After the first Government House

Remarkably, the site of the first Government House remained largely undeveloped for more than 140 years before the Museum of Sydney was built, despite numerous schemes for this valuable piece of CBD land.

Following the demolition of the first Government House in 1845–46, new streets were laid out, and the former garden and grounds were put up for sale. As the last vestiges of the house were being removed, the newly incorporated City of Sydney Council was seeking land on which to build a town hall. With its preferred – and eventual – site, the old burial ground in George Street, unavailable, the council asked for the Hyde Park Barracks, where the convict establishment was soon to be broken up, but this request was also denied. In 1848, the council applied to the government for the block of land on which the first Government House and its outbuildings had stood.

In 1851, the block was granted to the council, but two years later the council was sacked amid accusations of extravagant spending and failure to provide adequate services, and the grant lapsed. The land was fenced and used as a storage depot, with a wooden shed erected on the site. In 1857, the grant was reissued to the reinstated council. Plans were drawn up for an elegant Italianate town hall with a spacious auditorium that could accommodate up to 6000 people, and tenders were called for excavation, but the council continued to search for a more central location. In 1862, an act was passed allowing the council to exchange or sell the land for ‘a more convenient site’, and the block was subdivided and put up for auction.

Five large terraces were built in Phillip Street adjoining the site in 1867–68, and in 1874–75 four interconnected terraces were constructed along Young Street (then Elizabeth Street North). These were leased to a series of government departments and housed the museum of the Department of Mines before eventually being converted into nurses’ quarters. The core block remained vacant, apart from a small weatherboard cottage occupied by a carter.

‘Tumble-down rookeries’1

In 1883, the government decided to resume the Young Street terraces and the block of land on the corner of Bridge and Phillip streets, then leased as a coal yard, for future public offices. Coal merchant John McHugh sublet a few wooden sheds on the street frontages that were operated as refreshment stalls by Italian fruiterers and confectioners. The stench from both the stalls and McHugh’s own stables drew numerous complaints.

Described as ‘tumble-down rookeries’, the buildings were condemned in 1888. Nevertheless, almost two years later one of the stallholders was fined for continuing to live on the premises; undeterred, he applied for a wine licence the following year.

A scheme to erect a six-storey sandstone building on the site was examined by a parliamentary committee in 1899. The building was designed to house the departments of Public Instruction and Labour, and Mines and Agriculture, with the basement to be occupied by a technological museum. However, the committee recommended against the project until existing and future government office accommodation needs had been investigated.

While this building was under consideration, the public was reminded of the site’s history when the foundation plate laid by Governor Phillip was unearthed beneath the Bridge Street footpath. (In 1919, the Royal Australian Historical Society recognised the significance of the place with a commemorative tablet and pedestal erected on the corner.)

A ‘temporary’ building

Shrouded behind advertising hoardings, the land with its simple cottage slumbered for another decade until allegedly being ‘discovered’ by the government. In 1912, a public building was finally erected, although not quite of the scale and grandeur previously contemplated. A large two-storey galvanised-iron structure, intended as a temporary measure, was erected on the site. It was branded a ‘tin shanty’ and ‘a gross act of vandalism’ before it was even finished, and demands for its demolition were to continue for over 50 years.2 One critic scathingly described it as having been ‘designed by some modern Greenway in the Renaissance-Goondiwindi style’.3 Colloquially known as the ‘tin shed’, it housed the Government Architect’s Branch and various arms of the Department of Public Works, and was even the venue for the first recital by the Public Works Concert Orchestra.

Sketch plans for new public offices on the site were prepared around 1926, and in the 1930s various proposals were considered for a building that would not only consolidate many government departments then in rented premises, but also stimulate the economy and provide work for the unemployed. Plans were drawn up for a 12-storey building, but the whole scheme was deferred in 1935. However, the site remained earmarked for a future government office, and after World War II the idea was revisited.

In 1960, rumours circulated that a modern government office block was to be built on the site. The tin shed was finally demolished in 1967 and the land was used as a car park. Despite its historical associations, it remained valuable real estate. Along with what is now the Justice & Police Museum, it was identified as suitable for redevelopment. A feasibility report was prepared for yet another office building, and in 1970 it was reported that a modern skyscraper would be built on the site.

Moves to build an annexe to the Conservatorium of Music on the land prompted the 1788–1820 Pioneer Association to begin a campaign in 1980 to construct a replica of the original house as a project to celebrate Australia’s bicentenary. Meanwhile, a group of prominent artists and art lovers promoting a scheme for a museum of contemporary art had their eye on the site, and it was also suggested that it would be a more appropriate location for a high-rise hotel planned to incorporate the Treasury building diagonally opposite.

In 1982, the NSW Government invited proposals to develop the site and accepted the concept submitted by the Hong Kong–based Northpoint Holdings Ltd in partnership with the State Superannuation Board. But before the 38-storey commercial tower could be constructed, an archaeological investigation had to be carried out.

The site is saved

Archaeologists uncovered part of the rear wall of Governor Phillip’s building in February 1983, and work continued to determine the extent of surviving foundations. A spirited community campaign to preserve the site was spearheaded by the Bloodworth Association, descendants of convict bricklayer James Bloodworth, who had played a significant role in building the house. In August they organised a rally, attended by heritage experts, community groups and politicians, which led to the formation of the Friends of the First Government House Site.

In October 1983, the City of Sydney Council rejected the development application, the developers withdrew from the project, and Premier Neville Wran announced that the foundations would be preserved and a national design competition would be held for the site. Archaeological excavations continued.

An international design competition for an integrated development of the entire block was launched in 1988, including a low-scale commemorative structure in front of a high-rise commercial tower. Although no winner was chosen from the 74 entrants, six were selected to produce further designs. Of these, Denton Corker Marshall’s concept eventually led to today’s Museum of Sydney.


  1. The Australian Workman, 22 August 1891, p3.
  2. ‘Government’s tin shanty’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 1912, p20.
  3. The Bulletin, 16 February 1938, p14.
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Jane Kelso

Jane Kelso


Jane developed a love of old buildings and the past growing up in a landscape of old country homesteads and Horbury Hunt woolsheds and churches near a country town whose glory days were ‘history’. This evolved into a lifelong fascination with the connections between people and places, and a desire to burrow into archives and libraries to piece together the stories of our past. Degrees in social history and work on a diverse range of properties, collections and exhibitions have only strengthened her passion for helping people to understand and appreciate our sometimes grimy, often quirky but always illuminating and ongoing history.

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