Government House played a significant role in the Federation of Australia as the residence of the nation’s first eight Governors-General.

Federal Government House in Melbourne

The 1901 Constitution stated that the future federal capital would be in New South Wales, but that the Federal Parliament ‘shall sit at Melbourne until it met at the seat of Government.' This meant the Governor-General would reside in Melbourne during this period.

An arrangement was reached for Government House, Melbourne, to be the official residence of Australia’s first Governor-General and for the State Governor to reside at ‘Stonnington' in Malvern.

Federal Parliament sat in the State Parliament building, and the State Parliament of Victoria sat in the Royal Exhibition Building.

Sydney versus Melbourne in the 1800s

While it was initially expected the Federal Parliament would sit in the Victorian Parliament building for three to five years, it was not until 26 years later in 1927 that the Federal Parliament started sitting in Canberra.

The Age expressed the concerns of Sydneysiders in 1899:

The ‘impudent assertiveness of Melbourne’ in being the seat of the Federal Parliament and government life had ‘excited the greatest indignation’ among Sydneysiders, according to the report. 'It is feared that Parliament will go on meeting for 10 years or more in Melbourne, and having sittings there will be found so convenient that the Victorian capital will become the permanent seat of the Government.

'... jealousy of Melbourne, the fear that the younger city will outstrip Sydney in the march of development is a positive disease, and no assurance that the sinister designs alleged against your capital exist only in the heated imagination of the Sydney people will calm the universal trepidation.'

Special ceremony to mark the new Commonwealth of Australia

Special gathering at Government House Victoria in 1899 to mark agreement on Federation
A special Federation gathering in the Government House State Drawing Room in 1899

A ceremony presenting to the Governor Lord Brassey ‘the address to Her Majesty the Queen, praying for the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia’ took place at Government House, Victoria, on 16 August 1899, before about 80 representatives of both Houses of Parliament.

Normally such a presentation would have taken place at the old Treasury buildings before a small number of members, however The Age said it was felt that 'the closing scene of the federal fight was worthy of special demonstrations.'

I rejoice that the closing stage of my public life has been associated with a movement which, as far as in me lay, I have earnestly striven to help forward. ~ Governor Lord Brassey, The Age, 17 August 1899

Home to the nation’s first Governors-General

Federal Government House in Melbourne was the residence of the nation’s first Governor-General, the Earl of Hopetoun, and the following seven Governors-General.

On 29 October 1900, Queen Victoria issued Letters Patent establishing the office of Governor-General, and also issued instructions to Lord Hopetoun.

When Hopetoun arrived in Melbourne to take up the role, he was familiar with Government House – he had lived there from 1889 to 1895 when he was Governor of Victoria.

On 1 January 1901, at an inauguration ceremony in Sydney, Lord Hopetoun took the oaths of office and then swore in the nation’s first Prime Minister Edmund Barton and his Cabinet which consisted of the four previous Premiers of Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania. View footage of the ceremony.

The royal household in a group photograph at Government House in 1901
The future King George V and Queen Mary at Government House in 1901

The rental arrangement

The Victorian Government initially provided the house rent-free, however in 1906 it imposed annual rent of £3,000.

In 1930, following lengthy negotiations, the Federal Government paid between £20,000 – £25,000 in a lump sum compensation to the State to end the lease 8 years' early.

In 1931, the first Australian Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, was appointed and was the first to live permanently at Yarralumla in Canberra.

Governors-General who lived at Government House