The Revd Paul Burden
Rector of Bathampton with Claverton
It’s a huge privilege to be asked to speak today, and to represent St Nicholas Bathampton, the place of Arthur Phillip’s burial, in this church that today encompasses the parish of his baptism. It’s a reminder that, dying just short of his 76th birthday, Phillip had a long life considering the attrition of his naval service and the bad health he suffered after his return from the new colony.
I want to focus today on Phillip’s later life, the time spent living in Bath, and I hope to give some additional insights into the nature of the man. I also need to address the issue of how and why he came to be buried in the porch of a small country church, since there are those who think (and I quote directly from that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia) that ‘it was a "disgraceful slur" on Phillip's legacy that he was not buried in one of England's great cathedrals and was relegated to a small village church’. I disagree, but as someone who has given over 15 years of ministry to that small village church, you may think me slightly biased.
Bath represents a very settled period at the end of Phillip’s life. In Georgian times, it was no backwater, and I reflected on my way here that the journey I’ve made today is one that Phillip would have been familiar with. Indeed, it was a journey he made on a very significant occasion, when he came from Bath to marry Isabella in 1794.
For a glimpse of Georgian England, I’m sure “The Diary of a Country Parson” has been referred to in previous addresses here. It’s a delightful insight into the England of Phillip’s day, a diary written by James Woodforde, a Rector near Norwich, from his student days through to the end of his life in 1802. It’s well worth reading. One of the surprises is how often he travels from London to friends in Bath. In June 1793 he records staying at “the Angel Inn at the back of St Clements near the Strand”, and then writes “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 Hart Inn, where we supped and slept – a very noble Inn.” 17 hours by coach from London to Bath. The White Hart Inn is quite close to Bath station, and so perhaps I should call in there on my way home purely in the interests of historical research.
So, a familiar journey, and the fitting connection here is that when James Woodforde the next day walks a short distance through Bath to meet his friends, he passes the house where Phillip at that very moment was living, in 3 South Parade. It was a house built 50 years before during the building boom in the city when the population of Bath increased by 10 times. Phillip was a year on from his return from Sydney, recuperating and doubtless bathing in the spa waters for which Bath had become famous. But Bath was changing, and for two reasons.
The first was that the brash rich and the socialites that had inhabited Bath in that first flush of its popularity had moved on, following the Prince Regent in his fascination with Brighton. Bath, as Phillip knew it, was becoming more a place for the wealthier middle classes, more genteel, and more naval. One feels from what we know of Phillip that this would have been to his liking.
The second reason for change was the declaration of war with France. Only a few months before his trip to Bath in 1793, James Woodforde writes “Newspapers from Norwich. The King of France Louis 16 inhumanely and unjustly beheaded on Monday last by his cruel, blood-thirsty subjects. Dreadful times I am afraid are approaching to all Europe. France the foundation of all of it.” Money was suddenly diverted to the war effort, with income tax being raised for the first time in 1799. Britain lurched into recession, if you can possibly imagine such a thing. Whilst Phillip returned to wartime naval service, house prices in Bath fell and builders were bankrupted. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and when Phillip retired and bought his final house in Bennett Street in 1805, he got rather more house for his money than he would have done a decade before.
Bath had sobered up a little by 1805, though Jane Austen, living there at the same time, is summarised as portraying Bath as a “petty city that is only good for gossip and parties and balls.” Phillip bought his house directly across the road from the Assembly Rooms, the place in Bath where the gossip and parties and balls took place. The house would certainly have had a price premium for its position, so it would be remarkable if Phillip didn’t take advantage, perhaps playing at cards in the Octagon room or attending the dances that Austen describes in her Bath based books, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
Such a social life in the genteel society of Bath would have been in great contrast to his naval service immediately before retirement. Phillip had been charged with working with the Sea Fencibles. These were effectively the naval home guard of the day to defend against French invasion. Again, James Woodforde gives witness to the national state of alert when in 1801 he says that all clergy received papers “concerning what is to be done in case of an invasion of the French on this country.” I think this part of Phillip’s career can be somewhat undersold because here again, as with the convicts in Sydney, he used great skill in bringing the best out of what society might have felt was unpromising material. Many who enlisted into the Sea Fencibles were smugglers, and Britain’s final line of defence against invasion relied on Phillip moulding such men into a realistic fighting force, though it was never tested.
Two fascinating letters were found from this period of Phillip’s life, written by him to Isabella. One from 1801 relates how he is about to move from Plymouth to Appledore but, during the writing of the letter, he is told about the peace (sadly only temporary) declared by Napoleon in 1801 and thinks he may not move after all. Another from 1803 finds him with a cold, house hunting as he stays in Bath, perhaps with his good friends in Bathampton, in Osborne House, next door but one to my Vicarage and which hosted the Phillips on a number of occasions. For me, the fascination is more what can be read between the lines of this letter, that Isabella is in all probability suffering acute anxiety. Phillip is at pains to assure her of his affection, and of the good wishes of her many friends, again witnessing to their full social life.
Other letters after retirement testify to Phillip’s ongoing concern for the colony in Sydney. We have a letter from Phillip and the 2nd Governor John Hunter, petitioning for pardon for Lieutenant Colonel Johnstone, under court-martial for his part in deposing the 4th Governor of Sydney in 1808. We also have evidence of Phillip’s friendship with Francis Greenway, a Bristol builder and architect who was bankrupted by recession and transported. Greenway was given a letter of reference from Phillip to Governor MacQuarie, and by virtue of this, on his arrival in Australia, he became the first notable architect in the colony, responsible for a number of significant buildings in Sydney including St James’s Church.
So we see Phillip in Bath, despite ill health enjoying polite social society after years of working ably across the classes both in Sydney and in the Sea Fencibles, as indeed on board ship. We see a man involved in domestic affairs, concerned for his wife and house hunting for retirement. We also see a man still involved in the progress of the colony at Sydney, up to his death in 1814, tragically falling from his open window.
If you go to the house today, you’ll see metal guards across the first floor windows that once fronted Phillip’s main room. They are there because Phillip was not the first person to die falling from a fashionably low Georgian windowsill, and he was not the last. I see no reason to conjecture that his death was anything else but an accident on a warm August day through sleep or a loss of balance. But he was buried in the porch of Bathampton Church, with a brief note in the burial register of a service taken by Thomas Hale, Curate. Was this all a disgraceful slur?
The answer is that funeral etiquette in Georgian times was very different to today and stressed simplicity, in large part because funerals, particularly of children, were all too commonplace. Again James Woodforde is helpful here, telling of the womenfolk staying 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 invited to be pall bearers. Woodforde records his father’s funeral, which he wants to make as grand as possible, and he does this by making sure the men have black silk hatbands and shammy gloves. Although his father was a clergyman, and Woodforde and other pall bearers are clergy, the burial is taken by the parish clerk, not ordained but tasked to take services in the church. On other occasions he tells of the Curate taking that role.
So Phillip’s burial by the Curate, with not much note, 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 of the church. Today, after Victorian extensions, the grave is now included within the church building. A burial in the porch was honourable because it meant that any one entering or leaving church would be reminded of that person. It also protected the grave from the dangers of a churchyard burial, such as grave robbers or dogs.
Secondly, Phillip is buried in one of the villages surrounding Bath. 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, whilst the middle class of a little influence might have a gravestone in one of those increasingly crowded churchyards. This was true for Jane Austen’s father, buried in 1806 at Phillip’s parish church (which, incidentally, means it isn’t too fanciful to imagine the Phillips and Jane Austen attending church together).
However, 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 wealthy Georgian entrepreneur, buried at my other church 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 disgraceful slur, quite the opposite in the traditions of the day, though admittedly nothing like the state funeral accorded to Britain’s hero Admiral Nelson.
Is Phillip honoured? Categorically, yes. However, there is something else that I feel is of much greater importance in Phillip’s burial. It’s the fundamental fact that, whoever we are and whatever our status, death claims us all. It’s the ultimate statistic that levels all humanity before God our Creator and our Saviour. At St Nicholas Church, we are proud of Phillip, and are delighted to honour him. We are grateful for the promise of financial help from the Britain-Australia Society that has enabled us to put a wonderful display in our tower area to tell of Phillip’s achievements, and have specially lit his stone. Already we are getting huge appreciation from visitors.
But I must balance that with a recognition that, buried in our church and churchyard, there are many others who have also shown compassionate, wise and, yes, Godly and Christ focussed lives. I could tell you of some that it has been my privilege to know. Though their achievements receive little or no recognition in this world, they have heard the call, as in our reading, of Christ saying “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you”.
The last panel of the Phillip display points to the Christian faith that our little church has stood for over many centuries, and reminds us that all of us are important before God as we seek to serve Christ in our lives. That desire is alive and well. A number of our congregation work in Bath to provide food for the homeless – “when I was hungry you gave me food”. We are seeking hard for funding to enable us to continue our work with the youth of the area in the employment of a youth worker – “when I was a stranger you welcomed me”. We do the pastoral work – “when I was sick, you took care of me, you visited me”.
Phillip did great things and, wonderfully, they have been noticed and are honoured amongst us. But he is buried in a church where he is in the company of those, living and departed, who have also done great things but many are known only to God. May we too be those who serve Christ in our day and, when our time comes, be those to whom he’ll say “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you”. That will be the greatest honour any of us can have.