Admiralty House, the Sydney residence of the Australian Governor General, has a long and and interesting history dating back to the early days of the convict settlement at Port Jackson.
The First Fleet had only arrived in January of 1788, and here, a few years later, in 1794, we find the Lieutenant Governor Francis Grose, making the first grant of land which included the site for the future Admiralty House to Samuel Lightfoot, a former convict who had arrived in the First Fleet, but had served his sentence which had now expired.
A Magnificent Location.
Situated on Kirribilli Point, it commands one of the best views of one of the world’s greatest seascapes, Sydney Harbour. Admiralty House sits on what may well be described as "The most prized piece of real estate in Australia."
Lightfoot now sold this land to Thomas Muir, but as it had been held but briefly by the former convict, the grant was invalidated, and the land was retained by the crown.
Thomas Muir. Muir is an interesting character, born in Glasgow on the 25th. of August 1865, the son of a hop merchant.
At the age of only 10, he was admitted to Glasgow University to study Divinity, but by 1872 he had abandoned these studies to attend classes of the sociologist John Miller. He was a Republican and supported parliamentary reform, and had a great influence over Muir and sowed the seeds for his political thinking and ideals.
By 1783, Muir was at odds with the Principal of Glasgow University when he supported Professor John Anderson against his suspension. This brawl found Muir suspended by Glasgow University, but with Miller’s help he was able to complete his studies at Edinburgh University.
By 1787, Muir was studying at the Faculty of Advocates, and he soon became a lawyer representing poor clients unable to find fees, and also as one known to be critical of a legal system biased on the side of the rich.
Across the channel in France, the Revolution of 1789 had sparked supporters for parliamentary reform right across Britain. Young members of the Whigs in London, founded the Society of the Friends of the People, and this growing dissent moved northwards to cross the border into Scotland, and Thomas Muir, with William Skirving set up the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People in Perth, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Muir then set about organising a General Meeting of all these budding Socities to plan how best to achieve Parliamentary Reform.
These moves rang alarm bells for the British Government, they were concerned that the bloodshed that emanated from the Revolution in France could well cross the channel to permeate across Britain with dire results for entrenched aristocracy, and they felt threatened. A spy was employed to gather damning evidence on Muir and his political activities. The Government soon moved in to arrest Muir, and on the 2nd. of January 1793 charged him with sedition, but released him on bail.
Off went Muir to London to talk with the leaders of this political movement, they were most concerned about the violence in Paris, and in general in France. So Muir set out for Paris, to seek to overturn the decision and desire of the Revolutionaries to execute Loiuis XVI, but he failed, and returned to Scotland on the 23rd. of August, only to be arrested himself the next day, imprisoned, quickly tried, found guilty of sedition, and sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia.
In those days it was easy for Government sources to arraign a difficult person proving an embarrasment, bring them up for trial before a stacked jury, try and convict them, and then shunt them off to Australia, so disposing very quickly of a political problem.
Muir was joined by 4 other members of his political movement, who were known as the "Five Scottish Martyrs" they all sailed off to the convict settlement in Australia at Sydney Cove in the Suprise, on the 2nd. of May 1794.
As a political prisoner opposed to a convicted felon, Muir had more freedom of movement in the Colony, after his attempted land purchase in 1794, two years later, he escaped from the Colony with the help of Francis Peron, the Chief Mate of the American Brig The Otter of Boston, and sailed to Vancouver.
There he was again arrested, and put aboard the Spanish ship Ninfa bound for Cadiz, only to have his ship attacked by the British warship Irresistible, during the ensuing battle, Muir was wounded by a cannonball, smashing his cheekbone, and damaging both of his eyes.
The French Government petitioned the Spanish authorities to release Muir, and he arrived in Bordeaux in November of 1797.
However his wounds continued to take toll of his health, and he died on the 26th. of January 1799 at Chantilly, bringing to a close the life of a radical Scot forced out to Australia. If Muir had been allowed to retain his land on the North Shore of Sydney Harbour, who knows? He may have changed the history pertaining to Admiralty House as we know it today!
Back to Admiralty House.
After this meander down a byway of Scottish and early Australian history it is time to return to my main theme.
Robert Ryan who had come to the new Colony with the First Fleet as a Private of Marines, and then transferred to the NSW Corps in 1800, now had the Admiralty House site included in a 120 acre grant to him. But in 1806, Ryan sold off this prime site to a leading Sydney merchant Robert Campbell.
The North Shore of Sydney Harbour.
Of course, to reach the northern shores of Sydney Harbour, it was necessary to take a boat to negotiate the waters spanning the distance between the general settlement of the Colony on the southern side and its northern neighbour.
By the time the early 1840’s had arrived, the north shore’s prime harbour sites were being keenly sought by citizens anxious to grab a key position on which to build a substantial home.
In 1834, the newly appointed Collector of Customs, John George Nathaniel Gibbes with his wife and children arrived in Sydney. In May of 1842, he took up a 21 year lease with Robert Campbell for the Kirribilli land, and then built the first stone, single storey house with wide verandahs, and named it Wotonga.
On early maps of this area, Kirribilli Point carried the names Wootong and Wudyong, it is believed these were probably anglised versions of aboriginal names, and suggests why this new residence was named Wotonga.
The coincidence linking the two Vice Regal residences of Admiralty House and
Campbell, as part compensation for losing one of his ships carrying food from Bengal to the near starving early settlers of NSW, was granted 5,000 acres of land at Limestone Plains (later to be Canberra, and the site for the National Capital)
In 1877, Fredrick, the grandson of Robert Campbell purchased Yarralumla Station from the Gibbes’ son, and in 1891, he built the house Yarralumla, destined to become the main residence of Australia’s Governors General.
Thus the thread of both the Campbell and the Gibbes’ families is woven into the fabric of these two residences that relate to our Governors General, Admiralty House in Sydney, and Yarralumla in Canberra.
As ADC to His Excellency Sir William McKell, I had a long association with both these lovely homes.
Death of Robert Campbell.
In 1846, Robert Campbell died, and the ownership of the lease held by Colonel Gibbes on the Wotonga land, passed to Campbell’s sons John and Robert. They allowed Gibbes to purchase this land in 1849.
Wotanga and its land again change hands.
In 1851, Gibbes sold the house which still carried a mortgage to a Sydney merchant, James Lindsay Travers, and then went off to spend his retirement with his youngest son Augustus at Yarralumla.
Travers, the new owner, was in strained financial straits, and to ease this burden, he sold off a little over an acre of the NE part of the original 5 acres to Adolf Fredrick Feez, it was on this subdivision that Kirribilli House was build, to become in due course, the Sydney residence of Australian Prime Ministers.
It was in 1855 during the Crimean War that the then Governor Denison resumed the tip of Kirribilli Point to build fortifications to defend Sydney.
Russia was seen as the bogey man at this time, an Fort Denison (nicknamed Pinch Gut, to which it is usually referred to even today) was constructed in the middle of Sydney Harbour.
In 1856, Lieutenant Colonel George Barney, who had served in the Royal Engineers, bought Wotonga, then designed and supervised the installation of 5 by 8 inch muzzle loading guns on the land resumed by his Governor.
Wotonga again goes under the hammer.
In September if 1860, Barney sold Wotonga and it's grounds to George Alfred Lloyd for 9,000 Pounds and Lloyd had a large family of 8 children plus some step relations belonging to his wife, and he needed to add bedrooms to the property. In 1865 he moved on, and let the property, firstly to Fredrick Lassetter, and later to the Mayor of Sydney, a Mr. Wiltshire.
In April 1884, the home was auctioned and bought by the Honourable Thomas Cadell, a Sydney merchant and member of the Legislative Council.
The price, 10,000 Pounds, and described as having a wide verandah, 10 bedrooms, a spacious entrance hall, drawing and dining rooms, a large courtyard, servant’s rooms, kitchen, stables and an abundant water supply which never fails even in the driest of conditions.
The Royal Navy take over Wotonga.
After signing an agreement with the Imperial government in 1883, in which Sydney became the principal Naval port for Her Majesty’s Ships on the Australian station, The Government of New South Wales offered to both provide and maintain a residence for the Naval Commander- in- Chief, Wotonga was chosen, and purchased for 40,000 Pounds, realising a very handsome profit for Thomas Cadell.
As Cadell was involved in politics at the time, I am tempted to wonder if he may just have had the inside running with both knowledge and opportunity to offer his house to the Government of the day, but whatever the circumstances of this sale, Thomas Cadell did very nicely out of this deal.
On the 16th. of February 1885 the transfer was effected in the name of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, and extensive additions and improvements were made to the property. Over 1885/86 another 18,200 Pounds was paid out for construction works and a further 2,192 Pounds for furnishings.
A new Name.
Given its new occupant, Wotonga was renamed Admiralty House, the one it still retains in 2002.
A second storey was added, with a collonaded verandah, a gate lodge built in the Gothic style was added in 1892, plus a covered Admiral’s walk lead down to the berth for the Admiral’s barge. (now demolished)
For more than 25 years it was the delightful home of the British Naval Commander- in-Chief, and their tenure is reflected by their various coats of arms in the stained glass windows within the house.
In 1910, Admiralty House was valued at 92,000 Pounds.
Establishment of the Australian Fleet.
By 1909, when the Australian Fleet was established, the Australian Government asked the Imperial Government to transfer all properties used by the Royal Navy in Sydney to the Commonwealth Government.
The last Naval C-in-C, Sir George King-Hall on hauling down his flag in October 1913, indicated he would hand over Admiralty House to the Commonwealth Government.
The Government of New South Wales object.
At this stage, the Government of NSW started to make “ Hang on a bit” noises, they were most suprised to learn of this decision.
Admiralty House belonged to them! It was purchased by the state of NSW for use by the British Naval C-in C whilst Sydney remained the head quarters of the British Fleet, but ownership was not passed to Britain at any time, the residence was merely supplied and maintained by NSW.
NSW in 1930, took their case to the Australian High Court, who ruled in their favour, ownership of AH was vested in His Majesty George V, his heirs and successors in the right of the State of New South Wales, SO THERE!
However, from 1913, Admiralty House was loaned to the Commonwealth of Australia as a residence for the Australian Governor General in Sydney.
Admiralty House closed down in 1930.
As a cost saving exercise at the height of the economic depression, in 1930, the Scullin Government closed down Admiralty House, and sold off all it’s contents.
Reopened in 1936.
With the appointment of Lord Gowrie as Governor General, the Commonwealth Government reopened Admiralty House in 1936 as the Sydney residence of the incumbent GG. I would not be suprised if one of the conditions set by Lord Gowrie before saying "Yes" to the offer to become the Governor General of Australia for a five year term, was that Admiralty House once more become available for use by the GG. It is such a wonderful property, on such a magnificent site, and before accepting this high office is the right time to set out all your demands, it is much too late once you have accepted.
Formal title transferred to the Commonwealth.
In 1948, NSW formally passed the title for Admiralty House to the Commonwealth of Australia by Crown Grant, the one condition: "Admiralty House only be used as a residence by the Governor General."
During my tenure as Aide-de-Camp to His Excellency Sir William McKell over 1950-1953, I often stayed in this grand old home. It is a beautiful house, with it’s lovely staircase, and it’s past traditions of serving Admirals depicted by their family crests in the stained glass windows.
The house has a special feel about it, as you walk the collonaded verandah, or in the pleasant gardens, looking out across the harbour, there is a certain peace pervading the environment.
I have fond memories of many a happy stay at the delightful Sydney home of the Australian Governor General and Her Excellency Lady McKell.