ARTHUR PHILLIP IN BATH, HIS FINAL YEARS
By Glenda Miskelly 2016 – Member Fellowship of First Fleeters
The Reverend Paul Burden, the former Rector of St Nicholas Bathampton spoke of 18th/19th century Bath generally and of Phillip’s time in Bath, but he also felt compelled to address the unfounded rumours of Phillip’s suicide which surface from time to time.
Just one example of these unfounded rumours can be given by quoting from the transcript of a 2007 Sixty Minutes program which states;
“You could say he was the first great Australian, our founding father. Governor Arthur Phillip was certainly the first to see that NSW could be anything more than a convict settlement, a dumping ground for the dregs of society. So you’d think that he’d be a revered figure, a national treasure. Well he’s certainly not in Britain. His last days there were dismal, his death suspicious and there’s a deep dark mystery. A scandal.” Maybe a case of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story?
Paul and I attended the Rev Burden’s presentation as part of the Admiral Arthur Phillip Bicentennial Commemorations in 2014 that was delivered in the church at Bathampton where Arthur Phillip and his wife Isabella are buried.
He stated that most of the talks that he had heard given on Phillip naturally and rightly paid great attention to the few years that Phillip spent with the First Fleet, perhaps taking note of some of the experiences of his earlier life that prepared him for the rigours of that work. But in this address, the Reverend Burden wanted to focus on Phillip’s later life; the time he spent in Bath. He believed it gave some additional insights into the man. It also allowed him to address the issue of how and why he came to be buried in the porch of a small country church. In his time there as Rector he says he dealt with numerous enquiries about why Phillip is not buried in Bath Abbey or a similarly grand place but instead, and here he quotes from an internet article, he ‘was relegated to a small village church’. He goes on to argue why he profoundly disagrees that being buried at Bathampton was a ‘relegation’.
The time Phillip spent in Bath represents a very settled period in his life. In Georgian times Bath was no backwater, and the surprise is that the journey from London to Bath which is a common route for the tourist, is one that Phillip would have made on numerous occasions. One significant occasion being when he travelled up to marry Isabella Whitehead in 1794.
Indeed there was more long-distance traveling going on in Georgian England than we may imagine, and Phillip travelled a lot, both socially and for his work. A wonderful cameo of Georgian life can be found in James Woodforde’s diary titled The Diary of a Country Parson and here is an excerpt that will give a good idea of the London/Bath journey that Phillip would have been familiar with.
In 1793 Woodforde records leaving the Angel Inn near the Strand to journey to Bath as follows;
“We got up about 4 o’clock this morning and at 5 got into the Bath coach from the Angel. The coach carries only 4 inside passengers. We had a very fat woman with a dog and many boxes, which much incommoded us, and also a poor sickly good kind of a man that went with us. We were very near meeting with an accident in Reading passing a wagon, but thank God we got by, safe and well. About 10 o’clock this evening we got safe and well to Bath, to the White Inn, where we supped and slept – a very noble Inn.”
The White Hart Inn still exists today and, interestingly, when on the following day Woodforde leaves the Inn taking a short walk through Bath to meet his friends, he passes the house where Phillip (a year on from his return from the Colony) was at that time living – that is at No3 South Parade. Phillip was still recuperating at this time and Bath was renowned for the curative properties of its waters, both for bathing and drinking, the minerals being especially good for stomach and urinary complaints.
But Bath was changing at this time. Bath as Phillip knew it was becoming a genteel place for the more wealthy middle classes; the brash rich socialites having moved on to follow the Prince Regent and his fascination with Brighton. Also with the declaration of war with France, money was being diverted to the war effort and we see income tax raised for the first time. During this time, Britain lurched into recession, Phillip returned to wartime Naval Service and house prices fell in Bath bankrupting many builders.
The fashions of the time reflected the recession too, as men began to turn from expensive wigs to natural hair – and the brighter silks of the rich gentlemen were replaced with more sombre-coloured woollen garments. However, for Phillip this cloud had a silver lining because it meant that when he retired and bought his house in Bennet St, he got rather more house for his money than he might have done a few years earlier.
Phillip’s house is directly across the road from the Assembly Rooms, the place where the gossip, parties and balls took place. The place to see and be seen. It would have been remarkable if Phillip had not taken advantage of this prestigious address; perhaps playing cards in the Octagon Room or attending dances and concerts so well described by Jane Austen (who was also living in Bath at this time) in her Bath-based books, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
So we see Phillip in Bath, despite ill health enjoying polite society after years of working ably across the classes, both in Sydney and in the Sea Fencibles. (The Sea Fencibles was a force comprised of men, many of whom were smugglers who worked on the premise that if they volunteered for naval duty which kept them close to home, they could still ply their smuggling trade as a sideline. It could be said that turning this disparate lot into a cohesive group was not unlike the challenges faced in the establishment of the Colony).
There are many letters and documents available that give us the picture of a man involved in domestic affairs: concern for his wife, house-hunting for retirement and (with evidence in correspondence to Governors Hunter and Macquarie as well as other surviving letters) one who was still vitally interested in the progress of the colony.
Michael Pembroke in his book debates the normally held view that Phillip died tragically, falling from his open window, questioning the historical basis for this. However this is not as unlikely as it seems.
If Phillip did fall, he was not the first to person to die falling from a fashionably low Georgian windowsill, and he was not the last. His house in Bennet St has metal guards in place now. As a result of a number of such accidents (and remembering that Phillip’s death occurred in 1814) city architects from the early 1820’s introduced the “Balconettes” which can now be seen fitted to the outside stonework.
Sir Roger Carrick has written in his publication called London Papers in Australian Studies these words.
“At home on the 31st August 1814, now full Admiral, Arthur Phillip was found dead – in the area in front of the basement of 19 Bennet St, down below the present street-level railings. We do not know the cause of his death: both Arthur and Isabella Phillip died before the 1837 Registration Act, after the passage of which, ‘cause of death’ was included on a Death Certificate. Yet rumours [persist] that Admiral Phillip committed suicide. It certainly seems likely that he went out of the first floor window and tumbled two stories down to the basement, however I do not believe that he committed suicide.
I have a number of reason for this belief.
The first is that for someone of honour, duty, and at least the appearance of faith and the practice of religion, such as Phillip had consistently been since a boy; to commit the then crime of suicide would have been unthinkable.
The second is to do with the fact that Admiral Phillip suffered a debilitating stroke in February 1808 (according to Isabella he was ‘very ill’) which left him largely paralysed on the right side. [This necessitated him when he was sufficiently recovered] ‘taking the air’ in a Bath chair.
Another fashionable way of ‘taking the air’ in Bath in the 1800s was to sit at the first floor window in the afternoon. No 19 is ideal for this purpose, since it faces due south [and is across the road from the assembly rooms where there was a constant supply of distractions and entertainment.]
Arthur Phillip, the sailor, had ropes secured to the wall by the stairs to help him climb to the first floor of No19. (Some say an iron rail was used.) In late August, the handsome, broad and tall, first-floor windows of the 18th century Georgian town houses would have been raised wide open. To test the conclusion I was beginning to form, I wanted to see how high the window sills are [and walking along Bennet St, I saw a young lady standing at a nearby first floor window with a mobile phone glued to her ear. She, who was being unwittingly helpful in my historical research, pulled a chair right up to the window and sat down. Sure enough, the windowsill only came up to her mid-shin.] That memorable demonstration was sufficient to illustrate for me what may well have happened on that summer afternoon. That either drowsing in the warm afternoon sun, or hauling himself up by the open, unbarred window he might well have fallen across the low sill and down two stories to his death. It is also reasonable to suppose that the elderly Admiral may have had another stroke which caused him to fall.”
He continues – “Indeed his old friend Lt Gidley King wrote to his son in 1808 that which gives us a glimpse of the Admiral. King wrote;”
‘I was with Admiral Phillip a week; he is very much altered, having had a stroke and lost the entire use of his whole right side, arm and leg. His intellect and spirits are as good as ever. He may linger some years under his present infirmity, but from his age a great reprieve cannot be expected.’
And so now the story returns to Rev Burden’s discussion on the debate of whether Arthur Phillip was valued or slighted in death.
There seems to be a perception that the place and manner of his burial represents a slur. So, could this arise because of the fact that he was buried in the porch at Bathampton by the church curate and without a great deal of fanfare?
The answer is that funeral etiquette in Georgian times was very different to today. Then, the stress was on simplicity, in large part because funerals, particularly of children, were all too commonplace.
Again James Woodforde is helpful here, telling us that the woman-folk stayed at home in mourning, whilst the men attended the burial. A burial was considered private, so only those invited attended, the closest of which would be the pallbearers. It took an act of parliament in 1806, to honour William Pitt with a public funeral, to allow that anyone could attend a funeral without invitation. Woodforde records his own father’s funeral as being taken by the parish clerk, not ordained but tasked to take services in the church.
So Phillip’s burial by the Curate falls exactly into the custom of the times. However there are two aspects of his burial that show him to be highly esteemed, which unfortunately we interpret differently today.
The first is that he was buried in the porch (although today after Victorian extensions, the grave is now incorporated within the building). A burial in the porch was honourable because it meant that anyone entering or exiting church would be reminded of that person. It also protected the grave from grave-robbers or dogs.
Secondly, that Phillip is buried in one of the villages surrounding Bath rather than in Bath itself.
Bath’s rapid expansion had been around medieval churches with small churchyards. The Abbey at this point had no useable churchyard at all. The poor would have unmarked graves, while the middle class might have a gravestone in one of the increasingly crowded churchyards.
Jane Austen’s father was buried in 1806 at Phillip’s parish at St Swithins-Walcot. Those with influence were buried in the more spacious churchyards of the outlying villages, and so we find Lord Nelson’s sister buried in the neighbouring parish of Bathford and Ralph Allen, a Georgian entrepreneur buried in the sister church to Bathampton, in Claverton.
Phillip’s connection through friends in Bathampton meant this church was chosen as the place to show him honour in his burial, with Isabella buried with him some years later. This was no slur, quite the opposite in the traditions of the day, though admittedly nothing like the state funeral accorded to Britain’s hero Admiral Nelson.
And finally, a bit of information on the actual resting place of Arthur and Isabella.
The Church of St Nicholas has 13th Century origins with 15th Century alterations and tower. In the mid 18th century Ralph Allen added Gothic components after he acquired Bathampton Manor by marriage in 1731. After Phillip’s burial in 1814, the building underwent further restorations and renovations in 1858 and 1882. His grave was given recognition again in 1897 when the then Premier of NSW, Sir Henry Parkes, had it restored.
The side chapel was redesigned and dedicated as the Australia Chapel on 26th January 1975. The grave stone formerly in what was the porch is now finds itself enclosed by the enlarged building. It was turned from its original E-W orientation to N-S, so that visitors are now greeted by the inscription as they enter the church.
The floor is of Wombeyan marble and all the woodwork is of Australian blackbean timber.
The wooden chairs were donated by many Australian cities and organisations, the names being noted on the back of each one.
The Fellowship of First Fleeters contributed funds to the enterprise in the form of the Phillip Memorial; a low screen made of Australian blackbean, placed between the two nave piers adjacent to Phillip’s grave and on which is recorded Phillip’s connection with Australia.
Above-Right: The Gravestone. The FFF plaque can be seen at the centre/foot of the timber railing.
The kneelers were given by Tasmania.
Stained glass windows were installed showing the six Australian states.
Each year on the Friday nearest to Phillip’s birthday which is on 11th October, a service is held in the church in collaboration with the West Country Branch of the Britain-Australia Society. The Australian High Commissioner, or his representative, attends with other distinguished guests from Australia and the United Kingdom and lays a wreath on Phillip’s grave. They are joined by many with Australian connections together with children from the village primary school, and the Australian flag is proudly flown from the church tower.
Rev Burden poses the question Is Phillip honoured? His answer? Categorically….. yes!
Information has been drawn from the following publications, all of which are available in FFF Southern Highlands Chapter library.
1. Phillip in Bath. Rev Paul Burden 2014.
2. Admiral Arthur Phillip RN. Robin Donald 2013.
3. Peerless Pilgrimage. Ron Withington. 2014
4. London Papers in Australian Studies, 2011. Sir Roger Carrick.