Eleven governors and their families lived in the House over a period of almost fifty years. Many key moments in Queensland's early development took place within the walls of the Governor's library. The House and its gardens saw some of Brisbane's most magnificent social events with countless balls, receptions, dinners and garden parties taking place.
In 19th century Queensland there was a clearly defined social order. A person's class, employment and gender determined their social position. Every role in society carried particular rights and obligations that were well understood. This applied to everyone from the governor to the lowest scullery maid and provided a set of rules for each person to live by. Whilst this hierarchy provided security and certainty for everyone it also restricted opportunity for advancement for those on the 'lower rungs' of society. It was very difficult for the merit of the individual to override the boundaries in the social order.
This very formal and rigid social structure is reflected in the design of Old Government House. This can be seen in three dimensions of the House layout.
First is the division between the Governor and his guests and the servants and staff. The front of the House is the Governor's domain and the lofty ceilings and rich cedar joinery contrast with the simpler build of the rear of the House where the servants lived and worked.
Secondly there is a clear division between the work or public areas of the House downstairs and the private quarters for the Governor and servants upstairs.
Thirdly there is a division between the male or business eastern side of the House and the female or family western side of the House.
Consistent with these guidelines the House is designed in an organised manner where people could and could not go, and where everyone knew their place. It clearly reflects the society of the times.
Queen Victoria – after whom Queensland is named – was one of the United Kingdom's most popular monarchs. Her reign lasted from 1837 to 1901, a period hence known as the Victorian era. It was a time of major social, economic and technological progress around the world, with the Industrial Revolution driving changes across almost every aspect of daily life.
The role of the Queen of the British Empire in the 19th century was more influential than the British monarch is today. Royalty and the British Empire were very important in the early Australian colonies and Queen Victoria was adored by the public as a champion of morality and family values. When Lord and Lady Lamington moved in to Government House, their close ties with Queen Victoria (she was godfather to their son Victor) saw the House looked upon as "Brisbane's Buckingham Palace".
By the time of her death in 1901, Queen Victoria's empire included Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand and large parts of Africa. Many places around the world are named in her honour, testament to the immense popularity she enjoyed amongst her subjects.
Victorian era society placed a higher value on family life than any previous generation. The family home was seen as a sanctuary, a place providing privacy, comfort and a refuge from the public world. Because Government House also served as a state office and reception venue, it was designed to ensure that the private apartments were physically separate from the public rooms. The nursery and bedrooms were all upstairs, and it was in these rooms that many of the most intimate moments of family life would have taken place.
A number of vice-regal families brought children with them to Government House – four were even born in the House. Their childhood experiences would have been quite different from those of today, though as the governor's children they would certainly have enjoyed a more privileged upbringing than the vast majority of others born in Queensland in the 1800s.
The children were looked after by a nursemaid who made sure they were bathed, clothed and put to bed each night. To help them wind down from the day's bustle she sometimes read them a story in the night nursery, a time known as 'The Children's Hour'. During the day the children took lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic and practised their musical instruments.
Games of make-believe and hide-and-seek would have been played in the gardens, with dolls, card games and nursery rhymes keeping the children occupied indoors. Many children were invited to Government House to celebrate birthdays with cake and party games, or simply for afternoon playdates with the governor's children.
And of course, there were the many four-legged and feathered residents who helped create a homely environment in what was essentially a temporary residence. Each governor had at least one pet during his six-year term in Queensland. Governor Blackall's dog Soda was in attendance for many of the family photographs and the Kennedys were fond of horses. The Lamington family famously kept a menagerie of animals including a kangaroo, three dogs, several horses and birds including cockatoos, magpies and a cassowary that ate whole apples.
The governor had his own personal staff to assist him carry out his vice-regal duties. As young men of a respectable background and good education, the Aide de Camp and the Private Secretary (sometimes both roles were filled by the one employee) lived at Government House 'as a member of the family', but with their own rooms in the rear wing of the House.
The Aide de Camp was the 'controller of the household'. He was responsible for managing all the governor's social duties, arranging invitations and being his special attendant at public functions and occasions. Although he did not have his own servant, he was entitled to the services of one of the footmen and the mounted orderlies whenever required.
The role of Private Secretary was to assist the governor in the administration of his executive authority over the colony. Although parliament and the premier were largely in control of the political process, the governor had the ultimate say over most decisions and was also responsible for helping draft legislation. The Private Secretary briefed the governor on issues concerning the colony, sat in on meetings, accompanied him to ceremonial events and helped him manage paperwork and correspondence.
The daily operations of Government House required an extensive support staff. A largely anonymous team of cooks, cleaners, butlers, footmen, maids, nurses, coachmen and stewards worked behind the scenes to keep the House running. Class divisions of the time are highlighted by the contrast between the comfort of the House's vice-regal residents and the hard life of the people who waited on them. A formal dinner for 18 distinguished guests meant the scullery maid had to hand-wash up to 500 individual pieces of cookware and crockery.
Though they were vital to the daily functioning of the household, few records exist detailing who the servants were or exactly what their work entailed. What is clear is that the bulk of their chores took place 'out of sight' in the rear service wing of the House. Staff only ever entered the main domain when summoned by the governor or a member of the vice-regal family – and only ever through the back door.
Servants were differentiated by task and title within a hierarchy. The Butler or House Steward was head of the male servants – the hall porter, the valet and the footmen. The Housekeeper was second in charge and part of her job was to be 'constantly on the watch to detect any wrong-doing on the part of the female domestics', including the cook, the nurse and the laundry-maid. Up to 40 people were employed at Government House at any one time.
Numerous dignitaries stayed at Government House as guests of the governor including members of the British and Austrian Royal families, other colonial governors and politicians, and famous artists and singers
The most distinguished visitors were Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York. They – and their entourage of 24 people – stayed for four days as part of The Royal Tour of 1901. The Lamingtons were in residence at Government House at the time and moved out into rooms at Parliament House in order to accommodate the Royal party. The Duke was 'loud in his praises' at the tremendous effort entailed in hosting the couple and the programme of social engagements. For the servants, the experience of coming face-to-face with true Royalty was overwhelming: when the Duke and Duchess arrived at Government House they all vanished, leaving Lady Lamington to open the door to the illustrious guests.
All guests to Government House were members of the upper class of society, including family and friends of the vice-regal family. To receive an invitation to a social event at the House was a great honour and a sign of one's high social standing. Some people treasured these elegant invitations so much that they collected them in albums as mementos of their time spent in vice-regal company.
Entertaining was an important official duty of the governor, and how he 'dispensed hospitalities' often determined his popularity. As the most elegant venue in town, Old Government House was the social hub of Brisbane's emerging society.
Distinguished guests enjoyed lavish formal dinners, while garden parties on the Kidney Lawn were held as receptions for visiting dignitaries. Young ladies made their social debut at Cotillion balls where only the very latest and finest fashions were worn and each debutante's dress was described in detail in the newspaper the following day.
'The chief social event of the year' was the Birthday Ball held in May to celebrate Queen Victoria's birthday. The first ball in the House was held in 1862 and attended by four hundred guests. Initially, the House was an excellent venue for vice-regal functions. The three main rooms on the ground floor were used for dancing, while people went to the private drawing room for 'cards and conversation'. Light refreshments were served in the vestibule and the covered courtyard became the supper room.
'Everyone who was anyone' attended these magnificent parties, but as Queensland's population grew so did the guest lists, and it became increasingly difficult to host these large-scale events in the House. The lack of a ballroom was a major drawback, especially in 1899 when the Lamingtons hosted "the largest Vice-Regal Ball witnessed in Brisbane" – marquees and annexes had to be erected to accommodate the 1200 guests.