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Sir Matthew Nathan (1862–1939)

by Paul D. Wilson

This article was published:

Sir Matthew Nathan (1862-1939), governor, was born on 3 January 1862 at Paddington, London, second son of Jewish parents Jonah Nathan, businessman, and his second wife Miriam, née Jacobs. After private tuition, in 1878-80 he studied with distinction at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and in 1882 left the School of Military Engineering, Chatham, as lieutenant, Royal Engineers. He served in Sierra Leone and Egypt (1883-87) and India and Burma (1887-90). From 1895 he was secretary of the Colonial Defence Committee and was promoted major in 1898.

Acting governor of Sierra Leone in 1899, Nathan was governor of the Gold Coast (1900-04), Hong Kong (1904-07) and Natal (1907-09). He was appointed C.M.G. (1899), K.C.M.G. (1902) and G.C.M.G. (1908), and promoted lieutenant-colonel (1908). Having fallen out of favour with the Colonial Office, he became secretary of the British Post Office in 1909, secretary of the Board of Inland Revenue in 1911, then under-secretary for Ireland in 1914. Blamed for failing to detect the signs of impending revolution in 1916, reassuring his chief as late as 14 April that 'all was well in Ireland', he resigned two days after the Easter rising. First secretary of the pensions ministry in 1917, he was removed by Lloyd George to the secretaryship of a commission into higher wages for women. Nathan never married, but conducted discreet affaires with, among others, Constance Spry, author of books on cooking and flower arranging.

Nathan accepted the offer of the governorship of Queensland in June 1920, in succession to Goold-Adams, and assumed office on 3 December. After some early difficulties he established a reasonable working relationship with Premier E. G. Theodore, who had failed to persuade the Colonial Office to appoint an Australian governor. Nathan's term was relatively free of political crises, although he was petitioned to recommend refusal of royal assent to the bill to abolish the Legislative Council. Convinced of the absence of 'any very strong or widespread feeling in the country against this assent', he recommended it on 1 December 1921. In November, a similar example of Theodore's determination to implement Labor policy had placed Nathan in a position of sympathy with the senior judiciary affected by the judges retirement bill, but also in the constitutional position of refusing to refer the bill for royal assent. Relations were also somewhat strained by Theodore's legislation for proxy voting in the Legislative Assembly. Disapproving of Theodore's manipulation of the constitution, in December 1921 Nathan suspected that his next move would be an attempt to abolish governorships, but this Theodore denied at the time.

Despite a slight decline in health, Nathan travelled extensively within Queensland, visited the southern States in 1922 and spoke willingly and at length on public occasions. He appears to have gained general public approval, despite the earlier reservations of those Irish Catholics who retained painful memories of 1916. He actively supported the boy scout and girl guide movements, sought to promote British immigration to Queensland and interested himself in study of the Great Barrier Reef, as well as local history and the origin of place names in Queensland. He was chancellor of the University of Queensland in 1922-26 and was awarded an honorary LL.D. in 1925.

Nathan left Queensland in September 1925. Involved from 1922 in the planning, organization and financing of the British Great Barrier Reef expedition (1928-29), he was chairman of sub-committees of the Civil Research Committee and the Economic Advisory Council. In 1927-28 he advised on the Ceylon Constitution. He retired to his house at West Coker, Somerset, and was high sheriff of the county to 1934. Nathan died at West Coker on 18 April 1939 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Willesden, London. Portion of his library was donated to the John Oxley Library, Brisbane, after World War II.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-40
  • A. P. Haydon, Sir Matthew Nathan (Brisb, 1976), and for bibliography
  • Queenslander, 26 Sept 1925
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 19 Apr 1939, p 16
  • 'Memorial Service', Times (London), 22 Apr 1939, p 15
  • 'Legacies', Times (London), 8 June 1939, p 21
  • Governor's despatches and correspondence, Gov/58-59, 69 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Paul D. Wilson, 'Nathan, Sir Matthew (1862–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 4 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 January, 1862
London, Middlesex, England


18 April, 1939 (aged 77)
West Coker, Somerset, England

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