Governor Arthur Phillip and the Royal Hospital School

Sat 16 May 20

Jacky Robinson writes: I wrote recently of the early history of the Royal Hospital School at Greenwich and thought it might be interesting to recall the life and achievements of one of the most famous pupils educated as a Charity Boy there in the early eighteenth century.


Arthur Phillip was born in Bread Street off Cheapside in 1738, the second child of Jacob Phillip and his wife Elizabeth. Jacob is said to have been a language teacher from Frankfurt, possibly having descended from the wave of German refugees that arrived in London around 1709 — the ‘Poor Palatines’— whose tented refugee camp was on Blackheath. Jacob disappears from the records after 1739.

Phillip’s mother, Elizabeth, born in 1707, had been married before at the age of 21 to a seaman called John Herbert who died in the naval hospital in Jamaica, probably a victim of the yellow fever prevalent there. It is surmised that she was widowed a second time, and left to raise Arthur and his older sister, Rebecca. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s cousin Captain Michael Everitt seems to have taken the young Arthur under his wing, seemingly taking him to sea as his servant when the boy was just nine years old.

The Royal Hospital School admitted boys who were ‘the sons of seamen who are slain, drowned or dead’, ‘disabled or past their labour’, ‘sons of Pensioners of the Hospital’ or ‘sons of seamen…objects of charity.’

Phillip joined the school on 22 June 1751 and his records detail his father’s occupation as ‘steward’ and ‘able seaman’. Young Arthur would have joined the group of 100 boys between the ages of 11 and 13 who were maintained by the Hospital, fed and clothed and sent daily to Weston’s Academy to study for an education to fit him for life at sea — mathematics, navigation and drawing. The Headmaster, the Reverend Francis Swinden, is reputed to have made the observation that ‘Arthur Phillip is noted for his diplomacy [and] mildness. [He is] nervously active, unassuming, reasonable, business-like to the smallest degree in everything he undertakes, always seeking perfection’.

His started his career at sea aged 15 signing his indenture ‘Arthur Phillips’ (the spelling of his name varied over time) agreeing to be apprenticed for seven years to Mr William Readhead, Commander of the Fortune, a ship bound for Greenland to hunt for whales. Readhead signed the standard agreement of the Hospital setting out the terms under which he would employ, maintain and instruct him ‘and not immoderately beat him’. Phillip agreed that ‘Taverns, Inns, or Alehouses he shall not use nor frequent’.

On 16 October 1755 Phillip enlisted in the Royal Navy and was assigned the rank of ordinary seaman aboard the 68-gun HMS Buckingham, on his way to becoming a midshipman under the tutelage of his patron Captain Everitt. He first saw action at the sea battle off Minorca at the start of the Seven Years War. This was the engagement with the French that resulted in Admiral Byng being charged under the Twelfth Article of War, imprisoned under guard at Greenwich Hospital and then court martialled and shot at Portsmouth for neglect in the face of the enemy.

Aged 24, Phillip was at the siege of Havana and was promoted to lieutenant, but soon afterwards he retired on half pay, married Margaret Charlotte Denison, a wealthy widow 16 years his senior, and settled into the life of a country gentleman in Hampshire. However, after six years, this marriage ended with a legal separation. The early 1770s saw him at work in France, possibly covertly reporting on naval preparations there.

He spent a period as a captain with the Portuguese Navy, serving off and surveying the South Atlantic coast of South America. Then, at the outbreak of hostilities between France and Great Britain in 1778, he rejoined the Royal Navy.

At this time, Lord Sandwich, together with the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, was advocating the establishment of a British colony in New South Wales. In 1786, the British Government took the decision to settle what is now Australia (until at least the 1850s the entire land mass was known as New Holland).
In the same year, Phillip was appointed Captain-General of the First Fleet, an expedition of 11 ships that was to sail from Portsmouth to New South Wales. The expedition would take upwards of 1000 men, women and children (including convicts) to establish a settlement. Upon arrival there he was to assume the powers of Governor of the new colony.

The settlement that he was instructed to establish was initially meant to be in the area of Botany Bay, but Phillip wasted no time in judging it an unsuitable location. Within days of the Fleet’s arrival he had explored Port Jackson and determined that its deep harbour and supply of fresh water made a ‘fitter place’ for the new settlement.

Phillip is famed in Australia as its first Governor, noted for his fairness and leadership which helped ensure the success of the colony at Port Jackson that he later named Sydney. In 1792 he returned to England, bringing with him two Aboriginal men, Woollarawarre Bennelong and his kinsman Yemmerawanne, who were to be tutored in the English language and introduced to London society. Sadly, Yemmerawanne never returned to Australia but died at Eltham, southeast London, after a serious chest infection. Bennelong went back to his homeland in 1795.

Phillip subsequently commanded a number of ships and undertook shore service during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He died at Bathampton, Somerset, in 1814, survived by his second wife, Isabella. In the Abbey at nearby Bath the Australian government has erected a memorial tablet describing him as ‘Founder and First Governor of Australia’ to whose ‘Indomitable Courage, Prophetic Vision, Forbearance, Faith, Inspiration and Wisdom was due the Success of the First Settlement in Australia at Sydney 26 January 1788.’
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HD Turner’s book The Cradle of the Navy (1990) and the biography Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy (2013) by Michael Pembroke have proven invaluable sources in writing this article.