Government House

A brief history of Government House, Canberra

Government House, Canberra, in its origins and architecture, is quite unlike Government Houses of the State capitals. Most State Government Houses were built in Queen Victoria’s reign as residences for her vice-regal representatives, whereas Yarralumla’s history is as old as any, but very different in kind. Its first eighty years were wholly pastoral and of its earliest owners no trace remains except the choice of the site and name, a deodar tree and a sketch, but their names are woven into the history of the Limestone Plains.

The first grant of 1035 hectares (2560 acres) to Henry Donnison in 1828 was sold by him in 1831 to Francis Mowatt of the Customs Department, Sydney. Mowatt built a long low stone house on the site with French windows opening on to wide verandahs. It was described as a hunting lodge, for Mowatt brought out from England a pack of foxhounds with which he hunted kangaroos and dingoes at Yarralumla.

Terence Aubrey Murray, who already owned properties at the north end of Lake George, bought Yarralumla in 1837 and in 1843 married Mary Gibbes, daughter of Colonel Gibbes, the New South Wales Collector of Customs.

It was a time of pastoral depression and Murray made over Yarralumla to his wife in a marriage settlement, lest it be lost to the family through bankruptcy. She died in 1858 and control of Yarralumla passed from Murray, then President of the NSW Legislative Council, to his father-in-law, Colonel Gibbes. By curious coincidence, it was the same Colonel Gibbes who had bought 2 hectares (5 acres) on Kirribilli Point from Robert Campbell in 1842 and there had built a house, now Admiralty House, the Sydney residence of the Governor-General. To complete the coincidence, Colonel Gibbes, in 1881, sold the Yarralumla property to Frederick Campbell, grandson of Robert Campbell.

When Frederick Campbell, who was the second son of Charles Campbell of Duntroon and Belconnen, bought Yarralumla from Augustus Gibbes it was a property of 10,500 hectares (26,000 acres). In his hands it grew to 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres), grazing 40,000 sheep. The property’s large shearing shed still stands below Scrivener Dam. Campbell pulled down most of the old stone house and, in 1891, built a red brick three-storey double-gabled house, which now forms part of the present Government House. In 1899, he demolished the remaining portion of the old house, replacing it with a brick bungalow incorporating attic rooms adjacent to the three-storeyed structure.

In 1909, Canberra was chosen as the site for the Federal capital and thereafter the large Campbell holdings were resumed. At the time of acquisition the Government had no clear plans for the future of the homestead at Yarralumla. However, the suggestion to use Yarralumla as a temporary residence for the Governor-General was first made as early as 1911.

During World War I the priorities of the new federal government shifted from construction of facilities in Canberra to the war effort. Accordingly, Yarralumla was utilised as a training ground for cadets from the Royal Military College at nearby Duntroon. The House itself was not put to use by the military, though some of the more sun-sensitive cadets were permitted to rest in the cool shade of the wide verandahs and the officers were given the run of the billiard room.

A number of proposals as to Yarralumla’s future were subsequently made, including slightly facetious suggestions that it be made into either a summer resort for parliamentarians or a temperance boarding house for working men. In 1921 the Federal Capital Advisory Committee proposed that Yarralumla be refurbished to provide temporary accommodation for the Governor-General pending the construction of a new permanent residence. It was not until January 1925 that Federal Cabinet finally agreed to fit out Yarralumla for its new vice-regal function. Work was started on enlarging Yarralumla to house the Governor-General.

The first enlargement consisted of the addition of another three-storey block behind the one already there, connected by a wide hallway, and the making of an entrance between the gables of the old south front. Lord Stonehaven was the first Governor General to reside at Yarralumla. The extensions and renovations were sufficiently advanced for the Duke and Duchess of York to stay here when they came to open the new Houses of Parliament in May 1927. After the splendours of Government House, Melbourne, where the Stonehavens had previously lived, the house seemed cramped to the Vice-Regal occupants and was inadequate for entertainment. When the Duke of Gloucester came to Australia in 1943 for Melbourne’s centenary celebrations, Lady Isaacs asked for a private sitting room to be built, hence the upstairs room built over the south entrance porch, with a wide window framing the “Vista” – it provides a beautiful view down through the garden, lawn and paddocks to the Brindabella Ranges and the foothills of the Australian Alps beyond, but gives a curious appearance to Campbell’s old three storeyed structure.

Even with these various additions, the house remained too small for what was expected of it, so in 1939, after the Duke of Kent had accepted the appointment of Governor-General, the brick bungalow section built in 1899 was pulled down and the drawing-room made larger, while more bedrooms were added to the second storey, and the Campbell porte-cochere was made more impressive to become the State Entrance to the panelled hall. At the time, further alterations to the existing building were made; rooms on the third storey were turned into nurseries and the dining room was extended. Work on these additions and alterations was begun before the outbreak of World War II, in which the Duke of Kent lost his life. In 1944, the Duke of Gloucester took up the appointment in his brother’s place and the nurseries were used by the young children of the Duke and Duchess.

It has thus been as a result of countless changes and additions over the years that present day Yarralumla has taken shape. Nothing remains of either the old stone hunting lodge, or the brick bungalow which Frederick Campbell built, except some foundations: but his 1891 three storey structure, no longer red brick, remains the core of the House, and his family crest decorates one of the eaves. All the rest represents additions to that core over the years.