09 March 2012

First Australian-born governor-general: Sir Isaac Isaacs' homes

Isaac Isaacs (1855–1948) was a talented man. He spoke Russian, Yiddish and English equally fluently and graduated Law in 1880, followed by a Master of Laws degree in 1883. 

In the 1892 Victorian state election, Isaacs was elected to the Legislative Assembly as the member for a rural seat. His political programme was impressive: introduction of income taxation rather than indirect taxes which put the load on low income earners, reform of company law, conciliation machinery to resolution industrial disputes, railway reform and support for Federation.

Inevitably he became a major participant in the framing of the country's constitution at the Constitutional Convention of the late 1890s. So it was not a surprise that Isaacs was elected to the very first federal Parliament in 1901, straight after the declaration of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The Isaacs' Edwardian family home, Hawthorn, 1905

Isaacs was not totally behind Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton, and his protectionist policies. Isaacs was one of a group of backbenchers pushing for more radical policies, but apparently he was difficult to get along with because of his personality, not his politics.

The second prime minister of Australia, Alfred Deakin, appointed Isaacs Attorney-General in 1905, even though Isaacs remained a difficult colleague. But Isaacs did give strong support to his prime minister for the Judicary Act that established the High Court of Australia... and needed to be thanked. Deakin was keen to get him out of politics anyway, so he pushed him upstairs; Isaacs was appointed to the High Court bench.

Isaacs, 1906

Examine Isaac's home in the photo above. Edwardian homes in Melbourne had front verandas with decorative timber features, tiling on the patio floor and entry paths. The brickwork was usually a deep red. The roofs were typically terracotta tiles with decorative gables, motifs, timber features, tall chimneys and fretwork. Decorative leadlight windows were also common. Isaac Isaacs lived in this lovely Edwardian house in Hawthorn throughout the years before and after Federation. When he left politics in 1906 for the High Court, the family continued to live in this home.

He was knighted in 1928.

In 1930 Labour Prime Minister James Scullin appointed a now rather elderly Sir Isaac Isaacs to the position of Chief Justice. But he wasn’t in the position for a year when Scullin radically decided to appoint an Australian citizen, any suitable Australian, into the vice-regal position of Governor-General. A politician could come from any background, but since the GG personally represented the king or queen in Australia,  every Governor-General in our history had to have been British!

Scullin offered the post to Isaacs. Isaacs reflected or promoted the developing nationalism and centralism in Australia; he influenced the balance of power towards the Commonwealth and away from the individual states. It was a wonderful time to be an Australian, but Conservatives were not well pleased with the appointment. Neither was King George V who thought that only a British G-G could represent the crown.

Government House Canberra, 1927

The new Governor-General and his family left Melbourne and moved to the national capital, Canberra.

Only a few years earlier (January 1925), the Federal Cabinet had finally agreed to fit out the existing homestead at Yarralumla as a vice-regal residence in Canberra. The first enlargement consisted of the addition of another three-storey block, which you can see in the photo, behind the one already there. The two parts were connected by a wide hallway and a new entrance was created between the gables of the old south front. The results were decent enough to allow the Duke and Duchess of York to stay there when they came to open the new Houses of Parliament in May 1927.

The interiors of the refurbished house, along with much of their furniture, were designed by Ruth Lane Poole, of the Federal Capital Commission. They were in keeping with the prevailing "stripped-classical style", with more formal interiors provided for the official reception rooms, and a lighter scheme prevailing in the private residential rooms. Although the house was set amid 54 hectares of parkland, the house was still small in comparison to Government House in Melbourne where the governor-generals had lived prior to the move to Canberra.

Lord Stonehaven had been the first governor-general to live for part of his term in Government House Canberra aka Yarralumla, but in January 1931 Sir Isaac Isaacs achieved three important honours. Firstly he became the first Australian-born Governor General. Secondly he was the first governor-general to live at Government House in Canberra for his entire 5-year term (1931-6). Thirdly he was the first Jewish vice-regal representative in the whole British Empire, an empire that covered a third of the globe.

Many vice-regal families mumbled and grumbled about the space available for official entertaining. But plans for a much grander and more permanent home for the governor general didn’t become real until much later, given the terrible economic times during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the even greater threats Australia's security during WW2.

Sir Isaac Isaacs died in 1948 and was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery.


diane b said...

An interesting history lesson. I didn't realise we had an Australian born Governor General so long ago, I thought it was only in recent times.
Coincidentally, I did a post about NSW Govt House but with less knowledgable information.

Hels said...


the sad truth is that history education in our schools and universities might be have been top class, but there was a huge gap in Australian history. I could speak for hours about British, French, German, Dutch, Italian history etc etc, but not about my own. How embarrassing.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
We are always endlessly fascinated to read about the lives of others and particularly enjoy a glimpse into the more domestic side of people who have lived their lives mainly in the public eye. For that reason, this post which shows and describes these wonderful Edwardian houses has a special appeal.

Andrew said...

He was Jewish wasn't he? It puzzles me as to how he came to such exalted positions when Jews were blatantly discriminated surely into the sixties? Not acceptable as a member at the Melbourne Club?

I have learnt about him post school. He certainly wasn't hanging around Mesopotamia.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I love poking around the private homes of famous people, even small rural huts of 19th century writers who only later became famous.

The Edwardian home in Melbourne was lovely although it has been a bit neglected in the last 100 years. It was big enough for a growing family and modern in that special Edwardian taste, but not over the top. Isaacs seemed a modest man, very close to his elderly mum who must have stayed in the Hawthorn house often.

Hels said...


when I read your comment, I went back into my post and added this tidbit:

Firstly he became the first Australian-born Governor General. Secondly .... Thirdly he was the first Jewish vice-regal representative in the whole British Empire, an empire that covered a third of the globe.

Not bad for the son of a Polish tailor!

By the way it is said King George V was very reluctant to have a governor-general who was not British, not from an aristocratic family and not a Christian. But clearly the king eventually approved Isaac's appointment.

peter said...

Helen --

Apparently, King George V was more than reluctant to appoint a Jewish GG. He initially balked, and asked the Australian Prime Minister to give him the names of three potential candidates rather than the usual one. Scullin, cleverly, responded with three Jewish names, among whom was General Sir John Monash, created a field-marshall on the battlefields of WW I. George V had no choice but to appoint Isaacs.

Hels said...


Thank you. That is such a lovely story, I would be delighted if it were true. The idea of a Labour Prime Minister saying to the British king that "this is our choice; shove it up your jumper" appeals to be enormously.

The right to advise the monarch on who the nation wanted, and to be sure that the advice would be accepted, was soon taken up by all the other Prime Ministers in the British Empire.

Think of the timing. The Statute of Westminster 1931 and the formal separation of the crowns of the Dominions came IMMEDIATELY after the Isaac Isaacs kerfuffle.

Carole said...

Nice blog. You might like to see my post about the Picasso exhibition in Sydney. It finishes on the 25th March. http://caroleschatter.blogspot.co.nz/2012/03/picasso-exhibition-art-gallery-of-new.html

Hels said...


shame it finishes so early. I will ring the AGNSW and see if they have a catalogue for sale.

Many thanks.

peter said...

Helen --

You may be interested that there were several Jewish political leaders in the colonial period: Vaiben Solomon was Premier of South Australia (1899), and Julius Vogel was Prime Minister of New Zealand (1873-1875). Later, Francis Bell (1925) and John Key (2008-) have been two New Zealand PMs of Jewish descent.

Roy Welensky, who was PM of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1956-1963), was also of Jewish (and Afrikaaner) descent.

Another very interesting person was George Waterhouse, premier of South Australia (1861-1863) and Prime Minister of New Zealand (1872-1873). What an interesting career!

Hels said...


that is such an interesting observation, thank you. And it reminds me that I should have been more explicit about the difference between an elected politician and a vice regal head of state.

Politician were elected by their electorate because they were energetic, ideologically sound, learned, well connected etc. Thus they were going to come from all sorts of backgrounds.

Your example, Vaiben Solomon, was such a politician. Plus he was a member of Australia's 1897Federation Convention and the group that framed the Australian Constitution!

But a vice regal appointment was very different. In 1930, during the reign of King George V, Sir Isaac Isaacs was appointed as the first Australian-born, non-aristocratic and non-Christian Governor-General! His appointment triggered large scale opposition.

King George V himself was opposed to the appointment of a local man instead of an appointee from Britain, who could better unite the Empire. King George said that an Australian appointee could not be politically impartial and would jeopardise the ties of Empire. He
felt that the Government had weakened every tie that bound Australia to the Mother Country and that held the Empire together.

Nicholas V. said...

A truly great Australian! Wonderful tribute, Hels.

Hels said...


thanks. I wrote this post because the prime minister James Scullin was pretty impressive when he decided to appoint an Australian citizen into the vice-regal position of Governor-General.

And because Scullin made a great choice in appointing Sir Isaac Isaacs. Isaacs influenced the balance of power towards the Commonwealth and promoted a more vigorous notion of modern nationalism. [Plus I am very partial to scholars and linguists, rather than yobs].

Me said...

It's so interesting to read this information.
Have been meaning to look up information on Sir Isaac Isaacs for so long but finally decided to google information now cos my kids asked me too.
They want to learn a little about our background.
Have always been told that Sir Isaac Isaacs is my great great relative my whole life.
I have always found this interesting but looking up info is so much easier these days.

Hels said...


I really hope you turn out to be a direct descendant of Sir Isaac Isaacs. My ancestors were interesting enough, but certainly not famous.

I have passed his Hawthorn home many times but I couldn't get in to photograph inside. Are any photos of the interior available, do you know?