Australia Day – Where it all began.

This weekend we celebrate Australia Day. We acknowledge the many great deeds and enterprises that have formed and created our great nation. It is a day not without controversy. On January 26th 1788 Governor Arthur Phillip, an Admiral of the British Navy first stepped foot on Australian soil.

Contrary to what some people think, Governor Phillip ordered that in the early days of the fledgling colony, the Eora Aboriginal people were to be treated well and anyone killing Aboriginal people would be hanged. Even when speared on Manly Beach, Phillips ordered his men not to retaliate. As was to be the case for nearly 150 years, it was not the authorities who attacked the Indigenous population and drove them off their lands, but rather it was the settlers and elements of the troops he commanded who were attempting to gain control of large land parcels.

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Government House, Sydney 1850

Governor Phillip set about building the first Government House in 1788.


Built in 1788, First Government House was the first major building to be constructed on the Australian mainland. The remains of the building’s original foundations in Sydney CBD, provide rare evidence of the earliest years of British settlement in Australia andcontain the only tangible relics of 1788 still in place.

The First Government House Site symbolises the most tangible link to the foundation of European settlement in Australia. It provides a publicly-accessible cultural focus and landmark for many Australians of British descent, for First Fleet descendants and for Aboriginal people.


Detail of map of the settlement at Sydney Cove Port Jackson April 1788

Australia’s foundation building

Governor Arthur Phillip laid the foundation stone for the first Government House building on Gadigal clan country in the vicinity of Sydney Cove only four months after the First Fleet’s arrival in January 1788. Building commenced in May 1788 and took just over a year to complete. It was the first major European building to be erected in mainland Australia. (First Government House at Norfolk Island was built between April-May 1788). The building served as both the residence and office of the governor.

Using convict labour the construction of the new residence and office of Australia’s first Governor was built with 5000 bricks imported from England and bricks made locally from clay, imported lime and shellfish from Darling Harbour.

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First Government House, in a detail from painting ‘A direct north general view of Sydney Cove’ 1794

The symmetrical two storey building was Georgian in style with a hipped roof. The house had six rooms, two cellars and a rear staircase. In contemporary  illustrations show that many exotic plant species were grown and the first orchard planted in the front of the house. At the back of the house the were a  outbuildings the kitchen, bakehouse, stables, offices and workrooms.

This symbol of colonial power was the first two-storey structure in mainland Australia. It sat on the most prominent site on Sydney Cove and towered over the landscape. The First Government House became the exemplar of building fashion: stone footings, whitewashed brick walls and clay tiles or shingled roofs became the accepted residential fashion.


View of the governor’s house at Sydney in Port Jackson New South Wales Jan’y 1791

Centre of power

The First Government House was a centre of power and decision making for the new colony, through its crucial early decades. It was here that all the major policy decisions were developed, such as land settlement regulation. The convict system was administered from here. The period also saw the implementation of policies toward Aboriginal people.

Major events occurred here during the house’s lifetime, including the arrest of Governor William Bligh during the Rum Rebellion in 1808 and the first Legislative Council meeting in 1824. The first Government Orders (1795) and Australia’s first newspaper – the Sydney Gazette (1803) –  were printed at the site.

The First Government House Site is associated with many historical figures, both European and Aboriginal. The first nine Governors (Phillip, Hunter, King, Bligh, Macquarie, Brisbane, Darling, Bourke and Gipps) all lived in the building. Significant Aboriginal people lived at or visited the place, including Arabanoo (who was in fact buried in the garden), Bennelong and Colbee.

It remained one of the centres of power through the terms of the nine governors until its state of disrepair, and the growing pressures of expanding waterfront activities, forced its demolition in 1845.


Uncovering the remains of First Government House

After Government House was demolished in 1845, the site was used as a carter’s yard, a fruit shop, a confectioner and a tobacco shop, government offices, accommodation for nurses during the Second World War and a car park. At one stage, it was to become the site of the city’s town hall and later was chosen as the location for a multi-storey office block.

In 1983, before commencing construction on the multi-storey building, remains of the First Government House were discovered in an archaeological excavation. Following the discovery of the remains, further high-profile archaeological exploration – the largest urban excavation undertaken at the time in Australia – uncovered the vestiges of drains, privies, foundations, walls and cuttings. In addition, excavations also revealed artefacts including Australia’s first locally made bricks, window glass, roof tiling, china, bottles, broken tobacco pipes, printing remnants and dog bones. These discoveries sparked debate on the future of the site and, following public protest to save the area, planning approval for the development was rejected. Soon after, an international architectural design competition was announced to create a development that would conserve and present the archaeological remains of the site while still enabling the construction of office buildings.

Preservation for the future

Over 220 years after its foundations were first laid, the remains of some of its structures have been preserved and illustrated on site at the Museum of Sydney in Sydney’s central business district. Although mostly covered today by large granite tiles carve with the outline of the foundations and some glass observation panels, the archaeological remains of the building (including footings, walls, floors, drains, cuttings, paving, trenches, privies, garden soil, impressions of removed materials and artefacts) still have the potential to reveal much about the earliest efforts to build a nation.


Here we reprint a more detailed description.

The first Government House: building on Phillip’s ‘good foundation’


Sydney, Government House 1802

The first Government House was not a simple singular structure but a complex with a yard, outbuildings, guardhouse, garden and greater domain. It was a home, an office and a venue for public and private entertaining, but also a symbol of British authority, with all that that meant to different people, both then and now.

A place of intimacy and officialdom, birth and death, celebration, confrontation and reconciliation, the first Government House was the scene of significant moments in the young colony’s history including the ‘Rum Rebellion’ and, more decorously, the first meeting of the Legislative Council.

What do we mean by the ‘first’ Government House?

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Detail of ‘Sydney Cove, Port Jackson 1788’ showing the first Government House under construction on the extreme left

The ‘Governor’s Mansion’ features in a somewhat naive map of the infant settlement drawn in April 1788. Instead of being a little-known image of the house that stood on the site on the corner of Bridge and Phillip Streets, Sydney – the first permanent viceregal residence – it is a rather ironic depiction of Governor Phillip’s first home on land, the ‘Govrs Temporary House’ (shown at P on the map, with the ‘Governor’s Kitchen’ at Q).
Phillip’s ‘tent’

When Phillip moved on shore in February 1788, he took up residence in a portable canvas house erected on the eastern side of what was to become known as the Tank Stream. A prefabricated dwelling of timber-framed panels covered with oilcloth, it cost £130 – a third of the amount paid for all the marquees and camp equipment for the marine officers. Forty-five feet long, 17 feet 6 inches wide and 8 feet high (13.7 x 5.3 x 2.4 metres high) it had a wooden floor, five windows each side, 3 foot 9 by 3 foot (.9 x 2.7 x .9 metres) and was divided internally. Often referred to as a tent, although it proved ‘neither wind nor water proof’, it was actually rather impressive.

This dwelling is important, not simply as Phillip’s first residence in the colony, where he remained for over a year, but because of what happened there: Arabanoo was brought here; despatches were written; decisions, great and small, on the management and future of the settlement and its inhabitants were made here; the County of Cumberland was defined and named here; and royal birthdays were celebrated with many a ‘huzza’.

Phillip soon outlined the shape of the fledgling settlement. By March it had been determined that

The government-house was to be constructed on the summit of a hill commanding a capital view of Long Cove [now Darling Harbour], and other parts of the harbour; but this was to be a work of after-consideration; for the present, as the ground was not cleared, it was sufficient to point out the situation and define the limits of the future buildings.

The ‘temporary’ house

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First government house 1797

On 15 May 1788 the foundation stone was laid for what was intended as an interim structure until a more substantial residence could be built to the west. Less than two months later, Phillip forwarded his intended plan for the town to Lord Sydney. ‘A small House building for the Governour [sic]’, was shown overlooking the encampment on the east side of the Tank Stream. To the south-west across the valley, an area high on the ridge was set aside as ‘Ground intended for the Governour’s [sic] House, Main Guard, & Criminal Court’.

What was to be the principal street, 200 feet wide, ran from this large block down to the waterfront

In the meantime, the ‘temporary’ house was built into the sandstone bedrock on an elevated sloping site to the east side of Sydney Cove. Although Phillip referred to it as ‘a small cottage’, where he would ‘remain for the present with part of the convicts and an officer’s guard’, it was still deliberately situated in a commanding position overlooking the nascent settlement, visible to all.

On such a solid base, what was originally intended to be a single storey structure in fact became the first two-storey house in the colony. As Phillip wrote in February 1790:

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.

The house was constructed of rendered, locally made bricks, imported crown glass and pipeclay mortar, with a shingled roof. Lime was made from oyster shells collected in the neighbouring coves. The availability – or lack thereof – of suitable building materials placed limitations on works. Until an adequate supply of lime could be located,

…the public buildings must go on very slowly…In the mean time the materials can only be laid in clay, which makes it necessary to give great thickness to the walls, and even then they are not so firm as might be wished.

However, at least ‘Good clay for bricks is found near Sydney Cove, and very good bricks have been made’.

Beyond an overarched door with sidelights and semicircular fanlight, the central entrance hall – approximately 9 feet (2.7 metres) wide – was flanked by a room on either side, each approximately 20 by 16 and a half feet (6.1 by 5 metres) with a fireplace on the rear wall. The ceiling height on the ground floor was 9 feet (2.7 metres). Just one room deep, the house was supplemented by skillion-roofed additions at the rear bisected by a projecting gabled stairhall.

The garden and outbuildings were enclosed with a timber palisade fence. A dwarf stone wall ran parallel with the front of the house with peaked-roof sentry boxes constructed at each end. The sentry boxes were soon relocated to either side of the house and the forecourt was formed into a military style redoubt with the addition of side walls and two carriage-mounted guns inside the front wall. A raised and paved entry podium led up to the front door.

Two small cellars were constructed beneath the entrance hall and western room of the house where the ground fell away slightly, allowing the insertion of narrow cellar lights in the northern plinth. The compound contained a collection of outbuildings to the south and west of the main house. When the footings of the service wing were excavated in the 1980s, they indicated that it had been a far more substantial structure than previously thought and built to last. Containing the kitchen, scullery and servants’ quarters, it was linked to the main house by a covered way.

A lightning conductor was placed on the centre of the roof. The violence of the thunder and lightning was much commented upon by First Fleet officers, who noted the damage done to trees, the destruction of livestock, serious injury to a sentry, and in 1793, the death of two convicts.

Phillip seems to have had his portable house relocated to the new site. It is visible in early images, a gabled panelised structure to the west of the kitchen block. Other features of the complex included the privy, located far from the kitchen and living areas and a well, which was said to have never run dry even in times of drought. The privy may have had a tiled roof. Lightly burnt clay tiles, known as pantiles, were made at the Brickfields to the south of the settlement but proved to be unsatisfactory, decaying rapidly and absorbing water. Archaeologists found many tile fragments during the excavations.

Inside the house

Little is known of the interior of the house during Phillip’s term apart from stray references to items such as a chest or side-table. Presumably, locally made items supplemented campaign furniture. It seems likely that the bell hung over the door and the pictures – including the ‘very large handsome print of her royal highness the Dutchess of Cumberland’ – which had adorned the portable house were transferred to the new abode.

There is far more information about the furnishings of later governors – from inventories and orders, auction lists and descriptions of events in newspaper reports and by visitors and residents. Furniture and furnishings were imported or acquired locally but governors also brought out their own possessions, often selling them on departure. Only one view of the interior is known to exist – a cartoon mocking Governor Bligh’s supposed attempt to conceal himself from arrest in 1808. It shows the bare floorboards of ‘a dirty little room’ inhabited by a servant upstairs in the rear skillion, furnished with a simple low bed.

Although effectively an English vernacular cottage or provincial farmhouse, attempts were made to distinguish it architecturally, giving it the characteristics of a more polite house better suited to its status as Government House. Applied pilasters defining the central bay created an implied breakfront with a blind roundel set in the rudimentary pediment.

The designer of the house is unknown. It has been attributed to Phillip himself, and/or Provost Marshal Henry Brewer. What is certain is that it could not have been constructed without the practical knowledge and superintendence of convict James Bloodworth, a master bricklayer who also taught other convicts how to make the bricks required in the new colony.

Phillip’s abode

slnsw a928088First Government House model installation view

The house was completed in a little over a year and occupied by June 1789 in time for the traditional celebration of the King’s birthday. With other priorities, and a serviceable structure as his new abode, Phillip remained in this house for the rest of his time in New South Wales and administered the colony, wrestling with the daily problems thrown up by the developing settlement and planning for its future.

Home to the governor and a handful of servants, officers and visiting mariners were entertained here, the expanded facilities providing greater avenues for hospitality. In October 1791, on the anniversary of the King’s accession to the throne, ‘the public dinner given at the government-house was served to upwards of fifty officers, a greater number than the colony had ever before seen assembled together’.


It was on this site that Bennelong and Colbee were incarcerated in November 1789. Although Colbee fled just two and a half weeks later, Bennelong did not escape for some five months. However, in time, the first Government House complex played host to Aboriginal visitors, including Bennelong, who lived there periodically. The wider governor’s domain also became the burial place for several Aboriginal people.

The garden in front of the house sloped down to the water’s edge. Initially it was laid out in a grid, a practical design for food cultivation, with plants from England, Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope. These were later supplemented with the first Norfolk Island pine, planted by Phillip himself, remnant native vegetation and a range of exotic species.

Orange and fig trees, grape vines and vegetables all flourished. The size and flavour of the garden’s produce was much remarked upon by those privileged to receive it or dine at the house on fare prepared by Phillip’s French cook, whom Bennelong took such delight in mimicking. In fact, the garden became an enviable success; in May 1790 an armed watchman was stationed there each night. As David Collins wrote:

The governor’s garden had been the object of frequent depredation; scarcely a night passed that it was not robbed, notwithstanding that many received vegetables from it by his excellency’s order.

In one of his final acts as governor, while defining the town boundaries and Crown lands, Phillip delineated the land that preserved this garden and its wider grounds as the governor’s domain.

When Phillip sailed for England in December 1792 his ‘small cottage’ was the most substantial and grandest house in the settlement. Arabanoo, taken to visit while it under construction, ‘cast up his eyes, and seeing some people leaning out of a window on the first story [sic]…exclaimed aloud, and testified the most extravagant surprise’. The fact that it was still the only two-storey structure in the settlement remained a novelty.


So as can be seen, the Governor was in fact the representative of the British Crown – but unlike many Governors of Penal Colonies, Arthur Phillip had a vision for the future. But we can certainly he never in his wildest dreams had a vision of this future.


Enjoy your break over this long Australia Day Weekend, perhaps spare a thought for the man who first planted the British Flag on Australian soil on the 26th of January 1788 – who managed to establish a colony that has grown into our great nation – from 11 fully loaded convict ships.

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Balance Architecture recognises the importance of the preservation of Historical Architecture. We specialise in the renovation and restoration of Heritage Buildings.

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