Housing the Prime Minister

Page 2 – The first premier house

Our first premiers had to find their own digs. Before Parliament moved from Auckland to Wellington in 1865, they had to hunt for housing before taking their seats.

That changed in 1865, when the government bought the premier a simple 22-year-old wooden cottage in Thorndon’s Tinakori Road. This was a damp, flood-prone gully, but it was close to Parliament. A Wellington newspaper, elated by the city’s new status, thought the £2900 price ‘cheap’. An Auckland paper called it a ‘monstrous waste of public money’.

Premier Frederick Weld did not enjoy his house for long. In October 1865 the press reported that he had been turfed out by his successor, Edward Stafford, who harvested the vegies that Weld had planted. ‘Truly one man sows that another may reap.’

The Vogels live it up in ‘The Casino’

The house changed little until Julius Vogel and his wife, Mary, arrived in 1872. Within a year they had turned it into an eight-bedroom mansion complete with conservatory and ballroom.

The ballroom got a hammering. They made ‘The Casino’, as critics dubbed it, the social centre of Wellington. In July 1876 Lady Vogel sent out 250 invitations to a calico fancy dress ball, ‘the most brilliant of its kind yet seen in this city’. The Vogels also imported New Zealand’s first lawn tennis set, though Sir Julius was too unfit to chase the ball far.

In 1884 the Vogels returned for another three years. Sir Julius was obese and gouty, so Cabinet often met in an office built in the house. In 1886 he added a lift to take him from the dining room up to his bedroom.

Tinakori Road’s mixed fortunes

After the Vogels moved out, the government tried to sell the property. But the press and public fought back. Wellington people valued its spacious grounds as a public amenity. Only the furniture was sold.

Some suggested turning the site into an old men’s home or a university, but it stayed empty. MPs’ salaries had been cut, and the Liberal ministers of the 1890s had to live cheaply. Premier Richard John Seddon lived in a modest ministerial residence at 47 Molesworth Street. ‘This isn’t at all a nice house; it is surrounded, like a nunnery, with a high and close and ugly wooden fence, and presents a dismal appearance’, a voter complained. Seddon’s son remembered it fondly as ‘a political house. Politics was the sole subject day after day – at breakfast, dinner and tea.’

The Tinakori Street residence, vacant since 1893, was leased out from 1896 to 1900, when it became a ministerial residence again.

Tinakori Road’s second heyday

The house’s fortunes recovered when Seddon’s deputy, Joseph Ward, moved in. Ward, soon to be Sir Joseph, and prime minister from 1906, named it Awarua House. Like Vogel, he enjoyed the good life. The Wards threw ‘at homes’, garden parties, receptions, garden fetes, balls and wedding receptions. Sometimes over 1000 people gathered there. When Governor Ranfurly dropped in for a chat, they served him whisky in special large glasses.

Sir Joseph liked to free office hours for talking or socialising. So he spent the early morning in his study in pyjamas and dressing gown, signing the documents delivered by his chief secretaries.

William Massey, the house’s next lengthy occupant, renamed it Ariki Toa, ‘home of the chief’. During the First World War the Masseys used it for patriotic activities.

In 1925, Gordon Coates called Ariki Toa ‘a happy home … a haven of rest’. That year he rebuilt the conservatory and added an enclosed veranda above it. Four years later Cabinet again tried to sell it. ‘Sunless and damp, and the gardening costly and unnecessary’, an official sniffed. But again, public protests prevented a sale.

How to cite this page

'The first premier house', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/prime-ministers-houses/first-houses, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 16-Jul-2014