Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

First Government House

CC BY-SA 2.0
Cite this

First Government House

[media]Governor Arthur Phillip laid the foundation for the first Government House only three months after the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove. Phillip's new house was planned as a three-bedroom cottage, but soon expanded to become a two-storey dwelling. The house took just over a year to build, and was constructed with 5,000 bricks imported from England, as well as locally produced bricks and lime mortar. It is not known who prepared the Georgian design for the building, although clerk Henry Brewer and convict builder James Bloodworth have been cited as likely contenders.

Aboriginal people at Government House

[media]First Government House was an important site of early contact between European settlers and Sydney's Aboriginal population. Arabanoo, an Aboriginal man captured by Phillip at Manly in late 1788, lived at the first Government House for about five months. In May 1789 Arabanoo died from smallpox and was buried in the Government House gardens. The following November two other Aboriginal men, Bennelong and Colebee, also from Manly, were captured under Phillip's orders. They too lived at Government House until they escaped, within six months. After Phillip's return to England in 1792, this type of forced contact with the local Aboriginal people was not actively pursued.

The house crumbles

[media]Nine successive governors lived at First Government House, from 1788 to 1845. A second Government House, built at Parramatta in about 1799, was considered the official residence by Governor Brisbane during his term of office from 1821 to 1825.

First Government House developed a number of structural faults during its lifetime, a consequence of its hasty construction and the inferior materials used to build it, combined with rising damp. The building was noted to be in a dilapidated state as early as 1799, and constantly underwent repairs from that time. The building was substantially modified and enlarged to accommodate the governors and their families, and plans for its replacement date from at least 1817.

A new Government House

[media]In 1817, Governor Macquarie instructed the convict architect Francis Greenway to prepare plans for a new Government House and stables within the Governor's Domain, which had been proclaimed in 1812. By 1821, only the stables were built, as Macquarie's ambitious program for the colony was curtailed following criticism from the Home Office and others who testified at the Commission of Inquiry into the Affairs of the Colony.

In 1832, Governor Bourke decided to move Government House further north-east within the Government Domain on the advice provided three years earlier by Thomas Mitchell, the surveyor-general. Mitchell's proposal was a result of demands for greater wharfage for the burgeoning Sydney settlement, which required the land occupied by the government gardens in front of Government House. Construction began on the new Government House in 1837, to a design by Edward Blore, and was completed in 1845.

Museum of Sydney on the site

[media]First Government House and its service buildings were demolished in 1846 and the bricks and other building materials sold at auction. Shortly thereafter, Phillip Street was realigned and extended to the newly reclaimed Circular Quay, so that it ran across some of the First Government House foundations.

[media]In the twentieth century, the site was used for the Museum of Sydney.


Peter Bridges, Foundations of Identity: Building Early Sydney 1788–1822, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1995

Penny Crook, Laila Ellmoos and Tim Murray, Assessment of Historical and Archaeological Resources of the First Government House Site, Sydney, vol 5, Archaeology of the Modern City Series, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Sydney, http://www.latrobe.edu.au/amc/assets/downloads/5_FGHAssessReport.pdf, viewed 24 November 2008

Joy Hughes, First Government House Site in the 20th Century, Museum of Sydney, Sydney, 1995

Helen Proudfoot, Anne Bickford, Brian Egloff and Robin Stocks, Australia's First Government House, Allen & Unwin and New South Wales Department of Planning, Sydney, 1991