What’s in a date? The significance of Australia Day

What’s in a date? The significance of Australia Day

AUSTRALIA DAY | Contrary to popular opinion 26 January is not the date NSW was established, nor was it the date the First Fleet first set foot on Australian soil. MARK TEDESCHI QC examines the true history behind this important date.

shutterstock_156003803We all know the significance of Australia Day…don’t we? Just like we all know why we celebrate Anzac Day, Labour Day, Remembrance Day, and the Queen’s Birthday.

Let’s start with the last one. Everyone knows that the Queen doesn’t really have a moveable birthday on the second Monday in June and that some States celebrate this event on a completely different day. In fact, Queen Elizabeth was born on 21 April. The public holiday which we celebrate was established in 1788 to commemorate the birthday of King George III, and although our monarch, and hence the birthday, has changed eight times since then, the holiday has stayed the same.

Contrary to popular opinion, 26th January was not the day in 1788 on which the proclamation establishing the Colony of New South Wales was read out by Capt Arthur Phillip. That happened 12 days later at a ceremony on 7th February 1788. Neither was it the day that a member of the First Fleet first set foot on Australian soil. That happened on 18 January, when the first ships of the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay and explored for a suitable site for an encampment. Neither is 26 January the day on which the First Fleet first arrived in Port Jackson. In fact, Capt Phillip in the Supply first arrived in Port Jackson on 21 January searching for a better water supply than he had found at Botany Bay. He left on 23 January to rejoin the rest of the fleet in Botany Bay after discovering a rather meagre freshwater creek in Sydney Cove (later called the Tank Stream) and having had some benign contact (from the British point of view) with local indigenous people.

No, the formal establishment of the Colony of New South Wales and the vesting of sovereignty in King George III over the eastern half of Australia to the 135th meridian did not occur until 7th February — the day that we really should be celebrating the foundation of our nation.

So what did happen on 26 January 1788? Capt Phillip’s version is this:

“In the evening of the 26th [of January] the colours were displayed on shore, and the Governor, with several of his principal officers and others, assembled round the flagstaff, drank the King’s health, and success to the settlement, with all that display of form which on such occasions is esteemed propitious, because it enlivens the spirits, and fills the imagination with pleasing presages.”[1]

Basically, Capt Phillip and a small group of his senior officers raised the British flag and had the first, good, long drink on our shores to celebrate their safe arrival. Many may think that this is an entirely appropriate event to recognise and emulate in contemporary Australian Society. However, the real commencement of our nation occurred at Sydney Cove at 11am on 7 February 1788, and was described by Phillip as follows:

“The 7th of February 1788 was the memorable day which established a regular form of Government on the coast of New South Wales. For obvious reasons, all possible solemnity, was given to the proceedings necessary on this occasion. On a space previously cleared, the whole colony was assembled; the military drawn up, and under arms; the convicts stationed apart; and near the person of the Governor, those who were to hold the principal offices under him. The Royal Commission was then read by Mr. D. Collins, the Judge Advocate. By this instrument Arthur Phillip was constituted and appointed Captain General and Governor in Chief in and over the territory, called New South Wales.”[2]

The 26th of January was first publicly celebrated on the 30th anniversary of the Colony when Governor Macquarie declared it a holiday. Until 1935, it was known as First Landing Day, Foundation Day or Anniversary Day — depending on which part of Australia you were in.

For much of our history and for many of our people the most significant commemoration of the year was actually Labour Day or Eight-Hour Day, which recognised the enormous battles that were fought in the second half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century to achieve a balance in the life of all workers between work, rest and recreation. Today, it is known as Labour Day in all States except Tasmania, were it is still called Eight Hours Day. It is celebrated on different days in each State and Territory. The traumas that were endured by the nation in the form of debilitating strikes and lockouts have been largely forgotten and the real reason for the commemoration is often ignored.

Remembrance Day, also called Armistice Day, celebrates what most people think was the end of the First World War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. In fact, the date and time only marked the cessation of hostilities on the Western front in Europe. The First World War continued on the eastern front in Russia and the Ottoman Empire for some time afterwards. The official end of the war only occurred on the signing of the treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919.

Anzac Day, of course, commemorates the calamitous 1915 landing of the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli in what was then the Ottoman Empire in a campaign devised by Winston Churchill to capture Constantinople and thereby knock out the Ottomans who were an ally of Germany. What is generally unknown or ignored by Australians and New Zealanders is that there were far more British and French deaths during the Gallipoli campaign, and yet we still mark this event as a coming-of-age for both our nations.

So what is in a date? One can argue and debate the significance of a historical event or the correct day to celebrate it, but what we must acknowledge is that both as individuals and as a nation it is important to commemorate our achievements and those of our antecedents. We enhance our sense of self and nation and our place in the world and in history by celebrating the achievements of the past and by recognising the efforts, ingenuity, courage and traumas of those who came before us.

The accuracy of the date is unimportant. It is our connection with the struggles of the past and our appreciation of how far we have come since then that are significant and worthwhile celebrating.

Eugenia: a true story of adversity, tragedy, crime and courage

The Eight-Hour Day long weekend in October 1917 was a particularly traumatic one for Harry Crawford and his wife Annie. Harry at 42 years old was a typical working-class man in Sydney. Whilst he was a heavy drinker and could swear like other working men, he was seldom without a job and it was clear that he absolutely adored Annie. Their marriage had its ups and downs, but from Annie’s point of view that was nothing unusual. Harry and Annie had been married for almost 4 years when Annie discovered that her husband was in fact a woman, Eugenia Falleni.

Annie was desperate to find a way out of their marriage without the terrible scandal that would eventuate if it all became public. Wanting to reach an agreement on how they would achieve this end, Harry and Annie took advantage of the Eight-Hour Day long weekend to go for a picnic in remote bush at the Lane Cove River Park in Sydney. Only Harry returned to their home in Drummoyne. Annie had disappeared without trace. Five days later, a body was discovered in the Park which was completely burnt beyond recognition. After a brief police investigation, it was assumed that the body belonged to a vagrant woman who, in a drunken stupor, had fallen into the fire.

Three years later, Harry Crawford was arrested by police and charged with the murder of his wife Annie. In the meantime, he had married Lizzie Allison, a 50-year-old spinster. Their marriage was particularly successful and harmonious. It was only after the police informed Harry that he would be charged with murder, taken into custody and escorted to the Long Bay Prison, that he disclosed his true identity as Eugenia Falleni. So convinced was Lizzie Allison that her husband was a male that she refused to believe the police when they told her that her husband was really a woman. She insisted, incorrectly as it turned out, that she was pregnant to him. Police conducted a search at Harry and Lizzie’s home and found “the article” — an object made by Harry with which he had pleasured his wives and convinced them of his full manhood

The life of Eugenia Falleni/Harry Crawford is one of the most extraordinary and bizarre true-life stories in the history of Australia. If it wasn’t completely true, no one would believe it. In 1920, when Eugenia stood trial for the murder of Annie, the world had no understanding whatsoever of gender identity conditions. Eugenia truly felt that she was a man trapped in the body of a woman. She dearly and genuinely loved both her wives.

I have attempted to faithfully tell this story in my book “Eugenia: a true story of adversity, tragedy, crime and courage”. The first part of the book is an account of Eugenia’s early life and the 22 years that he lived in Sydney as Harry Crawford. The second part of my book is an analysis of Eugenia’s Supreme Court murder trial that took place in Sydney in 1920 and captivated the nation at the time. For a variety of reasons it resulted in a gross miscarriage of justice. The third part of the book looks at events, both gratifying and tragic, that occurred in Eugenia’s life after the trial.



eugeniafalle_tradepaper_1922052299_300Mark Tedeschi QC is the Senior Crown Prosecutor for New South Wales. He has been both a prosecutor and a defence barrister for the last 35 years.

Eugenia: a true story of adversity, tragedy, crime and courage is published by Simon & Schuster.


[1] Russel Ward & John Robertson (1969), ‘Such was Life – Select documents in Australian social history’, Vol 1 (1788-1850).

[2] Ibid.