The Landing Place and Flag Raising Ceremony

Story by Rod Davis, member Fellowship of First Fleeters.


Picture painted by English artist Algernon Talmage (1872-1939) in 1937, the original is held by the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
Caption: “The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan 26th 1788”

The article in the Fellowship of First Fleeters newsletter Founders 46/3 regarding the finding of four additional persons who sailed with the First Fleet is interesting in its own right but the most significant matter brought to light in the article is the letter from John Campbell, one of the four, to his parents. The content of this letter, together with other documented evidence, should dispel any further doubt as to the location of a) the original landing site of Arthur Phillip in Sydney Cove and b) the location of the flag raising ceremony on 26 January 1788.

The location of the flag raising ceremony, in particular, has long been a matter of contention. The plate erected on the western side of the Customs House at Circular Quay was intended to commemorate the ceremony and was placed at the supposed location of the event. The inscription on the plate lists the names of members of a Committee of Enquiry which, it reads, determined the location. The plate was erected on 26 January 1967. The evidence of John Campbell’s letter, not available to the Committee, shows this location to be incorrect.

It is highly probable that the Committee had been misled, as have others before and since, by the depiction of the flag and flagstaff in many of the early paintings/sketches of Sydney Cove showing it on the eastern side of the mouth of the Tank Stream near the head of the Cove. Also the celebrated painting of the ceremony, which has been reproduced on Australian stamps a number of times, shows the position to be at the head of the Cove on the eastern side of the Tank Stream.

This new evidence from John Campbell’s letter is quite clear that the ceremony took place on the western side of the Cove and was, in all probability, very close to the place where Phillip first set foot there on 22 January when searching for a suitable place to establish the new settlement. Campbell wrote to his “Honord Mother and Father” on “Aguft the 9th 1789” describing the scene in Sydney Cove on the evening of 26 January 1788.

“…..the Governor went on Shore to take posfhion of the Land with a Company of Granadeers & Some Convicts at three OClock in the Afternoon he sent on board of the Supply Brigantine for the Union Jack then orders was Gave for the Soldiers to March down to the Weft Side of the Cove they Cut one of the Treas down & fixt a flag Staf & hoistd the Jack and fired four Folleys of small Arms which was Answered with three Cheers from the Brig ……” (1)

That the Governor landed on the western side of the Cove is evidenced from the account written by Jacob Nagle, a sailor from HMS Sirius who was in the party which accompanied Phillip from Botany Bay to seek a more suitable settlement site. Nagle wrote;

“…….the govener Anxious to get to the head of it [Port Jackson] but we Could not at length we got as far as where the town is now Call’d Sidney Cove & landed at the West Side of the Cove along Shore was all Bushes but a Small distance at the head of the Cove was level & large trees & no Underwood worth mentioning & a Run of fresh Water Runing down into the Center of the Cove the Govener & Officers & Seamen Went up to a aleet[?] it. I Remained in the Boat being boatkeeper I hove my line over being 4 or 5 fathom Water Along Side of the Rocks …….” (2)

This landing site was probably chosen for its ease of getting ashore, most likely onto a flat rock, rather than at the head of the Cove near the mouth of the stream where the water was obviously too shallow.

Moving on, now, to 26 January 1788 when the Fleet was brought from Botany Bay to Port Jackson, it is only logical to conclude that the site chosen for the landing then was the same as that used on 22 January that is on the west side of the Cove and, as an extension of that premise, the flag ceremony would have been close by.

There is evidence that this was certainly the case from an entry in the journal of David Collins An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales who wrote;

“In the evening of this day the whole of the party that came round in the Supply were assembled at the point where they had first landed in the morning, [underlining mine] and on which a flag-staff had been purposely erected and a union jack displayed, when the marines fired several vollies; between which the governor and the officers who accompanied him drank the healths of his Majesty and the Royal Family, and success to the new colony.” (3)

So, because Jacob Nagle gave the location of the first landing on 21 January as the western side of the Cove in 4-5 fathoms (24-30 feet) of water; John Campbell indicated that the flag was raised on the western side; David Collins said that the flag ceremony was at the site of the landing and, from what I wrote earlier, it would be reasonably safe to conclude that the landing place used on 26 January was the same as the one used on 22 January then the actual site of the landing and the flag raising would be close to the Overseas Passenger Terminal and probably where the Founders article places it, namely near the Bethel Steps behind the Terminal, on the original shoreline. The water depth given by Jacob Nagle around this location agrees with the soundings taken by Hunter/Bradley and notated on charts attributed to them. The charts also show that anywhere else on the western shoreline the water is either deeper or shallower.

I think that now is the time to add Q.E.D. (Quod Erat Demonstrandum) to the problem of where it was that Phillip landed, raised and saluted the flag in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. A suitable monument should be erected at the site.


  1. Campbell, John. State Library of New South Wales. State Library of New South Wales, Manuscripts, oral history & pictures. [Online] unknown unknown, 2010. [Cited: September 14, 2015.] Call Number SAFE / MLMSS 7525. Digital Order No Album ID: 823671.
  2. Nagle, Jacob. Jacob Nagle his Book A.D. One Thousand Eight Hundred and Twenty Nine May 19th Canton. Stark County Ohio. Compiled 1829. p. 83.
  3. Collins, David. An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales. London : T Cadell Jnr and W. Davis, 1789. p. 52. Vol. 1.