Australia’s first piano

In London during the early 1760s small, rectangular, five octave keyboard instruments started to be produced. Unlike the harpsichord or spinet, these were capable of playing both loudly and softly – the forte piano or fortepiano. The demand for these small square pianos was enormous, and manufacturers began producing instruments in quantity.

Longman & Broderip square piano. Photo courtesy of Brian Barrow.

This square piano produced by Longman & Broderip may be the one Surgeon Worgan brought with him on the First Fleet and gave to Elizabeth Macarthur when he left the colony.

Advertisement for Longman and Broderip pianos. London 1788. State Library of NSW.

George Worgan, a surgeon on the First Fleet HMS Sirius, brought a piano with him to Australia.  Although this may seem remarkable, music, song and dance were daily occurrences at all levels of society, even aboard ships of the British Navy. George inherited his enthusiasm for music from his father, Dr John Worgan, a respected organist and composer who also played at the Vauxhall Gardens, and insisted on his children having a sound musical education no matter which profession they intended to enter. A leading musician in London, John Worgan [1724-1790] had a doctorate of music from Cambridge University and was a close friend of George Frederick Handel [1685-1759] – a friendship which would have influenced George Worgan’s choice of music. The Broadwood Piano Archives record that a Mr Worgan purchased one of their early square pianos on 10th April, 1783 – it is most likely this was the piano George brought with him to the colony.

A wide range of music was available from the classical piano repertoire of Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven, through to Scottish music (the rage at the time), and lighter pieces such as sonatas, duets, waltzes, operatic airs and parlour songs.  During the long voyage to New South Wales, George gave concerts on board the Sirius and subsequently provided a very considerable branch of [polite] society” in the fledgling settlement. It has been suggested that the first piano may have supplied the music for the first play staged in Sydney, The Recruiting Officer.

The early pianos were actually oblong rather than square and were sometimes called box or table pianos.  Small and charming, they sounded as much like a harpsichord as a modern piano; the innovation being that the strings were struck rather than plucked.

In 1791, after several years residence in the colony, Worgan departed, leaving the precious instrument with his friend, Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of Lieutenant John Macarthur of the New South Wales Corps.

Elizabeth Macarthur’s letter to her friend Bridget Kingdon. 7th March 1791.

Elizabeth is regarded as the first educated gentlewoman in Australia, she arrived with the Second Fleet in 1790 and played a crucial role in the elite social life of the early colony.   Being a cultivated lady, Elizabeth would have been familiar with the minuet as a dance and this instilled sense of rhythm would have greatly assisted her in learning the tune Foote’s Minuet.

Two manuscripts with Foote’s Minuet are available in the Woodriff papers, National Library of Australia.

Listen to Foote’s Minuet Arranged by Roland Clarke
Download the pdf

Foote’s Minuet was the standard first piece, along with God Save the King, in almost all music tutors from 1760-1810.

It was not long before more pianos were arriving in the colony: in 1803, a piano forte was advertised for sale in the Sydney Gazette for sixty guineas.  In England, a plain square piano could be purchased for twenty-four guineas and was Broadwood’s most popular model.  This raises the question of the price of the piano in the Sydney Gazette – was it a superior type of piano or was it simply the cost of importing such an item which increased the price?  It is possible an elegant piano was desired to grace one of the grand mansions which were already established in the colony.

In 1809  Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of the newly appointed governor, also brought a Broadwood piano to the colony: a three pedal grand piano.  This beautiful piano would have been at the cultural heart of the colony.  Pianos became the focal point of British colonial drawing-rooms, the instrument of the middle class in the nineteenth century.  They became an indicator of social success and settlers would go to great pains to transport pianos to the most distant outposts of the colony.

Dividing line

In 2016, a  piano identified by Professor Geoffrey Lancaster as belonging to Surgeon Worgan, was donated to the Edith Cowan University in Perth by the collector Stewart Symonds.  The university plans to restore the piano to a playable condition so it may be used by students and researchers.  It will be sent to master restorers in London, who will also teach their techniques to Western Australian restorers.

However, there is another claimant to the famous piano.  Phillip Barrow writes,

Whilst it cannot be categorically stated that this – nor any other pianos at this stage –  is “the piano” brought to Australia by Surgeon George Worgan on the Sirius in 1788  and subsequently given to Elizabeth MacArthur when Worgan returned to England in 1791, this Longman & Broderip piano does come with provenance that points in that direction.

It was bought by the current owner in 1969 from the well respected Sydney Antiques Dealer, Bill Bradshaw. Mr Bradshaw had originally purchased the piano around 1947 from a property in Western Sydney where it was found in the laundry in fairly poor condition. The person from whom it was purchased in 1947 informed Mr Bradshaw that the piano had once been owned by Elizabeth MacArthur.

Some time prior to his death in 2009 Mr Bradshaw signed a document verifying that, to the best of his knowledge, this was the known provenance of the Longman & Broderip Square Piano, serial no: 604. This document is also in the possession of the current owner.

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Links

First Fleet piano part of a priceless collection donated to a Perth university. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-26/australias-first-piano-unveiled-at-wa-university/7449222  Accessed 27 May 2016.

Friends of Square Pianos    http://www.friendsofsquarepianos.co.uk

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Sources

Bowes Smyth, Arthur. Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, Surgeon. Lady Penrhyn 1787-89 Australian Documents Library, Five Dock, NSW, 1979.

Broadwood Piano Archive.   Surrey History Centre.  Correspondence with Robert Simonson March-May, 2012.   http://www.surreycc.gov.uk/recreation-heritage-and-culture/archives-and-history/surrey-history-centre/highlights-of-our-holdings-at-surrey-history-centre/john-broadwood-and-sons-piano-manufacturers/broadwood-piano-history-research

Clarke, Roland. Transcription of music from the original.  2010.

Goold, Madeline, Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano.  The Story of the First Pianos and How They Caused a Cultural Revolution. Bluebridge, New York, 2008.

Keller, Kate Van Winkle .  Copy of original music from The Harpischord or Spinnet Miscellany. Robert Bremner 1765.

Kendal, Alan.  Music.  It’s Story in the West. Contact, London, 1980.

King, Jonathan. The First Fleet, 1982.

Lancaster, Andrew. Photograph and information regarding history of square pianos.

Macarthur, Elizabeth. The Journal & Letters of Elizabeth Macarthur 1789-1798. Historic Houses Trust of NSW, 1984.

The Sydney Gazette 17 July 1803.

Worgan, George Bouchier. Journal of a First Fleet Surgeon.

Worgan Family records. http://www.bikwil.com/Vintage40/Worgan-Family.html
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The information on this website www.colonialdance.com.au 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.

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33 Responses to Australia’s first piano

  1. Catriona. Hall says:

    Love square pianos and appropriate music, fascinating to see this history. Thankyou.

  2. Sarah says:

    George Bouchier Worgan was my 4th Great Uncle.

    • Phillip says:

      Hello Sarah,
      Thank you for your post.
      Do you, or any members of your family have any records about George B Worgan such as where he lived prior to travelling to Australia? Indeed any information about his life prior to 1787 will be most appreciated.
      I tried to contact a descendant in Canada (Mr Kerry John Worgan) however there was no reply from the email and the letter I sent has been returned as “no longer at this address”
      Thank you.

  3. sandy says:

    Way back in the 70’s I had a friend who worked in an antique shop in Woollahra, a very well-off Eastern suburb of Sydney.

    He showed me a piano his boss thought was the First Fleet piano (all I have is a vague memory of a rectangular box), which I forgot about until about 10 years ago when I had a librarian colleague who has also studied at the Conservatorium. He was very excited & did an Internet search for this piano & couldn’t find any information about it surviving.

    We decided that the dealer must have been unable to find proof it was likely to be the 1783 piano. Maybe it came with a family legend that was easily disproved, otherwise he could have sold it as perhaps being the Worgan piano.

    • Phillip says:

      Hi Sandy,
      I’m aware of the existence of a piano that fits the description and picture contained in Heather’s article. I’m fairly sure that it was purchased from the same antique dealer in Woollahra that you have referred to.
      Is it possible to get any more information from your friend – or from you – about what the dealer said about it. (I realise that we are testing the memory bank well and truly now!)
      It would be wonderful if it could be proven that “Australia’s First Piano” is still in existence after all these years.
      Thank you.

      • sandy says:

        Phillip

        The only other thing I can remember definitely is that the shop was on the Sydney side of Queen St & I vaguely remember we were upstairs, so it was at least 2-storeys, – as were all the other shops in the street.

        Both friend & shopkeeper’s names are lost in the dim recesses of my memory, but if Bill Bradshaw’s shop was on that side of that street …

        • Phillip says:

          Thanks Sandy,
          Bill Bradshaw’s shop was located as you’ve described so I think we can confirm that the piano that was attributed to arriving on the First Fleet may have passed through his hands at some stage. If the piano that you saw there was the same ( or very, very similar) as that shown at the top of this article, then it is likely that “Australia’s First Piano” still exists, in a private Sydney collection. It was sold to the current owner with the provenance that it once belonged to Elizabeth Macarthur, although it is known Mrs Macarthur owned several pianos over the years.
          At this stage the make of the piano that George Worgan brought with him on the First Fleet has not been categorically determined and unfortunately due to the loss of some critical records in piano factory fires, that may prove difficult. However, the research continues.
          Thanks again

        • Paul Kenny says:

          Yes, Bill Bradshaws shop, maybe my memory of Sandy is better, she was a doctor at RNS and her friend was JR , a well known amateur diver and friend of Bill Bradshaw at that time. Any records will be in the archives of the late W. F. Bradshaw
          Paul

          • sandy says:

            I don’t understand you comment, Paul – are you saying I’m a doctor (I’m a retired librarian!) & the friend who worked for Bill Bradshaw has since been identified by Geoffrey Lancaster (initials KL, a name I vaguely remember)

            sandra

  4. Phillip says:

    Is it possible to provide more information from the Broadwood archives such as the serial number of the piano or the address of the Worgan’s at the time of their purchasing this piano?
    I have tried searching the Broadwood site but haven’t been able to source these details.
    Thank you

  5. Phillip says:

    Thanks Heather.
    I look forward to seeing what you can unearth.
    Please see my reply to Sandy above regarding the Antique Dealer in Woolahra. I look forward to hearing from him as well.
    Thank you.

    • Heather says:

      I’ve certainly heard this rumour before. But how could such an important piano remain a mystery?

      • Heather says:

        In the 1960s Elizabeth Macarthur’s piano was said to be owned by a Mrs Varney Monk. Later it was said that Queen Street Antiques dealer, Bill Bradshaw, either owned it or knew of its location.
        This comment from Scott Carlin.

    • Heather says:

      14 March 1784.
      Perhaps Miss Worgan privately resolved to learn a Clementi sonata on the Broadwood pianoforte her father had bought the previous April.
      This sentence in Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano. The Story of the First Pianos and How They Caused a Cultural Revolution.
      Madeline Goold, Bluebridge, New York, 2008.(P148) lead me to suspect this might be the piano in question. I contacted Ms Gould but received no further information; I don’t think she was aware of any link to Australia at the time of writing the book.
      I then contacted the Broadwood Piano Archive concerning the purchase of the 1783 piano – evidently it was recorded as Mr Worgan on the 10th April – it may have been Surgeon George Worgan himself, rather than his father, Dr Worgan.
      This from Robert Simonson of the Surrey History Centre: As regards Dr Worgan’s piano, we hold a photocopy of the volume labelled ‘Shudi & Broadwood journal, 1771-1785’, which is a copy of MS Eng. Misc. b107 held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. A search of this for 1783 shows an entry for 10 April which reads ‘Mr Worgan bought a piano’, but there are no other surviving records to add anything to this bare statement. However I hope it is of interest.

      The Broadwood Piano Archive also supplied details for Mrs Macquarie’s piano, including payment and address for delivery.

      SURREY HISTORY CENTRE
      130 GOLDSWORTH ROAD
      WOKING
      GU21 6ND

      Tel: 01483 518759
      Fax: 01483 518738
      E-mail: rsimonson@surreycc.gov.uk

  6. Phillip says:

    Thank you very much Heather.
    This information is of great interest and very helpful indeed.
    The Woollahra Antiques Dealer in question died a couple of years ago – so now I’m wondering if any of his records have been kept. If they do still exist it may be possible to verify the person he purchased the piano from and to whom it was subsequently sold.
    I’ll pursue this avenue via a legal firm in Sydney who may be able to assist.
    Thank you once again.

    • Heather says:

      It will be most interesting to see what you can discover. Keep me posted.

    • Heather says:

      Dear Heather,

      I have long admired and respected your research.

      I am aware of the 1783 Broadwood Journal entry concerning ‘Mr. Worgan’.

      This winter, my book on the First Fleet piano will be published by ANUePress.

      The evidence that I present in my book strongly suggests that Worgan’s piano was an instrument by Frederick Beck. This instrument is currently in a private collection in Sydney. In the face of the evidence related to the Beck instrument, it seems to me unlikely that a 1783 Broadwood square was the First Fleet piano (I deal with the Broadwood connection in an appendix in my book).

      In another appendix in my book, I deal with Elizabeth Macarthur’s ‘second’ piano (i.e. the instrument that she subsequently acquired after Worgan had given her his piano). In my opinion, this instrument is by Longman & Broderip. It is also held in a private collection in Sydney.

      With kindest regards,

      Dr. Geoffrey Lancaster AM FAHA FACE FRSA

  7. Geoffrey Lancaster says:

    Hello Sandy,
    I read with interest your comments dated December 19, 2012. Would you be so kind as to tell me the name of your friend who saw the ‘First Fleet piano’ at the antiques shop in Woollaraha ‘way back in the 70’s’? If you’d rather not publish the person’s name in this forum (for privacy reasons), my email address is: geoffrey.lancaster@anu.edu.au

    Many thanks, Geoffrey

  8. Paul Kenny says:

    Dear Geoffrey, I have emailed a reply directly to you.

  9. Barney says:

    Dear All,
    My ancestor James Richard Styles owned Reevesdale in Bungonia from approx. 1822 – 1884. He left an old piano/spinet, and it remains with the family today.
    I am sorry to say it is rather poor condition. My understanding is it was on a ship that was sunk, and the pianos working parts retrieved. The body was then reconstructed locally in Australia.
    I am looking to sell the piece….any ideas?

  10. I found your site quite by accident but I would like to say a big THANK YOU for it. It’s just marvellous. I’m currently working on a biography of Elizabeth Macarthur and I blog about my writing at https://adventuresinbiography.wordpress.com.
    My latest post is all about your site.

    • Heather says:

      I’m so glad you found the site and thank you, too, for writing about it in your blog. You’ve prompted me to finish the ‘About’ page, so I don’t remain anonymous. I’ve been studying early colonial dance for three decades and am now undertaking a Doctorate of Creative Industries at Queensland University of Technology to research convict and working class dance in the colony [1788-1820].

      I have some information about the Macarthur family and dancing, but it is more about Hannibal’s family at the Vineyards. I’ll search through the files and see if there is anything more about Elizabeth.

  11. bethany worgan says:

    im realated to George worgan

    • Heather says:

      Great to know that the family continues and has an interest in the famous piano.

    • Phillip Barrow says:

      Hello Bethany,

      Thank you for your post of 9th June.
      My brother has a piano that also has the “provenance” that it once belonged to George Worgan, but similarly to the one mentioned above, that cannot be proved beyond all reasonable doubt.
      For some years now we have be attempting to source members of the Worgan family to see if any diaries or records are held that give the manufacturer’s name of the piano that he brought with him to Australia on the First Fleet.
      Do you know of any such documents or anyone in the extended family that we could contact to see what, if any, records exist?
      Thank you,
      Phillip

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  13. Julian Bauer says:

    We live in George Worgan’s house in Liskeard, Cornwall, U.K.
    It was built in 1834 and is Grade II listed.
    I play a Welmar upright piano, which is in the front room.
    Professor Lancaster visited us a few years ago and took a lot of pictures.

  14. Helen Palmer says:

    Greetings From Windsor NSW. Whilst I have nothing to offer on the subject of piano’s, I have been interested to see all the links to our early colonial history. Some of you seem to have links going back a long way!. The foundation stone for St Matthew’s Anglican Church was laid by Lachlan Macquarie on 11 October 1817. We are celebrating our bicentenary and are looking for interested people who have links to St Matthew’s, be they old or more recent. I have read the name Styles in earlier posts; Henry Tarlton Styles was a minister at St Matthew’s. Some of his descendants have made contact. Enquries about the bicentenary may be made to stmatthewsbicentenary@windsoranglican.asn.au

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