This mahogany ‘square piano’ is arguably the most historically important piano in Australia. As the first piano to arrive on Australian soil as part of the First Fleet in 1788, it holds a unique place in the cultural heritage of our country.
This ‘square piano’ belonged to George Worgan, ship’s surgeon on board the HMS Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet. Worgan had brought the instrument with him on the year-long journey from Portsmouth, England, arriving in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.
The instrument was made by one of the leading piano makers of the eighteenth century, Frederick Beck, who was one of a number of piano makers of German origin who worked in London at the time.
Considerably smaller than a modern piano, the legs can be folded away for storage, making the instrument easily portable.
Square pianos first appeared in London in 1766 when music making in a domestic setting was a fashionable activity.
Records show that George Worgan played his square piano to some of his fellow officers on the Sirius as the ship lay anchored in Rio de Janeiro harbour.
When George Worgan completed his three-year tour of duty in 1791, he gave the piano to Elizabeth Macarthur, the first soldier’s wife to come to New South Wales. He also gave her lessons on the instrument.
As such, this is not only the first piano in Australia, it is also the first piano upon which piano lessons were given, by Australia’s first piano teacher. Elizabeth Macarthur, whose husband John was a pioneer in Australia’s wool industry, kept the piano for about 17 years. It was then sold on and off until 1838; the provenance trail then vanishes.
In 1965, the Sydney antiques dealer William Bradshaw heard of a ‘spinet’ for sale in an old farmhouse on the outskirts of Windsor, north-west of Sydney. Australia’s First Piano was being stored in the laundry; the owners wanted to sell it to buy a new washing machine.
Now, as part of the Stewart Symonds Collection at Edith Cowan University, this priceless and culturally significant instrument will be restored and preserved for future generations