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fourth Earl of Belmore (1835–1913)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

fourth Earl of Belmore, by W. Bradley, 1868

fourth Earl of Belmore, by W. Bradley, 1868

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23198002

fourth Earl of Belmore (1835-1913), governor, was born on 9 April 1835 in London and baptized as Somerset Richard Lowry-Corry, the eldest son of Armar, third earl of Belmore, and Emily Louise, youngest daughter of William Shepherd of Brabourne, Kent. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge (B.A., 1856; M.A., 1857), became fourth earl in December 1845 and took over estates that in 1883 were valued at £11,015 a year and consisted of 14,388 acres (5823 ha) in County Tyrone and 5041 acres (2040 ha) at Castle Coole, the family seat near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. In 1857 he became a representative peer for Ireland, and on 22 August 1861 at St George's, Hanover Square, married Anne Elizabeth Honoria, second daughter of Captain John Neilson Gladstone, R.N., and niece of William Ewart Gladstone. In parliament he served on various committees, including a railways commission and in 1866-67 he was under-secretary for the Home Department and briefly represented the Treasury in the House of Lords.

On 8 January 1868 Belmore became governor of New South Wales. In its first decade responsible government had not advanced to the position where the governor was a mere figurehead. He still had a vital dual role as an imperial officer responsible to the British government and as the Queen's representative heading the colonial government. Britain had obligations for colonial defence and Pacific trade, while New South Wales, with a population of some 450,000, was steadily adopting democratic politics as the traditional leadership by its government developed. The colony's major problems of law reform, land, education, transport and communication, all crystallized around revenue, which had normally come from land sales, leases and low tariffs. In 1864 a drop in wool prices had resulted in the grudging imposition of ad valorem duties and the emergence of loose protectionist groups both in and out of parliament. Belmore, a Conservative and free trader, immediately became involved in colonial affairs through finance, but before any decisive results followed, he was embroiled in the attempted assassination of Prince Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria.

On 12 March 1868 at a fête at Clontarf, the prince was shot in the back by Henry O'Farrell. Belmore was some distance away and did not witness the drama in which he was meant to figure, for O'Farrell later claimed he had a bullet for the governor. But Belmore quickly allayed the commotion, made the prince comfortable and arranged for his prompt transfer to Sydney for treatment. Belmore's cool judgment continued in the Executive Council where he presented the prince's plea for clemency and evidence from a gaol surgeon on O'Farrell's mental state. He was later supported by the Colonial Office for advising caution in the application of the 'unusual powers' of the Treason Felony Act, which James Martin's ministry had pushed through parliament in one day. He discreetly arranged for troops to be alerted but kept out of sight when Irish Catholics met publicly to disown O'Farrell and, when the Orange Lodge wanted to assure him of its loyalty, had it informed that 'His Excellency … thinks there are many strong reasons why a person filling the position of Her Majesty's representative should not, as such, receive addresses from any societies or bodies whatsoever, who are generally understood to be of a political nature'. In this way, with public passions inflamed, the press on edge and his ministry alarmed, Belmore calmly and quickly helped to restore rationality.

By July Belmore could make accurate judgments about O'Farrell's senseless deed. He told Sir George Bowen, governor of New Zealand, that 'the balance of probabilities is in favour of [O'Farrell's] dying statement [that he acted alone]', and that he had reached this opinion after exhaustive tests of an alleged Fenian conspiracy. Belmore wisely assessed Henry Parkes's behaviour in the case and told him in February 1869, 'I can assure you that whilst I have expressed to the Secretary of State my regret at the fact of your having made the speeches and done one or two things [as colonial secretary] which appear to be irregular … I have done full justice to your zeal in the public service and your exertions in doing your duty at a very difficult moment'.

Belmore's reputation for dispassionate analysis was enhanced by his action when the treasurer, Geoffrey Eagar, accused William Duncan, collector of customs, of insubordination and in cabinet demanded his dismissal. Duncan had not accepted ministerial control of his department and Belmore, although seeing the fault clearly, also appreciated the associated problem of accurate assessment of ad valorem duties and the effects of bad feeling between Duncan and Eagar. Duncan submitted to the Executive Council a 'full and ample' apology, which was acceptable to both Belmore and Parkes, but Eagar was adamant and was reluctantly supported by Martin. Belmore did not press the point but Parkes resigned on 17 September 1868 when Duncan was dismissed.

In March 1868 the secretary of state for the colonies had advised Belmore privately that he had nothing to say 'except to hope that you will keep Sydney out of any [constitutional] mess similar to that now existing in Victoria'. By April Belmore had realized the urgency of reform in the peculiar financial procedures of the ministry and Treasury although he was aware that he had a lot to learn about them. The current practice in spending public money was based on executive action supposedly sanctioned by the Constitution Act (18 & 19 Vic. c. 54) rather than on specific Appropriation Acts, however irregularly they had been passed and had legalized payments already made. On 6 July 1869 the treasurer, Saul Samuel, assured Belmore that, provided expenditure was recommended by a minister, the governor could issue a warrant authorizing it without parliamentary vote or resolution; the governor was in effect the 'Comptroller of the Exchequer … responsible solely to Her Majesty, the Ministry to Parliament'. Belmore considered this system illegal and was instructed by the Colonial Office that in strict law the executive must have the approval of both Houses before payments were authorized and that special statutory provision should be made for contingency disbursements. Despite protestations from Samuel that the British government was interfering with 'the principle of Colonial independence', Belmore wanted to see the system altered. In April 1870 he 'addressed a Minute to Ministers (which they have laid before Parliament) couched in as strong and plain terms as I thought prudent, pointing out the necessity … for some change'. In May he forwarded to London a copy of the Audit Act (33 Vic. no. 18) that rectified the position.

In 1868-72 the governor presided at about sixty Executive Council sittings a year and became thoroughly familiar with government business and his various ministers. Samuel's thirty letters to him suggest strongly the influence of Belmore on certain legislation. Charles Cowper was also appreciative of his help. In a private reply to charges by Captain G. Palmer in Kidnapping in The South Seas (Edinburgh, 1871) he denied 'that as the Governor … I was a passive instrument in the hands of my ministers', and went on to explain, 'No doubt my political position was an administrative one, and I could not take the initiative in matters of Government policy. But, still I had in the last resort, the undoubted power of veto in all cases, and in criminal as distinguished from civil business I had a special responsibility'. To the four ministries in his term his policy was prudent tutelage; he astutely observed the leading politicians, detected their mutual friendships and animosities and made sound judgments on the nature of their tortuous politics. In 1868 he had told Sir James Fergusson that his 'Ministers are … apt to act independently of their colleagues … Some ministers try also sometimes to keep the Governor in the dark as to what they intend doing. I think I have observed a sort of jealousy of the Governor's authority, and generally of Imperial authority'. In January 1870 he reported to the Colonial Office 'that support cannot be counted on by a Ministry here, with anything like the certainty that it can be in England', and in December quoted Cowper's opinion that the Legislative Assembly 'is thoroughly disorganised if not demoralized'.

Belmore used his powers with strength and discretion. He jealously guarded the governor's virtual sole rights to the prerogative of mercy but improved procedures in its exercise. He resisted appointments to the Legislative Council beyond the 'maximum' of thirty, although John Robertson had correctly denied any legal limit. He rarely accepted advice on dissolving parliament and in December 1868 told the Colonial Office that he hoped his refusal would stop the practice 'of Ministers acting too often in departmental matters independently of the Governor and each other'.

In imperial matters Belmore was unhindered by his ministers. During his term in New South Wales he had to deal with several cases of kidnapping of Pacific islanders by British subjects. In 1869 he forwarded with approval Sir Alfred Stephen's suggestions for amending imperial legislation on the subject. When the Franco-Prussian war began in 1870 he sent to England details of French troops and armaments in certain parts of the Pacific and, after a protest from the 'North German' consul, decided to give no assurances that French men-of-war would be coaled in the colony. The war also prompted him to give advice to Cowper on the defence of Sydney. He forwarded to the Colonial Office the views of Martin's cabinet on Britain's duty to annex Fiji, and was told that Britain did not agree and that he should deal with King Thakombau's de facto government. After the 1871 intercolonial conference in Melbourne on the colonies' limitations under Britain's imperial treaties, he was confirmed in his opinion that Federation or unification was necessary, but would not come quickly. As governor of Norfolk Island he spent much time and effort in tracing and organizing the accounts.

In 1870 Belmore opened the first Intercolonial Exhibition in Prince Alfred Park. Altogether he made sixteen tours of New South Wales by steamer, buggy and on horseback, and visited Victoria, Tasmania and Norfolk Island. His reports on each tour revealed his special interest in agricultural and pastoral activities. He was an active president of the Agricultural Society and presented £300 to the University of Sydney for a medal in agricultural chemistry and geology; the prize was later converted to a scholarship. In April 1871 he opened the northern railway at Scone, commented ironically on the slow progress of the colony's railroad building and stressed the need for improved communications to help to make Federation possible. He also donated liberally to stained-glass windows for the Muswellbrook Anglican Church.

Belmore was a handsome man of six feet and his wife was tall and dark; they made an impressive vice-regal pair. Lady Belmore found the summers in Sydney oppressive so he rented Throsby Park, near Moss Vale, as a country house and gave the region its fashionable tone. Their first child was still-born, but at Government House on 5 May 1870 Lady Belmore had a son, Armar, Viscount Corry, who later became the fifth earl of Belmore; she had two more sons and ten daughters. Belmore was necessarily careful with his income of £6000 and among some of Sydney's 'society' unjustly won repute for parsimony; according to an intemperate statement in the Bulletin, 20 August 1881, 'Lord Normanby is not the only Irish peer who accepted office as a Colonial Governor for the purpose of relieving his encumbered estates. Lord Belmore came to Australia for a similar laudable purpose and, by diligence, thrift, and the careful raising of cabbages, succeeded in accomplishing his purpose before the usual term expired'. On 26 June 1871 Belmore submitted his resignation to take effect next March. He was worried about his wife's health and wanted to resume his parliamentary career and give more time to his estates, especially 'from the circumstances of recent Irish legislation'. He preferred to return on 'a sailing ship, [which] in an economical point of view is preferable to a mail steamer, especially as I shall not be entitled to passage allowance'. He left Sydney on 21 February 1872.

On 25 January Martin's ministry had been defeated on the border duty question. Belmore accepted the premier's advice and dissolved parliament, to the annoyance of the assembly which refused to grant supply for the election period. On 1 February in a memorandum to the Executive Council Belmore cogently justified his decision but 'deeply regretted' that it would delay the payment of public servants' salaries. In the event they were paid on time through the action of Sir Alfred Stephen who administered the colony after Belmore left. Stephen later told Parkes 'that Lord B's dissolving act in the late Parliament was not only not disapproved of in Downing St. but that there is only one feeling that of astonishment, at the temper exhibited in the controversy towards him'.

On his return to Britain Belmore concentrated on managing his estates. In 1885 he was appointed a lord justice of Ireland and in 1892 lord lieutenant of County Tyrone. By 1910 he was the senior Irish representative peer and senior member of the Irish Privy Council. He became an authority on Irish history and antiquities and was an influential member of the Church of Ireland. He had been appointed K.C.M.G. in 1872 and G.C.M.G. in 1890. On 6 April 1913 he died at Castle Coole after a long illness. Parks named after him in Sydney and Goulburn testify to his popularity in New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • 'Death of Lord Belmore', Times (London), 7 Apr 1913, p 8
  • manuscript catalogue under Belmore (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/546-48, 551-53, 557-59, 563-65, 569.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Belmore, fourth Earl of (1835–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

fourth Earl of Belmore, by W. Bradley, 1868

fourth Earl of Belmore, by W. Bradley, 1868

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23198002

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Lowry-Corry, Somerset Richard

9 April, 1835
London, Middlesex, England


6 April, 1913 (aged 77)
Enniskillen, Fermanagh, Ireland

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