Government House: A Living Museum. A National Treasure. A Home.

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In the heart of Kingston, the centrepiece of the 19th century settlement township is Government House. High on Dove’s Plot, the house boasts a commanding view over the Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area. Located within a World Heritage listed area, it is the oldest functioning vice-regal residence in Australasia, standing as a testament to Norfolk Island’s rich tapestry of history and heritage. It is a unique emblem of historical significance and architectural grandeur: A living museum, a national treasure, and perhaps more importantly, a home.

The current Georgian mansion, built in 1829 over the remnants of an earlier structure, represents the island’s complex layers of history. It is the fourth incarnation of a Government House in Kingston, with the first two buildings being built closer to the Landing Place in the years following the establishment of the first colonial settlement on the 6th of March, 1788.

In 1803, the first Government House to be built at the current location on Dove’s Plot was constructed. It was a significant and grand building, occupying much of the same footprint of the house today, however it suffered the same fate as each of Kingston’s buildings – it was torched in 1814 when the settlement was abandoned. For the next eleven years, Kingston lay vacant – the undergrowth slowly enveloping the remnants of the settlement’s buildings. In 1825, Norfolk Island was once again settled by the British, marking the commencement of the second colonial settlement period which would last for the following 30 years. This period was the darkest in all of the island’s human history. Norfolk Island became a harsh and notorious penal settlement, a “hell in paradise” for the worst of convict offenders.

In 1826, shortly after the reoccupation of the island, work began on restoring Government House as the Governor’s residence. It was established over the same footprint as the first residence on Dove’s Plot, built with Norfolk Island stone, and hard convict labour in its walls, quite literally – it is reported that convict hair was used to help bind the plaster that remains on the walls.

In 1829, Commandant Lt .Colonel Morisset and his family made the residence their home, and it has been used as such consistently by administrative heads of the island for nearly 200 years.

The house became the home of the sitting Commandants of the island’s penal settlement until its closure 1855. With the arrival of the current Pitcairn settlement in 1856, the property was retained in Crown ownership and the house became a residence for various government occupants in the decades that followed. The island fell under the administration of the NSW government in 1897 and later became an external territory of Australia in 1914 – and an administrative head known as Chief Magistrate would occupy the house. The Chief Magistrate position would later be known simply as Administrator – a position that still exists today.

 

 

Alterations have been made to the house over time, and in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century a significant amount of work was undertaken to restore the house to its penal era layout and decor. Restoration works were completed over a period of years and furniture and furnishings were painstakingly researched, sourced and commissioned to reflect this period and the house’s early occupants. All the while a sitting Administrator and their respective families would continue to occupy the home.

Prior to the 1980s, event days to open the house to the public called ‘Open Days’ commenced and have held a special place on the Norfolk Island events calendar ever since. These event days have always supported local charity organisations, and although the house was initially only opened to the public this way a handful of times annually, today visitors are afforded regular opportunity to visit the home as many as 14 times throughout the year. Open Days offer the visitor a rare glimpse into Kingston’s past through the meticulously maintained home and gardens. They offer an intimate look at the property’s state rooms, antique furnishings, and artworks, alongside the authentically restored Regency period interior decoration. It is a wonderful opportunity to visit the house as it might have been, and also gain an appreciation for what is still a magnificent home. There is an entry charge for visitors and all of the proceeds continue to support Norfolk Island’s local volunteer charity and service organisations. This has been a wonderful way for Government House to be community involved and support numerous charities over several years.

In June 2010 Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA) was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as one of the 11 sites that make up the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property. As an area of ‘outstanding significance to the nation as a convict settlement spanning the era of transportation to eastern Australia between 1788–1855’.

Of course, the significance of Government House extends beyond its architectural beauty, its part in the World Heritage Kingston Area, or any one occupant. It is one of Kingston’s resident Georgian stalwarts and a remains symbol of authority and stability under various administrations.

Visiting Government House may be a snapshot into part of Norfolk’s fascinating past, but it’s important to remember the house’s story continues to evolve with each Administrator adding to its legacy – ensuring that Government House remains a living museum and a testament to Norfolk Island’s enduring spirit. It is an indispensable visit for anyone looking to not only delve into Australia’s rich heritage, but to view an architectural masterpiece that stands as a monument to the island’s history, its people, and the continuing legacy of all those who have called it home.

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Image Credit: Robin Nisbet

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Government House is located in the heart of Kingston.It is a private residence and is only open to the public on selected Open Days.

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Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 07 Issue 01, 2024. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.

 

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