Government House: Introduction
A popular tourist attraction in St. John's, Government House represents the authority of
the Crown through the office of the lieutenant-governor. The House and its adjacent grounds are
the site of many ceremonial occasions and formal receptions each year. Although the position of
lieutenant-governor retains a constitutional function, it has ceased to occupy an active role in
provincial politics or judicial administration. Like the Colonial Building, which once housed the
legislature, Government House no longer represents political power but rather an important part
of our heritage.
Government House, 1999
View of Government House and grounds as seen from the southern side. Visible in the photo
are the walkway through the grounds and the greenhouse in front of Government House.
Photo © 2000 Lisa LeDrew
However, while the popular image of the Colonial Building still includes the fierce battles
over confederation with Canada, the public has tended to overlook the fact that Government
House has witnessed equally momentous events in our history. In many ways, Government
House has a political legacy as contentious as that of the Colonial Building. Built by the island's
first civil governor, Sir Thomas Cochrane, it marked the transition from naval to civilian
government in the nineteenth century. Following the passage of the 1824 Judicature Act, the
British government appointed Governor Cochrane in 1825 to oversee the inauguration of colonial
status and a series of legal reforms. During his nine-year tenure, Cochrane became drawn deeply
into the heated debates over whether Newfoundland should have its own locally-elected
legislative assembly. In spite of Cochrane's opposition, the British government granted
Newfoundland representative government in 1832, signaling the birth of electoral politics
throughout the island.
Sir Thomas Cochrane
Governor of Newfoundland 1825-1834.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL V27-37B).
Soon after arriving at St. John's, Governor Cochrane surrounded himself with all the
available trappings of his office. Such an unprecedented array of pageantry -- from public
parades to private receptions -- created an initial wave of popularity. But this was not enough
for Cochrane, who wanted to make his mark as a prominent colonial official. He commissioned
building plans for a grand residence on Military Road. Completed in 1831, Government House
cost £38,175, which was five times the original estimate and an enormous expense at the time. It
had been paid out of unauthorized bills, and officials in London took a dim view of what they
saw as unwarranted extravagance. The British government decided to punish Governor
Cochrane by reducing his salary from £4,200 to £3,000. While the colony experienced economic
hardships, Cochrane became increasingly unpopular as he found himself unable to contain
political forces beyond his control. When Cochrane's tenure as governor ended in 1834, an
angry crowd jeered him as he left St. John's.
Government House, 1851
Drawn by W. R. Best, the sketch shows the south side of Government
House. The main entrance, on the north side of the residence, faced the
farms on the outskirts of St. John's.
From Charles de Volpi, Newfoundland: a Pictorial Record (Sherbrooke,
Quebec: Longman Canada Limited, ©1972), 71.
The early years of Government House reveal two key aspects of its place in the heritage
of Newfoundland and Labrador. First, the House cannot be separated from the administrations of
those who occupied the office of governor. Far from representing merely the ceremonial
authority of the Crown, for most of our history the governors wielded considerable political
power. They were invariably active in politics and often partisan in their policies. The course of
the governors' administrations was in large measure determined by personal agendas and
temperaments. In other words, the story of Government House is interwoven with the individual
histories of the governors themselves.
Second, and equally important, Government House is part of the history of an institution
that stretches back nearly four hundred years. Beginning in 1610 with John Guy's settlement at
Cupids, the office of governor was the central instrument of law and government in
Newfoundland. Government House was not the first official residence of the island's governor.
From the appointment of Captain Henry Osborn in 1729, the commodore of the naval squadron
sent annually to Newfoundland had operated the governorship from his flagship in St. John's
harbour. Governor Cochrane was himself a captain in the Royal Navy, and his term in office
reflected both his own experiences as a naval officer and the traditions of naval government
which he inherited. The building of Government House marked but one stage in the
development of an institution that continually evolved according to contemporary political
currents. In short, to assess the place of Government House in the heritage of Newfoundland and
Labrador, one must consider the administrative history of the governorship.
Government House, ca 1883.
A sketch of the north side of Government House by Percival Skelton. The
viewer is looking south toward St. John's harbour.
From Joseph Hatton and the Rev. M. Harvey.
Newfoundland, the oldest British colony: its history, its present condition, and its prospects
in the future (London: Chapman and Hall, 1883), 155.
The Government House Web Site consists of three main sections. First, it provides a
brief profile of each of the 102 governors of Newfoundland and Labrador, from the sponsored
colonies in the seventeenth century to the present day. Second, it offers a summary of the
institutional history of the governorship. This part of the site divides the office of governor into
six eras: early governors and commodores; naval governors; colonial governors; governors under
responsible government; governors under Commission of Government; and lieutenant-governors.
These articles explain both the specific elements of each type of administration and the broader
political and legal contexts in which the governors lived and worked. Third, the web site
presents a description of Government House itself. Employing audio-visual tools, this section
provides a virtual tour of the House, an account of its construction, and a sampling of its artifacts