Story: Governors and governors-general

Page 6. Vice-regal support

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Government houses

Governors-general live and work in Government House. Most large colonies provided two, a capital city roost and a country retreat. New Zealand’s, unusually, were both in cities – Wellington and Auckland.

Waiting around

Unless vice-regal children required a governess, the lady-in-waiting was the sole female member of the elite domestic staff. Often a family friend, she accompanied Her Excellency everywhere, holding bouquets as the speeches flowed. The potential for boredom could make ladies-in-waiting go ‘stale’, so governors-general were advised to change them during their term. The title died in the early 1990s, when Dame Catherine Tizard’s appointee became a personal assistant, with Tizard describing her as ‘a woman who was perfectly ready!’1


In 1840 Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson set up Government House at a rented trader’s station in the Bay of Islands. A year later he moved into a prefabricated building in Auckland. This burned down seven years later and was eventually replaced by William Mason’s 1856 wooden building. It still stands, and served governors-general until 1969 when the University of Auckland took it over and Their Excellencies moved into a Mt Eden residence gifted by philanthropists Sir Frank and Lady Mappin.


The governor moved to Wellington permanently in 1865, and the government built a new Government House in 1871 near where the Beehive now stands. In 1907 the government took over this building after fire gutted much of Parliament. Lord Plunket spent the rest of his term in hired premises in Palmerston North, but in 1910 his successor, Lord Islington, moved into the present Government House in Newtown on a site that had previously housed a lunatic asylum.

Upgrading the houses

Both buildings received a major revamp in the early 2000s. In 2004 more than $2 million was spent on extending the Auckland house and upgrading its grounds. In 2008–11 Government House Wellington received a $40 million conservation treatment to repair defects and modernise its services.

In 2013, some of the outbuildings were converted into a visitor centre to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

Staff, servants and services

While Crown-colony governors lived modestly, their late-Victorian aristocratic successors reigned over splendid establishments. Many brought out up to 30 staff and servants, all on their payroll.

The New Zealand government provided a couple of orderlies and from 1916 it added an official secretary to provide continuity between governors-general. In the late 1940s it began paying the domestic servants.

For most of the 20th century employees were divided into the official staff (paid for by the government), the personal staff (led by the comptroller of the household, and often friends and relatives of Their Excellencies), and the domestic servants, butlers, footmen, ladies-in-waiting, maids and chauffeurs. The distinction between ‘staff’ and ‘servants’ was important.

Since the 1970s all staff have been public employees. Generic public-sector job titles have replaced traditional ones such as ‘comptroller’ and ‘butler’.

  1. Catherine Tizard, Cat amongst the pigeons: a memoir. Auckland: Random House, 2010, p. 225. Back
How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Governors and governors-general - Vice-regal support', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 5 February 2023)

Story by Gavin McLean, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 28 Sep 2016