History of the Governor-General

Page 5 – Splendid ornamentals

With the appointment of Lord Onslow in 1889, a new type of governor took up residence in Government House. The same thing was happening throughout the settler colonies, as aristocrats took over from the warriors and diplomats who had gone from colony to colony, making a profession of governing.

The new governors were inexperienced but better at projecting the image now required of proxies for royalty. Lord Ranfurly (1897–1904) brought out about 30 staff and servants, 60 tonnes of baggage and 600 dozen bottles of wine.


In his book Ornamentalism, David Cannadine refers to the upsurge in pomp and circumstance during the late Victorian and early Edwardian highpoint of imperialist fervour. ‘The British created their imperial society, bound it together, comprehended it and imagined it’ in an essentially ornamental mode, he argues. ‘Ornamentalism was hierarchy made visible, immanent and actual.’ Even the secretary of state for the colonies, ‘Radical Joe’ Chamberlain, who was no friend of aristocracy, told Queen Victoria that ‘colonies were not content unless a person of high rank and remarkable distinction was appointed’.

There were subtle changes over time. The period from 1889 until the First World War was the highpoint of aristocracy at Government House. New Zealand became a Dominion in 1907 and the status of Lord Liverpool (1912–20) was upgraded from governor to governor-general in 1917, but neither move changed anything in practice.

Most governors-general remained bluebloods. After 1918 most also had some military experience, including Admiral Jellicoe, Air Marshal Sir Cyril Newall and Generals Sir Charles Fergusson, Sir Bernard Freyberg and Lord Willoughby Norrie.

Holding the empire together

Britain’s Colonial (later Dominions) Office administered the empire from London. A British cabinet minister, the secretary of state for the colonies, was in charge of a small permanent staff. Governors and governors-general, appointed by the British government, were important cogs in the imperial wheel, having a monopoly over official communications – if the New Zealand premier wanted to write to his British counterpart, he had to go through Government House. Governors also wrote reports (despatches), collected trade figures and posted representative selections of newspapers. From 1887, imperial conferences enabled Britain and the self-governing colonies to discuss matters of mutual interest.

By and large governors-general kept their noses clean, helped by the weakness of the Legislative Council and by long periods of stable two-party government.

Last century there were few clashes between governors-general and politicians. The three-way fighting between Reform, the Liberals and Labour sometimes required Sir Charles Fergusson (1924–30) and Lord Bledisloe (1930–5) to be firm with their prime ministers. From 1935 until the 1980s Labour or National usually governed with a solid majority, making life easier for governors-general.

Not following advice

The last time a governor-general refused to follow advice was in 1941, when Sir Cyril Newall refused to sign orders remitting sentences of flogging imposed on escaping prisoners. Each party stood on a point of principle. Labour opposed flogging. Newall objected to governments retaining legislation they would not enforce.

From overseas, Prime Minister Peter Fraser turned up the heat: ‘Cabinet should on no account accept the Governor-General’s refusal to act on ministerial advice’. Newall stuck to his guns. So did the government, but wanting to avoid a public fight, it devised a face-saving compromise: it announced that flogging would be abolished, and Newall signed the remission orders.

How to cite this page

'Splendid ornamentals', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/history-of-the-governor-general/splendid-ornamentals, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 5-May-2023