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third Viscount Canterbury (1814–1877)

by Jennifer Turnbull

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third Viscount Canterbury, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, 1865-77

third Viscount Canterbury, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, 1865-77

State Library of Victoria, 49386359

third Viscount Canterbury (1814-1877), governor, was born on 21 May 1814 in London and baptized John Henry Thomas, the younger son of Charles Manners-Sutton and his first wife Lucia Maria Charlotte, née Denison. His paternal grandfather was archbishop of Canterbury in 1805-28; his father was eight times speaker of the House of Commons and became Viscount Canterbury in 1835. Like his father, John Henry Thomas was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge (M.A., 1835), where he was a cricket 'blue' in 1836. He entered Lincoln's Inn in September but soon abandoned law and turned to politics. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1839 but unseated for bribery. He represented Cambridge Borough in 1841-47, and was under-secretary of the Home Department in Peel's ministry from September 1841 to July 1846. He began his colonial career as lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick in 1854-61 and governor of Trinidad in 1864-66, in both places jealously guarding his prerogatives from intrusions by the legislature.

On 15 August 1866 he was sworn in as governor of Victoria. Victorian politics were then very uncertain and ministries changed often, both before and during his administration. The recall of Sir Charles Darling had focused attention on the powers of the governor and the fierce antagonism between the two branches of the legislature and had led to deadlock over the Darling grant, unresolved until September 1867. Manners-Sutton's knowledge of parliamentary practice enabled him to remain impartial through the long crisis. As he told the Colonial Office, 'My first duty [is] to abstain from taking any step which would identify me with either, or any, of the contending political parties'. At the same time he handled his ministries with much more respect for legal niceties and constitutional implications than had Darling. He refused the McCulloch ministry's request to satisfy government creditors by means of a Supreme Court decision in place of the delayed parliamentary grant, on the grounds that it 'would withdraw the public funds from the control of Parliament and place them practically at the disposal of the Governor'. On the parliamentary deadlock he feared that 'the continued resistance of the Legislative Council to the grant would lead to the popular demand for the supercession … of their authority as an independent branch of the legislature', thereby creating a situation which would 'involve the Imperial Government in the conflict, and probably imperil the relations of the Colony with the Mother Country'. However, this crisis was precipitated when the contents of the Duke of Buckingham's unwise dispatch of 1 January 1868 were revealed. Canterbury's advice had much to do with persuading the Colonial Office to withdraw from an untenable position by reinstating Darling in the service. Similarly Canterbury's restraint in 1869 helped the Victorian parliament and the Colonial Office to weather the storm of protest raised by Higinbotham and the Age.

After the death of his brother in 1869 Manners-Sutton became the third Viscount Canterbury. His whole governorship was characterized by a deep sense of responsibility, though he was 'perhaps more nervous about his conduct than [he] need to be', as the Duke of Newcastle had commented in 1860. As in New Brunswick he showed some dislike of radicals but was guided by British law and precedent, never by personal preferences. His refusal to dissolve parliament in 1872 was supported by the press and most politicians, but Gavan Duffy attributed it to personal animosity and later attacked the governor as 'an impoverished peer … whose business in the colonies was to increase his balance at the bank'. The attack was cruel and probably unfounded even though Canterbury's estate was very insecure: his father had died insolvent in 1845 and he himself was to die in debt.

From his speeches and dispatches Canterbury gave little evidence of a colourful or dynamic personality but he was a just and conscientious governor. His popularity in Victoria was well established when he left Melbourne in March 1873. He returned to England, took his seat in the House of Lords in April and was appointed G.C.M.G. in June. In the Lords he spoke twice in opposition to the British annexation of New Guinea. He died in London on 24 June 1877. On 5 July 1838 he had married Georgiana Tompson; one of their seven children, Maria Georgiana, married Charles Edward Bright.

Select Bibliography

  • G. W. Rusden, History of Australia, vol 3 (Lond, 1883)
  • C. G. Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol 2 (Lond, 1898)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopaedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • D. P. Clarke, ‘The Colonial Office and the Constitutional Crises in Victoria, 1865-68’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 5, no 18, May 1952, pp 160-71
  • Age (Melbourne), 19, 20 May 1873
  • Leader (Melbourne), 7 Apr 1888
  • F. K. Crowley, Aspects of the Constitutional Conflicts … Victorian Legislature, 1864-1868 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1947)
  • dispatch book 6 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • Canterbury to Michie, 1 Apr 1878 (State Library of Victoria)
  • CO 188/123, 133, 309/83-115.

Citation details

Jennifer Turnbull, 'Canterbury, third Viscount (1814–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 17 June 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

third Viscount Canterbury, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, 1865-77

third Viscount Canterbury, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, 1865-77

State Library of Victoria, 49386359

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Manners-Sutton, John Henry Thomas

21 May, 1814
London, Middlesex, England


24 June, 1877 (aged 63)
London, Middlesex, England

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