Old Government House and its parkland setting of the Government Domain is of outstanding national significance for its association with the foundation of British colonial administration, and as an important centre of the convict system in Australia. Much of the administrative, social and political life of the colony, including the commencement of the government's convict administration, was decided by the governors at this place from the very beginning of the colony until the last convicts served their sentences.
A house for a governor
Government House underwent several major and minor works during the convict era, and evolved from a rudimentary cottage in which Governor Phillip resided to a permanent and more elaborate Georgian complex in landscaped grounds under Governor Macquarie's rule. Today, Old Government House comprises a two-storey colonial Georgian Palladian building flanked by two side pavilions and set in 55 hectares of landscaped parkland. The house has been restored to represent the Macquarie period and contains an important collection of original colonial furniture. The layout of the house and important elements of the land reflect patterns of colonial administration under seven generations of governors during the convict period.
Choosing a site on Parramatta River
Governor Arthur Phillip had been instructed by George III to begin cultivation immediately on arrival at Sydney Cove. When the first crop at Sydney Cove failed other places for agriculture were sought. The navigable Parramatta River gave access to extensive river flat lands with a supply of fresh water.
Establishing a settlement
Within 10 months of the First Fleet's arrival, a settlement of 100 people including 70 convicts was established and cultivation on a small rise called Rose Hill commenced. Convicts formed the major labour force working on land clearance, construction of buildings and food production. The first harvest successfully produced wheat and barley, as well as some flax, Indian corn and oats, and marks the commencement of successful agricultural pursuits in Australia. By 1790 a township had been laid out in a regular pattern, the first example of town planning in Australia, and a small house had been built by convicts for the Governor on the rise above the town. The name of the settlement was changed to Parramatta, with 'Rose Hill' retained as the name of the site of the Governor's house. By 1799, the original small house built for Governor Phillip had fallen into disrepair, was condemned and replaced by Governor King with a larger two-storey building, in classic Georgian style.
Building Parramatta – an important centre
Under the direction of Governor King, a botanic garden was established beside the house by the botanists George Caley and Robert Brown. Foreign plants were acclimatised and indigenous plants cultivated in the garden.
With the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie the house became central to administration and governance of the colony. Macquarie used an expanding pool of skilled convict artisans to achieve quality public works. Repairs were made to the military barracks and other buildings. New works in Parramatta included a wharf, roads, bridges, a hospital, barracks, factory, church, prisoners' barracks, and a lumberyard.
Use and development of Government house
Renovations and extensions to Government House commenced in 1813. Government House, Parramatta, became the major residence of the Macquaries and the farming land around the house, some of which had been privately leased, became consolidated as a government-owned area, known as the Governor's domain. Elizabeth Macquarie encouraged landscape improvements in the Domain to develop a picturesque landscape setting that included plantings of pines and oaks, road, paths, gates and fencing, as well as a menagerie of animals. By Macquarie's time the Domain was a major working property employing up to 90 convicts engaged in quarrying, timber milling, blacksmithing, farming, dairying and gardening.
An observatory is added
Governor Macquarie was replaced in 1821 by Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane, who also used Government House, Parramatta, as his primary residence and centre of administration. Brisbane was a passionate astronomer and privately funded and equipped an observatory with two domes. He brought with him two assistant astronomers, Carl Rümker and James Dunlop, who also lived in Government House. Brisbane's observatory marks the commencement of scientific endeavour in Australia, and as a result of the astronomical observations produced at Parramatta all three men were awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Society in London. Beside the observatory, a Bath House a back lodge and a fence enclosing the Domain were constructed during Brisbane's term.
A rural retreat
In 1825 Governor Ralph Darling replaced Brisbane but used the Sydney Government House as his principal residence and Government House, Parramatta as a rural retreat. The House began to decline as the Colonial Treasury restricted funding for maintenance. Governor Bourke replaced Darling in 1831 and although residing at Parramatta and maintaining the House, he reduced the agricultural pursuits of the grounds. However, the township of Parramatta thrived and by 1838 when Governor Gipps replaced Governor Bourke, Parramatta town had a population of 6000.
The seat of government moves
Government House, Parramatta, was used during the subsequent governorships of Fitzroy and Denison, but with the completion of the new Government House at Bennelong Point in Sydney in 1845 the governors spent less time at Parramatta and in 1856 the house it was let to a private tenant.
By 1857 the Domain landscape had been reduced to 246 acres and proclaimed a municipal park by legislation with a park trust established to manage the place. Impressive gatehouses to the park were developed by the Trust from the 1870s. Governor Brisbane's bathhouse was converted to a park pavilion but his observatory did not survive and an obelisk was erected in 1880 to mark the site of the transit instrument. Avenues and plantings of Moreton Bay Figs and Araucarias were established. The Park assumed a new role for community recreation, bandstands were erected and the park became the place of picnics, carnivals, exhibitions, cricket games, military parades and training, as well as a venue for public memorials such as the 1904 Boer War Memorial.
In 1967 the house and its garden area were placed under the trusteeship of the National Trust. In 1975 the Parramatta Council was given control of the park but in the 1990s this was transferred to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service who established another Park Trust.
Old Government House has endured, with modest changes, and retains its Georgian style externally as well as in its interior detailing. A substantial extent of the landscape remains, continuing the image of the Government House in its Domain setting.
Seat of government
Government House was centrally associated with the governors of NSW and their control of the colony and management of convicts. It played a critical role in the expansion of the colony and involved the administration of convicts, their labour and their interactions with free settlers and Indigenous people. All major decisions on the administration of the convict system in the colony were made by governors until the early 1840s. Governors made decisions on the assignment of individual convicts to private persons, formation of convict gangs, issuing ticket-of-leave documents allowing convicts to work and earn money, the amount of rations given to convicts and the granting pardons.
Links with the past
Other features from the colonial government era such as the still extant layout of Parramatta township, the 'Crescent' where the first successful crops were grown, and the remains of Governor Brisbane's observatory are still present and provide a tangible link to Australia's early colonial past and the beginnings of agriculture, town planning and scientific endeavour in Australia. More recent features such as the Boer War Memorial reflect other significant events in the building of the Australian nation.
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