Arthur Phillip History

Founder and First Governor of Australia
West Country Gentleman

Arthur Phillip was born in London on 11th October 1738, the son of Jacob Phillip, a language teacher from Frankfurt, and Elizabeth, née Breach, who had remarried after the death of her previous husband, Captain John Herbert, RN.  Young Arthur Phillip attended the Greenwich Naval Seamen’s College, was bound apprentice aboard a whaler based in Greenland, and joined the Royal Navy as a Midshipman at 15.

Phillip took part in the Battle of Minorca against the French and saw service in the Mediterranean.  In 1760 he served in the Caribbean under a relative, Captain Everitt, arriving in Antigua in October of that year.  There he saw slavery for the first time:  he fought against it for the rest of his life.  Promoted to lieutenant in June 1761, he was mentioned in dispatches at “The Siege of Havana” the following year.

Returning to an England at peace, Phillip was placed on the half pay list. In July 1763, he married Margaret Charlott Denison, the widow of a wealthy London merchant.  The couple settled into country life near Lyndhurst in Hampshire, where Phillip farmed.  The marriage later failed: they separated in 1768.

With the outbreak of war between England’s oldest ally Portugal and Spain in South America, Arthur Phillip served in the Portuguese Navy, as a Captain, sailing to Brazil in 1774, and serving with great distinction.  He returned to England when the War of Independence in America began.  He was appointed a lieutenant in the Alexander, and to command the Basilisk, and later (1781) the Ariade.  He served in the Baltic and then sailed via South America and South Africa to join the Indian Squadron.

Following the loss of the American Colonies, the Home Secretary in the Pitt Government, Lord Sydney, proposed that a penal settlement be established at Botany Bay, which had been discovered by Captain Cook in 1770.

In 1786, Arthur Phillip was appointed Captain General of the First Fleet and Governor-designate of the Colony of New South Wales.  He led 11 ships and more than 2,500 souls on a voyage half-way round the world, leaving Portsmouth on 13th May 1787 and arriving at Botany Bay on 18th January 1788 with not one death during that time from scurvy.  Realising that Botany Bay was unsuitable for a settlement, Phillip explored northwards and found “the finest harbour in the world”.  On 26th January 1788, he raised the flag for the new Colony at Port Jackson, later Sydney Cove.   

Phillip faced serious obstacles to the establishment of a viable colony: e.g. food shortages and major supply difficulties.  His achievements in building the foundations for an eventually successful colony and country gave convicts a new chance in life.  He befriended the Aboriginal people.

Captain John Fortesque wrote in 1789, “I do think God Almighty made Phillip on purpose for this place, for never did man better know what to do or with more determination to see it done, and yet if they will let him, he will make them all very happy”.

Returning to England in 1793 after nearly 5 years, ill and emaciated, to recover, Arthur Phillip married Isabella Whitehouse in 1794.  (His first wife had died many years earlier.)  He was sent again to Portugal to command briefly, served in the Mediterranean in the Napoleonic Wars, and returned to command the Hampshire Sea Fencibles in 1798 (and later the national Sea Fencibles Force and the Impress service).  He and Isabella retired to Bath where he was active locally, and nationally in support of the colony of New South Wales.  He reached the rank of Admiral of The Blue, and lived happily with Isabella until his death in 1814.

His biography at the Admiralty states “Admiral Arthur Phillip, Scholar, Seaman and Gentleman, the man who founded the great City of Sydney and the Island Continent of Australia.”

Westminster Abbey

The Dean and Chapter of the Abbey have attended the dedication of the memorial stone on Wednesday July 9th. One wreath was laid by HRH Prince Phillip. A second on behalf of the Fellowship of the First Fleet, Denis Smith, Vice President. The dedication was followed by a special reception adjacent to the Abbey.

The Legacy

As well as marking in stone Phillip’s place in history, it is our intention to create a lasting and living memorial by sponsoring bright and worthy students for higher education who in his name will enhance the exchange between Australia and Britain, two great nations with a shared heritage and unique links in the fields of law, science, commerce, sports and the arts.