First Government foundation plate (detail). Laid by Governor Arthur Phillip 1788, uncovered by Robert McCann telegraph line worker 1899. Sydney Living Museums collection.

First Government House foundation plate

Whilst working in the tunnel…I came across two flat stones, one on top of the other. On clearing the earth I saw there was a piece of copper lying between them…as soon as I raised the top stone I saw that the copperplate was a fairly large one, and that there was writing on it.

Robert James McCann as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 8 March 1899, page 7

The piece of copper plate that telegraph line worker Robert McCann uncovered in 1899 had been placed between the two sandstone blocks 111 years earlier by Governor Arthur Phillip. On 15 May 1788 Governor Phillip laid the foundation plate to mark the start of the building of Government House. 

Contemporary observer David Collins wrote:

Another gang of labourers was put under the direction of a stonemason, and on the 15th the first stone of a building, intended for the residence of the governor … was laid on the east side of the cove. The following inscription, engraven on a piece of copper, was placed in the foundation:

His Excellency
Arthur Phillip Esq.
Governor in Chief and Captain General
in and over the Territory of New South Wales,&c, &c
landed in this Cove
with the first Settlers of this Country,
the 24th Day of January 1788;
and on the 15th Day of May
in the same Year, being the 28th
of the Reign of His present Majesty
GEORGE the THIRD,
the first of these Stones was laid.

David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vol 1, published 1798.

Copper plate with inscription: His Excellency Arthur Phillip Esq. Governor in Chief and Captain General in and over the Territory of  New South Wales,&c, &c landed in this Cove with the first Settlers of this Country, the 24th Day of January 1788;...
First Government House foundation plate. Laid by Governor Arthur Phillip 1788, uncovered by Robert McCann telegraph line worker 1899. Sydney Living Museums collection.

The 'first of these stones'

Curiously the inscription records the ‘first settlers’ landing on 24 January rather than 26 January. By the earlier date Phillip had sailed back to Botany Bay having explored and determined that Port Jackson was a better location for settlement.  Early on the morning of 26 January the fleet left Botany Bay and by late afternoon had arrived at Port Jackson which Phillip named Sydney Cove. 

Phillip’s temporary portable canvas house was erected on the east side of the cove and it must have been with some joy that work began on a more permanent and weather proof structure. Less than four months after the settlement was established the ‘first of these stones’ marking the south-east corner of the house were laid near the present day corner of Bridge and Phillip Streets. The building of the house progressed slowly and it was just over a year later that Phillip finally moved into his Government House.

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

Rediscovering the plate

When the foundation plate was rediscovered in 1899 the site of first Government House was a distant memory. The house and all its outbuildings had been demolished over 50 years earlier.  As one historian commented the discovery of the ‘Governor Phillip relic’ reminded people of ‘the time when the spot on which Sydney stands was an uncultivated wild’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 11 March 1899, p10).

In 1995, with the opening of the Museum of Sydney on the site of first Government House, the foundation plate was officially transferred from the State Library of New South Wales to the Historic Houses Trust. Today the foundation plate sits on public display within metres of where Governor Phillip had laid it in 1788.

About the Author

Head and shoulders portrait of woman set against brick wall.
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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