The Gardens of Government House

Whilst the gate separating the Gardens of Government House from the Royal Botanic Gardens remains open most days of the year, few seem to venture inside. Once past this threshold, the grand residence of His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley, the thirty-eighth governor of New South Wales, and his wife, Mrs. Linda Hurley stands tall, flanked by lush gardens and ancient fig trees.

Image John O'Neill, sourced from Wikipedia Commons

Growing beside this grand sandstone estate is a giant Moreton Bay fig, planted soon after construction of the house was completed over 170 years ago. The fig tree mimics the turrets and crenelated battlements of the house with its own gothic architecture of giant buttress roots and cathedral-like canopy to match (and its own presiding family of possums!). Before these structures existed here, the grounds of Government House were home to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. It was in this area the colony’s first governor, Captain Arthur Philip, witnessed a corroboree for the first time.

In 1792 Governor Philip set aside the land where Government House now stands “for the use of the Crown and as common lands for the inhabitants of Sydney.” The area stretched from Bennelong Point, through the present Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain to the lower ends of Macquarie and Philip street. The house itself was built between Governor Macquarie’s grand castellated stables (now the Conservatorium of Music) and his ‘neat handsome fort’ on the point, both designed by recently emancipated English architect, Francis Greenway. While this fort was being built, sandstone was quarried from the rocky escarpment of Bennelong Point, creating the Tarpeian Way. It is believed that some of this sandstone was also used in the construction of Government House.

Like so many other colonial estates, Government House was supported by kitchen gardens, orchards and grazing stock. By 1870, the kitchen garden had become part of the Royal Botanic Gardens and the detached farm became the site of Sydney University. Although the house no longer has livestock, the current Governor does keep bees – tending to four beehives in the picking gardens. Honey from these hives is derived from the nectar of a vast array of flowering plants found on the grounds.

The garden maintains a distinctly nineteenth-century character, drawing on Regency and Italianate styles, and featuring a collection of native and exotic plant species. Most changes to the garden were at the initiative of past governors and their wives, including Governor Denison’s two-acre ‘planetarium’ for ‘trees of commerce’, Governor Belmore’s five-acre vegetable garden and Lady Game’s much loved project, the ‘Spring Walk’. Some areas of the garden are true to their 1800s design, while others are more modern.

Thousands of visitors enjoy the Government House garden every year, both as public visitors and guests at functions ranging from garden parties for Royal visits, open days, award ceremonies and charity events. The garden is a crucial part of Government House – Chef Christine Ware regularly sources honey, herbs and flowers for food served at Government House functions. Florist Marjan Medhat has also been known to use flowers and natural ephemera from the grounds in her floral displays, alongside potted plants grown in the greenhouse.

Image Daisy Beattie
Image Daisy Beattie
Image Daisy Beattie

A Government House Garden Guide

As you enter the front gates you will walk along the Carriage Drive, past the Parade Ground and sundial, finding yourself at the front entrance of the house. This is where tours of Government House begin. The large Ficus macrophylla (Moreton Bay gig) standing beside the House is actually the survivor of a pair which stood either side of the entrance.

Western Terrace
To the western side of Government House you will find the oldest part of the garden, established when the house was being built (1836-1845). The evergreen trees planted here – many of them native species – were chosen to block out ‘disagreeable scenery’, but the large two-level terrace also functioned as a pleasure garden.

The original sandstone retaining walls, olive trees and ornamental shrubbery remain, and the layout of the Western Terrace was restored in 2000. Kookaburras can often be seen in the trees on this side, including the giant Magnolia grandifolora specimen at the northern end of the terrace, planted in the 1850s.

Eastern Terrace
The design of the eastern terrace was laid out in 1869 and remains the main feature of the garden. Sitting on the house’s arcade, you can gaze across bisecting pathways lined with flowerbeds to a glittering view of Sydney harbour. Through Norfolk Island pines and local eucalypts you can see out to Fort Denison, Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, Garden Island and beyond. The Eastern Terrace is often used for outdoor receptions including Vice Regal events and comprises much of the views that guests enjoy from within the House.

Palm Grove
To the north of the Eastern Terrace you will find the palm grove, established in the 1870s for the Countess of Belmore, wife of the 13th Governor of New South Wales.  Here, native and exotic palms including Lord Howe Island’s Kentia and Curly palms can be found.

Spring Walk
Arriving in the 1930’s, Governor and Lady Game were both keen gardeners and it wasn’t long before Lady Game ‘set out to produce an outstanding array of trees, shrubs and planters’. She established her Spring Walk on the southern end of the Eastern Terrace, where she supplemented the surviving 19th century camellias with new plantings of modern varieties. Today, you can still walk among very old camellias including the pink flowering Cleopatra Rosea and the white flowering Camellia japonica ‘Welbankiana’, some of which are over one-hundred years old.

The wife of Governor Game’s private secretary, writer Ethel Anderson, had this to say about Lady Game’s Garden:

“Under the grey green olives, late daffodils still star the grass. Watsonias, double cherries, magnolias, spireas, purple eupatoriums and primulas, set in a spring border among standard white wisterias foam, like a sea … Lady Game’s border – so lovey with pomegranites, baugainvilleas, cistus and Madonna lilies – keeps its date with beauty.”

The entrance stones to the Spring Walk are said to be convict made blocks from the first Government House built by Arthur Philip, now the site of the Museum of Sydney.

Ceremonial Plantings
Many of the trees in the garden are ceremonial plantings, such as the large paperbark planted by Queen Elizabeth II on her first visit to Australia in 1954. Among the roses on the eastern terrace the Dame Marie Bashir Rose can be found (which was bred in her honour), as well as the Governor Macquarie rose she planted in 2009 as patron of the Rose Society of New South Wales. Dame Marie Bashir was just one of the many governors, past and present, with a passion for plants and their pollinators!

To learn more about the House and Garden of Government House Sydney, free tours run every half hour from 10:30-3:00 every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Inside, visitors are guided through the State Rooms, bedecked with Australian red cedar, antiquities and fresh floral displays. Make sure you bring a form of photo ID to get a ticket at the entrance.

The grounds of Government House Sydney are open daily from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, but keep in mind that both the Garden and tours of the House may be closed for Vice Regal functions. If you are planning to visit the House or Garden, check the website first.

Feature image from Dixon Galleries, State Library of New South Wales:  No.4 Government House and Fort Macquarie Sydney N.S.W. from the Botanical Gardens by G.E. Peacock, 1846.

Image Daisy Beattie
Image Daisy Beattie
Image Daisy Beattie
Image Daisy Beattie
Image Daisy Beattie
Image Daisy Beattie
Image John O'Neill