Alcock, Rutherford (DNB01)

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ALCOCK, Sir RUTHERFORD (1809–1897), diplomatist in China and Japan, born in 1809, was the son of Thomas Alcock, a medical man practising at Ealing, and was himself educated for that profession. For a time he was house surgeon at Westminster Hospital, and in 1832 he was appointed surgeon to the British-Portuguese forces operating in Portugal. In 1836 he was transferred to the marine brigade engaged in the Carlist war in Spain, and so highly were his services valued that, though he remained only a year with his force, he became deputy inspector-general of hospitals. On his return to England he resumed medical work as lecturer in surgery at Sydenham College. But service abroad had fascinated him, and in 1844, in response to an application for service in China, he was nominated consul at Fuchow, one of the ports newly opened to trade by the treaty of 1842. On his way to his new post he was detained at Amoy, where, in the absence of the consul, his services were requisitioned. Here, with the assistance of Sir Harry Smith Parkes [q. v.], he did some excellent work by bringing home to the minds of the Chinese officials that treaties were solemn engagements, and not so many promises that were to be whittled away at the will of the mandarins. After a year and a half's residence at Fuchow he was transferred to Shanghai, whither Parkes followed him.

Alcock had not been long at his new post when an incident occurred which well illustrated his courage and determination. Three missionaries in pursuit of their work had been attacked and grievously ill-treated by a crowd of junkmen out of work. As the tao-t'ai showed little inclination to punish the rioters, Alcock proclaimed that no duties would be paid by English ships, and that not one of the fourteen hundred grain junks which were waiting to sail northwards would be allowed to leave its anchorage until the criminals had been seized and punished. Though at this time there were fifty war junks in the harbour and only one British sloop-of-war, the bold threat had the desired effect; the rioters were punished and the grain junks were allowed to sail. Under his direction the municipal regulations for the government of the British settlement at Shanghai were established, and the foundations of the vast city which has since arisen on the shores of the Wongpoo river were laid.

The services which Alcock had rendered at this new port marked him out for promotion, and in 1858 he was appointed the first consul-general in Japan, on the conclusion of Lord Elgin's treaty. Alcock proceeded at once to Tokio. The admission of foreigners into the country had produced a wild ferment among the military classes of Japan, a spirit which was not long in showing itself in its fiercest aspects. Several foreigners were murdered in the streets of Tokio, and Alcock's Japanese linguist was cut down by a swordsman at the gates of the legation. Not content with these isolated onslaughts the discontented Ronins determined to make a general attack upon the British legation. Without any warning, on the night of 5 July 1801, they scaled the outer fence, killed the gatekeeper and a groom, and rushed towards the rooms occupied by the members of the legation. These defended themselves so well that they beat off their assailants. In the following year Alcock returned to England on leave. He had already been created a C.B., and was now made a knight commander of the Bath on 19 June 1862. On 28 March he received the honorary degree of D.C.L. from the university of Oxford. In 1864 he returned to Tokio. Here troublous times were in store for him, and it was mainly due to his influence that the battle of Shimonoseki, which opened the Straits to foreign ships, was fought.

In 1865 Alcock left Japan on being appointed minister-plenipotentiary at Peking. There he conducted many delicate and difficult negotiations with the Tsungli-yamen, and the spirit in which Alcock conducted the negotiations was sufficiently illustrated by the remark Prince Kung made to him, that 'if England would only take away her opium and her missionaries the relations between the two countries would be everything that could be desired.' In 1871 Sir Rutherford resigned his post at Peking and retired from the service, settling in London. In his retirement he greatly interested himself in hospital nursing establishments, in promotion of which his medical knowledge proved effective. He served as president of the Geographical Society (1876–8) and vice-president of the Royal Asiatic Society (1875–1878), and was an active supporter of many charitable institutions.

Sir Rutherford died without issue at his residence, 14 Great Queen Street, London, on 2 Nov. 1897. He married first, on 17 May 1841, Henrietta Mary (d. 1853), daughter of Charles Bacon; and secondly, on 8 July 1862, Lucy (d. 1899), widow of the Rev. T. Lowder, British chaplain at Shanghai. Two portraits of Alcock are reproduced in Michie's 'Englishman in China,' one from a drawing made in 1843 by L. A. de Fabeck, and the other from a photograph taken about 1880.

Alcock was author of:

  1. 'Notes on the Medical History and Statistics of the British Legion in Spain,' London, 1838, 8vo.
  2. 'Life's Problems,' 2nd edit. London, 1861, 8vo.
  3. 'Elements of Japanese Grammar,' Shanghai, 1861, 4to.
  4. 'The Capital of the Tycoon,' London, 1863, 2 vols. 8vo.
  5. 'Familiar Dialogues in Japanese, with English and French Translations,' London, 1863, 8vo.
  6. 'Art and Art Industries in Japan,' London, 1878, 8vo.

He also in 1876 edited the 'Diary' of Augustus Raymond Margary [q. v.]

[S. L. Poole and F. V. Dickins's Life of Sir Harry Parkes, 2 vols. 1892; The Englishman in China during the Victorian Era, by Alexander Michie, 1900; personal knowledge.]

R. K. D.