, is guaranteed by the local government of the Isle of France”. However, the labour experiment was a failure. The plantation owners did not honour the agreements they had entered into and most of the workers began to desert the plantations. The more rebellious of them were returned in batches to Calcutta and Madras.


Whatever the cause for the Albion’s quarantine on its arrival, it may have led to Ralph’s death, which was reported in 1830 in Port Louis. He had time to make a will in the port on 2 March 1830, which was witnessed by several of the crew, including Ebenezer Paddon, an American who later took over the captaincy of the Albion. Ralph left everything in his will to his wife Sophia, who lived at 11 Commercial Road, Middlesex. Probate was issued on 5 December 1831.

James’ wife, Sophia, was the daughter of Stephen Spurling and Frances Betteridge Langley, also of the parish of St Marys, Whitechapel.

James and Sophia had had six children: Sophia (bapt. 10 August 1814, Camberwell St Giles), James (bapt. 7 January 1817), Ann (born 28 August 1818, bapt. 28 September 1818), Henry (born 24 May 1820, bapt. 24 June 1820), Emma (bapt. 28 August 1823) and Jessy (born 21 December 1825, bapt. 23 January 1826). The last five children were all baptised at St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney, and the family lived at Ratcliffe.

After James’ death, Sophia lived with her brother John, who was a broker in the City of London, and his family and at the time of the 1851 census they were at 18 York Tce, in St Giles, Camberwell. Her daughter Sophia also lived with them at least into her thirties. The household had a cook and two housemaids. James’ wife Sophia died in Camberwell just a few years later at the age of 64. At the time she was living in Queens Road, Peckham. She was buried at St Marys in Whitechapel on 20 July 1853.

It is not known exactly when James Ralph was born: there were a number of people born around 1792 to 1793 with the same name. It is not known who were his parents.

The Albion was owned by Charles Weller of London until 1828, according to Lloyds Register of Shipping. From 1830 on, the ship was owned by George Weller (later of Weller Brothers whaling station in New Zealand).

UK 1851 Census
Lloyds Register of Shipping 1809 to 1815, 1828 to 1831
Lloyds List 1813 to 1826
Charles Bateson, The Convict Ships 1787-1868, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 2004 (first published Glasgow, 1959)
Sydney Gazette 21 May 1827, p. 2; 6 June 1827, p. 2; 10 July 1829 p. 3; The Australian 7 April 1827, p. 2; 16 May 1827, p. 4; 19 June 1829, p. 3; 13 November 1829,p. 3; Colonial Times, 2 March 1827 p. 2; 13 April 1827, p. 2; 27 April 1827; 11 May 1827, p. 2; Hobart Town Gazette, 12 May 1827, p. 5; Hobart Town Courier 6 June 1829, p. 2; The Monitor, 20 March 1827, p. 8
Asiatic Journal, Vol 2, London, 1816, p. 323; Vol. 20, London, 1825, p. 728; Vol 25, London, 1828, p. 566; Vol. 28, London, 1829, p. 348 and 479; Vol 2, London 1830, p. 77 and 244; Vol 3, London, 1830, p. 255
The Standard (London), 16 July 1853
The National Archives, Kew, England: PROB 11/1793/235, 5 December 1831