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First Fleet table

At a glance

  • Wooden table with folding sides, from the 1790s
  • Made in England with timber from Australia, Europe, Asia and the West Indies
  • Surgeon-General John White and Sir Andrew Snape Hamond
  • Illustrates patronage and trade links in the colony
Rectangular wooden table, with fold-down side leaves. The table features narrow inlaid ivory borders, including a wide inlaid border of contrasting timber in a geometric pattern on the table top. The table has four square tapering wooden legs, each terminating in a brass cup and castor. The table has two drawers, each with two round metal knob handles and a brass key-operated lock.
The First Fleet table. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

Colonial connections

A small 1790s Pembroke work table helps to tell a story about style, patronage and commerce in the early days of the Australian colony.

The First Fleet table was handcrafted in England with a veneer of Australian grevillea, or beefwood.

The timber used in the veneer was sent from Australia by Surgeon-General John White, who arrived with the First Fleet.

White sent the planks from Port Jackson to his patron, Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, in England. He probably hoped the gift of such a rare timber would help retain Snape Hamond's good favour.


The wood was known in the colony as beefwood, because the freshly cut timbers resembled salted meat.

It attracted early attention from cabinetmakers and was a valuable export for the colony of New South Wales.

In London, a cabinetmaker sliced the precious timber into thin veneers to top the table, which sat in the drawing room of Snape Hamond's home in Norfolk.

A label in the hand of Snape Hamond, found on the underside of the table, records the timber's origin. It reads:

Sent from Botany Bay by Dr White surgeon of the Navy - in Planks & this Table made up in London - Beef Wood.

As the well-connected Commissioner of the Navy, Snape Hamond received many petitions from naval officers. He was White's patron and when the naval surgeon wished to return from Australia to England, he applied to Snape Hamond, who then lobbied on his behalf.

The Hamond family had links with Australia and the Pacific and Sir Andrew was appointed to the court martial board that tried the Bounty mutineers.

The table, which stands 60.5 centimetres high, was owned by Snape Hamond's descendants until it was bought at auction by the National Museum.

Neo-classical design

Detail showing part of First Fleet table drawer and two-tone tulipwood inlay.
Tulipwood inlay and drawer detail from the First Fleet table. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

The First Fleet table is of a neo-classical style which was fashionable among the British ruling class.

The small slender-legged work table with hinged, fold-down sides, was known as a Pembroke table.

The folding sides and two drawers were typical of late 18th and early 19th century work tables which would have been used for writing, taking tea and playing games.

This table appears to be influenced by the style of English furniture designer Thomas Sheraton. His furniture featured simple, delicate forms.

The scrolled motif on the First Fleet table echoes Sheraton's taste for inlaid decoration, particularly the banding and contrasting geometric patterns.


Collection database record

pdf 'Recent acquisitions' (PDF 293kb) – Friends magazine, vol. 17, no. 4, Dec 2006.