‘A Palace for His Excellency’: Queensland’s Government Houses

This article, by, Dr Katie McConnel, Curator, Qld Government House, was originally published on the Queensland State Archives website, February 2013.

In preparation for the arrival of Queensland’s first Governor, Sir George Ferguson Bowen and his family, in early December 1859, the Clerk of Works for Moreton Bay District, Charles Tiffin, selected, leased, ‘repaired, painted and furnished’ one of Brisbane’s finest homes, ‘Adelaide House’, to serve as Queensland’s first Government House.[1]

Although ‘Adelaide House’ was a substantial two-storey stone building in Adelaide Street, it was generally agreed that it was ‘a very humble’ residence for the Queen’s representative ‘in the land called by her Majesty’s title’.[2] A priority therefore for the public and for the 26 members of Queensland’s first parliament was the construction of a more fitting and permanent residence for the Governor.

Architectural plan of Government House, Brisbane, 1888

The site for the new Government House had been chosen in 1855. To prevent the sale of the 30 acres of land at Gardens Point as town allotments, the citizens of Brisbane successfully petitioned that the land be reserved as the future site of a ‘town Government House’.[3] On 21 June 1860, five years on and with separation achieved, Queensland’s first parliament promptly voted £10,000 for construction. The design and tendering phases then advanced rapidly.[4] Within weeks, Tiffin, the newly-appointed Colonial Architect, had completed his plans, employing classical revival principles adapted to suit Brisbane’s tropical climate.[5] By late August, Joshua Jeays had been appointed the builder. And construction began in October 1860 on a ‘delightful’ rise of ground in the government domain that commanded ‘a splendid view of the river’.[6]

By its strategic and prominent location on the point of the Brisbane river, the ‘elegance of its design’ and its sheer size in comparison to other domestic dwellings in Brisbane, Government House was, deliberately, intended to be an impressive architectural symbol of British colonialism.[7] It was to be, The Moreton Bay Courier declared, a ‘magnificent palace for the accommodation of His Excellency the Governor’.[8]

Governor Bowen, his family and suite took up residence in May 1862; the first of 11 governors to reside in the house. Bowen’s appreciation for his new residence was unmistakable in his May despatch to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Duke of Newcastle:

I have this month entered into occupation of the handsome and commodious official residence….Besides good public reception rooms, and private apartments for the Governor and his family, the Government House contains also the Executive Council Chambers, and offices for the Private Secretary etc.[9]

As a vice-regal residence, the house had been purposely designed to accommodate three equally important functions: the official office of the Governor, a private family home and Brisbane’s finest social venue. For almost twenty years Government House was regarded as a ‘very handsome’ and ‘distinguished edifice’ and proved an excellent venue for the Governor’s numerous balls, receptions, dinners and garden parties.[10] But by the late 1880s there was distinct change in how it was viewed, with the House described as ‘pretty, but exceedingly small; indeed, from the cliff, on the opposite side of the river, it looks quite insignificant’.[11] The situation, it was argued, now required ‘a new Governor’s residence erected elsewhere’.[12] The onset of the 1890s depression, however, stymied the debate as all capital works in the colony were stalled.

In 1909, the problems associated with the size of the house coincided with the government’s intensifying search for a suitable site for the proposed Queensland University.[13] To commemorate Queensland’s 50th anniversary, the government controversially decided to gift Government House to the University of Queensland as its foundational building and to move the Governor to a temporary residence while a new Government House was designed and constructed in Victoria Park.[14]

Government House – Brisbane, March 1954

Many of Brisbane’s finest houses were submitted for consideration as the temporary Government House. In February 1910, after the Governor and Lady MacGregor had inspected the four finalists – ‘Cumbooquepa’ (South Brisbane), ‘Fernberg (Paddington), ‘Kinellan (New Farm), and ‘Tarranalma (Albion) – the government selected and signed a three year lease for ‘Fernberg’.[15] The planned move from Government House to ‘Fernberg’ was timed to coincide with Sir William and Lady MacGregor’s June 1910 tour of North Queensland. When Governor MacGregor passed through the gates for the last time on 6 June, the house immediately became known as Old Government House. Before the Governor and his family returned to take up residence in July 1910, ‘Fernberg’ underwent significant renovation: it was re-painted, electricity and telephones were installed, and the gardens and roads were upgraded.[16]

In early 1911, financial difficulties forced the owner of ‘Fernberg’, Miss Adelaide Palmer, to offer the house for sale and after negotiations the Queensland Government purchased the house and its 41 acres of land for £10,000. Despite the government’s assurances that the purchase of ‘Fernberg’ would ‘not in any way interfere’ with the plans already und

Queensland State Archives Digital Image ID 32: Government House, Fernberg Road, Paddington, March 1928

erway to construct a new Government House in Victoria Park, its construction was abandoned by 1912 due to lack of funds.[17]

Though ‘Fernberg’ was acknowledged, in 1911, as being ‘quite inadequate for the purpose of a Governor’s residence except as a temporary expedient’, no significant structural work was undertaken on the house until 1937, when it was remodeled, enlarged and re-fitted in ‘the most modern style’.[18] These improvements to the house officially signaled the end of the status of ‘Fernberg’ as a temporary Government House, and ‘Fernberg’ today continues to be the official residence of Queensland’s governors.

Dr Katie McConnel, Curator, Old Government House


[1] Charles Tiffin to Colonial Architect Sydney, 11 November 1859, Queensland State Archives Item ID 6809, Letterbook, p.188. ‘Adelaide House’ was the private residence of Dr William Hobbs, Superintendent of Brisbane Hospital and was leased by the government for 2 years. Today, ‘Adelaide House’ is known as the Deanery and is located behind St John’s Cathedral.

[2] ‘The Queen’s Birthday’, The Moreton Bay Courier, 2 June 1860:4.

[3] Queensland State Archives Item ID 22046, Correspondence – inwards

[4] Queensland State Archives Item ID 861035, Miscellaneous Letterbooks. The two key points discussed in the debate were that the house was to be built in Brisbane when the capital of the new colony had yet to be settled and second the cost of construction. Arguably the vote of £10,000 did constitute an extraordinary outlay for the new colony with a total population of 25,000 and estimated revenue of £180,000 for 1860. Alternatively, it also highlights the importance that was placed on providing the Governor with a more suitable residence. The Moreton Bay Courier, 23 June 1860:2.

[5] Tiffin indicated that he had started his design prior to parliament’s allocation of funds. In July 1860 testimony to the Select Committee on Government Departments, he stated that he had ‘been working for sometime on the plans, from half past nine in the morning to five in the evening’. Charles Tiffin, ‘Select Committee on Government Departments, 1860’, Votes and Proceedings, 1860: 382–385; A.O. Moriaty, Under Colonial Secretary to the Colonial Architect, 4 July 1860, Queensland State Archives Item ID 861035, Miscellaneous Letterbooks.

[6] ‘General Improvements’, The Moreton Bay Courier, 13 October 1860:5.

[7] ‘Editorial’, The Brisbane Courier, 13 April 1864.

[8]  ‘Public Works and Improvements’, The Moreton Bay Courier, 7 July 1860:6.

[9] Queensland Daily Guardian, 15 March 1862:3; Sir George Bowen to Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 14th May 1862, Queensland State Archives Item ID 17671, Letterbook of despatches to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Volume 2:184–185.

[10] Queensland Daily Guardian, 6 May 1862.

[11] By the 1880s, Queensland’s population had grown from 25,000 to 200,000 and this by extension resulted in a larger number of guests attending vice-regal functions. The size of Government House and in particular the absence of a ballroom made the accommodation of these large scale events increasingly difficult. In 1879, Governor Kennedy had issued 1,318 invitations, and it was argued that ‘when the dimensions of Government House are considered…it is obvious that dancing or even standing room is insufficient.’ ‘The Birthday Ball. To the Editor of the Brisbane Courier’, The Brisbane Courier, 2 June 1879:3; G.W. Power, ‘Brisbane’, Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia. Volume 1, Brisbane, 1887.

[12] ‘Editorial’, The Brisbane Courier, 16 October 1888:4.

[13] After many decades of discussion and debate The University of Queensland was established in November 1909 by an Act of the Queensland Parliament.

[14] The government’s decision was one more of short-term expediency rather than any long term vision.  Beyond removing the Governor from the Queensland’s central administrative sector, which reflected the diminishing importance of the position post-Federation, the key arguments that supported this contentious decision was the availability of Government House as a building that could be adapted into lecture rooms at minimal cost and its central locality and beautiful environment.  Malcolm Thomis, A Place of Light and Learning: The University of Queensland’s First Seventy-five Years. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1985:25–28.

[15] The report by the Government Architect A.B. Brady’s following his inspection of ‘Fernberg’, an 1865 two storey stone building in Paddington, was not at all favourable. Brady considered the house to be too small at 4745 square feet which represented approximately 40 per cent of the floor space of Government House (12,713 sq ft).  This would require, he argued, extensive and expensive alterations to accommodate the governor and his staff and finally that its location was not central enough.  What proved to be in favour of ‘Fernberg’ was that the house was the only one of the shortlisted houses that was vacant; its rent of £250 per annum was the lowest and Sir William McGregor preferred it because of the 41 acres of land that surrounded the house. ‘Governor’s New Residence’, The Brisbane Courier, 8 February 1910:4.

[16] Queensland State Archives Item ID 108434, Correspondence

[17] The estimated cost to build new Government House was £30,000. The allocation of funds to the building would require funds to be diverted from other major public works projects such as railway construction or as one Minister stated in a November 1912 debate – ‘they were not able to build schools for their children, and yet it was proposed to go on with this proposition.’ ‘Gallery Notes’, The Brisbane Courier, 26 November 1912:7.

[18] A new two-storey wing was added on the eastern side which incorporated the drawing room, investiture room and a first floor bedroom suite – doubling the size of the principal bedrooms. The tiled roof was replaced rolled iron and new service buildings were constructed. ‘Vice-Regal Residence’, The Brisbane Courier, 17 June 1911:5; ‘Features of New Fernberg’, The Courier-Mail, 10 November 1937:16.


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2 Responses

  1. Helen Palmer

    I am writing a history of my street in Chelmer, Rosebery Terrace.
    We had notable residents who have been guests at Government House.
    I have been unsuccessful at acquiring photographs of them.
    Do you have photographs of Mr Gilbert Primrose, Mr Daniel Weinholt, Mr Robert Discher Neilson, and Estelle Neilson.
    In anticipation, I would like to thank you.
    Helen Palmer

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