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Gowrie, first Earl of (1872–1955)

by Chris Cunneen and Deirdre Morris

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

first Earl of Gowrie (1872-1955), by unknown photographer, 1935-45

first Earl of Gowrie (1872-1955), by unknown photographer, 1935-45

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23338321

Sir Alexander Gore Arkwright Hore-Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie (1872-1955), governor-general, was born on 6 July 1872 at Windsor, England, second son of Walter James Hore-Ruthven, 8th Baron Ruthven, and his wife Lady Caroline Annesley, née Gore, daughter of the 4th Earl of Arran. The family was Scottish. Registered as Alexander Harry Gore Ruthven and known throughout his life as 'Sandie', Alexander was educated at Winchester and Eton. In 1892 he joined the militia (3rd Battalion Highland Light Infantry), in 1893 visited Canada and in 1898 travelled to Egypt. Temporarily attached to the Egyptian Army, he commanded the Slavery Department Camel Corps and for rescuing a wounded Egyptian officer from the Dervishes on 22 September he won the first Victoria Cross to be awarded to a militia officer. In May next year he was gazetted to the Cameron Highlanders but remained in Egypt for the Sudan campaign—he was mentioned in dispatches three times. He was special-service officer in Somaliland in 1903-04, then rejoined the Cameron Highlanders in Dublin. In 1904-08 he was military secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Dudley, and his successor Lord Aberdeen.

On 1 June 1908 at St George's, Hanover Square, London, he married Zara Eileen (1879-1965), daughter of John Pollok and his wife the Honourable Florence Madeline, née Bingham. Zara had been born at Lismany, Galway, Ireland, on 20 January 1879. Her family opposed the marriage, regarding Hore-Ruthven, he later wrote, as 'the impecunious son of an impoverished family, with indifferent prospects'. In July 1908 as military secretary, he rejoined Dudley, newly appointed governor-general of Australia. They arrived in Sydney in September.

In 1909 Hore-Ruthven returned to England to join Kitchener's staff and accompanied him on his tour of Australia. Next year he was appointed to Quetta Staff College in India. When war was declared in 1914 he became Arabic interpreter to the Meerut Division which sailed to France. A major in the Welsh Guards from April 1915, he fought at Gallipoli, was severely wounded at Suvla in August and returned to England. In 1917 he served in France, joining the Guards division. Next year he was brigadier-general, 7th Army Corps, until its decimation in March 1918, and in July he took command of the Highland Brigade of the 9th Division. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order with Bar, was appointed C.M.G. in 1918 and C.B. in 1919 and was mentioned in dispatches five times.

In 1920-24 Hore-Ruthven commanded the Welsh Guards, and in 1924-28 the 1st Brigade of Guards at Aldershot. In May 1926 his troops were stationed in London during the general strike.

Retiring from the army in 1928, Hore-Ruthven became governor of South Australia, and was appointed K.C.M.G. He arrived in Adelaide in May. Active and enthusiastic, he travelled the State by Moth aeroplane. He was an enthusiast for the Boy Scout and his wife for the Girl Guide movements. She was also president of the State branch of the Red Cross Society and was associated with the Victoria League. In a 1930 Anzac Day speech Hore-Ruthven expressed sympathy for returned soldiers 'suffering hardship and deprivation owing to the misguided leadership of a few hot-headed irresponsible [strikers]'. The United Trades and Labor Council censured him. As early as February 1931 he privately urged Governor Sir Philip Game of New South Wales to dismiss Jack Lang. In London on leave during 1933 he helped mediate in the cricket 'body-line crisis'.

Hore-Ruthven's term of office, extended to April 1934, saw the rise and fall of the Lionel Hill government. In 1934 the British secretary of state for the Dominions J. H. Thomas, observing that Hore-Ruthven had 'done extremely well' in Adelaide, claimed that Hill's 'firm attitude' during the financial crisis had been 'largely due to the Governor's influence'. Hill and his followers were expelled from the Labor Party; the governor's speeches commonly expressed the need for politicians to rise above party.

On his return to England Hore-Ruthven was selected as governor of New South Wales and arrived in Sydney on 21 February 1935. But while in London he had already been sounded by the King about appointment as governor-general, and on 23 January 1936 he assumed that office, succeeding Sir Isaac Isaacs. At the suggestion of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons he had been created Baron Gowrie of Canberra and Dirleton; in December 1935 he was appointed G.C.M.G. Gowrie was conscious that as an 'imported' governor-general following an Australian his exercise of office would be under intense critical scrutiny. He believed that he should 'try and reestablish the dignity of the office and ensure the proper performance of the social and official duties without causing undue criticism on account of the extra expense involved'. Possessing only a small private income, he found the cost a strain. He faced no constitutional crises until the death of Lyons in April 1939, when Gowrie's action in commissioning Sir Earle Page, after having obtained privately the advice of Billy Hughes, was uncontroversial. He planned to relinquish office in September, and the Duke of Kent was named as his successor. But on the outbreak of war Gowrie's appointment was continued, in the first instance for an additional year.

In 1941 Gowrie was privately apprehensive of the new Curtin government, but he quickly became close to the prime minister. His military experience enabled him to contribute to discussions of Australia's conduct of the war and he was closely involved with the visits, sometimes clandestine, of military figures. During both General Douglas MacArthur's and Mrs Roosevelt's visits he took part in briefings. Bert Evatt, later paying tribute to Gowrie's 'great strength', observed that he was 'a splendid counsellor to Cabinet Ministers during World War II'.

Lady Gowrie, too, was tireless in her work. She organized concerts and Government House fêtes to raise money for the war effort, set up a soldiers' club in Canberra and lent her support to the establishment of what became known as the Lady Gowrie kindergartens. Her 1941 New Year's Day radio broadcast to the women of Australia calling for 'hope and courage' was followed by a similar message next year from Lord Gowrie. Their only surviving son Patrick was killed in action in 1942; next year a collection of his poetry was published. Despite Gowrie's ill health and their desire to see their grandsons they were persuaded to stay on for another two years. In 1943 a Gowrie scholarship trust fund was set up for ex-service personnel and their children.

They left Australia on 10 September 1944; officially his appointment continued until he was succeeded by the Duke of Gloucester on 30 January 1945. Gowrie's nine years is a record term as governor-general. In 1945 he was created earl, and until 1953 was deputy constable and lieutenant-governor of Windsor Castle. He was president of the Marylebone Cricket Club in 1948. 'Tallish and spare of build, lightly moustached, with a soldier's trimness without a general's portentous carriage', Gowrie had an attractive personality and a capacity for getting on with fellows who were useful to know. Though he had sailed close to the wind in Adelaide at a time of political turmoil, his term in Canberra, particularly during war years when patriotism ran high, was dignified and successful. Gowrie died in Gloucestershire on 2 May 1955, survived by his wife, who died on 19 July 1965, and by two grandsons. A portrait by Charles Wheeler hangs in Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 25 Apr, 3, 6 May 1930
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Feb 1933, 18 Jan 1945, 4 May 1955
  • Herald (Melbourne), 15 Aug 1935
  • Times (London), 4 May 1955
  • Gowrie papers, MS 2852, and DO 35/444/20110A/9 (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Chris Cunneen and Deirdre Morris, 'Gowrie, first Earl of (1872–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gowrie-first-earl-of-6441/text11023, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 30 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

first Earl of Gowrie (1872-1955), by unknown photographer, 1935-45

first Earl of Gowrie (1872-1955), by unknown photographer, 1935-45

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23338321

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ruthven, Sir Alexander Gore Arkwright Hore-
  • Hore-Ruthven, Sir Alexander Gore Arkwright
  • Gowrie, first Baron
Birth

6 July 1872
Windsor, Berkshire, England

Death

2 May 1955
Gloucestershire, England

Cultural Heritage
Occupation