A brief history of Admiralty House, Sydney
The story of Admiralty House and of its site at Kirribilli begins in the 18th century with Thomas Muir, the Scottish constitutional reformer and one of the five celebrated “Scottish Martyrs". He was sentenced to transportation for sedition, but as a political prisoner was treated as an exile rather than a convict. In 1794 he was granted a farm “across the water” from his cottage on Sydney Cove beside the Tank Stream. This farm he named “Hunter’s Hill” after his father’s home in Scotland; it included all of Kirribilli.
In time the name “Hunter’s Hill” migrated some miles up the Harbour. Muir’s own migration was more dramatic; there being little restriction placed on his movements he escaped with ease from the colony in 1796 aboard an American brig, never to return.
Four years later, in 1800, Muir’s “Hunter’s Hill” farm, of some 50 hectares (120 acres), was granted to one Robert Ryan for his services in the Marines and subsequently in the New South Wales Corps; but by 1806 the property had come into the capable hands of Robert Campbell, the noted Sydney merchant. Campbell used part of it, near the present headquarters of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, as the site of Australia’s first shipbuilding yards and in 1807, with Governor Bligh in attendance, his first ship, the Perseverance, a 136 tonner, was launched from the new shipyard.
The rest of the property was long used for grazing under lease to Campbell’s friend, James Milson, who gave his name to Milson’s Point. Then, in 1842, the 2 hectare (5 acre) site of Admiralty House was leased to the Colonial Collector of Customs, Lt. Colonel J.G.N. Gibbes, as the site for his residence. There, in 1845-46, he built a graceful stone house, single storeyed with wide verandahs, which he later bought from Campbell’s estate. Imagine Admiralty House without its later additions - the second storey, the colonnaded verandahs and the additions on the western end, and you have the original Gibbes house.
Both Robert Campbell and Lt. Colonel Gibbes feature in an extraordinary double coincidence involving The Governor-General's two official residences, Admiralty House and Yarralumla: whereas Gibbes leased the Kirribilli land from Campbell’s estate and built on it the original part of Admiralty House, some thirty-five years later Robert Campbell’s grandson, Frederick, bought Yarralumla Station from Gibbes and, in 1891, built on it Canberra’s present Government House. Thus, through the histories of both houses runs this Gibbes-Campbell strand.
Gibbes did not long remain in his new Kirribilli home; it passed through a number of hands, acquiring the name “Wotonga” in the process. In the 1850s there were two changes to its grounds; in 1854 half a hectare (or a little over an acre) was sold and on it Kirribilli House, now a residence for the Prime Minister, was built. In 1855, during the Crimean War, the tip of Kirribilli Point was resumed by the Government and fortifications built there, intended, together with Fort Denison on Pinchgut Island, to strengthen the defences of Sydney. Later Kirribilli Point again became part of the grounds of Wotonga but the fortifications and the old Marine Barracks remain to this day.
In 1885 a new era dawned. In recognition of its growing importance, the Royal Navy’s Australian Squadron was raised to the status of an Admiral’s command and the colonial government bought Wotonga as a residence for the Admiral of the day. Under its new name of “Admiralty House” and, with a new second storey, a colonnaded verandah and other additions, as well as a covered Admiral’s Walk leading down to the berth for the Admiral’s barge below, the house began its new role. The story of its more than a quarter of a century as the naval commander-in-chief’s residence is highlighted in the stained glass windows featuring the coats of arms of the British Admirals who lived here.
Following a decision by the Commonwealth Government to establish an Australian Fleet, it was agreed in 1909 that the Imperial Government would hand over all its Sydney properties used for Naval purposes. In 1912 the then Government of New South Wales decided to resume for public purposes Government House, Sydney, which since Federation had been the residence in New South Wales of the Governor-General
The Commonwealth Government assumed responsibility for Naval defence on 1st July, 1913, and by the end of that year, the whole of the Australian Fleet had arrived at Sydney. In accordance with the 1909 agreement and on instruction from the Admiralty, the last of the Imperial Naval Commanders-in-Chief, Admiral Sir George King-Hail, intimated that on hauling down his flag in October 1913, he would hand over Admiralty House to the Commonwealth Government.
Government circles in New South Wales expressed surprise at this announcement, contending that Admiralty House was not the property of the Imperial Government, but had only been provided by the New South Wales Government while Sydney remained the headquarters of the Australia Station. In 1913, despite the objections of the New South Wales Government, Admiralty House was taken up by the Commonwealth Government as a residence for the Governor General when in Sydney.
Admiralty House was for the next fifteen years the residence of Governors-General until, in 1930, during the Depression, the Scullin Government closed it down. The Commonwealth had, in 1920, bought Kirribilli House and until 1930 it was used as an adjunct to Admiralty House, providing additional accommodation for the Governor-General’s staff. Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, Lord Forster and Lord Stonehaven were the three Governors-General who lived in Admiralty House during those years.
Lord Stonehaven's successor and the first Australian Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, was appointed in 1931 and was the first to live permanently at Yarralumla. During his term as Governor-General, Admiralty House remained empty and neglected, being described in 1934 as “stripped of its glamour with no furnishings but a few fine mirrors, its garden wild and overgrown”.
In 1936 the most recent chapter in the history of this fine old house began. In that year the Commonwealth reopened Admiralty House as a Sydney residence for the new Governor-General, Lord Gowrie. It has been used by the fifteen succeeding Governors-General as their residence when in New South Wales. Formal title to Admiralty House finally passed to the Commonwealth by Crown grant in 1948 on condition that it be used only as a residence for the Governor-General.