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Lord Augustus William Loftus (1817–1904)

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Lord Augustus William Frederick Spencer Loftus (1817-1904), diplomat and governor, was born on 4 October 1817 at Bristol, England, fourth son of John Loftus, second Marquis of Ely, and his wife Anna Maria, née Dashwood. Reared in aristocratic shelter and educated privately, he travelled on the Continent with his father in 1836-37 and met many notables. He was introduced to the court of William IV who undertook 'to look after him' in the diplomatic service to which he was appointed on 20 June 1837, the date of the king's death. He was an attaché to various British legations in Germany and at several European courts. He was chargé d'affaires at Berlin in 1853-58 and then became envoy extraordinary to the emperor of Austria. In 1866 he was sent to Berlin as ambassador and created G.C.B. In 1871-78 he was ambassador in St Petersburg. On 9 August 1845 in London he had married Emma Maria, eldest daughter of Admiral Henry Francis Greville; they had three sons and two daughters.

Early in 1879 Loftus sought a more genial climate and less arduous duties. He was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of New South Wales and its dependencies. Two sons came to Sydney with him, one as an aide-de-camp, and his wife joined him in 1880. His arrival in Sydney on 3 August 1879 was greeted with great enthusiasm. The press expatiated on the colony's honour in having so eminent 'a peer' and forecast a refreshing change for New South Wales, but the honeymoon was short. Long years of professional diplomacy had given him self-effacing detachment and aversion to publicity. He knew nothing of colonies and parliamentary government but was expert in tact and ways of persuasion. With advancing years he suffered from increasing deafness and seldom left Government House after dark, withdrawing more often to the Blue Mountains and from 1882 to Hillview, the country house near Moss Vale that he had induced the government to buy for him.

Loftus was the communications link between the colony and the Colonial Office. He wrote on subjects ranging from prisons to sewerage but took care to seek advice from London on every contentious issue and on imperial-colonial relations. The Parkes-Robertson coalition was in office when he arrived and it lasted until 4 January 1883. Loftus early tried to limit the days on which he signed documents but Parkes claimed that such a personal direction to the permanent heads of departments would overrule ministerial authority. Loftus thought that 'A Mountain has been made out of a Molehill' but accepted the rebuke. In one crisis between the two Houses he persuaded Parkes to wait for the Colonial Office's advice; when the Upper House insisted on amending the bill Loftus talked confidentially to individual councillors and persuaded them to concur. When the colony's divorce law was reserved for the third time, Loftus wrote privately to Hicks-Beach who persuaded the imperial government to modify its amendments; they were accepted in Sydney and became law.

After Alexander Stuart formed his ministry on 5 January 1883, letters between the cabinet and Loftus show growing friendship and close co-operation, the governor favouring the private note, tête-à-tête and dinner at Government House. When Stuart had a stroke and his deputy, Dalley, was unwell and wanted to move to the assembly, Loftus tactfully rejected the proposal. Very confident on external affairs he was careful that 'protests' were changed into 'proposals'. In 1881 he insisted that a formal letter to the British minister in Washington be carried by Parkes when he visited America despite his commission from other Australian colonies. Under Stuart New South Wales faced more serious external affairs in New Guinea and Fiji. On 11 February 1885 news reached Sydney of General Gordon's death at Khartoum and next day Dalley offered military assistance to Britain. As commander-in-chief Loftus had a part in sending the Sudan contingent but spent most of his time at Moss Vale. He supported Federation, not for sweet reason but for fear of external attack or internal crisis, yet at heart remained an imperial federationist.

Loftus left Sydney in November with few cheers. Late in 1887 he was declared bankrupt with liabilities of £62,000. At Linden House, Leatherhead, he wrote four volumes of Diplomatic Reminiscences, which were published in London in two series, one for 1837-62 (1892), the other for 1862-79 (1894). Predeceased by his wife on 1 January 1902 and one daughter, he died on 7 March 1904 at Englemere Wood Cottage, near Ascot, and was buried at Frimley. He was survived by a daughter and three sons, one in the army, the others in the diplomatic service.

Select Bibliography

  • N. I. Graham, The Role of the Governor of New South Wales Under Responsible Government, 1861-1890 (Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 1973).

Citation details

'Loftus, Lord Augustus William (1817–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Augustus Loftus, n.d.

Augustus Loftus, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 02545

Life Summary [details]


4 October, 1817
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England


7 March, 1904 (aged 86)
Ascot, Berkshire, England

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