Heritage is about the things from the past which
are valued enough today to save for tomorrow.

Government House and Grounds

The first Government House was a tent on Garden Island, which James Stirling and family occupied from June to September 1829. After this, he relocated to a temporary wooden building on the site of what is now Stirling Gardens. A permanent Government House was erected for the first time in 1834, but it suffered from leaking roofs and damp in every wall.

When Governor Arthur Kennedy arrived in 1855, he was unwilling to live in such meagre circumstances and commissioned a new Government House. Although the foundation stone was laid in 1859, it took five years before the residence could be inhabited. Built using a combination of convict, private and military labour, repeated delays and redesigns exasperated both the governor and the public.

Because it had taken so long to complete, Governor Kennedy never occupied the residence he had ordered. Instead Governor John Hampton was the first to live in the new Government House. The original Government House was demolished in 1887 to make space for improvements to the garden.

Today, Government House is considered one of the finest heritage buildings in Perth. The gardens are regularly opened to the public and the residence itself allows occasional public access. It continues to serve as the home of the Governor of Western Australia and a place for visiting dignitaries to stay.

Detailed Description

In June 1829, James Stirling arrived to found a new colony in Western Australia. His first official residence was a tent on Garden Island, which he occupied until September 1829. After the founding of Perth in August 1829, Stirling and his family moved the tent to the corner of St George’s Terrace and Barrack Street, a site which is now known as Stirling Gardens. Three years later, a temporary wooden building was erected for the Governor and his family on the same spot.

After returning from a visit to England in 1834, where he had been knighted, Stirling instructed Henry William Reveley, a civil engineer, to prepare drawings for a new Government House. Located just inside the main entrance gates of the current residence, it was a single-storey building, stuccoed in the popular style, with a large columned portico. It was very similar to the Old Court House located in Stirling Gardens, also designed by Reveley. Such was the lack of funds in the new colony, it was reported that Stirling had been forced to contribute some of the costs from his own pocket.

From the beginning, the building proved defective. It had a leaking roof, termites in the flooring, and damp in all the walls. Government House also lacked accommodation for visitors and had no space for the events a Governor was expected to hold. Despite this, the building remained the official residence, and after Stirling resigned in 1837, four successive Governors lived in Reveley’s first Government House.

When Governor Arthur Edward Kennedy arrived in 1855, he decided that something had to be done about Government House. Official reports had already noted that continual repairs the place needed were costing more than erecting a new residence. In 1857, a first proposal was drawn by Captain Wray, of the Royal Engineers for a plain and undistinguished two-storeyed house in the classical Revival style. After the Legislative Council approved funding for a new Government House, Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Henderson, of the Royal Engineers and Comptroller of Convicts, designed a more impressive building, assisted by James Manning, Clerk of Works of the Convict Establishment, and Richard Roach Jewell, Colonial Clerk of Works. Henderson was a friend of Sir Charles Barry, who designed London’s Houses of Parliament and many other Gothic buildings, and Jewell had been employed on some of Barry’s works. It is likely that these connections resulted in the design not only of Government House but also the Town Hall on Barrack Street.
The foundation stone was laid in March 1859, but work was very slow and dragged on until 1864, using a mix of convict labour and skilled workmen for specific tasks. The new Government House suffered from continual changes to the design, problems of indecision and difficulty obtaining materials from England. As a result, costs spiralled from the original estimate of £7,000 to £15,000.

The design of the new building looked back to the Tudor period, and it was a style very much in favour with many English country mansions erected at that time. The use of stone and brick, with square mullioned windows, decorated gables and capped turrets was typical of this style of architecture. The lack of skilful finish in the details of these two picturesque buildings has been attributed to the fact that the officers of the Royal Engineers who prepared the plans, were not skilled in work of an architectural nature and were unable to reproduce the full beauty of the design.

Because it had taken so long to complete, Governor Kennedy never occupied the residence he had ordered. Instead Governor John Hampton was the first to live in the new Government House. His occupation there proved controversial, especially his last-minute decision to have the walls between five bedrooms removed so a ballroom could be created. This, naturally, reduced the accommodation for visiting guests. Hampton was also criticised in the newspapers for spending too much tax-payers’ money on beautiful furniture imported from England.

The original Government House was demolished in 1887, which made possible an improvement in the lay-out of the spacious gardens and shrubberies which surround the residence. Among the developments, a walled kitchen garden was converted to pleasure grounds, with curving gravel paths, extensive lawns and flower borders.

In 1897 it was proposed to add a new ballroom, dining room and library to Government House. The drawings were probably undertaken by the Government Architect, Hillson Beasley. However, by the time it was completed in 1899, the ballroom was much reduced in size and style when compared to the original drawings. The new addition was described as ‘Renaissance with classic motif’, a fashionable architecture in the 1890s, which does not match the original building in any way. Even at the time, it was suggested it would have been better if Beasley had come up with a building more suitable for its context.

Today, Government House is considered one of the finest heritage buildings in Perth. The gardens are regularly opened to the public and the residence itself allows occasional public access. It continues to serve as the home of the Governor of Western Australia and a place for visiting dignitaries to stay.

Martens, Jeremy, Government House and Western Australian Society: 1829-2010 (2011)

Gazette 25 October 1834

‘Local and Domestic Intelligence.’ Inquirer 29 August 1855

‘The Inquirer’s Defence of the Governor.’ Perth Gazette 20 October 1865

‘Stately House is Empty, But Not “To Let”’ Daily News 1 November 1932

Location