For thousands of years the river and surrounding land was the traditional country of the Turrbul and Yugara people. The area that became known as Gardens Point was originally covered in thick scrub and known by the traditional owners as 'Meanjin', meaning 'place shaped like a spike'. In 1825 the Moreton Bay penal settlement was established on the northern bank of the river. The land nearest the point was cleared to grow much needed food for the struggling convict settlement.
In 1855, overgrown and unused for almost twenty-five years, the land was subdivided into town allotments, but the people of Brisbane petitioned the Sydney-based government in protest against the sale. Despite New South Wales' growing hostility over the Moreton Bay District's campaign to become an independent colony, the request was heeded.
After Queensland achieved separation from New South Wales in 1859 one of the first acts of Queensland's new Parliament was to provide the colony's first governor with a 'fitting' home. The building had to serve two distinct purposes – as a private residence for the governor and his family and as an official state office, it would be the hub of colonial life in the early days of Brisbane.
The newly-appointed Government Architect Charles Tiffin designed the building in 1860. He incorporated a number of adaptations to the Greek revival style to better suit it to the local climate. Tiffin was a significant figure in Victorian-era public architecture in Australia, and went on to design over 300 Queensland buildings.
The House was built by Joshua Jeays, who punted the huge loads of sandstone used for its construction down the Brisbane River from his Goodna quarry. Jeays was also an alderman in the first Brisbane Municipal Council and later served as mayor. The House was completed in May 1862 at a total cost of £17,000, and was praised as a 'structure... highly creditable to the colony'.
More than simply serving as a vice-regal residence, Old Government House played an important symbolic role in the early years of the colony. Its grand design and location high on the promontory at Gardens Point made it an impressive sight for visitors and immigrants arriving by ship: as they circled the point, it came into view as a stately palace against the backdrop of Brisbane's ramshackle wooden huts scattered throughout the bush. It was a bold exemplar of the colony's potential prosperity.
One of the first actions of Queensland's inaugural parliament was to vote £10,000 towards the design and construction of a Government House. Considering Queensland's population at the time was only 25,000 people, this was a large amount of money and showed just how important the building of this House was to the new colony. Government House had to serve three distinct purposes: the House was a home for the Governor and his family, a key administrative office for Queensland, and a hub for elite social events in the colony.
The newly-appointed Government Architect, Charles Tiffin, completed the plans for the House within weeks. His drawings were of a grand Greek Revival style house, incorporating a number of adaptations to better suit Brisbane's sub-tropical climate. The building's position on a 'delightful' rise of ground in the reserved government domain commanded 'a splendid view of the river'.
Tiffin was a significant figure in mid-Victorian architecture in Australia. He went on to design more than 300 of Queensland's public buildings, including Parliament House. Tiffin was extremely proud of his work on Government House noting that it was "the most economical vice-regal residence in the Australian Colonies". It remains today one of his finest achievements.
Local builder Joshua Jeays – who would go on to become the fourth mayor of Brisbane – won the construction bid and began work on Government House in October 1860. The locally-sourced building materials included sandstone from Jeays' Goodna Quarry, volcanic rock from Windsor known as porphyry, red cedar, hoop pine and cast iron.
Progress was quick and followed closely by the people of Queensland. The Queensland Daily Guardian reported each significant phase in the construction of the colony's first public building – by April 1861 the main brick walls were up and by July the servants' wing at the rear was underway. September saw the completion of the House's two-story sandstone exterior. By October the slate roof was in place and the Director of the Botanic Gardens, Walter Hill, had begun laying out the garden. John Petrie's work on the stables, guardhouse and entrance gates, funded by an additional parliamentary vote of £7000, was nearing completion by December.
The final fit-out of the House with local and imported furniture, and imported marble mantelpieces, chandeliers and carpets, took place in March 1862 with the House officially completed the following month.
Public opinion of the finished Government House was overwhelmingly positive. The press declared it a "structure highly creditable to the colony" and reported that "the building itself appears to be well adapted in point of coolness and ventilation to the climate of this colony; the rooms being large, lofty and airy, and furnished in a plain but exceedingly tasteful manner".
The building's orientation caused the only major point of criticism, in that it faced the river rather than the adjacent Botanic Gardens. Some felt this resulted in an ugly view of the Kangaroo Point stone quarry, described as 'a dull, flat and unprofitable face of rock'. However, a likely explanation for the placement is that it was designed to be an impressive sight for visitors arriving by ship: as they circled the point, the grand House sitting high on the promontory would come into view as a symbol of Queensland's potential prosperity. Against the backdrop of early Brisbane – a frontier town of dirt tracks and huts scattered throughout the bush, where straying pigs were a major public nuisance – Government House stood tall as a vice-regal palace.
Queensland's first Governor, Sir George Bowen, took up residence in May 1862 and was delighted with his new home, calling it "handsome", "commodious" and "beautifully situated". Governor Bowen was the first of eleven governors to live in the House over its 48 years of service as a vice-regal residence. In that time four children were born, two governors died, and countless key moments in Queensland's history took place within its walls.
The House was designed so that the governor had a view of the adjacent Botanic Gardens from his office. These gardens were established in 1855 and played a key role in the development of Queensland's primary industries. Walter Hill, a botanist trained at the prestigious Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was appointed first Superintendent and allocated 9 acres (3.6 ha) and a sum of £500 to purchase rare plants.
Hill experimented with different plants to see which would thrive in or adapt to local conditions. He can be credited with the genesis of Queensland's sugar cane industry after trialling the crop in the Botanic Gardens. Along with a planter from Barbados, John Buchot, Hill made the first sugar ever produced in the colony in 1862. The pair conducted a top-secret experiment in the dead of night, crushing sugar cane with a lever and boiling the juice in a saucepan, thereby settling the uncertainty over whether Queensland sugar cane juice would granulate. Hill also planted the first commercially grown Macadamias in the world, originally sourcing the native trees from the Queensland bush.
It was also Hill's responsibility to lay out the original garden for Old Government House, with some elements, including the driveway and kidney-shaped lawn outside the Governor's Library, still visible today. The lone Bunya Pine in front of the House is the sole surviving tree from the original four types of pine planted by Hill in 1861. Lady Bowen, a keen gardener, was the first mistress of the House and helped to further establish the garden.
Gardening was a popular female pursuit in the mid-19th century, and her husband, Governor Bowen, was proud to inform visitors to the House that "every shrub and flower has been planted by Lady Bowen's hands or has thriven under her loving care". In its heyday, the garden surrounding the House would have been a magnificent display of native and exotic plants – flowerbeds flush with roses, carnations, heliotropes, tecomas, dracaenas, 'bird of paradise' flowers (strelitzias) alongside the iconic wattle trees with their yellow clustered flowers.
A sizeable Kitchen Garden was also kept on the grounds, to the northeast of the area where Brisbane Riverstage now lies. It provided for much of the House's produce needs, including vegetables, fruit and grains. Self-sufficiency was common during colonial years and the Head Gardener took pride in the quality and variety of his harvest. Vegetables from the Government House Kitchen Garden were regularly entered into Horticultural Society competitions – in 1870 the vice-regal entries of cabbage, carrots, horseradish, parsnips, leeks, beans, tomatoes and herbs won 'best in show'.
Completed in May 1862 the House was subject to a number of changes, additions and improvements over the coming years to keep it in line with technological advancements and with the increasing hospitalities demanded of it.
The interior decoration of the House was a feature that changed in some way with each new family – it was the duty of the governor's wife to transform it into a family home in line with their personal tastes. A horrified Lady Lamington arrived in April 1896 to discover that 'they had done up all the rooms too fearfully'; but within a month she had redecorated and declared that 'in every way this is such a nice House'.
By the turn of the century, ongoing concerns over the House's inadequate size and inability to accommodate the extensive hospitalities demanded of it became too obvious to ignore. Queensland's population had grown considerably since the House was built in 1862 and the lengthy guest lists to vice-regal functions now outstripped its capacity. In 1909 on Queensland's 50th anniversary the decision was made to move the governor to a temporary residence, Fernberg, while a larger house was to be built in Victoria Park. It was a controversial decision, and in June the following year Sir William MacGregor became the last serving governor to pull out of the carriageway and the House became known as Old Government House. Plans for the new building at Victoria Park stalled at the laying of a foundation stone, and in 1911 the government bought Fernberg which continues to serve as Queensland's Government House today.
Piped tap water installed
Candle lighting replaced with 170 gas lights (electric lighting not installed until 1910)
Roofs added to first floor balconies and piazzas to protect the upper level from Brisbane's tropical storms
New kitchen wing and cellar added
Roofs added to first floor staff balconies
Sandstone carriage portico built over main entrance
Two internal toilet blocks built onto south-east wall of courtyard
First telephones installed
Electric Bell System installed replacing pull-cord system of calling servants
Housekeeper's Room built
Slate roof replaced with wide-pan galvanized iron
Billiard Room of Helidon sandstone built at rear of House
On 10 December 1909 it was announced that Government House would no longer be used as a vice-regal residence. On that same day, the University of Queensland was established with the then serving governor, Sir William MacGregor, installed as its first chancellor. He moved out of the House in June the following year, and the building and its surrounding grounds became the University's first campus.
The first classes were held in the House in 1911. The University's student body numbered 83 – including 23 women – and the teaching staff comprised four professors and thirteen lecturers across three faculties of Arts, Science and Engineering. The rooms in the former governor's residence were adapted for new use as required: the drawing room became the University library; the dining room was used for English lectures and biology classes took place in the private drawing room.
By the 1920s it was clear that the House was not an ideal educational facility. As one mathematics professor put it, "we are housed in a building inadequate in size and unsuitable in design. It is riddled with white ants; leaking roofs are frequent and falling ceilings not unknown". The unsuitability of the site saw the University of Queensland progressively move to its current home at St Lucia from 1945, but a lack of space simply resulted in the Queensland Institute of Technology (QIT) moving in. QIT (which became Queensland University of Technology in 1989) used Old Government House for classes until the 1960s, when its Gardens Point campus was more established.