THE WAY IT WAS: Government House, Sydney under the most recent Naval Governor of New South Wales, 1991-1996


Government House, Sydney under the most recent Naval Governor of New South Wales, 1991-1996

By Ralph Derbidge

(This article was first published in NOCN 84, 1 March 2011.)

When I look back on my life to date, I have no hesitation in rating my time at Government House Sydney as a principal highlight.  This essay is about that house, its people and the then Governor and his lady.

Government House

No Governor of New South Wales has lived in Government House since Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair retired as our 35th Governor, but I believe that the property is in the hands of the best alternative custodians,  the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.  This statutory authority was established specially to conserve and manage the state’s cultural heritage of this state.  Government House is the jewel in the crown of that body’s area of responsibility.

gh external from gate_ bw

Government House, Sydney, NSW, from the main gate


The heart and soul of any inherently active organisation or institution  are its people.  And so it was with the then vice-regal residence and workplace for the Governor of this state.

By mid-1995, the establishment of staff at Government House had been fixed at 31 more-or-less permanent members.  The so-called permanent staff fell into three quite different categories and were recruited or sourced accordingly.  There was the official (or public service) staff numbering 13, the personal staff of four and the domestic staff totalling 14 and the members of each division had varying terms of reference and conditions of service.

The official staff consisted of the Official Secretary and an administrative assistant, a speech-writing research officer, five clerical staff, a building and property maintenance staff of four, an after-hours gatekeeper and the Governor’s driver.  These people were mostly long-serving New South Wales government employed public servants.

governor  mrs sinclair with scarlett

The Governor and Mrs Sinclair with Scarlett

Personal Staff

The appointed personal staff comprised four: myself,  Mrs Sinclair’s secretary  and two aides-de-camp in waiting (or ADC’s).  The domestic staff was made up of footmen, maids and kitchen staff in almost equal numbers, co-ordinated by the Butler.

The personal staff and the domestic staff, in contrast to the official staff, were under direct contract to the Governor and their recruitment or appointment rested finally on the personal approval of the Governor and his lady.  The Sinclairs, I should stress, took an active role in this process.

Official Secretary

The Official Secretary presided over all staff.  The Private Secretary worked under, but not for, the Official Secretary and it is important to appreciate this distinction.  The coordination and direction of the personal staff and domestic staff were the responsibility of the Private Secretary but there was overlap with the Official Secretary, as you might expect.

The contracted non-union staff had no security of tenure and were retained in theory, subject to satisfactory performance of duties, at the Governor’s pleasure.  They could be, and were, eventually dismissed by the government at short notice.


In the final analysis, the government’s dictates of 16 January 1996 (announcing tthat Government House would cease to be used as the residence of Governors of the state who would henceforth provide their own living accommodation —  Ed.) resulted in the dismissal services-no-longer-required of all of the contracted staff.

To be fair, the government offered the full range of employee assistance resources and programmes to dismissed staff but, with a fortnight’s notice to quit for the majority, there was little time for individuals to ponder their fate or to be selective about their futures. The domestic staff were given the most sympathetic treatment, which was appropriate, and most of them found, or were steered in the direction of new work by the time I left the house.

Extended family

There was an extended family of staff serving the office of the Governor and it would be remiss of me not to mention them. The security of Government House was in the hands of a dozen or so New South Wales Police Service armed security branch officers who worked shifts in teams of four over continuous 24-hour periods. The upkeep and presentation of the splendid gardens and grounds within the fence perimeter were the responsibility of a team of six or so gardeners on rotational secondment from the staff of the neighbouring Royal Botanic Gardens.

There were others whose expertise and experience were called upon to advise or assist as circumstances required.  The Crown Solicitor and the Solicitor General were typical of those who gave counsel to the Governor when called upon so to do, especially in times of actual, predicted or perceived constitutional crises.  I suggest there was more of the latter rather than the former in this context during my tenure at Government House, which only serves to highlight the enduring stability of our existing form of government and associated conventions in this ever-so-fortunate democracy of ours.

I should mention also the half-dozen honorary ADC’s who supported the Governor and Mrs Sinclair after hours and on weekends at all manner of functions and activities.  They were reservists from the three armed services who, otherwise, were civilians working at their own vocations.  They were to be found assisting in investiture ceremonies, receptions, musical evenings and the like, or attending upon the vice regal couple as required.


My happiest moments at Government House revolved around the daily interactions with other staff.  In view of the Governor’s extraordinary, ever-busy programme, there was not much time available for light relief, but it was a mostly contented band of dedicated and hard working people at Government House, some of whom were long serving staff members who had seen a number of vice regal representatives come and go.

It would be unfair to pretend that there were no difficulties or tensions within from time-to-time, but the show went on in an exceptionally dynamic environment and all members of staff contributed to a very efficient and effective vice regalship in this state.

Position abolished

With the retirement of the then Governor Sinclair, and the attendant closure of Government House as the vice regal residence and workplace, the long established office of the Private Secretary was abolished and consigned to the vaults of history.

I could lay claim to having been the last holder of the oldest civil service office in the land.  The Private Secretary to the first Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip RN, was one Andrew Miller who arrived with the First Fleet and served until June 1788 when he was relieved by David Collins Esq who also held the position of Judge Advocate of the then infant Colony of New South Wales.


For nigh on four years, from mid-march 1992, I served, one of the busiest and most popularly acclaimed holders of a vice regal office in the modern history of Australia.  As the Private Secretary, I was directly responsible for the planning and conduct of the Governor’s ceremonial and community activities and for the co-ordination of the internal operation of the house.

In the process, I carried much of the administrative burden of the household proceedings while supervising the input of contributing staff, processing the private, semi-official and official (but not constitutionally related) correspondence, overseeing the ceremonial and protocol functions and roles of the Governor, maintaining the Governor’s 250 plus patronages, despatching the daily vice-regal notices to The Sydney Morning Herald and managing the seven-day-a-week vice-regal programme, otherwise known as ‘The Diary’.  A measure of that involvement was that I personally staffed and signed in excess of 12,000 individual letters for the Governor during this period.

Energy and innovation

The Sinclairs were extraordinarily energetic and innovative.  Indeed, I would go so far as to affectionately classify the Governor as a peerless workaholic.  Nothing was too much trouble for him and he would view it as slothful if virtually every awake minute of his day was not given over to some productive endeavour.  If nothing was programmed, improvisation was the order of the moment.


The Governer and Mrs Sinclair were imbued with an acute sense of duty and responsibility, and compromises were only made when inescapable.  All reasonable requests for their time and services, often at short-notice, were accepted if there were available gaps in ‘The Diary’.  The vice regal programme was projected three months in advance through monthly programme meetings.  Despite maximum utilisation of the available diary time, the Governor and Mrs Sinclair were only ever available to accept about one third of the requests placed before them.  It points to the extent of their appeal.

The Governor mostly wrote all of his speeches in longhand which were then processed to type.  There was well in excess of 1000 major speeches delivered by him while in office.  I categorise a major speech as being a prepared text of 10 minutes duration or longer and he gave one of these on average every working day of the week.  He spoke on just about every subject of interest and so you can imagine the research, resources, time and energy that went into this important aspect of his term in office.

With the passing of every year, the Governor approved the use of the house for evermore functions, presentations, launchings, acknowledgments and the like by outside organisations and patronages to the extent that, by the end of 1995, some 35,000 persons were visiting the house each year for multifarious purposes.  It had not always been this way, but Governor Sinclair never publicly veered away from his conviction that it was the house of the peoples of New South Wales and should be available to them whenever possible.

Humanity and a dog

There was, I stress, a very human side to Government House.  The Governor had a well developed sense of humour and several pressure-relieving sporting interests and hobbyist pursuits.  He and Mrs Sinclair had a special affinity with young persons, the disabled and disadvantaged and country folk, and, of course, there was the principal star of stage, screen, television, poetry and magazine and newsprint reporting, to wit Scarlett, the Governor’s pet kelpie dog, and her five pups born on location.  For better or worse, many important visitors to Government House found themselves playing second fiddle to Scarlett, whom I am convinced had no idea that she was a dog.  And why not for, as with Rhett Butler, Scarlett was the Governor’s obsession!  She was even known to gate-crash investitures.

investiture room

The Investiture Room. Unfortunately gray-scale presentation cannot convey adequately the richness of this splendid room.


Investitures at Government House were held normally in April and September of each year following the promulgation respectively of the Australia Day and Queen’s Birthday honours lists.  For the vice-regal couple and all of the staff, plus a supporting cast including the New South Wales Police Service and St John Ambulance Australia and others, they posed the supreme ceremonial and protocol occasions of the year.

In all, some 500 good citizens of New South Wales were invested each year at Government House with the insignia of their awards in the Order of Australia, the Order of St John, for bravery and for distinguished service in each of the three arms of the Australian Defence Force, the New South Wales Public Service and the police, fire, ambulance and emergency services.

Preparations commenced some three months beforehand, very soon after the awards lists were made public.  I leave it to your imagination to sense the effort involved in bringing together at each ceremony some 70 recipients from around the state with their three guests each, plus officialdom, making everyone feel just as important as the other, staging and recording a memorable show and entertaining all to champagne and refreshments, small eats and live music to round out the occasion.

To the casual observer, the investitures always seemed to go like clockwork while leaving everybody with a warm feeling.  But they had their trying and sometimes unpredictable moments for the master of ceremonies, despite the best laid plans and all of that!  Let me share some of them with you while I hasten to stress that I mean no offence in the retelling.

My very capable staff would put together for me the form and content of the names and citations to cover every award, around which I would develop the supporting script and briefing notes.  No two ceremonies were identical and they demanded attention to detail.  Correct pronunciation of names and places was obviously important.  I found that, with our multicultural diversity, bravery awards, for example, are rarely won by the Jack Smiths from Rose Bay.  And we do have some exotically named places in this great state of ours that the locals express in only one way!

government house staff at stand by

Government House investiture team at stand-by.

Accident & misadventure

By my 26th investiture, I was pretty good at the business and could even ad lib with ease but I put a lot of homework into my early ceremonies.  I had to run my first investiture within days of joining Government House and there was little time for me to get up to flying speed.  And so I concentrated on the seemingly difficult words while skimming over those that appeared straight-forward.  That first ceremony was soon in full flight and running smoothly and I found myself readily slipping into the ease and entrancement which flow from a soundly researched and well-prepared script, or so I thought!

Unblinkingly, and at the appropriate point, I proclaimed loudly “to be awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to art — Mr Ken Done” (which I pronounced “Dunn”). As he moved past me towards the Governor to receive his award, I heard him mutter, unimpressed “not even half close!” or words to that effect. Ken may have forgiven me now.

Then there was the third attempt to coax to Sydney a particularly nomadic free spirit from the Northern Rivers area of the state who, if my memory serves me well, had earned a bravery award for plucking a child from a dangerously flooded stream.  He could be reached only through a post box address or through his mother in Queensland.  We finally made contact but he would only come if he could play his didgeridoo at some time during the proceedings.  This bothered me a bit, because the investiture cermonies were already overtimed, so I took this problem of precedent to the Governor who, in the interests of harmony, said  “Make it so!”  So I went away, wondering how and when, and whether this would lead to equal time for balalaikas, sitars and the like, and invited the man to come with his didgeridoo.  But, again, he did not show and eventually the award went off in the mail to the post box address.

Hidden dangers in zeal

I will round this segment off with an example of the pitfalls of zeal.  Shortly after joining, a new ADC was assigned the duty at his first investiture of carrying to the Governor on a velvet cushion each insignia in turn for presentation to the recipient.  This activity, after the citation was announced, was executed in military drill fashion and the final manoeuvre required a halt followed by a full left turn.  The ADC, fresh from his reserve battalion, must have confused the investiture room with the parade ground.  With rigid precision, he crash halted and pivoted left with stomping vigour.  Sure enough, the insignia for the first recipient shot right off the cushion with centrifugal force and clattered to the floor.  You can then imagine the scene as initial nervous tension propelled the ADC, the recipient, the Governor, me and two others from the front row of spectators in simultaneous convergence upon the hapless insignia.  Decorum was finally restored, and the show went on without further hindrance but it took some time for the ADC’s complexion to return to normal.  My only real concern was whether or not he had inadvertently revealed to all and sundry the secret of the Governor’s impressive recollection of the background and deeds of every recipient.  In the initial confusion, had he exposed the cue card attached to the back of the cushion?

Honours and awards

The investitures, of course, were always humbling yet uplifting affairs and I never ceased to marvel at the capacity of so many wondrous folk to do so much on behalf of others.  In particular, the details of some of the feats of bravery left one in awe of the incredible will and courage possessed by certain individuals who went to extraordinary lengths to assist their fellow citizens in the face of great adversity and real peril.

The awards system

It is right that our high achieving and selflessly serving citizens should be recognised in the way that they are through the Australian Honours and Awards system, and sooner rather than later.  Sadly, that system does not always  acknowledge a vast army of unassuming folk who give daily of themselves to others, for it relies almost entirely on persuasive nominations by our fellow countrymen and women.  And we are not very good as nationals at this sort of thing.  But the system is there, and it is the only one we have and it should be respected.  It is not something that can be treated as a lay-by department in the expectation that the store management will change in due course.  You may recall the publicity afforded the lady several years ago who wanted her award held in trust until it could be presented to her by our first republican President.  Wisely, she was rebuffed.


I hope that I have been able to illustrate for you the very human side of Government House under the Sinclairs and to unravel some of the mystique of investitures.  It was an unbelievably busy Government House throughout my four years there, and I marvel today at what was achieved by a very dutiful and caring Governor and his lady with the support of a relatively small but loyal and exceptionally hard working staff.  It was my privilege and pleasure to have served as the Private Secretary to His Excellency Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair AC AO (Mil), the 35th Governor of New South Wales.




One thought on “THE WAY IT WAS: Government House, Sydney under the most recent Naval Governor of New South Wales, 1991-1996

  1. worked for Peter Ross Sinclair in his position as fleet commander personal staff Glad to see he did so well and was still a work acholic but was wondering if he retired to his farm in Newcastle
    Rod Eastley
    LSSTD retired

Leave a Reply