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Admiralty House on republican land

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One of the many strands of irony that lace through the republican debate in Australia involves Admiralty House, the official Sydney residence of the Governor-General of Australia, being built on land that was once owned by a prominent republican convict, Thomas Muir, writes Dr Glenn Davies.  

ADMIRALTY HOUSE is located in Kirribilli, on the northern foreshore of Sydney Harbour adjacent to Kirribilli House, which is the Sydney residence of the Prime Minister. The local aboriginal tribe, 'Cammeraygal' knew the area as a fertile fishing ground, and called it "Kiarabilli", (good fishing spot), while the tribal name was later adapted for the suburb of Cammeray.


Scottish "martyr", Thomas Muir

The story of Admiralty House and of its site at Kirribilli begins in the 18th century with Thomas Muir, the Scottish constitutional reformer and one of the five celebrated “Scottish Martyrs".

Republicanism was an ongoing issue during the 1790s as the British state was suffering from both the aftermath of the American Revolution and the alarming proximity of the French Revolution. The protests and demands that had been raised in France before and during the Revolution were paralleled in England, Ireland and Scotland. The various outspoken English reform societies had their equivalent in Scotland in groups calling themselves the “Friends of the People” and in Ireland in branches of the “United Irishmen”. Leaders of all groups were drawn from middle-class professionals and artisans.

In December 1792, the first Convention of the Scottish “Friends of the People” was held in Edinburgh. The Convention protested against longstanding abuses of political power. A vigorous campaign of public speeches and distributions of pamphlets and tracts had resulted in the formation of branches of the “Friends of the People” in practically every Scottish town, although some branches were weak. There was a claimed membership of tens of thousands when delegates, joined by representatives from English societies, gathered in Edinburgh. The Convention president was Thomas Muir a twenty-seven year old lawyer and the secretary was William Skirving, a university-educated expert on agriculture. They called for equal representation of the people in parliament and a shorter duration of parliament. The Convention leaders were political reformers not revolutionaries who wanted to repair not replace the British political system. They were middle-class thinking reformers who were challenging people’s ideas, not advocating physical action. Even so, Muir and a number of his colleagues were charged with sedition. On reflecting in the 1850s on the trials of the “Scottish Martyrs”, Lord Cockburn defined sedition as,

"...uttering, writing or publishing material which would lead to disorder in the realm and possibly the overthrow of the government. The emphasis of allegations against each martyr would be, therefore, not only on what he had done or said, but the intention of his words and actions."

In the trials of the “Scottish Martyrs” the juries were selected to ensure conviction. In Britain, the middle-class supporters of reform societies renounced violence and launched a petitioning campaign to support their proposals for reform in the British parliament. The first of the “Scottish Martyr” trials occurred at the moment when the British government felt besieged from all sides by republican action. This charge of sedition was certainly a reaction to the events in France. The “Reign of Terror” was at its height in revolutionary France. When Muir stood trial in 1793, the French King had just been executed, Thomas Paine had just released his revolutionary republican tract in America, The Rights of Man (1792), and Britain had declared war on republican France. The British government could not allow republican dissent, real or perceived, to occur on their own island without swift and firm action. In his defence Muir stated,
Constitutions of government are the work of men; that constitution is the most perfect which can be easily amended … There are constitutions, which, step by step, without convulsion and without blood, have advanced to superior degrees of perfection; which by their own internal energy, have effected their own reformation, and avoided the calamities of a revolution … How grateful we should be … that our constitution possesses in itself the power of amendment, that without a revolution it can rectify its abuses; and that, silently and without disorder, it can advance towards the chastened liberty, which constitutes human felicity.

Whig politician, Charles James Fox

Muir’s claim that there was no fixed British constitution was to be the basis of constitutional republican thinking in nineteenth-century colonial Australia. The British parliamentarian Charles Fox had been talking of the idea of a “disguised republic” since the end of the eighteenth century. The opinion of the Scottish judges was that it was not possible for the British constitution to evolve as it was fixed and the best in the world. Thus, constitutional reform was not possible.

Parliamentary representation in the late eighteenth century was based on landed interest. It was considered only those people who owned land had a stake, or interest in the country. Those who did not possess land were considered transient and therefore did not have a right to participate in the decision-making of the country. Although Muir had stated the objectives of the “Friends of the People” had been simply parliamentary reform he was sentenced to seven years and transportation to New South Wales. The example of the “Scottish Martyrs” was paralleled in the colonies with the labelling of those colonists who desired parliamentary reform as republicans.

The “Scottish Martyrs” were linked to republicanism through their sympathies with the French system, their imitations of French forms in the Conventions, and Gerrald’s avowed admiration of the American republic. However, they all denied in court they were republicans. They did not want to overthrow the monarchy but rather they wanted to reform a corrupt system that did not represent the people. Even so, they were transported under a charge of sedition as incipient republicans.
Customs Officer John George Nathaniel Gibbes, the original owner of Admiralty House

Before 1795, there had been little reason for concern about republican activity in New South Wales, however, with the arrival of HMS Surprize in 1795 a change occurred within the political tenor of the colony. Onboard the HMS Surprize were the “Scottish Martyrs”, middle-class Scottish and English dissenters with a reform agenda. The “Scottish Martyrs” had an influence over a number of the young men Governor Hunter had brought to the colony as his assistants. Also onboard HMS Surprize was John Boston, who had been accused during the voyage of toasting, “damnation to the King, his family, and all crowned heads”, and who had described himself as “an avowed Jacobin”. Boston was to continue his outspoken Jacobinism in the colony.

The five “Scottish Martyrs” were officially perceived as Jacobins, another word for republicans. Jacobins was a term used for those sympathetic to the French revolution and who agitated for reform. Fifty years later the fear of Jacobin republicanism pervaded the New South Wales colony. In 1842, the Sydney Morning Herald challenged the colonists of New South Wales to choose between, “the rights of the constitution or the rights of man? Monarchy, or republicanism? The doctrines of Magna Carta, or the doctrines of Tom Paine?” The Sydney Morning Herald was pleased to announce that the majority of the colonists were not radical republicans, “and that while you prize beyond life your own rights as British commoners, you pay cheerful homage to the throne of your Sovereign.” The article continued with a definition of “Loyalists and Jacobins”. British loyalists asserted, “the graduated rights of Kings, Lords, and Commons … [and were] firmly attached to the British constitution as a limited monarchy.” Jacobins were described as,

"Levellers … whose undisguised principles strike at the very root of monarchical government … a compound of English and Scotch radicals and Irish repealers – democrats of the deepest dye – chartists, agrarians, anarchists, mobcrats."

Certainly they were referring to the “Scottish Martyrs” in this list. Yet the “Scottish Martyrs” were all well-educated and highly respected men.

When Thomas Muir was sentenced to transportation for sedition as a political prisoner he was treated as an exile rather than a convict. In 1794 he was granted a farm “across the water” from his cottage on Sydney Cove beside the Tank Stream. This farm he named “Hunter’s Hill” after his father’s home in Scotland; it included all of Kirribilli. However, as there was little restriction placed on his movements he escaped with ease from the colony in 1796 aboard an American brig, never to return.

In 1800 the property was granted to a Robert Ryan for services in the Marines and in the New South Wales Corps. A year later it passed into the hands of merchant Robert Campbell who built Australia's first shipbuilding yards in 1807, where the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron is located. The property was used for grazing by Campbell's friend James Milson, after whom 'Milson's Point', the next point west from Kirribilli is named. In 1842, five acre of the site was leased to Gibbes to build a home on the site.
Admiralty House

The original house was a private dwelling, built in 1843, by Colonel John George Nathaniel Gibbes, Collector of Customs for New South Wales and a portrait of him from 1808, hangs in the house. It later served as the residence for the Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy's Australian Squadron from which the name Admiralty House was introduced. Between 1842 and 1843, a single-storey house with wide verandahs which Gibbes designed and named "Wotonga" was constructed. Local stone and timber was used and Gibbes engaged James Hume, a well known builder to supervise the construction of the building and stables. Completed, the house featured a double facade to maximise the building's magnificent, sweeping views across Sydney Harbour and monitor shipping traffic in and out of Darling Harbour and Circular Quay, where the Customs House was. Robert Campbell died in 1849 and the executors sold the house and five acres of land, to Gibbes for about £400. On 27 December 1851, Gibbes sold the property to James Travers, a merchant of Macquarie Place, for £1,533. In 1854 a little over an acre of the land was sold to Adolph Feez and Kirribilli House was built next door. This now serves as the official Sydney residence of the Australian Prime Minister.
Admiralty House today

Admiralty House may be a monarchical structure but it is built on once republican land. Although Thomas Muir absconded from his political prison it would be interesting to consider whether the transfer of ownership of the land was valid.

(Dr Glenn Davies is a history teacher and an Australian historian who has written extensively about Australia's long republican past. Glenn is also the secretary of the Queensland branch of the Australian Republican Movement.)  
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