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British heritage


‘Capitalism, coal, trans-oceanic commerce, factories, machinery and trade unions . . . stimulated by scientific inventions and a rising population, entered decisively on that headlong career that shows no sign of a slackened pace today’

Trevelyan, p. 135[1]

Australian settlement occurred at a time of momentous social change in Britain in the last half of the eighteenth century.

Georgian England – 1713-1830-37

Accumulation of wealth in England meant that by the end of the 18th century it had become a leading economic power. At the beginning of this period England had become a country of grand estates, agriculture being financed with money generated by the cotton, cloth, coal and other enterprises of the early industrial revolution when many of the new industrialists who built the factories, mills and businesses of the eighteenth century were the sons of successful landowners.

We can get some insight into the mind-set of early settlers by looking briefly at some of the changes that had occurred to the lives of ordinary folk during the Industrial Revolution that occurred in the century of change that occurred from the assumption of the throne by George II in 1727, through the long reign of George III (from 1760-1811), to the close of the reign of George IV in 1830.

George II & George III – 1727-1811

In 1727 Britain life was centred in the countryside. Manufactured goods were produced in villages that were largely self-sufficient, providing their own clothes, implements and simple buildings as well as bread, meat, Beer and a few luxury items. The fast-developing cotton industry was based in village cottages. Luxury items like special furniture, books, china, exotic foods and other refinements from London were largely confined to the estate manor houses. Towns at this time served as distribution centres where markets and shops traded the goods produced in the villages and surrounding land. Coastal towns supported largely national trade. Royalty took a keen interest in the arts and sciences. George III had founded and paid the establishment costs of the Royal Academy of the Arts, donated a royal library to the British Museum and he showed a keen interest in agriculture which earned him the sobriquet ‘Farmer George’.

George IV (1762-1830) r. 1820-1830

By the 1820s, especially in the midlands and north of England, manufacturing towns and districts had been established based around factories and heavy machinery creating a rift between town and country, rich and poor. Cloth and cotton manufacture had now moved into factories and improved roads and canals removed the need for self-sufficiency as villagers now bought manufactured goods from the towns. Wagons replaced pack horse as a means of transport and goods from overseas were now soon delivered across the land to all classes – unlike former times when wines, spices and silks were enjoyed only by knights, nobles and merchants. Simple country tradesmen, like the carpenters, tailors, brewers, millers and blacksmiths as mass production began and a sudden increase in population kept the price of labour low. Farmers were now producing cereals and meat for the town markets, not for home consumption. Former open fields, or ‘commons’ where everyone’s cattle were grazed were converted by major landowners into the now familiar rectilinear mosaic of arable land created by fences and hawthorn hedges as a consequence of parliamentary ‘enclosure’ legislation introduced because the former communal style of living, although beneficial for most people, was inefficient. Vast areas of uncultivated land and old woodland were cleared for agriculture and in these fields improved farming techniques were practiced – including the four-field rotation of crops, manuring, improved drainage, more mechanised seed drilling, improved sowing, tilling and threshing all facilitated by the invention of the modern plough and threshing machine: selective breeding was producing new crops. Stock was fattened more than ever before: fresh beef and mutton replaced the former salted meats. Even though the population had doubled in a century, agricultural output had met the demand. For the growing number of affluent people food choices were moving beyond necessity: the less healthy but more popular white bread made from refined rather than wholegrain wheat was being eaten by all classes.

In London fashionable, expensive and exclusive coffee-houses sold drinks imported by the East India Company as England became a nation of home tea drinkers, tea being regarded as more socially acceptable than spirits or beer – although tobacco was now also found in most homes along with porcelain, and other goods imported from China and India – as well as books, hats and other consumer goods available from large stores. sugar consumption soared. This was the first stirring of a broad-based consumer culture and an erosion of the consumer characteristics that distinguished the classes. Hungry cotton mills became dependent on raw material imported from overseas. Native forests of oak, birch, beech, and pine had now been cleared so timber for ships, houses and fuel was being imported from North America, Scandinavia and the Baltic.

This was a revolution because one economic and social system had been replaced by something totally different. Labourers employed on country estates were now essentially landless and forced to look for employment in the overcrowded towns and cities where crime flourished. Small farms were progressively bought up by the wealthy landowners. Cottage and village were replaced by factory and town.[2] It was disenchanted, hard-working freehold yeomen (minor landholders) forced out of their traditional claims that were to make up a large proportion of Australia’s freehold settlers. Even so, the heavy industrial revolution overlay of coal and iron was yet to come, the full impact of James Watt’s (1736–1819) steam engine was not being felt until the 1850s and 60s. On the River Thames prison hulks were a last resort to hold the overflowing prisons. Following Britain’s defeat in the American War of Independence (1775-1783) it was no longer possible to send convicts to the American colonies and this unsatisfactory situation was compounded as unsettled soldiers and sailors returned from the American conflict looking for work.

Settlers brought to Australia their assumptions about land and its management – assumptions that are still beyond question – the ideas of “enclosure” and “ownership” with fences, hedges and walls; of “agriculture” with its land clearing, ploughing, damming and irrigation, and the importation of domesticated plants and animals; and the trappings of permanent settlement including buildings, roads and infrastructure. brought a new fire regime.

Australia is the only continent on which agriculture did not develop before the colonial period.

The life of the new settlers was also determined to a degree by the former ativities in th ecountry of the Dutch and French, and the memorable days when Cook’s Endeavour had sailed along th eeastern coast, dropping anchor in Botany Bay for eight days of botanising.

The influence of Joseph Banks

Banks’s figure looms large as he directed from a distance the affairs in the new colony, ‘fathering’ both governors and gardeners.

The proposed site of Australia’s first settlement was, in effect, a recommendation by Joseph Banks to a select parliamentary committee based on his recollection of eight days of blissful botanical collecting with Daniel Solander from 28 April to 5 May from the Endeavour that had challenged the storage capacity of the ship in this exciting encounter with iconic Australian plant genera that included Acacia, Banksia, Brachychiton, Callistemon (bottlebrush), Eucalyptus, Grevillea, Isopogon (drumsticks), and Telopea (waratah). Banks wrote:

Our collection of Plants was now grown so immensely large that it was necessary that some extraordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil in the books. I therefore devoted this day to the business and carried all the drying paper, near 200 Quires of which the larger part was full, ashore and spreading them upon a sail in the sun kept them in this manner exposed the whole day, often turning them and sometimes turning the Quires in which were plants inside out. By this means they came aboard at night in very good condition’

In the journal prepared from his log book Cook wrote: (sic) The great quantity of plants Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of … Botany Bay, also naming the enclosing headlands at the entrance to the bay Cape Banks and Cape Solander to permanently record the two botanists.

Over the eight days in Botany Bay they had collected about 3500 plant specimens representing about 250 new plant species[31] although there was no gardener-botanist and few seeds were collected.[32] To keep the specimens fresh for Sydney Parkinson’s illustrations the collections had been stored in tin chests wrapped in damp cloth.[3]

From the seed returned to Kew were raised five plants: Eucalyptus gummifera, Allocasuarina torulosa, Acacia verticillata, Pouteria sericea, and Cajanus reticulatus and by 1780 a further three were were added: Eucalyptus obliqua and Leptospermum lanigerum from Cook’s second voyage and another Acacia verticillata from the third with E. obliqua raised from seed collected by Thomas Furneaux being the First Australian plant sold to English gardeners around 1774, sold by William Malcolm of Kensington with the Earl of Coventry one of its purchasers.[3]


On 18 May 1756 Britain declared war on a France whose expansion was perceived as a major threat to British interests. This was just one of many moments highlighting the constant rivalry between these two nations. The lucrative north Atlantic trading triangle from Britain (manufactured goods) to West Africa (slaves) and on to the Caribbean and North America (sugar and later cotton) had resulted in the first highly lucrative market economy on which the later British Empire would be founded. Any interference in trade between Europe, Africa, America and India posed a serious economic threat.

British defeat of the combined French and Spanish navies at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and of Napoleon’s land forces at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 announced British political and economic domination in Europe. This followed France’s reduced colonial power after the Seven Years global war fought between 1756 and 1763. Buoyed by the excitement and optimism of exploration and discovery and possessing the world’s greatest navy, the British assumed that they were in the vanguard of human progress. Classically educated and civic-minded colonial administrators and academics took it as self-evident that civilized men should be familiar with science, the arts, and their associated infrastructure of universities, libraries, academies, art galleries, museums and botanic gardens. These institutions brought with them a collective sense of civic gravitas and social direction: they combined an Enlightenment desire for the advancement of science, reason, and humanism with a system of imperial government based on the classical administrative model.

Through the period of empire, Britain became, in effect, the West’s administrator of plants, a role that would have later social, economic and environmental consequences on a global scale as European, and especially British, institutions, culture and practices were introduced to Neo-European colonies and beyond. The strength of British influence can be gauged by the eventual acceptance of English as the international language of politics, science and law.

Wealthy American colonists were beginning to establish large gardens of their own, and reciprocating plant trade with Europe for the first time. By 1768, the year that Philip Miller of the Chelsea Physic Garden adopted the Linnaean system of plant classification, the magic of the American flora that had for a while captured British horticultural attention, was ebbing as relations with America steadily deteriorated to culminate in the American War of Independence (1775-1783). The need thus arose to find alternative destinations for the swelling numbers of British criminals and outcasts.

Britain’s expanded nursery industry was eagerly looking for different plant novelties and one potential source had been heralded by Cook’s voyage in HMS Endeavour with botanists Joseph Banks and his assistant Daniel Solander. Some of the plants collected on this voyage of scientific discovery had been raised at Kew and were being distributed across Europe but the trade in plants from the antipodes only began in earnest after the arrival of the First Fleet in the new Colony of New South Wales in 1789. The passage of ornamental plants to Europe and agricultural plants to Australia exchange was part of the two-way plant exchange from opposite sides of the world that was part of the accelerating cultivated plant globalization that was transforming the world’s landscape.

The Dutch

In 1644 the Dutch had roughly charted all but the east coast during Abel Tasman’s commercial reconnaissance for the Dutch East India Company. In 1770 on James Cook‘s first circumnavigation of the world in HMS Endeavour (26 Aug. 1768 to 12 July 1771) the southern continent was first sighted on 20 April 1770 at Point Hicks (between present-day Orbost and Mallacoota in Victoria, named after Lieutenant Zachary Hicks, the sailor who first spied land) and it was this Enlightenment voyage of scientific exploration that followed the east coast. But there was botany before Banks. The timeline at the end of this article lists key dates of Dutch contributions to natural history that preceded the arrival of the English First Fleet.

The French

England was cautious of French strategic interest in the region. Several French voyages had touched on ‘Nouvelle Hollande’ including those of Louis de Bougainville (1768), Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne (1772), and Louis de Saint Aloüarn (1772) but France’s major contribution to the natural history of the region was the result of three later scientific voyages of exploration that occurred between 1785 and 1804 – by Jean-François de la Pérouse (1785–1788), Bruni d’Entrecasteaux (1791–1794), and Nicolas Baudin (1800–1804). All of these expedition leaders would die at sea before their ships returned to France.

After visiting Norfolk Island La Pérouse entered Botany Bay on 26 January 1788 just as the British First Fleet under Arthur Phillip was leaving for Port Jackson. Relations were cordial. The remaining Lieutenant King was invited to dine aboard the French flagship where he was impressed by the work of the French scientists who, in turn, acknowledged the scientific achievements of Cook’s pioneering voyage. It was procedure at this time to leave records and collections at ports of call as a precaution against mishap so dispatches and journals were entrusted to the British officers for delivery to the French ambassador in London, where they duly arrived in June 1789. [9] La Pérouse remained in Botany Bay for six weeks, refitting the ships, his men planting a vegetable garden, later known as the ‘French Garden’[11] which served the British colonists for several years. The only description we have of the garden is by a Frenchmen aboard Coquille under captain Duperrey in 1824 when the reputation of the garden still remained along with some traces of the garden itself. The site had been respected by the British and they were told that Governor Macquarie intended to plant a beautiful garden on the site and to retain the name ‘French Garden’. The site still provided some vegetables for the soldiers quartered a short distance away.

The French made a greater commitment to natural history than the British. Even though eucalypts had been collected at Botany Bay by Banks and Solander, the genus Eucalyptus was not established until 1792 when Charles L’Héritier, a close friend of Labillardière,[24] described the genus and type species E. obliqua, Messmate Stringybark. He had described this plant when visiting Kew in 1786-7, his description of both genus and species being based on a specimen collected by David Nelson. Nelson had been a gardener at Kew and on the voyage was supervised by William Anderson the surgeon on the Resolution (support ship to Cook’s third expedition of 1777-79) when the specimen was collected in Adventure Bay, Bruny Island, Tasmania in January 1777. The aristocratic L’Héritier was assassinated in the eighth year of the French Revolution, killed with a sabre at his front door, his murderer never being determined. His private collection of botanical books was second only to that of Banks.[25]

The French also played a major role in the early collection and description of marine macroalgae (seaweeds).[26]

First impressions

Garden historians James John Beattie and Katie Holmes cite key memorable observations made from the Endeavour. Firstly the observation of ships artist Sydney Parkinson (made again and again by others): as it sailed north along the Illawarra region of New South Wales that the ‘Trees, quite free from underwood appeared like plantations in a gentleman’s park’ while Banks would note that Botany Bay was ‘Cliffy and barren without wood’ … ‘Soil so barren and at the same time intirely [sic] void of the helps dervd from cultivation’ … the people ‘.. little superior to that of monkies’, opinions he seems to have quickly forgotten when asked to advise a House of Commons Committee on the suitability of New South Wales as a penal settlement.

The two historians were introducing a series of papers comparing indigenous and European perceptions of ‘belonging’, ‘landscape transformation’ and ‘refuge’ in relation to gardens and landscapes especially as filtered through the expectations of the new settlers and their perception of their place in and relation to the landscape, noting the potential influence of both class and ethnicity. There remains debate about the degree to which the landscape was carefully crafted by Aboriginal firestick farming.

First plant from Britain

The first record of an ‘exotic’ flower arriving in Australia from Britain was a geranium that was blooming in the cabin of naval officer and Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth aboard HMS Lady Penrhyn of the First Fleet just prior to arrival at Botany Bay.[1] Smyth (1750 –1790) kept a diary, painting and describing natural history specimens that he studied in Australia, dying shortly after returning, in 1790, to his birth town of Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex.

However, apart from the Governor’s residence it would be some time before there would be time to indulge in ornamental gardening – the immediate problem was survival so any gardening was focused on crops, vegetables, herbs, and fruits.

Media Gallery

Expansion and Resistance: European History

CrashCourse – 2019 – 13:13


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . revised 4 October 2020

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