Impression from plans by William Dawes for his cottage-observatory, 1788 (Julien Alma/Doug & Wolf).

Historians of Australian architecture typically celebrate the convict forger Francis Greenway as Australia’s first architect and Governor Arthur Phillip’s residence as Australia’s first work of architecture. These claims need revision; to include descriptions by First Fleet officers of some Gadigal gunyahs made with branches and bark, and to highlight substantial structures completed by colonial building designers during the 26 years before Greenway landed in 1814.

The colony’s first architectural drawings were sketched on 30 April 1788 by Lieutenant William Dawes, a scientist aboard the First Fleet flagship, HMS Sirius, anchored near today’s Campbells Cove. He used a quill and Indian ink to scratch two small elevations and three plans for building a 12 by 18 feet (3.7 x 5.5 m) cottage, propped by a ‘very large and firm’ sandstone rock at its south-west corner—beside a 9-feet-wide (2.7 m) octagonal chamber that became Britain’s first Australian observatory.

Dawes illustrated and described his home observatory in a letter to his London mentor, the Royal Astronomer, Reverend Dr Nevil Maskelyne. His sketches showed the front door (its only wall-opening) facing north to the sun and across the harbour to today’s Lavender Bay. His roof was covered with sliding panels of painted canvas, including a shutter above the main room and an ‘inclined cone’ of triangular panels which rolled open above the star-viewing chamber.

Sketch plans by William Dawes for a cottage-observatory beside Sydney Cove (Uni Cambridge Library).

This first Australia-made colonial building was prominently labelled ‘Observatory’ on all three of the key maps charted by First Fleeters in the first months of 1788. Although it soon disintegrated, and was rebuilt, NSW government archaeologist Wayne Johnson later situated it on the grassy slope of today’s Dawes Point (Tar ra) Park, near the southern pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The other notable Sydney building of 1788 was Governor Phillip’s temporary house: a timber-framed, canvas-walled tent erected on high ground east of the Tank Stream. This was the colony’s first large structure; measuring 45 by 17 feet (13.7 x 5.2 m), with five windows on each long side and a wooden floor. More tents, on the west side of the bay, served as the town’s first hospital. Dozens of smaller tents were rapidly pitched along Sergeant Majors Row (today’s George Street North) to shelter most of the marines and convicts.

Phillip recorded that there were only twelve carpenters, two brickmakers, two bricklayers and one plasterer among the First Fleet convicts. Several dozen more carpenters, masons, sawyers, shinglers and file-cutters were hired part-time from the Marine Corps to build the town’s first solid storehouses, dwellings and government facilities, beginning in March 1788.

Joseph Fowkes’s mid-1788 map of Sydney showed the locations of a stone quarry, a brickfield at today’s Haymarket, two sawpits, two shingling parties and a blacksmith’s forge. During the first 18 months of settlement, 10,000 bricks were produced each month at Brickfield Hill, where James Bloodworth (aka Bloodsworth) taught unskilled fellow convicts some fast techniques to roughly mould and semi-cure the local clay, and how to lay mud bricks with straw or animal hair; before convicts were ordered to collect and burn shells from Aboriginal middens to make the quicklime needed to mix durable mortar. After a kiln was built in 1789, productivity increased to 30,000 bricks and tiles a month.

Map of Sydney town by Francis Fowkes, 1788 (north at right).

Bloodworth supervised the design and construction of Sydney’s first two solid masonry houses, which were built by mid-1788 for Governor Phillip and his Lieutenant-Governor, Major Robert Ross. He was assisted by Henry Brewer, the Provost-Marshal and unofficial Superintendent of Works, who claimed some English experience as a carpenter and an architect’s clerk.

Phillip’s ‘first’ Government House was a two-storey, brick structure on a sandstone base, with stone quoins and a hip roof of clay tiles. Built high on Bridge Street, at the location of today’s Museum of Sydney, it was a crude version of England’s prevailing Georgian style, using classical symmetry principles to arrange plain, vertical windows around a central entrance. Double-hung sash windows (with imported glass) were installed on both floors around a six-panel wooden door with a semi-circular fanlight and a pair of sidelights.

Government House on east Sydney Cove; artist William Bradley, 1791 (SLNSW).

Ross’s Lieutenant-Governor’s house was built of rendered brick and stone on a harbourfront site (prior to land reclamation) at today’s George and Grosvenor streets. After Ross was transferred to Norfolk Island in 1790, Sydney’s next Lieutenant-Governor, Major Francis Grose, added a substantial veranda facing the street.

Bloodworth next completed two soldiers’ barracks near today’s George and Hunter streets, a dry store beside the government wharf that included the colony’s first dormer window, a commissary store, a guardhouse, and townhouses for the Judge-Advocate, David Collins; the Surgeon-General, John White; the Chaplain, Reverend Richard Johnson; and the Surveyor-General, Augustus Alt.

In 1790, Phillip pardoned Bloodworth several years early and titled him ‘Superintendent of Builders in the Employ of Government’—the term that preceded Greenway’s ‘Colonial Architect’ position. Although later historians ignored him because he was not trained as an architect, he designed and delivered most of the masonry buildings that were completed in Sydney and Parramatta between 1788 and his death in 1804. During his time, there were no known architectural pattern books in the colony: He designed for his clients’ requirements from his own English skills and observations.

Around 1791, construction began on the colony’s first brick military barracks, on a 16-acre (6.5 ha) site bounded by George Street, Watch Ho (now Clarence Street), Barrack Lane (Barrack Street) and land near today’s Margaret Street. George Street Barracks (later renamed Wynyard Barracks) was a line of five buildings facing a large parade ground and connected by a ‘slight brick wall’. Each block measured 120 by 24 feet (36.6 x 7.3 m) and contained officers’ apartments with new kitchens, offices and a garden. Completed in eleven days, the compound centrally faced today’s Hunter Street. Presumably, Bloodworth also led this development.

Governor Phillip left Australia in December 1792—disappointed by his political disputes with other military leaders (notably his deputy, Robert Ross) but imagining a great future city of prosperous citizens. His caretaker successor, Major Francis Grose, completed Australia’s first two verandas in 1793 and 1794. Both were simple skillion roofs supported on timber posts. He added the first veranda along the street-front of the Lieutenant-Governor’s house built by Robert Ross. This was sketched by visiting Italian artist Juan Ravenet during a reception that Grose hosted for Spanish naval commander Alejandro Malaspina and his officers in March 1793.

A year later, Grose built the colony’s second veranda across the symmetrical façade of Phillip’s Government House. Where did Grose learn about the advantages of verandas in warm-weather countries? He had served in India and America, where they were popular among colonial officials seeking respite from tropical sun and monsoon showers.

In the 1790s and early 1800s, Sydney’s most prominent architectural landmarks were its windmills. The town’s first mill, with a stone tower, was built on the orders of the second Governor, Captain John Hunter, at Flagstaff Hill (now Observatory Hill) in 1797. By 1800, the government was operating two Sydney windmills, at Fort Phillip and Church Hill. The first commercial windmill, known as Boston’s mill, was built in the centre of today’s Domain on the east side of the cove. Hunter also issued liquor licences that catalysed construction of the town’s first hotels—notably the two-storey Union made of bricks faced with weatherboards, and the Jolly Sailor in George Street.

Hunter also commissioned Bloodworth to build Sydney’s ‘first skyscraper’; a brick belltower on Church Hill (today’s Lang Park), incorporating a town clock unloaded from the HMS Reliance in 1795. Square in plan and tapered in elevation, it was claimed to be 150 feet (45.7 m) high but seemed to be markedly shorter in some early paintings. This was unveiled in January 1798 to celebrate the first decade of British settlement. It was badly damaged in a storm in 1799, then was repaired to form part of the town’s second St Philip’s church. This was completed by Bloodworth’s successor, brickmason John O’Hearne, just before the 1810 arrival of the fifth Governor, Major-General Lachlan Macquarie.

It’s well-recorded that Macquarie patronised a new generation of British architects and builders during his 11-year term. In Sydney, he commissioned projects from O’Hearne and Greenway; his Irish aide-de-camp, John Cliffe Watts; and (less often) Daniel Dering Mathew, Henry Kitchen, James Smith and Francis (Frank) Lawless.

—An edited version of this text was published in the February 2022 newsletter of the City of Sydney Historical Association (COSHA).