Barbara James Memorial Lecture



Hello and good evening everyone.

I acknowledge the Larrakia People – the traditional owners of the beautiful lands and waters that surround us here in Darwin. I pay my respects to Larrakia Elders past, present and emerging. I am so very pleased to have the opportunity to be here to deliver the annual Barbara James Lecture, in the memory of such a remarkable, accomplished woman. Barbara James, originally from the United States, played a pivotal role in uncovering and protecting the heritage of the Northern Territory.  What particularly strikes me is not only her brilliant knack of unearthing and bringing the wonderful stories of Darwin to life but also her connection to Government House. Barbara wrote the fascinatingly detailed history of Government House, The Residency and its Residents; The Story of Darwin’s House of Seven Gables which has been essential background reading in the development of this lecture. The theme of this year’s Heritage Festival, ‘Connecting People, Places and the Past’ is one I think Barbara would have loved, and I am honoured to have the chance to follow her lead and look back over the stories of the incredible women of Government House and celebrate how their work and achievements have influenced where we are today. Becoming the Administrator As many of you will know, I am now in the second year of my term as Administrator of the Northern Territory.

Coming into the role of Administrator, after having lived in the Territory for 30 years, I had a general awareness of the background of the role and of Government House. After all, I have very fond memories of visiting the House on Open Days with my Mum, as I’m sure many of us do! I understood the Administrator is appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Chief Minister to represent the Crown in the Northern Territory. The key statutory, ceremonial and civic duties the Administrator undertakes, are a part of the role I truly value. Assenting to legislative bills, Conducting investiture ceremonies recognising remarkable Territorians, and Promoting the interests of Territory organisations, businesses and patronages are all aspects of the role I enjoy and look forward to.  What I certainly wasn’t prepared for was the onslaught of new terminology, protocols and customs that are part of the fabric of Government House! The abbreviations come thick and fast – O.S. and not D.O.S. but DOS for Official Secretary and Deputy Official Secretary; EV for Eastern Verandah; DP for the daily program (and the list could go on!) – all seemingly obvious after a while, but very obscure at the beginning! Administrators are not provided with a handy how-to guide, or a handover sheet when they come into the role. I think perhaps in many ways this is a good thing. It forces you to find your feet in your own way and to create your own approach to the role which I feel is valuable. But at the beginning, there was a new language to learn, and a new Vice-Regal world to navigate, which is an immediate reminder of Government House’s history and legacy built up over so many years.  The need to respect the customs and traditions of such a worthy institution, while innovating and responding to the modern world, is tangible. I knew that I was only the second female Administrator, and having been in Darwin and the CEO of a community services organisation during the term of the Honourable Sally Thomas, I was aware of her incredible legacy. I was also intrigued by the stories and legacies of other women who have influenced Government House. Some more well-known, such as Hilda Abbott, wife of Aubrey Abbott, Administrator during the Second World War, and Joan Johnston, who returned to Darwin just a few weeks ago to stay with us at Government House and unveil the anchor of HMAS Darwin. But also many others whose stories are so often not told, but who perhaps have left an enduring legacy. Government House, and Vice-Regal households in general – and certainly historically – are predominantly rather masculine environments.

If you read about the history, or view the portraits, it could be perceived that women have had a lesser influence over Government House Northern Territory since its inception in the late 1800s. But I know that is not the case. I can identify many ways in which a number of intriguing women have played a fundamental, unique and formative role in our Territory history at Government House. For me, women throughout history were the unsung heroes for too long. The homemakers, ensuring their families are fed and generally keeping everything and everyone ticking along, particularly during times of difficulty. And for much of the Territory’s history, times certainly have been tricky! Particularly interesting for me has been uncovering the stories of these women who in their own way have contributed just as tangibly to the history of Government House, but who are all too often written out of history.  These stories tell of: a long tradition of care and deep respect for the House, its heritage and significance to Territorians; a commitment to serving Territorians and community organisations since the very beginning; and the recognition that while the term of Administrator may be temporary, influences can be long-lasting. Continuity through Time Before there were female Administrators, there were daughters, wives, maids – now stewards – and countless other women that made an indelible mark on the roles of the Administrator and Government House. Government House, just like the Territory itself, has a relatively short history compared to the rest of Australia.

The original Residence was built in the early 1870s, and despite many differences over the years, countless similarities remain. Government House is – as it always has been – a working house. I think back to Harriet Daly, originally Harriet Douglas, whose father was appointed the first Government Resident almost exactly 150 years ago in 1870. While Palmerston at the time was just a tiny shanty town, she writes in her book Digging, Squatting and Pioneering Life in the Northern Territory of South Australia of riding her horse to Fannie Bay, and scanning the horizon in search of passing ships. A pastime I think many Territorians still enjoy today – we do! And I can certainly imagine her joy in experiencing the wind rushing through her hair in an era with no air conditioning (!). It was during Harriet’s father’s time as Government Resident that Government House was first constructed, known then as The Residency.  Of course, now only the Drawing Room remains of the initial building, but through this, we get our first sense of the constancy of Government House. It is clear through Harriet’s writing that the house instilled a sense of permanency and comfort. Along with her brothers and sisters, she would now have a home with her parents. And in the almost 150 years since Harriet’s experiences, I think Government House has cemented itself not just as a home for the Administrator of the day, but as a reassuring symbol of the resilience of Territorians. In no small way, this is due to the efforts and legacy of the countless women of Government House who have made their mark on the House, in the community, and on the role of the Administrator. As the 22nd, and second female Administrator of the Northern Territory, I am keenly aware of their influence over the House I now live in, and over how I carry out my duties as Administrator. 

When the Honourable Sally Thomas was appointed the first female Administrator of the Northern Territory it was groundbreaking to have a woman in the top role in the Territory. She was a real trailblazer, marking another milestone reached by the remarkable women of Government House. I am proud to have the opportunity to play my own part in this incredible history. To me, the House continues to represent continuity and resilience over time, in no small part thanks to the remarkable women that have gone before me. But importantly, it also represents how far women have come in such a short period. The House and it’s meaning, the many names of Government House I think nicely reflect its changing meaning over so many years.

The role of Administrator came into being in 1912 when control of the Northern Territory was transferred to the Commonwealth Government. Reflecting the role of “Government Resident” prior to this, the House was known as “The Residency”. Also known as the House of Seven Gables due to its design, the House has remained almost unchanged since the works designed by Architect John George Knight in the late 1870s, upon the completion of which Government Resident at the time Edward Price commented, “The new Residence is now complete… its fine appearance from the harbour will I trust have a better effect on our visitors than the old unsightly shanty which was more like a cowshed than the Government Residence”. Incidentally – John George Knight was also the only Government Resident or Administrator to die while in office, and at Government House!

Despite being protected under the Heritage Act as a designated place of interest, and retaining very much the same look and feel as it did 150 years ago – clearly, it has been loved by many Administrators and their families over the years! – time at Government House certainly doesn’t stand still. We now have Wi-Fi, numerous computers, automatic industrial dishwashers and washing machines, ensuring there is no stagnancy. And discernible among all the women of Government House – perhaps obviously given women’s traditional roles – is an awareness, and pride, in their role in taking care of the House. And also an awareness of how their influence would add to its identity. For the House is not a museum piece of one particular era. It is a reflection of the gradual accumulation, over many years, of belongings and changes introduced by successive Administrators and their families.

Stepping into the cellar, a place which has doubtless haunted schoolchildren for many years – and continues to do so on our regular open days, for which I now fill it with historic china and flowers from the garden to add charm and colour – I am always enchanted and awed in equal measure by how close to the past it is possible to feel in our Government House. The House seems – particularly in the early days – to serve as a secure sanctuary in a location which could and can be rather demanding. Of course, the House would be particularly important in an era where your duty as a wife, a mother or a daughter was defined by how well you kept your home and looked after your family. But I think it takes on, even more, meaning when we consider that it has survived a number of destructive cyclones, rebellion, the Bombing of Darwin, and of course the white ants. All elements which can give a sense of anxious impermanency to tropical living.

Hilda Abbott writes of watching the maids cleaning the floors of the verandahs, “two hundred feet long on either side”; stating “the house was then seventy-five years old and this must have been going on for a long time, for the floor was like a mirror”. Mrs Abbott knew that there were “eighty-seven old- fashioned steel knives in the drawers of the oak sideboard in the dining room (p. 43)”. I must admit I am not sure of how many knives there are now, but I do know there are seven silver cake servers! I also know there are at least nine snakes in the garden – and one in particular that has been sighted with its head on one side of the road, and its tail over the gutter on the other side – which – Dermot our Senior Horticulturalist says would make it at least 20 foot long! And for the record, there are 42 different kinds of Orchids and 27 species of Bromeliads. Upon leaving Government House this evening I commented to Bliss, a long term employee, who was closing the louvres for the evening, that I wondered how many times he had undertaken that role over the decades. He laughed, and said, ‘many, many, Your Honour, and by the way, there are 2018 to open and close each day’.

I often think of Nerys Evans – wife of former Administrator the Honourable Ted Egan – and her great love of the House, with her sentiments expressing that it was a dream to be in the role of Administrator’s wife and to be part of the history of Government House. Again, that recognition that the people of Government House are actually creating the history of the House as we live in it. In 1919, the Daily Mail in Brisbane reported on Mrs Gilruth’s experiences “keeping house” in Darwin, and Mrs Urquhart’s description of Government House in the Maitland Daily Mercury in 1823, describing, “the wide verandahs and long rooms running right across the house to ensure as much coolness as possible,” and, “the palms and gorgeous tropical plants [which] make the garden very beautiful,” are reflective, I think, of what we all love about the House today. I was particularly interested to read of Mrs Urquhart’s account of her husband’s “vegetable garden below his office at one side of his house,” as together with the team at Government House we re-established a vegetable garden last year. We now – once again – have vegetables growing in the wet and dry seasons. Water taro, sweet potato, aerial yam and Thai mint all take hold as the clouds come over and the rain comes in off the sea.  Our wonderful horticulturalists then watch and replace these with zucchini, pumpkin and tomatoes, cucumbers for pickling and sweet corn as the ‘knock-em-down’ winds come through heralding the dry. Of course, we have chillies and basil all year round! And the oasis Government House creates – surrounded by the city on one side and the Harbour on the other – provides a sanctuary for an array of animal life that never fails to astound me. At the birdbath in the Terrace garden, I often watch the resident pair of Northern fantails bathing and drinking, and sharing their melodious call with anyone who cares to listen! Thousands of butterflies – the Lemon migrant, Chocolate argus – such wonderful names – flock in their hundreds around the Cuphea and Pentas plants. And of course, the Brahminy kites patrol studiously over the gardens looking for any unwary lizard that may be basking in the sun!

I often wonder while working on the verandahs and wandering through the grounds if this is how my predecessors also experienced the House. Through the joy of the colours and sounds, and the energy introduced by the diversity of life in its beautiful grounds. Ultimately, I think one of the most important and enduring qualities of Government House and its residents is their ability to bring people together. Functions, state dinners, investitures, afternoon teas. Gatherings both formal and less-so have been a central feature of vice-regal life in the Territory since the beginning. And the food is – of course – a central element in this. I asked our wonderful Chef, Nicolas, to arm me with one of his most well-loved recipes at Government House, and he immediately suggested Christmas cake.  Can there be a better example of an iconic recipe which makes us think of gathering together as friends and family? The combination of mixed fruit, orange marmalade, decadent butter and of course the brandy, coming together to form a rich, solid mouthful unfailingly reminiscent of Christmases through time. Whether we love it or hate it, Christmas cake is – I think – uniquely recognisable and evocative. And I love that Government House has its own special version. I also think of our signature Ginger Drink circa 2017. It is much loved – and enthusiastically requested (!) – by many of those who return to Government House. We also have our first batch of honeycomb and honey after introducing native and European beehives last year. Customary recipes symbolise how food really draws people in. It provides a sense of belonging. Like a family around the dinner table.

In a small town – now city – in a remote location community is so important. And looking at all the beautiful photos of Government House afternoon teas through the ages, I feel a sense of pride and joy knowing that this tradition continues. Yet another example of how so many years on, so many things still remain constant, despite many changes. Natural Environment A particular passion I am proud to share with many of the women who have lived in and cared for Government House is a love for the beauty of our remote landscape and, of course, the beauty of the Government House grounds. Harriet Daly’s description of the bush on the way out towards Parap in the 1870s: “in the protecting arms of giant gum trees the staghorn fern nestled snugly, throwing down great antler-like fronds, which were sharply defined against the smooth white bark of the tree;”  It is reflected in Hilda Abbott’s description of our surroundings more than sixty years on: “When the Poinciana’s bloom along the shores opal shades reach softly to the stream. In the Wet Season, the grandeur of the storms sweep the surface to ragged while frills, settling to a leaden grey. / Then the velvet of yellow-headed grasses wave all along the street-ways leading to the forests; the white pebbles on far beaches glisten, and the stars hang luminously”. Such beautiful passages, which depict the natural environment that I think is so central to the creation of our identity here in the Northern Territory. I think the development of such beautiful grounds at Government House, reflective of the wider landscape and a very fitting foreground to the beauty of the House itself, plays an important role in the strong sense of place the House has in the hearts of Territorians.

Visitors During Mrs Johnston’s visit a few weeks ago she told me a wonderful story of a chap who used to go for a swim daily in the harbour, and who used to walk through the Government House gate, put his dog in the garden, go for his swim and pick up the dog on the way out! I thought that was a particularly wonderful example of the relationship Territorians have had with the House over the years. The Honourable Justice and Mrs Muirhead wrote of the school children who “came in regular busloads to explore the house and gardens, to consume our biscuits and brightly coloured cordials”. Visits that continue today, and bring so much energy and laughter to the House. Mrs Johnston also spoke of her experiences hosting Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales at Government House.

When I met with Her Majesty The Queen recently in London, she spoke of her fond memories of visits to the Northern Territory and of time spent at Government House. Hosting Prince Charles at Government House last year, I was able to share in Mrs Johnston’s acknowledgement that these visits really do add to the rich tapestry not only of our personal terms in Government House but to the overall tapestry of Government House and its meaning and heritage. They show the importance and relevance of the Territory to Australia and the wider global community and show Territorians that they matter. They add to the stories which are so important to our understanding of people and place, and of how our Government House fits into and relates to our Territory communities. Grit, Resilience and Determination I think one of the most interesting things about living in a relatively small community in a rather remote area is the opportunity for women to resist some of the more typical gender roles that would have been expected in larger, further-developed towns and cities. Right from the beginning, the women of Government House made the most of the sense of freedom afforded them by the uniqueness of the Territory. And to do this required remarkable determination, and resilience. As the Honourable Justice Muirhead, former Administrator wrote, “it is not a country for timid or lazy people; to the contrary, it requires courage and persistence (p. 202)”. It is clear to me that each of these women demonstrated amazing amounts of courage and perseverance. All the way back in the 1870s, Harriet Daly was one of only a handful of women who held miners’ rights (Lockwood, p.65).  And despite writing, “to us it is given to stay at home and wait” (Daly), it is clear through reading of Harriet’s excursions on horseback with her gun, her make-do-and-mend attitude and her fearless acceptance of change and hard work that she was anything other than the supposed meek, timid Victorian woman. One of my favourite passages of Harriet’s goes, “there was a sense of boundless freedom, and a curious feeling that, ride as far as one liked, one could meet no strange face, or make any fresh acquaintances”. I think in some circumstances this could still be said to be true of Darwin today! This passage particularly shows her adventurousness, which I think is essential to succeeding as a woman in the Territory. A quality which seems to be ever-present in our Government House women.

A more recent woman of Government House, Dr Valerie Asche, survived Tuberculosis as a young woman at university before the advent of antibiotics, before going on to complete a PhD, raise a family and serve the Territory community tirelessly as the wife of former Administrator the Honourable Austin Asche. I am always pleased when Val is able to attend functions at Government House – her presence and stories are truly inspirational. A particularly dramatic example of a fearless woman is The Northern Territory Times and Gazette’s mention in 1921 of how once Mrs Urquhart, wife of former Administrator Frederic Urquhart, quelled a disturbance in a camp with a revolver! Another strong woman in the canon of Government House. What incredible role models.  Serving Communities These women are all the more inspiring when we consider the key role they have played in so many vital community organisations across the Territory, which is a role I am honoured to continue today. We can see from newspaper articles that prior to moving to the Territory Mrs Urquhart volunteered much of her time for the Red Cross, a commitment she continued while living in Darwin in the 1920s. This connection between Government House and the Red Cross stretches back much further, with Mrs Gilruth’s heavy involvement with their work during the First World War. Of course, this work was continued with Mrs Abbott’s commitment to the Red Cross, particularly during the Second World War when she “visited every Red Cross centre on the road between Alice Springs and Darwin, as well as the new dressing stations which the Red Cross had equipped and supplied for servicing the men working on the new Central Australian defence road,” as reported in the News in Adelaide in 1940.

To this day, the Administrator or husband or wife of the Administrator of the Northern Territory traditionally takes a patronage role with the Red Cross, continuing this commitment to such a valued organisation. Many other organisations have been represented by the women of Government House. Mrs Joan Johnston – or J.J. as she has asked me to call her – was closely associated with early childhood education, disability services and numerous other charities. And prior to her husband’s appointment as Administrator, Margaret Muirhead worked as Executive Director of the YWCA. Page 28 
Mrs Tessa Pauling was also involved with a number of organisations, including children’s organisations such as Early Childhood Australia Inc, and also mental health and cancer support groups. It is clear to me just how important the work the Administrator does to support our wonderful organisations really is. To have a champion in the highest public office in the Territory is valuable, not just in terms of public perception and visibility, but also for the morale of the wonderful staff and volunteers who work so hard to achieve marvellous things. Having the opportunity to continue this work that started with incredible women so many years ago is something I greatly appreciate and enjoy. A Role: a Partnership It is clear to me that over the last century there was increasing recognition among former Administrators of the importance of their wives’ roles at Government House.

Upon arriving at Government House and being greeted by the apparently nervous staff, former Administrator the Honourable Mr Justice Muirhead wrote that: “knowing [his] wife, [he] felt pretty confident that the apparent anxiety among the staff would soon be replaced by smiles (Muirhead, p.198). His words, “for the first time in our lives together… we were able to pool our resources and truly share our working responsibilities,” are, I think, a nice reflection of the realities of serving as Administrator in a marriage, or partnership. This sense of a partnership was clear in the case of Commodore Johnston and his wife Joan Johnston. During her visit to Darwin recently she spoke of how while at Government House she always thought of herself as an “and”. I think this word “and” is a perfect reflection of the joint nature of serving as Administrator in a marriage.   It is never solely about the Administrator, and particularly in recent years, there is much greater recognition of the contribution both parties can make to the Territory in their own way. Indeed, Commodore Johnston’s Naval obituary notes: “A consort in the true sense of the word, she made an enormous contribution to his career and role as Administrator”. And I certainly find today that you really do need to work together. The role is all-encompassing, and you find your niche within both the role itself and at Government House. My wonderful husband Craig is an incredible, dependable man who supports me as Administrator – and in life – unfailingly. We do work closely together. He is a generous mentor who has been my soulmate for 40 years this July! As my predecessors clearly discovered, a team approach is often required in this role, and a robust relationship makes all the difference. 

Domestic Service I think it is also important to mention the enduring influence of the many remarkable girls and women who have worked as part of the staff at Government House. I know from experience that the smooth functioning of Government House relies on the hard work of a team of unsung heroes and heroines. Each of the accounts I have read mentions the work and importance of these women in one way or another and, despite historic opinions which can now be problematic, the central role they played – and continue to play – at Government House is unquestionable. I am certain I speak for Administrators and their families, past and present when I say I am eternally grateful for their hard work. We are now at a stage where we have talented women working across all roles at the House and in the Administrator’s offices. 

Our first female Official Secretary – or Chief of Staff – Zoe Marcham was appointed in 1991 and was the first female Official Secretary in Australia – a remarkable achievement. From gardening to protocol, house management to communications management, I am proud that gender equality and equity of opportunity are very much at play in the team here in the Northern Territory. Conclusion Being appointed Administrator was extremely unexpected. I was humbled, and taken aback. But at the same time, it was thrilling, and I committed myself to bring energy and passion to the role and pledged to be attentive to the many people I would have the privilege to engage with. My parents were proud Territorians, and my wish that they were here to share in this journey only drives me to be the best I can be.  And as I continue in my role as your Administrator, I pledge to continue to dedicate my time and energy to promoting your interests as far as I possibly can. We have such incredibly talented and passionate people here in the Territory – some who are recognised publically through investitures and award ceremonies, and some who prefer to be much quieter achievers – it is an honour to learn about and spread the message about the many significant achievements of Territorians. I commit to respecting and caring for the wonderful heritage of Government House. But at the same time to ensuring it remains relevant. For, as we have seen, the House is not, and should not be a remnant of a past time. Rather, each Administrator leaves something behind and introduces something new, to continue the process of creation of a House and institution which is constantly evolving and uniquely Territorian. The Territory does not stand still, and neither should its Government House, or Administrator.  One of the most exciting things about the Territory is how quickly it is changing, and I am committed to ensuring all our people and cultures, ancient and new, are represented in your Government House. Here’s to strong women. May we know them; may we be them; may we support them; may we raise them. I very much look forward to the future.

Go well, and thank you.