The Marquess of Lansdowne, Governor General of Canada

Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, politician and governor general of Canada from 1883 to 1888 (born 14 January 1845 in London, United Kingdom; died 3 June 1927 in Clonmel, Ireland). Lansdowne was the first governor general to travel the entire length of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He also mediated a dispute with the United States concerning fishing rights.

Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice

Marquis of Lansdowne, Governor General of Canada (1883–88). Photo taken in Ottawa, Ontario in 1883.

(photo by William James Topley, courtesy Library and Archives Canada / C-003730)

Early Life, Family and Education

Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, Viscount Clanmaurice, was the eldest of three children of Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, the 4th Marquess of Lansdowne, and Emily Jane de Flahault, the 8th Lady Nairne. His great-grandfather, William Petty-Fitzmaurice, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne and 2nd Earl of Shelburne, was British prime minister from 1782 to 1783 and negotiated the end of the American Revolutionary War.

When Lansdowne was 10 years old, he began attending Woodcote House, a boarding school in Oxfordshire. He then attended Eton College for his secondary education. In 1867, he earned a Bachelor of Arts in classics from Balliol College in Oxford. During his time at Oxford, his father died, and he inherited the title of Marquess of Lansdowne, his father’s seat in the House of Lords, a London residence and estates in Ireland.

Marriage and Children

On 8 November 1869, Lansdowne married Lady Maud Hamilton, the youngest daughter of James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Abercorn, and Lady Louisa Russell, at Westminster Abbey in London. The couple had four children: Lady Evelyn (1870–1960), who served as Mistress of the Robes to Queen Mary and viceregal consort of Canada (1916–1921) as Duchess of Devonshire; Lord Henry, Earl of Kerry (1872–1936), who pursued a military career and held political office in both the United Kingdom and the Irish Free State; Lord Charles (1874–1914), an equerry to King George V who died in battle during the First World War; and Lady Beatrix (1877–1953), who received honours for her work as a hospital administrator during the First World War. All four children accompanied their parents to Canada.

Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice and Maud Evelyn Petty-Fitzmaurice

Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, and his wife, Maud Evelyn Petty-Fitzmaurice, Marchioness of Lansdowne. Lord Lansdowne was governor general of Canada from 1883 to 1888 (photo taken in Ottawa, Ontario, in February 1888).

(photo by William James Topley, courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-025643)

Governor General of Canada

Lansdowne was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1883, at the age of 38, succeeding Queen Victoria’s son-in-law, the Marquess of Lorne. The British public viewed the appointment as a kind of political exile for Lansdowne’s opposition to Prime Minister William Gladstone’s Irish Land Act of 1881. A Punch political cartoon depicted Lansdowne on snowshoes with the caption “Lord Lansdowne in his new Canadian costume, specially adapted to remaining for some time out in the cold.” Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was concerned that such a prominent Anglo-Irish aristocrat would be targeted by Fenian assassins and was relieved that “there was not a single sign of dissent to the cheers which rang along the [train]platform” when Lansdowne arrived in Ottawa.

Lansdowne developed a strong rapport with Macdonald, who dined frequently at Rideau Hall. They continued to correspond after the end of Lansdowne’s term. On 23 June 1889, the former governor general wrote to Macdonald, stating “I fancied myself back in my study in Ottawa, listening to your confidences as to House of Commons prospects, & difficulties, unsuspected by the outside world, within the Cabinet.” Macdonald considered Lansdowne to be one of the most “perspicacious” governors general during his time as prime minister, especially in his grasp of the relationship between Britain and Canada.

Lansdowne was popular in Quebec and spent extended periods at the Citadelle in Quebec City, which he described as having “cozy” rooms with a “a platform outside long enough for a before-breakfast quarterdeck walk, with a view which words cannot describe.” His maternal grandfather, Count Charles de Flahaut, was one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals, and Lansdowne spoke fluent French. He wrote to his mother that, when he gave his first speech in Quebec, “Before I had got out half a dozen words of the French reply, the whole audience burst into rapturous applause, which continued more or less until I had finished. I suppose my French was less bad than some to which they have been used; at any rate it pleased the good folk of Quebec.” Lansdowne received an honorary Doctor of Law from McGill University in 1884.

In the fisheries dispute between Canada and the United States, Lansdowne encouraged the British government to support Canada in negotiations. The United States imposed high tariffs on Canadian fish imports, while American fishing vessels continued to fish in Canadian waters. Lansdowne summarized Canadian concerns in a letter to British Secretary of State for the Colonies Sir Henry Holland, stating “What we are afraid of is that matters which are of vital importance to us may seem trivial to you, and that in your desire to avoid trouble and complications you may call upon us to abandon rights which are undoubtedly ours, and of which you can from a distance scarcely realize the value.” Lansdowne contributed to the negotiation of a new trade agreement that was accepted by President Grover Cleveland in 1888 but ultimately rejected by the American Senate. (See also History of Commercial Fisheries, Joint Commission, Treaty of Washington, Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper.)

The North-West Rebellion and Louis Riel

In the autumn of 1885, Lansdowne travelled across Canada and met with First Nations leaders during an extended tour intended to alleviate tensions following the North-West Rebellion. Lansdowne objected to the mistreatment of First Nations peoples by Indian agents, writing at the time of the Frog Lake massacre on 2 April 1885, “These Indian agents are many of them great knaves and are being paid for old scores now.” During his tour, he wrote to his mother that the Cree chief, Poundmaker (Pitikwahanapiwiyin), was “a magnificent fellow, dignified enough to be an emperor [and] looking like one,” while the Blackfoot chief, Crowfoot (Isapo-muxika), “is the most influential Indian of the whole lot, and we were anxious to be as civil to him as possible.” During Lansdowne’s time in British Columbia, he received two pairs of Haida masks as gifts, which now reside at the British Museum.

Lansdowne initially favoured a conciliatory policy toward the Métis, with a focus on settling their land claims. On 9 August 1884, he wrote to Sir John A. Macdonald, “Would it not be possible to send out a strong commission with powers to deal promptly [and] liberally with these [land] claims?” He also proposed that Métis leaders might join the Council of the Northwest Territories. When Louis Riel was convicted of treason in July 1885, however, Lansdowne upheld the death sentence, writing to Queen Victoria in response to her support for clemency, “Lord Lansdowne is well aware of the objections to the 1885 infliction of capital punishment in the case of political criminals…Even, however, if it be assumed that those [Métis] grievances were more serious than inquiry has shown them to be, it would be wrong to extenuate the guilt of a man who makes them a pretext for bringing upon his country the calamity of a civil war….” Riel was hanged on 16 November 1885.

Canadian Pacific Railway

Lansdowne promoted the development of science and technology in Canada and hosted the first joint meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1884. He also had a strong interest in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and was supposed to drive the last spike. When Lansdowne departed from Ottawa on 24 September 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway was not yet complete. Lansdowne undertook part of his westward journey on horseback and boat before arriving at Port Moody, British Columbia, which was the Western terminus of the railway at the time. Lansdowne travelled to Craigellachie to drive the last spike, but poor weather delayed the completion of the railway and Macdonald advised Lansdowne to return to the capital (the last spike was later driven by Donald Alexander Smith). The return journey by rail took just nine days, and Lansdowne arrived back in Ottawa on 26 October 1885. According to the Royal Society of Canada, “Lord Lansdowne’s trip was the first occasion on which the new railway route had been followed on both directions across the mountains on the same overland journey.”

Sports and Social Life in Canada

Lansdowne embraced Canadian outdoor sports and activities. In the summer, he enjoyed salmon fishing and established a fishing camp on the Cascapédia River in Quebec, following the example set by Lord Lorne and Princess Louise. Lansdowne named his summer retreat New Derreen Camp after his estate, Derreen, in County Kerry, Ireland. Over the course of his term as governor general, Lansdowne and his guests caught 1,245 salmon. Lansdowne was also a skilled cricket player and helped popularize the sport in Canada. In 1885, he was the top scoring player on the Rideau Hall team, which defeated the Members of Parliament and Senators team. He also hosted cricket tournaments in Ottawa with teams from across Canada, the United States and the West Indies. Lansdowne wrote to his mother on his 40th birthday, “I am well in health and can beat my A.D.C’s at tennis.”

In the winter, social life at Rideau Hall included skating, tobogganing and curling parties. Lady Lansdowne’s visiting brother, Lord Frederick Hamilton, recalled in his memoirs, “Rideau Hall had two open-air skating rinks in its own grounds, two imposing toboggan slides and a covered curling rink.” Both Lord and Lady Lansdowne became accomplished skaters and were the first viceregal couple to skate at the Montreal winter carnival. On Saturdays, the public were invited to skate at Rideau Hall to music played by a military band. Lansdowne also hosted evening skating and tobogganing parties, where refreshments were served by footmen in fur coats. At these events, Hamilton recalled that “all members of snowshoe and tobogganing clubs, men and women alike, wore coloured blanket suits consisting of knickerbockers and long coats with bright coloured stockings, sash and knitted toque (invariably pronounced ‘tuke’).” Lord and Lady Lansdowne were patrons of the Frontenac Snowshoe Club in Ottawa.

Lord Lansdowne

Lord Lansdowne and friends skating at Rideau Hall, Ottawa, Ontario (March 1884).

(photo by Topley Studio, courtesy Library and Archives Canada / PA-033916)

Lansdowne developed a passion for curling and was the skip of the Rideau Hall curling team, which was described as “invincible” in 1888. The first long-distance telephone call in Canada took place during a curling match between the Rideau Hall and Montreal teams in 1887, when the score was communicated from Ottawa to be displayed on a public scoreboard in Montreal. At the end of his term, Lansdowne received a special farewell address from the curlers of Canada. He responded with regret that he would not have opportunities to play “the roaring game” in his next posting as viceroy of India.

Later Life

Lansdowne served as viceroy of India from 1888 to 1894, succeeding former Governor General of Canada Lord Dufferin in this position. The change in viceroy inspired Rudyard Kipling’s poem One Viceroy Resigns, which includes the lines, “I answer by my past or else go back/To platitudes of rule — or take you thus/In confidence and say: ‘You know the trick:/You’ve governed Canada. You know. You know!’”

From 1895 to 1900, Lansdowne served as Secretary of State for War. As Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1900 to 1905, his signature achievement was the negotiation of the Anglo-French Entente, a key alliance during the First World War.

Lansdowne supported Britain’s entry into the First World War, which automatically brought Canada into the hostilities. On 2 August 1914, he wrote to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, stating “It would be fatal to the honour and security of the United Kingdom to hesitate in supporting France and Russia at the present juncture.” During the war, he persuaded his reluctant son-in-law, Victor Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire, to accept the post of Governor General of Canada in 1916. By then, however, Lansdowne favoured an end to the hostilities and called for a negotiated peace first in a memorandum to the British government and then in a “Peace Letter” published in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper on 29 November 1917. Lansdowne wrote, “We are not going to lose this War, but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilized world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it.” Lansdowne was devastated by the loss of his younger son, Charles, and feared that “Generations will have to come and go before the country recovers from the loss” of so many young men.

After the war, Lansdowne opposed the division of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, writing “The besetting sin of Irishmen is intolerance, and I think that by sorting them carefully and herding them together you will only make them more intolerant than ever. I am one of those who look forward to the coming together of the whole of Ireland.” His estate at Derreen was plundered and burned in 1922, and he sued the Irish government for compensation. He died of a heart attack at the age of 82.

Legacy in Canada

There are towns named for Lansdowne in the Yukon, Ontario and Nova Scotia, as well as the Lansdowne neighbourhood in Edmonton, Lansdowne Avenue and subway station in Toronto, and Lansdowne Park in Ottawa. There is a Mount Lansdowne in the Yukon and streets named for Lansdowne in Sudbury, Peterborough, Quebec City and Fredericton, as well as public schools in Winnipeg, Sudbury and Toronto.


Further Reading

  • Simon Kerry, Lansdowne: The Last Great Whig (2018)

  • Lord Frederick Hamilton, The Days Before Yesterday (1920)

  • Lord Newton [T. W. Legh], Lord Lansdowne: A Biography (1929)

  • R. H. Hubbard, Rideau Hall: An Illustrated History of Government House, Ottawa (1977)