Culture and heritage


The First (or Territorial) Seal of New South Wales of 1790 - 1817

The First (or Territorial) Seal of New South Wales of 1790 - 1817


On the 4th August 1790 King George III approved the design of a seal for the government of NSW and the adjacent Pacific Islands. This example was used to seal a land title document in 1792.

The seal shows on its obverse (front) a design that alludes to the intended redemptive qualities of the convict settlement, and was described in a Royal Warrant for the seal as follows:

Convicts landed at Botany Bay; their fetters taken off and received by Industry, sitting on a bale of goods with her attributes, the distaff [a spindle for spinning wool or flax], bee-hive, pick axe, and spade, pointing to an oxen ploughing, the rising habitations, and a church on a hill at a distance, with a fort for their defence. Motto: Sic fortis etruria crevit [So, I think, this is how brave Etruria grew]; with this inscription round the circumference, Sigillum Nov. Camb. Aust. [Seal New South Wales]
'A New Seal', 1917: 872

The seal was received in NSW on HMS Gorgon in September 1791, and immediately began to be used as the official 'signature' of the colonial authorities. The illustration shows a very early example of a wax impress of the seal fixed to a title deed for land granted to ex-convict Edward Varndell by Governor Phillip in February 1792.

The worn appearance of the seal demonstrates not only the passage of time but a shortage of the proper wax for using in the seal matrix (or mould). Governor Phillip complained of this in 1791, and also that he had no official to register land grants. Gullick attributes the 'bumpy' look of many early seals such as this to the wax shortage.

Sealing not only land title documents but also pardons of convict sentences and many other functions, the seal bought to life its symbolism of the convict freed through industry and co-operation. This seal is sometimes referred to as the Territorial Seal, and was replaced by the second seal in 1817.

Some questions to research:

  1. Was the symbolism of convict redemption through their industry and labour reflected in the actual operations of the convict system in early NSW?
  2. How would shortages of building materials and stationery in the early colony have affected the survival of symbols of public authority from that period?

Image Source: State Library of NSW, Digital a1316004h State Library of NSW, Picman

Page last updated: 01 September 2012