c1790s, National Museum of Australia, Canberra. On display, Australian Journeys gallery.
ABOUT 1789, a year after the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay, John White, the fleet’s chief surgeon, sent some planks of wood as a gift to his patron in England. It may seem a strange present, but at that time Australian wood from the notorious penal colony of NSW was considered exotic and prestigious, and White was trying to retain the good favour of his main supporter, Andrew Snape Hamond.
In the late 1700s a powerful patron, such as Snape Hamond, could make or break a career in the British Navy. White relied on Snape Hamond to recommend him for promotion and advancement and it was on his patron’s suggestion that White was appointed surgeon-general of the First Fleet.
White did a good job. On the voyage from England to Australia he insisted that there were fresh rations, exercise on deck and high standards of hygiene and sanitation. As a result, the mortality rate for convicts on the First Fleet voyage was 3 per cent, compared with 25 per cent for the Second Fleet.
The wood that White sent to Snape Hamond was known as beefwood, a colloquial name given by early settlers to a type of timber which, when cut, resembled salted beef, a staple of the colonial diet. When the beefwood arrived in London, a cabinetmaker sliced the precious planks into thin veneers and made them into a small, Pembroke-style work table. This type of table was fashionable among the British ruling class and was representative of the neoclassical style made popular by the furniture designs of Thomas Sheraton.
For many years the table sat in the drawing room of Snape Hamond’s home in Norfolk. It passed down to descendants who had no idea about its connection with Australia. The table was identified by accident in 2006 when an employee of the auction house Bonhams and Goodman visited the home to value the family’s map collection. While looking around, the employee saw the table and discovered that inside one of the drawers was a label, written by Snape Hammond, recording the timber’s origin: ‘‘ Sent from Botany Bay by Doctor White, Surgeon of the Navy — in Planks of this table made up in London — Beef Wood’’.
As a result of the discovery, the so-called First Fleet table was sent to Australia for auction and the National Museum of Australia bought it in 2006 for nearly $300,000.
‘‘ I think it was a bargain,’’ says Michelle Hetherington, National Museum of Australia curator, as we examine the table.
‘‘ Material relating to the First Fleet is hard to get hold of and much of it is already in institutions. And while other institutions are generous lenders, as are we, it is nice to have your own.’’
Hetherington explains that beefwood has a beautiful grain and that the early settlers compared it to oak and mahogany, highly desirable timbers. ‘‘ The planks of beefwood White sent to Snape Hamond were made up into this beautiful little late Georgian, neoclassical table which would have been used for writing letters, playing cards and taking tea. It was at the absolute height of fashionable style in the 18th century,’’ says Hetherington.
‘‘ The family used it for years and years and given that it has been used constantly, it is in beautiful condition ... it was a highly valued object. If objects stay in the family they are not going to suffer the sort of mistreatment that can happen during the process of moving or being resold. This table survived as beautifully as it did because it stayed in the same room for about 200 years and people in the family loved it.’’
Beefwood (casuarina), tulipwood, brass; 576mm wide, 605mm high, 423mm deep