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History of the Site


Below the towering glass and steel skyline of 
Sydney's busy CBD; below the concrete footpaths of Bridge Street, lie the remains of Sydney's First Government House - the literal and figurative foundations of modern Australia.

When Captain Arthur Phillip led the ships of the First Fleet into Sydney Cove on January 26th 1788, he brought with him a small wood and canvas "portable house" to act as his temporary headquarters.   On May 15th of that year, the convict builder James Bloodworth laid the foundations for a two-storied, six-roomed brick house destined to become the residence of all the early Governors of New South Wales, and the first permanent building to be erected in Australia.

Not to be confused with Old Government House at Parramatta (begun in its current form in 1799 to replace a neighbouring 1790 wattle and daub cottage) and the current Government House in the Domain (begun in 1837), Sydney's 1788 First Government House saw a never-ending stream of soldiers and settlers, freemen and merchants, explorers and convicts flow through its doors; all eager to catch the ear of Governor Phillip.    He also welcomed Aboriginal visitors, such as Arabanoo, Bennelong, Colebee, Balloderree and Yemmerrawannie.

During the 57 years of its existence, nine Governors of New South Wales lived in First Government House, administering an area as large as all of continental
Europe.    Each made his mark on the fabric of the building; extensions were continually being added in an ad hoc fashion, while repair and maintenance was an ongoing task, due to the lack of proper building materials. By the time it was demolished in 1845, First Government House was a rambling, rotten, leaking edifice, almost three times as large as Governor Phillip's original building.   See the attached drawings showing the major changes made to the building over the years.

For almost 140 years after the demolition of First Government House in 1845, the Site remained Government property and went through many uses; as a carter's yard, a temporary office for the Public Works Department, and a car park.    But, by an amazing stroke of fortune, no building of any permanence was erected upon it, and the 1788 foundations lay buried, largely undisturbed, in a remarkable state of preservation.

In 1899, workers in
Bridge Street unearthed a corner of James Bloodworth's original building and discovered the copper foundation plaque that Governor Phillip had laid when construction began in 1788.  This caused tremendous public interest at the time, but no further excavations were undertaken for another 84 years.

In 1982, the NSW Government called for proposals to develop the by now vacant Site, and the winning design was announced in September of that year. The design envisaged the erection of a new 38 story office building to merge with
Sydney's modern soaring skyline; however, the Government responded to calls from concerned academics and historical societies by commissioning an archaeological investigation of the Site before construction of the skyscraper destroyed any historical remains forever.

Excavations began in 1983, under Helen Proudfoot and Anne Bickford, and soon revealed the extent of the buried foundations.  At a public rally in August 1983, the Friends of the First Government House Site was formed, under the chairmanship of Nell Sansom OAM, to press for the preservation of the Site and to raise public awareness of its heritage - one of the few tangible links to the 1788 foundation of modern Australia. 

The Site was immediately placed on the Register of the National Estate by special gazettal, and all building development was halted.  Premier Neville Wran then announced that a conservation plan was to be prepared for the Site, which would be followed by a national competition for a new skyscraper design that would preserve the foundations for future generations.    The Friends urged that any development plan should also include the construction of a commemorative
First Government House Museum on the Site as an integral part of the design. 

After further excavation and conservation work on the Site, Deputy Premier Wal Murray inaugurated the architectural competition in 1988.  The winners, architects Denton Corker Marshall, finished construction of the 64 story
Governor Phillip Tower in February 1994, while the associated Museum was opened on May 20th 1995, under the administration of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.  

In a controversial move, the Trust decided - without consultation - to change the name of the
First Government House Museum to the Museum of Sydney (on the Site of First Government House)”; a title often simply abbreviated to MOS.   It was a decision that outraged and polarised heritage groups, which saw it as an attempt to downgrade the Site’s historical significance; as has The Trust's subsequent refusal to celebrate Australia Day in any meaningful manner whatsoever. 


Australia’s First Government House, NSW Dept of Planning

The Early Australian Architects, Morton Herman

First Views of Australia, Tim McCormick



Governor Arthur Phillip                    1788 to 1792

Governor John Hunter                      1795 to 1800

Governor Phillip Gidley King            1800 to 1806

Governor William Bligh                     1806 to 1808

Governor Lachlan Macquarie           1810 to 1821

Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane        1821 to 1825

Governor Sir Ralph Darling              1825 to 1831

Governor Sir Richard Bourke           1831 to 1838

Governor Sir George Gipps              1838 to 1846



Some of the many events which were paramount to the survival of the colony emanated from the Governor in residence of the First Government House including:



  • 1788 Governor Phillip sent HMS Sirius to Cape Town for urgently needed grain for the colony;
  •    …… (Phillip?) ………..the Government Printing Press which was used not only for Government document, but also by private enterprise.
  • 1790 Governor Phillip sent HM Brig Supply to Batavia to charter a ship to bring food to the starving colony;
  •   … Governor (Phillip?) met with aboriginal leaders and with Benelong …
  • 1791 Governor Phillip sent the transport Atlantic to Calcutta to bring more food for the growing colony which was the beginning of considerable trade between New South Wales and Bengal
  • 1793 Captain George Vancouver sent the transport Daedalus  from the north-west coast of America to Governor Phillip with the charts he had made of the south coast of what is now Western Australia and a request to send the Daedalus back to him with stores to replenish his ships.
  • 1793 … Grose sent the colonial schooner Francis to dusky Bay, New Zealand to assess whether it was suitable for a settlement.
  • 1798 Governor Hunter approved the voyage of George Bass and Matthew Flinders that proved Van Diemen’s Land was an island.
  • 1802 Governor King allowed Bungaree to accompany Flinders on his circumnavigation of Australia to act as his interpreter.
  • 1804 Governor King gave Lieutenant Colonel David Collins the discretion to choose between Port Dalrymple and Risdon Cove when abandoning the settlement at SullivanBay, Port Phillip
  • 1805 Governor King hosted the Maori chief Te Pahi and his four sons for three months.
  • 1821 Governor Macquarie was the first Governor to cross the Great Dividing Range.
  • 1823 Governor Brisbane who sent Oxley north to found a ne penal settlement that now bears his name.
  • 1826 Governor Darling despatched a garrison to King George’s Sound to forestall a French settlement there.
  • 1834 Governor Bourke authorised three flags be sent to New Zealand from which the assemble Maori chiefs chose the first national flag of New Zealand.
  • 1838 Governor Gipps issued the commission to Captain Sir Gordon Bremer appointing him commandant of the settlement at Port Essington in Northern Australia.
  • 1840 Governor Gipps held a garden party for a number of Maori chiefs living in Sydney for the purpose of persuading them to sign a treaty which, had they done so, would have pre-dated the Treaty of Waitangi and might have changed New Zealand’s history.



The list can continue as proven by variousss despatches to and from the persons living in Firss Government House, as published in the Historical Records of New South Wales and Australia.



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