The History of Government House

by Dr. Reginald Murphy, GOH

In the first 150 years after the settlement of Antigua by the British, there was no official place of residence for the Governors of Antigua. Priority was placed on economic gain and appointed governors, many of whom owned estates on the island, used their own homes. Governors sent out from England, or other colonies, rented properties suitable to their needs and financial capabilities. Parish churches often doubled as the council chambers for the island’s Assembly until the Courthouse in St. John’s was built in 1749. The grand stone structure by architect Peter Harrison marked a major change in administration and the legislature at last had a permanent seat of justice and governance.

The first “governor’s residence” was the home of Edward Warner at Savannah Estate. Warner owned property from Savannah/Piccadilly to Rendezvous Bay. The first “town”, Falmouth, was his seat of government and St. Paul’s church, a rough and earthy building, doubled as the council chamber and administration center for the official affairs of the new colony.

In the 1660s, the era of Governor Colonel Carden, government house was located at his residence close to Five Islands and Deep Bay. With the appointment of Lord William Willoughby in 1668, and his subsequent selection of Samuel Winthorpe as his Lt. Governor of Antigua, the seat of government would have shifted to Parham, or Winthorpe’s estate at the site of the V.C. Bird airport today. Col. Christopher Codrington, a popular and spirited governor established his seat of government at Betty’s Hope Estate.

In 1675, Colonel Rowland Williams was appointed deputy or Lt. Governor of Antigua. He was reportedly the first white male to be born on Antigua, and his estate and government house was Claremont Estate in Carlisle Bay. Other governors, including Shirley, Mathews, and Payne rented accommodation, at Clarkes Hill for use as a residence for the Governors of Antigua and the Leeward Islands.

In 1800, as St. John’s grew to become the main trading and business town of Antigua, surpassing both Parham and Falmouth, and it was decided that a suitable property should be selected as a permanent residence for the governors. The property selected was the “Parsonage”, a large and adequate house that was built in the 1700s. This is the government house we know today. The first governor to reside in Government House was Sir Ralph Payne, Lord Lavington.

Modifications to expand and upgrade the site and building began almost immediately. Significant changes included the expansion of the property and the diversion of Newgate Street that originally connected to East Street in the area where the roundabout is now located. This can be observed on the early maps of St. John’s. Another major change was the northern extension of the house, as we know it today.

The oldest portions and the only original sections that remain largely untouched until recent years are the brick buildings on Cross Street, between Newgate and Church Streets. These structures were the Carriage Houses, servants or domestic quarters, kitchen, and other support rooms that formed a courtyard area on the property. There was a major addition to the building in 1860 in preparation for the royal visit of Prince Alfred in HM Ship St. George (1861).

The newest construction is the office and the oldest area is the dining and living rooms, the core of the structure, with spacious bedrooms located upstairs of the dining room. A major restoration of the building began during the tenure of Governor Sir James Beethoven Carlisle that has not yet been completed. The bedrooms are still unfinished and despite a series of repairs, the roof continues to leak causing much decay to the wooden structure and trim.

Throughout the property are interesting objects and artifacts of historical interest, including furniture, china and tableware with Royal insignia, paintings, architectural details, brass ceremonial signal guns and much more. Research into this historic site continues.