Story transcripts

Lost the plot

Sunday, April 22, 2007
Governor Arthur Phillip
Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producers: Howard Sacre, Glenda Gaitz

You could say he was the first great Australian, our founding father. Governor Arthur Phillip was certainly the first to see that New South Wales could be anything more than a convict settlement, a dumping ground for the dregs of society.

So you'd think he'd be a revered figure, a national treasure. Well he's certainly not in Britain. His last days there were dismal, his death suspicious and then there's a deep, dark mystery. A scandal.

Put bluntly, the Poms lost the plot. Somehow, through carelessness, incompetence, or both, they've lost Governor Phillip's remains. But fear not, there's a dogged Aussie sleuth on the case.


Liam Bartlett: This is an intriguing mystery, spanning more than 200 years and two continents. It takes us from the shores of Sydney Cove to a sleepy corner of England. It's a search with many twists and turns. The search for an all-but-forgotten national hero: Captain Arthur Phillip.

Geoffrey Robertson: Phillip was, in a word, our founding father. He was the man who got us up, I mean we would be French, we would be — horrible to think of it — a Portuguese colony if it weren't for Phillip's success.

Liam Bartlett: Six years ago, renowned Australian lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, set out on an ambitious mission to exhume Arthur Phillip's remains in Britain and re-bury them in Sydney.

Geoffrey Robertson: All great nations venerate their heroes and bring them back, the Greeks at Troy brought back their heroes, the Irish brought back Yeats from foreign fields, the Americans, of course venerate their founding fathers and I think that is a sign of nationhood, a sign of acceptance of one's history.

Liam Bartlett: When Geoffry Robertson arrived at Bath, in Somerset west of London, he was to make a startling discovery. This is where Phillip was buried in 1814, but Robertson uncovered a monumental stuff-up. The Poms have lost his remains.

Geoffrey Robertson: The Church has literally lost the plot. You could be standing on him.

Liam Bartlett: It's a woeful thought, isn't it?

Geoffrey Robertson: It is. I think it is important for the Church, as much as anything else, for 20 million Australians, to locate this man who made the nation.

Liam Bartlett: If ever there was a man Australians should revere, it's Arthur Phillip. His orders were to establish a penal colony, to empty out Britain's horribly over-crowded prisons. But Phillip was a visionary; right from the start he saw the settlement as more than just a convict dumping ground, he saw it as the beginnings of a nation.

Geoffrey Robertson: This was the naval genius who brought the convicts to Australia with very little loss of life. More importantly, he was the man who wrote before he left, the first law of Australia, that is, the country where there will be no slaves. He set down a standard of humanity, of compassion, of egalite — equality, that really we Australians can be proud of.

Liam Bartlett: Just imagine, to cross the world today is a 20-hour flight. In 1788 it was a nine-month voyage. Phillip's human cargo came further than any colonising fleet in history. Then, he started the settlement from scratch, facing starvation, a bunch of rebellious convicts, mutinous, drunken soldiers and sometimes, hostile Aborigines.

Geoffrey Robertson: He shared his rations with the convicts, he insisted that everyone should have exactly the same amount of rations when food was scarce. He was a great humanitarian.

Liam Bartlett: But in Bath, Geoffrey Robertson soon discovered that Arthur Phillip's incredible achievements have been all but forgotten in a rush of British history.

Geoffrey Robertson: They simply don't rate him, they don't know about him.

Liam Bartlett: In failing health, Phillip, who had risen to the illustrious rank of admiral, retired here to make use of the Roman baths. The small plaque on what was once his home, gives no hint of his tragic and mysterious death in virtual obscurity.

Geoffrey Robertson: He fell — or was he pushed — from the third floor.

Liam Bartlett: Which was it?

Geoffrey Robertson: We don't know. There was no autopsy on the body. He was in great pain in the last few years of his life. He only lived here for eight years and he suffered with arthritis throughout that period, he may have suffered a heart attack and fallen, he may have decided, in fact, to end it all.

Liam Bartlett: Rather than being a museum to a naval hero and a founder of a nation, Phillip's once-grand Georgian home is now a block of housing commission flats. The tenants were painting on the top floor. Downstairs has been abandoned for a century or more.

Geoffrey Robertson: That would be the original stove with which Phillip's servants cooked for him.

Liam Bartlett: Robertson believes the neglect here is a disgraceful slur on Phillip's legacy. In death, Arthur Phillip didn't rate burial in one of England's great cathedrals. He was relegated to this small church in the village of Bath Hampton. It's here that the parish and visiting Australians turn out each year to honour his birthday. But Geoffrey Robertson believes it's not good enough. His plan to bring Phillip's remains to a far more grand resting place in Sydney had some powerful support from the then NSW premier, Bob Carr.

Bob Carr: It was his idea, it was his grand concept — I was a great admirer of Phillip's, I still am. I think Phillip's real resting place should be Sydney. That was my idea, that was his great achievement, the city around him, the city that he inaugurated.

Liam Bartlett: So Robertson came here to lay Australia's claim to Phillip. And that's when the bombshell was dropped. You see, the Church called in its top authority on churchyard graves, a Dr Julian Litten, to look at the feasibility of raising Phillip's coffin. It was while putting together his 46-page report that Dr Litten discovered that Phillip wasn't where he was supposed to be.

Geoffrey Robertson: It shows, beyond reasonable doubt, that Captain Arthur Phillip is not where the ledger stone says he is: it may be that he is buried somewhere outside, it may simply be that he is simply lost. But he is not where Australians have been led to believe that he now lies.

Liam Bartlett: So, how could the Church of England lose a body? Let alone the body of Arthur Phillip? Well, the Bishop of Bath wouldn't explain. Instead, he left it to the local vicar, Reverend Paul Burden. So, you had just assumed, like everyone else that comes here, I suppose, that this ledger stone is true?

Rev Paul Burden: Yes.

Liam Bartlett: When in fact, it is a bit of a fib.

Rev Paul Burden: According to that report which you have just shown me, which I know nothing of.

Liam Bartlett: But, surely, if the coffin is not underneath there, as the report says, you cannot leave the wording in place, 'Underneath lies the remains', because it is a porky.

Rev Paul Burden: This is the first time I have read any doubt that he is not there.

Liam Bartlett: In 10 years?

Rev Paul Burden: Yeah.

Liam Bartlett: Exactly where Arthur Phillip now lies is anybody's guess. Since he was buried, the church has been extended out over the graveyard, right over the top of Phillip, and Phillip's body disappeared somewhere in the process. It is possible that at one stage the builders even dug him up. You have seen Arthur Phillip in the flesh, so to speak?

Noel Ashcroft: No, not in the flesh, in the bones.

Liam Bartlett: By a remarkable coincidence, perhaps the last person to see the remains was Australian. Noel Ashcroft was travelling around England 32 years ago and just happened to visit the church while a workman was carrying out renovations.

Noel Ashcroft: Anyway, he said, 'That is Arthur Phillip there.'

Liam Bartlett: What, he just pointed to a coffin?

Noel Ashcroft: Yes, he did, and the coffin was partially broken open, of course, and there were bones sticking out and so I had a good look at Captain Arthur Phillip.

Liam Bartlett: The workman has since died and no living person has a clue where the coffin ended up. This sorry story of indifference and blundering doesn't end there — it gets worse. Geoffrey Robinson's plan was to exhume a second body, one of two teenage Aborigines who returned to England with Arthur Phillip. Yemmerrawanyea died from pneumonia and was buried in this churchyard in London.

Geoffrey Robertson: When they wanted his grave they just threw his remains out, it was appalling.

Liam Bartlett: What you mean, 'just threw his remains out'?

Geoffrey Robertson: Well, the great plot he was originally buried in, in 1784, was needed for wealthy, white parishioners and so, he was disposed of.

Liam Bartlett: No Phillip, no Yemmerrawanyea — that's two out of two. Is that bad luck for Australians or is there something else going on here?

Geoffrey Robertson: I think it's more than bad management, it's disrespect. But it, perhaps, indicates a wider principle that the British have not cared about Australian history.

Liam Bartlett: Even if Phillip is ever found, British diplomat and amateur historian Sir Roger Carrick says the Poms won't give him back. Despite the appalling neglect, they are still claiming him as their own.

Sir Roger Carrick: He did lots of other things in his life as well as this extraordinary act of administration, will and vision. He was at heart an Englishman. There is nothing of my knowledge of Phillip to suggest other than that he would wish to rest in peace in a village country churchyard in his own country.

Liam Bartlett: It seems he was treated a bit shabbily?

Sir Roger Carrick: I think shabbily is far too strong a word. I think an adequate honour has been done to him and there are some of us who want to try and do something about that in this country.

Liam Bartlett: There is only one way to find Phillip now, to excavate Bathampton Church in the hope he has not been lost in the soils of time. But even a high-profile lawyer like Geoffrey Robinson can't swing that. It would need an official request from the Australian Government to 10 Downing Street. In the meantime, the whereabouts of our founding father remain a mystery.

Geoffrey Robertson: The moral of this story is that we can't trust the English, the Church of England, the British, to look after our national treasures. If we're going to treasure them and remember them properly, we have to do it ourselves.

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