Escombe, Harry (DNB01)

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ESCOMBE, HARRY (1838–1899), premier of Natal, the son of Robert Escombe of Chelsea, who was of a family of Somersetshire yeomen, and of Anne, his wife, was born at Netting Hill, London, on 25 July 1838, and educated at St. Paul's school, which he entered in 1847 and left in 1855 to enter the office of a stockbroker. In 1859 he emigrated to the Cape, and early in 1860 went on to Natal, where he obtained employment under (Sir) John Robinson (afterwards first premier of the colony) as bookkeeper in the office of the 'Natal Mercury;' afterwards he went into the employ of Hermon Salomon, general agent, at Pietermaritzburg. He then commenced business on his own account in Durban, but did not succeed, and so decided to qualify himself as an attorney-at-law. He first became partner with J. D. Davis, and later with W. Shepstone, finally founding a firm of his own. In Natal, as in the United States and elsewhere, the solicitor is also advocate, and Escombe rapidly became successful in the courts till he was recognised as the first pleader in Natal, and was always employed in cases of importance. Later he was appointed solicitor and standing counsel for Durban.

In 1872 Escombe was elected for Durban as a member of the old mixed legislative council; he was at the time absent in Zululand at the crowning of Cetywayo. At the next general election in August 1873 he was again re-elected, but resigned when the council met. In the next year he was in England, and acted as immigration agent for the colony. He served with the Durban rifles through the Zulu campaign of 1879-80, and gained a medal. In November 1879 he was again elected for Durban to the legislative council, and a year later was also placed on the executive council, when he came out as the strong opponent of responsible government, in this respect working with Sir Henry Binns [q. v. Suppl.] In 1880 he obtained by his personal influence the enactment of the law constituting the Natal harbour board, and as chairman of the board he began at once to interest himself in the question of harbour accommodation at Durban, with which his name is specially connected. In 1881 he served through the Transvaal war with the royal Durban rifles. In 1882, in the elections for the legislative council, he opposed Sir John Robinson in his campaign for reform, but soon afterwards his views as regards responsible government underwent a change. Consequently in 1883 he ceased to be a member of the executive council. In 1885 he lost his seat in the legislature. In March 1886 he was delegate to a conference with the Orange Free State, held at Harrismith, on customs, the post office, and other questions. The same year he was re-elected to the council as member for Newcastle.

In 1887-8 Escombe was in England for some time, but hurried out to Natal to defend Dinizulu against the charge of rebellion, conducting the case with entire success. Soon after this he was asked to return to England and enter parliament in the liberal interest, but declined. Later, in 1888, he was elected again to the council as member for Klip River district, but in 1890 became member for Durban, which he continued to represent in future.

On the advent of responsible government Escombe became on 10 Oct. 1893 attorney-general in Sir John Robinson's ministry, and was appointed Q.C. He was during the following years chiefly connected with the policy of developing at all costs the commercial capacities of the colony; and some thought that he was inclined to sacrifice agricultural interests. On 15 Feb. 1897, when Sir John Robinson's health had broken down, Escombe became premier, combining with the office of attorney-general those of minister of education and minister of defence. One of his first measures was the passing of the Natal act for restraining unsatisfactory immigration. In June 1897 he joined the other premiers of colonies in London to celebrate the queen's sixtieth year of rule. Be was at this time one of the most influential men in the whole of South Africa. Shortly after his return to Natal he had to face the constituencies and was beaten ; accordingly, in September 1897, not without some satisfaction, as the treble work which he was doing had told upon him, he resigned office and made way for a new ministry under Sir Henry Binns. He did not go into opposition, but maintained an independent attitude.

On the outbreak of the Boer war in October 1899 Escombe went up to the northern part of the colony to encourage the inhabitants, and remained in or near Newcastle till the Boers pressed down and occupied that part of the colony. He hoped to the end that better counsels would prevail and that a permanent friendly understanding would be established. Shortly after his return to Durban he died suddenly on 27 Dec. 1899.

Escombe was tall and of commanding mien. In speech he was eloquent; in argument quick and searching. He was a chess player, and fond of astronomy, on which, as well as other subjects, he occasionally lectured at the Durban institute and elsewhere. (See Sir John Robinson, Life and Times in South Africa, p. xxix.) He was a keen volunteer, joined the royal Durban rifles in 1860, and became cornet in 1868; he was one of the founders and the first commander of the Natal naval volunteers; for many years up to the time when he became premier he joined them in their annual encampment. But his name will chiefly be remembered in connection with the formation of the port of Durban, which owes its successful completion entirely to Escombe's persistence, in the face of many obstacles. He was made a privy councillor in 1897, and an honorary LL.D. of Cambridge at the same time.

Escombe married in 1865 Theresa, daughter of Dr. William Garbutt Taylor of Durban, and left four daughters; a son died young.

[Natal Mercury, 28 Dec. 1899; South Africa, 30 Dec. 1899.]

C. A. H.