Culture and heritage

Heritage

Save Government House, Port Macquarie

Few places have survived from Australia's convict past. One of the most significant was to be razed for a hotel carpark until the site was protected by an interim heritage order earlier this year. Now the State Government, Hastings Council, the developer and the community are working together to find the best solution to protect this nationally significant site in Port Macquarie.

The discovery earlier this year of footings of Port Macquarie's 1821 Government House during an excavation for an eight-story apartment building created immediate excitement in the local community as well as in heritage circles. The bulldozers had unearthed some of the earliest remains from penal settlements in eastern Australia.

Port Macquarie was the first of five penal colonies set up beyond Sydney on the east coast of Australia. It is the only site in present day NSW. The convict remains found in Port Macquarie are older than the surviving building fabric at Port Arthur and the second settlement at Norfolk Island.

Amazingly 90% of the original footprint has survived. The excavation uncovered the brick foundations of the original 1821 Government House, including the stairs and cellar. Foundations of the verandah and wings added to the house in 1826 were also found, as well as evidence of the complex drainage system.

"What we have is a three dimensional plan of Government House," says Heritage Office archaeologist, Caitlin Allen.

Heritage Office archaeologist, Caitlin Allen, and project archaeologist, Franz Reidel, inspect the 1821 footprint of the north-east wing of Port Macquaries' government house. Photograph courtesy of Port Macquarie News

Heritage Office archaeologist, Caitlin Allen, and project archaeologist, Franz Reidel, inspect the 1821 footprint of the north-east wing of Port Macquaries' government house. Photograph courtesy of Port Macquarie News

Old Government House Port Macquarie, 1867

Old Government House Port Macquarie, 1867

"These remains have the potential to tell us about Port Macquarie's early beginnings, as well as the convict period in Australia. They are so intact that people can see for themselves how the building functioned and how the town was originally laid out with Government House at the centre."

"It is a very exciting find for Port Macquarie which has lost so many of its early buildings. It has confirmed that a lot of the footprint of the penal colony is probably still there under the ground."

Established in 1821, Port Macquarie was a designated place of secondary punishment in the Colony of New South Wales. The penal settlement was intended for repeat offenders. These places were designed to be harsh; prisoners were subjected to isolation, severe discipline and hard work.

The location of the settlement and the disposition of its original buildings were designed by Governor and Mrs Macquarie. Governor Macquarie was directly involved in the program of building works drawn up for the settlement.

The State Government made available $1M to purchase and conserve the remains under a strata sub-division arrangement with the serviced apartments. With the immediate threat of destruction averted, the next step was to look at how the ruins could be conserved and interpreted.

The Heritage Office is currently working with developers Greenbale, the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning, the local council and the community to find the best solution for the site. The challenge is to find a scheme that is economically viable for the apartments and that makes the remains available to the public.

The State Government funds have allowed a breathing space so that the design of the hotel can be looked at in terms of conserving the remains. The Heritage Office, with conservation architects Design 5, has been assisting the developer to redesign the building.

Principle Heritage Officer, Susan Macdonald, sees the project as an opportunity to respond to the site and the ruins.

"This is an opportunity to design a building that illustrates that it is possible to marry good conservation and interpretation of archaeology with vibrant development."

In the meantime, emergency works have been undertaken to deal with the immediate problems of protecting the vulnerable remains. Acting on advice from the Heritage Council's Technical Advisory Group, the developers have stabilised and covered the remains with sand to protect them from damage when construction starts.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012