Botany Bay

Twenty Four Country Dances for the Year 1788. T. Skillern, London.

Arr. Roland Clarke Download the pdf
Listen to Botany bay

Country dance: longways duple minor

A1 1-8 1st couple lead down the middle,
5-6 1st couple lead back to the top,
7-8 1st couple cast into second place WHILE
2nd couple move up.
A2 1-4 2nd couple lead down the middle,
5-6 2nd couple lead back to the top,
7-8 2nd couple cast into second place WHILE
1st couple move up.
B1 1-4 Circle left,
5-8 Circle right.
B2 1 1st couple cross by the right shoulder,
2-4 1st couple cast off one place and cross by the left shoulder, end facing up, WHILE
2nd couple move up to first place, end facing down.
B2 5-8 Four changes of a circular hey.  Start by passing right shoulders on the side with neighbour.

In August 1786, the Secretary of the Home Office, Lord Sydney, announced that on instruction from His Majesty, it had been decided that Botany Bay was a most suitable place to receive transported convicts. Prisons were overcrowded and a solution was urgently required. The loss of the American colonies in the War of Independence meant Britain could no longer dispense with surplus criminals as had been the case for much of the eighteenth century, and a new “dumping ground” was anxiously sought.

The plan to send convicts to Botany Bay was based on the evidence of Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Lieutenant Cook there in 1770. Banks was immensely influential and suggested the site as ideal for a “thief colony” – so distant as to remove the possibility of escape yet sufficiently fertile to become self supporting within a year.

Little was known about the destination, even the London Press was vague, informing readers it was situated on the west side of the island of New Holland in the Indian Ocean. Despite criticism of the plan being absurd and impractical, the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in January, 1788.

Convicts embarking for Botany Bay. Thomas Rowlandson.
Courtesy National Library of Australia.

The date on which the decision to form a colony in New South Wales was taken is not known, but The Times of July 26 1786 reported: Yesterday a meeting of Ministers of State was held at Mr Pitt’s house. Lord Sydney, the Marquis of Carmarthen and Lord Howe came to town for the occasion.

“It is difficult to believe that they “came to town” in mid-summer for unimportant business, and it was shortly after this that Lord Sydney took the action which launched the colony. On May 13 1787 the First Fleet slipped anchor in Spithead, bound for Botany Bay and the other side of the world.” 1

Advertisement for the opera, Botany Bay  9 May 1787

Advertisement for the favourite opera of Botany Bay.
World and Fashionable Advertiser (London, England),
Wednesday, May 9, 1787; Issue 111.

The whimsical idea of founding a settlement of convicts on the other side of the world prompted many humorous street ballads, an opera and this dance.

The new and favourite opera, Botany Bay was performed 24 times between April and August of 1787 at the Royal Circus Theatre, St George’s Fields, London.2
Reviews described it as interesting and the characters well supported 3,  ...partly moral and party comic, on the whole a good thing 4, and  The little opera, Botany Bay, may be alright for the holiday people [during Whitsun week], its passable for the Circus but not plot enough for the Royal Theatre. 5

Courtesy of Kate Van Winkle Keller

Botany Bay from Twenty Four Country Dances for the Year 1788, Thomas Skillern, London.  Courtesy of Kate Van Winkle Keller

Details of performances at the Circus were not generally documented, however, in the Autumn [approx] of that year, Thomas Skillern of London published Twenty Four Country Dances for the Year 1788.   This included a number of new dances which apparently were associated with the Opera.  As well as Botany Bay, titles include Master Jemmy’s Rant, Left-Handed Jemmy, The Mail Coach, and Search Night.

1Australia’s Heritage. The Making of a Nation. Volume I. Lansdown Press Sydney 1988.
2World and Fashionable Advertiser (London, England), Issues 84-99,107,102,103,108,111,113,131,182
Public Advertiser (London, England), Monday, April 1787; Issues 16512,16513,16513. Times(London, England)April 24, 1787.
3World and Fashionable Advertiser (London, England), Tuesday, April 10, 1787; Issue 86.
4Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London, England), Saturday, April 14, 1787; Issue 18204.
5World and Fashionable Advertiser (London, England), Friday, June 1, 1787; Issue 131.


Australia’s Heritage. The Making of a Nation. Volume I.  Lansdown Press, Sydney 1988

Colonial Music Institute (USA)

Keller, Kate Van Winkle.  Copy of original from Twenty Four Country Dances for the Year 1788 T. Skillern.  London

King, Jonathan. The First Settlement. The convict village that founded Australia 1788-1790. The Macmillan Company of Australia Pty Ltd, Sydney 1984.

Phillip, Arthur. The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay. Hutchinson of Australia, Vic. Facsimile edition 1982.

MacDougal, A.K. An Anthology of Classic Australian Folklore. Five Mile Press, Victoria, 1994.

National Library of Australia. Picture: Convicts embarking for Botany Bay. T. Rowlandson.  Rex Nan Kivell Collection NK228.



The information on this website may be copied for personal use only, and must be acknowledged as from this website. It may not be reproduced for publication without prior permission from Heather Clarke.

This entry was posted in Dance. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Botany Bay

  1. John CARMODY says:

    Do you know the composer of “Botany Bay”?

    • Heather says:

      Collections of dances generally gave no credit to the people who devised the dances or composed the music. However, we may be able to discover who was the composer in residence at the Royal Circus Theatre at the time. We are currently working on another production New South Wales, or Love in Botany Bay which was performed in 1799. The composer for this play was James Saunderson who took over the role of composer and musical director at the Royal Theatre in 1793.

    • Mark St Leon says:

      The composer of Botany Bay was, in all probability, Charles Dibdin, one of the proprietors of the “Royal Circus and Philharmonic Academy” (to give the full name of this London institution). By the way, a similar reference is made in Vol 1 of C.M.H. Clark’s History of Australia where he cites o London newspaper of the day but I have not been able to independently substantiate the reference.

      Mark St Leon

      • Heather says:

        Studying the British newspapers of 1787 has revealed much more information about the Botany Bay opera.
        I’ve updated the page today, 7th November,2013. Thank you for the data regarding Charles Dibdin – he was certainly a very influential figure at the time.

  2. Pingback: Special Events | Australian Colonial Dance

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *