Australia's First Piano
[ Issue 20 ]

Emily Bronto is without doubt an admirer of Australia's first piano

Bikwil honours Australia's first piano

Australia's First Piano

Our series Memorable Moments in Music continues in Issue 20 with Tony Rogers' telling of an Australian piano story — with a few fifes and drums thrown in, not to mention hundreds of sheep.

Jane Campion’s The Piano brims with haunting cinematographic images . . . The instrument has just been landed with great difficulty, and as I recall the scene now I wonder how much antipodean trouble a certain other keyboard might have caused when it was brought ashore

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[ Memorable Moments in Music No. 2 ]
— Tony Rogers


Jane Campion’s The Piano brims with haunting cinematographic images. Take, for instance, the sight of Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin sitting forlornly by the piano on the bare New Zealand beach as the surf swirls around them. The instrument has just been landed with great difficulty, and as I recall the scene now I wonder how much antipodean trouble a certain other keyboard might have caused when it was brought ashore.

I am referring, I should add, not to a fictional instrument, but a very real one — “the Worgan piano”, as it is labelled, which is accepted as the first ever to arrive in Australia.

Relevant in this connection is the fact that, until the completion of Circular Quay in 1850, landing facilities in Sydney Cove remained quite deficient.

In 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet, had confidently asserted that “ships can anchor so close to the shore that at very small expense quays may be constructed at which the largest vessels may unload”.

Yet for the earliest years of the colony only two small and inadequate jetties were available, the Government Wharf (mainly for the use of the Governor), near the present-day corner of Loftus and Alfred Streets, and the Hospital Wharf on Sydney Cove’s western side (The Rocks).

The Worgan piano must therefore have required some awkward effort when transferred from ship first to flat-bottomed barge then to shore — if not because of its weight, which as we shall see was probably not excessive, but more as a result of the rudimentary wharf facilities available.

But who, what or where was Worgan?

George Bouchier Worgan (1757-1838) came to New South Wales as surgeon on HMS Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet. He had joined the British Navy in 1775, serving as surgeon's second mate from February 1778, then as naval surgeon from March 1780. He remained in New South Wales only until 1791, when he returned to England to continue in the medical profession (as a surgeon's mate and surgeon) till about 1800, retiring on half-pay to take up farming, though with little success.

Thanks to its publication in 1978 by the William Dixson Foundation at the State Library of NSW, his diary (Journal of a First Fleet Surgeon) is now more readily available as a primary source for historians. Although it covers no more than the six-month period from 20 January to 11 July 1788, interest in the journal persists chiefly because of its first-hand account of the new colony and its description of the land and its indigenous inhabitants.

My earliest brush with the hypothesis that the Worgan piano was in fact Australia’s first occurred when I read W. Arundel Orchard‘s book Music in Australia (1952):

In New South Wales . . . are found the earliest records of cultural activity in Australia, one of which mentions a piano that was landed at Circular Quay, Sydney, in 1790 from H.M.S. Sirius whose surgeon, to whom the piano belonged, evidently had some musical ability. The incident is referred to in a letter written from Camden by Mrs. Macarthur in which she refers to "Mr. Worgan, who was surgeon to the Sirius and happened to be left behind when that ship met her fate at Norfolk Island. Our new house is ornamented with a new pianoforte of Mr. Worgan's and he kindly means to leave it with me and now, under his direction, I have begun a new study . . .”

Orchard is of course referring to Elizabeth, intrepid wife of pioneer woolgrower and egotistical trouble-maker John Macarthur. Today Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850) is recognised in her own right, having played a crucial part both in John’s success as a farmer and in the social life of the fledgling settlement.

The Macarthurs had arrived in New South Wales with Second Fleet in 1790, and once they had set up house, Elizabeth quickly made contact with the rich and powerful. In his The Fatal Shore (1986), Robert Hughes has described the Macarthurs as “the founders and prototypes of the colonial gentry”. They were in fact snobs, with little sympathy for the poor, the self-righteous Elizabeth, for example, being highly affronted during the voyage out at the way the convict women conducted themselves.

Snob she may have been, but Elizabeth Macarthur is generally regarded as the first “educated” woman in Australia. Since childhood she had been extremely fond of matters cultural, and now in New South Wales showed a keen interest in colonial politics, local flora and fauna — even the Aborigines. Her privileged position gave her an unrivalled perspective and her education enabled her to write about such interests clearly and accurately.

Although Elizabeth was busy with her children, she paid serious attention to the future of the farm, particularly during John’s absences overseas (1801-5 and 1809-17). She worked hard to secure their business against failure, determined to keep the farm going so that her family could enjoy the good life. She continued to expand Elizabeth Farm, their property at what is today Rosehill, and began to breed Merino sheep with even better wool than John had been able to achieve.

By the 1820s the Macarthurs had become the biggest land owners in New South Wales, and while her primary objective had always been to ensure that her family was well provided for, along the way Elizabeth Macarthur helped establish Australia's wool industry.

In the meantime, she had begun to learn the piano, thanks to the musical surgeon.

Orchard goes on to acknowledge his “first piano” source as a letter in the Mitchell Library, written by Elizabeth Macarthur in 1791 to a friend in England, a Miss Kingdon.

Having quoted her letter further, regarding her rapid progress not only in learning to read music but also in performing God Save the King and something called “Foot’s Minuet”, he concludes with these words: “This event records what was most probably the landing of the first piano in Australia.”

Fifteen years later, in his Australia’s Music (1967), Roger Covell would again refer to the Worgan piano as “the colony’s very first piano”.

With his characteristic disdain for bland musical derivativeness, Covell suggests that the piano,

. . . the herald of innumerable musical evenings of the utmost respectability and decorum during the following century and more, would have been one of those light and shallow-toned instruments for which Mozart wrote his sonatas and piano concertos. Mozart’s music would certainly have followed Surgeon Worgan’s piano out not long after; but the truth is that Australia missed most of what was best in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century music. The dominant influence in colonial music-making of an official or respectable sort was the sweet vapidity into which the idiom of Mozart’s lesser contemporaries and successors declined in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Later he comments:

The earliest free settlers would have been concerned at the time with keeping up the niceties of polite music in London.

Such scorn regarding genteel musical soirées in early Australia is echoed by the Penguin Australian Encyclopaedia (1990, ISBN 0 670 83148 4):

British musical forms and preferences were transported to the founding colony, in the fashion of the time, as trappings of the drawingroom. The need for social establishment in a mainly convict population, reinforced by recurring waves of British middle-class immigration, resulted in socially useful music-making that was conservative in every sense of the word.

Covell’s reference to Mozart, incidentally, is telling, I think.

We First-Fleet-haunted Australians tend to forget that the illustrious German composer did not die until 1791. Indeed, between 1788 and his death, Mozart composed over 75 works, including three symphonies (among them the Jupiter) and two piano concerti, not to mention The Magic Flute and the Requiem.

Back to the piano in question.

If Covell is right and it was indeed “light and shallow-toned”, then almost certainly Worgan’s instrument was a square piano. Invented in Germany in the 1740s, the square piano had its strings at right angles to the keys and was more compact and far less expensive than a grand piano. It met with great success in England especially, where it was built and sold in great numbers, often by German immigrants. London manufacturers of the period included Adam Beyer, John Broadwood & Son, Johannes Pohlmann and Johannes Zumpe & Gabriel Buntebart.

You know, I’m no historian, but I doubt strongly whether Orchard’s description of the Worgan piano as “a piano that was landed at Circular Quay, Sydney, in 1790 from H.M.S. Sirius” could be correct. What we can say is that 1790 might have been the date or the Sirius might have been the vessel — but we can’t claim both as true. The primary and obvious reason is that in March 1790 the Sirius was completely wrecked at Norfolk Island, three months before any landings from England that year (namely the Second Fleet) could take place.

Robert Hughes, on the other hand, describes Worgan as “the naval surgeon who brought the first piano to Australia on the Sirius”, the “brought” implying that his piano came with him.

So take your choice: the first piano in Oz arrived on the Sirius in 1788, or on one of the ships in the Second Fleet two years later.

Worgan’s piano was not the first musical instrument brought to New South Wales, however. As early as 7 February 1788 (twelve days after white settlement), at the official reading of Governor Phillip’s Commission, there was music — played by a naval band of drums and fifes.

Fifes and drums were also used as the accompaniment to the punishment or public disgrace of a serviceman. In fact the earliest piece of music known by name to have been performed in Australia is The Rogues’ March, played at the drumming out on 9 February 1788 of a soldier who had been caught in the female convicts’ tents.

In time, the colony would be home to larger military bands, augmented by strings, playing for church services as well as secular ceremonial occasions. By the 1820s Elizabeth Macarthur would have been able to enjoy “quadrilles and waltzes, sentimentally homesick airs and martial songs of a conventionally patriotic kind . . . [,] charms against the night and the unknown.” (Covell)

Performed, presumably, by those “Lady and Gentleman Amateurs” so often referred to in newspapers of the day.

None, for me, however, has the romance of the Worgan piano.

I believe that the fate of that piano — its adventures down the years under successive owners and its eventual arrival at some museum (or, St. Cecilia forbid, at some rubbish dump) — would make a fascinating tale to tell.

The problem is, of course, that there are few, if any, unequivocal records of what happened after Worgan and the Macarthurs to Australia’s first piano.

Even though three keyboard instruments survive at Camden Park, New South Wales (the Macarthur country homestead), none of them is the Worgan piano. One is a non-functional 19th century pump organ made by the Estry Company in Illinois, another is a 4½ ft upright piano (I don’t know its vintage) and the third is a 1940s grand piano.

There is one old piano at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill (the original Macarthur home), but this is an 1835 upright.

For a novelist, on the other hand, such a narrative keyboard exercise might, on the face of it, profitably warrant some wistful contemplation, don’t you think?

If only Annie Proulx hadn’t already used the idea first, with her Accordion Crimes.

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