Demolished: first Government House

Built on a prominent rise overlooking Sydney Cove, first Government House served as the official residence and administrative office for the first nine governors of New South Wales. The site also acted as an important place of contact between the Indigenous Gadigal people and European settlers. But less than 60 years after Governor Phillip ordered its construction, the future of the significant sandstone and brick structure was in jeopardy.

The early European settlement at Sydney Cove was just four months old when builders began work on Governor Phillip’s house on 15 May 1788. Standing two storeys tall, the small six-room Georgian building was a comparatively grand replacement for the prefabricated canvas tent that had served as Phillip’s residence and centre of colonial business since the landing of the First Fleet.

Materials for the dwelling were sourced locally and imported from England. Some 5000 bricks, brick moulds and panes of glass sailed the 24,000 kilometres with the 11 ship Fleet to New South Wales, while blocks of quarried sandstone and clay bricks were produced by convict labour in Sydney. Builders also ransacked Indigenous shell middens, burning them to substitute a lack of available lime for mortar.

Phillip moved into his new Government House a little over 12 months after the first stone was laid.

‘An incongruous mass of buildings’

While Phillip’s government residence was considered sophisticated in 1790s Sydney, it soon appeared dated, run-down and starkly modest as the city sprung up around it. Notably, the utilitarian building was never intended for long term use, constructed instead as a temporary solution until a grander, separate residence could take shape (Mortimer Lewis, Report on the present state of the Old Government House, Sydney,15 September 1845). Faced with damp and decay, subsequent governors embarked on a series of improvement measures and additions to better their living conditions. The most extensive of these renovation projects took place under an unsatisfied Governor Macquarie. In 1816, he wrote to Lord Bathurst,

The old Government House and Offices, Originally built by Governor Phillip twenty-eight Years ago, remain exactly as I found them; and upon last Inspection they have been found so Much decayed and rotten as to render them extremely Unsafe any longer to live in, Whilst from the same Circumstances it is Impossible to give them anything like a thorough Repair… No private Gentleman in the Colony is so Very ill Accommodated with Offices as I am at this moment.

(Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Volume 9, p. 70-71)

By 1831, the residence’s sprawling footprint included a drawing room, dining room, butler’s pantry, servant’s hall, school room, governor’s office, halls, anterooms, 11 bedrooms, a bathroom, separate laundry, and kitchen.

These tacked on embellishments did little to extend the life of the building. In August 1845, after nearly 60 years of modifications and additions, the derelict and costly ‘incongruous mass of buildings’ was marked for demolition. Public attention eagerly shifted away from the old house, no longer thought fit to be the centre of colonial affairs, to its grand gothic successor rising nearby in the Domain.

"The premisis comprising the Old Government House, Sydney consist of an incongruous mass of Buildings built at different periods … these additions have been consequently jumbled together of all sizes and heights, scarcely any two rooms placed upon the same level but erected just to fit the natural uneven surface of the Land or Rock upon which the original Building stands… I am of the opinion that any longer occupation of the building cannot be entertained without running the risk of serious consequences… it appears more advantageous to remove the whole, than attempt to hold up any portion of it."

Mortimer Lewis, Report on the present state of the Old Government House, Sydney, 15 September 1845

‘Bricks – Old Government House’

First Government House had virtually disappeared by 1846 as work commenced on extending Phillip and Macquarie streets to Circular Quay. The east wing of the house stood in the path of these urban improvement plans. An advertisement for ‘the purchase of the Bricks now lying at the Old Government House’ appeared in the NSW Government Gazette in the same year.

The significance of the site was all but forgotten until Governor Phillip’s original foundation plate was unearthed in 1899. The preserved foundations of first Government House, located beneath the forecourt of the present-day Museum of Sydney, provide rare tangible evidence of the first years of European settlement in the colony.

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