One of the most persistent rumours circulating about Government House is that a moat was constructed around the building to keep out snakes.
“The moat,” reads Paul O’Neill’s 1975 book Everyman’s Complete St. John’s Guide, “is said to be the only one surrounding a private dwelling in Canada. It was put there by a designer in England who confused Newfoundland with the West Indies, and was intended to protect His Excellency from snakes. There are no reptiles in Newfoundland so the moat was used to provide basement windows.”
The official website of the Lieutenant Governor tells it slightly differently: “The building was to be enclosed within a 12 foot ditch which, popularly mistaken to be a moat, was merely designed as a provision for allowing light into the basement level,” it reads.
Moat or ditch, the building is not without other oddities. Constructed in 1931, windows were placed unevenly, rooms re-sized, and completed chimneys were demolished and re-built in new locations at the last minute to make room for sets of folding doors. Sir Cochrane, the province’s first civil governor, claimed local workers’ fees were too high, so much of the materials and crew were shipped in from England and Scotland. Enormously expensive to build, the Governor’s residence wound up some £27,000 over budget—roughly three million dollars in today’s money. “The plans furnished by His Excellency are very defective in detail and if they had been made by a professional man the errors in question would not have happened,” remarked Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis, one of the chief Engineers involved at the time.
Historically, moats are either left dry, filled with water, or equipped with sharp sticks or other deterrents. Aside from keeping hordes of people from storming a castle, moats are also a common architectural feature of many zoos. As to whether or not snakes would actually be kept out of such a stately house by a moat, well, most snakes are both able to swim and, like mice, pass through tiny gaps and spaces.
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