The British Empire Library

Running The Show: Governors Of The British Empire 1957-1912

by Stephanie Williams

Courtesy of OSPA

A. H. M. Kirk-Greene (Northern Nigeria 1950-65)
This is a first-class, multi-biographical portrait of Government House and its occupants across the British Empire during the half-century before World War 1. Stephen Williams, a Canadian citizen, has selected a score of colonial Governors who held office in diverse capitals of the Empire such as Glover in Lagos in 1862-1972. the Marquess of Lome in Canada in 1881, Swettenham in Malaya 1874-1903, the Tennyson in Australia 1899-1903, the Lugards in Nigeria 1901-1906 and the Cliffords in West Africa, Ceylon and Malaya 1912-1929. There is a detailed account of the colonial career of each of them, and great attention is duly paid to the role and record of their respective wives. The illustrations are superb, with over 70 of the occupants of Government House, including wives, family and staff, on tour or in G.H., as well as some 30 illustrations in the text. The text itself is as arresting and authoritative as the illustrations; with the result that here is indeed a book hard to put down. Were I asked to identify my favourite Governor (in the sense of being the most must-read-on character), from the score or so of the biographical sketches presented to us here, my choice would be Sir Hugh Clifford. My guess would also be that Clifford might rank as Stephanie Williams' most eye-catching colonial governor, too. "His episode in Ceylon is a fitting illustration", she concludes, "of the conflicts and tensions governors would continue to face. Such was his later celebrity as a governor, so adamant his refusal to cover his baldhead in the sun... that he inspired Noel Coward's famous song 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen'... By the time Clifford reached Malaya in 1927 he was quite mad. 'Most of us do like a personality,' pronounced British Malaya cheerfully".

If I comment that Stephanie Williams handles her academic sources with considerable delicacy, this skill enhances the readability as well as the reputation of her book. The cie rigueur academic sources are all there. But at the same time they are never allowed to distract the reader from the non-stop pleasure of the scenes and stories presented. Thus there is not a single footnote on any of the 420 pages of text. Instead, 70 pages of the book are reserved for the academic enjoyment and education of every scholar keen to learn more about the sources consulted: professional acknowledgements, 40 pages of valuable footnotes listed, chapter by chapter, and ten pages of bibliography, including personal papers, national libraries and archives, published books and Journal articles, and websites and electronic sources.

Not only do Governors and their wives (as well as some of their staff, notably ADC's) feature in the index, but Williams is equally good on Secretaries of State for the Colonies, the Colonial Office and its under-secretaries and, of course, the score of Government Houses as well as their occupants. My only regret is the silence over the selection of superb cartoons under the heading A Day in the Life of a Governor on the back of the dust-jacket.

If Stephanie Williams was right to feel, as she embarked on this book, that "you hardly need to go beyond the indexes of all the volumes that have been written about the history of the British Empire to discover that little has been written about the men who governed the colonies... Even in local histories they appear as little more than ciphers, remembered as founders or imitators or villains, in the names of towns or, more usually, streets", at least nobody would wish to cavil with another of her Judgements, that "there was no typical Victorian governor". In sum, for this superb addition to the literature on colonial governors between 1857 and 1912 we can thank Stephanie Williams most sincerely and in admiration.

There is Just about enough editorial space here to allow me to draw attention to the memorable (and little-known) Colonial Office file which stimulated Stephanie Williams to write this superb book: the four bound "Miscellaneous" volumes in what was until recently known as the Public Record Office, containing the answers to an early CO survey, namely the two-part printed questionnaire sent out by the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1879 to every British Governor round the globe.

As you read this review of Stephanie Williams' highly significant contribution to Colonial Service history, you may also have noticed that your daily newspapers have already begun to remind us that there are only 100 shopping days left to Christmas. Let me assure you, here is a book that will likely help you make up your mind on what present to give your wife's grandfather or even good old Uncle X, who still seem to enjoy nothing more than recalling their experiences in say, pre-war South East Asia or pre-independence life in Africa. True, given its carefully constructed sub-title, warning us that the book's focus is the Victorian Governors of the British Empire, no member of OSPA will, personally, be able to recall any of these Governors. Yet that regret in no way reduces what I believe to be the certainty that in Running the Show you have to hand the ideal Christmas present for many of your friends (and maybe a few older relatives). By sending them such a certain favourite-to-be book as their 2011 Christmas present (exactly one hundred years since Stephanie Williams' portrait closes), you'll be arousing huge gratitude... If only dear old Uncle Gawain (Bell) had still been here to celebrate his 100th birthday this December!

British Empire Book
Stephanie Williams
978 0 670 918 04 1


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