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Government House Centenary

Issue date: 
Friday, 1 October 2010
Rt Hon Sir Anand Satyanand, GNZM, QSO

I begin by greeting everyone in the languages of the realm of New Zealand, in English, Māori, Cook Island Māori, Niuean, Tokelauan and New Zealand Sign Language.  Greetings, Kia Ora, Kia Orana, Fakalofa Lahi Atu, Taloha Ni and as it is the morning (Sign)

I then specifically greet you: Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, former Governor-General and Lady Mary Hardie Boys; Minister of the Crown, Hon Peter Dunne, Minister of Revenue; Hon Annette King, Deputy Leader of the Opposition; Rt Hon Sir Peter Blanchard, Justice of the Supreme Court; Your Honour Judge Jan Doogue, Acting Chief District Court Judge; Your Worships, Wayne Guppy, Jenny  Brash and David Ogden, Mayors of Upper Hutt, Porirua and Lower Hutt; Hon Fran Wilde, Chair of Greater Wellington Regional Council; Ian McKinnon, Deputy Mayor of Wellington; Maarten Wevers, Chief Executive of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; Your Honour Shonagh Kenderdine, former Environment Court Judge and Chair of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust; Current and former staff of Government House and the Cabinet Office; Distinguished Guests otherwise; Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you for accepting the invitation from my wife Susan and I to this reception to mark the centenary of Government House in Wellington.  I would like to take an opportunity to speak of the early history of this House and its connection to the evolving role of the Governor-General.

This House and its grounds have a fascinating history and one could easily give a lengthy dissertation.  But as morning tea awaits, I will be brief.  Like the stories of many of New Zealand’s colonial buildings, it was a fire that gave impetus to the construction of Government House.

In September 1907, New Zealand celebrated as it ceased to be Colony and became a Dominion of the British Empire.  The wooden neo-Gothic Parliament Buildings  were lit up with electric light to mark the occasion.   Less than three months later, on December 11, the buildings were again alight, but this time as a result of a devastating fire that gutted the structure. 

With nowhere for Parliament to meet, the ballroom of the then Government House, a wooden Italianesque building which stood where the Beehive now stands, was commandeered as the debating chamber.  The Governor, Sir William Plunket, Lord Plunket, went to live in Palmerston North with Lady Plunket but was never to return to his home, which later became the home of Bellamys.

Several sites were considered before it was decided to locate Government House here, on the site of the then Mt View Lunatic Asylum, with construction starting in 1908.

If you will permit a slight diversion, the certificate of title and legal description for the site reads as follows:  Part Town Belt, Blocks VII, XI Port Nicholson Survey District. Part Lunatic Asylum Reserve.  Reserve for Vice Regal Residence and so on.

As I said, construction started in 1908.  The building was designed in the office of the Government Architect, John Campbell, the designer of Parliament Buildings, principally by his assistant, Claude Paton.

Interestingly, there is no record of a foundation stone ever being laid, or of plaque to mark its opening, being unveiled. If either existed, neither has been unearthed in the Conservation Project.

Why that should be so is not clear.   Lord Plunket was certainly not keen on the site, apparently saying that it was “some way from the principal government offices in a less fashionable part of town.”    Given the construction timetable, it was probably clear to him that he would never get to live here.

However, it is more likely that it was the death of King Edward VII in May 1910 that put paid to any plans for a grand opening.  With the Royal Court being in full official mourning, gala events were ruled out.  It is for this reason that the invitation you received, from an event to mark the 1901 Royal Tour by the then Duke of York and Cornwall, and adjusted with the skilful use of computer software, shows King Edward VII and his son, the future King George V.

And so it was that Lord Plunket left in June 1910 and Sir John Islington, Lord Islington, arrived on 22nd June.  Government House was not completed and he stayed at a house in Featherston, with Lady Islington arriving in August. 

However, rumour soon spread of Islington’s supposed displeasure at the state of House.  The Governor took the unusual step of making a public statement that, while much work remained to be done on the grounds, he was very pleased with the interior.  “It is an excellent house,” he said, “presenting a very stately appearance outside, and the interior is quite singular in its arrangements.” That’s what he told the New Zealand Press Association.   Not everyone shared Islington’s enthusiasm.  Wellington North MP Alexander Herdman, for example, described it as looking “like a glorified grain store.”

The Islingtons moved into the House in August and with Royal Court mourning ending on September 30, the Governor hosted a ministerial dinner in the House on October 1  and it is to coincide with that event, that it has been decided to mark the centenary today.

However, the celebrations were to be short-lived.  An outbreak of a mysterious illness, linked to the building’s sewers, saw the Islingtons move out and stay in the countryside.  Questions were raised in Parliament, and the Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward, had to defend the work done on the House,  denying that the illness was typhoid fever.  MPs were so angry that they tried to cut the Government Architect’s salary by £1 in protest.

The Islingtons eventually returned and by December were reported to have hosted a large reception, with the interior of the House being lauded by a reporter from The Evening Post.

The Islingtons were the first of many Governors and Governors-General to live in this House, and  Susan and I have been privileged to be number 20.

When Lord Islington lived here, the role of the Governor was vastly different from today's modern Governor-General.  The Governors and early Governors-General were appointed on the advice of the British Government to undertake the duties of the Sovereign and to represent its interests and those of the British Empire.  While there were regular functions at Government House, it was primarily a stately Edwardian home for the Governor and family.

The British Empire is no more, and New Zealand is now an independent nation.  In constitutional terms, the Governor-General is the representative of the Head of State.  In a wider sense, however, the Governor-General represents New Zealand and New Zealanders, both at home and abroad.  

As the role of Governor-General has changed, so has Government House.  From a stately home which the Governor furnished himself, it must now be fully serviced residence for the Governor-General and visiting Heads of State and dignitaries, a home for the Governor-General and their spouse; an office for the Governor-General's staff, as well as a venue for formal events and ceremonies.

After almost 100 years of use, it was clear to anyone living or working here that it was in serious need of work.  The roof leaked, crumbling tiles flew off in the wind and the upper floor was a rabbit warren of long-disused servants’ quarters. The assessment work undertaken by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet soon revealed the need for a major conservation project. 

To put the Project in context, before the closure a reporter asking me of my thoughts on the proposed “facelift,” and as to whether it was the architectural equivalent of cosmetic surgery.  Extending the medical analogy a little, I said the reality was that it was more like a triple bypass and a double hip replacement.  

With the closure of the House in late 2008, it is pleasing to see that the end is now in sight.  I want to congratulate everyone who has contributed so much in getting the House to its current state, while also recognising everyone who has worked and lived here.

This centenary event will lead us into a series of celebrations to mark the reopening of one of New Zealand’s most important heritage buildings.  Susan and I particularly look forward to welcoming New Zealanders back into Government House next year.

And on that note I will close in New Zealand’s first language Māori, by offering everyone greetings and wishing you all good health and fortitude in your endeavours.  No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, kia ora, kia kaha, tēnā koutou katoa.

Last updated: 
Friday, 1 October 2010

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