Arthur Phillip: The plot thickens

Descended from English and Irish convicts deported to the colony of New South Wales, my mother and I make the magnificent cathedral-like abbey our first port of call in Bath, southwest England. A helpful ‘Welcomer’ homes in on our antipodean accent and directs us past the north transept to the memorial to Admiral Arthur Phillip, founder of Australia’s first colony.


“You’ll also want to visit his former home at 19 Bennett Street,” she says as we peer up at the wall tablet beneath the Australian flag. “It’s where he fell to his death from the third-floor window in 1814.” Leaning in, she adds, “It’s not known if he accidently fell, was drunk, was pushed or jumped. And because there was even the hint of suicide, he couldn’t be buried here, so his remains are at St Nicholas Church in Bathampton, a couple of miles away.”


Intrigue aside, the Bennett Street house, which Phillip purchased new in 1806 for the substantial sum of 2,200 pounds, is an ironic reminder of the unremarkable death of an extraordinary man. Commanding the First Fleet, Phillip overcame the perils of sailing halfway around the globe and establishing Australia’s first penal colony in foreign and unforgiving conditions, only to fall from a window – not an uncommon incident at the time – while ensconced in the comforts of his English home. Captain James Cook’s sensational death at the hands of Hawaiian islanders was a hard act to follow.


Our mood lifts in nearby Bathampton when we locate the picturesque St Nicholas village church (pictured) amid a green, neat-as-a-pin churchyard dotted with lichen-covered tombstones. I suspect Phillip would be in his happy place here. In his retirement the well-travelled Londoner chose to live in Bathampton and Bath, where he had visited his aunts, Fanny and Emma, as a child.


As we enter the church, at our feet is a flagstone declaring “Underneath lie the remains” of Phillip and his second wife, Isabella, who died in 1823. To the right is the Australia Chapel with an Australian blackbean timber memorial screen and stained-glass windows bearing the coats of arms of the nation and its states. The embroidered kneelers – no doubt a godsend on the Wombeyan marble floor – are a gift from Tasmania.


Though some say Phillip’s final resting place isn’t grand enough for the Australian national hero, according to the church literature, “The choice of Bathampton for his burial can seem strange, but in Phillip’s day it was a mark of status to be buried in one of the outlying country churches, rather than in a city that was being redesigned and rebuilt.”


Phillip’s grave is in such a prominent position at the entrance to the church that you can’t miss him. Or so it seemed until Sydney-born, British-based lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC enlisted the assistance more than a decade ago of then NSW Premier Bob Carr to investigate the possibility of bringing Phillip back to Australia.


Robertson opened a can of worms, with a subsequent survey of the site suggesting Phillip’s remains are not beneath his marked grave but possibly elsewhere underneath the floor of the church or outside, or simply lost during renovations.


According to reports, Robertson has recently resurrected his campaign to find Phillip and bring him to Australia, again appealing for the support of Mr Carr, now Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs. However, Reverend Paul Burden, the rector at St Nicholas Church, maintains that Phillip doesn’t need to be found, insisting he is where the grave tablet says he is, where he was laid to rest in 1814.


In 1792, having served as the colony’s first – and arguably most humanitarian – governor for almost five years, Phillip, who was suffering with terrible physical pain, returned to England. Mary Tyrrell (aka Mary Higgins), my family’s first convict ancestor transported to the colony, missed him by just 11 years, arriving on the Rolla in 1803.


Visiting Phillip’s alleged grave site 210 years later, I wonder if we, too, have missed him. Will rumours of the Brits losing the plot ever be laid to rest? Slim chance the church will agree to the excavation of what lies beneath. But think about it: The question of Phillip’s whereabouts would make for a great episode of Robertson’s Hypotheticals.



Update: Since this post was published my mother has discovered that Mary Tyrrell and her partner, apothecary and surgeon Richard Horner (he arrived on the Coromandel in 1804), were not our family’s earliest convict ancestors deported to the colony of New South Wales. Our ancestors Deborah Ellam and John Herbert arrived with the First Fleet in 1788. She had been convicted of stealing gowns and cotton fabric; he had escaped the noose for highway robbery and assault. They married two months later. Deborah is credited with bringing Australia’s first domestic violence case before the court – sadly, unsuccessfully.

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