First Government House, Sydney by John Eyre. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

On firm foundations

The Museum of Sydney is built on and around a site that links us to the very beginnings of modern Australia. Here in 1788 on the ancient land of the Gadigal people, Governor Arthur Phillip built Government House. In this house and its later additions, the first nine governors of NSW lived and worked. 


For 57 years first Government House was the centre of the social, economic and political life of the colony. It was a symbol of British authority to those who were forced or who chose to settle here and a symbol of invasion for Aboriginal people, whose land was claimed and forever changed by the newcomers. Yet in its early years, first Government House was also a place of close contact between Aboriginal people and the settlers. 

ABOVE: First Government House, Sydney by John Eyre, c1807. State Library of NSW, SV/31
 

Being about to enter, he cast up his eyes, and seeing some people leaning out of a window on the first storey, he exclaimed aloud and testified the most extravagant surprise.

Marine Lieutenant Watkin Tench describing the reaction of Arabanoo on seeing the governor's house being built, 1788Unknown Object​​

Phillip had arrived in the colony with instructions from the king to develop relations with the local people ‘and conciliate their affections’,Unknown Object but with little success by the end of 1788, he resorted to kidnap. On 31 December 1788 he sent two boats to Manly Cove and a young man was seized and brought back to the governor’s house. Arabanoo (he was initially named Manly until his real name was learnt) was fed, scrubbed, shaved, dressed and to prevent his escape ‘a handcuff with a rope attached to it was fastened around his left wrist.Unknown Object  As described in the journal of Lieutenant William Bradley, over the next few months Arabanoo became ‘quite familiarized & very happy quite one of the governor’s family and had got some of our language as well as communicated much of theirs’.Unknown Object​ But in May 1789 Arabanoo died from the smallpox epidemic that would decimate the local Aboriginal communities and was buried in the governor’s garden.

Alt
In his journal Bradley describes his role in the capture of Colebee and Bennelong as ‘by far the most unpleasant service I ever was order'd to Execute'.Unknown Object​ Taking of Colbee & Benalon, 1789 by Lieutenant William Bradley from his journal A voyage to New South Wales, 1786–1792. State Library of NSW, safe1/14



 

Six months later two more Aboriginal men (Colebee and Bennelong) were captured in a renewed attempt to learn Aboriginal language, customs and knowledge of the country. Colebee, despite his leg iron and convict guard, escaped within weeks while Bennelong was held for five months. During this time, he ate at the governor’s table and shared stories about Aboriginal customs before he too escaped. In September 1790, four months after Bennelong escaped, he and the governor met again at large gathering at Manly Cove. In an unexpected scene that many contemporary historians describe as ‘payback’; Governor Phillip was speared in the shoulder by an Aboriginal elder. After this confrontation Aboriginal people from the Sydney area began to ‘come in’ to the settlement, and for a time came freely to Government House, many camping in the governor’s garden. These early contact stories and the continuing story of Sydney’s Aboriginal people are told in the Gadigal Place gallery in the Museum of Sydney. 

 

Drawing showing a 2 stroey house on a hill overlooking shoreline. There are temporary structures in the adjoining garden like tent and shack.
Governor's House at Sydney, Port Jackson drawn around 1791 by William Bradley's and included in drawings from his journal `A Voyage to New South Wales', 1802+. State Library of NSW, Safe 1/14


RESIDENCE

Governor Phillip’s first home was a prefabricated canvas and timber-framed tent that was brought out flat-packed with the First Fleet. On 15 May 1788, not far from the site where this temporary house had been erected, work began on a more permanent home for the governor. The site chosen was on a hill overlooking the harbour and the tank stream that for a short time provided fresh water to the colony. To mark the occasion, Phillip placed an engraved copper plaque between two foundation stones. This plaque, discovered in 1899 during excavations for telephone lines in Bridge Street, is on display at the Museum of Sydney.

The house intended for myself was to consist of only three rooms, but having a good foundation, has been enlarged, contains six rooms, and is so well built that I presume it will stand for a great number of years.

​Governor Arthur Phillip, 12 February 1790

Built with convict labour on a foundation of Sydney sandstone using a combination of locally made and imported bricks from England, Australia’s first Government House was typical of the so-called Georgian style then popular in England: two-storeys, rectangular in shape with a central doorway and symmetrically arranged windows. To the rear were the service buildings – kitchen, bakehouse and stables. In front, Phillip established a garden with plants and seeds he brought with him from England and some he picked up along the way in Rio deJanerio and the Cape of Good Hope. 

Over the next 57 years Phillip’s original six-room house was extended by successive governors, who invariably found their predecessor’s house too small, run down or not befitting the status of the governor’s position. In 1836 building began on a new Government House (still in use today), closer to the harbour on Bennelong Point within the parklands of the Governor’s Domain. By 1846 the ‘incongruous mass of buildings’ that first Government House had become had been demolished.1

‘In the evening a Ball and Supper were given at Government House, to the most numerous assemblage of Ladies and Gentlemen that ever graced a public festival in this Colony … About eleven o’clock the party ... sat down to a superb and elegant repast: after which they resumed the sprightly dance, and continued ... to a late hour in the morning.’


Sydney Gazette, describing a ball held at Government House for the Queen’s birthday, 18182

With the buildings gone and their foundations buried, Sydney’s streets were extended across and along the site to meet up with the newly formed Circular Quay. This now vacant city block bounded by Bridge, Bent, Phillip and Young streets was originally granted to the Council of the Municipality of Sydney as a site for a town hall but the council opted to build in George Street instead. Between 1867 and 1875 five terraces were built along Phillip Street and another four along Young Street (these terraces are still standing). In the middle of the site behind hoarding and wooden fences were storage sheds and a carter’s yard and cottage. In 1912 the site was cleared to make way for a large two-storey corrugated iron building designed and later occupied by the Government Architect’s Department. Luckily, this building was at the rear of the site leaving the foundations of first Government House largely undisturbed. Although the ‘Tin Shed’ as it became known was meant to be temporary offices, it remained in use until its demolition in 1968. Remarkably, the site was left vacant (though used as a car park) for the next 14 years.

Painting of the garden area in front of a large house. Image shows a circular driveway, spare trees and lawn being grazed by kangaroos.
Government House (and part of the town of Sydney) by Augustus Earle, 1830. By the end of 1846 first Government House had been demolished. Beat Knoblauch collection


REDEVELOPMENT 

Such prime real estate in the central business district of Sydney couldn’t go undeveloped forever and in 1982 the state government called for proposals to develop the site with a commercial tower block. In February 1983 preliminary archaeological investigations had uncovered a section of the 1788 foundations of the first Government House, sparking intense debate about the future development of the site. A sustained campaign by the Friends of The First Government House Site and other interest groups led the state government to abandon its commercial plans and commit to preserving the site for the public. In 1988, Australia’s bicentennial year, the state government announced an international design competition for the site that was to include the preservation of the archaeological remains and the construction of a new museum to interpret them. The Historic Houses Trust was appointed to develop and manage this new museum, to be known officially as the ‘Museum of Sydney on the site of first Government House’. In 1989 Richard Johnson, architect of Denton Corker Marshall, was awarded the project, and by 1994 the construction of the award-winning Governor Phillip Tower (40 storeys), the smaller Governor Macquarie Tower (30 storeys), new museum and public forecourt was completed. The museum opened to the public in 1995. 

B/w photo of view across a street with tram tracks to a vacant block with hoardings and advertising posters. There are 2 tall telegraph poles with lots of wires connected to multiple banks of insulators. There are people and a horse drawn cart.
Site for new public buildings, Phillip and Bridge streets, Sydney 31 January 1899. Government Printing Office, 1899. State Records NSW
 
Behind that fence, one of Australia's most exciting historical excavations had begun ... Miraculously, these fragile remains had survived in the centre of modern Sydney ... [but] Their survival posed challenges of many kinds ’ 


archaeologist Isabel McBryde, 1991

 
Gadigal words burnt in timber post for public artwork.
Edge of the trees (detail) by Fiona Foley and Janet Lawrence, 1995. Museum of Sydney Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums MOS13_0073
 

MUSEUM

As you walk across the forecourt today the remains of first Government House are beneath you, protected under the large granite pavers, and more of the house lies yet unseen under Bridge Street. The metal discs on the forecourt outline Phillip’s 1788 house and if you peer through the window raised up from the ground, you can see a section of its rear wall. The later additions to the house are marked out in white and over it all is the grid in which the archaeologists painstakingly mapped out the complex of buildings. Inside the foyer, more of the foundations are exposed. These fragmentary remains remind us of the people that once stood where we are today and how from these simple foundations Sydney has grown into a modern city.  

But pause if you will before entering the foyer to listen, touch and walk among the 29 pillars that cluster nearby the entrance. This sculpture, Edge of the trees by Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley, evokes the first encounters between the Gadigal people and the people of the First Fleet as they came ashore in 1788 ​– a fundamental turning point in the history of this ancient land and its first people.
​ 

... the discoverers struggling through the surf were met on the beaches by other people looking at them from the edges of the trees. Thus the same landscape perceived by the newcomers as alien, hostile or having no coherent form, was to the indigenous people their home, a familiar place, the inspiration of dreams...


​historian Rhys Jones, 19853

Notes

  • 1. Colonial architect Mortimer Lewis’s ‘Report on the present state of the Old Government House, Sydney’ quoted in Proudfoot 1991, p129.
  • 2. Sydney Gazette, Saturday 24 January 1818, p2.
  • 3. Rhys Jones: Ordering the Landscape; in T Donaldson (ed), Seeing the First Australians, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1985, p185

About the Author

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Anna Cossu
Curator
Susannah Place Museum, Museum of Sydney, Justice and Police Museum
Inspired by wonderful and slightly eccentric history teachers and after her own foray as a teacher, Anna found herself drawn to the world of museums.
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