The Governor’s table

A view of old Government House in 1845, with two cames shown in front.

[Philip Gidley and Anna Josepha King, and their children Elizabeth, Anna Maria and Phillip Parker], Robert Dighton, 1799. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW: ML 1244

Today’s post is brought to you by our guest blogger, HHT Historian, Jane Kelso whose exhaustive research on first Government House includes a fascination with the various Governors’ dining practices – and their guests!‘Reviews’ of meals at first Government House, both in the press and by invited guests, varied – perhaps as much driven by personal feelings towards the Governor as by the quantity and quality of the repasts.

Judge Advocate Ellis Bent wrote – with possibly more than a twinge of jealousy – that the Governor’s table was so well provided for, at public expense, not only with the produce from his own garden, but also:

‘He has every thing found Him – as much meat as he chuses [sic] a boat employed constantly in fishing for him – Parramatta supplies him, with Milk, Butter, poultry, Vegetables &c. – In short, he has not expence but Wine and grocery which always comes out freight free to him – and reasonable in price’.[i]

Despite this largesse, Bent thought little of Mrs Macquarie’s ability to do anything with it – she had ‘not the art of making people feel happy and comfortable around her’ – and he described a dinner at Government House as ‘but stupid’:

‘There were in all Seventeen Persons present. Mrs Ms dinners, are as much too small as the dinners usually given in the Colony are too profuse. At the Top (where Captain Antill, the aid de Camp presides) there was Soup removed by a very small Boiled Turkey at the Bottom (where Captain Cleveland the Brigade Major sits). There was a piece of Roast Beef. The sides were fricassee, curried Duck, Kidneys & a Tongue, the Corners Vegetables. 2nd Course, at the Top, Stewed Oysters, bottom Wild Ducks, sides & corners tartlets, Jellies & vegetables, in the middle there was an Epergne. – The Table was very large, & one might have danced a Reel between the dishes.’

Ellis Bent to his mother, 27 April 1810[ii]

Leaving aside the propriety of dancing down the Government House dining table, such a menu scarcely seems spartan to modern eyes.

People walking and working in the grounds of first Government House

Government House [and part of the town of Sydney], Augustus Earle, 1830. Beat Knoblauch Collection

Below stairs: a retinue of servants

The house required a retinue of servants to function. Some accompanied the governors, others were engaged in the colony, and these were supplemented by convicts. At least the early Government House table had the advantage of Governor Phillip’s French cook – whom Bennelong took such delight in mimicking – to fashion the meagre rations into something more appetising. The Darling household, for example, made do with two convict cooks, whilst advertisements periodically appeared for ‘a thoroughly good’ cook during the tenure of Governor Gipps. The identity of the unfortunate individual whose preparations for a dinner party in October 1840 saw the kitchen roof engulfed in flames is unknown.

Governor Bourke also brought with him a French cook famous for his turtle soup, which he prepared just a week after arrival in the colony with ‘a very fine turtle caught in Torres Straits’ that had been sent to the Governor by the captain of a whaling vessel. As the Bourkes were not yet ready to host dinners, this bounty was shared, the Governor having it dressed to ‘send it about to the principal people here, reserving a little for the good family at home’. This cook, Victor Berland, or Barland, was described as ‘a very good cook, or rather artist as he calls himself’[iii], and remained in the colony following the Governor’s departure, but drowned in the Hawkesbury River in 1835.

A collection of silver cutlery, engraved with the Bourke crest.

Collection of silver cutlery that belonged to the family of Governor Bourke, bearing the Bourke crest. Museum of Sydney Collection, Historic Houses Trust

Detail of a engraved cat on a silver spoon

A silver basting spoon, bearing an engraved image of a cat at the end of the handle. Museum of Sydney Collection, Historic Houses Trust

Early food reviews

Although the Sydney Gazette was sometimes lost for words attempting to describe the ‘superb and elegant’ repasts and events at first Government House, Joseph Arnold accused the Macquaries – ‘both Scotch & consequently close fisted’ – of keeping ‘a shabby table’ [iv]. However, Lachlan Macquarie was not the only governor to complain of the great expense incurred in providing the obligatory hospitality and maintaining expected standards at Government House, and the ‘rigid’ economy required despite the provisions he received ‘gratis’.

Entertaining in style

The governor entertained regularly – with musical evenings, tea parties, card evenings, dances, ‘public’ dinners and smaller, more intimate gatherings, often for family celebrations. Royal birthdays and other special occasions were celebrated at Government House with levees and dinners for officers, gentlemen and foreign visitors. These events were enlivened by regimental bands; later there were balls, suppers and fireworks. Balls became so crowded, with hundreds of guests, that temporary structures were erected in the grounds as supper rooms. Decorations became increasingly elaborate – festooned leaves and flowers, flags, Chinese lamps, bayonets, transparent paintings by some of the colony’s finest artists, chalked floors and intricate illuminations in the garden.

Although an invitation to Government House became a benchmark of respectability, attendees were variously lauded as ‘the rank, fashion, and beauty of the Colony’ or dismissed by the snobbish as a

‘congregation of renegades from the worst Society at home, of Godknowswhoarians & of Godknowswhencearians … a motley crew confusedly assembled together’.[v]

A portait of mother and two children, in sumptuous surroundings and dress.

Portrait of Mrs Darling and two of her children, John Linnell, 1825. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia: NK1102

A wealth of produce

From the early days of sporadic scarcity in the time of Governor Phillip the range of food available at Government House expanded rapidly as local produce was augmented by a wealth of imported staples and more exotic fare. As ornamentation at Government House balls became increasingly lavish, so did the scale and elegance of the ‘sumptuous’ repasts, with tables ‘groaning with every luxury’.

The fare at Government House perhaps reached its apogee with the supper provided by George Street confectioner Thomas Dunsdon for the King’s birthday ball in 1836:

‘The scene that presented itself on entering the Supper room … would indeed have done honor [sic] to any festive occasion in the Mother Country; the whole art and cunning of Mr. Dunsdon had been called into action, and the result was as splendid a supper in every particular as the heart could desire or the eye covet; an enormous quantity of the most beautiful fancy work, windmills, towers, castles, artificial flowers, and fruits, statues, baskets, &c. in barley sugar and other materials, were scattered very tastefully amongst above eight hundred dishes of all the delicacies of the season; it is impossible to give an adequate idea of the whole scene – the tout ensemble, the tables, the lights, the ornamental devices, and above all the number of beautiful faces surrounding the former, formed a coup d’oeil worthy of the occasion …’

The Australian, 31 May 1836, p2, from

A view of old Government House in 1845, with two cames shown in front.

View of old Government House – Sydney – N.S.W. as it appeared when vacated by Sir George Gipps in 1845, George Edwards Peacock, 1845. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW: ML 658


[i] Ellis Bent to his mother, 4 March 1810, NLA MS 195/2, pp108-9

[ii] NLA MS 195/2, p138

[iii] Anne Deas Thomson (née Bourke), Journal, 6-27 December 1831, typescript, pv, ML Doc 2801

[iv] Joseph Arnold to his brother, 25 February 1810, ML A1849/2, p3

[v] Lauderdale Maule to Lord Ramsay from Sydney Barracks, 28 November 1830, ML FM4/2323 (original in Dalhousie Muniments, Scottish Record Office, GD 45/14/548/20)