This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988
Henry Stafford Northcote, Baron Northcote of Exeter (1846-1911), governor-general, was born on 18 November 1846 at Marylebone, London, second son of Sir Stafford Henry Northcote, later 1st earl of Iddesleigh, and his wife Cecilia Frances, née Farrer. Educated from 1858 at Eton, and from 1865 at Merton College, Oxford (B.A. 1869; M.A. 1873), he entered the Foreign Office by examination in 1868 as a clerk. He accompanied a mission to the United States of America to arrange the Alabama Treaty in 1871 and on 2 October 1873 married Alice, adopted daughter of the Canadian railroad tycoon Lord Mount Stephen. Northcote was private secretary to Lord Salisbury in 1876 and in 1877-80 to his father. Conservative member for Exeter in the House of Commons in 1880-99, he achieved minor office as financial secretary to the War Office and surveyor-general of ordnance. In 1899-1903 he was governor of Bombay. Appointed C.B. in 1880 and created baronet in 1887, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Northcote of Exeter in 1900.
In July 1903 Northcote was appointed governor-general of Australia to succeed Lord Tennyson. He was sworn in on 21 January 1904 in Sydney and was appointed G.C.M.G. A spare little man with a dark weather-beaten face and a bushy moustache, to Sir John Forrest he seemed 'slow'. But he became close to the prime minister Alfred Deakin who later praised his 'tactful, patient friendliness and modesty'.
In Federal politics there were 'three elevens in the field'. Deakin resigned in April 1904 and Northcote commissioned Labor leader J. C. Watson to form a government. He had written earlier that though the change would be 'disagreeable' to him personally, experience of office would teach Labor responsibility. Relations with the new ministry were cordial, and there was no rancour when the governor-general refused Labor's request for a dissolution in August. The following July he again refused to dissolve parliament, and Deakin replaced (Sir) George Reid as prime minister.
Northcote claimed an active role in internal Australian politics. He delayed royal assent to the 1904 Arbitration Act, and his supervision of nominations for honours, from both Federal and State governments, led to a wider dispute over the channel of communications between the Australian States and Britain.
He travelled Australia widely, including the Northern Territory, exhibiting that important vice-regal ability of looking cheerful 'upon an unsucculent diet of official addresses'. He was an uninspiring speaker himself. In 1908 he was host to the visiting American fleet, and on 8 September left Australia after a markedly more stable and successful term of office than those of the first two incumbents. In the several important uses of his constitutional functions to dissolve parliament or not and to appoint a prime minister he had acted with cautious good judgement.
Back in England, the Northcotes were prominent 'diehards' in the controversy over reform of the House of Lords. Childless, he died at Ashford, Kent, on 29 September 1911. His portrait by George Coates is at Parliament House, Canberra.
Lady Northcote was a dignified consort. Although generally reticent in public, in 1907 she organized the Australian Exhibition of Women's Work and in 1908 a permanent orchestra trust fund was named after her. In London she was a friendly hostess to visiting Australians, including soldiers, during World War I. She died on 1 June 1934.
Chris Cunneen, 'Northcote, Henry Stafford (1846–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/northcote-henry-stafford-7861/text13659, accessed 22 May 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988