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Friends of the First Government House Site Inc
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Save our Heritage!

The Campaign to save the Site

At the time of the first meeting on 14 August, 1983, a fiery campaign was being waged in Sydney over the proposed re­development of the NSW government-owned First Government House Site which had survived in Bridge Street, Sydney, almost undisturbed since Governor Arthur Phillip laid the foundation stone of Australia's First Government House on 15 May 1788.

Remarkably nothing substantial had ever been built on this valuable central Sydney site.  It had witnessed Sydney and the Commonwealth of Australia grow from a small starving convict settlement clinging to the shores of Sydney Cove into a world­renowned metropolis and modem democracy.

In September 1982 the Premier, Mr Neville Wran, had announced that the winning tender for a multi-storey development proposed for the site had been awarded to a Hong Kong Company in conjunction with the NSW State Superannuation Board.

There was almost an immediate public outcry from interested people who were well aware of the site's historical significance stated on a plaque erected there by the Royal Australian Historical Society in 1917 (which is still there today). The Premier announced an archaeological dig would be held prior to signing of the contracts.

Following vast public and media interest, an initial government archaeological dig in early 1983, headed by archaeologist Anne Bickford, led to the remarkable discovery of the sandstone foundations of the back wall of Phillip's 1788 house ... then outbuildings. Further excavations through 1983/84 revealed more evidence of First Government House.

On 1 September 1983 the Friends held a successful rally outside Parliament House to draw further media attention to the importance of the site.

It has been said that the archaeological teams, unfortunately, were not given permission to excavate a whole room of the First Government House complex which would have led to a much more in-depth interpretation of the site.  As well, a major section of the 1788 foundations was not investigated and probably still lies under Bridge Street.

While the excavations continued, so did the debate around the discoveries.  After much internal debate, the Sydney City Council finally rejected the development application against which the Friends, in particular, had lobbied hard. An amicable parting was arranged between the government and the Hong Kong developer.

On the eve of Australia Day 1985 Premier Wran announced that "the site would be conserved in its entirety and will be preserved, protected and presented in a way which will allow it to be seen, understood and enjoyed by this and future generations."  His successors, Premier Barry Unsworth and Premier Nick Griener both re-confirmed his promise.  A panel of advisors was appointed to guide the government on a conservation plan.

Finally, the government decided to build a First Government House Museum at the back of the site to commemorate its history and the founding of modem Australia. Architect Richard Johnson of Denton, Corker & Marshall was the designer.  In late 1988 the Historic Houses Trust of NSW was appointed the manager of the site and museum project. The Friends committee continued in a monitoring role and had some input in the plans. 

By 1993 construction of the museum was well advanced.  It seemed to the Friends that in its existence it had accomplished its main goal.  However, the future of the project took an entirely unforeseen turn.

...to be continued


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