Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Arthur Phillip (1738–1814)

by B. H. Fletcher

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Arthur Phillip, by William Sherwin, 1789

Arthur Phillip, by William Sherwin, 1789

National Library of Australia, 9846227

Arthur Phillip (1738-1814), admiral and governor, was born on 11 October 1738 in the parish of Allhallows, ward of Bread Street, London, the second child of Jacob Phillip, a language teacher who came to London from Frankfurt, and Elizabeth, née Breach, former wife of Captain Herbert, R.N., a relative of Lord Pembroke. It was possibly the influence of his mother that was instrumental in determining his future seafaring career. On 24 June 1751 he was enrolled on 'the establishment of poor boys' in the Greenwich school for the sons of seamen. Thus began a period of apprenticeship in the mercantile service that was completed in 1755 after two years at sea under Captain Redhead in the Fortune. During the Seven Years' war he saw active service in the Royal Navy, to which he had transferred. On 7 July 1761 he was provisionally appointed lieutenant, the promotion being confirmed a year later following an engagement resulting in the capture of Havana. With the coming of peace on 25 April 1763 he was retired on half-pay.

Save for the months between 13 November 1770 and 8 July 1771, when he served in H.M.S. Egmont, his connexions with the British navy in the next fifteen years were largely nominal. Probably much of his time was taken up with the properties known as Vernals Farm and Glasshayes which he acquired at Lyndhurst, Hampshire. There he had settled with his wife Margaret, the widow of John Denison, a prosperous London merchant. The marriage was celebrated on 19 July 1763, but could scarcely have been happy for by 1769 the two were separated. In 1774-78 Phillip served with distinction in South American waters as a captain in the Portuguese fleet, which he entered with the Admiralty's permission after the outbreak of the Spanish-Portuguese war. In 1778 he returned to the English Royal Navy. In November 1781 he was made a post captain and was given command of the 24-gun Ariadne; on 27 December 1782 he left her to take charge of the 64-gun Europe, taking with him his friend, Lieutenant Philip Gidley King. His sealed orders sent him to India, but he saw no action in either vessel and was again retired on half-pay on 25 May 1784, after the signing of the peace treaties which ended the wars connected with the struggle of the British colonies in America for independence. He then spent a year in southern France and, when appointed the first governor of New South Wales on 12 October 1786, was engaged in survey work for the Admiralty.

By then Phillip was a man of mature years whose attainments, though not particularly outstanding, were solid. From inauspicious beginnings he had risen largely through his own merit, attracting favourable comment from those under whom he had served. The Portuguese authorities had described him as brave, honest, obedient and self-sacrificing. Experience had broadened without hardening or coarsening his somewhat sensitive nature and in a variety of ways prepared him for his new task. He was accustomed to command men and had even, while in the Portuguese navy, transported convicts from Lisbon to the Brazils. His naval training proved invaluable on the trip to Botany Bay and stood him in good stead when exploring the hinterland. Work on his Lyndhurst property had made him familiar with at least the rudiments of farming and added yet another dimension to his qualifications. How far these considerations weighed with the British government is difficult to say, for the circumstances surrounding both their offer and his acceptance of the governorship remain obscure. The first lord of the Admiralty had nothing to do with it, for Lord Howe, though prepared to accept the decision, stated that he personally did not think Phillip suited to the task. The governor's detractors maliciously claimed that he was chosen to rid the authorities of one pressing for preferment. It has also been suggested that Lord Sydney, faced with the need hurriedly to find someone for a mediocre post that no one else wanted, offered it to Phillip who was known to be reliable and trustworthy. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that the appointment was made on the advice of Sir George Rose, treasurer of the navy, who lived near Lyndhurst, knew Phillip and was impressed by him. Whatever the reason Phillip was presumably attracted by the prospect of returning to active service in a capacity that could satisfy his desire for adventure and his wish to command.

To the British government the new settlement was primarily to be an outlet for convicts whom it was undesirable to keep at home and impossible to transport elsewhere, but Phillip was inspired by the vision of a new outpost of empire growing up in the South Seas. He showed himself anxious to encourage free settlers to migrate, drew up plans for their reception, urged the extension of British law for their protection and resolved to insulate them from the contamination of convicts. 'As I would not wish convicts to lay the foundation of an Empire', he observed, 'I think they should ever remain separated from the garrison and other settlers that may come from Europe', even after their sentences were completed.

When these words were written Phillip was immersed in preparations for the sailing of the expedition and the planning of the actual settlement. His correspondence with the authorities between October 1786 and May 1787 revealed a sound grasp of administrative detail and a degree of foresight that confirmed the wisdom of their choice. In contrast to his superiors he displayed an awareness of the multitudinous problems inevitably involved in transplanting Englishmen to a little-known land on the far side of the globe. Not all his proposed solutions were accepted, but enough were incorporated to support the claim that he made a noteworthy contribution to the organization of the venture. Besides offering practical advice Phillip also enunciated some of the principles that were intended to guide his conduct. He proposed to treat the Aboriginals kindly and to establish harmonious relations with them. He resolved to try to reform as well as to discipline the convicts. In these respects his views were in keeping with the more advanced opinion of his age. Similarly his rational approach to life and indifference to religious fervour stamped him as a product of the eighteenth century and a not untypical member of the contemporary Church of England into which he had been baptized.

The First Fleet left England on 13 May 1787 and arrived at Botany Bay on 18 January 1788 after a voyage whose success again owed much to Phillip's care. The original site proved unsuited to settlement. Three days later Phillip discovered an appropriate spot at Port Jackson and on 26 January landing operations began there. All told 1030 persons went ashore, of whom 736 were convicts, including 188 women, the rest marines and civil officers, 27 with wives, and 37 children. These people formed the human material for a gaol and not surprisingly were placed under a form of government that gave an unusual amount of power to the governor. Phillip's first and second Commissions, dated 12 October 1786 and 2 April 1787, appointed him as the representative of the Crown in an area embracing roughly the eastern half of Australia together with adjacent Pacific islands. His responsibility was solely to his superiors in London and he was expected to carry out their orders as embodied in his first Instructions of 25 April 1787, his second Instructions of 20 August 1789 and official dispatches. Within these limits his powers were absolute. The Crown vested him with complete authority over the inhabitants and gave him the right to promulgate regulations touching practically all aspects of their lives. He combined executive and legislative functions and could remit sentences imposed by the Civil and Criminal Courts established under a warrant issued on 2 April 1787. Only the crimes of treason or wilful murder were exempt from this provision, but even here he could grant a reprieve while awaiting advice from London. Distance from Britain and the relative indifference of the Home Office towards the affairs of the infant colony enlarged even further the scope of the governor's initiative and increased his responsibilities.

The subordinate officers appointed to assist him proved of varied merit. Some worked diligently enough in their particular spheres and in addition made their mark as explorers or commentators on the contemporary scene. Several left behind journals of literary merit and historical value. Rarely, however, did they share Phillip's vision and enthusiasm, and most quickly came to despair of their mission, wrote home in gloomy tones of the hardships they were obliged to endure and urged the abandonment of the settlement. None felt more strongly on this score than the marine officers and their testy commander, Major Robert Ross, who was also lieutenant-governor and Vice-Admiralty Court judge, and described New South Wales as the 'outcast of God's works'. The officers, construing their duties as being primarily military, caused Phillip much trouble. They refused to help in supervising the activities of the convicts even though, through the oversight of the British authorities, few suitable persons were available, and they objected to having to sit on the Criminal Court. Their discontent was heightened by the fact that unlike emancipists they were denied free grants of land and lacked the opportunity to secure any of the other perquisites traditionally associated with colonial service. Ross made matters worse by his high-handed actions, such as the arrest of five of his officers, which created friction in the mess and prompted Lieutenant Ralph Clark to describe him as 'the most disagreeable commanding officer I ever knew'. Although at first on reasonable terms with Phillip, Ross soon became quarrelsome, acting both as a focus of discontent and a major irritant. He supported and encouraged his fellow officers in their conflicts with Phillip, engaged in clashes of his own, and complained of the governor's actions to the Home Office. Phillip for his part, more placid and forbearing in temperament, was anxious in the interests of the community as a whole to avoid friction between the civil and military authorities. Though firm in his attitude he endeavoured to placate Ross, but to little effect. In the end he solved the problem by ordering Ross to Norfolk Island on 5 March 1790 to replace P. G. King, the commandant there, whom he had previously decided to send to England to report personally on the establishment.

Far from being able to fall back on his aides in the initial trying years, therefore, Phillip had to struggle against widespread defeatism and occasional opposition. The attitude of the marine officers affected their men and possibly the convicts who had least cause of any to feel content with their lot. Partly to counter this attitude Phillip in his dispatches highlighted favourable developments and concealed the personal misgivings that constant tribulation must have led him to experience from time to time. Not the least of his accomplishments was to help to keep faith in the venture alive in official circles in London, and provide the optimism as well as the leadership without which morale in New South Wales itself might have crumbled completely.

Phillip's enthusiasm is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that during his five year term of office the colony assumed a shape that was not in accord with his wishes. Instead of the migrants whom he sought to encourage with grants of from 'five hundred [202 ha] to one thousand acres [405 ha]' and the assistance of 'not less than twenty men' maintained at government expense for two years, only convicts arrived. Nor was this surprising. When the Home Office finally dispatched Instructions to Phillip in August 1789 authorizing him to give grants to migrants it was on terms far less generous than he had contemplated. People leaving England lacked any real incentive to come to New South Wales and continued to sail for more accessible parts of the empire that were untainted by the stigma of convictism. Only thirteen venturesome souls departed for Sydney in the first five years and none of these landed until after Phillip's departure. The governor had expected a variety of advantages to flow from the presence of migrants; besides forming the basis for the kind of settlement he hoped would emerge, he thought they would also prove of practical value from the penal standpoint by assisting in administration and convict control, by employing the prisoners and by setting an example for them to follow. Inspired as they must be by the profit motive they would quickly make the settlement self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs. Their failure to materialize forced Phillip to depend on methods which he would have preferred to drop and which further increased his burdens.

Between 1788 and 1792 about 3546 male and 766 female convicts were landed at Port Jackson and handed over by the contractors to the governor, who faced the task of deciding how their sentences were to be served. Anxious to keep costs low the British government insisted that they be disposed of in such a way as to involve the Treasury in a minimum of expenditure. Previously, in the American colonies, settlers had taken them into employment, but in the absence of private employers in New South Wales most convicts remained in government hands throughout the first five years, and upon Phillip devolved the responsibility for directing their energies. The task was not made easier by the characteristics of the convicts themselves. Historians no longer regard them as the innocent victims of adverse social conditions and a harsh penal code. In dispelling this myth recent research has presented them as including a high proportion of professional criminals drawn from the more worthless element in society. Certainly they were for the most part unfit subjects for an experiment in colonization. Not unnaturally they resented being wrenched from their homeland and taken to a harsh, hostile and uncivilized land. Phillip found them lazy and anxious to escape work by any means possible. Few were mechanics or knew anything of agriculture, and each of the fleets that arrived up to 1792 contained a high proportion of aged and sick who were unfit for work. Worst of all was the Second Fleet which arrived in June 1790 after losing more than a quarter of its 'passengers' en route through sickness. Phillip's reports on the unscrupulous behaviour of the private contractors helped to produce improvements, but not until after the Third Fleet had arrived bearing convicts whose physical condition appalled him once more.

Matters were made even worse by continuing privation within the settlement itself resulting from the shortcomings of local agriculture and the failure of supplies to arrive on time from overseas. The crisis reached a peak in 1790 after the wreck of the storeship Guardian off the Cape of Good Hope; although the situation eased in 1791, it remained uncertain and even when the full ration could be issued it was generally unappetizing and often of poor quality. Under such conditions the health of the convicts deteriorated and they found prolonged manual labour difficult. Faced with a lack of suitable personnel to act as supervisors Phillip selected superintendents from among the better-behaved convicts, placed them under the few free men in the settlement, ex-marines, a few from the ships' crews, and some whose sentences had expired. He encouraged gardening. He had dispatched a party to Norfolk Island within a month of his arrival, and constantly reinforced it when he found that the island was more fertile than the land around Sydney. He exercised great care in distributing the ration and insisted on complete equality for all regardless of their standing. Some writers have attached the label communism to this egalitarian system. Such a term connotes a body of dogma completely foreign to Phillip and is highly misleading. The governor based his actions on no particular set of beliefs except a broad humanitarianism. By nature self-sacrificing he was not prepared to inflict greater suffering on others than on himself and he felt that gradations in the ration were unfair in time of scarcity.

Phillip's measures at best proved mere palliatives, but they helped to keep the settlement alive in its early years. In 1791 the marines were replaced by the New South Wales Corps. In the light of what was to come this may appear unfortunate, but Phillip's relations with the corps, though marked by occasional disagreement, were reasonably pleasant, partly because its officers had not then acquired the economic interests that led to conflict with later governors. The military commandant, Major Francis Grose, was easygoing and affable; his only recorded disagreement with Phillip arose from his action in permitting his officers to charter a vessel to procure necessities from the Cape of Good Hope. Unlike Ross, Grose was highly impressed with the colony, and his attitude was shared by many of his officers and a number of the convicts, who showed an increasing tendency to settle after their sentences were completed. The more regular arrival of ships from overseas and the beginnings of trading contacts with foreign speculators lessened the feeling of isolation besides improving supplies. More important, however, by now much of the initial spadework had been completed and the outlines of a permanent settlement were becoming more firmly etched.

The community which, under Phillip's guidance, was gradually establishing itself, remained confined to a minute portion of the vast region over which his jurisdiction extended. The governor himself had from the outset been anxious to gain information about the hinterland of Port Jackson. Curiosity, the need to find areas of good soil, and a desire to escape tensions at headquarters all played a part in prompting his explorations. The difficulties of the terrain, the problems involved in provisioning a lengthy expedition through inhospitable country and the impossibility of being away long from the centre of affairs prevented him from penetrating very far inland. Nevertheless trips in which he took part resulted in the discovery of the Hawkesbury River and the gaining of detailed knowledge about the area between it and Port Jackson, including the Parramatta district. With his encouragement later expeditions were made that established the relationship between the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers and gained additional information about the quality of the soil. Meanwhile knowledge of the coastal area had been enlarged by whale-fishing and other sea-going parties.

Phillip opposed the settlement of the Hawkesbury because the area was too isolated and too little known, and 'proper people to conduct it' were lacking. The Parramatta region, on the other hand, he thought ideally suited because of its good soil, ready accessibility and proximity to water. There he moved many of the convicts from late 1788 onwards after the shortcomings of Sydney for agricultural purposes had become apparent. In this area Phillip established a small township, which quickly emerged as the main centre of the colony's economic life; his naming one choice site within its bounds Rose Hill has been interpreted as additional evidence that Sir George Rose had been helpful in securing his appointment. Sydney, which he named and helped to design, and for which he planned broad streets, directed to suit the prevailing winds as well as the contours of its hills, remained important as a port and as the focus of social life, but its economic significance was slight until after the turn of the century, and his plans for its development had by then been abandoned.

Besides determining where the inhabitants should live Phillip also decided how they were to be occupied. At first he gave priority to the construction of necessary buildings, diverting most convict labour to this end; however, some public farming was carried on almost from the outset, originally at Farm Cove and later at Parramatta and Toongabbie. Its slow progress reflected the governor's inability to find adequate means of surmounting the many obstacles in his path. Poor seasons, the lack of suitable equipment and the difficulty of clearing and cultivating the thickly wooded land added to his problems. By 1791 a mere 213 acres (86 ha) were under crop and the number of farm animals amounted to only 126 head, for some of the cattle brought out had strayed, while others had died or been slaughtered. The building programme, by contrast, had advanced more satisfactorily, resulting in the erection of dwelling places for the governor, the officers, the convicts and some of the troops, together with several store-houses. Having completed these and other essential tasks Phillip was able to give more attention to farming. The area cultivated by government labour expanded much more rapidly after 1791 and by October 1792 some 1017 acres (412 ha) were under crop on the public domain; although livestock was still scarce important advances had been made towards the attainment of self-sufficiency in grain. The community was still vitally dependent on overseas supplies for most of its needs, but no longer was survival thought to be impossible.

Providing for material needs formed only part of the task of running what was primarily a prison. Effective discipline was a vital necessity in an isolated community where convicts far outnumbered their gaolers and where it was impracticable to segregate them behind bars. Phillip housed the convicts in a series of huts so arranged that they could be policed at night; but the watch of necessity had to be drawn mainly from among the better convicts, and this caused further trouble with the marines who complained bitterly on the odd occasion when a convict policeman detected one of their number breaking the law. Offences committed within the colony were, if only minor, tried by the magistrates, or when more serious by the Civil and Criminal Courts. Phillip sat on neither bench, but he was able within limits to determine their composition and to vary their sentences, thereby influencing the course of justice. Before leaving England he had stated his opposition to the death penalty save for murder and sodomy, which crimes he felt best punished by handing guilty persons over to be eaten by 'the natives of New Zealand'. This harsh sentence was never imposed, but there were some executions, particularly for the theft of food in time of scarcity. More usual was the lash, then a standard punishment in the army and navy, or committal to a gaol-gang.

Phillip's discipline was firm, but by the standards of his time could not be considered unduly harsh or severe. Moreover he recognized the need to encourage good behaviour as well as to punish bad conduct. He rewarded signs of industry by personal commendation and sometimes by appointment to positions of trust, which carried various privileges. He granted twenty-six pardons to exemplary characters, including fourteen prisoners who had behaved well when the Guardian was wrecked. In a further effort to encourage the convicts Phillip made it clear that land grants would only be given to those who proved their worth while under sentence. These measures indicated his desire to reform his charges, an object to which the Home Office paid only lip service. How much success attended his efforts is difficult to say. Contemporaries as well as more recent writers, however, have paid testimony to the effectiveness of his rule. In general the convicts responded well to his guidance. Crimes against the person were rare and while thefts were fairly common many of these resulted from sheer desperation and hunger.

One of the offences Phillip refused to tolerate was ill treatment of the Aboriginals. In his Instructions he had been ordered to establish contact and maintain friendly relations with them and he took these humanitarian injunctions seriously. He interested himself in the life of the natives whose customs also attracted considerable attention from his fellow officers. He made them presents, placed two, Colebe and Bennelong, under his personal care, and did his utmost to win and keep their friendship. At first he seemed to have succeeded. The Aboriginals evinced no desire to drive the whites out and showed admiration for their power and their leader whose missing front tooth apparently possessed symbolic value. Friction later developed and matters eventually reached the point where Phillip was forced to take punitive action, though he continued to exercise restraint even after being wounded by a spear at Manly Cove. Throughout he sought to maintain harmony while gradually persuading the Aboriginals of the superiority of British civilization. Settlers who interfered with their pursuits remained liable to heavy punishment.

Although in 1788-92 convicts and their gaolers made up the bulk of the population there gradually appeared others who fell into neither category. As early as July 1789 a small batch of convicts sought their freedom, claiming that their sentences had expired. Through oversight Phillip had not been supplied with their records and being unable to verify their claims shelved them. Later this deficiency was remedied enabling the governor to liberate the growing number of convicts who each year completed their sentences. By 1792 some 350 persons, of whom the majority were men, had been restored to freedom. Some secured passages home but most were unable to do so and were obliged with diminishing reluctance to stay in New South Wales. There they found employment mainly on government works, but a minority struck out on their own and took up farming, introducing a new element into an economy dominated by public enterprise.

Phillip's second Commission dated 2 April 1787 had given him the power of granting land to approved persons, defined in his first Instructions as former convicts. The British government was anxious to encourage people of this kind to remain at Port Jackson and for this reason offered them small plots of land and full maintenance during the early months of operations. The Home Office also indicated its willingness to make grants to the non-commissioned officers and privates of the marines who might elect to remain after completing a tour of duty, and to any migrants who might arrive. Phillip was ordered to examine the soil, report on its quality and suggest terms on which it might be alienated. Without fully waiting for his advice, however, the secretary of state dispatched on 22 August 1789 fresh Instructions on the granting of land.

The only residents not permitted to own land were the civil staff and military officers, whose pleas for this concession were not satisfied until after Phillip had departed. The governor himself had viewed their requests with no great enthusiasm. While willing to allow them to grow foodstuff in time of shortage or run livestock on plots of crown land he was not happy at the thought of their becoming property owners. He feared their attention might be distracted from their duties. He realized that they would wish to employ convicts, and these he thought might be left too much to their own devices. Shortly before leaving England he stressed that insufficient convicts were available to make it possible for the officers' likely demands to be met. Phillip was also reserved in his attitude towards the issuing of land grants to emancipists, for he rightly felt that many would never succeed at farming.

Historians have been unable to agree as to the exact area he alienated. Judging by the Register of Land Grants, which has not been used by earlier writers, he granted 3440 acres (1392 ha) on the mainland. At Norfolk Island he was obliged to recall some of the grants originally issued and by December 1792 had reallotted titles to a mere 49 acres (20 ha), making a grand total of 3489 acres (1412 ha). This was considerably less than the area alienated by his immediate successors, a fact which resulted not from niggardliness but from the unwillingness of more than a handful of persons to try their hand at what was to most an unfamiliar occupation. Apart from James Ruse there were no requests for land until 1791 and by December 1792 only seventy-three persons occupied holdings on the mainland.

With characteristic thoroughness the governor did his utmost to ensure the success of a group whose activities might improve the food situation. He personally selected land for them in the vicinity of Parramatta close to water, protection, market and supplies. Where necessary he varied his Instructions in their interests providing them with aid for eighteen months instead of the year stipulated by the British government. Originally he had been ordered to reserve between each 150-acre (61 ha) block 'a space of ten acres (4 ha) in breadth and of thirty acres (12 ha) in depth'. Realizing the dangers of natives lurking in the undergrowth on such land and convinced of the need for farmers to live side by side so as to provide mutual aid he successfully recommended the abandonment of this injunction. To deter settlers from disposing of land he incorporated in the title deeds, whose wording he himself devised, a clause forbidding them to sell their grants until they had occupied them continuously for at least five years. On two occasions he took land away from men who had made little attempt to cultivate it. The progress of farming, however, was inevitably slow, for the settlers possessed few resources, inadequate tools and little experience. By December 1792 they had cleared little more than 517 acres (209 ha), owned scarcely any livestock and were still mostly dependent on government aid for survival.

Although Phillip's reputation as an administrator must rest primarily on his work on the mainland of New South Wales, Norfolk Island also came under his control. In 1787 he had been ordered to settle this potentially useful spot to forestall occupation by any other power. On 12 February 1788 he made P. G. King the first commandant and two days later dispatched him to the island with a party of twenty-one, including fifteen convicts. Others were sent later mainly to ease the famine in New South Wales. By late 1792 the population totalled 1115 persons, and the island's activities, which at first had been dominated by government enterprise, were diversified by settlers from the marines. Effort had also been made to grow flax though little had been accomplished. The real burden of controlling these and other developments fell on the rulers on the spot, successively P. G. King, Major Ross and Captain William Paterson; nevertheless Phillip was in constant communication with them and as the person responsible for the island's management laid down some of the principles on which their actions were based.

On 11 December 1792 Phillip sailed for England in the Atlantic to seek medical attention for a pain in his side which had involved him in constant suffering. His work in New South Wales has been widely commended and, given the circumstances under which he was obliged to operate, it is difficult to see how he could have accomplished more than he did. Many of his hopes, including those for the encouragement of whaling off the coast which he recommended very strongly, were not realized. Despite these frustrations he retained his optimism to the end, displaying a fortitude and sense of duty that carried him through periods of great difficulty and physical pain. He left at a time when developments loomed which were to undo much of his work. One consequence of the discovery of the settlement by overseas merchants was that in increasing numbers they brought cargoes including liquor for sale. Phillip recognized the dangers of permitting the convicts to obtain spirits and the one occasion, in October 1792, when he allowed it to be sold to the other residents confirmed his fears, for there was widespread drunkenness and disturbance. The episode was not repeated but it must remain a matter of doubt whether, had he stayed much longer, Phillip could have countered the many problems that were to arise from the liquor trade. Similarly his departure preceded by only two months the arrival from London of orders allowing civil and military officers to own land, an event which provided these men with an opportunity to promote their interests and heightened the possibility of their conflict with a governor anxious to favour no single element in the community. It was perhaps fortunate that Phillip was unable to follow his original intention of returning to Port Jackson once his health was restored, but medical advice compelled him formally to resign on 23 July 1793. One of his first tasks upon returning to England was to raise an additional company for service with the New South Wales Corps; this was his last practical contribution to the settlement but he maintained an interest in its affairs and continued to be consulted on them for some time, though his recommendation of King as his successor was turned down.

By 1796 Phillip had sufficiently recovered his health to resume active naval duties. After successively commanding several ships, of which the last was the 98-gun Blenheim, he was given a shore appointment in 1798 as commander of the Hampshire Sea Fencibles whose purpose was to defend that county against invasion by Napoleon. Early in January 1799 he became a rear admiral of the Blue and soon afterwards was given charge of the Sea Fencibles throughout England. This task fully absorbed his energies and involved him in much travelling and administrative work until he retired in 1805. The last nine years of his life saw him steadily advancing in the naval hierarchy while living in retirement at 19 Bennett Street, Bath, with his second wife Isabella, née Whitehead, whom he had married on 8 May 1794. He died on 31 August 1814 three months after receiving his last promotion to admiral of the Blue. He left an estate worth about £25,000 and was buried in the church of St Nicholas, Bathampton. A memorial to him is in Bath Abbey, and portraits are in the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Mitchell and Dixson Galleries, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 1, part 2, vol 2
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 1
  • G. Mackaness, Admiral Arthur Phillip (Syd, 1937) and for bibliography
  • M. Barnard Eldershaw, Phillip of Australia (Lond, 1938)
  • manuscript catalogue under Arthur Phillip (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/1-9.

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. H. Fletcher, 'Phillip, Arthur (1738–1814)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Arthur Phillip, by William Sherwin, 1789

Arthur Phillip, by William Sherwin, 1789

National Library of Australia, 9846227

Life Summary [details]


11 October, 1738
London, Middlesex, England


31 August, 1814 (aged 75)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Passenger Ship
Key Events
Key Places