Yarralumla House
Government House
General information
Status Complete
Town or city Canberra
Country Australia
Client Government of Australia

Yarralumla Manor, formerly known as Government House, is the official royal Canberra residence of the King of Australia.


American architect Walter Burley Griffin included provision for an impressive, purpose-built Government House in his plans for the modern city of Canberra. It was to be placed in a dedicated government precinct and provided with scenic views taking in Canberra's landscaped open spaces and central lake; but, as with so much of Burley Griffin's planning for the national capital, financial considerations intervened and the envisaged work never eventuated.

The core part of the current vice-regal structure began life as a double-gabled Victorian-era house, erected in 1891 by grazier Frederick Campbell at what was then the hub of a working sheep station. Previously, the site taken up by Yarralumla house was occupied by an elegant, Georgian-style homestead with shady verandahs on two sides, a shingle-clad roof and rows of French windows replete with shutters. That single-storey homestead had been lived in continuously by the interrelated Murray and Gibbes families from 1837 through to the end of 1881.

Augustus Onslow Manby "Gussie" Gibbes (1827-1896) had purchased Yarralumla sheep station and its homestead from his brother-in-law, (Sir) Terence Aubrey Murray, on 1 July 1859 for approximately ₤20,000. "Gussie" Gibbes made improvements to Yarralumla and as well as running extensive flocks of sheep on the estate, he bred horses for the Indian market and collected rents from tenant farmers. He also planted decorative shrubs and trees among the native eucalypts that dotted the homestead's curtilage. These centred on an imposing deodar cedar which still stands to the house's south.

Gussie Gibbes' state of health declined as the 1880s dawned. He decided to sell his rural holdings and travel overseas for an extended period with his niece (and housekeeper) Leila Murray. So, on 8 November 1881, Frederick Campbell — who had been managing the neighbouring Duntroon sheep station for his uncle and aunt — was able to purchase Yarralumla from his friend Gibbes for ₤40,000.

Unlike Gibbes, Campbell was a married man with a growing family that needed to be accommodated. He partially demolished the old Yarralumla homestead in 1890 and, the following year, finished building a three-storey, red-brick house on the site. NSW Government land-title records show that Campbell borrowed money from Gibbes (and from another one of Gibbes' brothers-in-law, Augustus Berney, a Sydney-based Customs Department officer) to help pay for the building project. In 1899, Campbell razed what was left of the original homestead, replacing it with a substantial brick extension to the main house. An impressive wooden shearing shed was also built by Campbell in the 1890s to service Yarralumla's flocks of sheep. The shearing shed is situated near the banks of the Molonglo River, below the Scrivener Dam.

The Commonwealth Government bought Yarralumla from Campbell in 1913. It decided to use Campbell's vacated home as a temporary residence for the Governor-General of Australia. Consequently, another three-storey block was erected behind the existing one and a new entrance portal was constructed on the southern frontage. A stable block was constructed to the west of the structure and cottages built for staff. Since the 1920s the building has been extended and refurbished several more times; but the basic structure of the 1891 house can still be seen clearly when viewed from the south.

Lord Stonehaven was the first governor-general to live in the house, being in attendance at the opening of the new provisional Parliament House (now Old Parliament House) in Canberra in 1927. Australian-born Sir Isaac Isaacs was the first governor-general to live at Government House for an entire term. The house remained small when compared to Government House in Melbourne, and successive governors-general and their wives complained about its inadequacies as a place for official entertaining. Plans for a much grander — and permanent — vice-regal establishment were never implemented as a consequence of the economic hardship caused by the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s. The grave crisis posed to Australia's security during the Second World War also halted further work.

In 1927, the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) stayed in the house when they visited Canberra to open the Provisional Parliament House. Prior to their arrival, extensive improvements were made to ensure that the building would provide a standard of accommodation appropriate for members of the Royal Family. These improvements were overseen by the then Commonwealth Architect, John Smith Murdoch. The interiors of the refurbished house, along with much of their furniture, were designed by Ruth Lane Poole, of the Federal Capital Commission. They are in keeping with the prevailing "stripped-classical style", with more formal interiors provided for the official reception rooms, and a lighter scheme prevailing in the private residential rooms. (Lane Poole was also responsible for the interiors of The Lodge — the official residence of the Prime Minister.)

A private sitting room was built in 1933 at the request of Lady Isaacs over the south entrance porch, which looks south across the gardens to the Brindabella Ranges and the foothills of the Australian Alps beyond.

In 1939, Government House was again extensively renovated and expanded in the "stripped classical style" typical of Canberra's early public buildings, to a design by E. H. Henderson, Chief Architect of the Works and Services Branch of the Department of the Interior. Lord Gowrie lived in the house at this time, and it was not regarded as being large enough to meet the demands made of it. The 1899 Campbell extension was therefore demolished and a new, more substantial replacement erected. The drawing room was made larger, while more bedrooms were installed on the second storey, and a "state entrance" built on the northern side. Further alterations to the existing building were also made, adding a nursery on the third-storey and extending the dining room.

All these changes to Yarralumla had been spurred by the impending appointment of the Duke of Kent as the next governor-general. He was due to succeed Lord Gowrie in early 1945. However, the Duke died in an aircraft crash in Scotland in 1942 while on active service in World War II, and his elder brother, the Duke of Gloucester, was appointed in his place. The changes were completed in time for the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

In the 1990s, a new chancery building, designed by Roger Pegrum in a "stripped classical style" design, was constructed to house the offices of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General and associated administrative staff.

Following the adoption of the "Home Monarchy Amendment" to the Australian Constitution by Parliament and the resulting election of former Governor-General Xavier Allyson as King, Yarralumla was renovated extensively to serve as the royal residence.

Some critics have said that the current Government House lacks distinction and architectural unity, and proposals have been put forward from time to time to construct a new Government House. None of these proposals are currently known to be under active consideration by the authorities.

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