Government House - History

Government House is Newfoundland's third Vice-Regal residence. Sir Thomas Cochrane, Governor from 1825 to 1834, made the provision of new accommodations a condition of his acceptance of his appointment. He personally selected the 20-acre site on the ridge of the Barrens between Fort William and Fort Townshend and construction and design modifications went on under his direction.

Government HouseBefore taking a detailed tour of Government House, it may be useful to take a brief review of its history. The first Governor of Newfoundland was appointed in 1729, but until 1779, all Governors were naval officers who spent the summer months in the Colony. They resided on, and administered the affairs of the Country, from their flagship, anchored in St. John's Harbour.

This situation changed in 1779 when Admiral Richard Edwards was appointed Governor. He felt that living aboard ship was not conducive to good administration and decided he should have a place ashore. It had been Edward's intention to live in a new summer residence that was to be constructed at Fort Townshend. However, the Fort Townshend building was not completed at this time, and the Governor was obliged to seek other accommodation. He found a suitable house on Duke of York Street, owned by a John Stripling, and occupied it during the summer of 1779. It appears that the Stripling house was a reasonably well constructed building made with oak beams, and somewhat superior in quality to the other wooden dwellings of the day. Unfortunately, the house was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1892.

Old Government HouseThe construction of Fort Townshend had begun in 1775. By 1781 it was completed and when Admiral Edwards arrived to take up his Vice-Regal duties that year, he and his family moved into the new summer residence. This Government House was to be the residence of a long line of Governors and was not vacated until 1831. The house was a two-storey structure with a slate roof and resembled a large "salt box" house. The living room was 20 feet by 40 feet and the dining room was 20 feet by 35 feet. Little maintenance was carried out on the building, and successive governors added rooms and made alterations without having done appropriate planning. By 1815, the house contained a living room, a dining room, a parlor, governor's office, four bedrooms, three servants' bedrooms, and offices for the private secretary and clerks. The grounds contained stables, cow sheds, and privies. By this time, the house had become leaky and very difficult to heat, and was a source of constant complaints by its occupants. In 1816, Vice-Admiral Pickmore was appointed Governor. He arrived in Newfoundland in September of 1816 and left in November to spend the winter in the more agreeable climate and comfort of England.

In February 1817, his Excellency was advised that, in future, Governors must reside full time in Newfoundland. This came as quite a shock to Pickmore who complained bitterly to the British Government about the poor state of the residence at Fort Townshend. He commented, "The house is not capable of being rendered a fit winter residence, unless by taking it down entirely and rebuilding it on a different plan." Little did he realize just how unfit the house would prove to be in winter and how fate would play a hand in his demise. The British Government refused to make improvements to the building, and Pickmore was sent out to St. John's, where he arrived in September of 1817 and became the first full-time, year round Governor of the Colony. Unfortunately for Vice-Admiral Pickmore, the winter of 1817-1818 was one of the worst ever, and it took its toll on the residents of the Colony as well as on Pickmore who died of bronchial congestion on February 24, 1818. Thus, he gained the dubious distinction of being the first Newfoundland Governor to die in office. It took several hundred men three weeks to cut a channel through the five-foot thick ice in the Harbour of St. John's so that the naval ship, H. M. S. Fly, could convey Pickmore's corpse, which was preserved in a puncheon of rum, back to England.

Pickmore's successor, Admiral Sir Charles Hamilton, wrote the Secretary of State that it was undoubtedly the poor condition of Government House with its lack of creature comforts that was the main cause of his predecessor's death. Hamilton immediately began petitioning the Treasury in England for a new Government House, and in 1825, the British Government agreed that it was time to build a new residence. Because of the fires of 1816 and 1817 in the crowded lower town, it was decided that the building should not be constructed in the waterfront area, but some distance away. For that reason, the area between Fort William (present location of Hotel Newfoundland) and Fort Townshend, known as the Barrens, came to be chosen as the site for the new Government House.

As noted, Sir Thomas Cochrane insisted on the provision of new accommodations as a condition of his acceptance of appointment as Governor. Even before he came out to Newfoundland to take up his appointment, Cochrane had drawn up a plan of the new residence and had an estimate of costs prepared by the engineers in St. John's. The estimated cost was 8,778 pounds sterling and this figure was to be the subject of considerable embarrassment to the Treasury, because by the time the House had been completed in 1831, the cost of construction had increased to 36,000 pounds.

The building plans for Government House were drawn up in England. The Ordinance had told the Treasury that workmen's wages were too high in Newfoundland, and subsequently, workmen in Scotland were engaged and arrived in St. John's in April of 1827. Twenty-eight masons, twenty-five carpenters, and a slater were hired to construct the building at the rate of 4 shillings 4 pence per day. The original plan as conceived by Governor Cochrane was for a two-storey house, plus basement. The building was to be enclosed within a 12 foot ditch which, popularly mistaken to be a moat, was merely designed as a provision for allowing light into the basement level.

The two-storey building consists of a center block flanked by slightly lower wings on the east and on the west. The exterior is of rough, red sandstone quarried at Signal Hill, trimmed with English Portland stone.