Government House is one of Perth’s most magnificent properties. Built in 1863 and set in 3.2 hectares of beautiful gardens, both the buildings and gardens are listed on the State’s heritage register.
Captain James Stirling, RN, arrived from England to found the Colony of Western Australia which he proclaimed in June 1829.
The first “Vice Regal” residence was initially a tent camp, set up on Garden Island, between June and September 1829. Later, following the founding of Perth on the banks of the Swan River in August 1829, Stirling and his family moved to a site on the corner of St George’s Terrace and Barrack Street, Perth (now Stirling Gardens). In 1832, canvas gave way to a temporary wooden building for the Vice Regal family in that location.
Stirling’s official designation of Lieutenant Governor was superseded by that of Governor in November 1831. In August 1832, Stirling returned to England where he was knighted. On his return to Perth in 1834, he took temporary possession of the newly completed Officers’ Barracks and instructed Henry William Reveley, a civil engineer, who arrived in the Colony with Stirling in 1829, to prepare drawings for a new Government House (situated just inside the main entrance gates of the modern domain).
This “new” Government House was a severe but correctly proportioned Georgian building, similar in its architectural excellence of the Old Supreme Court nearby, designed by Reveley and built in 1837. Stirling had moved in by 1834, prior to completion of the work in 1835.
From the beginning, the building was inadequate. Apart from such defects as roofs leaking, termites consuming the flooring, and the porous walls absorbing moisture, the House lacked accommodation for visitors and facilities for the large functions expected of the Vice Regal establishment.
Stirling resigned in October 1837 and left the Colony for England in January 1839. Four successive Governors resided in Reveley’s first Government House, until 1855.
Governor Arthur Edward Kennedy (1855-1862) commented in despatches to Lord Russell, the Secretary of State:-
“The House was and is in such a state that I would not have occupied it had I been able to rent a suitable House. It will be scarcely habitable in winter and there will be a constant outlay for repairs and replacing decayed woodwork etc, while it is occupied.” (Despatch No. 114 November 9, 1855)
Governor Kennedy and his family were forced to reside at Fremantle during the winter months.
Following a report commissioned by the Governor, eventually an ordinance passed by the Legislative Council in September 1858 enabled funding for the erection of a new House. The Foundation stone was laid on March 17, 1859 in an impressive ceremony conducted by the Masonic Lodge of St John. Lieutenant Colonel (later Sir) E Y W Henderson, RE, Comptroller of Convicts, designed the second permanent Government House with assistance from the Colony’s surveyors, particularly James Manning, Clerk of Works.
The new Government House was fated to endure the same problems of indecision and inconvenience as its predecessor with the shortage of private and skilled labour and difficulties with the site. Costs spiralled from the original budget of £7,000 to £15,000 by June 1863.
Governor Kennedy was never to occupy the residence he had done so much to create. Governor, John Stephen Hampton (1862-1868), took up residence in 1863 prior to completion of the House in 1864. The first Government House (‘Old Government House’) was subsequently demolished in the early 1880s.
While Henderson modelled the new Government House on Jacobean archetypes, Gothic remains the central ingredient in his final design. Government House has a picturesque architectural character demonstrated in the use of stonework and bonded brickwork, incorporating square mullioned windows, decorated gables and ogival capped turrets, The attenuated Gothic arcading at ground floor level derives from another form of Victorian Revival expression in vogue in England during the nineteenth century - Fonthill Gothick.
Governor Hampton was undertaking changes to the new House even before it was finished. He wanted more space for official and public entertainment, an important aspect of his role, and ensured that space was created in the upper floor to accommodate a small Ballroom.
Perth’s Government House is not large by normal Vice Regal standards, but it gives an impression of spaciousness. It has 16 rooms on the ground floor and 25 on the first floor.
By June 1867, a banqueting hall had been erected next to Government House (on the present Ballroom site) in anticipation of a visit by Prince Alfred in 1869, the first ‘Royal’ visit to Western Australia. Some original drawings dating from 1897 show the early designs for adding a new Ballroom, Dining Room and Executive Council Room to the House. The Government Architect of the day, Mr John Grainger, signed the drawings but the designs are believed to have been done by Hillson Beasley. Although a major addition to the House, there apparently was no attempt made to conform to the original design. The Beasley design was in the style of Free Classicism which was popular at that time. Unfortunately even this design was not finally built. The 1899 Ballroom was much reduced in size and style to the original drawings.
In 1989 the government of the day commissioned a Conservation Plan for Government House which was completed by architect Mr Ron Bodycoat AM FRAIA in 1990, and led to a series of restoration and refurbishment projects in the House and Grounds from 1990 to the present day. The Conservation Plan and Management Plan for the Gardens were completed by 1998 as an important part of the conservation strategy.
Well into the last century, Government House continued to be recognised as one of the State’s most important society addresses; and while economic depression and war in the 1930’s and 1940’s diminished the viceregal residence’s lustre, the post war urban renewal almost resulted in its destruction; over the past thirty years community interest, involvement, and activism resulted in a long overdue official heritage listing and renewed public interest in its chequered past.i
i Ref: Historian, Dr Jeremy C Martens, 2010.