Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Northcote, Henry Stafford

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NORTHCOTE, HENRY STAFFORD, Baron Northcote of Exeter (1846–1911), governor-general of the Australian commonwealth, born on 18 Nov. 1846 at 13 Devonshire St., Portland Place, London, was second son of Sir Stafford Henry Northcote, first earl of Iddesleigh [q.v.]; his mother was Cecilia Frances, daughter of Thomas Farrer, and sister of Thomas Farrer, first Lord Farrer. He went to Eton in 1858 and Merton College, Oxford, in 1865, graduating B.A. in 1869 and proceeding M.A. in 1873. On leaving Oxford he was appointed to a clerkship in the foreign office on 18 March 1868. In Feb. 1871 he was attached to the joint high commission, of which his father was one of the members and which sat at Washington from Feb. to May 1871, to consider the Alabama claims and other outstanding questions between Great Britain and the United States. The negotiation having resulted in the Treaty of Washington of 8 May 1871, he became secretary to the British member of the claims commission which was constituted under the 12th article of that treaty, and assistant to the British claims agent in the general business of the commission. The commission sat at Washington from Sept. 1871 to Sept. 1873. In Nov. 1876 Northcote became an acting third secretary in the diplomatic service. When Lord Salisbury went as British plenipotentiary to the Constantinople conference at the end of 1876, Northcote accompanied him as private secretary. In Feb. 1877 he was made assistant private secretary to his father, who was then chancellor of the exchequer, and he was private secretary from October 1877 to 15 Mar. 1880. On that date he resigned the public service to stand in the conservative interest for Exeter, the city near which the home of his family lay. He was duly elected and represented Exeter in the House of Commons from 1880 till 1899. From June 1885 till Feb. 1886, in Lord Salisbury's short first government, he was financial secretary to the war office. In Lord Salisbury's second government he held the post of surveyor-general of ordnance from August 1886 to Dec. 1887, resigning his appointment in order to facilitate changes at the war office. He had been given the C.B. in 1880, and in Nov. 1887, after his father's death, he was made a baronet. He was a charity commissioner in 1891-2, and in 1898 was appointed a royal commissioner for the Paris Exhibition of 1900. He was also for a time chairman of the Associated Chambers of Commerce, and became well known and much trusted in business circles. In 1899 he was appointed to be governor of Bombay, and in Jan. 1900 he was raised to the peerage with the title of Baron Northcote of the city of Exeter, next month being made G.C.I.E.

On 17 Feb. 1900 Lord Northcote landed at Bombay, where he served as governor for three and a half years. His tenure of office was marked by 'a famine of unprecedented severity, incessant plague, an empty exchequer, and bad business years generally' (Times of India, 5 Sept. 1903). Famine did not completely disappear till 1902-3, and plague was still rife when Northcote left India. He faced the situation with self-denying energy. Immediately on arrival at Bombay he inspected the hospitals, including the plague hospitals, and within a month of his landing went to Gujarat, where the peasantry were in sore straits from the effects of the famine. The district of Gujarat depended largely upon its fine breed of cattle which was in danger of dying out from scarcity of fodder, and one great result of the governor's visit was the establishment, largely on his initiative, of the cattle farm at Charodi, known as the Northcote Gowshala, to preserve and improve the breed. His sympathy with and interest in the small cultivators of the Bombay Presidency were shown by what was perhaps the chief legislative measure of his government, the passing of the Bombay Land Revenue Code Amendment Act, which aroused much criticism on its introduction in 1901. The object of the act was to protect the cultivators in certain famine-stricken districts of the Presidency against the money-lenders, by wiping out the arrears of revenue due from the holder on condition of his holding being forfeited to the government, and then restored to him as occupier on an inalienable tenure. He took other steps in the direction of land revenue reform, doing much to bring the somewhat rigid traditional policy of the Bombay government into harmony with the views of the government of India. In municipal matters, too, he made improvements, though the most important municipal act passed in his time — the District Municipalities Act, by which local self-government in the Moffussil was much enlarged — was a legacy from his predecessor, Lord Sandhurst. Northcote travelled widely through the Bombay Presidency, and he paid a visit to Aden. He was a warm supporter of schools and hospitals, but his efforts were hampered by the impoverished state of the public finances. 'So far as he was able, Lord Northcote drew on his privy purse for money which the State should have furnished, and especially in the administration of relief and in the assistance of charitable undertakings was he able to take a more personally active part than any of his predecessors' (Bombay Gazette Budget, 29 Aug. 1903). He was present in 1903 at the Coronation Durbar which celebrated the accession of King Edward VII. When he left India on 5 Sept. 1903 the viceroy, Lord Curzon, expressed the general feeling, in the message 'Bombay and India are losing one of the most sympathetic and sagacious governors that they have known.'

On 29 Aug. 1903 Northcote had been appointed Governor-General of the commonwealth of Australia. On 21 Jan. 1904, when he was made a G.C.M.G., he was sworn in at Sydney, and he remained in Australia for nearly four years and eight months. Northcote's task in Australia was no easy one. The Commonwealth came into existence on 1 Jan. 1901, and Northcote had had two predecessors (Lords Hopetoun and Tennyson) in three years. He was thus the first to hold his office for an appreciable length of time, and it fell to him largely to establish the position, and to create traditions. Federation was in its infancy. A national feeling as apart from state interests hardly existed, and the difficulties of the governor-general consisted at the outset in the relations of the states to the Commonwealth with resulting friction and jealousies, and in the absence of two clearly defined parties in Australian politics. Mr. Alfred Deakin was prime minister when Northcote reached Australia, but in April (1904) he was succeeded by the labour prime minister of Australia, Mr. John Christian Watson. In the following August Mr. (now Sir) George Reid became prime minister, and in July 1905 Mr. Deakin once more came into office and held it for the rest of Lord Northcote's term. In India Northcote had learnt the difficulty of harmonising the views of the government of a province with those of the central government, and his Indian experience therefore stood him in good stead when called upon to reconcile the claims of Commonwealth and states in Australia, while his earlier foreign office and political training qualified him to deal with political life. In Australia, as in India, he travelled widely. He was determined, as the head of a self-governing Commonwealth, to identify himself with the people in all parts of Australia. During his term of office he travelled through the greater part of every state, visited most county towns, every mining centre, the great pastoral and agricultural districts; and succeeded in obtaining a grasp of the industrial work and Hfe of the people. He averaged in travelling over 10,000 miles a year by land and sea. Especially he made a tour in the Northern Territory and called pubhc attention to this little known and somewhat neglected part of the continent. In Sydney and Melbourne he visited every factory of importance, while in social life, and in the support of institutions and movements for the public good, he won respect and affection. He laid stress on the importance of defence and of encouraging immigration for the development of the land. Thus amid somewhat shifting politics, by his sincerity and straightforwardness, he attached to the office of governor-general a high standard of public usefulness. His speeches were dignified, enlivened by humour, and excellently delivered. His ample means enabled him to exercise a generous hospitality and a wide benevolence.

After his return from Australia in the autumn of 1908 Northcote took a considerable though not a very prominent part in public life up to the time of his death. He spoke on occasion in the House of Lords, and welcomed to his home visitors from the dominions beyond the seas. He had a singular power of attracting affection, and his good judgment, coupled with entire absence of self-interest, made him a man of many friends. In 1909 he was made a privy councillor, and at the Coronation of King George V he carried the banner of Australia. He died at Eastwell Park, Ashford, Kent, on 29 Sept. 1911, and was buried at Upton Pynes, near Exeter. He married on 2 Oct. 1873 Alice, the adopted daughter of Lord Mount Stephen. He had no issue and the peerage became extinct. A portrait of Northcote, painted by A. S. Cope, R.A., is in possession of Lady Northcote at 25 St. James's Place, London, S.W.

[The Times, 30 Sept. 1911; Foreign Office List; Lovat Fraser, India under Curzon and after, 1911; private sources.]

C. P. L.