The Very Revd Victor Stock OAM

Dean of Guilford

The 18th century was self-consciously an enlightened and emancipated age, despite the fact that throughout much of its course it was not a period remarkable for creative thought, its debt to the 17th century being immense.  Thus, the Age of Reason was remarkable less for the doctrines which it propounded than for the manner of thought which it encouraged, secular in spirit and destructive in effect.  It diffused a scepticism which gradually dissolved the intellectual and religious patterns, which had governed European thought since St Augustine.  It proclaimed the autonomy of man’s mind and his infinite capacity for progress and perfectability.  In the principle of causality it believed that it had found the key which would open the secrets and lay bare the essential nature of the universe and of man. 

Into such a world Arthur Phillip was born and when Phillip received his commission from George III on October 12 1786 appointing him “Governor of our territory called New South Wales”, he was one day past his 48th birthday.  From the surviving portraits, slight in build, slightly pendulous lower lip, smooth pear of a skull, liquid, melancholy looking eyes, a face most unlike the square-boned visage of Cook (one could imagine Phillip’s head rather under a European peruke, belonging to a kapellmeister in some little Bavarian court, for Phillip was indeed half German).

His father, Jacob Phillip, a language teacher from Frankfurt, emigrated to London and married a certain Elizabeth Breach.  Phillip went first to war at the age of 16 in time for the start of the seven years war against France.  He married, the marriage not a happy one, and he was formally separated in 1769.  There were no children.  Rural life at Lyndhurst palled and by 1770 he was back on the active list and in 1774 he got leave to join the Portuguese navy, then at war with Spain.  As captain of a Portuguese ship Phillip delivered 400 Portuguese convicts across the Atlantic to Brazil without losing a man, a feat that convinced Lord Sydney of his fitness to govern a penal colony.

He was reliable, forthright and rather unimaginative.  Solitary, competent on board ship, self-effacing on shore, but my goodness, this pater patrii of Australia was a very remarkable man.  He shared the religious background of his Lutheran father and would have drawn on and breathed in the air of Protestant Anglicanism, as yet untouched by either the Evangelical revival emanating from Cambridge in the next century or the Oxford movement which transformed the Church of England, producing the liturgy, art and services we now take for granted, exemplified by what goes on around us in St Mary-le-Bow or up the road at St Paul’s Cathedral or further along the Thames at Westminster Abbey.  In Phillip’s day no candle would have been seen in St Paul’s or the Abbey, no vestment worn, no daily Eucharist celebrated.

Our reformed, sacramental, Catholic spirituality was unknown to Arthur Phillip.  Nevertheless, he achieved astonishing results and the astonishing results I think are tied in to that very 18th century Protestantism which didn’t go in for charismatic leadership and didn’t care for Methodist enthusiasm, and produced in Phillip a man of no political talents, but politicians were the last people the Crown needed in a remote penal settlement.  If a colony was to survive at all, it must be run by chain of command, not consensus, and led by an eminently practical man.  18th century Anglicanism was eminently practical, indeed in some ways hardly religious at all – more the inculcation of standards of acceptable behaviour.

Phillip received his commission on 12 October 1786, and here is Parson Woodford at Weston Longeville Parsonage in Norfolk, October 12th 1786:  “We breakfasted, dined and slept again at The King’s Head.  Mr Priest called on us this morning at The King’s Head.  We drank tea, supped and spent the evening at Mr Priest’s, with him, his wife and their son, John.  Mr Barker and his wife, a very pretty and agreeable woman, drank tea with us this afternoon at Mr Priest’s.  After tea we played pool, a quadrille.  We got back to our Inn soon after ten this evening, made all the enquiry I could and sent the same to London, Nancy but indifferent and thinking too much on her trunk, as no trunk was brought by either the mail coaches.” 

Parson Woodford was not a bad man, was interested in the welfare of his parishioners, liked a good, fat goose for dinner.  He was neither enthusiastic nor charismatic.  The sort of religion which nourished him was similar to the religion which nourished Arthur Phillip.  There was the Bible, as a mentor for morality, a guide to behaviour, for as Nicholas Moseley, the historian, has written: “Men went to Church in the 18th century to learn to be good”.  This is the dignified, under-stated, reticent well-considered world of Jane Austen, but my goodness, what such a religious environment did for Arthur Phillip to keep him sane and to give him courage in the almost overwhelmingly ghastly experience of his first years in New South Wales.

736 convicts were his responsibility on the first fleet.  We know the age and occupation, sometimes both, of 330 people – 127 women and 203 men, most of them Londoners.  Minor theft – 431, breaking and entering – 93, highway robbery – 71, stealing cattle or sheep – 44, robbery with violence – 31, grand larceny – 9, receiving stolen goods – 8, swindling, impersonation – 7, forgery of documents, banknotes – 4, other crimes – 35.  All these were crimes against property, some forced by pitiful necessity.  Elizabeth Beckford, the second oldest woman on the first fleet, was 70.  Her crime, for which she got 7 years’ transportation was to have stolen 12 pounds of Gloucester cheese.  At the Stafford Assizes a labourer named Thomas Hawell went down for 7 years for feloniously stealing one live hen, value tuppence, and one dead hen to the value of tuppence.  Elizabeth Powley, 22, raided a kitchen in Norfolk, took a few shillings worth of bacon, flour and raisins with 24 ounces weight of butter valued 12 pence, and was sentenced to hang, but a reprieve came and to Australia she went, never to eat butter again.

For William Pitt, such a hero in our own City of London, getting rid of the convicts was what Australia was for, where as far as he was concerned they would sink without trace, and the poor naval officers and marines who were sent out with him could sink without trace too.  Behind the patrician, education and revived classical architecture of Greece and Rome that gave England its great 18th century houses, the crescents of Bath and the splendours of London, there was cold indifference, fuelled by a sense that the poor simply suffered and also suffered justly for their sin, an inevitable wastage among what the next generation would designate ‘the feckless poor’.

Because Phillip did not simply accept the moral view of this moral majority, he was disliked and never rewarded, hence the mitigation in some very small way of our endeavour to honour him here where the Australian community in its Diaspora gathers to do him homage.  Through all the starvation and neglect – no government sending out the people asked for to help with the new colony – Phillip kept going as a humane and honourable human being.  When the second fleet arrived at long last, more than a thousand had embarked, but a quarter had died at sea, half were landed helplessly ill at Sydney Cove from the three remaining ships, Neptune, Surprise and Scarborough.  Some died from the brutality of the ships’ masters, others because they’d been too sick to sail.  The authorities simply used the second fleet to rid the hulks and prisons of invalids, despatching them into oblivion. 

“Sending out of the disorder”, the helpless Phillip wrote angrily to his superiors in London, “clears the jails and may ease the parishes from which they’re sent, but it is obvious that the settlement, instead of being a colony which will support itself, will, if this practice is continued, remain for years a burden to the mother country”.  Before this letter reached London the third fleet was on its way carrying 1,864 convicts.  One man in ten died and the survivors were landed in 1791 so emaciated, so worn away, in Phillip’s words, “that they were utterly unfit to work, more helpless parasites to drag the colony down”.  It is no surprise that France was on the very verge of revolution and about to descend into the bloodbath of The Terror, changing the European political landscape for ever.  The surprise was that the same did not happen in England, and I just wonder if that might in some small but vital way have something to do with Anglicanism?

The ship, the Atlantic, took Arthur Phillip away in 1792 in December and on the other side of the world on 21st January 1793 Louis XVI was guillotined.  The Roman Catholic Church in France was identified with reaction and despite the presence in the first half of the nineteenth century of distinguished liberal intellectuals among Catholic laity, the Roman Church always regretted the Revolution and the equalities and freedoms which were its children.  By the end of the nineteenth century through the teaching of Pius IX and Leo XIII the Catholic Church had set its face against the modern world.

But the Anglicanism which had nurtured Arthur Phillip was of a very different stamp.  The Book of Common Prayer with its ordered liturgy and retention of an early Church and Mediaeval patterns of ordered psalmody and biblical reading, controlled by the Calendar of Feasts and Fasts, ordained by the Prayer Book and laid down by Parliamentary Statute, kept Anglicanism from the wilder shores of Evangelical enthusiasm, while providing through the classical education of its clergy at Oxford and Cambridge men able to enter into the scientific and political debates of their age, neither fearing nor shunning progress.  Compare and contrast some of those other Governors who immediately followed Phillip in Australia, who still regarded their job as the maintenance of a rotting hulk of hopeless malcontents, with Phillip’s enlightened and humane sense of what might be possible, even for the convicts in his charge, and something of that spirit of humanitarian and godly Christianity, which helped to save England from revolution, is in Phillip exemplified.

It would be fascinating to know more about the internal, psychological landscape of Arthur Phillip’s religious life, but that remains one of the mysteries of history, for such insight, where it is available, soon clouds over, like the day when I was cycling in Holland many years’ ago and had revealed to me the meaning of the universe and the answer to everything.  By the time I’d got to the other side of the bridge I’d forgotten both the answer and the meaning.  One of the most gripping aspects of Arthur Phillip’s story is the sadness of his declining years.  How did he look back on his extraordinary life?  What meaning did he see in his Australian experience?  What brought him to his end at Bath and the manner of his dying?  We cannot know but must leave such speculation and such enquiry and turn instead to the God who gave Arthur Phillip such grace that he was able to see in the most disadvantaged and despised, men and women who had the potential to bear the mark of their Creator. 

Once again, here at St Mary-le-Bow, just round the corner from the long-vanished St Mildred’s Bread Street, where Phillip was baptised, we give thanks for a remarkable man, who not only embodied the humane side of the 18th century and the very best of its Enlightenment, but who knew, in his own experience, that humankind’s infinite capacity for progress and perfectability march hand-in-hand with an utterly and sometimes overwhelming cost.  Phillip believed in a God whose creation was costly to the point of the Cross, to that entering into the depths of human degradation, sin and human suffering, which is the cost and price of Salvation.