By Gianna Stanley
Writer and photographer, Jeffrey Hyland has released a new book, Government Houses: Vice-Regal Residences of The Crown, which features Gibraltar’s Government House (the Convent). He also writes about over fifty other Government Houses in the Commonwealth, Overseas Territories, and Crown Dependencies across the world. This book provides 175 pages of unique British history, with over 250 photographs to illustrate it, combining these official residences for the first time and exploring the Royal Family’s relationship with these Government Houses.
After visiting the Government House in Sydney, home to the Governor of New South Wales, Hyland was inspired to write about the histories of the current Vice Regal Residences around the world. This project was first conceived in 2004, and it has definitely been worth Hyland’s time. His interest in the Royal family from a young age aided his research, as the history of the Royal family is central to that of these residences – with many Royals continuing to stay there in their overseas Royal visits today. Hyland explains that “Government Houses play a central role in the official and ceremonial life of each of these Commonwealth nations and territories, hosting receptions, investitures and formal ceremonies as well as garden parties and charity events.” The Gibraltar convent’s history begins as early as the 16th Century, and Hyland’s book perfectly captures its unique beginnings.
The chapter starts off by explaining what being British overseas territory really means. Yes, we all know we are British, but do we know what it means to be an overseas territory? Hyland explains how whilst we are under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the United Kingdom, we are internally a self-governing state with our own unique Gibraltarian identity. I think it’s really important how Hyland mentions how each territory is equipped with its own identity because it separates the state from Britain and adds to its own unique culture. There are fourteen overseas territories, but only nine are home to an official Government House – with Gibraltar being one of them.
Do we know what it means to be an overseas territory?
All of us have probably visited the Convent at one point in our lives – whether it be for the Christmas festivities or receiving an award, it is always a magical place to visit. What I think is fundamental to learning about our cultural identity is learning about its history first. The convent was built around 1531 and was originally the home to Franciscan Friars – hence its name. However, by 1728, it became the home to the Governor of Gibraltar. Now, I never knew the specific role played by the Governor, but Hyland explains his role simply. The Governor is to act as the “de facto head of state and be responsible for formally appointing the Chief Minister of Gibraltar”. He is also in control of Gibraltar’s military forces as Commander-in-Chief, so we can thank him partly for keeping our security. Hyland goes on to explain how after Gibraltar became British in 1713, it was heavily rebuilt “in the Georgian style with Victorian elements” but there are still features of its “ecclesiastical past that remain”. The Georgian architecture is absolutely beautiful, due to its symmetry, lavish embellishments, and walls featuring paintings of previous monarchs – the Convent is one of Gibraltar’s most cultural sites to visit.
I found it really interesting to learn about how Queen Victoria’s father, Edward, was once the Governor of Gibraltar and occupied the convent for some time, however, his harsh leadership resulted in a local mutiny – he was even refused entry into Gibraltar despite still holding the title of Governor! This really displays the stubbornness of Gibraltarians, even centuries ago. Edward has not been the only Royals to visit Gibraltar though – our amazing sites proved to be enough to attract many more Royals. For example, Hyland mentions King George V and Queen Mary visiting in the early 20th century, and with them, they brought “over 1,000lbs of meat and 2,000lbs of bread” to feed the poor in honour of their visit. They were followed by visits from Queen Alexandra and her children Princess Victoria and Princess Charles, and Prince Arthur with his wife and daughter. Perhaps the most famous visit was that of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, and their children in 1951. If you visit the Rock, there are a myriad of signs which show you where they stood on their visit. Prince Charles and Princess Diana visited in 1981 to board the Britannia for their honeymoon. The visits did not stop at British Royals though. Kaiser Willhelm II of Germany and King Manuel of Portugal were all attracted to visit, probably due to the sunny Mediterranean weather.
After working on his book for so long, and having the pleasure to visit Gibraltar previously, Hyland’s book is definitely worth the read; it is direct, informative, and engrossing. I have had the pleasure of learning so much by reading it.
You can learn more about the Convent and other Government Houses around the world by purchasing Government Houses: Vice-Regal Residences of The Crown at either the Gibraltar Heritage Trust shop or at jeffreyhyland.wordpress.com/books.