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Colonial foundations

Colonial foundations

Explores the formative years of four British settlements.

From the late 18th century, British and other European settlers began arriving on the shores of the Australian continent. Some were officers, soldiers and sailors of the Crown, travelling to build new outposts of the British Empire.

Many were convicted felons, and others were free men and women in search of economic opportunity. These colonists founded towns in the lands of Aboriginal peoples who had tended and shaped their country for thousands of years, beginning decades of conflict and negotiation over control of the land.

Sydney, New South Wales

The Sydney Cove medallion

Sydney was the site of the first British colony in Australia. It was established in 1788 by Governor Arthur Phillip, who had been instructed by the British government to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay.

Colour drawing showing two sailing ships in a harbour, with numerous gum trees and the British flag visible on the shore.
Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, 1788, by William Bradley.
State Library of New South Wales.

Phillip arrived at Botany Bay with the First Fleet to find that poor soil and inadequate water supply made it unfit for inhabitation.

He moved the settlement north to Port Jackson, which provided a safe harbour and a fine stream of water.

When the First Fleet arrived, Governor Phillip carried with him instructions to establish a colony that would become self-sufficient.

The sandy coastal soil of Port Jackson proved unsuitable for agriculture, so Phillip and a small group ventured up the Parramatta River in search of a site for farming. A settlement was established at the point where the river turned to fresh water.

Phillip named the settlement Rose Hill, but later renamed it Parramatta to sound more like the name used by the local Aboriginal people.

The Sydney Cove medallion

Dark grey circular medallion with four classical figures in relief, above 'ETRURIA, 1789'.
Sydney Cove medallion.
Photo: Dragi Markovic.

Josiah Wedgwood made this medallion in 1789 to commemorate the landing of the First Fleet. It is made of clay collected at Sydney Cove by Governor Phillip. He sent the sample to Sir Joseph Banks, who sent it on to Wedgwood to test its suitability for making china.

Wedgwood made the sample into a commemorative medal titled, 'Hope encouraging Art and Labour, under the influence of Peace, to pursue the employments necessary to give security and happiness to an infant settlement'.

It is more commonly known as the Sydney Cove medallion.


Take a closer look at the Sydney Cove medallion
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Collection database record

Hobart, Tasmania

Convict-era shirt

Convict punishment shoe

Reverend Knopwood's diary – previously on display

Explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders proved the island of Van Diemen's Land, now known as Tasmania, was separated from the Australian mainland in 1799. The British established a settlement there in 1803, worried about French interest in the island and encouraged by reports about its natural resources.

Coloured drawing showing a small settlement formed around a bay of water, with hills rising in the distance and five figures at work in the front right.
Hobart Town, Van Diemen's Land, 1811-1837, by RG Reeve.
National Library of Australia.

Hobart was set up as a secondary penal colony and thousands of convicts were sent there from the 1820s under Governor George Arthur's system of convict reform. He operated Van Diemen's Land as a gaol, with Hobart as its central administration point.

Prisoners were sent to different sites of punishment and labour depending on their criminal convictions and behaviour.

Arthur expected free settlers and religious institutions to play a role in the reform process.

Large tracts of land were granted to free settlers and Indigenous people were progressively expelled from the area.


audio_w15Download 'Creating a colony: the European settlement of Tasmania 1803–1853' curator's talk

Convict-era shirt

This shirt was found stuffed into a wall cavity in a cottage near the Bridgewater Causeway, north of Hobart. Many convicts worked in the area from the 1830s, yet this is one of very few such shirts in existence today. A lack of government supplies meant it was a constant challenge to keep convicts clothed in Van Diemen's Land.

Cream-coloured collared shirt with grey stripes. 'BPC' is written in black across the right chest.
This convict-era shirt is one of only three discovered in Australia, despite being one of the most common items issued to convicts. Photo: Dean McNicoll.

The Bridgewater Causeway provided a safe crossing of the Derwent River on the road which linked Hobart and Launceston, the island's two major settlements.

Convicts, often in chain gangs, dug out sandstone and deposited it on the river's shore, only to see it sink into the mud.

The project was abandoned after seven years and not completed until the 1860s.


pdf Download convict-era shirt object biography (PDF 63kb)

Convict punishment shoe

Curator Michelle Hetherington talks about a convict punishment shoe, also on show in Landmarks. Part of the Object Stories project.

Melbourne, Victoria

Watercolour showing a streetscape with small buildings either side of a central road. It is framed by a tall tree either side in the foreground, with four Aboriginal people looking out at the scene before them.
Collins Street, town of Melbourne, New South Wales, 1839, by William Knight. National Library of Australia.

The Batman land deed

The settlement of Melbourne and Portland on the southern shores of the Australian mainland was inspired by groups of individuals frustrated with the shortage of land across Bass Strait in Van Diemen's Land.

Now the capital of Victoria, Melbourne was settled in 1835, a year after Portland, 360 kilometres to the west. Both were then part of the colony of New South Wales.

Melbourne was also distinguished by the desire to pursue a different relationship with the Indigenous population from those of other colonies,and attempts to form a treaty to allow European settlement.


Portland field trip Flickr images

The Batman land deed

When free land grants ceased in Van Diemen's Land, a group of entrepreneurs, later known as the Port Phillip Association, decided to seek alternative means of obtaining pastoral land.

They resolved upon a risky speculation – purchasing land from Aboriginal people living around Port Phillip Bay.

John Batman was appointed the group's representative. In May 1835 he left Launceston for what would become Melbourne. The 'treaty' was signed on 6 June 1835. It was intended to maintain peaceful relations with the Kulin people, to avoid the disastrous impact that settlements in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land had on the local Aboriginal people. However, neither Indigenous concepts of land use nor the British government recognised the treaty and settlement was opened to all.

Handwritten document with eight small red seals in the bottom right.
The Batman land deed. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

Adelaide, South Australia

Colonel Light's writing box

Adelaide was founded in 1836. Unlike Sydney and Hobart, it was established as a colony of free settlers rather than a penal colony.

Colour drawing showing, showing tents and bushland.
View of the proposed site of Adelaide, about 1837. Drawn by William Light and engraved by Robert Havell. State Library of South Australia.

Land in the new colony was sold and the money raised was used to transport labourers to the colony. The biggest buyer was the South Australian Company, which established a settlement in Kingscote on Kangaroo Island in July 1836. The island's resources were inadequate for a growing population, so surveyors were sent to find a better site.

Colonel William Light, who had been appointed Surveyor-General of South Australia, chose the location for the city of Adelaide. After much consideration, he chose a site on the Adelaide Plains on the banks of the River Torrens. Light is also responsible for the grid-like layout of the city's streets.

Colonel Light's writing box

This cedar writing box commemorates the successful passage of Rapid from London to South Australia in 1836. It was presented to Colonel William Light, the vessel's commander and later surveyor general and founder of the city of Adelaide. Light chose the site for the city and planned the grid-like layout of its streets.

Two images of Colonel Light's writing box. The image on the left shows the closed wooden writing box. The image on the right shows the box with the lid open and writing implements arranged in front.
Colonel William Light's writing box. Photos: Jason McCarthy.

Previously on display

Reverend Robert Knopwood's diary

Reverend Robert Knopwood arrived in Van Diemen’s Land with Lieutenant Governor Collins in 1804 and became Hobart’s first Anglican minister and magistrate. He conducted the first service in Tasmania at Hobart Town in February 1804. Knopwood toured his large parish on horseback and had a reputation as a caring and active pastor. He was the sole minister in Van Diemen's Land until the arrival of Reverend John Youl in 1818. In contrast to his pastoral duties, Knopwood's responsibilities as magistrate required him to deliver harsh sentences to convicts.

Painting of Reverend Robert Knopwood riding a white horse and accompanied by a white dog.
Painting of Reverend Robert Knopwood (1763-1838). Attributed to multiple artists: landscape by Frank Dunnett, parson by TG Gregson, pony and dog by JW Graves junior. Courtesy: St David's Cathedral, Hobart.

Knopwood's diary is a rare account of the early years of the colony. He records many hunting and fishing expeditions, sermons he preached and his interactions with the local Aboriginal people, as well as social engagements and the shipping news.

After 16 months in the colony, Knopwood moved into his new house, 'Cottage Green' at Battery Point, Hobart. The cottage was
on a land grant of 30 acres from Lieutenant Governor Collins. Knopwood established a large garden, which he regarded as the 'finest and best in all the Colony'.
He received additional land grants from Governor Gidley King and Governor Lachlan Macquarie, totalling more than 1000 acres.

Knopwood was known as a convivial character, frequently socialising with the officers of the colony, as well as with Lieutenant Governor Collins. His liquor bills reflected his generosity and, by 1816, Knopwood's financial affairs were precarious. He sold most of his property to repay his accumulating debts and in 1824 was forced to sell 'Cottage Green' to Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, for a price significantly less than the value of the property.

Death mask of the Reverend Robert Knopwood, 1838.
Death mask of the Reverend Robert Knopwood, 1838. Courtesy: Narryna Heritage Museum, Hobart.

Macquarie and Arthur both disapproved of Knopwood's behaviour and heavy drinking. He retired from the ministry due to ill health in 1823, and spent the remainder of his life in poverty in a small cottage at Clarence Plains, Rokeby. He continued his diaries until his death in 1838.

Reverend Robert Knopwood's diary and death mask were on display in the Landmarks gallery from 2011 to 2015. The diary is held in the University of Tasmania Library, Special and Rare Materials Collection. The death mask is in the collection of the Narryna Heritage Museum at Battery Point, Hobart.


University of Tasmania Library Open Repository

pdfThe diary of the Rev. Robert Knopwood, 1805-1808. pt.1 (PDF 2841kb )

pdfThe diary of the Rev. Robert Knopwood, 1805-1808, pt.2 (PDF 1143kb)

pdfNotes on the diary of the Reverend Robert Knopwood, 1805-1808 (PDF 1569kb)