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Peculiar, provocative and otherworldly at Old Government House

Anyone who's ever been outraged by government spending should spare a thought for the residents of old Brisbane.

Old Government House was finished to the tune of £19,000 in 1862, a year when the entire income of the colony of Queensland was £100,000 and there were only 25,000 new settlers living in the state, 6000 of whom resided in the city.

It's hard to imagine that kind of project getting the parliamentary support today, though a $20million refurbishment was completed in 2009.

Perhaps Brisbane's earlier residents may have been less willing if they could have anticipated some of the scandals that would unfurl there, including the suspicious hiring practices of "peculiar" governor Sir William Cairns. There was also the very inconvenient burial of Colonel Sir Samuel Blackall.

But as the grand colonial structure marks its 150th anniversary on May 6, the time to appreciate the early architectural legacy of Brisbane is apt. Indeed failure to commemorate the occasion may anger the house's "resident ghost".

At least historian and Government House custodian Dr Katie McConnel thinks poltergeist appeasement is as good a reason as any to mark the day that Queensland's first first family, Sir George Bowen's clan, moved in.


“I wouldn't say the ghost was a bad spirit, but there have been various sightings,” Dr McConnel said.

“There was an electrical apprentice working the roof who came scrambling down her ladder, white as a sheet, because she'd seen a man. She later saw a rare photo of Governor Blackall's staff, pointed to the butler and said, 'that's the man!'

“But I've been working here late at night while doors opened and shut independently. One door keeps locking itself from the inside – it's all very... interesting.”

Yet the old house doesn't need a record of other worldly experiences to capture the modern imagination. Like the popular period television drama Downton Abbey, some of the most fascinating stories relate to the people living upstairs and downstairs. Indeed there exists a link between the real family of 'Downton', or Highclere Castle, and Government House; the fourth Earl of Carnavon once came to stay with the first family in Brisbane.

In fact, Lord and Lady Lamington, the eighth lot of stately heads to rest in the Government beds, were known for their regal bearing and royal parties. Dr McConnel said they hosted frequent balls at which Lady Lamington might play the violin, a high unconventional instrument for a lady of the era.

“She would have been considered very provocative for playing it – it moved her arms in a way that would have really been too much for the men,” Dr McConnel said. “That wasn't all either as both Lord and Lady Lamington were members of the bicycle club.”

This first couple also hold the honour of being the namesake for Queensland's iconic lamington cake, though the title for most toast-worthy appellation might go to the Marquess of Normanby – Dr McConnel describes him as famous drinker for whom the Normanby Hotel was christened. He also had a cellar added to Government House during his tenure; Lord Lamington built the billiard room.

Yet perhaps most scandalous story belongs governor number four, Sir William Cairns. A character known for his delicate nature and curious regard for women, Dr McConnel said Cairns sacked all the female staff at the House when he arrived and replaced them with various young men met on his journey to Queensland.

Dr McConnel said letters from his private secretary Alfred Maudslay, who went on to become the famous Mayan archaeologist, revealed Sir Cairns was somewhat of a hypochondriac who demanded constant company from his male companions, one of the staffing requirements that threw Government House into chaos.

“But Cairns wasn't the only one who inconvenienced the house,” Dr McConnel said.

“There was the burial of the second governor, Blackall, who was one of two governors to die at the house. [Governor six, Sir Anthony Musgrave, died at his desk in 1888].

"[Blackall] died in January 2, 1871, they had the funeral service at St John's on William Street, and the funeral march to the cemetery after. Of course, Blackall was the first person buried at the new cemetery at Toowong – that walk, in the middle of summer, you can imagine.”

Of course these are but the bare bones of a history that goes beyond the building's use as the governor's residence. Bequeathed to the University of Queensland in 1910 after it was deemed too small, the house is now part of the Queensland University of Technology where it operates as a museum, cafe and events space for hire.

Visitors to Old Government House will be able to timewarp back to the 'grand old days' for the May 6 anniversary. From 9am, guests can enjoy a morning of lamingtons, family activities, brass bands and colonial costumery. Current Queensland Governor Penelope Wensley AC will make her arrival by horse and carriage, and a ceremonial military shooting will take place on the Lady Bowen Lawn.

For more information, visit Old Government House website at www.ogh.qut.edu.au