Arthur Phillip

Admiral Arthur Phillip (11 October 1738 – 31 August 1814) was a Royal Navy officer and the first Governor of New South Wales who founded the British penal colony that later became the city of Sydney, Australia. After much experience at sea, Phillip sailed with the First Fleet as Governor-designate of the proposed British penal colony of New South Wales. In January 1788, he selected its location to be Port Jackson (encompassing Sydney Harbour).

Phillip was a far-sighted governor who soon saw that New South Wales would need a civil administration and a system for emancipating the convicts. But his plan to bring skilled tradesmen on the voyage had been rejected, and he faced immense problems of labour, discipline and supply.

The arrival of the Second and Third Fleets placed new pressures on the scarce local resources, but by the time Phillip sailed home in December 1792, the colony was taking shape, with official land-grants and systematic farming and water-supply.

Phillip retired in 1805, but continued to correspond with his friends in New South Wales and to promote the colony's interests.

Early life

Captain Arthur Phillip was born on 11 October 1738, the youngest of two children to Jacob Phillip and Elizabeth Breach. His father Jacob was born in Frankfurt, Germany. He was a languages teacher who may also have served in the Royal Navy as an able seaman and purser's steward. His mother Elizabeth was the widow of an ordinary seaman, John Herbert, who had served in Jamaica aboard HMS Tartar and died of disease on 13 August 1732. At the time of Arthur Phillip's birth, his family maintained a modest existence as tenants near Cheapside in the City of London.

There are no surviving records of Phillip's early childhood. His father Jacob died in 1739, after which the Phillip family may have fallen on hard times. On 22 June 1751 he was accepted into the Greenwich Hospital School, a charity school for the sons of indigent seafarers. In keeping with the school's curriculum, his education was focused on literacy, arithmetic and navigational skills, including cartography. He was a competent student and something of a perfectionist. His headmaster, Reverend Francis Swinden observed that in personality Phillip was "unassuming, reasonable, business-like to the smallest degree in everything he undertakes".

Phillip remained at the Greenwich School for two and a half years, considerably longer than the average student stay of twelve months. At the end of 1753 he was granted a seven-year indenture as an apprentice aboard Fortune, a 210-ton whaling vessel commanded by merchant mariner Wiliam Readhead. He left the Greenwich School on 1 December and spent the winter aboard the Fortune awaiting the commencement of the 1754 whaling season.

Early voyages

Phillip spent the summer of 1754 hunting whales near Svalbard in the Barents Sea. As an apprentice, his responsibilities included stripping blubber from whale carcasses and helping to pack it into barrels. Food was scarce and Fortune's thirty crew members supplemented their diet with bird's eggs, scurvy grass and where possible, reindeer. The ship returned to England on 20 July 1754. The whaling crew were paid off and replaced with twelve sailors for a winter voyage to the Mediterranean. As an apprentice, Phillip remained aboard as Fortune undertook an outward trading voyage to Barcelona and Livorno carrying salt and raisins, returning via Rotterdam with a cargo of grains and citrus. The ship returned to England in April 1755 and sailed immediately for Svalbard for that year's whale hunt. Phillip was still a member of the crew, but abandoned his apprenticeship when the ship returned to England on 27 July. On 16 October he enlisted in the Royal Navy and was assigned the rank of ordinary seaman aboard the 68-gun HMS Buckingham.

Battle of Quiberon Bay during the Seven Years' War

As a member of Buckingham's crew, Phillip saw action in the Seven Years' War, including the Battle of Minorca in 1756. By 1762 he had transferred to HMS Stirling Castle, and was promoted to Lieutenant in recognition of active service in the Battle of Havana. The War ended in 1763 and Phillip returned to England on half pay. In July 1763 he married Margaret Denison, a widow 16 years his senior, and moved to Glasshayes in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, establishing a farm there. The marriage was unhappy, and the couple separated in 1769 when Phillip returned to the Navy. The following year he was posted as second lieutenant aboard HMS Egmont, a newly built 74-gun ship of the line.

In 1774 Phillip joined the Portuguese Navy as a captain, serving in the War against Spain. While with the Portuguese Navy, Phillip commanded a frigate, the Nossa Senhora do Pilar. On this ship he took a detachment of troops from Rio de Janeiro to Colonia do Sacramento on the Río de la Plata (opposite Buenos Aires) to relieve the garrison there. This voyage also conveyed a consignment of convicts assigned to carry out work at Colonia. During a storm encountered in the course of the voyage, the convicts assisted in working the ship and, on arrival at Colonia, Phillip recommended that they be rewarded for saving the ship by remission of their sentences.

A garbled version of this eventually found its way into the English press when Phillip was appointed in 1786 to lead the expedition to Sydney. Phillip played a leading part in the capture of the Spanish ship San Agustín, on 19 April 1777, off Santa Catarina. The San Agustin was commissioned into the Portuguese Navy as the Santo Agostinho, and command of her was given to Phillip. The action was reported in the English press:

Madrid, Aug. 28. Letters from Lisbon bring the following Account from Rio Janeiro: That the St. Augustine, of 70 Guns, having been separated from the Squadron of M. Casa Tilly, was attacked by two Portugueze Ships, against which they defended themselves for a Day and a Night, but being next Day surrounded by the Portugueze Fleet, was obliged to surrender.

In 1778 Britain was again at war, and Phillip was recalled to active service, and in 1779 obtained his first command, HMS Basilisk. He was promoted to post-captain on 30 November 1781 and given command of HMS Europa.

In July 1782, in a change of government, Thomas Townshend became Secretary of State for Home and American Affairs, and assumed responsibility for organising an expedition against Spanish America. Like his predecessor, Lord Germain, he turned for advice to Arthur Phillip. A letter from Phillip to Sandwich of 17 January 1781 records Phillip's loan to Sandwich of his charts of the Plata and Brazilian coasts for use in organising the expedition. Phillip's plan was for a squadron of three ships of the line and a frigate to mount a raid on Buenos Aires and Monte Video, then to proceed to the coasts of Chile, Peru and Mexico to maraud, and ultimately to cross the Pacific to join the British Navy's East India squadron for an attack on Manila.

The expedition, consisting of the Grafton, 70 guns, Elizabeth, 74 guns, Europe, 64 guns, and the frigate Iphigenia, sailed on 16 January 1783, under the command of Commodore Robert Kingsmill. Phillip was given command of the 64-gun HMS Europa, or Europe. Shortly after sailing, an armistice was concluded between Great Britain and Spain. Phillip learnt of this in April when he put in for storm repairs at Rio de Janeiro. Phillip wrote to Townshend from Rio de Janeiro on 25 April 1783, expressing his disappointment that the ending of the American War had robbed him of the opportunity for naval glory in South America.

After his return to England from India in April 1784, Phillip remained in close contact with Townshend, now Lord Sydney, and the Home Office Under Secretary, Evan Nepean. From October 1784 to September 1786 he was employed by Nepean, who was in charge of the Secret Service relating to the Bourbon Powers, France and Spain, to spy on the French naval arsenals at Toulon and other ports. There was fear that Britain would soon be at war with these powers as a consequence of the Batavian Revolution in the Netherlands.

The ships of the first fleet entering Port Jackson

Colonial service

At this time, Lord Sandwich, together with the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, was advocating establishment of a British colony in New South Wales. A colony there would be of great assistance to the British Navy in facilitating attacks on the Spanish possessions in Chile and Peru, as Banks's collaborators, James Matra, Captain Sir George Young and Sir John Call pointed out in written proposals on the subject.

The British Government took the decision to settle what is now Australia and found the Botany Bay colony in August 1786. Lord Sydney, as Secretary of State for the Home Office, was the minister in charge, and in September 1786 he appointed Phillip commodore of the fleet which was to transport the convicts and soldiers who were to be the new settlers to Botany Bay. Upon arrival there, Phillip was to assume the powers of Captain General and Governor in Chief of the new colony. A subsidiary colony was to be founded on Norfolk Island, as recommended by Sir John Call, to take advantage for naval purposes of that island's native flax (harakeke) and timber.

In October 1786, Phillip was appointed captain of HMS Sirius and named Governor-designate of New South Wales, the proposed British colony on the east coast of Australia, by Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary.

Phillip had a very difficult time assembling the fleet which was to make the eight-month sea voyage to Australia. Everything a new colony might need had to be taken, since Phillip had no real idea of what he might find when he got there. There were few funds available for equipping the expedition. His suggestion that people with experience in farming, building and crafts be included was rejected. Most of the 772 convicts (of whom 732 survived the voyage) were petty thieves from the London slums. Phillip was accompanied by a contingent of marines and a handful of other officers who were to administer the colony.

The 11 ships of the First Fleet set sail from Portsmouth on 13 May 1787. The fleet called at Rio de Janeiro for supplies from 6 August to 4 September. The leading ship, HMS Supply reached Botany Bay setting up camp on the Kurnell Peninsula, on 18 January 1788. Phillip soon decided that this site, chosen on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks, who had accompanied James Cook in 1770, was not suitable, since it had poor soil, no secure anchorage and no reliable water source. After some exploration Phillip decided to go on to Port Jackson, and on 26 January the marines and convicts landed at Sydney Cove, which Phillip named after Lord Sydney.

Proclamation of the colony of New South Wales, 26th January 1788

Governor of New South Wales

On 15 February 1788, shortly after landing and establishing the settlement at Port Jackson, Phillip sent Lieutenant Philip Gidley King with eight free men and a number of convicts to establish the second British colony in the Pacific at Norfolk Island. This was partly in response to a perceived threat of losing Norfolk Island to the French and partly to establish an alternative food source for the mainland colony.

The early days of the settlement in New South Wales were chaotic and difficult. With limited supplies, the cultivation of food was imperative, but the soils around Sydney were poor, the climate was unfamiliar, and moreover very few of the convicts had any knowledge of agriculture. The colony was on the verge of outright starvation for an extended period. The marines, poorly disciplined themselves in many cases, were not interested in convict discipline. Almost at once, therefore, Phillip had to appoint overseers from among the ranks of the convicts to get the others working. This was the beginning of the process of convict emancipation which was to culminate in the reforms of Lachlan Macquarie after 1811.

Phillip showed in other ways that he recognised that New South Wales could not be run simply as a prison camp. Lord Sydney, often criticised as an ineffectual incompetent, had made one fundamental decision about the settlement that was to influence it beneficially from the start. Instead of just establishing it as a military prison, he provided for a civil administration, with courts of law. Two convicts, Henry and Susannah Kable, sought to sue Duncan Sinclair, the captain of Alexander, for stealing their possessions during the voyage. Convicts in Britain had no right to sue, and Sinclair had boasted that he could not be sued by them. Despite this, the court found for the plaintiffs and ordered the captain to make restitution for the loss of their possessions.

Arthur Phillip memorial fountain, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

Further, soon after Lord Sydney appointed him governor of New South Wales Arthur Phillip drew up a detailed memorandum of his plans for the proposed new colony. In one paragraph he wrote: "The laws of this country (England) will of course, be introduced in [New] South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment his Majesty's forces take possession of the country: That there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves." Nevertheless, Phillip believed in severe discipline; floggings and hangings were commonplace, although Philip commuted many death sentences.

Phillip also had to adopt a policy towards the Eora Aboriginal people, who lived around the waters of Sydney Harbour. Phillip ordered that they must be well treated, and that anyone killing Aboriginal people would be hanged. Phillip befriended an Eora man called Bennelong, and later took him to England. On the beach at Manly, a misunderstanding arose and Phillip was speared in the shoulder: but he ordered his men not to retaliate. Phillip went some way towards winning the trust of the Eora, although they remained wary of the settlers. Soon, a virulent disease, smallpox that was believed to be on account of the white settlers, and other European-introduced epidemics, ravaged the Eora population.

The Governor's main problem was with his own military officers, who wanted large grants of land, which Phillip had not been authorised to grant. Scurvy broke out, and in October 1788 Phillip had to send Sirius to Cape Town for supplies, and strict rationing was introduced, with thefts of food punished by hanging. He recorded: "The living conditions need to improve or my men won't work as hard, so I have come to a conclusion that I must hire surgeons to fix the convicts."

Phillip insisted that no retaliation be taken to avenge his own non-fatal spearing. Convict John MacIntyre had been fatally speared during a hunting expedition by unknown Aboriginal people apparently without provocation. MacIntyre swore on his death bed that he had done them no harm, but marine officer Watkin Tench was suspicious of the claim. Tench was sent on a punitive expedition but finding no Aboriginal people other than Bennelong took no action. Phillip, growing frustrated with the burdens of upholding a colony and his health suffering, resigned soon after this episode.

By 1790 the situation had stabilised. The population of about 2,000 was adequately housed and fresh food was being grown. Phillip assigned a convict, James Ruse, land at Rose Hill (now Parramatta) to establish proper farming, and when Ruse succeeded he received the first land grant in the colony. Other convicts followed his example. Sirius was wrecked in March 1790 at the satellite settlement of Norfolk Island, depriving Phillip of vital supplies. In June 1790 the Second Fleet arrived with hundreds more convicts, most of them too sick to work.

By December 1790 Phillip was ready to return to England, but the colony had largely been forgotten in London and no instructions reached him, so he carried on. In 1791 he was advised that the government would send out two convoys of convicts annually, plus adequate supplies. But July, when the vessels of the Third Fleet began to arrive, with 2,000 more convicts, food again ran short, and he had to send the ship Atlantic to Calcutta for supplies.

By 1792 the colony was well established, though Sydney remained an unplanned huddle of wooden huts and tents. The whaling industry was established, ships were visiting Sydney to trade, and convicts whose sentences had expired were taking up farming. John Macarthur and other officers were importing sheep and beginning to grow wool. The colony was still very short of skilled farmers, craftsmen and tradesmen, and the convicts continued to work as little as possible, even though they were working mainly to grow their own food.

In late 1792, Phillip, whose health was suffering, relinquished his governorship and sailed for England on the ship Atlantic, taking with him many specimens of plants and animals. He also took Bennelong and his friend Yemmerrawanne, another young Indigenous Australian who, unlike Bennelong, would succumb to English weather and disease and not live to make the journey home. The European population of New South Wales at his departure was 4,221, of whom 3,099 were convicts. The early years of the colony had been years of struggle and hardship, but the worst was over, and there were no further famines in New South Wales. Phillip arrived in London in May 1793. He tendered his formal resignation and was granted a pension.

Arthur Phillip's home at 19 Bennett Street, Bath, England

Later life, and death

Phillip's estranged wife, Margaret, had died in 1792 and was buried in St Beuno's Churchyard, Llanycil, Bala, Merionethshire. In 1794 Phillip married Isabella Whitehead, and lived for a time at Bath. His health gradually recovered and in 1796 he went back to sea, holding a series of commands and responsible posts in the wars against the French. In January 1799 he became a Rear-Admiral. In 1805, aged 67, he retired from the Navy with the rank of Admiral of the Blue, and spent most of the rest of his life in Bath. He continued to correspond with friends in New South Wales and to promote the colony's interests with government officials. He died in Bath in 1814.

Phillip was buried in St Nicholas's Church, Bathampton, near the city of Bath. Forgotten for many years, the grave was discovered in 1897 and the Premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, had it restored. An annual service of remembrance is held here around Phillip's birthdate by the Britain–Australia Society to commemorate his life.

St Nicholas's Church, Bathampton

Historians reject a rumour that Phillip’s remains are lost elsewhere under the church. It is no mystery where he is, say locals. There are substantial records to show he is beneath the stone on the floor, even though his grave was rediscovered only when Henry Parkes had the grave restored in 1897. The notion Phillip was elsewhere under the church was perhaps brought about by the addition of a side wing that now covers the old porch area.

Phillip used to face the other way, but in 1975 church officials switched his east-west orientation to north-south so his presence would be more prominent. He is in symmetry with the stained-glass windows of the coats of arms of Australia and the six states and the redesign of the side wing now dedi­cated as the Australia Chapel.


A number of places in Australia bear Phillip's name, including Port Phillip, Phillip Island (Victoria), Phillip Island (Norfolk Island), Phillip Street in Sydney, the federal electorate of Phillip (1949–1993), the suburb of Phillip in Canberra, the Governor Phillip Tower building in Sydney, and many streets, parks and schools including a state high school in Parramatta. A monument to Phillip in Bath Abbey Church was unveiled in 1937. Another was unveiled at St Mildred's Church, Bread St, London, in 1932; that church was destroyed in the London Blitz in 1940, but the principal elements of the monument were re-erected at the west end of Watling Street, near Saint Paul's Cathedral, in 1968.

A different bust and memorial is inside the nearby church of St Mary-le-Bow. There is a statue of him in the Botanic Gardens, Sydney. There is a portrait of him by Francis Wheatley in the National Portrait Gallery, London. A memorial was unveiled by the outgoing 37th Governor of New South Wales, Marie Bashir, in St James' Church, Sydney on 31 August 2014.

Lieut. Bradley's map of Sydney, 1788 (Click to enlarge)

Memorial to Arthur Phillip at St Nicholas's Church, Bathampton, near the city of Bath.

Above: monument to Captain Arthur Phillip at the Circular Quay, adjacent to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Below: inscription on the Captain Arthur Phillip, R.N. Memorial Fountain, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

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