LORD NORTHCOTE, AUSTRALIA’S THIRD GOVERNOR-GENERAL
This cover with letter was poorly presented on Ebay, and was purchased for a paltry sum. The front of this long cover had little to recommend it other than it was addressed to His Worship, The Mayor of Cootamundra, (Alderman J. Lester), Cootamundra, NS Wales. The Ebay scan did not show that the strip of four 1d pink “Postage” Victorian stamps had OS perfins, and they were postmarked with the double ring MELBOURNE / PM/ 1 30/ 18 7 06/ - 4 - (Figure 1).
The reverse confirmed the vendor’s statement that the letter emanated from the Governor-General of Australia and his insignia in deep blue was shown on the flap. In addition there was a reception postmark of COOTAMUNDRA/ 19 JY 06/ 5 45 AM/ N.S.W (Figure 2).
The enclosed letter was on heavy cream paper of large format measuring 41 by 32 cm, folded in half with the same insignia in blue at top centre, plus COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA and GOVERNOR-GENERAL below and it was dated Melbourne, 17 July 1906. The letter reads:
I have the honour by direction of The Governor-General to convey to Your Worship His Excellency’s thanks for the warm reception which was accorded to him by the residents on the occasion of his visit to Cootamundra on the fourth of July, of which His Excellency will always have the pleasantest recollections.
The Governor-General admired the decorations of the town and much appreciated the arrangements made by Your Worship and the Reception Committee for his entertainment, which enabled him to see some of the country and not a few of the residents, to whom Lord Northcote hopes your Worship will convey his sincere thanks for their hospitality and for the welcome he received at Cootamundra.
I have the honour to be,
Your most obedient servant,
H.H. Share (signed)
His Worship the Mayor of
(Alderman J. Lester)”
The letter has 3 folds in order to fit the envelope, and the typewriter used was in need of a new ribbon, so that there are imperfections in the scan, even after digital enhancement (Figure 3).
The July 4, 1906 issue of the Cootamundra Herald had an item on the proposed visit of the Governor-General, stating that the various committees had everything in perfect organization. The column was about the route of the visit which was to be through “the valley and the hills which represent sheep, agriculture, dairying, fruit and minerals”. On the day of the visit (July 7) it stated that the Governor-General’s party included his private secretary (H.H. Share), his A.D.C. (Captain Stephens) and the MP’s for Wyalong and Cootamundra. Mayor J.E. Lester met his Excellency at the station (he arrived by train) where a dais had been erected and the Council Clerk read a fulsome address from a scroll, which included a long list of the Governor-General’s honours. It concluded by stating that James Ewart Lester, Mayor was a co-signer of the document, “on behalf of the people”.
His excellency read the reply, the band played “God Save the King” (Edward VII) and this was followed by an address by a schoolboy. The Governor-General made an ‘off-the-cuff” reply, requesting that the children be given a holiday from school the following day, “to much applause”. His Excellency held a reception at the Town Hall at noon, and the names of the notables who had been invited were listed. The article went on to describe the procession, the visit to the hospital, the drive through the country-side, and then the mayor presided at the banquet, which was attended by a list of notables. “Over wine and nuts, the Mayor proposed the health of the King, which was honoured with cheers” and this was followed by the national anthem. At one stage of the proceedings, the MP for Cootamundra “replied in an eloquent speech of twenty minutes; but, owing to pressure.....we are unable to report the banquet more fully”. The Governor-General proposed the toast to the mayor, who responded “in a few words” and the “Governor-General was sent off with cheers”.
The reporter gave a colourful description of the day’s proceedings, and the enthusiasm of the crowd and the pleasure of the Governor-General was very much in evidence. In the visit to the hospital he praised the women who served the tea, he promised the hospital to send a photo of himself and Lady Northcote for display on the walls, and the private secretary sent a letter to the hospital enclosing “a cheque for £5 which Lord Northcote hopes that you will accept as a donation to the funds of the Cootamundra hospital”. There was no mention why Lord Northcote was not accompanied by his wife, but this trip was one of four visits to country towns in New South Wales to Forbes, Parkes and Wyalong prior to Cootamundra, quite an exhausting schedule, although His Excellency admitted that “he practically had only one speech to give”, at all four towns. Lord Northcote obviously had a sense of humour, and his personal popularity came through during this visit.
James Ewart Lester was a surveyor by profession and in 1894 he was appointed by the N,S,W. Governor to the Cootamundra Borough Council, when one alderman resigned and no replacement for him was received in the specified time. In 1896, he was elected to the Council, he was re-elected in 1905, and was appointed the mayor in 1906. The Cootamundra Herald reports that he was censured by the Council (soon after the visit of Lord Northcote), an action “unique in the history of the Borough Council”. The censure, followed by Lester’s resignation, came when he allowed a compensation case to go before the courts, without reporting it to the Council beforehand. He was re-elected to the Council in 1908. In 1909, he had the honour of welcoming [Dame] Nellie Melba to Cootamundra.
Lord Northcote was born on 18 November 1846 and was educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford. He entered the House of Commons for Exeter (from 1880 until 1899) and he held several governmental positions including the Secretary to the War Office. He gained a reputation for his quiet shrewdness of judgment. He was created a baronet in 1887 and in 1899 was appointed Governor of Bombay. In January 1900 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Northcote, and he was sworn in as Australia’s third Governor-General at Sydney on 21 January 1904 and held that position until 9 September 1908.
The Deakin government was defeated soon after Northcote’s inauguration and the Labour government under John C. Watson lasted only 4 months and George Reid’s government lasted less than a year, so the Federal government was going through difficult times. Northcote was a good speaker and a hard-working administrator and he travelled extensively throughout Australia, making himself familiar with every aspect of it life. His ability, sound judgment, and knowledge of parliamentary life was of the greatest use in the early difficult years of the Federal Parliament.
The heads of the opposing political parties all united in their admiration of him. The Dictionary of Australian Biography states that “It was in fact impossible to be closely in touch with Northcote without recognizing his high character.” He returned to England by way of Canada and took his seat in the House of Lords. He retained his interest in Australia, and a suggestion was made that he should be offered the position of Australian High Commissioner, but this did not come to fruition. He died on 29 September 1911 and was survived by Lady Northcote, but there were no children. He was a striking figure as shown in Figure 4.
I am indebted to two local people for the extensive research on Northcote’s visit to the town of Cootamundra. Mandy Prociv of the Cootamundra Library for the newspaper reports, and to Patricia Caskie, author of “Cootamundra: Past Imperfect 1901-1924" for all the information on Mayor James Lester. This paper could not have been written without their assistance.