architecture, Rylstone

Our First Government House

In the 1980s three Clarke sisters, born and raised at Rylstone but lately retired, were pivotal in saving the site of our first government house. Alice, Ula and Nell (Sansom) were members of three societies, the Bloodsworth Association, Fellowship of First Fleeters and Friends of the First Government House Site. Nell as chair of the third was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM). “We won’t rest until we can be sure that our heritage is safe,” she declared in 1983.

The site had always been in the hands of government but by 1982 it was a carpark. The NSW Labour government proposed leasing it to Northpoint Holdings, a Hong Kong land developer, for construction of a 38-storey office tower. Concerns were raised which led to an archaeological survey. It revealed the fragile remains of the first government house – the only in situ historical remains from the first year of British settlement. The diggings showed: the footings of the house and outbuildings; the first objects manufactured in Australia (bricks and tiles); colonial ties with Britain through glass, ceramic and metal artefacts; the colony’s links with Asia through porcelain.

Again pressure was put on government. The developers were released from their contract and the site was registered on the National Estate. A competition was held to produce the best design for protecting and displaying the archaeological remains. The result is a 64 storey Governor Phillip Tower and a museum on the corner of Bridge and Phillip Streets, with a section of the archaeological dig displayed in the forecourt.

So now I want to take you back to that first government house, best captured I think in a watercolour in the Watling collection in the British Museum, painted around 1792, the year Governor Phillip returned to England. It is a picture of elegant Georgian simplicity. The two-storey rectangular building is symmetrically designed with a central doorway, two windows either side, and five windows above. A triangular pediment crowns the entrance, a roundel adorns the doorway and a lightening conductor rises like a steeple above. Several steps lead to the entrance. A stone fence encloses the front of the building, presided over by two sentry boxes and armed marines. Two cannons with cannon balls are set at the ready, each side of the front gate. An irregular line of trees and outbuildings dominate the background. In the foreground a central carriageway and a series of promenades in an asymmetrical pattern give a sense of order and control. 

Governor Phillip’s House c1792 Watling Collection

Despite the militant symbolism it is a tranquil scene. One that welcomes but also warns. In its elevated position overlooking the settlement and the harbour, it is a cultural landmark, a commanding emblem of British rule. It is also evidence of stability. For in the face of uncertainty, Phillip had established a permanent convict settlement in an unknown continent eight months from home. However, that painting reveals nothing of the difficulties in building Australia’s first government house. 

In January 1778 it was a kind of rough and tumble when about 550 troops, crew and family members and 750 convicts were finally unleashed at Sydney Cove. Organised chaos evolved as they cleared land, pitched tents and secured provisions. Phillip’s temporary dwelling was erected on the east side of the Tank Stream together with administrative offices and a small number of marines and convicts. The military, the hospital and most of the convicts were on the west side. 

By February they’d discovered suitable soil for making bricks and tiles, and a brickworks was established at Brickfield Hill on the south east side of Darling Harbour (think Chinatown). Convict James Bloodsworth obviously impressed the Governor enough to be appointed chief brickmaker, overseeing ten fellow convicts. You might imagine them there working in the hot sun surrounded by scrappy bush, setting the light brown soil into wooden moulds (brought from England), drying them in the sun for a few days, and firing them in a cube-shaped pile called a clamp. Another team of twelve convicts was there loading the bricks or tiles on to a cart, then hauling the cart along a rough bush track to the settlement,  a cart holding about 750 kilos. A day’s work was 25 loads. By May they had produced twenty to thirty thousand bricks. 

The site for Government House was near the temporary one (it is still there in the painting above). A rectangular section 21½ metres long was dug to bedrock for a rectangular three-room house. On 15th May Phillip laid the foundation stone with a copper plate inscribed:

His Excellency
ARTHUR PHILLIP Esq
Governor in Chief
and
Captain General
in and over the Territory of
New South Wales &c &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.

That plate was discovered in 1899 by a Post Office employee who was building a tunnel for telegraph and telephone services. The plate and a brick from the site are now in Mitchell Library. 

The foundation of the house was hewn sandstone, pipeclay mortar and bricks. Dressed stone formed the base, with two cellars below. Before completion Phillip decided to add a second storey with rear stairwell and skillion room, making it a six-room house. Lime was scarce for the mortar, but necessary for durability, so women convicts, and even Phillip himself, scavenged shells from the shore and nearby middens, and these were burnt in a lime-kiln and mixed with sand and water. It seems the house was tiled originally but tiles proved dangerous when wet and heavy, and were soon replaced by shingles. Outbuildings were built nearby for cooking, washing, storage and gardening. The house itself had glazed windows, though the outbuildings were probably lattice, plaited by convicts using twigs, since the glass brought from England was in short supply. Drains were laid and a privy built. Water was taken from a small spring to the south (hence Spring Street), and a well was dug. 

About a year after Phillip laid the foundation stone he moved into government house and celebrated a King’s Birthday dinner with his officers. They were entertained by a cast of convicts performing The Recruiting Officer by Irish playwright George Farquhar; a Restoration romantic comedy and the first play staged in the colony.

Government House went through quite a transformation during its fifty-seven years as a governor’s residence. Hunter added a verandah and did repairs. King added a ballroom on the eastern side, raised the ceiling to 3.5 metres, extended the verandah and built a printing office. Bligh landscaped the grounds into the Domain and repaired and decorated. Macquarie did two extensions, a bow-fronted dining room to the south and an extension of the eastern wing, as well as a stable block (now the Conservatorium). Darling added bedrooms, re-arranged rooms, did repairs and left it in its final form. The government house captured by Charles Rodius in watercolour in 1836 was spectacularly different from the painting done in 1792.

For decades a succession of governors had complained of its faults. In 1845 a new Government House, a Gothic castle design by Edward Blore, distinctively different from the original, was ready for occupation. But what to do with the old one? Sydney was expanding. Its streets needed realigning, especially down to the Quay. On the basis of the “Report on the present state of the old Government House Sydney” by the colonial architect Mortimer Lewis, the old house was demolished. It cost £307 and took a year. Windows, doors, fixtures and bricks were advertised and auctioned. Some stone was used for a wall in the Botanic Gardens. The site was shovelled over and forgotten.

The story of our first government house is one of the stories of Sydney – build, demolish, re-build. Just lucky we have institutions like Historic Houses Trust of NSW and National Trust of Australia. And activists like the three Clarke sisters. Or all we might have is a thoroughly modern city with a buried history.

Much information was taken from Australia’s First Government House, Department of Planning, Allen & Unwin, 1991

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