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Sir George Sydenham Clarke (1848–1933)

by M. N. Lettice

This article was published:

Sir George Clarke, 1900?

Sir George Clarke, 1900?

State Library of Victoria, 58836307

Sir George Sydenham Clarke, 1st Baron Sydenham of Combe (1848-1933), governor, was born on 4 July 1848 at Swinderby, Lincolnshire, England, eldest son of Walter John Clarke, vicar, and his wife Maria Frances, née Mayor. He was educated at Repton and Rossall schools, Haileybury College and Wimbledon House School and topped entrance and final examinations of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. In 1868 he joined the Royal Engineers. In 1871-80 he lectured on practical geometry and engineering drawing at the Royal Indian Engineering College near Staines, publishing five books and numerous articles. On 1 June 1871 he married Caroline Emily, eldest daughter of General Peregrine Henry Fellowes.

Clarke served in Egypt in 1882, examining the Alexandria fortifications after the British bombardment. His significant report was followed by his appointment to the War Office staff in 1883. Seeking a wider audience for his ideas on both military science and Imperial organization and defence, he published in 1883 the first of many articles in The Times and other publications. In 1885 he served in the Sudan and was afterwards promoted major. Thereafter his promotion was slower and, although he undertook many technical missions abroad, his novel views and his use of the press did not appeal to his more traditional superiors. His appointments as secretary to the Colonial Defence Committee (1885-92) and the royal commission on army and navy administration (1888-90) provided scope for his interests in Imperial federation and defence and army reform. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1887, K.C.M.G. in 1893 and elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1896. He was superintendent of the Royal Carriage Department at Woolwich 1894-1901, being promoted colonel in 1898.

Clarke sat on the War Office reorganization committee in 1901. In that year Chamberlain offered him the governorship of Victoria, following the post-Federation decision to appoint career men rather than peers to State governorships. Clarke accepted, viewing the appointment as a step towards a more important civil post; he arrived in Melbourne on 10 December. In Victoria he and his wife were generally popular and respected. However he found the position, with its constitutional restraints, frustrating. With the temporary seat of the Commonwealth government in Melbourne he was overshadowed by the governor-general and drew the Colonial Office in to arbitrate on several Federal-State controversies. He was criticized twice for commenting on delicate political issues but committed no serious constitutional indiscretions. His grant of a dissolution of parliament to (Sir) William Irvine after (Sir) Alexander Peacock's ministry had resigned in August 1902 was uncontroversial.

A Liberal free trader, privately Clarke was critical of the influence of labour, democratic processes, protectionist and racial policies and the parochialism of Australian society. He claimed in his memoirs, My Working Life (London, 1927), that in Australia 'the faith of a Liberal was destroyed and too sanguine hopes for closer union [of the Empire] evaporated'. In November 1903 he was recalled to serve on the committee for the reconstitution of the War Office and in 1904 he became secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence. Lord Haldane's army reforms achieved many of Clarke's earlier aims but he attacked details and opposed naval reforms. In 1906 he supervised the preparation of a general defence scheme for Australia.

Clarke was appointed governor of Bombay in 1907. He first supported greater participation of Indians in the administration; however, disturbed by growing political violence, he became preoccupied with law and order. His prosecution and conviction in 1908 of the Brahman leader Tilak for sedition led to riots in Bombay and reproaches from the secretary of state for India, John Morley. He continued to repress sedition and agitation by western-educated Indians, causing concern in London. But he promoted elementary and technical education, and improved medical care and irrigation. His wife and daughter both died in India in his second year of office; in 1910 in Bombay he married a widow Phyllis Angelina Rosamond Reynolds, née Morant.

On his retirement in 1913 Clarke was raised to the peerage. He chaired a royal commission on venereal diseases (1913-15) and the central tribunal which heard appeals from local committees administering the National Service Act (1915-16). He spoke frequently in the House of Lords and continued writing, becoming increasingly reactionary.

Able but opinionated, Clarke did not gain the high military or civil posts he coveted. As a pro-consul his achievements were limited. As a truly professional military officer his ideas were ahead of his times and many—especially on fortifications, submarines, camouflage and army reform—proved remarkably prescient. His later distinctions included G.C.M.G. (1905), G.C.I.E. (1907), G.C.S.I. (1911) and G.B.E. (1917). Survived by his wife, he died in London on 7 February 1933; he left no issue and his peerage lapsed.

Select Bibliography

  • D. C. Gordon, The Dominion Partnership in Imperial Defense 1870-1914 (Baltimore, 1965)
  • R. A. Preston, Canada and Imperial Defense (Durham NC, 1967)
  • S. A. Wolpert, Morley and India, 1906-1910 (Lond, 1967)
  • Daily Telegraph (London), 8 Feb 1933
  • Morning Post (London), 8 Feb 1933
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 8 Feb 1933, p 14
  • Balfour, and Campbell-Bannerman, and Sydenham (Clarke) papers (British Library)
  • records, Colonial Defence Committee, Cab 7, and Committee of Imperial Defence, Cab 2-6 (National Archives of the United Kingdom)
  • Tennyson papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Australian file, CO418 (National Archives of the United Kingdom).

Citation details

M. N. Lettice, 'Clarke, Sir George Sydenham (1848–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sir George Clarke, 1900?

Sir George Clarke, 1900?

State Library of Victoria, 58836307

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Baron Sydenham
  • Sydenham, Baron of Combe

4 July, 1848
Swinderby, Lincolnshire, England


7 February, 1933 (aged 84)
London, Middlesex, England

Cultural Heritage

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