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third Baron Chelmsford (1868–1933)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

third Baron Chelmsford, n.d.

third Baron Chelmsford, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 8986

third Baron Chelmsford (1868-1933), governor, was born on 12 August 1868 at Belgrave, London, and baptized Frederic John Napier, eldest son of Frederic Augustus Thesiger, army officer and later Baron Chelmsford, and his wife Adria Fanny, née Heath. After education at Winchester and at Magdalen College, Oxford, he graduated B.A. (first-class honours in law) in 1891 (M.A., 1894), was a fellow of All Souls College in 1892-99 and was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple in 1893. A keen cricketer, he had captained the Oxford XI and played occasionally for Middlesex. On 27 July 1894 he married Frances Charlotte Guest, daughter of Lord Wimborne. He sat on the London School Board in 1904-05, resigning upon succeeding to the barony. In July 1905 he accepted the surprise appointment as governor of Queensland.

Chelmsford arrived in Brisbane and was sworn in on 20 November. His term was dominated by conflict between the Upper and Lower Houses and the emergence of three evenly divided parties in the Legislative Assembly. In November 1907 he refused the premier William Kidston's request to appoint sufficient legislative councillors to ensure the passage of the wages boards bill. Kidston resigned and (Sir) Robert Philp formed a ministry which was promptly defeated in the assembly. Chelmsford then blundered by granting Philp a dissolution, though the parliament was only six months old. Supply was denied, and the governor was sharply criticized in the assembly. Kidston was returned to office in the February 1908 election. Though the Colonial Office considered Chelmsford had erred, his acceptance of the financial burden of an Australian governorship, his intellectual ability and attention to the social duties of the office ensured that he retained the British government's confidence.

In May 1909 Chelmsford left Brisbane to become governor of New South Wales. His term in Sydney was distinguished by cordial relations with the State's first Labor government under J. S. T. McGowen; D. R. Hall later commented that 'without attempting to usurp the functions of his advisers, the Governor was their guide philosopher, and friend'. In October 1912, when his intention to resign for the sake of his sons' education was announced, McGowen praised him as 'more than a Governor to me. He has been a friend with his advice'. Ada Holman described him as 'pale, slim, handsome, cultivated'. He played the cello capably and had encouraged chamber music at Government House in Brisbane and Sydney. From 21 December 1909 to 27 January 1910 he had acted as governor-general when Lord Dudley was on leave. He returned to England in March 1913.

Chelmsford was a captain in the 4th Dorset Territorials. Upon the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined his regiment and went with it to India. In January 1916 he was unexpectedly appointed viceroy of India. Though 'more nearly an agent, and less of a policy maker than any viceroy in the last period of British rule', he helped introduce the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms which set India on the path to responsible government. He was criticized for equivocating over an inquiry into General Dyer's actions at Amritsar in April 1919 and was also faced with Gandhi's first non-co-operation campaign. Chelmsford resigned in 1921, returned to England and was raised to the rank of viscount.

Chelmsford was chairman of the Miners' Welfare Committee under the Mining Industry Act of 1920 and of the royal commission on mining subsidence in 1923-24. From January to November 1924 he was first lord of the Admiralty in Ramsay MacDonald's government, explaining that, detached from politics, he was prepared 'to help carry on the King's Government on a disclosed programme'. The last of Chelmsford's series of surprising appointments was the post of agent general in London for New South Wales, which he accepted in June 1926. Labor premier J. T. Lang explained to his caucus that 'it was absolutely necessary that the State should be represented by a gentleman who would be in close touch with the London financial market'. The appointment was not renewed when (Sir) Thomas Bavin came to office in October 1927.

Again elected a fellow of All Souls in 1929, Chelmsford became warden in 1932. He died of coronary vascular disease on 1 April 1933, survived by his younger son and four daughters. His eldest son had been killed in action in 1917.

Select Bibliography

  • A. A. Holman, Memoirs of a Premier's Wife (Syd, 1948)
  • V. A. Smith, The Oxford History of India, P. Spear ed (Oxford, 1967)
  • R. J. Moore, The Crisis of Indian Unity 1917-1940 (Oxford, 1974)
  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • Queensland Government Mining Journal, 15 Feb 1927
  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-40
  • Brisbane Courier, 26 July 1905
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Mar 1909, 28 Oct 1912, 24 Jan, 15, 16 June 1926, 11 Nov 1927, 3 Apr, 29 May 1933
  • Times (London), 3 Apr 1933, pp 14 and 16
  • CO 418/90/p102-03
  • GOV/68 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Chelmsford, third Baron (1868–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

third Baron Chelmsford, n.d.

third Baron Chelmsford, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 8986

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Thesiger, Frederic John Napier
  • Chelmsford, first Viscount

12 August, 1868
London, Middlesex, England


1 April, 1933 (aged 64)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.