Old Government House

Old Government House, Auckland (1856)

Centre of colonial social life

‘Auckland is never happier than when the Governor-General is in residence at historic Government House, in Waterloo Quadrant’, the Auckland Star gushed in December 1952 as a new vice-regal family, the Norries, paid their first official visit to the city. In fact, most of Auckland neither knew nor cared. A small elite still hankered after the vice-regal summer residency with its garden parties and debutantes’ balls, but for decades this building had merely symbolised what its historian called ‘the personal prejudices of the editor of the Auckland Star and the injured parochialism to which Aucklanders were prone’.

Two governors’ houses have occupied this spot. The first, loaded aboard the ship Platina at London in kitset form, arrived in Auckland in 1840 after surviving not only the perils of the deep but also William Wakefield’s desire to land it in Wellington, which the southerners wanted to be the capital. Auckland won that round and by mid-1841 had reassembled the long, low, single-storey wooden building on a prominent ridge, ready for the ailing governor, who irked many by spending thousands of pounds embellishing it while his embryonic colony slid into recession. It burned down in June 1848, removing what a pro-Wellington New Zealand Company journal called ‘one of the ugliest abortions which have entered into the heart of man to conceive’.

Southerners liked the next one even less. Auckland lacked an official gubernatorial residence when its politicians approved work on William Mason’s two-storeyed wooden building. Lambasted by Canterbury politician Henry Sewell as a ‘large, pretentious building … above all, a sham, a wooden building affecting to look like stone’, Mason’s Government House offended the southern settlements, who won the war by moving the capital in 1865. After that the building survived as a northern residence for the governor and official guests. Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, stayed in it in 1869. Queen Elizabeth II broadcast to the Commonwealth from it in 1953.

Not everyone liked it. In 1897 Governor Ranfurly wondered how anyone could live decently in a house made of wood and set up in the nearby Northern Club until the government had made improvements.   

Critics remained, for the building cramped the neighbouring university’s expansion plans. In 1910 Parliament sent in the Public Works Department to strip the building prior to demolition. Auckland politicians prevented this ‘robbery’ and even had it refurbished. In 1916, however, fire badly damaged the roof and upper floor. After decades of trying, the University of Auckland took over the old building in 1969. Academics, seldom accused of sartorial flair, now slouch where plumed helmets and ball gowns once glided.

Video about Old Government House created by the University of Auckland:

Further information

This site is item number 21 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.



  • Gavin McLean, The Governors: New Zealand’s Governors and Governors-General, University of Otago Press, Dunedin, 2006

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