Article by Catherine Hennessey, C.M.

I
t was an ambitious act in 1829 for a colony the size of Prince Edward Island to authorize the appointment of commissioners to negotiate a loan for the purpose of erecting a Government House. Their efforts were successful. By June 1832 a contract was awarded to build the house now called Fanningbank. It remains to this day the pride of Islanders. Up until that time the Lieutenant-Governor had lived in “hired houses and in which there is no furniture of any description.” So wrote Aretas Young, the colony’s sixth Lieutenant-Governor and who was to be the first incumbent in the new house. His letter was no doubt an exaggeration and would be one of many efforts at lobbying for the appropriate furnishings for his new residence. In a further step he appointed five commissioners to direct the purchasing of furnishings for the six public rooms with an approved budget of 1000 pounds.


The social life in this small colonial town centred around the government, the military garrison and the prominent families. Most of these families had strong ties to England and they travelled back and forth. The English mails were awaited with great interest. Lieutenant-Governors played a key role in this arrangement. Most were appointed after an active military or diplomatic career. Young himself moved in circles that would confirm his commitment to gracious living.

Whether the inventory itself was developed by the commissioners or by Young himself we will never know. The commissioners did report that they “unanimously agreed to the inventory of furniture”, but it could be more than a coincidence that Aretas Young just happened to be in London that summer when the furnishings were ordered. Any good furnishing shop could have assisted. The details of the inventory were very up-to-date and reflect a decorative understanding that is surprising. Take for example the fifteen pieces of glazed figured paper for the drawing room or the brussels carpets, or the antique ormolu spout lamp and especially the bell pulls and tassels. All in addition to the well-described pieces of fine furniture. It hardly seems likely that the five commissioners back on Prince Edward Island had such decorative awareness.

It was John Bainbridge Esq., the Colonial Agent in London who placed the order with Thomas and George Seddon, Cabinet Makers and Upholsterers. The third generation of this furniture manufacturing business was one of importance in the London scene and obviously one that was able to provide almost all furnishing amenities. Their grandfather had established his complete cabinet manufacturing business in 1753 on Aldersgate Street, one of the addresses mentioned in Bainbridge’s 1834 invoice to the firm. Their work in the refurnishing of Windsor Castle resulted in their being awarded the Royal Warrant in 1832. The firm petered out in 1868. Its impact on Colonial North America has yet to be studied.

The furnishings arrived in Charlottetown in October 1834 in excellent condition. There was a small cost
overrun, but the commissioners were pleased with their effort. One of them had noted that if the furniture
was taken care of it would last for forty years. He’d be surprised today to see how well some of it has survived. One dissenting member of the legislature pointed out that “it was a disgrace in the present embarrassed state of the colony to lavish one seventh of the colony’s revenue on the furnishing of Government House.”

That any of the original inventory of furniture still
remains in the house is a miracle. During the First World
War the furniture was removed, the house vacated and
converted into a hospital for returning soldiers. For the
next dozen years the future of the property was in
question. It became an agriculture and technical
school for a while and the Canadian National Railway
lobbied intensely to have it demolished for the site
of a new CN Hotel in the town. The truth is that
during that period there was a strong push to rid the
province of the financial burden of the property.
Islanders must give credit to Frank Heartz, the Island’s
twenty-fifth Lieutenant-Governor for having the
house and the existing furniture brought back to
their official use.

Today nine pieces listed in the original inventory of
furniture are still in the house; the dining room table
and sideboard, two seven-foot stuffed sofas, a mahogany
loo table, two card tables and two pier glasses. This is
an important collection of Seddon and Seddon work,
not labelled, but very well documented. Over the years
many changes have taken place in the furnishings
of the house and naturally many appropriate pieces
have been added to the collection. In 1969 a
Government House Committee was established to
oversee the care of the house and its furnishings.
It consists of the Lieutenant-Governor, a representative
from the Department of Public Works and six members
at large who are appointed by the PEI Museum and
Heritage Foundation.

Although practical improvements have been
many, the architectural integrity of this Regency house
has always been respected and the furnishings carefully
catalogued and watched over. The Committee has
consistently recognized the importance of making a
place of comfort for the incumbents while recognizing
the house as an important Island architectural treasure.
The inventory that was supplied by Seddon and
Seddon for Government House in Charlottetown is
a provincial and national treasure and should be
recognized as such. Let us hope that this story helps
create a greater understanding of the decorative arts
in nineteenth-century Canada.

Charlottetown-born Catherine Hennessey is an historian and
heritage activist.

Image: Inventory of Government House
Journal of the House of Assembly, 1835, Appendix C, page 2, RG3s1ss2
Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island