Review by Richard Tutin
The Governors of our Australian states are often regarded as mysterious beings. After all, what do they do? What is their purpose? Philip Payton has taken up the challenge of demystifying state governors through this history of the Governors of South Australia.
Though he focuses on only one state he does, in the first chapter, examine the role of the office of Governor. What has occurred in South Australia since the arrival of the first Governor, Captain John Hindmarsh, in 1836 in the development of the vice regal office is very similar to what has occurred in the other Australian states.
The result is a very readable account of each person who has been appointed to the role from Foundation to the present day. He carefully discusses their background and experience in administration as well as looking at their personalities and the way in which they related to the inhabitants of South Australia as it progressed from being a colony through to statehood.
As well as discussing the vice regal incumbents, he also tells the stories of their spouses and family. All this is told against the backdrop of the unfolding history of South Australia’s fortunes and difficulties as it navigated climate and economic challenges along with the very large personalities who held leadership positions in the political life of the colony and state.
While some Governors were very successful and were able to achieve much during their term of appointment, others were not so well received. Payton offers us an impartial and detailed overview of how this disparate group of people responded to the possibilities of the office to influence South Australian life, as well as its limitations as South Australia moved from its colonial roots into responsible government, and subsequently statehood and Federation.
Payton clearly shows that Governors have provided a sense of cohesion, stability and continuity in the State especially during times of crisis. A very important part of the vice regal role is to travel widely across the State meeting people from all walks of life.
He also tells the story of Government House and the other vice regal residences that have provided a very important physical expression of the importance of the office of Governor. Government House, for example, is the second oldest building in Adelaide. As well as providing a home for the Governors and their families, it is also the venue for numerous functions and events that are attended by people from across the South Australian community.
Payton provides a chronicle that tells a human story along with the evolution of an office that is central to the institutional fabric of South Australia. Each Governor has made their unique contribution to South Australia’s development and growth as well being ready to respond when support and encouragement is needed.
This history provides a comprehensive overview of a very distinctive office.
Philip Payton is Professor of History at Flinders University in Adelaide and Emeritus Professor of Cornish and Australian Studies at the University of Exeter, UK. He is the author or editor of sixty books mostly on Australian and Cornish themes.
Vice-Regal: A History of the Governors of South Australia
$39.95; 279 pp.