Fort Phillip Signal Station | NSW Environment & Heritage

Culture and heritage


Fort Phillip Signal Station

Item details

Name of item: Fort Phillip Signal Station
Other name/s: Formerly Telegraph House
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Postal and Telecommunications
Category: Housing & Quarters
Primary address: 3A Upper Fort Street, Millers Point, NSW 2000
Local govt. area: Sydney
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
3A Upper Fort StreetMillers PointSydney  Primary Address

Statement of significance:

Fort Phillip Signal Station is significant as part of the Sydney Observatory complex visible from Sydney Cove. It played a significant role in the history and development of early colonial communication system in Sydney Harbour. Built on the remnants of the former Fort Phillip rampart. The building is historically significant as it represents the various stages in the development of the colony's communications (flagstaff, first semaphore and first electric telegraph connection). It is significant for its association with colonial military command and later with the Harbour Master's department, and with colonial architect Mortimer Lewis. The site is significant for the continuity of use dating from 1823. The building is the only remaining Signal Master's cottage in the city.
Date significance updated: 14 Mar 07
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Designer/Maker: Mortimer William Lewis
Builder/Maker: Peter McBeath
Construction years: 1847-1848
Physical description: The 1848 Signal Master’s cottage was originally a square cottage with a central wall running over the top of a north-south section of the rampart of the original Fort Phillip (1804-06). The plan form of the cottage is early, with no central passageway. The building straddles the rampart with a single storey to the east or front end, which was designed as one large space, possibly with a partition. Entry to the cottage was via a southern porch outside this room, with an external stair access to the lower level. There was also a northern door, but the east featured only two windows. The western half of the house steps down over the rampart to form two storeys, the upper floor divided into two rooms (likely bedrooms) with the lower floor housing the kitchen. Each of the upper rooms had a fireplace, and the original bedrooms had a window on two external walls. The original Carron fireplace grates, developed fireplace surrounds, architraves, doors and floors are substantially intact and much of the plaster work survives. The south-west room is linked by an original internal stair to what was probably a basement level parlour.
The 1859 two storey extension to the north added a room to both levels, blocking up a north window in the process, and adding a northern verandah to the main east room. This extension included a chimney at the centre of the northern end wall, and provided an upper level bedroom and a lower level store for the signalling gear. There is some documentary and physical evidence that the east wall to the main room was skilfully moved a metre eastwards to provide more room at this time. By 1864 the north and west ground floor enclosed walkway was completed, connecting the inner rooms with the external toilet. These were probably added by the early occupants and are of sturdy bush carpentry, in contrast to the Colonial Architect design of the north verandah. The date of the extension and enclosure of the south porch is not known. The original cottage and northern extension were built from solid stone with a shingle roof and timber 12 paned Georgian windows.
The 1848 stone cottage is the oldest complete architectural structure on the site. The archaeological remains of the original Signal Station’s flagstaff (1808-11) is also within the precinct.
The cottage is generally intact with much original and early fabric extant including masonry, joinery and plasterwork. Externally the overall form, fenestration, wall and roof elements are largely as original with the exception of new galvanised roof cladding and rainwater goods, a vertically boarded timber lean to on the north-west corner and miscellaneous repairs and replacement of other elements. Internally the building has undergone numerous changes but retains much of its significant fabric. The northern extension was altered in the post war period, the basement became a laundry, and the upper room became a radio receiving facility. In the process an internal door on the upper level was blocked up, and a window converted to a door. These alterations have since been reversed. Other changes include the south east room flooring being replaced, flooring being introduced to the roof space to facilitate storage, and a poor infill of the northern Colonial Architect’s verandah (since restored by Public Works). The cottage has been recently cleared of furniture in the 1990s. Most fittings and fixtures that remain are typical of the 1950s. The basement room long used as a kitchen, was renovated in the 1950s or 1960s and fitted with low-cost cupboards. An earlier Sydney-made Fletcher fuel stove survives at the eastern end of the room. The shingles and slates have now been replaced with corrugated iron roofing and rainwater goods.
Immediately adjacent the main building is a group of site artefacts contemporary with the building and associated with its function. These include the flight of stone steps with iron handrail and balusters to the south of the cottage (giving access to the elevated site) the wrought iron fence along the top of the Fort walls (to east and north boundaries) complete with original timber flagstaff rope cleats, the archaeological remains of the two original flagstaff (also along the Station's eastern boundary) and the remains of the original drive and landscaping below.
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
Generally the cottage is in fair condition. Structural cracking is visible on the internal walls, particularly over openings in the eastern upper half of the building. The walls at the lower level have rising damp and there is salt corrosion to the external faces.
Date condition updated:18 Oct 06
Modifications and dates: 1859, 1860, 1861, 1864
1990-Museum proposal for reconstruction of signal station flagstaff on the Fort Phillip rampart and the associated use of the adjacent Signal Master's Cottage
1999-2003-Public Works Masonry repair.
Current use: unoccupied
Former use: Residential


Historical notes: During the 1790s Governor Phillip instructed the erection of a flagstaff at South Head, this lead to the construction of a second flagstaff at Dawes Point. In the 1790's the hill was utilised as a mill complete with a windmill tower that sottd until the construction of the observatory in the 1850s. In 1804 the construction of a hexagonal fortress called Fort Phillip began, and by 1823 a flagstaff, windmill tower, hut for signal man, semaphore post with two arms, and a powder magazine occupied what was then referred to as Flagstaff Hill. In 1827 responsibility for the operation of the semaphore was transferred from the Brigade Major to the Harbour Master. An 1838 engraving of Sydney shows a telegraph master's hut was also located on the Fort Phillip rampart. In 1843 these quarters, consisting of hut and windmill tower were found to be no longer adequate. The 1840s depression prevented any work from being carried out until 1847 when the new "Telegraph House" at Fort Phillip was designed. The sandstone cottage was designed in the office of the Colonial Architect, Mortimer Lewis. Tenders were advertised in November 1847 and work was completed by Peter McBeath, stonemason and builder in 1848. The cottage straddles the eastern wall of the Fort Phillip rampart. The building is two storeys to the west with kitchen and service areas located on the lower level and bedrooms on the upper level along with the living areas to the east. In 1859 the eastern wall of the cottage was relocated to provide additional space in the living rooms. By 1861, a stone two storey addition against the north wall was completed. By 1864 timber lean-tos were added. With the exception of the two storey addition to the north and the wooden lean-tos, the original masonry, joinery and plaster work is largely intact.

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Science-Activities associated with systematic observations, experiments and processes for the explanation of observable phenomena (none)-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Technology-Activities and processes associated with the knowledge or use of mechanical arts and applied sciences (none)-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Transport-Activities associated with the moving of people and goods from one place to another, and systems for the provision of such movements (none)-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The Signal Master's cottage is significant for the part it played in the early harbour communications system. It represents the development of early colonial communication system. The building is significant as part of the Sydney Observatory complex which was visible from both Sydney Cove and the township. It is also significant for its association with colonial military command and later the Harbour Master's Dept.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
The building is significant as a design of the colonial architect, Mortimer Lewis.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The Georgian style cottage is significant for its prominent location, built on the remnants of the former sandstone rampart of Fort Phillip. It is an important visual element on Observatory Hill. Its elevated siting emphasises its former function as a signal station.
The Signal Master's Cottage is significant as part of the changing technology of the colony. The building is significant as it replaced an earlier signalman's hut which was part of the early system of communication in the colony dating from 1823. The building is a near intact example of the Georgian style of architecture complete with original joinery, finishes, fireplaces, framing and flooring.
The significance of the modern fittings is slight and resides in the fact that they are a complete period ensemble
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
Constructed in the 1840's, the building demonstrates construction techniques before the outset of mechanisation and has a high archaeological potential.
SHR Criteria f)
It is a rare and largely intact example of a example of a stone Georgian cottage in the centre of Sydney, along with its use as a Signal Master's residence which is the only surviving example of building used for this purpose remaining in the city.
SHR Criteria g)
The cottage is representative of the colonial and ongoing Harbour communication network. The cottage is representative of the Colonial Georgian style.
Integrity/Intactness: The complex with it's various additions is largely intact.
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Recommended management:

Refer to recommendations in J.S Kerr Conservation Management Plan


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Local Environmental PlanSydney LEP 2005393   
Heritage study     

Study details

TitleYearNumberAuthorInspected byGuidelines used
Millers Point & Walsh Bay Heritage Review2006 Paul Davies Pty Ltd  No

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
WrittenJames Semple Kerr2002Sydney Observatory A Conservation Plan for the site and its structures
WrittenTravis Partners1987Observatory Hill Conservation Management Plan

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Local Government
Database number: 2426252

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