Background and Construction
The post of Governor of Newfoundland, an administrative post with specific instructions from the
Crown, did not exist until 1729 despite the fact that the island had been the resort of fishermen for
some two centuries. The various persons who used the title before that time, such as John Guy and
Richard Whitbourne, had been governors only of specific colonies and were little more than branch
managers of commercial enterprises. The appointment of a naval governor brought an important
measure of administrative order to a territory that had, until then, been fairly disorderly. But even
these naval governors had their limitations. They were only present for the summer fishery so their
effect was somewhat transient. And without some kind of permanent establishment, some security
against the vagaries of one's neighbours, Newfoundland was only going to have hesitant growth. The
building of Fort Townshend and the creation of the judiciary at the end of the
18th century helped shape this permanence.
Fort Townshend, ca 1796
A detail from a painting of St. John's in 1796, showing Fort Townshend in the top centre.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, (ENL Photographic Collection), Memorial University,
St. John's, and the Public Archives of Canada.
The first Government House was built in Fort Townshend. But Governor Richard
Edwards (1779-82) may have occupied another house while waiting for it to be
completed. According to Bishop Howley, this was really the "first Government
House." It lay on Stripling's Plantation between what is now Gower and York
streets. No record of it survives, save Howley's description: "not of any very
elaborate or gubernatorial pretensions [it] was, nevertheless, something of a
more durable and expensive character than the ordinary wooden dwellings of the
time, as the oaken beams still visible [c. 1886] can testify. It is of very remote
antiquity" (Howley 210).
The building in Fort Townshend, finished in 1781, was intended as a summer house for the governors
and remained the official residence until the present structure was completed in 1831. A wooden five-
bay Georgian house of the simplest form, it was in keeping with the general architecture of the fort.
It was apparently enlarged in 1812 so that the principal rooms became major spaces for
entertainment. But it was never very comfortable in winter - a point made with some force when the
first resident governor, Francis Pickmore, died there in 1818. A poorly-clad, drafty house into which
the snow drifted in winter, it is not surprising that Pickmore objected to being accommodated there.
What is surprising is that subsequent governors accepted the post with such poor living quarters.
Government House at Fort Townshend in 1831.
This was where Governor Pickmore died, and where Governors Waldegrave, Gower, Duckworth,
and Hamilton resided while in Newfoundland.
Courtesy of the Newfoundland Constabulary Archives. From
Paul O'Neill, A Seaport Legacy: The Story of St. John's (Erin,
Ontario: Press Porcepic, ©1972) 438.
During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, Newfoundland entered a
new phase of development. In the last quarter of the 18th century the fishery
had begun to fall into more local hands, in the sense that firms now established
Newfoundland bases and permanent settlements. This saw fruition in the first two
decades of the 19th century. Permanent settlement developed with immigration,
and so did agitation for local control of local affairs. Many of the governors
of the time were enlightened men who, within the limits of their instructions,
encouraged progressive measures. Their presence, the exercise of their authority,
and the sense of stability such authority conveyed, all served to build the
confidence of those who occupied the land. The building of a very substantial
Government House was a tangible expression of this growing sense of permanence.
Government House was a by-product of the wave of administrative initiatives that took place during
the 1820s. The royal charter of 1825 bestowed official colonial status, and the island's first civil
governor, Sir Thomas Cochrane, ushered in a new constitutional era. Faced with a political
atmosphere marked by high expectations for economic and social progress, Cochrane seemed to be
in step with the times. As a 42 year old naval captain, he was also well suited to the routine
of pomp and ceremony that accompanied the office of governor. The construction of Government
House was meant to reflect the proper status of the governor of a territory that was now an official
British colony and an important part of the Empire.
These functions, both ceremonial and political, made Government House an important place in
Newfoundland history, and the money which Cochrane lavished on its construction indicates that he
saw the building as having such a purpose. The scale of the building, the treatment of its grounds, the
size of its property, its location in the town all had their effect.
But it was not an effect without a cost. Cochrane's original plans were to build something in the
manner of Admiralty House at Plymouth. The government demurred, until Cochrane persuaded them
that a climate which forced an indoor life required more indulgence in interior amenities. However,
when one looks at the escalation in costs, it is clear that Cochrane's notion of indulgence was self-indulgence and a progression from an original estimate of £8,778 to a final cost of £38,000 - and a
court of inquiry into that cost.
One instance of this will make the point. The three principal rooms, the dining, drawing and
ballrooms, adjoin one another and face south onto the lawn and the town. They were to have their
fireplaces on the walls that separated them but Cochrane, after the massive chimneys had been built,
decided he wanted double doors between these rooms - presumably to permit a grand progress
between the rooms. He had his way, to the frustration of the engineers in charge of the project.
The double doors between the drawing and dining rooms, where a
fireplace had been previously erected.
Photo by Ray Lambe, 1999.
Work on the mansion began in 1827 and, by the time it was finished in 1831, the plans had been
"improved" in a number of costly ways: adding to the size of the wings and the porch, putting
columns and a skylight in the entrance hall, and creating a more elaborate staircase.
The skylight in the entrance hall at Government House.
Photo by Ray Lambe, 1999.
How does one describe the mansion stylistically? It is a handsome if plain
Georgian mansion. Constructed of masonry, it has a centre block and two wings
under hipped roofs. While the interior reception rooms are spacious and
impressive, the exterior does not seem to have been fully finished. It lacks
the details usual for a house of this type, and a semi-circular portico to frame
the entrance, as originally planned, was never built. Instead, a porch has been
extended into the driveway to provide some protection from the north winds. The
trees and gardens surrounding the house now soften the severity of its exterior,
and the harsh words of earlier critics, such as the historian D.W. Prowse, who
thought it "a huge pile of unredeemed ugliness" are seldom, if ever, repeated
Government House, North Side.
The picture clearly shows the extensions on the porch.
Photo by Ray Lambe, 1999.
©1998 Shane O'Dea