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Government House Ball – A Tradition of Grandeur

The tradition of a Government House Ball dates from the early days of the Colony of New South Wales. Commemoration of the monarch’s birthday was an occasion for the Governor to review the Regiments and host a Ball. As representatives of the Crown, the Governors of New South Wales and their Vice Regal Consorts entertained the colonial elite and visiting dignitaries, with pomp and ceremony.

In these early years, Ball dances included the English country dance, the minuet, reels, cotillions, hornpipes, jigs, and later, quadrilles and waltzes. There was a dance to commemorate the founding of the colony – Botany Bay. Dances would also reflect special events and people, including the Transit of Venus, Lord Sydney’s Fancy or Lord Howe’s Jig.[1]

Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the 5th Governor of New South Wales (1810-1821) and his wife, Elizabeth Macquarie, were renowned for their lavish balls in the original Government House (now the site of the Museum of Sydney). The Ballroom would be embellished with variegated lamps and wreath-encircled columns. In 1817, an illuminated Temple of Hymen was erected in the grounds to honour the marriage of Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent. Sadly, Princess Charlotte died in childbirth a year later, at the age of 21.

In 1818, for the colony’s 30th Anniversary, the Ballroom was decorated with a likeness of Governor Phillip, designed by Francis Greenway, to honour the first Governor of New South Wales.

In 1819, revellers at the Government House Ball danced to Pandean pipes, accompanied by flutes, clarinets and violins, rather than the traditional Regimental band.

When the British Government agreed that a new Government House in Sydney had become a necessity, the royal architect, Edward Blore, was instructed to draw up plans. By 24th May 1843, the ground floor of the present Government House was sufficiently completed for Governor Gipps (1838-46), the 9th Governor of New South Wales, to honour the young Queen Victoria’s birthday (then aged 24) with a Ball at the new vice-regal residence. However, it was another two years before Governor Gipps was able to take up residence in the completed House.

Not surprisingly, an invitation to a Government House Ball, as the social event of the year, was regarded as a badge of respectability and recognition in the Colony. Invitations were anxiously awaited as it was vital to be on the guest list. This was believed to have caused bitter debate and controversy among the members of Sydney society when Sarah Wentworth, wife of William Charles Wentworth, author, explorer, barrister and statesman, was included on the guest list of Governor FitzRoy (10th Governor – 1846-55) in 1847. Sarah’s parents had been convicts, and she had borne Wentworth two children before marriage. Sarah ‘politely declined’ the invitation because of the scandal it caused and the pressure on her not to accept. Other stories abound of eminent people who were refused entry due to being of lower birth rank.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the link between the Colony and the convict past had become less of an issue. Governors began to be appointed from a new breed of titled and wealthy men. Two Governors – Lords Carrington (1885-1890) and Jersey (1891-1893) – laid claim to royal connections. These later Governors were more inclusive with their invitations. In 1888, the grandeur of the Government House Ball was restored for the Queen’s Jubilee and the colony’s centennial celebration.

In 1930, in the Depression era, Governor Game (1930-35) and Lady Game hosted a Ball for Rear-Admiral Kayser and the visiting Dutch Squadron, described as one of the ‘most brilliant balls ever seen in recent years’ which lit up the gardens with bright green and soft pink lights. Lady Game was reported to have worn a gown of ‘oyster white satin with a tightly moulded bodice and a full skirt’.[2]

The Ball became representative of a wider social class. Lady Wakehurst, the spouse of Governor Wakehurst (1937-45), extended their guest list to acknowledge people of merit and the work of people in the community, including social workers and artists.[3]

The Royal visit of Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh in 1954 to Sydney, the first by a reigning British monarch, was cause for great celebration – including balls, a Government House garden party and private investiture at which The Queen made ‘a strikingly attractive figure in a cream guipure lace dress and wide black straw hat decorated with ostrich feathers.’[4]

Over the course of the past 200 years, Government House Balls have exhibited the finest traditions of revelry, music and dancing, spilling over from the sparkling Ballroom to the illuminated Gardens and capturing, magnificently, the spirit of each Governor of New South Wales and their Vice-Regal Consort. They show not only changes in style and fashion, but the changing nature of society, from the strict hierarchical structure of the penal colony to the diverse and egalitarian society of 21st century New South Wales.

[1] Heather Clarke: The History of Music and Dance in Australia 1788-1840

[2]Sydney Morning Herald, 10 October 1930

[3] David Clune and Ken Turner (eds): The Governors of New South Wales 1788-2010, Federation Press, 2009

[4]Sydney Morning Herald, 19 February 1954

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